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AZERBAIJAN - The Advent of Islam and Shiism.

The area of present-day Azerbaijan was settled beginning in about the 8th century BC by the Medes, an ancient Aryan tribe. It became part of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC, and the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism was introduced. From the 4th century BC until the 9th century AD, what is now the republic of Azerbaijan was regarded as the state of Caucasian Albania (Aghvan).

All this changed in 643 AD with the spreading of the Arab caliphate into Azerbaijan, bring Islam along with it. The caliphate steadily established itself in the subsequent centuries. At the beginning of the 8th century the northern part of present day Azerbaijan (then known as Albania) along with other Caucasus regions (Armenia, Eastern Georgia - Kartly and a part of modern Dagestan) became a part of newly created Arab province called "Armenneya". The southern part of Azerbaijan, Adurbadaghan, was included into another Arab province called Al Jazerah.

The Arab conquest helped to spread Islam - mainly of the Sunni sect - over the territory of Azerbaijan. During that time, many Azerbaijanis travelled to the cultural centres of the Arab World like Baghdad, Damascus, Kufa or Cairo to get education. But despite the cultural advances, Arab rule was beginning to have a negative impact on the socio-economic situation on the country.

Discontent and general opposition to the ruling elite developed and became a religious and socio-political factor. A figure named Babek emerged as a leader and his tactics were forceful. He launched a rebellion which lasted for around 21 years (816-837) and made a severe impact on the Arab Caliphate. It weakened the political influence of the caliphate and caused the formation of many independent and partially independent states within the territory of present day Azerbaijan.

For their part, the rulers of these partially independent states gradually reduced their tribute to the caliphate and finally rejected the obligation to pay it. They announced their independence, agreeing to admit only to the caliphate's spiritual authority. One of such states was Sadjids' country, which was established by a Turk, Mohammad Ibn Abu Sadj. It was under him that, for the first time ever, all the various Azerbaijani lands were united within one country.

In the mid-11th century Seljuk Turks under Togrul Beg conquered present-day Azerbaijan as well as most of Iran and Iraq. Turkic tribes migrated to the area and came to influence the linguistic and cultural development of the Azerbaijanis. The Seljuk invasions changed the composition of the local population and resulted in the linguistic dominance of Oguz Turkic dialects.

The Seljuks proceeded to establish themselves from Central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea and from the Caucasus Mountains to the Persian Gulf. This was the time when linguistic, religious, territorial, cultural and economical unity of Azerbaijan was achieved, and the long process of spreading of the Turkic language over Azerbaijani territory completed.

However, dynastic quarrels and struggles for power in the Seljuk Empire in 1092-1157 resulted in the formation of a new type of states. The tutors of Seljuk crown princes - known as Atabeks - effectively became rulers of those states of which the crown princes were in charge. The most powerful of these states was the country "Atabeks of Azerbaijan" founded by Shamsaddin Ildeniz. Despite the relative flux in political life, the 12th century is characterised by a cultural growth and considered a period of Renaissance in Azerbaijan.

The palaces of Ildenizid and Shirvan Shakh hosted the distinguished people of the time, many of whom became outstanding Muslim artists and scientists. Great progress was achieved in mathematics, medicine, chemistry, philosophy, natural science, logic, law, astronomy, Arabic and Persian literature.

In 1225 the Shakh (or Shah) of Khorezm, by the name of Jalaladdin, occupied Azerbaijan and put an end to the Atabek State. But he did not have much time to establish a dynasty, as Azerbaijan was soon invaded by Mongols. The Mongolian expansion in the beginning of the 13th century terminated the cultural and economic growth of Azerbaijan. In 1231 Mongols occupied most of Azerbaijani lands and killed Jalaladdin. In 1235 they destroyed the ancient towns of Gyanja, Shamkir, Tovuz, as well as other cities and fortresses of Azerbaijan.

Thus, the period of Mongolian supremacy began in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijani historians now say it was a principal obstacle to the development of the country. Azerbaijani people constantly rebelled against the Mongolians. In the first years of the Monglolian occupation, there was a riot in Karabakh led by Gassan Jamal.

Several years later there were widespread riots by workers and craftsmen in the towns of Shirvan and Tebriz. Being unable to resist well-armed and numerous enemies, the rebels were defeated; nevertheless, their long resistance eventually put an end to the Mongolian supremacy.

