Thursday, March 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Novruz, a Divisive Holiday in Some Places, Unites Azerbaijan

Paul Goble

Baku, March 20 – Novruz, the ancient holiday marking a “new day” with the return of life in the spring, divides many Islamic countries whose religious leaders view it as a pagan survival, but it not only unites the people of Azerbaijan but also symbolizes the continuity of a nation that has been buffeted by so many changes in the past.
In the Russian Federation, for example, some Islamic leaders have argued that no Muslim should participate in Novruz festivities which typically include family gatherings, meals, and the exchange of gifts, while Russian officials have sought to defend what they see as a “secular” and “national” holiday.
But in Azerbaijan, both political and religious leaders celebrate the holiday and call on others to do likewise. President Ilham Aliyev yesterday greeted his countrymen on the occasion, and Allashakhur Pashazade, the sheikh ul Islam, issued an equally enthusiastic endorsement of the holiday as a combined religious-national celebration.
Numerous articles have appeared in the Baku media today discussing the origins of this holiday more than a millennium ago among the ancestors of today’s Azerbaijanis ( and the struggle of Azerbaijanis in Soviet times to restore a holiday both Moscow and the “official” Muslim establishment opposed (, March 20).
But perhaps the most thoughtful exposition of the meaning of the holiday for Azerbaijanis as a people is provided in today’s Echo newspaper by Khadzhi Il’gar Ibragimoglu, and philosopher-theologian and the imam of the Juma mosque in Icheri shekher (
Noting that the holiday calls attention to the universal revival of life in the spring and thus reflects divine wisdom, Ibragimoglu argues that “it has priceless importance in the national self-identification” of Azerbaijanis, helping them to preserve their best qualities in the face of many challenges.
Indeed, he continues, “thanks to the elements of national individuality such as Novruz, even all the experiments of ‘the transition period’ [since the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of a new Azerbaijan] have not been able to completely kill all these beautiful qualities in our people.”
But the contribution of Novruz goes back far earlier, the imam says. “Three times over the course of the [last] century, the name of the nation was changed, its alphabet was changed, and even the name of the language we speak was changed. Much changed, but several keystones of national self-identification like Novruz remained unshaken.”
The reason for that, he continues, is that “Novruz is not simply a holiday. It is a phenomenon, carrying within itself a scientific, philosophical and existential essence … [which causes people to recall and act on the basis of] the foundation of eternal values,” national and religious.
And the imam concludes with what he suggests are the three basic ethical messages of this holiday. First of all, he writes, Novruz is a revelation of the “divine wisdom” embodied in the death and then rebirth of all life, in the calls of religious and secular people alike to leave the past behind and begin again.
Second, Novruz is a reminder that individuals and groups can take responsibility for their lives, that they can change, making peace with their enemies, taking care of their friends and environment, and thus improving both the world around them and their own internal life as well.
And third, Ibragimoglu writes, Novruz “destroys the internal idols of ethno-centrism” and thus allows people to find salvation in causes larger than themselves, a universal message of renewal not limited to Azerbaijanis or Muslims but extended by the coming of spring to all mankind.

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