Islam in Georgia (country)


Islam in Georgia (country)

Islam in Georgia was introduced in 645 A.D. when an army sent by the Second Caliph of Islam, Umar, conquered Eastern Georgia and established Muslim rule in Tbilisi. Muslims constitute 9.9%, or 463,062, of the Georgian population.

There are two major Muslim groups in Georgia. The Georgian ethnic Muslims are Sunni Hanafi and are concentrated in Autonomous Republic of Adjara of Georgia bordering Turkey. The ethnic Azerbaijani Muslims are Shia Ithna 'ashariyah and are concentrated along the border with Armenia.

History

Islam came to what is now known as Georgia at the start of the Arab Conquest. From the 8th century the country became an Arab Emirate. However, in 1122 things changed when King David IV seized Tbilisi to make the capital into a Christian State.

The development of Islam in the country is the work of two regional Muslim powers, the Safavid empire of Iran and the Ottoman empire of Turkey, which established themselves somewhat successively, somewhat simultaneously, on the current territory of Georgia. The Safavid domination caused the migration of Turkish tribes in the region, leading to an in-depth Islamisation of certain areas, in particular Kvemo Kartli and its surrounding villages. The implementation of Islam in Ajaria was carried out differently - it started later and was more superficial.

From the 19th century the obliteration of the two Muslim powers, Safavid and Ottoman, in the face of Christian Russia of the Tsars weakened Islam throughout Georgia without totally eradicating it. Imperial Russian Politics in the Caucasus, as in other regions populated with Muslims, oscillated between tolerance and orthodox proselytism.

In the Soviet era, the ideological atheism of the national power worked to crush all the religions present in the USSR, Islam in particular. However, from 1944 onwards this anti-religious policy was relaxed.

One of the four Departments for Spiritual Affairs for the Soviet Union was founded at Baku. All of the Muslims of Georgia, both Sunni and Shia, depend on it. The perestroika allows greater religious freedom which benefits not only the Church, but also all other elements of Georgian Islam. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, links have developed between Islam at a local level and foreign Islamic organizations, particularly those of Iran and Turkey.

In the absence of reliable statistics, it is difficult to give accurate figures regarding the number of Muslims present in Georgia today. However, a relatively impartial study suggests 640,000 were present in 1989, equivalent to 12% of the total population. It would seem that the trend is in decline due to a considerable migratory phenomenon taking place among certain Muslim populations, above all amongst the Azeris, candidates for expatriation to Russia for financial reasons or to Azerbaijan for family reasons.

Ajaria

Islam appeared in Ajaria between 1510 and the beginning of the seventeenth century when the Ottoman Empire started to expand in the Caucasus. As soon as Ajaria in its current form was integrated into the Ottoman Empire, Islam flourished, especially among local elites, who used it as a way of consolidating their power. For the Ottoman rulers, converting the elites to Islam represented the first step towards converting the populations subject to those feudal powers.

Ottoman domination, which was not very constraining, was fairly well accepted, although sporadic resistance with varying degrees of intensity broke out to protest the power of Istanbul. Loyalty to the Ottoman Empire was so strong that during the wars between Turkey and Russia, the Ajarians fought Russian expansion in the region.

The advent of the Soviet regime on the ruins of the Russian Empire had different – paradoxical - meanings for Ajaria. Indeed, its unique religious Muslim specificity within the Union, was a criterion used by the Moscow to confer real autonomy on the Ajarian region within Georgia. However, this autonomy obtained due to the Islamic characteristics of Ajarians did not prevent the Soviets from leading an eradication policy against Islam in the region, as throughout all the Soviet Union. Almost all the mosques and madrasas were closed, public displays of Islam were forbidden and Islam could only exist in the conscience and private spheres.

As soon as the Soviet Union split up, all the republics experienced a religious revival and redefined the links between national identity and religious feelings. In Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the new strong man of the independent Georgia decided to rely on the Church to create a new State and a new citizenship. The intellectuals expressed their fear of the development of an activist Islam, originating from the recently-reopened Turkish border. The return of businessmen and Turkish missionaries was seen as a return to the Ottomans and to the Ottoman era. Alerted by intellectuals and the media in Batumi, the Georgian authorities decided to implement a policy to reconvert Ajaria to Christianity, with the help of the Georgian Church. There are many conversions among the Ajarian youth who believe that it is a return to normality: a renewal with the Christian traditions of Ajaria, which, according to Georgian tradition, remains the region were Christianity came in the country thanks to Saint Andrew’s missionary work. Although the process of return to Christianity had support from the Church and the authorities in Tbilisi, under Ghamsakurdia and Shevardnadze, it did not prevent the development of Ajarian Islam after the accession to power of Saakashvili. This is almost exclusively due to the initiatives of the Turkish missionaries.

