Islam, which emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, managed to cover the biggest part of the world in a short time. People living in the territory of today’s Azerbaijan were converted to Islam in the early years of the Muslim era (639). Marzban of Azerbaijan Isfandiyar bin Farrukhzad was defeated by Arabs and concluded the contract in the same year. Arabs occupied Ardabil, Tabriz, Nakhchivan, Beylagan, Barda, Shirvan, Mugan, and Arran, thus reaching Derbend across the Caspian seashore. The fortifiers of the town resisted Arabs, which attached the city the name “Bab al-Abvab”. Historian Belaruzi reported that most of Azerbaijan’s population accepted Islam during the period of the rule of khalif Ali bin Abu Talib (656-661). This process lasted a bit longer in the North. Arabs imposed taxes on the population of the occupied lands, continued invasions after striking the peace agreement, and later returned back. They resumed invasions as the local population refused to pay taxes.
Some regions were converted to Islam peacefully, while others were made to accept the religion forcefully. The idolaters were suggested to accept Islam, those who did, had to pay zekat and kharaj and did not take part in battles together with Muslims; those participating were granted some of the captured materials; while those not accepting the religion had to pay jizya and were under the protection of Muslims, and those refusing to accept the religion or pay jizya had to fight against Muslims. Borderline settlements-ribads were inhabited only by Muslims. Muslims were moved to these regions from different provinces of the Caliphate to consolidate these regions, while those who had not accepted Islam were driven to remote places called `rebed`. Peace agreements struck by such Arabian commanders as Huzeyfe bin al-Yeman, Utbe bin Ferged, Velid bin Ugbe, Selman bin ar-Rabia al-Bahili, Bukeyr bin Abdullah, Surage bin Emr, Mesleme stipulated for the inviolability of the life, property, and religion of the population.
It is difficult to speculate on specific forms of Islamization in Azerbaijan, as this issue remains unexplored. However, some stages of this complex process can be singled out.
The first stage, which lasted from the mid-7th century till the early 8th century, was the period of the progress of Islam. This stage ended with the overthrow of Albania and the loss of independence by the Albanian church in 705. According to academician Z.Bunyadov, Islam dominated Azerbaijan at the end of this stage, and state officials accepted this religion unconditionally to preserve their privileges. The new religion spread among merchants and artisans as Arabs granted privileges to these strata. Mosques were not built at that time. Moreover, ancient temples and churches, which became useless due to the spread of Islam, were converted into a mosque. The predominance of tribal consciousness over religious consciousness was preserved.
The second stage covers the period from the 8th century to the reign of Buveyhiles in West Iran and Iraq. The Independent states of Shirvanshah Mazyadis and Sajids were established in Azerbaijan. Idolatry and Zoroastrianism lost their actuality, Judaism managed to survive, and the independence of the Albanian church was restored. The consciousness of belonging to Islam strengthened during that period, yet the ideas connected with the ethnic roots had not yet been completely lost. This can be observed in the shuubism movement, which was launched within the first years of the ruling of the Abbasids. Babak’s (816-838) rebellion is the brightest example of that process. The theosophy [tasavvuf] of Islam developed in the borderline regions. Radical Shiism intensified in the mountain regions.
The third stage embraces the period of the Buveyhivs’ ruling (935-1055). Neutral Shiism was formed in Azerbaijan and reached Derbend at that time. Shiism and Sunnism were the principal religious trends. Sufism was also quite widely spread among certain groups of people. One of the most beautiful monuments of Sufism was the cloister for dervishes on the Pirsaat river of Shirvan.
The fourth stage coincides with the times of Seljugs (mid-11th and mid-13th century). Sunnism strengthened while the position of Shiism weakened. Shafiism became the leading trend at that time, and the sects of Sufism were widely spread. The Atabeys and Shirvanshahs managed to protect Islam from the pressure of Christianity.
