Azerbaijan: Religious Shrines Attracting Faithful
In some villages, a piece of ribbon or colorful cloth tied to a tree can signal the location of a shrine. In Baku, as well as in towns on the Absheron Peninsula, shrines can be elaborate -- filled with marble, carpets, intricate mirrors and glimmering lights.
No statistics exist about the number of such shrines in Azerbaijan, although experts say the number is in the hundreds. Nariman Gasimoglu, a religious scholar and director of the Baku-based Center for Religion and Democracy, believes shrines are an expression of what he terms Azerbaijanis’ “secular religiousness.”
“I’d estimate no more than 5 percent of the population practices the rituals and laws of Islam, but the rest consider themselves believers,” said Gasimoglu.
The veneration of shrines honoring holy men is a key feature of Shi’ia Islam, the predominant faith in Azerbaijan. Such shrines are also revered for their alleged curative powers.
A double-domed shrine to Mir Movsum Agha (“The Boneless One”) in Shuvelan, a town on the Absheron Peninsula near Baku, is open 24 hours and receives dozens of visitors each day from throughout Azerbaijan and beyond. Beyond their spiritual function, shrines can play the role of local charity. An employee at the Shuvelan shrine’s slaughterhouse said that workers collect enough sacrificed meat each week to provide assistance to approximately 600 local people. Local experts, though, express concern about the potential for the misuse of donations, as no formal oversight system is in place.
In Bash Shabalid, a mountain village bordering the Russian region of Dagestan, stories abound about the locally revered Sheikh Ehmed, his grandson, Mullah Mustafa, and the shrine devoted to them. Legend has it that Mustafa organized a rebellion of 30,000 people in the 1930s and subsequently eluded exile and execution.
Local farmer Shamil Salmonov recounted a story about how a mysterious stranger ordered two boys during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s to go to the shrine. “It was Mullah Mustafa. With a banquet laid out for the brave believers,” asserted Salmonov. “In the morning, there was no trace of the mullah. Not even the ashes of the fire could be found.”
Reportedly, even the Soviet establishment was susceptible to a belief in the power of shrines.
One Soviet-era anecdote recounts how a finance minister’s wife who visited the Mir Movsum Agha shrine was cured of a disease that had stumped a team of Moscow doctors, reports an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe discussion paper on Islam in Azerbaijan. Heidar Aliyev, father of Azerbaijan’s current president, Ilham Aliyev, is believed to have visited the same shrine as a young KGB employee in 1948, the paper claimed.
While such visits might seem surprising amid the Communist Party’s crackdown on mosques and other religious centers, Dr. Bruce Grant, an associate professor of anthropology at New York University, noted that the Soviet system tolerated shrines because “there was a real anxiety on the part of the government that if these shrines were shut down, too, they would really have a problem on their hands.”
The shrines, a living symbol of local history and identity, still serve today as a “portal to another world,” said Grant, one of the few outsiders to have studied Azerbaijan’s shrines.
Dr. Altya Goyushov, a religious scholar and professor in the department of Turkic Speaking People and Caucasus History at Baku State University, notes that shrines have become a popular alternative to building new mosques or undertaking the hajj, two ventures “almost impossible today” in Azerbaijan because of the bureaucratic hurdles involved.
As formalized Islamic education becomes more widespread, though, shrines may eventually diminish in importance, some experts believe.
But, for now, in villages like Penser, not far from Azerbaijan’s border with Iran, no sign of that change is in place.
Commissioned a few years ago, large murals depicting Imam Ali, Islam’s first imam, and Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad who opposed the caliphate, adorn Penser’s shrine. “My grandfather knew all the history of this [shrine] and this cemetery,” said 25-year-old villager Suleman Kindir, who says his family has cared for the shrine for generations. He collects and notes down a money donation brought by a weeping elderly woman with a grandchild in prison. Like hundreds of Azerbaijani believers before her, she departs saying that praying at the shrine has relieved her anguish.