Islam is the primary religion in Azerbaijan, and even though the country is essentially secular, almost every town has a Mosque and you will often hear a call to prayer at some point in the day. The beautifully melodic call puts a spell on the listener invoking an instance of presence. When I listen to that call, I wonder why more of us in the world have not adopted this tradition of being publicly reminded to take a few moments in our day to stop what we are doing, breathe deeply, listen, remember the goodness and maybe even pray.
Although Azerbaijan is primarily Islamic, there is dichotomy within the religion that creates great debate amongst its adherents. In the 7th century, B.C., before Islam was introduced to the Land of Fire (Azerbaijan translates to The Land of Fire), Zoroastrianism was its primary religion. Scholars say the Zoroastrian religion started in Iran, and migrated north and across the seas, plains and mountains into Eastern Asia. Interestingly, to the Zoroastrians, God, also called Ahura Mazda, is often associated with the element of fire. As such, there are places in Azerbaijan where the very land is ablaze with fire from gas seeping through fissures in the earth. There are fire temples dotted along these paths and legend has it that these were the temples of the great Ahura Mazda where Zoroastrians prayed. Scholars also say that the Novruz holiday, a holiday celebrated in most Islamic countries, and a very big deal here in Azerbaijan, descends from the Zoroastrian period. One of the traditions of the holiday is to jump over a fire seven times, while throwing all regrets into the flames as you jump over them.
In Islam, the doctrine says that one must follow the Quran exactly, but of course there will always be different interpretations of what the Quran says. We see these interpretations in some of the less savory ways that Islam is portrayed, particularly towards the reputation it has towards women’s rights and their independence. I would like to say that even though women do not have the same freedoms afforded to men here in Azerbaijan, I would not necessarily say it has to do with Islam as much as it does with culture. If we look at the way women are treated in most parts of the developing world we see that they have very little freedom. In any case, I bring the Quranic doctrine up because there is a particular tradition in Azerbaijan that I was witness to the other week.
As you know the organization I work for, UAFA, supports families who have children with disabilities. The parents organized a field trip for the kids and staff to some of the holy places near Xaçmaz. These holy places are called pirs. The word pir means holy person or saint, and a pir site is a monument to people who have lived a life of righteousness, fortunetellers and/or healers. There are some 300 pirs in Azerbaijan. These sites are the places where the pir lived, died or performed some kind of miracle. They are also cemeteries and places where Azerbaijanis picnic and relax. Throngs of people gather at these holy sites offering their prayers, tying votive ribbons to trees, picking up rocks from the grave site of a pir and rubbing it across their bodies, drinking holy water, and/or putting ones head to the tomb stone and kissing it three times, all of this with the hope that the pir will be able to deliver ones prayers up to Allah quickly. This is where the dichotomy appears. In the Quran it says that there is only one God, Allah, and that one must pray to him directly. Most of these people are Islamic. They believe in the Quran, they believe in one God, but yet they feel that these pirs have a closer connection to Allah than they do and therefore beckon them to help.
In my exploration of religion and my questions regarding the existence of God, I too have found that I feel closer to that universal presence when I connect through a more tangible source. This is why I practice yoga. Sure, yoga is great physical exercise, but when you explore the practice more deeply you find that connecting to the physical is an expressive way to connect not only to the existential, but also universal. This idea is even expressed in science through the first law of thermodynamics which says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but is exchanged from one form to another. To me, this idea of energy changing form makes sense in relation to the concept of pirs. Through this law of thermodynamics, we are connected to the energy of the past, the energy of the present and possibly the energy of the future. Before I left for Azerbaijan, my mother told me that she prayed to my father, who passed away 33 years ago, to protect me. She felt this connection to him and asked him for his help. The little bit of study I did with Shamans in Peru showed me that these healers have a deep connection to their ancestors as well. Sure, there is a belief in God, some of them may even be Christians, but almost nothing is done without asking for the blessings from their ancestors.
A few days after our visit to the pir sites, we were at UAFA and conversation ensued about the legitimacy of praying to pirs as prescribed by the Quran. Although I could not understand every detail of the conversation, I understood the gist of it. There were two sides, those who followed the Quran specifically and believed that one should only pray to Allah, and those who followed the Quran, but feel it is acceptable to pray to these saints and holy people. There was no argument, there didn’t appear to be any harsh judgment, and the women who strongly believed in the Quranic doctrine participated in the outing although they did no tying of votive ribbons to trees, no drinking of holy water, and no rubbing of stones across their bodies. Together, they sat under the shade of trees, drinking çay from a samovar, eating delicious homemade food, laughing, and sharing stories. This is the dichotomy of monotheism.
To view pictures go to: