The peculiarities of the historical development of Azerbaijan, its geographical position, and the national composition of the population created favorable conditions for the spread of different religions in the country. Such religions as heathenism, Zoroastrism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others managed to spread over the country in different periods of time, interacted with one another, and established the specific religious life in the country.
Heathenism established on the basis of primitive religions as a totality of all polytheistic beliefs. The heathenism beliefs of the population of Azerbaijan date back to antiquity and cover different national faiths beginning from animism, fetishism, the religion of totem, shamanism up to beliefs in the single God. Philological and ethnographic researches make it possible to create the picture of Heathenism on the territory of the country. Archeological digs discovered big stone idols in Khynysly, Daghkolany, Shyraghly, anthropomorphic statues in Ismayilly, clayey monuments in Mingechevir. One can come across the patterns of beliefs in God in the epos of Dede-Gorgut.
The ceremonies connected with Heathenism were mostly presented in the form of synthesis that is the beliefs did not differ much, influenced one another, and participated conjointly in the formation of the system of moral values of the local population, through supplementing each other. The worshipping of dead forefathers, rocks and trees (maple, oak, etc), natural phenomenon, and celestial bodies were strong in ancient Azerbaijan. Strabon reported on Albanian's worshipping of the Sun, the Moon, the Sky. The oak tree best known as Tanry khan (the ruling God) was worshipped and sacrificed horses. Movses Kalankatvasi reports that Albanian rulers called for a struggle against heathenism for spreading Christianity and cut away the trees which served as idols.
Like other eastern countries, the beliefs in the constituency of the Universe of four main elements- ground, air, water, and fire were widely spread among ancient Azerbaijanis. Fire-worship was also established on the basis of such beliefs. The fire was thought holy and worshipped by most people residing in Azerbaijan.
People believed in the ability of fire to destroy meanness and lowness and to purify people. The fire ceremonies that survived up to the present along with the holiday of Novruz show the strength of traditions of fire-worship in Azerbaijan.
A temple of fire is the praying house of fire-worship. The temples of fire-worshippers existed in the religious centers of Atropatena-Gazaka, Baku, Shemakha, and Lenkoran. A temple of fire locating in Surakhany was erected in the 18th century for fire-worshippers coming from India.
Though persecuted by Christianity, the fire-worship of the Caucasus Albania managed to survive. With the appearance of Islam in Azerbaijan the fire-worship gradually lost its importance and sank into oblivion.
Though based on the fire-worship, Zoroastrianism emerged as an independent religion. M.Bors pointed out that Zoroastrism had been the most ancient among the prophetic religions. The Holy book of this religion Qatas that was part of Avesta was sent down to Zoroaster, a religious teacher, and prophet (6th century B.C.). According to some sources Zoroaster's father came from Azerbaijan. According to Zoroastrism, the world lays on two components-the Good and the Evil, which lead to the constant struggle with one another. The world of the Light, Goodness, and Justice is embodied in Hormuzd (Ahura-Mazda), the world of the Darkness, the Evil, and Tyranny in Ahriman (Ahura-Manyu). The struggle will be finally won by the Good and the active followers of Ahura-Mazda in his struggle against Evil and Tyranny will meet with the happiness of eternity. The ideas of the happiness of eternity, sins, and good deeds prove the maturity of Zoroastrism. Zoroaster urged people to be juster and purer and to struggle against any meanness.
Fire occupied an important place in the Zoroastrian beliefs therefore Zoroastrians were often considered fire-worshippers. Zoroastrians thought corpses nasty and therefore did not bury them into the ground but kept them in special places in the mountains for birds and worms to eat. Only after that they gathered the purified bones and buried them.
The Zoroastrian beliefs acquired the form of dogma in the 3rd century B.C. Zoroastrianism spread on the territory of Azerbaijan till Derbend due to the military and political progress of Sasanians. Iranian Zoroastrians were moved to the country for spreading the new religion. At the same time, Zoroastrianism adopted local features in Azerbaijan. The Caucasus Albanians buried jewelry and kitchen utensils together with their dead owners. It is also known that after the purification of the bones of dead people, they were placed in a big pot-like coffin and thus buried. The dead people were also buried in the ground, pottery coffins, underground tombs, hollow graves.
