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Islam in Azerbaijan

Nearly 99% of the population of Azerbaijan is nominally Muslim. (Estimates include 96.9% Muslim, 93.4% (Berkley Center, 2012), 99.2% (Pew Research Center, 2009) The rest of the population adheres to other faiths or are non-religious, although they are not officially represented. Among the Muslim majority, religious observance varies and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion. The Muslim population is approximately 85% Shi’a and 15% Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply. Azerbaijan has the second highest Shia population percentage in the world after Iran.

Most Shias are adherents of orthodox Ithna Ashari school of Shi’a Islam. Other traditional religions or beliefs that are followed by many in the country are the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Traditionally villages around Baku and Lenkoran region are considered stronghold of Shi’ism. In some northern regions, populated by Sunni Dagestani (Lezghian) people, the Salafi movement gained some following. Folk Islam is widely practiced.

According to a 2010 Gallup Poll found 49% of Azerbaijanis answering no to the question “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”, one of the highest rates among any Muslim-majority country. A 1998 poll estimated the proportion of ardent believers in Azerbaijan at only 20 percent.

Gradually, during the Soviet imperial twilight, signs of religious reawakening not only multiplied but surfaced into the open. According to Soviet sources, during the late 1970s around 1,000 clandestine houses of prayer were in use, and some 300 places of pilgrimage were identifiable. This growth proved the prelude to the public openings of hundreds of mosques in the following decade.

Beginning in the late Gorbachev period, and especially after independence, the number of mosques rose dramatically. Many were built with the support of other Islamic countries, such as Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, which also contributed Qur’ans and religious instructors to the new Muslim states. A Muslim seminary has also been established since 1991. The growing number of religious Muslims resulted in the establishment of more than 2,000 mosques by 2014.

After independence, the laws regarding religion are quite clear. In Article 7 of the constitution, Azerbaijan is declared a secular state. This point is driven home in Article 19 with the statement of the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions before the law as well as the secular character of the state educational system.

Azerbaijan has been a secular country. A 1998 survey estimated the proportion of ardent believers in Azerbaijan at close to 7 percent, slightly more than the number of declared atheists — almost 4 percent — with the largest numbers falling into the category of those who consider Islam above all as a way of life, without strict observance of prohibitions and requirements, or as a fundamental part of national identity. In a 2010 survey only half of Azerbaijanis answering yes to the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”

Secular politicians in Azerbaijan have raised concerns about the rise of political Islam, but others argue that Islam in Azerbaijan is a multifaceted phenomenon. Islam plays only a very limited role in the political sphere and only a small part of the population supports the idea of establishing an “Islamic order”. This is due to the long tradition of secularism in Azerbaijan and to the fact that the nationalistic opposition movement is secular in character. Yet, according to some analysts, on the longer run, if the politicians do not manage to improve the conditions of life of the vast majority of the people, the population may express its discontent through political Islam.

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