Javid Ramazanli



29.06.2018 / Rethinking and criticizing Akhundov and his followers is not a step back, but rather a step forward

There was once a small dispute between Mirza Fatali Akhundov and Hasan bey Zardabi in the "Akinchi" newspaper. Zardabi used to propagate scientific virtues in the newspaper, calling for readers to collect funds to open new schools and publishing houses. Akhundov sent him an ironic letter in this regard.

Briefly, the letter said that there is no point in sacrificing oneself for these people; it is not worth it. "Don’t waste your time preaching to us; spare us your efforts. Learning science requires good materials and a technical base. To begin with, we do not possess such conditions and do not have the courage to find out why. Also, we have no unity whatsoever. Half of the Muslims inhabiting the Caucasian region are Shiites and the other half are Sunnis. Sunnis cannot stand Shiites, and the latter abhor the former in turn. Where do you expect solidarity to emerge from?"

In his response to the letter, Zardabi explains patiently how the process will look, and how he is going to gather the necessary funds to educate the population. Later in his reply, Zardabi also gently criticizes his counterpart for his antagonistic stance on the matter: "I know you are going to laugh at my words, my friend, and think of me as a dreamer. And you will be right in doing so, as it is indeed a dream. But the major cause of the current state of affairs is ourselves. Since we are not expecting any help from the heavens, and we are willing to render ourselves useful, why then remain ignorant? Perhaps, you will say that there is no unity among us - Sunnis, Shiites, such labels are holding us back from it. My dear, in our times and in our part of the world, only the empty-headed still use those labels. And for this reason, my friend, I propose that we roll up sleeves and enter the field - and who knows, maybe one day, this dream will come true. I believe they are right when they say, one robin does not a springtime make."

Akhundov's way

This one small polemic is also one of the most important moments in Azerbaijan's history of thought. The dispute reveals both Zardari's and Akhundov's ways. Despite the potential to become a prominent scientist (he was the first scientist-naturalist in the Islamic world to hold a title) and numerous offers to stay and work in Moscow, he preferred to return home and work. His accomplishments include the openings of a newspaper, a charity fund, and a theater, just to name a few. He was a hard worker, not only intellectually but also in action. While Akhundov considered Iran his spiritual home, which he attested to in letters written in Persian and Iranian. In the "Kamalludovla Letters", which is widely considered Akhundov's masterpiece, one can clearly read the author's affection for Iran. Not surprisingly, many, led by Tadeusz Swietochowski, the famous Polish Caucasologist, consider Akhundov the father of modern Iranian nationalism. He was a source of inspiration for many famous Iranian nationalist writers.

Akhundov's 6 comedies, written in Azerbaijani, were commissioned by the Russian Imperial Court. The Russians decided to create new dramatic pieces to contribute to the cultural education of the people in the Caucasus. When they asked Georgian and Armenian playwrights, it was inevitable that they would need to find such a person for the Caucasian Tatars (Azerbaijanis), as well.

Abdurrahim bey Hagverdiyev wrote about it, "To create repertoires in the local languages, the viceroy (Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, Russian field marshall- J.R.) ordered the creation of three commissions: Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani. Mirza Fatali was chosen to spearhead the Azerbaijani commission. When he was unable to find any qualified candidates amongst the Azerbaijanis, he decided to write comedies himself."

For some reason, Zardari's views always limped behind, while the road for Akhundov's ideas was always open, and continues to be so to this day. Thus, Mirza Fatali Akhundov inadvertently turned into an influential thinker of the people whom he did not feel sympathy for, nor held in high esteem.

Advantages and disadvantages of the Akhundov's way

I am far from denying Akhundov and his legacy. It is thanks to him that a once-dormant society became acquainted with modern drama, philosophy, and critical thinking. Subsequent intellectuals, such as the "Molla Nasreddin" crew, were inspired by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh and continued to further his ideals. Provocative and critical thinking remains vital for every society. However, in Azerbaijan, this area of critical thinking was traditionally dominated by extreme anger, nihilism, and even hatred. This can be seen in the works of Jalil Mammadguluzadeh.

In "The Corpses", we can observe the culmination of Mammadguluzadeh's anger, when Kefli Isgəndər (Drunk Alexander, the main character) says, "Ugh, your face." One of the fiercest criticisms of "The Corpses", which was extremely popular at that time, came from Jafar Jabbarly, although he took an incorrect approach.

Jabbarli went even further, by calling the main character of the play (Drunk Alexander) "even worse a villain than Sheikh Nasrullah (main antagonist)"; he went on, "Alexander himself does not comprehend the environment, he does not want to understand it, nor he tries to do so. People acknowledge the darkness they live in, yet he does not recognize it. However, it is not his fault, surely. Alexander, who came back after 10 years of study in France, be standing above the ignorant environment. And certainly, he would be frightened and frustrated once he tried to explain 20th century, progressive ideas and philosophy, which he acquired while studying in Paris, to people still living in the Dark Ages."

If the environment and people's minds were already at the same level as his perception, then why there would be a need for him? Just let him drink himself to death. The real issue here is that his surroundings are far below his level of perception, and he stands in the position of an educator. If the students in the class are already at the level of teachers, then what good are the teachers? Teachers are there to use various methods and strategies to explain concepts and ideas to those, who did not know about or understand them before. Imagine a teacher who enters the classroom and begins, "Shame on you! Bring me a jug of wine, because there’s no way you would understand me, anyway."