Constant wars between Sasanis and Byzantines for expanding their areas of influence in Azerbaijan resulted in the strengthening of either Christianity or Zoroastrism. In such conditions, Islam found a way to the most intensive and peaceful spreading in the country.
Since the Middle Ages Zoroastrism could not react to the cultural and political requirements of the time thus losing its actuality.
Historically Judaism has been represented by the mountain Jews. Movses Kalankatvasi refers to the arrival of mountain Jews in the Caucasus to the 1st century B.C, while researchers have a different views upon this issue.
According to one source, mountain Jews which are the most ancient Jewish communities generate from the people of Israel, driven away from Palestine by the shahs of Assyria and Babylon, and settled in Midia. Their ancestors were the first to establish Judaism and resided apart from Palestine and did not participate in the persecutions of Jesus Christ at the beginning of their formation as a single community. In Midia they formed mixed communities with tats. Thus, mountain Jews spoke the language of tats, which is the dialect comprising Perian arami and Hewish words.
Other research consider that mountain Jews were moved to the East Caucasus by Sasani ruler Khosrov Anushirevan the first (531-574). The ruler built towers in the Caucasus and settled Persians and Jews, removed from Mesopotamia to these cities. The tat language spoken by mountain Jews also survived since that period.
At least it is known that mountain Jews came to Azerbaijan fifteen centuries ago as a result of the policy of Sasanies, were settled in the borderline districts for ensuring the security of the country, and though being in close relations with local inhabitants they preserved their religion, traditions, lifestyle and the way of thinking.
Christianity influenced Azerbaijan by means of the Caucasus Albania in the first years of the new era in times of Christ's apostils. The inflow of Jews to the Caucasus intensified after the overthrow of Jerusalem. The newcomers told about the wonders that had been demonstrated by Jesus. The first Christian communities established under the influence of such propaganda. The first stage of spreading Christianity was called the period of apostils in connection with apostils Varfolomei and Faddey. One of the progenies of apostil Faddey started to spread the new religion by the benediction of the first patriarch of Jerusalem Yegub reached the land of Agvan and erected a church in Kish village. This church had been constructed before the first Christian church of Armenia. Later Yelisey moved to Chola (Derbend) and passing the river Samur continued to propagandize the religion and was killed by one of the idolaters of Helmes village and thrown to a hole. Later Yelisey's corpse was lifted from the hole by the instruction of Albanian melik Vachagan and buried in Khug village, and a small temple was erected over the hole.
When the Roman emperor Constantine lifted veto from the practice of Christianity in 313, Albanian ruler Urnayr declared Christianity the state religion. A new stage in the spread of Christianity called the period of pro-Greek emerged in Azerbaijan since that time. Academician Ziya Bunyadov points out that Urnayr, Vache the second, and Vachagan the third fought for spreading Christianity in the country. The priesthood and church hierarchy formed in the 3rd-4th centuries. Feudal lords allotted special areas for churches on their lands by the instruction of the Catholicon. Churches were built in the region and religious books were translated from Syrian, Arami, and Greek language to Albanian. The book "In Albanian script and Albanian language is considered the most ancient public reader of the world Christianity.
At a session in Khalkidon church in 451, Albania preferred monophysitism and the fight between monophysites and solipsists strengthened in the country in the 5-6th centuries. Albanian church accepted diophisitism in the late 6th-early 7th century.
