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Mirza Fatali Akhundov - founding father of Azerbaijan’s enlightenment movement

27 July 2022 [12:49] - TODAY.AZ

By Azernews

By Vugar Khalilov

The XIX century was marked by significant social and political transformation as a result of new discoveries, original ideas, and the enlightenment movement, which fought against bigotry and conventional wisdom in Azerbaijan.

Following the Gulustan (1813) and Turkmanchay (1828) treaties between Russia and Persia northern Azerbaijan (including the modern-day Azerbaijan Republic) was annexed by the Russian empire. The occupation overthrew the previous khanates in the north and installed Moscow as the new power center. In many respects, the separation was tragic for the people and caused great social turmoil, but it also provided access to Russian, European, and Western cultures and ideas.

Growing up under this socio-political transformation, writer and public figure Mirza Fatali Akhundov saw an opportunity to usher in a new literary period by bringing western culture and ideas into Azerbaijani literature and public life. He was the Enlightenment movement's founding father and a pivotal figure in Azerbaijan.

The outstanding Azerbaijani intellectuals were aware of the social, political, economic, and cultural issues facing the country and made a concerted effort to address them.

Early life

Mirza Fatali Akhundov was born in Nukha, now Shaki, in northwestern Azerbaijan in 1812. His father was from the Iranian Azerbaijani village of Hamana, which is close to Tabriz, while his mother was from Shaki.

Early in 1832, before departing on a visit to Mecca, Akhund Haji Alasgar, Fatali's maternal granduncle, brought him to Ganja to study in a religious school (madrasa) associated with the Shah Abbas Mosque. Akhundov received training in calligraphy, as well as lectures in logic and religion from renowned Azerbaijani poet Mirza Shafi Vazeh. The two intellectuals rapidly developed a close bond.

In an effort to steer the 20-year-old Akhundov away from religious studies, Mirza Shafi urged him to focus on modern sciences. Fatali put up his religious and clerical studies under Mirza Shafi's influence and started studying Russian to understand about Russian and European cultures.

Fatali hoped to work in the public service and pursue his study among Russian intellectuals in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), the South Caucasus' administrative and cultural center at the time. Haji Alasgar did all in his ability to assist his adoptive son rather than attempting to discourage him. He accompanied Fatali to Tiflis in the fall of 1834, when Akhundov was offered a position in the government.

The Russian royal dynasty cherished Tiflis at the time since it was a bustling, prosperous city. Some of the finest writers from Azerbaijan, like Abbasgulu Aga Bakikhanov, Ismayil Qutqashinli, and Qasim Bay Zakir, were among those Mirza Fatali met and got to know in that environment.

He also kept in touch with poet Mirza Shafi Vazeh. Giorgi Eristavi, the creator of Georgian theater, Alexander Bestuzhev (Marlinsky), an exiled Decembrist writer from Russia, Tadeusz Lada Zablocki, a Polish revolutionary, Yakov Polonsky, a Russian poet, Nikolay Khanikov, and Adolf Berzhe, two Russian orientalists, were also among Akhundov's pals. These connections had a significant impact on Akhundov's views, as well as his literary and scientific activities.

Literary and public activities

Akhundov is regarded as Azerbaijan's first realist dramatist, novelist, and literary critic. With the publication of a poem on the death of Aleksandr Pushkin in 1837, he was the first author to employ a western form in eastern poetry. Later, beginning in 1850, he wrote Western-style comedies.

For more than 40 years, Akhundov's literary and political contributions fostered the spiritual growth of the Azerbaijani people. He became well-known as the leading enlightenment movement theorist and a significant public activist, not just in Azerbaijan but throughout the whole East.

Akhundov employed the Russian scientific and cultural milieu as a conduit in order to infuse Azerbaijani writing with the democratic spirit of western spirituality and culture. Akhundov read both Russian and European great authors such as Griboyedov, Pushkin, Gogol, Shakespeare, Molière, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.

