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Molla Nasraddin: Nation's trumpeter for change in early XX century

18 December 2019 [11:20] - TODAY.AZ

By Azernews

By Aisha Jabbarova

Azerbaijanis often pride themselves in building the first Democratic Republic in the East (1918-1920), and being the first Muslim nation to extend suffrage to women in 1918, earlier than in the U.S., the UK and most Western countries.

The country is also the birthplace of the first-ever Muslim satirical periodical, Molla Nasraddin (1906), which helped shaping a new Azerbaijani intellectual culture in the early 20th century and arguably made the above-mentioned changes possible.

Published between 1906 and 1931, the magazine predates French Charlie Hebdo for 100 years, Molla Nasraddin was the first Muslim satirical magazine of its kind. Its essays and cartoons were satirizing the Islamic clergy, oppression of women, illiteracy, the establishment politics and other societal vices. The clever blend of cartoons and text, made the magazine instant success among the masses most of whom were illiterate, as well as among intelligentsia. The magazine was published during the span of 25 years during the political turmoil in the region that was brought about by the 1905 Russian Revolution, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918-1920 and the Bolshevik annexation of the South Caucasus in 1920.

National identity

Molla Nasraddin, which was the most popular and most accessible magazine among all strata of the Azerbaijani society at the turn of the twentieth century, created unprecedented shared experience and a sense of community among Azerbaijanis. However, the magazine’s role is not limited only to creating Benedict Anderson's “imagined community”. Molla Nasraddin was also able to reform the highly patriarchal, superstitious society by criticising the superstitious religious beliefs, societal injustice and the oppression of women. The weekly magazine presented the world to its readers through the cartoons and text in its eight-page issues. Half of Molla Nasraddin’s issues were comprised of cartoons, which helped make the magazine accessible to uneducated people.

Molla Nasraddin was born when Azerbaijan was part of the Russian Empire. Azerbaijanis back then would identify themselves as Muslims, while their colonial bosses would refer to them, just like to all Muslims across the empire, as Tatars - a derogatory term used to describe Turkic-speaking nations of the Russian Empire. Molla Nasraddin magazine challenged the Muslim identity of Azerbaijanis. It should be noted that the term “Azerbaijani” was coined after 1918 when Azerbaijan built a short-lived democratic republic before being annexed by Bolsheviks in1920. The term “Turks” or “Muslims” is used throughout the magazine to describe Azerbaijanis.

It is worth mentioning that the time frame of the magazine’s publication - the early XX century – was characterized by national liberation and independence movements in the “dependent” world that in Eric Hobsbawm’w words were the main agents for the political emancipation of the most of the globe. (Hobsbawm, 1990)

It is worth mentioning that the magazine’s popularity was not confined to Azerbaijan only. Molla Nasraddin’s message transcended borders and the magazine inspired other pamphleteers elsewhere in world - from Iran to Morocco and Serbia - to produce similar magazines.

Struggle for modernization vs. religion

Westernization was the lifeblood of Molla Nasraddin magazine that perceived confrontation of some Islamic superstitions with modern times as the major obstacle for the country’s modernization. During the span of 25 years of its publication between 1906 and 1931, the magazine fought for enlightenment of Muslims through education and free-thinking. The magazine saw the Muslim clergy as a major cause of illiteracy and backwardness among Muslims. It fiercely ridiculed Mullahs who were blocking progress.

The stories in the magazine are narrated by a traditional famous Sufi character Molla Narsaddin who is rumored to have lived in Turkey or in the Middle East in the 13th century.

The first cover of the magazine features Molla Nasraddin whos is unifying character waking "the sleeping nations of the East".

The second page of the same volume of the magazine carried a pamphlet addressing Muslims who were engaged in superstitious and unproductive activities instead of educating themselves: “I call on you my Muslim brothers! I call on those who dislike what I say and avoid me by myriads of excuses such as for visiting a fortuneteller, attending dog fighting, listening to dervish stories, sleeping in bathhouses and other similarly important issues… My Muslim brothers! Should you wonder who you are laughing at, then put a mirror in front of you and gaze at yourselves carefully”. (“Molla Nasraddin jurnali,” n.d.)