The fifth stage covers the period of Mongolian invasions (mid-13th and mid-15th century). Sufism was widely spread at that time, and Hurufism strengthened its position, which was founded by Fazlullah Naimi (who died in 1394). Abulhasan Aliyyul-Ala and poet Nasimi (who died in 1417) were the most influential representatives of this trend. During this period, the second ‘pir’ of the Sufi sect, Seyyid Yahya Shirvani Bakuvi Khalvati (died 1464), became very popular. One of the brothers of Aggoyunlu ruler Uzun Hasan was the follower of the sheikh of the sect Dede Omar Rovsheni (died in 1487). Ibrahim bin Mohamed Gulshani (who died in 1534) founded the trend of Gulshaniyye as one of the branches of the Khalvati sect in the second half of the 15th century. Later several trends in Sufism as Negshbendiyye spread to Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus through Azerbaijan.
The sixth stage is connected with the ruling of Safavids (1501-1736) and Ottomans since the 16th century (1299-1922). Safavids propagandized Shiism and put on turbans with twelve red strips to glorify the 12 imams of Shiism. Therefore they were called Gizilbashs. Osmanli, which defeated the Safavids in the battle at Chaldiran, spread Sunnism in Azerbaijan.
The period of Azerbaijan’s annexation to the Russian Empire can also be regarded as a new stage in the country’s religious life. This period is notable for the attempts of the government to subdue Muslim priests through the policy of establishing the religious structure of Islam similar to that of the Christian church. In this regard, the letter was sent to the Senate by the Russian Tsar on November 29, 1832, which proposed to work out the statute on the Department of Religious Affairs of Transcaucasian Muslims. However, none of the prepared drafts was approved. By the instruction of knyaz Volontsov, M.Khanykov, the official of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, worked out the draft statute on the organization of Muhammadian clerics in 1849. Though the draft was fully approved, it was not implemented due to the commencement of the Crimea war. A new commission was established to continue this work in 1864. Local representatives of Shiism and Sunnism were also involved in the process. Prepared regulations controlled the positions of the Muslim clerics, rights and privileges, and relations with the secular government. Only “Sheikh-ul-Islam” and Mufti got wages from the government until 1867, while other Muslim clerics started to get wages from that year. The regulation on the department for Islamic Sunni and Shiite clerics of Transcaucasia, introduced by the State Council, was ratified by the Tsar of Russia on April 5, 1872.
The department was mainly based on the structure of the Orthodox Church. Two Muslim administrative bodies-the Sunni Religious departments led by the Mufti and the Shiite Religious Department chaired by “Sheikh-ul-Islam” were set up in the Caucasus. Each of these two departments located in Tiflis was composed of the chair, three members of presidium, two assistants, and the secretary, dragoman, clerk, and registrar. Both departments included four Assemblies in Tbilisi, Yerevan, Yelizavetpol (Ganja), and Baku provinces. The Sunni department had 16 confessors and Shiite-20 of them, which were acted under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reported directly to the governor. The local government bodies controlled provincial clerics.
These two departments had regulated the religious affairs of the Caucasus Muslims until the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920). “Sheikh-ul-Islam” Muhammad Pishnamazzade was sent into resignation on December 11, 1918. Akhund Agha Alizade was appointed “Sheikh-ul-Islam” by Musa Rafibeyov, the Minister of Social Insurance and Religious Conviction of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. This period was notable for the strengthening tendencies aimed at rationing and modernizing Islam.
Following the establishment of the Soviet government in Azerbaijan in 1920, the Ministry of Religious Conviction and “Sheikh-ul-Islamism” were dismissed on May 15, Muslim clerics were persecuted, and most of the Mosques were closed down. The creation of the Religious structure of Transcaucasian Muslims was considered advisable for the use of religion in the struggle against German fascism in 1943.
The first congress of the Transcaucasian Muslims was held in Baku on May 25-28, 1944, and the Religious Department for Transcaucasian Muslims was established in this city. Akhund Agha Alizade was appointed “Sheikh-ul-Islam”. He is the first elected “Sheikh-ul-Islam”, unlike those preceding him whom the government appointed. Moreover, dualism was abolished in the religious organizations of the Caucasus Muslims in 1944. The Religious Department of Transcaucasian Muslims became a joint center controlled by “Sheikh-ul-Islam”. Mifti was considered the first deputy chair of the Department and regulated the problems of Sunnis. Currently, this department acts as the Caucasus Muslims’ Board and is the center of all other religious communities of Islam.