Kvemo Kartli

Kvemo Kartli for many centuries was part of the Iranian Safavid empire, was under the direct influence of Shia Imamism, the official religion of the empire since the reign of Shah Ismail I. The expansion of Safavid territory in the Caucasian region, under Shah Abbas in the 17th century, led to the spread of Islam in the region. Under the Safavid Empire, Islam had a strict hierarchy and the clergy was closely linked to the government.

However, from 1828 onwards, when Russia took over the entire Caucasian region and defined its border with Iran on the border of the Araks River, this resulted in Shia Islam in modern day Azerbaijan and Georgia being cut off from the important Shia theological centres in Iran and Iraq. Soviet domination accentuated this rupture between the Shia Islam in the Caucasian region and that in Iran, especially by making the borders with the Soviet Union totally impermeable, thus making pilgrimages to the Shia towns of Karbala, Mashad, Najaf and Qom impossible.

Georgian cultural policy in general suffers from the host/guest dialectic. In reality, the government considers the Azeri minority as guests being received by their Georgian hosts, and because of this they are expected to conform to the way of living followed by the Georgian majority. This has the result that Georgian Azeris feel strongly marginalized when in fact they aren’t, especially with regard to the privatization of land, a process about which Azeris feel wronged.

Yet, because these Azeris live in the border zones, the land they inhabit has not been privatized as Tbilisi authorities fear that its occupation by a ‘foreign minority’ encourages this minority to undertake separatist actions that pose a threat to the entire country.

Meskhets

The Meskhets, a group with hazy ethnic boundaries between ‘Turkism’ and ‘Georgianism’, constituted one of the essential elements of Islam in Georgia up until World War II. Situated in the south-west of the country, in the province of Meskhetia (Akhaltshikhe for the Ottomans), this Turkish minority was subject to a massive deportation by Stalin in 1944 (approximately 100,000 people) as he feared the possibility that they would collaborate with the Germans or with the Turks, their potential allies.

Abkhazians

Another minority Muslim group, the Abkhazians, live scattered throughout the secessionist region of Abkhazia and in other Georgian towns. They were in part converted to Islam throughout the 17th and 18th centuries during the Ottoman domination.

Starting in the 1860s with the Ottoman regression and faced with the Russian progression in the Caucasus, a large part of the Abkhazian Muslims (like Muslims from other minorities in the Caucasus) emigrated south to the Ottoman towns.

During the Soviet period, Abkhazian Islam became weaker, but it would seem that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of links between Abkhazians of Georgia and descendants of Abkhazian immigrants in Turkey has somewhat favoured an Islamic revival.

Abkhazia has about 80% Orthodox Christian as there has been huge relocation and turnover in the last 180 years.

Kistin of Pankisi

Another minority is Kistin, an ethnic minority that belongs to the Vainakh group and is therefore very close to the Chechens and the Ingushetians.

Established in the Pankisi valley, in the north—east of Georgia, for quite some time, this community of around 12,000 people has been significantly shaped by Muslim Sufi brotherhoods, particularly that of Qadiriyyah (introduced by the famous Kunta Hadji in the 19th century) and that of Naqshbandia (introduced into Kistin villages by an Azeri mystic called Isa Effendi in 1909).

The Islam of the Kistin has been suffering for dozens of years from the disastrous effects of the war which pits the Chechen guerrillas against the might of the Russian army. The worsening of the Chechen conflict, which has radicalized Chechen Islam and led to an influx of refugees into Pankisi has placed a lot of pressure on the Kistin.

Present-day Georgia

The day after his accession to power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili adopted a new national flag, based upon Georgias national heritage with Christian crosses. This move further demonstrated Georgias move away from religious pluralism. [ [http://www.caucaz.com/home_eng/breve_contenu.php?id=177 Is there a place for Islam in Mikhael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia? ] ] The Five Crosses (of King David) on this new flag are there to signify that the country wants to resume links with its Christian past and that it wants to put Christian spirituality in the centre of its national construction. [ [http://www.caucaz.com/home_eng/breve_contenu.php?id=177 Is there a place for Islam in Mikhael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia? ] ] The Georgian Muslims are supported by the Putin regime and are to a large extent opposing the moves towards christianization of Georgia. Over the coming years, their lack of identification with a State which has clearly affirmed its attachment to Christian values is likely to weaken further the understanding between the strongly Muslim provinces and districts and the rest of the country, which has already had problems establishing itself. [ [http://www.caucaz.com/home_eng/breve_contenu.php?id=177 Is there a place for Islam in Mikhael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia? ] ] .

External links

* [http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~bsp/publications/2004_04-sani.pdf Islam and Islamic Practices in Georgia]
* [http://www.caucaz.com/home_eng/breve_contenu.php?id=177 Is there a place for Islam in Mikhael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia]
* [http://forum.arbuz.com/showthread.php?t=23538 Is there a place for Islam in Mikhael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia]

References


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