Before Charlie, before Jesus and Mo, there was Molla Nasreddin

Konul Khalilova of the BBC Azeri service tells us How Muslim Azerbaijan had satire years before Charlie Hebdo.

More than 100 years before militant Islamist gunmen murdered journalists at France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, another magazine very similar in style was playing an important role among the Muslim populations of both the Russian and Persian empires.

Azerbaijani weekly magazine Molla Nasreddin was revolutionary for its time, bravely ridiculing clerics and criticising the political elite as well as the Russian Tsar and the Shah of Persia.

Founded in 1906, it pulled no punches in tackling geopolitical events and also promoted women’s rights and Westernisation.

I look forward to the accusations of Premature Islamophobia.

The editor-in-chief of the magazine was Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (known as Mirza Jalil), a famous Azerbaijani writer, who was also a well-known novelist.

In his book, The Dead, the main protagonist is a drunken atheist, treated as a madman for telling the truth about his backward society, where girls as young as nine are forced to marry 50-year-old men.

Nine? Not eight, not ten, but nine? Anything special about nine?

Of course; Aishah bint Abû Bakr was nine when Mohammed first raped her.

Molla Nasreddin addressed uneducated Azerbaijanis, unlike other publications of the time, which were heavily influenced by Anatolian Turkish, Russian or Persian.

The texts were in simple language and the cartoons were easy to understand, often targeting clerics, which the magazine’s writers saw as the enemies of education and a secular society.

The birth of a boy compared to the birth of a girl:

In top cartoon a boy is born, in bottom a girl is born

The magazine campaigned for women’s rights and played an important part in women in Azerbaijan being granted the right to vote in 1919, at around the same time as women in the UK and US.

Sifting through old copies of the magazine in Azerbaijan’s National Library, it becomes clear how daring the writers and illustrators of Molla Nasreddin were.

In a 1929 edition, a cartoon was published of the Prophet Mohammad, although without depicting his face.

By this time Azerbaijan was a Soviet state and publication was taking place in the capital, Baku. Nevertheless, the majority of the population were still conservative Muslims.

The cartoon features a dialogue between Jesus and Muhammad and shows people drinking at Christmas.

Hey, an early Jesus and Mo!

It didn’t last though. In the ’30s the Stalinists tried to tell it what to do, and that was the end of it.

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