To know more about the history of Shiism in Azerbaijan we need to know some basic facts about Shiism itself.
As we know, Shia Islam has several branches, like Zaydiyya (Fiver Shia Islam), Ismaili (Sevener Shia Islam), Isna Ashari (Twelver), Alawits etc. Most Azerbaijani Muslims belong to Twelver Shia Islam, based on Jafari Madhab, the legal and doctrinal system of which was founded by Imam Jafar al-Sadiq.
In the history of Azarbaijan Itna’ ashari Shia Islam, showed definite signs of prosperity particularly during the reigns of Gazanhan and Ulgaitu. The other two main branches of Shia Islam did not fare so well. As a Muslim school with a recognized set of principles and a highly elaborate system of dogma, Itna’ Ashari Shia Islam could be applied side by side with an established system of government like that under the Ilhanids. However, the Mongols under Abu Said (and even already under the last few years of Uljaitu) reverted to the Sunni synthesis. At least this was so officially and formally; for in fact, the Itna Ashariya persisted under some of the Mongol successor states such as Chobanids and Djalairs. During the Mongol invasion not only did the complete doctrine of Twelver Shia Islam emerge, but Turkification of population in Azerbaijan also increased.
At the end of the 15th century the country became the power base of the native dynasty, the Safavids and this played an important role in the development of Shiism in Azerbaijan. Through a vigorous policy of expansion and consolidation they built a new empire. Shah Ismail I (1501-1524) known also as a poet under the pen name Khatai, elevated the Shia branch of Islam to the status of the state religion of his empire, an act that reinforced its internal cohesion and set the Azerbaijanis firmly apart from the ethnically and linguistically close Ottoman Turks. It is considered that Ismail Safavid, claiming Twelver Shia Islam as an official religion, caused the magnification of the rift between the two branches of Islam.
After the collapse of the Safavid Empire, its successor Nadir Shah Afshar, addressing the Ottoman Sultan, demanded to recognize Jafari Madhab as the fifth legitimate Madhab of Islam in the 1730s, but he was refused.
At the beginning of the 19th century, when there was no central authority in Azerbaijan and the country consisted of small khanates, the Russian Empire began the conquest of the northern part of Azerbaijan which is considered to be another significant step in the history of Shiism in Azerbaijan. Even though the population has kept its faith, notable changes have occurred in the religious institutions. The Shia clerical hierarchy was destroyed and waquf lands were taken over by the Tsarist Empire; and Muslim religious institutions became an instrument for the Russian authorities. After the Russian Empire, during the Soviet Union (1920-1991) Islam was greatly weakened as a religion; though retained much of its strength among the population as a way of life, with its traditional customs and prohibitions generally. Mostly uneducated urban and rural lower classes were devoted to Islam, but they usually lacked a thorough knowledge of the religion and even the mullah usually had only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam: they could only read the Quran without proficient Arabic and were only familiar with the oral Islamic tradition. Even in the soviet period, the population of southern districts and Baku villages held mourning for 40 days for the death of Imam Hussein each year. Faithful people gathered in takiyas these days and local mullahs told folk Islamic traditional hadiths. On Muharram 10th (Ashura) Day shares held with the participation of hundreds of people, who perform the ritual cry of grief, beat their chest with their bare hands.
This mode changed a bit afterwards and a post is dedicated to that period.
Written by: Lala Aliyeva and two other authors