The Main Factors that differentiate the Practice of Islam in Baku during the Soviet Period and in Independent Azerbaijan

A Comparative Study

Academic Paper, 2018

13 Pages, Grade: A

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Purpose of the Study


Limitations and Delimitations

Thesis Statement

Literature Review










A number of researches have been conducted regarding practicing religion in different regimes; however, there is a lack of studies about the practice of religion in Post-Soviet countries including Azerbaijan. So, the current study describes and compares adhering to the principles of Islam in Baku during the Soviet time and in independent Azerbaijan. The study was conducted by using qualitative research method. Namely, semi-structured individual interviews and observations revealed that there is a significant gap between these two periods in terms of practicing Islam, and because of an educational system, access to worship places, and religious declarations, Islam is more practiced now in comparison to the Soviet time. In conclusion, the research can be used as a model by historians, religious experts, and researchers who are interested in the religious situation of Post-Soviet countries in the Soviet time and after their independence; additionally causes of why people who do not adhere to the principles of Islam regard themselves as Muslim may be a topic of further researches.

Keywords: religion, Islam, modernity, practice of Islam, independent Azerbaijan


Religion has always been a debatable topic in the research world. It is believed that religion can be influenced by different factors. As literature review shows, the practice of religion especially Islam can be modified by effects of secularism and modernity. The communist or democratic regime can also affect adhering to the principles of Islam. To support the idea, USSR can be a great example. Despite the fact that in the Soviet Union dominant religion of most countries was Islam (Achilov, Shaykhutdinov, 2013, p.18), the USSR was based on Marxism-Leninism which propagated atheism ideology. Consequently, the Soviet authoritarian regime employed restrictive policy regarding the practice of religion. Nevertheless, the religious resurgence in the countries which gained independence after collapsing of the Union including Azerbaijan flourished.

Purpose of the Study

Baku as a capital city has been affected mostly in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. As the Soviet authorities actively encouraged atheism, it was limitedly allowed to practice religious activities. According to the article “Policy Toward Nationalities And Religions in Practice”, the number of mosques decreased from 25,000 in 1917 to 500 in the 1970s (1989, par.18). On the other hand, after becoming independent, Azerbaijan is a secular country according to the constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, even though the majority of the population are Muslim. Therefore, in this time religious practice, especially adhering to the principles of Islam, flourished. After all, the information raises the question: to what extent adhering to the principles of Islam has changed in Baku during the Soviet Union and after the independence.


Due to lack of existing studies about the religious situation in Post-Soviet republics including Azerbaijan during the Soviet period and after their independence, the study will be a significant model for historians and religious researchers in order to explore the issue deeply.

Limitations and Delimitations

Interviewing people who have been in Mecca during Hajj pilgrimage would be effective since it would create a clearer picture of practicing Islam. Nonetheless, it was not possible because of limited time so, I used a convenience sample. Additionally, conducting the research about changing the practice of Islam in all parts of Azerbaijan would be more effective, but due to the convenience of location, I narrowed the research to Baku only. Moreover, the study was conducted by the observing only practice of Namaz; however, focusing on other pillars of Islam could make the findings more precise.


Duty to analyzing a religious situation of the country, some terms and specific collocations are used in the study. Interpretations are following:

- Atheism- “it is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities” (Oxford dictionary).
- Namaz- one of the five pillars of Islam which are mentioned in Quran that every Muslim should follow.
- Shia- “it is a branch of Islam which holds that the Islamic prophet Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor (Imam)” (Olawuyi, 2014, p.3).
- Sunni Islam - “it is the largest group of Islam. Its name comes from the word Sunnah, referring to the exemplary behavior of the Islamic prophet Muhammad” (John, 2014).

Thesis Statement

The following thesis statement is examined in my proposed study: These two different periods of time have influenced the practice of Islam in certain ways including following religious duties, namely adhering to the principles of five pillars has changed. Thus, due to the educational system, created condition, and propaganda, people had barriers to practice Islam in the Soviet time in comparison to independent Azerbaijan.