Writing in the vernacular

Oddly enough, one of the biggest advantages of Akhundov's school was its use of the vernacular. The harsh critics of the state the people were writing in the everyday language of the people, while the nationalists praised the nation using complex language. Jafar Jabbarly and Hussein Javid have works where they use some heroic characters as mouthpieces to express their patriotic admiration of the nation. But these works failed to reach the level of broad popularity that Akhundov and his followers' works achieved. The reason for that was, perhaps, that their works were not quite brilliant, but their use of a flowery, fictional language - which ordinary people could not recognize - certainly did not help.. Another important issue was that the Soviet propaganda machine paid little to no attention to them. Moscow preferred to focus on creating powerful and popular movies based on the works of Akhundov and Jalil Mammadguluzade. During Soviet times, a large proportion of the population watched these movies, and, thereby the authors' works became part of the public consciousness through visual interpretation.

The unchanged way of thinking

Akhundov is famous for criticizing the poet Muhammad Fuzuli. He blamed Fuzuli for the fact that later poets were stifled by his influence for centuries after his death. Ironically enough, Akhundov has had the same oppressive effect on those who came after him. For nearly two centuries, the literary and philosophical schools of thought in Azerbaijan have struggled in vain to diverge from Akhundov's tradition. The same topics, the same critical tone, this same approach is dominant to the point of tautology. Today, we know very well in advance what a critical intellectual has to say, even before they open their mouth.

Being an Akhundov follower provides today's critical intellectuals certain advantages, without any significant risks. First of all, he or she gains a modernist and secular image, is distinguished from the grey mass, and can build their argument with certain techniques and without self-improvement; most importantly, by following Akhundov's tradition, intellectuals make a safe choice, through which they can criticize or even offend anyone they choose with impunity. While doing all this, those intellectuals accentuate, directly or indirectly, their point of reference.

Əksər vaxt isə bu fikirlərin arxasında yalnızca bir detal görünür – onun zədələnmiş, əksiklik duyğusundan əziyyət çəkən eqosu.????

They are most vulnerable when someone attempts to criticize Akhundov's legacy. Whenever this occurs, Akhundov’s followers feel deep frustration. They feel like secular values are fading, along with modernism and education, with religion and medieval ignorance taking their place. This is not how it actually is, of course. New, different schools of thought should have naturally arisen after Akhundov. Instead, we see no basis for the evolution of cultural and philosophical thinking, and indeed suppress such developments; laziness and reluctance to improve and surpass themselves have developed in our intellectuals As a result, we continue to relentlessly debate and argue the same issues for nearly two centuries. Thinking has covered no distance since then. If Akhundov were alive today, he would be the first to ardently oppose and criticize the idolatrous nature of this tradition.

Rethinking and criticism

Why should Akhundov's legacy not be re-evaluated and criticized? Given that even the highest concepts, such as religion, nationalism, and ethics are being criticized, why should Akhundov be exempted?

It is true that representatives of this school have made many important contributions, yet they did put forth many controversial ideas, as well. There is no need to idealize them. In fact, no movement or person should be idealized. When we do this, one becomes unable to step back and establish a fresh perpective or re-evaluate a phenomenon.

Why are so many of Akhundov followers especially tough on the nation? There is a certain psychological nuance that many fail to notice. The time during and immediately following Akhundov’s life was a period of national awakening and the formation of a national consciousness. Similar processes were occurring throughout the Caucasus, especially amongst the Armenians and Georgians. At that time, newly emergent intellectuals of the Caucasian Tatar community (Azerbaijanis), in contact with their Georgian, Russian, and Armenian counterparts, suddenly acknowledged that they were part of an ignorant community that was deprived of any serious educational or scientific activity. Ashamed of that fact, and also under the impact of the resultant inferiority complex, they started to feel grievances against their own society. Later, they successfully diffused their sense of inferiority to the literate, worldly strata of society.

Today's critical intellectuals in Azerbaijan are undergoing the same pain. They see how their society is behind the modern world; overwhelmed by indolence, they see the absence of the proper environment. Hence, the intellectual's ego begins to suffer. These intellectuals feel they are unable to stimulate their own countrymen to feel like a thinker, writer, or exceptional being. Moreover, the intellectual sees how other societies respect and warmly embrace their intellectuals. Ultimately, the intellectual feels a sense of inferiority, and whenever he or she opens their mouth, one can hear, "Azerbaijanis are that Azerbaijanis are this...". And most of the time, one can observe one common detail behind of those thoughts: an intellectual's traumatized ego, suffering from a deeply ingrained sense of inadequacy.

Due to this fact, many representatives of our intelligentsia could not become as accomplished as Aziz Nesin did in Turkey. Nesin, who - despite calling 60% of the entire Turkish nation ignorant - spent years in prison in hopes of improving that nation's future, as well as opened up a fund for educating children in need; he supported his stance not only with words but also with deeds. And finally, no matter how hard he criticized his people, in his letters to his son, Nesin praised his nation and called on his son to be worthy of the nation. Our educators and movements cannot match his accomplishments.


But there were exceptions to this: Hasan bey Zardabi, whose name was mentioned at the beginning of this work, is one such example. He, like Nesin, also spent his life working for his people through both word and deed. He laid the foundation for the Azerbaijani press, organized the country’s first theatrical performance, set up a charitable fund for education, and organized a congress of teachers. With a strong feeling of empathy for his people, he devoted himself entirely to the enlightenment of Azerbaijani society. And people repaid him a tribute in kind. On the day of Hasan bey's burial, thousands of ordinary people joined the ceremony to pay their respects. Pictures from the 1907 funeral attest to this fact. Perhaps, It is, perhaps, the first such funeral held for a public intellectual in Azerbaijani history. It appears that there is no such thing as underestimation. Empathy elicits empathy. When a moment comes, people truly are able to appreciate the empathy they receive.

There is nothing sacred in our world, and no one is perfect. Everyone and everything should be subject to criticism. This same principle applies to Akhundov and his followers, as well. Rethinking and criticizing them is not a step back, but rather a step forward - one that Akhundov himself would support, as well.