Monday, January 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Azerbaijan’s Shiites ‘Nationalize’ an Islamic Holiday

Paul Goble

Baku, January 21 – On Saturday, most Shiite Muslims around the world marked the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, in 680 CE by flagellating themselves as a symbolic re-enactment of that event, actions that in Iran at least have led to outbursts of anger against the United States and Israel.
But in neighboring Azerbaijan, two-thirds of whose people are traditionally Shiite, a very different commemoration of Ashura, as this holy day is known among the faithful, is taking root, one that calls on believers to mark this event not by shedding their own blood needlessly but rather by donating it to blood banks for needy children.
Even in the Soviet period, many Shiites in Azerbaijan marked Ashura in the traditional way. And while a few still do, far more have decided to follow the lead of Baku’s Juma community which in 1999 urged its members to “shed” their blood by donating it (
One reason is that this local initiative has since been extended to all the Shiites of Azerbaijan by the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade. And at a press conference last Friday, he again called on his fellow Shiites to “shed” blood in this new way.
Donating blood, the Shiite leader said, is “a noble act” which “the spirit of Hussein” will reward by reserving a place for those who do so in paradise. And he noted that many mosques have organized clinics to make it easy for the faithful to help others in this way (
According to the Baku media, Pashazade led the staff of the MSD to donate blood, and “thousands of [other] Muslims voluntarily participated in this action,” including more than 100 people” at the city’s landmark Blue Mosque alone
The Muslim leader also used this opportunity to call on his fellow Shiites in Azerbaijan to avoid detracting from the meaning of this holy day by “shouting slogans against other states” and instead to take part in the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the Soviet attack on Baku known in Azerbaijan as Black January.
Because Muslims employ a lunar calendar for religious events, the exact date of Ashura on the more widely used Gregorian calendar varies from year to year. But in 2007, Ashura occurred just one day before yesterday’s national day of mourning to mark losses from the 1990 Soviet action against Azerbaijan.
In this way, to use the words of the Baku journalists, “in contemporary Azerbaijan, the tragic memory about the victims of the battle at Kerbala [where Imam Hussein lost his life] was intertwined with the pain about the shekhid martyrs of the January 1990 tragedy.”
And symbolizing his own commitment to avoiding the anti-American and anti-Israeli excesses of some Shiites in Iran, the Sheikh-ul-Islam yesterday arrived at the commemoration of the victims of the Black January events in the same car with the chief rabbi of the Azerbaijani capital.

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