In 1380 Garagoyunlu state emerged in the south part of Azerbaijan. Its founder was Gara Mohammad, whose successor Gara Yusif successfully resisted Tamerlane's invasions. But internal conflicts in Garagoyunlu significantly weakened its strength and finally resulted in its collapse. The powerful Agkoyunlu state emerged in its place, which incorporated the whole of South Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iranian Iraq, Khorasan, and the entire territory down to Persian Gulf. The capital of the state was Tabriz. Uzun Gasan, the leader of this state, was one of the eminent politicians and commanders of the time.

In early 16th century, feudal dynasty of Safavids, which was centered at Ardebil in Iran, began to straddle both Iran and Azerbaijan. This dynasty subsequently put an end to the Agkoyunlu state. The Safavid state covered the territory from the Amudarya river in Central Asia to the Euphrates river. The capital of the Safavid state remained the Azerbaijani city Tabriz. The Safavid realm, like Garagoyunlu and Agkoyunlu, was multi-ethnic, but the leading role belonged to the Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijani language was the official language of the Safavid state.

The first shah of the Safavid dynasty, Ismail I (who ruled from 1486-1524), established Shiism as the state religion, although large numbers of Azerbaijanis remained followers of Sunnism. The Safavid court was subject to both Turkic (Sunni) and Iranian (Shiite) influences, reinforcing the dual nature of Azerbaijani religion and culture in that period.

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the two branches of Islam came into conflict in Azerbaijan. Enforcement of Shiite Islam as the state religion led to contention between the Safavid rulers of Azerbaijan and the ruling Sunnis of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire.

The Safavid realm was at the height of its glory under the reign of Shah Abbas I (1571-1629). Shah Abbas encouraged international relations, sent envoys to Europe and received ambassadors from many countries of the world. Trade was also encouraged, and it was the time that Azerbaijani and Persian literature and arts became well known in Europe.

Azerbaijani carpets, among Persian carpets quickly became very popular, and were exported into Europe, India and other countries. The state religion of Safavids was Shiism, which played an important role in unifying the Persians and Azerbaijanis against the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

In the early 17th century, during the reign of Shah Abbas 1, the Safavid state underwent a transformation into a fully Iranian state. Abbas transferred the capital from Kazvin to Isfahan, deep inside Iran. The Iranian feudal lords increasingly became the shah's main support, and Azerbaijan turned into a mixture of province and colony. The sufferings of the masses of people intensified, not only through merciless exploitation by Iranian feudal lords, but also as a result of the bloody wars fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Shahs of Iran for supremacy in Transcaucasia and the Middle East.

The Ottomans, who were Sunni, repeatedly went to war against Iran and held Azerbaijan from 1578 to 1603, but the Safavids continued to reign over the area until their dynasty fell in the early 18th century. These wars continued, with brief interruptions, from 1602 to 1639. In the meantime, Turkic Muslim khanates were then established in Baku, Nakhichevan, and other areas.

Under a peace treaty concluded in 1639, Azerbaijan once again fell under Iranian rule. During the second half of the 17th and the early 18th centuries the struggle between Iran and Turkey over Azerbaijan and Transcaucasia was rekindled. During the early 1720s the newly strengthened Russian empire also became involved in this struggle.

Continuous battles and feudal conflicts gradually weakened the Safavid realm, and it collapsed in the 18th century. Azerbaijani lands split into several independent khanates, and continued attempts of the khans to re-unite Azerbaijan failed. In the meantime, the khanates had to resist Iran and Russia.

In the early 19th century, Russia invaded Azerbaijan and occupied North Azerbaijani khanates. It won the war with Iran that followed, and under the peace agreement signed in a Karabakh village of Gulistan, all of Azerbaijani khanates north of the Araks river except Nakhichevan and Yerevan, namely Gyandja, Karabakh, Sheki, Shamakha, Baku, Kuba, and Derbent khanates - were handed over to Russia.

In the 19th century, under Russian protection, many Christians settled in Azerbaijan. These were not only Orthodox Russians, but also Armenians fleeing the Ottoman empire, and even Protestants like the Molokans. By contrast, many Sunni Muslims emigrated from Russian-controlled Azerbaijan because of Russia's wars with the in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the Shiite population was in the majority in Russian Azerbaijan.

Antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shiite diminished in the late nineteenth century as Azerbaijani nationalism began to emphasize a common Turkic heritage and opposition to Iranian religious influences. At present, about three-quarters of Azerbaijani Muslims are, at least nominally, Shiite of the Jaafarite rite (the main Shiite branch), as in Iran. In the 1989 census, 87% of the population were declared to be Muslim; with the exit of many Russians and all Armenians this percentage is now above 90%.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:Feb 23, 2004
Previous Article:AZERBAIJAN - Resurgence In The Shiite World - Part 5.
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