One Hundred Years Before Hebdo: Molla Nasreddin

As we approach the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, aside from the obvious events of the tragedy itself, we are also reminded of the subtext of them: the potential perils of engaging in such risque satire.

Since then the Paris-based magazine has defined the quarreling between the Muslim community and satirists, adding to the list of other relatively recent incidents such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, the 2010 Copenhagen terror plot and the Lars Vilks Muhammad drawings saga, which was at the epicentre of the shootings in Copenhagen earlier this year.

Though the disputes that have arisen from the depiction of the prophet Muhammad have particularly flared up over the past decade, it has not been limited to this timeframe. As far back as a century before the aforementioned publications, there existed a satirical magazine in Muslim Azerbaijan that explored similarly risky territory: Molla Nasreddin.

Founded by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, the magazine ran from 1906 to 1931 and covered a broad range of topics, many of which were contentious given the socio-political climate of the time. It satirised politics and politicians (namely the powers that be in the region), religion, promoted and encouraged the adoption of western ideals in the eastern world, denounced the lack of education and held clerical figures responsible for it, and supported the empowerment of women.

(video from: XCity+)

These stances were put forward as early as the very first issue of the publication, which alluded to eastern nations being asleep and unaware of the more progressive and modernised ways that were being implemented in the west at the time.

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(image from: bbc.co.uk)

Celebrated Azerbaijani playwright and writer Ebdurrehimbey Haqverdiyev wrote for the magazine in these early years, and noted in his memoirs that:

“The magazine’s first issue exploded like a bomb… Mullahs (Islamic clerics) were saying that the magazine should not enter the house of any Muslim. If it does, they said, grab it with tongs and throw it down the toilet.”

Molla Nasreddin was before its time and provided a startling candidness considering the environment it existed in, especially when considered that even in the present day such content being distributed in regions that would find its positions so disagreeable is unheard of.

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This cartoon displays the contrast between how much people valued the Koran in comparison to other forms of life.

(image from: agiaitalia.org)

The use of illustration was a necessity as at the time much of the inhabitants of Azerbaijan and the surrounding regions were illiterate. Written text was still a cornerstone of its content, being that since the inception of the mere idea of the magazine the intention was to give writers the freedom to comment, but it was seamlessly interwoven between colourful and detailed cartoons.

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“The illustration addresses the issue of the hejab: contrasting the woman’s strict adherence to dress code when faced with a doctor and liberal approach when faced with a cleric.”

(image from: eurasianet.org)

It was initially published in the city of Tiflis (now known as Tbilisi) which Mammadguluzadeh himself later acknowledged was the best thing for the personal safety of himself and those involved with it.

“Had I published the magazine not in Tbilisi but in Baku or Yerevan, they would have destroyed my office and killed me.”

Despite this, he was still attacked in Tbilisi, and constantly issued with threats against his life.

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“Son, hit your mom and I will admire you.”

(image from: The New Yorker)

That Molla Nasreddin managed to exist for as long as it did is impressive achievement in isolation, but it finally ceased to be in 1931 when Soviet authorities instructed Mammadguluzadeh to change its name as well as conform to the codes of their beliefs. Evidently not one for compliance, he refused and thus publication came to a halt.

cover vector MN
“Listen, people who get a contemporary education want us to forget our old, pagan beliefs. Do not allow this to happen under any circumstances!”

(image from: The New Yorker)

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