He was almost the first reformer of the Muslim world, according to literary historian Firidun Bay Kocharli, who also praised Akhundov's efforts as a writer and social reformer. He was the first to dismantle the outdated, corrupt underpinnings of Muslim life and to fight tooth and nail to alter the norms that hindered Islam's advancement, Khocharly said.

The six comedies - The Tale of Mollah Ibrahimkhalil the Alchemist (1850), The Tale of Monsieur Jordan the Botanist and the Celebrated Sorcerer, Darvish Mastali Shah (1850), The Tale of the Bear that Caught the Bandit (1851), The Adventures of the Vizier of the Khan of Lankaran (1851), and the Adventures of the Mean (1855) - Akhundov wrote were the first realist plays in Azerbaijan and the Near East to be written in the European style. Azerbaijani literature underwent a real revolution as a result of Akhundov's five-year span of writing.

Akhundov established the groundwork for dramaturgy not only in Azerbaijani literature but also in the Turkish-Muslim world from the Balkans to India by writing his six great plays between 1850 and 1855. With his comedies, the great master provided a model for writing plays in the Eastern world. It is a well-known fact that dramaturgy in the Turkish-Muslim world developed in the light of Akhundov's dramaturgy traditions.

The enduring comedies of Akhundov served as the foundation for Azerbaijani theater. In 1873, Hasan Bay Zardabi together with Najaf Bay Vazirov staged the famous play "Haji Kara" in one of Baku's schools and laid the foundation of the theater movement in Azerbaijan and in the Turkish-Muslim world in general.

In Akhundov's comedies, stage characters of Eastern women were created for the first time in the image of Azerbaijani women. In the 19th century, showing an Azerbaijani woman laughing and talking together with men on the theater stage required courage. Despite the constraints of the period, Azerbaijani intellectuals managed to realize this great work by bringing Akhundov's plays to the stage.

The comedies took inspiration from then Azerbaijani realities. The people were all local in terms of personality types, modes of thought, dress, and dialect. The local and vibrant dialects of the area had an impact on the linguistic design of comedies as well.

In his plays, Akhundov made effective use of his expertise in both European and Russian theater. A lot of the characters and topics in Akhundov's comedies have similarities to those in characters from Molière and Gogol.

Comedy was one of the most effective genres for fighting the harsh realities and drawbacks of social life that caused disaster in society. Comedy was a great tool to lampoon these realities and encourage viewers to do the same while also fighting back against them. By using comedy as a corrective force in his own critical way, Akhundov exposed the severe defects in society.

In addition to plays and a novella, Mirza Fatali Akhundov also authored articles and other works with social, ethical, economic, and philosophical content.

Alphabet reform

By utilizing Russia and Western Europe as precedents, Mirza Fatali Akhundov sought to promote local culture. He believed that mass education was essential to achieving it. He believed that such a significant task first required modifications to the Arabic script, which at the time was used to write Azerbaijani and Persian.

He created a new alphabet in 1857 using the Arabic alphabet as a model. The new alphabet was simpler to learn and better captured the sounds of the Azerbaijani language. He started a campaign for alphabet reform by sending the alphabet to linguists, orientalists, and the leaders of Iran and the Ottoman Empire. He traveled to Istanbul as part of his campaign and gave the proposal to Fuad Pasha, the Ottoman prime minister. The proposal was considered in the Ottoman Society of Science per the prime minister's orders. Despite appreciating Akhundov's effort, little was done to promote it.

Despite the project's failure, Akhundov did not give up on the concept of reforming the alphabet. He worked harder and more passionately on the concept, creating a second draft alphabet that was likewise based on Arabic. He eventually decided against using the Arabic alphabet and created a new Latin alphabet for Azerbaijan instead.

Despite Akhundov's extensive efforts, the Latin alphabet was not adopted during his lifetime. However, it became real in the 20th century when the independent Azerbaijani Republic chose it as its official alphabet. This confirmed Akhundov's belief that Azerbaijan would have to integrate into Europe and the West.

Mirza Fatali Ahkhundov eliminated the outmoded, decrepit clichés and replaced them with fresh, democratic ideals as both an author and a reformer.


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