A Christian nation since the fourth century, Georgia found itself greatly influenced by Islam. In the seventh century, Arabs extended their dominion to Georgia and introduced Islam. In later centuries, Georgia found itself surrounded by the Muslim states that sprang up throughout Caucasia; Armenia was the only other Christian state in the region but it lost its statehood in the early Middle Ages. Conversion to Islam was encouraged and forced upon the Georgians, but the majority of them remained steadfast in their Christian faith. Nevertheless, an Arab emirate existed in Tbilisi between the eighth and 12th centuries. After the period of Didi turkoba in the late 11th century, Georgia rose to prominence under King David IV Aghmashenebeli and his successors and Muslims were generally well treated and even granted some privileges.
The rise of the powerful Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia had important consequences for the spread of Islam in Georgia. Both states sought to extend their influence into Georgia and waged incessant wars against Georgian kings. In 1555, Persia and the Porte signed the Treaty of Amassia, which approved the partition of Georgia between the two empires. The Ottomans succeeded in annexing southern Guria, Samtskhe-Javekheti, Tao and other Georgian provinces, where the population was compelled to convert to Islam. The Ottomans retained their hold over these regions for over three centuries and Islam left a deep imprint on the local culture and society. In the east, Safavid Persia pursued similar goals of converting the Georgian principalities of Kartli and Kakheti into Muslim khanates. The Safavid domination caused the immigration of Qizilbash tribes to the region, leading to an in-depth Islamization of certain areas, in particular Lower Kartli and Kakheti. Although these policies ultimately failed, Islam shaped many aspects of life in eastern Georgia. Georgian literature is permeated with Islamic motives and the government organization was often patterned after that of neighboring Persia and the Ottoman Empire.
In the 19th century, as Russia annexed Georgia, the imperial policies weakened Islam in Georgia but could not eradicate it and oscillated between tolerance and Orthodox proselytism. The Russian authorities were particularly ruthless against the Muslims in Abkhazia, who were forced to emigrate from the region starting in the 1860s. In the Soviet era, the full might of the state machinery was initially directed against both Christianity and Islam, further weakening them. Muslim Meskhetian Turks were condemned as potential fifth columnists of Turkey and resettled to Central Asia. However, these anti-religious policies were later relaxed and one of the four Departments for Spiritual Affairs of the Soviet Union was founded at Baku. Islamic schooling for Muslims across the Soviet Union was possible in two towns, Bukhara and Tashkent, in Central Asia.
Nowadays, Islam is the second largest religion in Georgia, with 9,9 percent of population professing it. Two large Muslim communities coexist in Georgia – Shiite Azeris and Sunni Adjarians. Islam is professed in two major centers, Adjara and Lower Kartli, but smaller Muslim communities also exist among Abkhazs in western Georgia and Kists in northeastern provinces. Adjarians were influenced by the neighboring Turks since the 16th century and follow a Sunni Islam. Adjarian autonomy was initially based on this religious specificity and was retained for political reasons by the Bolsheviks. During the Soviet era, the Communist authorities conducted an eradication policy against Islam in the region; mosques and madrasas (religious schools) were closed, public displays of Islam were forbidden and Islam existed only in private sphere. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused a religious revival in Georgia and the Georgian national-liberation movement thought to redefine the links between national identity and religious feelings. The opening of borders and arrival of Turkish missionaries to Adjara was perceived as a return to the Ottoman era. The Georgian government led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia embraced Orthodox Christianity and implemented a policy to reconvert Adjara to Christianity.
Although the conversion rate among Adjarians remained high in subsequent years so did also the initiatives of the Turkish missionaries. Among various Muslim preaching movements in Adjara is Suleyman, named after the Turkish Islamist leader Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan (1888-1959), which operates several small madrasas in Adjara. The Nurdjus, the disciples of Sait Nursi (1876-1960) and its splinter group Fetullahci movement, founded by Fethullah Gülen, are also active in Georgia and operate several madrasas in Tbilisi and Batumi. The Turkish religious influence is also manifested in the work of the so-called Diyanet, the Department of Religious Affairs, placed under the authority of the prime minister, which dispatches its emissaries regularly across the border and spreads Islamic literature.
There are over 280,000 Azeris residing in Georgia, mainly in the Bolnisi, Marneuli and Dmanisi regions in Lower Kartli. Traumatized by its experiences in Abkhazia and Ossetia, Georgian society oftentimes views the Shiite Azeri with suspicion and considers them as a potential obstacle to national construction. The region, and eastern Georgia in general, was for many decades under influence of Persia/Iran and its Shiite Imamism. The Soviet authorities prevented any contacts between the Shiite Islam in Georgia and Iran and forbade pilgrimages to the Shiite towns of Karbala, Mashad, Najaf and Qom. They also succeeded in weakening the positions of Islam and imposed secularism among the Muslim Azeris of Georgia. Georgian independence in 1990s brought many changes, including increased influence from Iran. Iranian missionaries became active in the neighboring Azerbaijan and extended their influence to southeastern regions of Georgia. The Iman Foundation, based in Tbilisi, offers religious lessons and operates a small library of Shiite literature. Ahli Beyt, a foundation based in Marneuli, helps the Shiite Azeris to learn Arabic and Shiite theology as well as secular subjects. In the small village of Kosali, which is on the Azeri-Georgian border near Marneuli, a small Turkish madrasa has been set up by Nakchibendi Turks, disciples of Osman Nuri Tobpa.
Islam’s status in present-day Georgia is of interest and importance. Although officially affirmed by the Constitution, the separation of the church and state barely exists in practice and Georgian governments openly affirm their attachment to Orthodox Christian values. The day after his accession to power, President
Mikhail Saakashvili adopted a new national flag with five crosses to signify Georgia’s links with its Christian past and the importance of Christian spirituality for national construction. The legal status of Islam is still undetermined since the Georgian Orthodox Church opposes recognition of any other religious entity, including other Christian creeds. The war in neighboring Chechnya increased the influence of Islamic radicals in the northern Caucasus but Georgia so far avoided the pitfalls of religious strife. The demands of Shiite Azeris are more economic than religious since they have been marginalized since the country’s independence and their provinces are underfunded and underdeveloped.