Since the first day of its publication, the magazine caused an immediate sensation in the society and “exploded like a bomb," as was noted by renowned Azerbaijani public figure and Molla Nasraddin’s co-writer Abdurrahimbay Haqverdiyev’s words. He also wrote sarcastically: "This magazine should not enter the house of any Muslim. If it does, they said, grab it with tongues and throw it down the toilet." (Haqverdiyev, 2014)

Publication of such anti Islamic material in a traditional Muslim country in the first three decades of the XX century when free speech was not welcomed was dangerous for the editorial team. Ridiculing of the clergy and advocacy for women’s rights was extremely risky back in 1906 and put the lives of the magazine stuff under threat. The magazine was forced to suspended its work on several occasions and the editor of the magazine, Jalil Mammadguluzade, was forced to escape from protesters who had been enraged by the magazine’s anti-Islamic content. (When satire conquered Iran. Slavs and Tatars, 2012)

Despite criticism, Molla Nasraddin’s editorial staff did not waiver from their editorial line.

The magazine was a fierce critic of religious superstitions and blamed fanatic clergy for encouraging illiteracy among local under the guise of Islamic teachings.

At the heart of the periodical stood Islam’s confrontation with modernity. The founders of the magazine were advocates of Westernization and enlightenment. The editor of the magazine, Jalil Mammadguluzade, was the most outspoken advocate of Westernization in Azerbaijan back in the early XX century while the co-writer Mirza Alakbar Sabir (who wrote under pseudonym Hop-Hop), was the most famous poet of his time and the renowned critic of the clergy. The editorial team was joined by two German and one Azerbaijani artist who made the cartoons.

The magazine believed that religious superstitions were hampering progress and was the reason why Azerbaijanis were lagging behind other nations in the region. Many cartoons in the magazine expose hypocrisy of fanatic clergies who do not follow their own teachings.

Mollah Nasraddin magazine was also highly suspicious of the neighbouring Iran, whom they blamed for importing fundamental Shiism and religious fanaticism to Azerbaijan. The magazine was critical of Iran despite its large readership in that country. While giving rise to a modern Azerbaijani identity, Molla Nasraddin magazine also impacted public opinion Iran due to its cartoons ridiculing the ruling Gajar dynasty for their incompetence and corruption and arguable pawed way for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1910. (When satire conquered Iran. Slavs and Tatars, 2012)

 Women’s rights

Molla Nasraddin was very progressive in terms of women’s rights and advocated for their equal treatment with men. The magazine is filled with illustrations about discrimination against women and their abusive treatment in the male-dominated Muslim society. The magazine advocated for freedom of choice, education for women, fought against societal shortcomings such as polygamy, child brides, preference of boys over girls in a family.

One of the issues was compulsory Islamic dress for women. This was extremely brave in the context of early XX century Azerbaijan when many women were following Islamic dress code.

In another cartoon, a son is blackmailing his mother, saying: “If you don’t give me a piece of candy, I will tell my father that you looked through the window.” (When satire conquered Iran. Slavs and Tatars. 2012)

In yet another illustration, a husband is shown respecting his wife but after a month, there is no sign of respect any more.

The magazine also pokes a fun at double standards Azerbaijani men would display in their treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim women. The cartoon below shows an Azerbaijani man oppressing his Muslim wife while being beaten by his Russian lover.

The magazine also pointed at a polygamy as one of the vices in the Muslim society, stressing that polygamy was abusing and discriminating against women. The cartoon below illustrates men’s preference of a new wife over the first and older wife.

Discrimination against women is described in yet another cartoon that illustrates parents’ preference of a son over a daughter. Early marriages and child brides, was another problem with the Azerbaijani society up to mid XX century and Molla Nasraddin was very fierce in its criticism of this malady.

Throughout its volumes, the magazine advocated for the education women whom they considered as the backbone of a healthy society. Molla Nasraddin magazine ridiculed parents who prevented their daugters from attending school. "Why should a girl attend school?" Molla asks. "The only thing a girl should learn is how to cook and how to put her mother-in-law and father-in-law in their places when necessary," a pamphlet in the magazine reads. (Garibova, 1996).

