Religious Beliefs and Practices. Today Azerbaijan is more than three-quarters Shiite, less than one-quarter Sunni. Azerbaijan has been Islamic since the eighth century and Shiite since the sixteenth century, when Shah Ismail, founder of the Safavid dynasty, adopted Shiism as state religion. Secularization is far more in evidence in northern Azerbaijan, probably as a result of the Russian conquest. The veiling and segregation of women, common throughout Iran, is not practiced in former Soviet Azerbaijan, nor among nomads on either side of the border, although modesty in dress is the norm. Rural women often wear large black shawls but leave their faces uncovered.
In accordance with pre-Islamic belief systems common in Central Asia, including animism and shamanism, Azerbaijani Turks display reverence for nature and the elements. According to Harry H. Walsh (in Weekes, 1984, 65-66), "in rural areas of Azerbaijan, pre-Islamic practices may still be encountered among the Azeris. Holy places ( pir ) are still revered. The holiday Su Jeddim, in which Azeris seek communion with their ancestors through bathing in sanctified streams, has been observed in recent times. Certain trees, especially the oak and the iron tree, are venerated and may not be felled. Pieces of bark from the iron tree are worn about the neck of persons and horses as amulets, and are tied to cribs in order to ward off illness and the evil eye. A cult of fire, which is regarded by the Azeris as the holiest and purest element in nature, has had many adherents, and there has been a cult of rocks, particularly of a certain kind of black rock to which curative powers are attributed."
Religious Practitioners. Islam has no "clergy" in the Christian sense, as Islam is not a sacramental religion. Mullahs are prayer leaders; ulema (pl. of alim, "scholar") act as judges ( qadis), interpreters of the law. These practitioners were driven out of northern Azerbaijan or subordinated to the Ecclesiastical Boards created in the 1840s. The Bolsheviks destroyed these boards in the 1920s. They were reestablished in the 1940s and still exist in the republic. Under the Soviet regime, these boards controlled the education, practices, and publications of official mullahs in Soviet Azerbaijan. Consequently, the populace looked upon the mullahs with suspicion and sometimes turned to "holy men." There are about 300 holy places in Azerbaijan, and pilgrimages to them are common in the countryside (i.e., there are notable differences in religious practices between rural and urban areas). With the fall of communism, interest in religion has revived but plays no significant role in political life. In Iran, on the other hand, the ulema were and continue to be a powerful and independent force.
Ceremonies. Novruz Bayram, a holiday celebrating the beginning of spring, survives from the pre-Islamic period. Another significant ceremony is Ashura, devoted to the martyr Imam Hussein. Muharrem (Shiite commemoration) and other Islamic rituals are common in the south; they were legal but discouraged in Soviet Azerbaijan.
Arts. Traditional music is extremely popular throughout Azerbaijan. The north also has a twentieth-century tradition of operas based on traditional music; most famous among these are the operas and comic operettas of Uzeir Hajibeyli (1885-1948). His national march, written for the first republic in 1918, has been adopted by the present republic. Prominent singers enjoy enormous celebrity. Hajibeyli and many singers, composers, and traditional reciters of dastans and poetry come from Karabagh, which is regarded as a cradle of music in Azerbaijani culture. Folk plays, often with religious content, are performed in Iranian Azerbaijan. Plays with secular, often social-satirical themes were first produced in the north by Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade (1812-1878). These and similar later works are still performed.
Medicine. In the north, remnants of the inadequate Soviet system prevail. The south has the same system as elsewhere in Iran, which is also inadequate. Herbal folk medicines are still used, mainly by the rural population.
Death and Afterlife. Islamic ceremonies in mourning and burial appear to be practiced universally (and were practiced even by Communist party members in the north). A commemoration is held at the fortieth day after death.