Literature Review

Religion has always been a topic of interest in the research world. The term ‘religion’ has various meanings in different philosophical currents, but I focused on Islamic culture in the review. According to Lane (1955-1956) and Ibn Manzur (1988), “the Arabic word for religion is din, which is a rich term that has several linguistic meanings”. Maududi (1982) added that it is found in a research in which the usage of the word din in the Qur’an was studied that it “has been used more or less in the different senses in which the Arabs employed it before the advent of Islam” (As cited in Khir, 2007, p.258). Additionally, it is effective to define what culture is in order to have a clear understanding of the relation between religion and culture. According to Telleria (2015), “culture as a set of values, principles, and standards shaping and conditioning our behavior, usually biased towards the existence of tradition” (p.257). Culture has changed due to modernity and secularism, consequently, the review showed effects of modernity and secularism on Islamic life. Anidjar (2006) came to the conclusion that “the most crucial meaning of secular, in usage, is as an opposing term not to religion but to nationalism” (p.52). The review excluded sources about politics and economy and focused only on modernity and secularism. Also, the scope of the review was to find the answer to the question: to what aspects of Islamic lifestyle have changed due to modernity and secularism?

Modernity has a significant impact on people in cultural and religious aspects. When describing this situation, Tan (2011) asserted that modernity is not really contradictory with Islam in terms of globalization, improvement, and progress (p.56). Nonetheless, Islam has been researched before modernity appears. Khir spoke up for the idea that the study of Islam as a religion has started in the early times of Islamic history and is still continuing today in the Islamic world. These studies are based on the two important textual sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith with the main languages of the Muslim world: Arabic, Persian and Turkish to analyze basically the historical form to explore the original (2007). Because the Qur’an and the Hadith give people original understanding about Islam, researchers can explore the Islamic lifestyle. Esposito (1988) and Smith (1999) confirmed “the Qur'an, and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, the Hadith serve as the basis for the shari'a, or Islamic law or teaching. Perhaps the most widely agreed upon practices in Islam are the ‘five pillars’ or obligatory practices”. Nevertheless, the Islamic life surpasses these five pillars (As cited in Hodge and Nadir, 2008, p.32). In order to survive and thrive in this globalizing world that “is characterized by constant creation and exploitation of knowledge, technical breakthroughs and scientific advancements in a dynamically changing future” Muslims as different religious groups require more than their customs (Tan, 2011, p.56). Therefore, nowadays, some Muslims do not totally obey and practice their religion. As a result, some Muslims have to ignore some aspects of Islam; they do not purely follow and practice their religion.

Nowadays, Muslims live in not only Islamic countries but also secular countries. Obviously living in a secular country has a certain effect on Muslims’ religious practicing. Schlosser, Ali, Ackerman, and Dewey (2009) asserted that “the cultural (i.e., secular) identity of an individual or group also often heavily influences the religious identity and practice of Islam. Regarding cultural identity, it is important to understand that not all Muslims are actively practicing their religion” (p.51). Some Muslim Americans are considered being cultural Muslims; others are identified more emphatically with their faith and adhere more entirely to Islamic tenets (Schlosser, et al., 2009, p.51). By saying cultural Muslims, the author means that a group of people who not only follow Islamic rules but also adapt their secular surrounding. In addition, Ross-Sheriff, (2001) and Smith (1999) pointed out “some second-generation Muslims in the United States at times may hold beliefs and values that blend secular and Islamic values. Others may experience dissonance between their families' Islamic values and those of their secular peer groups.” Although some may mostly adopt Western secular values, others continue to accomplish primary Islamic practices (As cited in Nadir, 2008, p.32). Correspondingly, some Muslims have adopted their secular surrounding and combine their religion with secular values.

The purpose of the review was to find an answer the question how Islamic life changes because of modernity and secularism? Conclusion driven from the review was that globalizing world and secular surrounding of Muslims have an effect on Muslims in a way that they are not following purely their religious practices. The result was contributed and explored deeply in my research project.


Research methods used to collect data to find an answer to the research question are described in this section. The qualitative method which is effective in identifying intangible factors such as religion was applied throughout semi-structured individual interviews and observations in the research.


Techniques: Semi-structured individual interviews were used for collecting data on individuals’ personal experiences and perspectives about the sensitive topic, i.e. changing the practice of Islam over time.

Participants: Three individuals, two religious/philosophy instructors, and one religious expert, were asked open-ended questions in order to collect information about changing the practice of Islam over time. Generally speaking, they were asked to describe the situation of the Islam in the Soviet period and independent Azerbaijan. The interview questions help me to analyze how Azerbaijani Muslims have practiced their religion during the Soviet period and nowadays. The purpose of choosing individual interviews with these certain people was that the topic is specific and needs expert answers. The exact interview questions are provided in the Appendix.

Timing: These interviews were held from the 28th of March to the 31st of March, and duration of interviews was around 10 minutes.

Place: The interviewing process took place at “Qaracuxur” mosque with religious expert and religious/philosophy instructors’ office at ADA University since these locations were comfortable for participants.

Limitations: Following factors are limitations of the study: 1) Given time period to study the qualitative research was around three weeks which limited me to take more interviews. 2) Taking an interview with history instructor was planning; nevertheless, it did not happen since the instructor did not have time. So, it prevented to get more precise information about the Soviet Union. 3) Recording voice makes some participants feel uncomfortable. Even religious expert of “Imam Rza” mosque did not allow me to record his voice.

Ethical Consideration: Names of interview participants were kept anonymous in order to protect confidentiality.


Techniques: Since observation created a chance to observe a large number of people, this method was appropriate for my purpose which was to collect data on individuals’ natural behaviors in their everyday contexts. The observations drew a clear picture of practicing Islam, and by observing people I measured how mentioned factor have changed since the Soviet time.

Participants: In order to collect information about how religious people dress when going to a mosque, how often they come to a mosque, and how much time they dedicate to Islam, I carried out the observation. Approximately 60 people were observed during practicing Namaz.

Timing: The observations were carried out on the 25th of March from 3 pm to 5 pm for both. The period was chosen specifically, such that the duration was a time of practicing Namaz.

Place: The observations took place at two “Imam Rza” and “Qaracuxur” mosques. The reason why I chose the locations is that Shia Muslims mostly go to “Imam Rza” mosque, and Sunni Muslims prefer to go to “Qaracuxur” mosque.

Limitations: Limitations of the study the method are following: 1) Due to limited time, it was not possible to make an observation at different mosques. 2) Also, because of limited time and financial resources, making an observation at Mecca or Kaaba city in which are sacred places in the Islamic world was not possible. 3) The number of people who were observed was less than expected. Thus, at least a hundred of people were planning to be observed; nevertheless, an actual number of observed people was around 60, what prevented enough diversity.

Ethical Consideration: Due to research ethics, any type of photo/ video recording was not used.


The section is a summary of data collection.

Category #1: The Attitude of the Soviet Government to the Religions Especially Islam in Baku

- The first part of the Soviet Union:

The first period started from establishing of the Soviet Union till World War II. The interviews revealed that that period was based on Marxism ideology mostly, and the main point was to marginalize the religion. Nonetheless, there was a symbolic permission to practice Islam. “There was only two mosques in Baku at that time” (Interviewee, anonymous, March 30). However, these mosques became a warehouse by the government. Generally speaking, the period can be interpreted as not giving Muslims a space to practice their religious.

