Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2000 (8.3)
Pages 48-51

You Are What You Eat
Islamic Food Practices and Azerbaijani Identity

by Farid Alakbarli

Above: Caspian fishermen catching sturgeon which is prized for its caviar as well as its meat. Courtesy: BP

Various world religions have dietary laws, especially in terms of meat. A Jew may observe the elaborate and stringent kosher system, a Catholic may choose not to eat meat on Fridays, and a Buddhist or Hindu may adhere to a vegetarian diet. Similarly, Islam has dietary codes that all believers are supposed to follow - in a nutshell: no pork, no alcohol and daily fasting during the holy month of Ramazan.

Although Azerbaijan is a very secular country, its Islamic background is beginning to show itself in Azerbaijani eating patterns. The trend is slight, but it is there. Surprisingly, young people are the ones who are more likely to be exploring these issues. Older generations seem to have no desire to embrace food practices of the pre-Soviet period.

Islam reached Azerbaijan in the 7th century, when Arabian invaders imposed their religion on the region. In this new faith, foods like pork, shellfish, sturgeon and caviar were forbidden, and came to be known as "haram". Foods that were permitted - referred to as "halal" - had to be slaughtered in a specific way, with the animal turned toward Mecca and the name of Allah invoked. If the animal died in another fashion, it was also considered haram. Wine and other alcoholic beverages were also prohibited.

Left: The meat section of the Taza Bazaar in Baku. Lamb is one of the most popular meats. Photo: Blair

The relevant passage of the Koran reads:
"Forbidden to you (for food)
Are: Dead meat, blood,
The flesh of swine, and that
On which hath been invoked
The name of another than Allah;
That which hath been
Killed by strangling,
Or by a violent blow,
Or by a headlong fall,
Or being gored to death,
That which hath been (partly)
Eaten by a wild animal;
Unless ye are able
To slaughter it (in due form);
That which is sacrificed
On stone (altars);
(Forbidden) also is the division
(Of meat) by raffling
With arrows: that is impiety.
But if anyone is forced
By hunger, with no inclination
To transgress, Allah is
Indeed Oft-Forgiving,
Most Merciful."

Source: Sura 5, al-Ma'idah (Meal), Ayah 3. Holy Qur'an. Text, translation and commentaries by Abdullah Yusif Ali. Amana Corporation, Brentwood, Maryland, 1989, pp. 244-245 (in English).

Changing Food Patterns
Folklorist Ahmad Oghuz observes that pork may have been forbidden even prior to the adoption of Islam. In the Orkhun-Yenisey monuments of the 5th to 8th century, a negative reference is made about the Chinese who are defined as "those who eat pork" (laghzin eti yeyenler).

Such food restrictions were more or less observed throughout Azerbaijan until the Bolsheviks took over in 1920 and the state officially imposed atheism on the entire population of the Soviet Union. Under Stalin's command in the late 1930s, the doors of mosques and churches were closed. Many religious buildings were demolished. The few that survived were usually converted into concert halls or museums.

Since Soviet slaughterhouses did not follow Islamic codes, it became increasingly difficult for Azerbaijanis to buy halal foods. To keep from eating haram, some elders avoided Soviet sausages because they were made of pork. As the decades passed, succeeding generations hardly knew about the Islamic rules and learned to eat Russian mainstays like cabbage, borscht and pork sausage. Foods that had once been prohibited became standard.

In Azerbaijan today, everyone has to the freedom to practice his or her own religion. The Azerbaijani Constitution, adopted November 12, 1995, separates religion from the government and there is no official state religion. Accordingly, there are no laws about foods that are forbidden.

In this freer climate, there is a slightly noticeable swing back toward observing Islamic food prohibitions, but not toward the original rules. For one thing, older Azerbaijanis don't want to follow all of these restrictions. Most of them are traditionally Muslim but do not practice the religion much or attend mosque. They have lived their lives without observing the Islamic codes and don't feel the necessity to start now.

It's also important to note that different regions of Azerbaijan vary in their degree of religiosity. Islam is traditionally stronger in the outskirts of Baku and among the native residents of Baku's Ichari Shahar (Inner City). Islam also has more of a hold in towns and villages in the Lankaran-Talish area near the Iranian border, including districts like Masalli, Astara, Lerik and Lankaran and in some regions of Nakhchivan. On the other hand, Islam is weaker in the central areas of Azerbaijan, especially in those villages situated between the Kur and Araz rivers.

Above: Available in Azerbaijani markets-both pork sausages (left) and "halal" chicken sausages. Photo: Sadikhova

Making Exceptions

If an Azerbaijani does want to observe food restrictions, he or she can buy halal meat at special Muslim food shops. Regular stores also sell a few halal products like American Halal Chicken Sausage, which is produced especially for Muslim countries. However, most Azerbaijanis don't buy halal foods. They just buy ordinary meat from the butcher.

To placate customers, some Azerbaijani restaurants call pork (donuz) by a different, less offensive name: "wild boar" (gaban). There is no deception here; everyone knows that the meat is really just pork.

Although Islam forbids alcohol at all times and in all circumstances, most Azerbaijanis do not observe this ban. Some do, however, refrain from drinking during Orujlug (the Muslim fast) and Ashura (the religious mourning period of the Shiites).

During the month of Ramazan, Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink anything - not even water - from sunrise to sunset. In Iran, this rule is closely observed - at least in public; those who choose to eat or drink during the day tend to do it in the privacy of their own homes. In Azerbaijan, however, only a few people observe the fast. Most restaurants are open throughout Ramazan, although a few refrain from selling alcohol during this period - especially Turkish restaurants.

Trends Among Youth
Curiously, if there is any attraction to halal, the tendency seems to be among younger people, who are more likely to follow these practices than their parents are. Most Azerbaijani youth do not practice religion, though most consider themselves to be Muslim. However, there is a certain curiosity among the youth to explore the Islamic way of life. Some avoid pork, but still drink alcohol. Azerbaijani women in general don't drink alcohol anyway, although Russian women are known for it.

Left: Eggs and free-range chickens from the regions tend to be preferred above imported meat products. At the Taza Bazaar in Baku. Photo: Blair

One Azerbaijani scholar notes that it would be rare for a doctor or professor from the Academy of Sciences to go to the mosque regularly and follow the Muslim food restrictions. However, he notices that some of the Academy's youngest scholars do pray several times a day, abstain from drinking alcohol and refrain from eating pork.

In general, this younger generation didn't learn about haram and halal rules from their elders, but from foreigners. Some studied at Turkish schools or universities; others came into contact with Arabic and Iranian visitors to Azerbaijan. The religious influence from Turkey seems to be considerable, much greater than from Iran.

Of the young Azerbaijanis who observe aspects of the Islamic way of life, many may be doing it as part of their search for identity. In this time of transition, they now have the freedom to explore who they are as they learn about various religions, including Christianity. Many of them are also interested in astrology and just like their Western counterparts are quite amused by reading daily horoscopes and learning about the signs of the Zodiac.

Are Islamic food codes just a passing fad? Or is this a sign that young Azerbaijanis are trying to reclaim the past by moving toward the religion of their ancestors? These questions - ones that only time can answer - strike at the heart of a much larger issue in everyone's minds: in this post-Soviet reality, what does it mean to be Azerbaijani?

Aynur Hajiyeva
and Farida Sadikhova also contributed to this article.
Azerbaijan International (8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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