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OnIslam.net

A Pakistani’s Discovery in Georgia

On Religion and Identity
By Aamir Latif, OnIslam Correspondent
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A majority of Muslims inhabits in the towns, and villages bordering Turkey and Azerbaijan, and hails from Turkish and Azeri origins.

“Are you an Indian or Pakistani?’, a short-height Georgian, who later appeared to be a doctor, asked me when I was coming out of Tbilisi’s only Lutheran Church near Maxim Gorki monument, located in northern part of the capital.

“Pakistan”, I replied. “Christian”, the Georgian doctor wearing golden hair in long strands, and holding the leash of his dog asked again. “No, Muslim”, I replied.

“Do you trust in Jesus?” he threw another question.

“Every Muslim trusts in Jesus (be peace upon Him)”, I said.

“Oh, I knew that, was just confirming”, smile spread on his face.

Read more about Aamir's travel:

- My Astonishing Travel to Georgia

- Muslims in Georgia: A Decade of Change

- Ramadan Unites Georgia Muslims

This was not the only conversation about religion during my 10-day long stay in Tbilisi, and its suburban towns. Despite a decades-long communist rule, religion is still a very important factor in Georgian society. Unlike western and northern Europe, Churches are seen in abundance, at every roundabout, outside metro stations, and even along the highways.

Men and women, no matter attired in typical European dresses, can be seen making cross at their chest while walking on the road, travelling in bus or taxi, or sitting in the train,  if they see a Church building passing by them.

Over a dozen Churches I visited in and around Tbilisi did not appear to be as deserted as they are in western and northern Europe. Though, there were not a number of people there, however none of them was empty at least.

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The ethnic Georgian Muslims are Sunni Hanafi and are concentrated in Autonomous Republic of Adjara of Georgia bordering Turkey.

Religious Scope

A majority of the Georgians are Orthodox Christians followed by Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Lutherans, and Mormons. Islam is the second biggest religion in Georgia followed by Judaism. There are other religious minorities too like Sikhs, Hindus, Bahai, however their numbers are much smaller.

Bordering powerful Russia in north, Turkey, and Armenia in south, Azerbaijan in southeast and Black Sea in the west, Georgia is located at the crossroads of western Asia and Eastern Europe.

The country is home of 5 million people, of which, according to different estimates, Muslims make up 9.9 per cent to 10.5 per cent of the total population of Georgia.

Local Muslims claim that their population in Georgia is around one million; however local Georgians do not verify this claim. According to independent sources, Muslim population in Georgia is between 400,000 and 500,000.

According to George Sanikidze, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Georgian Academy of Sciences in Tbilisi, the Russian imperial authorities, for mostly strategic reasons, attempted to change the demographic balance in some of Georgia’s border regions in the nineteenth century by encouraging emigration of Christians. The attempt was only partially successful, however, and was soon abandoned. By the end of the imperial period, the population of Georgia was some 20 percent Muslim, Sanikidze said.

A majority of Muslims inhabits in the towns, and villages bordering Turkey and Azerbaijan, and hails from Turkish and Azeri origins. There are native Georgian Muslims, who have recently embraced Islam; however their numbers are in hundreds.

A few Georgian ladies too have recently embraced Islam after marrying to Pakistani and Indian Muslims who have settled in Georgia for business purpose.

Mosques in Georgia operate under the supervision of the Georgian Muslim Department, established in May 2011. In 2010, Turkey and Georgia signed an agreement by which Turkey will provide funding and expertise to rehabilitate three Mosques and to rebuild a fourth one in Georgia.

There are two major Muslim groups in Georgia. The ethnic Georgian Muslims are Sunni Hanafi and are concentrated in Autonomous Republic of Adjara of Georgia bordering Turkey. A majority of ethnic Azerbaijani Muslims are predominantly Shiite are concentrated along the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Meskhetian Turks are Sunni Hanafi Muslims. Meskhetian Turks are the former Turkish inhabitants of Meskheti region of Georgia, along the border with Turkey.

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Apparently, Georgians, especially younger generation, appears to be  least-bothered about religion. But, during conversation, when they came to know that I am a Pakistani Muslims, they do talk about religion.

Tolerant Society

Despite a growing concern in Russian and western media  about the possible politicization of Islam, particularly in view of the Chechen resistance movement to the country’s north, and separation of Muslim-dominated Abghazia state, Georgian society-by and large- is tolerant.

I introduced myself as a Muslim and a Pakistani at  several times, even at far-flung mountaineer region of Telavie, where one can hardly find a Muslim, but I did not hear even a single hostile comment or feel an attitude.

In fact, locals- both male and female- were excited to know about Pakistan. They did know some basic knowledge about Islam, but in line with other non-Muslim societies, there are a number of stereotypes. But unlike some other parts of world, I have visited and observed, Georgians do not insist on their stereotype information about Islam.

When they talk about Islam, they talk about separation of Abghazia, but surprisingly, I could not find out any element of hatred in their conversation.

Travelling in a train, or a bus, or walking on the road, I could easily be distinguished amongst white-skinned Georgians by my jet black hair, and pure Asian features which propelled many of them to inquire about my nationality.

Apparently, Georgians, especially younger generation, appears to be  least-bothered about religion. But, during conversation, when they came to know that I am a Pakistani Muslims, they do talk about religion.

They, usually, talk and listen about religion politely. This politeness increases the opportunities for a comprehensive Tabligh (preaching) campaign.

There is no government ban whatsoever on preaching activities as against the former Soviet rule. In fact, the government has constructed the Suburtala Mosque, the only official Mosque in Tbilisi. However, part of the funding came from Turkish and Azeri citizens of Georgian heritage.

All the Churches and the only Synagogue in Tbilisi too have been constructed by the government.

Islamic literature in Georgian language is available but much more is needed, not only to convey the message of Islam to non-Muslims, but to teach the Muslims as well.

Barriers

Secular and non-practicing trends and little knowledge about Islam among Muslims themselves, language and poverty are the main barriers that hinder the preaching of Islam in Georgia.

Many Muslims do not know much about their own religion. Their living style, including attire is no different than non-Muslim Georgians. Many men and women visit the Suburtala Mosque, located in a hilly old town of the capital, only for the sake of visit.

I personally saw a woman wearing sleeveless shirt, and a skirt that hardly covered her knees at the same Mosque. She went inside the prayer hall, had a glance, came back, threw a few coins in donation box and left.

A majority of Azeri Muslims in Tbilisi- divided in Shiites and Sunnis-, do not know much about religion. They have mixed up various local rituals with religion. This could be the outcome of decades-long communist rule.

Language is a major barrier too. Georgian and Russian are the two major languages in Georgia. Locals hardly understand any other language, including English. In fact, younger generation cannot speak Russian too.

Islamic literature in Georgian language is available but much more is needed, not only to convey the message of Islam to non-Muslims, but to teach the Muslims as well.

Some religious seminaries are operating in Adjara, and Batumi states, (which according to some local newspapers are spreading “Wahabiism). There needs to be more concerted and coordinated efforts vis-à-vis availability of Noble Qur’an with authentic Georgia and Russian translations.

Local Muslims do put their share in whatever ongoing religious activities are, but their economic constraints do not let them go farer.

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