The residence of Albanian Catholicon located in the Gochay city and it moved to Barda in 552. After the overthrow of Albanian meliks the role of Christianity weakened in the country the prayers were conducted in the Armenian language in the churches, the Albanian language was oppressed and led out. Albanian church restored its status of the autocephaly church during the formation of independent states on the territory of Azerbaijan in the 8th-9th centuries. Eastern Christianity managed to retain its influence on the region in the 10th-11th centuries. This state lasted till the 18th century. Albanian church was abolished by instruction of Synod in 1836 and the whole property of the church was delivered to the Armenian church of Echmiadzin. The Albanian church was once more restored in the 1980-1990s. The Albanian-Udi Christian community was registered by the government in 2003, following the restoration of the Kish church in Sheki. The church of Nich village is currently being restored in Gabala district.
Christianity was represented by orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism and by a number of sectarian communities in Azerbaijan. Five Armenian-Gregorian communities have been registered in the country.
Orthodoxy was imported to Azerbaijan in frames of the policy of resettlement led by the Russian tsarist regime in the early 19th century. The first orthodox church of Baku started operating in 1815.
Sectarian Christians were driven to the Caucasus to avoid the hard consequences of separations occurring in the Russian Orthodox Church. The first Russian migrants set up AltyAghadj village in Shamakhy in 1834, Vel village in Lenkoran in 1838, Borisi-Russian village of Yelizavetpol in 1842, and Slavyanka village in 1844. Baku province accounted for 21 sectarian villages with a population of 13 thousand people in 1868.
Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Parish was created in Baku due to the resettlement of military Catholics to the Caucasus by Russian Army in the 1850s. The parish was under the military Roman-Catholic parish of Tetri-Skaroda (Georgia). The Baku parish became independent in 1882. The church in glorification of the Immaculate Conception of Saint Maria was erected in 1895, the church of the Holy Cross was constructed in the Baku cemetery in 1903. The new church of the Immaculate Conception of Saint Maria which is considered the most beautiful architectural monument of Baku was built in a gothic style in 1909-1912. However, during the Soviet period, the church was devastated by the Bolsheviks in 1934. In 1999, the Roman-Catholic community restored in Baku, and in 2007, a new church was built in Baku in memory of Saint Maria church.
Former Roman Pope John Paul the second paid an official visit to Baku on May 22-23 of 2002.
In October 2016, Pope Francis, who was on a trip to our country, attended a mass religious ceremony in the Catholic Church in Baku and was welcomed by President Ilham Aliyev.
Baptism. The followers of the Lutheran church arrived in Baku along with German industrialists taking part in the development of oil fields in the second half of the 19th century. The visit was mainly caused by political and religious unrest that took place in Germany in the early 19th century. At that time people rumored that the West is nearing the Apocalypse only the East may save everyone. The population and especially the sectarians tried to run away from the questions about the Apocalypse to Russia and the Caucasus. 209 German families resided in Azerbaijan in early 1819. The Lutheran community was established in Baku in 1870. The community members constructed their temple-circa (currently the hall of Organ and Camera Music) in Baku in 1899. The circa had been built even earlier in Yelendorf (present-day Khanlar). The priests of the Lutheran church along with representatives of other religious communities were sent into exile and executed by shooting in 1937. The Lutheran community resumed its activity in Baku in 1944.
Islam, which emerged in the Arabian peninsula in the early 7th century soon managed to cover the biggest part of the world. Azeri population was converted to Islam by the early representatives of this religion in the 18th year 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 Ardebil, Tebriz, Nakhichevan, 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 the majority of Azerbaijan's population accepted Islam in a period of the ruling of khalif Ali bin Abu Talyb (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 into 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.
The form of converting Azerbaijan into Islam is difficult to speak on as this matter has not yet been studied properly. However, it's possible to single out some of the stages of this process.