The cartoon below illustrates an underage Muslim girl being married to an old man while her peer from a Jewish family is attending an elementary school.

Moll Nasraddin held Azerbaijan’s Jewish population in a high esteem for their intelligence and dedication to education and cited them as an example for less educated Muslims population of the country.


Molla Nasraddin magazine turned to educational reforms as the single most effective means of achieving progress. Many caricatures stress the need for education and point at the modern educational system of Jews and Christians as an example to follow. In the meantime, the magazine lamented laziness, and apathy among Muslims.

Molla Nasraddin’s editorial staff were advocating for secular schools as opposed to Islamic schools called madrasahs (religious schools) that were popular among Muslims in Azerbaijan. The madrasahs were specialized in teaching theology and the Koran. Education at madrasahs was strongly criticized in the magazine as students had to memorize phrases in the Arabic language, without knowing their meaning.

The cartoon below mocks madrasahs for turning Muslim youngsters into animals instead of making them civil members of a society as opposed to Russian schools that were teaching secular disciplines.

Despite criticism, Molla Nasraddin’s was growing in popularity. The cartoon below shows that the magazine was even popular among its archenemy – the clergy.

Arabic script

Molla Nasraddin magazine and many Azeri intellectuals of the time saw in the Arabic script (which arrived with the Islamic conquest) the seeds of the Muslim world’s lagging behind the West. The magazine believed that Latin script would foster literacy and also unify Azerbaijanis. It ridiculed the complicated Arabic script, which was the official alphabet of Azerbaijan back then and had confused everybody. It advocated for taking instructions in local language opposed to Arabic instructions in Madrasahs.

Molla Nasraddin advocated for the wider usage of the Azerbaijani language and poked fun at those who looked down upon the use of their mother tongue. The magazine attacked some members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia who preferred speaking in the Russian instead of the Azerbaijani.

Molla Nasraddin writes, "Now, I have completed my speech and I have only one apology. Please excuse me, my Turk brothers, that I addressed you in Azerbaijani (or "Turk" as it was called in those days). I know it's shameful and indicates a person's lack of knowledge. But sometimes, it wouldn't be so bad, would it, to recollect the old days, when your mother, swinging your cradle, used to sing lullabies in your mother language?" (Garibova, 1996)


The magazine was very critical of the policies of the Russian Empire and saw it as a colonial power that was imposing their language on the local population. The magazine was advocating for the Azerbaijani language’s use as a tool of education. It should be mentioned that education was in Russian across the Caucasus region from the early 19th century. It is commendable that Molla Nasraddin was published in Azerbaijani instead of Russian.

The magazine was very critical of colonialism across the world, while shy away from directly pointing a finger at the Russian imperialism due to censorship.

The magazine was published during the span of 25 years during the political turmoil in the region that was brought about by the 1905 Russian Revolution, World War I, Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the establishment of the ADR (Azerbaijan Democratic Republic) of 1918-1920 and the Bolshevik annexation of the South Caucasus in 1920. The magazine stopped its operation in 1931 following a pressure by Bolsheviks to comply by their party line. Bolsheviks wanted Molla Nasraddin to publish under the name “Godless” and to advocating for atheism.

In conclusion, Mollah Nasraddin was the first and most popular political and satirical magazine in Azerbaijan and helped bringing unprecedented progress and enlightenment among Azerbaijanis in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The clever combination of cartoons and pamphlets made the magazine easily available to uneducated masses and thus, created shared experience and sense of imagined community among Azerbaijanis.

The revolutionary magazine that was the first of its kind in the Muslim East, advocated for modernization, secularization and enlightenment of the traditional and uneducated Azerbaijani society back in the early XX century. It challenged the Muslim identity of the local population and sought building a secular, progressive society. The magazine’s genius was in building a roadmap for the generations to come. Created by the founding father of modern Azerbaijan, Molla Nasraddin magazine saw the Azerbaijani people’s salvation in enlightenment, education, women’s emancipation, secularization and respect for the national language  – all the values that the country’s national identity is built upon. The cartoons in the magazine are a beautiful illustration of the road that Azerbaijan had to go through – from darkness to being a progressive Muslim country with high level of education.


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