Muslim Graveyards in Azerbaijan
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Islam denies any kind of images, in the case of Azerbaijan, images on tombs exist. If, according to Islam, all tombs must disappear throughout the time, the case of Azerbaijan is different; Azerbaijanis prefer to “build” memorials and mausoleums around the tombs.

It is considered that the depiction of images started during communism. Communism is an ideology, which forbids any kind of religious activity. Despite the photos of people on the graves, there is an image of the reason of the death or how this this person belonged to some specific profession.

Azerbaijan is an Islamic country, and as it is considered, Islam in general, denies any kind of images, thus there is an opinion that images on the graveyards appeared during the Soviet Period, however, Islam does not deny the root all the images of the people.

  Muslim tombs have a problematic and diverse history. Muhammad himself requested to bury himself in an unmarked grave in his house.

He says, “Do not make my grave an idol that is worshipped”. 

Despite this, neither the pre-Islamic Arabs nor the Sassanians of Iran and Mesopotamia were tomb builders.



Sumqayit Cemetery

So where did the concept and the models of building the big tombs come from?


In some books scholars mentioned one of the versions of building the big tombs. Most likely, it comes from the Abbasid period, (from the 8th-13th centuries), when the cross-section of people spread to Iran from the region as mercenary soldiers, prisoners of war, and slaves who brought the culture of covering tombs with tents, but this theory is speculative.

To build a tomb, wealth and lavish decorations were a sign of conspicuous consumption among some individuals at that time. Tombs now decorated with cypresses or any other evergreen trees, that symbolize the eternal life, come from this period. The tomb garden represented paradise.

The tombs of Islamic graveyards are iconographic of the Kaaba itself (arabic ''cube''), which is the embodiment of Islam, and is conceptually cubic in form. Historically, the islamic art of these tombs is based on geometric and calligraphic motifs and does not have figurative aspects. It is common for an Islamic tomb to be decorated with Quranic inscriptions.


At which point did muslim tombs shift from informal settings to formal gardens and when did the meaning of paradise become intentional and explicit?


Rashad Shirin, a political analyst from Azerbaijan, thinks that the culture of graveyards are leftover of the pre-Islamic period of paganism, because Islam in general, forbid any kind of people’s images.


“The mausoleums and memorials built in the olden times were for the rich and notable people; for kings and Pharaohs. There is something that modernity sort of made people equal and now, even poor people could afford to build a memorial: for raising their importance.”

Building shrines itself is considered forbidden and equivalent to building a pagan Idol. The prophet Muhammad explicitly equated this act to idol building.

This point is worth noting since in many pre-Islamic influenced countries like India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan, some Muslims have built (stone mausoleums) over the graves of saintly people and over time the shrines have become exotic and generously decorated with gold (India) and jewels, which make the shrines magnanimous.



Nikoloz Lekveishvili, an architecture origine from Georgia, currently based in Turkey, thinks that the big tombs are a sign of greater respect toward these people and the act makes them immortal.

He points out that the topic of death in Islam is much more stronger than in Christian culture. He says that in Georgia, the graveyards are usually outside the city, however, in muslim countries the topic of death is always near with the topic of life. Typically, in many muslim countries the graveyards are located in the center of the city.



“Life after death. People start to appreciate only after death. People think that the bigger tombs mean more respect to the deceased. Maybe they think the mystic force will follow them”, he speculates. 

“To capture ourselves is the main instinct. Everybody wants to make himself immortal. The graveyard is the intersection and connection with the afterworld. Based on this, they build the graveyards dependent on how important it is for them,” Nikoloz Lekveishvili explains.


There is a statement that Islam forbids any kind of images, however the image of the deceased is always depicted on the tombs in Azerbaijan. Many link the images on the tombs in Azerbaijan either with pre-islamic roots or with communism, that made people be away of religion and let depict the images. However, Islam does not deny the images at all, in miniatures in the 16th century the images were exist.



Professor of comparative literature, Rahilya Geybullayeva from Azerbaijan,  says that the images in Islam appeared long ago before the Soviet Union. Even despite the graveyards, the images in Islam existed. Rahilya Geybullayeva points out that not only Islam but other monotheistic religions denies the images. However, she states that it is possible to see the images in miniatures. In all miniatures of eastern books the images exist.

For example, in the beginning of 16th century, Shah Abbas in his books had images of people, but not the whole image of the person: half of the human being, half of the animal. That means this person is not earthy anymore.

Regarding the images of some symbols near the photo of a deceased person, Rahilya Geybullayeva does not link it with religion, but with the consciousness of people to give more information about the dead person.

Here you can see ordinary photos as well as the symbols around the photos. For example, it is possible to see a young deceased female who was not married in a wedding dress.


Mullah Mirza, a religious leader from Sumqayit, says that the photo of a girl in a wedding dress is depicted to those who passed away and are not married. Hereby, parents wanted to see her in a wedding dress but the dream was not realised. “To marry and build a family is one of the main principles of life,” he says. On this grave you can also see khoncha (a tray with some sweets and other presents that usually are brought to a bride before the wedding), a red ribbon hanging the tomb (symbolizing the young age of the deceased person), and according to his words, sometimes they take the body of deceased person off from home with Vagzalli music (the music typically played when a bride is taken from her home to a restaurant).

Nikoloz calls it as a crazy love of the parents toward their children. “They have never seen her in a wedding dress and this was their dream”.


Mubariz Qurbanli, the director of the religious affairs in his interview to ANS Tv Channel, the local channel in Azerbaijan,  says that this trend to build shrines appeared just 50-60 years ago, people spend thousands manat to build enormous tombs. However, the tomb, according to Islam, must vanish.

“If this trend continues, after a while, the whole Absheron Peninsula will remain a whole cemetery; cemeteries become the Pantheon itself. All graves must be a standard size," Mubariz mentioned in 2014 in his interview that the project of standardization of the graveyards are under discussion now and soon it will be accepted.

“In this case, nobody will be able to build expensive gravestones and statues.”

Rich people in Azerbaijan build their tombs from marble. Marble tombs are considered to be prestigious and more “respectful” and it has turned into a big business in the country.

“Tombstones of the deceased person's social status, rich or poor, should not become the defining criteria. All graves must be a standard size. No one will be able to take additional land for “future cemeteries, " says Mubariz Qurbanli



Chai Khana
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