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 ends 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 this strata. Mosques were not built at that time and ancient temples and churches, which became useless as a result of the spread of Islam, 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 Sadjis were established in Azerbaijan. Idolatry and Zoroastrism lost their actuality, Judaism managed to survive, the independence of Albania was restored, yet due to its weak influence the praying ceremonies were held in the Armenian language and their followers were armenified. The consciousness of belonging to Islam strengthened at 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 Abbasies. Babek's (816-838) rebellion is the brightest example of that process. The theosophy 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 Seldjugs (the mid-11th-mid-13th centuries). 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 (the mid-13th-mid-15th century) Sufism was widely spread at that time and hurufism strengthened its position. It was founded by Fazlullah Naimi (who died in 1394). Abulhasan Aliyyul and poet Nasimi (who died in 1417) were the most influential representatives of this trend. The second old man of the secret sect of Sufism Seyyid Yahya Shirvani Bakuvi KHelveti (died in 1464) was famous at that time. One of the brothers of Aggoyunlu ruler Uzun Gasan was the follower of the sheikh of the sect Dede Omar Rovsheni (died in 1487). Ibrahim bin Mohamed Gulsheni (who died in 1534) founded the trend of Gulshaniyye as one of the branches of the said sect in the second half of the 15th century. Later a number of trends in Sufism as negshbendiyye spread to Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus through Azerbaijan.
The sixth stage is connected with the ruling of Sefevis (1501-1786) and Osmanlys since the 16th century (1281-1924). Sefevis propagandized Shiism and put on turbans with twelve red strips in the glorification of the 12 imams of Shiism. Therefore they were called Gyzylbashs. Osmanli which defeated Sefevis in the battle at Chaldyran spread Sunnism in Azerbaijan.
The period of Azerbaijan's annexation to the Russian Empire can also be regarded as a new stage in the religious life of the country. 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. The letter that was sent to the Senate by the Russian Tsar on November 29, 1832, proposed to work out the statute on the department for work with Transcaucasia Muslims. However, none of the prepared drafts was approved. The official of the Minister of Foreign Affairs M.Khanykov by the instruction of knyaz Volontsov worked out the draft statute on the formation of Mohamed's clergymen 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 and local representatives of Shiism and Sunnism were also involved in the it. Prepared regulations controlled the positions of Muslim clergymen, rights and privileges, and relations with the secular government. Only "Şeyhülislam" and Mufti got wage from the government till 1867 while other Muslim clergymen started to get it beginning from this year. The regulation on the department for Islamic Sunnite and Shiite clergymen 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 Sunnite Religious departments leaded by the Mufti and the Shiite Religious Department chaired by "Şeyhülislam"-were set up in the Caucasus. Each of these two departments locating in Tiflis was composed of the chair, three members of presidium, two assistants along with the secretary, dragoman, clerk and registrar. Both two departments included four Assemblies in Tbilisi, Yerevan, Yelizavetpol (Ganja), and Baku provinces. The Sunni department included 16 confessors and Shiite-20 of them. The departments acted under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reported directly to the governor. Provincial clergymen were controlled by the local government bodies.
The religious affairs of the Caucasus Muslims had been regulated by these two departments until the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920). "Şeyhülislam" Mohamed Pishnamazzade sent into resignation on December 11, 1918. Akhund Agha Alizade was appointed `Şeyhülislam` by the decree of Musa Rafibeyov, the Minister of Social Insurance and Religious Conviction of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. This period was notable for the strengthening tendencies which aimed at rationing and modernizing Islam.
Following the establishment of the Soviet government in Azerbaijan in 1920 the Ministry of Religious Conviction and "sheikhulislamism" was dismissed on May 15, Muslim clergymen were persecuted, most of the Mosques were closed down. The creation of the Religious structure of Transcaucasia Muslims was considered advisable for the use of religion in the struggle against German fascism in 1943.
The first session of the Transcaucasia Muslims was held in Baku on May 25-28 and the Religious Department for Transcaucasia Muslims was established in this city. Akhund Agha Alizade was appointed `şeyhülislam`. He is the first elected "sheykhulislam" as those preceding him were appointed by the government. Moreover, dualism was abolished in the religious organizations of the Caucasus Muslims in 1944. The Religious Department of Transcaucasia Muslims became a common center that was controlled by "Şeyhülislam", Mifli was considered the first deputy chair of the Department and regulated the problems of Sunnites.
Currently, this department acts as the Caucasus Muslims Department and is the center of all other religious communities of Islam.