Let’s explore the situation of Muslims in Georgia, a country dominated by Orthodox population, in this article from the “Islam Around the World” series. We are familiar with Georgia, our neighboring country, known for its noble dances specific to the Caucasus region, streets steeped in history and art, a cuisine that suits our taste buds, and warm people as close as relatives. However, the presence of Georgian citizens of Georgian origin (Çveneburi), especially in cities like Artvin in our country, leads us to mistakenly perceive Georgia as a Muslim country, but the reality is just the opposite.
How large is the Muslim population in Georgia?
Official sources indicate that 10% of the country’s population is Muslim, while the Georgian Muslim Union claims this rate to be 17%, considering the Muslim Georgians who have to conceal their identity or are overlooked during censuses.
Muslim Georgians in the region of Adjara are mainly of Sunni sect, while most Azerbaijanis are of Shia sect. Apart from these two major groups, the Ahiska Turks, Chechens living in the Pankisi Valley, and the Dagestani Muslims living in the Kvareli region are also of Sunni sect.
When did Islam reach Georgian territories?
The encounter of Georgians with Islam dates back to quite early times. In the seventh century, the Arab commander Habib Ibn Maslamah al-Fihri conquered Georgia along with the neighboring country Armenia and made an agreement with the Georgians, guaranteeing them immunity in terms of property, life, and religion. Over time, the number of Georgians showing interest in Islam started to increase. When the Arabs established an emirate in the capital city of Tbilisi, many mosques, madrasas, and libraries were built.
In the following years, although Muslim Georgians had certain rights, Christianization activities were dominant throughout the country. The number of Muslims increased significantly during the Ottoman period, and over the 400-year rule, numerous architectural structures were built, and numerous religious scholars and intellectuals were educated.
Which organizations operate in Georgia?
The Georgian community, which had an early encounter with Islam, hosted numerous scholars. Some of the distinguished names remembered for their Islamic works and studies include Ebubekir Gürci, El Mübarek Et Tiflisi, Ebu Kasım et Tiflisi, Kemal et Tiflisi, Ebu Hasan İbni Ebi Talip el Gürci, Yufus et Tfilisi, and Abdullah-ı Gürcistani.
In our country, there are various foundations working to uplift and support Muslims, such as the General Directorate of All Muslims in Georgia, an independent institution called the Georgian Muslim Union, the Georgia Youth Aid Association supported by the Hüdayi Foundation, and the Mizani Association supported by the Society for the Dissemination of Knowledge.
Which are the famous mosques in Georgia?
Today, it is said that there are around 350 mosques and madrasas in Georgia. While the call to prayer is announced outside in Azeri and some Muslim Georgian villages, the Friday Mosque in the city center of Tbilisi has the call to prayer recited inside the mosque. Until 1951, Sunni Muslims performed their prayers in the Friday Mosque, while Shia Muslims prayed in the Blue Mosque in Tbilisi. However, after the communist regime demolished the Blue Mosque, the Friday Mosque became the only mosque in the city, accommodating separate mihrabs for Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Tbilisi Friday Mosque, built by the Ottomans in the 18th century, has been destroyed and rebuilt three times in the past 300 years.
The Central Mosque in Batumi, where the Muslim population is concentrated, was also destroyed during the Soviet era but was rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The historical wooden mosque in the village of Hohna in Batumi has records dating back to the 1700s, while the Kvirike Village Mosque in the city of Kobuleti dates back to the 1800s.
What challenges do Muslim Georgians face?
Until the arrival of the Russian administration, we cannot say that Muslim Georgians faced significant problems. Almost all Georgian rulers ensured the necessary facilities and practices for Muslims to perform their worship freely, without subjecting them to any oppression. With Georgia coming under Russian rule in the 19th century, the country’s Muslims found a solution by either immigrating to Turkey or settling in the Adjara region, close to the Turkish border. After gaining independence, Georgian Muslims obtained certain rights. However, today, the biggest challenge faced by Muslim Georgians is being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Due to the fear left by Russian rule and concerns about finding jobs, some Muslims still prefer to conceal their identities by using Christian or Georgian names. There is no verbal or physical assault on individuals in society, but visible elements such as headscarves lead to negative attitudes. While Muslim women from different nationalities do not experience any difficulties in this regard, the attitude is generally directed towards Georgian women. Nevertheless, many educated and successful Georgian women wearing headscarf, who have studied and developed themselves in Turkey, make maximum efforts and succeed in advancing in their careers without succumbing to the negative attitudes in their country.
Despite being a generally respectful and tolerant society, Georgian Muslims are constantly subjected to psychological pressure to return to their roots, i.e., Christianity. These pressures sometimes prove effective, leading a significant number of Muslims to convert back to Orthodoxy.
In a Georgian society with high consumption of pork and alcohol, accessing halal food can be a challenge for Muslims, although the number of halal restaurants and products is increasing day by day. While there are plenty of alternatives in the capital and tourist city of Batumi, it can be difficult to find halal food in other cities. Similarly, the lack of prayer facilities in places without a Muslim population and during long-distance journeys poses challenges in their social life.
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