- The second part of the Soviet Union:

Interviewees stated that the second period began from World War II to 1960s. The period was characterized the most difficult one for religious people. Thus, the government tried to attack Islam in a way that religious people were repressed. According to an anonymous interviewee, 27 thousand religious people were exiled to Siberian regions (March 25). On the other hand, interviewees acknowledged that in this period the Soviet government tried to draw a fake picture of tolerance. Namely, as anonymous interviewee said, “the government said that we do not prevent Muslims from practicing their religion” (March 25). Even it was shown in Azerbaijani national film “Sherikli Corek” that people were practicing Namaz at that time. However, there were not certain people who propagated it widely because of repressing educated religious people.

- The third part of the Soviet Union:

According to participants, the third period of the Soviet union covered about last 20 years including dissolution of the Soviet Union. Participants came to the conclusion that in that period Muslims had more chance to practice Islam in comparison to past periods.

Category #2: Islam in Modern and Independent Azerbaijan

Interviewees were asked to describe the attitude of the Azerbaijani government to Islam. Participants acknowledged that the government shows tolerance toward Islam, so Muslims have freedom, and they can easily practice their religious duties. To put differently, nowadays, Muslims do not face any kind of difficulties or barriers to following their religion.

Category #3: A Comparative Situation in the Soviet Union and Independent Azerbaijan

When participants were asked about people’s desire about following religious duties, all interviewees agreed on that in the Soviet time people had less desire than nowadays. An interesting point should be mentioned that according to the anonymous interviewee, there is a belief that people had more desire to practice their religion in the Soviet Union, but it is false (March 25). As my observation showed, nowadays religious people comes to mosques frequently and spend more time here. There are several factors that can be considered as a reason of that.

A. Education system:

Firstly, educational reasons have a certain effect on people. Namely, participants stated that in the Soviet time scientific atheism was taught during one year at universities; however, in modern Azerbaijan, there is Islamic University in which those who want to learn Islam deeply can participate in.

B. Freedom:

Secondly, as it is mentioned above, the government made mosques become warehouses in the Soviet time, and so some Muslims used their homes as a mosque. Nevertheless, “nowadays there are more than 1700 mosques in modern Azerbaijan” (Interviewee, anonymous, March 30).

C. Propaganda:

Finally, interviews revealed that there was a lack of propaganda of religion in the Soviet Union. However, after independence Azerbaijani Muslims have been influenced by other Muslim countries so that Islam is the dominant religion in modern Azerbaijan.


To sum up, interview participants stated that the Soviet time cannot be analyzed as a whole period; it should be divided into three periods which differ from one another. Namely, each period has its own difficulties for Muslims in terms of attitude to religion. On the other hand, after Azerbaijan gained independence, Azerbaijani Muslims can practice their religion freely, as observations showed. Causes of the distinction between these two periods are educational, conditional and propaganda factors.

The Soviet government’s negative attitude to religion especially Islam is not a surprise since the government based on atheism ideology which did not tolerate Islam. However, the attitudes were different at various periods of the Soviet Union. Interviews revealed that the first two periods were the most difficult time for religious people due to the policy of leaders of the Soviet Union at those times. According to the policy, the government forced people to accept and follow atheism ideology and be far away from their traditional religion. Additionally, it is important to mention that despite repressions, during World War II the government encouraged people artificially to come back to their religion in order to make them forget the losses of the war. After that time the government started to pursue the soft policy toward Islam, and the policy continued till the collapse of the Union.

After gaining independence, Azerbaijan became a secular country according to the constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic. Also, modern Azerbaijan has kept its tolerant traditions in a way maintaining a balance among different religions. Due to the fact that majority of Azerbaijan population are Muslims, Azerbaijani government pays special attention to Islam. Thus, the Law on Religious Freedom, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations and other legislations, governmental committees, and private organizations were created. Muslim can practice their religious duties, especially Islamic five pillars, freely. All these are the indicators of how Azerbaijani government values Islam highly unlike the Soviet Union.

