Cablegate: Azerbaijan (Sort of) Celebrates Muharram, Ashoura

DE RUEHKB #0990/01 3580851
R 240851Z DEC 09




E.O.12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Azerbaijan (Sort of) Celebrates Muharram, Ashoura

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1. (SBU) On December 18, Muslims worldwide started celebrations for
the holy month of Muharram. In Azerbaijan, the date was marked by a
simple statement, without fanfare, from the Caucasus Muslim Board.
For Shi'a Muslims, including those in Azerbaijan and neighboring
Iran, Muharram has a special meaning, separate from the broader
context and practices among Sunni Muslims, as it is associated with
sorrow and mourning for the killed grandsons of Prophet Muhammad.

2. (SBU) The culmination of Muharram for Shi'a Muslims is the day of
Ashoura which is the tenth day after the start of the month. In 2009
it will fall on December 27. Shi'a Muslims commemorate on Ashoura
the tragic killing of Huseyn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad,
which took place in the end of seventh century near the city of
Kerbela (modern Iraq) in the course of fight for the political power
in the Caliphate. This event is believed to set the schism in the
Muslim world which divided the community into Sunni and Shi'a

The Iranian Influence

3. (SBU) During the Safavid dynasty, the Iranian rulers converted
most of the peoples under their rule, including Azerbaijanis, from
the Sunni to the Shi'a sect of Islam, in juxtaposition to the Sunni
Ottoman Turks. Muharram became an opportunity to demonstrate love
toward the Prophet's family (Ahle Beit) and a chance to strengthen
Shi'ism, the new faction of Islam, and to encourage others to join
it. Also in this era, Muharram was instrumental in uniting Iranian
ethnic groups to counter the threat of the Ottoman Empire, which
eventually gave rise to the formation of the first Iranian empire
after Islam.

The Tradition of Ashoura in Azerbaijan

4. (SBU) Above all, during Muharram Shi'a Muslims in Azerbaijan and
other countries, particularly in Iran, refrain from any joyful
celebrations, weddings and engagements. On Ashoura, religious
people in Azerbaijan would go to local mosques for participation in
mourning ceremonies and chant marsiya (sorrowful elegies). In some
conservative parts of the country people fast and may spent a night
in mosques.

5. (SBU) In the past, practicing Shi'a Muslims would flagellate
themselves on Ashoura with special chains made for this purpose.
Self-flagellation was often accompanied with crowds walking through
quarters of towns and villages chanting "Huseyn vay" as an
expression of grief. Despite commonplace practice in the Soviet
time forbidding such religious ceremonies, the tradition survived in
the most conservative parts of Azerbaijan as the south of the
country and several villages located on the Absheron peninsula as
Buzovna, Nardaran, Mashtaga, etc. The religious practice revived
especially in the end of 1980s and the beginning of 1990s, but such
demonstrations remain larger and much more common in Iran than

As It Is Actually Practiced Today

6. (SBU) Though Azerbaijan is traditionally a majority Shi'a
country, the majority of Azerbaijanis appears to be secular. The
absence of religious practice is likely a lingering effect from the
Soviet era, yet it seems to be a preferred course for the Ilham
Aliyev administration. Typically, Azerbaijanis are not familiar
with the traditions of Muharram and Ashoura. In that sense, the
holiday season passes somewhat without notice, and differs greatly
from widespread, popular practices in Iran.

7. (SBU) While religious practices are not forbidden in Azerbaijan -
and the GOAJ continues to boast of an overall spirit of religious
tolerance - the environment for religious observance has tightened,
with the government requiring religious organizations, among other
things, to register with authorities. Similarly, there have been
complaints of mosque closings, at times tied to property disputes
and sometimes because of other issues, and efforts to some extent to
restrict the distribution of religious materials. Some government
leaders in Azerbaijan have also expressed dismay in the past at what
is perceived as the heightened religious agenda of the Turkish
Government, and complained about woman in headscarves as portrayed
by Turkish television.

8. (SBU) Nonetheless, it is common for Shi'a Muslims in Azerbaijan -

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those practicing and otherwise - to postpone weddings and
engagements if the date overlaps with Muharram. Occasionally,
weddings and engagements may take place only in those regions with
predominant Sunni population. But Muharram is known as a month of
mourning throughout Azerbaijan and the scheduling of weddings and
other joyful celebrations significantly decreases at this time of
the year.

9. (SBU) On Ashoura, many mosques in Azerbaijan, as well as families
may provide free meals/sherbet (sweet flavorful drinks) and this
procession is known as ehsan. It is particularly widespread in the
south of the country in districts of Astara, Lenkaran and Lerik. To
date, Ashoura remains a personal and family holiday for believers in
Azerbaijan, and has not yet taken on the quasi-political or
"protest" undertones that have often marked Ashoura observances in

A Call to Give Blood

10. (SBU) In recent years, Sheykh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur
Pashazade, Director of the Caucasus Muslims Board (CMB), has called
upon Azerbaijanis to donate blood on Ashoura in lieu of taking part
in mourning processions and engaging in self-flagellation. There
has been no official statement by the Sheykh ul-Islam for this
year's Ashoura. However, last year he said, "... the Azerbaijani
Government has created conditions to commemorate this day (Ashoura).
Shedding blood, chain beating (flagellation), chest cutting are not
appropriate on Ashoura. Blood shedding is not considered in Islam
as a positive thing." On December 15, the Council of Ghazis (top
ranking clergy) of the CMB issued a fatwa for this year's Ashoura
stating, "On Ashoura flagellation and infliction of bodily injuries
is unacceptable; order must be observed at all sanctuaries. Blood
donation which has been organized for several years by the Board,
and should be set as a sample for Taziya (passion play)."

11. (SBU) The CMB has announced that blood donation will be
organized this year at central mosques of Taza Pir, Ajdarbey, Haji
Soltanali and Icharishahar. The Ministry of Health in collaboration
with the CMB will set mobile labs at those mosques and people
wishing to donate blood may come there for this purpose. It has also
been announced that Sheykh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade will join
the action this year as well.

© Scoop Media

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