Finally, it is significant to discuss factors which can be considered as a reason of the distinction. Firstly, it is obvious that atheism ideology of the Soviet Union reflects itself in the educational system. Hence, taking one-year scientific atheism course was mandatory, and this was for making people divert from traditional religion. Unlikely, in modern Azerbaijan educational system, Baku Islamic University was opened due to high demand, and it provides higher education for Muslims. Next, created condition in the Soviet time was quite different from modern Azerbaijan’s case. Thus, the Soviet government closed mosques or made them become warehouses. The purpose of this was to make people be far away from their traditional religion and destroy their desire toward Islam. In addition, educated religious people were exiled to remote places of the Union. Eventually, this leads to lack of religious declaration since there was a lack of well-educated Muslims to spread the religion. Nevertheless, nowadays, Muslims are free to go to mosques, attend religious classes which are organized by mature religious people in mosques.


Religious situation especially adhering to the principles of five pillars can be different by effects of different political regimes. The difference is obvious when Azerbaijan, a democratic country, is compared to the Soviet Union, a socialist state.

Being a comparative study on the practice of Islam, the research describes and compares the religious situation in Baku during the Soviet time and after independence, and finds an answer to the question: to what extent adhering to the principles of Islam has changed in Baku during the Soviet Union and after the independence. The study finds out the causes of the obvious difference and shows that educational, conditional, and propaganda factors can affect adhering to the principles of Islam. According to the findings, due to educational institutions, people’s freedom, and religious declaration, religious people tend to practice Islam more in independent Azerbaijan than in the Soviet Union.

Lack of studies in Azerbaijan about changing the practice of Islam makes the research worthy. It would be more effective if the research carried out during Ramadan since it helps observe other pillars of Islam. Also, the study was conducted in Baku only, what prevent to generalize the study to all parts of Azerbaijan.

The research findings can possibly be applied by historians, religious experts and people who are interested in effects of different political regimes on adhering to the principles of Islam in Baku. Furthermore, the study can be used as a model by whom wish to explore the religious situation of Post-Soviet countries, and also, reasons of why most people call themselves Muslim but in fact, do not adhere fully to pure Islam in Azerbaijan can be studied in further researches.


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Anidjar. (2006). Secularism. Critical Inquiry, 33(1), 52. doi:10.2307/3877142

Hodge, D. R., & Nadir, A. (2008). Moving toward culturally competent practice with Muslims: Modifying cognitive therapy with Islamic tenets. Social Work, 53(1), 31-41. doi:10.1093/sw/53.1.31

John L. Esposito, ed. (2014). "Sunni Islam". The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 Apr. 2017, from

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Schlosser, L. Z., Ali, S. R., Ackerman, S. R., & Dewey, J. J. H. (2009). Religion, ethnicity, culture, way of life: Jews, Muslims, and multicultural counseling. Counseling and Values, 54(1), 48-64. doi:10.1002/j.2161-007X.2009.tb00004.x


Interview Questions :

1. Describe practice of Islam in The Soviet Union

a) How was the attitude of The Soviet government to Islam as well as other religions?

b) Did the government create a chance to Muslims to practice their religion?

c) Was people’s desire to follow their religion satisfactorily?

2. Describe religious situation in independent Azerbaijan

a) How is the attitude of the Azerbaijani government to Islam as well as other religions?

b) Does the government create a chance to Muslims to practice their religion?

c) Is Azerbaijani Muslims’ desire to follow their religion satisfactorily?

Observation Criteria :

1. Dressing

2. Timing

13 of 13 pages


The Main Factors that differentiate the Practice of Islam in Baku during the Soviet Period and in Independent Azerbaijan
A Comparative Study
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religion, Islam, modernity, practice of Islam, independent Azerbaijan
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Riyad Aliyev (Author), 2018, The Main Factors that differentiate the Practice of Islam in Baku during the Soviet Period and in Independent Azerbaijan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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