Thoughts on the life of M.F. Akhundov

Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812 – 1878) is a great author, playwright, and philosopher. Indeed, he is founder of the national theatre, literary criticism, realist narrative, democratic philosophy and aesthetics in Azerbaijan, as well as the first reformer of the Azeri alphabet. Following Nizami Gancavi and Muhammed Fuzuli, Akhundov started a “new era” in Near Eastern literature. He is the person, who opens new levels of philosophical reflection in the Islamic cultures of this region. After six comedies, not to mention a short story “Deceived Stars”, Akhundov worked as a social reformer from the 1960’s till the end of his life. This is evidenced in his fight concerning alphabetical reform as an attempt to enlighten and raise Azeri culture and language.

Akhundov was born in one of the most historically significant and beautiful areas of Azerbaijan; in Shaki (Nukha). Also, Akhundov started his education in a Muslim school, but he couldn’t stand the hard, unbearable laws of the old fashioned teaching methods, and ran away from school. Nevertheless, his uncle, Haji Alesker saw the raw talent of little Fatali, and he himself started to tutor him personally. Haji Alesker taught him religious education, both the Persian and Arabic languages and introduced him to oriental literary classics. Later, he went to a Madrasa, where future Islamic clerics are educated. Once there, Akhundov learned logic and Sharia Law, under the Azeri poet and philosopher Mirza Shafi Vazeh; who further taught him calligraphy. A friendship soon began between Vazeh and his student. Vazeh saw Akhundov’s talents and openly told him about the vacuity of religious scholastic education. Perhaps this is why Akhundov wrote in his biography: “under influence of conversations carried out with M.Shafi, the curtains fell from my eyes”. Afterwards, he gave up the idea of becoming a confessor and he came to the decision of devoting his life to learn the sciences.

In 1834, young Fatali started working as a translator in Oriental languages at the office of Baron Rozen, the head judge of the Caucasus in Tbilisi (Georgia). After learning Russian, he added this language to his work as a translator. From that year, until the end of his life, Akhundov was employed as a civil, and eventually, a military translator at the service of the government. He also took an active part in important diplomatic negotiations between Russia, Iran and Turkey. This may be why he steadily progressed in his career; from the rank of warrant officer to the rank of colonel, being awarded military honours and medals by the Russian, Iranian and Turkish authorities.

Equal to his service of the state, Akhundov worked as an Azerbaijani language teacher in Tbilisi during 1936-1949. Moreover, Akhundov consciously broadened his scholarly interests while living in Tbilisi. He refined his knowledge of classical Azerbaijani and Eastern philosophically inspired literature, becoming familiar with the works of Firdausi, Nizami, Rumi, Hafiz etc. He even became acquainted with the works of Russian writers, critics and thinkers, such as Lomonosov, Derjavin, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and Belinski. Certainly, Akhundov also learnt about prominent European writers, like Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau and Holbach. In his personal library were books by European historians, sociologists and naturalists. These included Henry Thomas Buckle’s “History of civilisation in England”, John William Draper’s “History of the Intellectual Development of Europe”, J.S.Mill’s “Principles of Political Economy”, as well as Darwin, Faradey, and others.

In 1845, Russian theatre was introduced to Tbilisi and plays from European and Russian dramatists were performed; Shakespeare, Moliere and Gogol being presented to native audiences. After this, his love for the theatre started in earnest. Akhundov understood that theatre is the best way to awaken the socio-political consciousness of people and save them from the misfortunes and ignorance of their feudal world. He found comedy a powerful tool in this enterprise. By 1857, he had become a well known writer and had even authored historical articles in “Caucasus” newspaper. Though Akhundov is mostly remembered for his foundational work in theatre and drama, his contribution, as a philologist remain enormous. By 1857, he had laboured for nearly a decade, compiling a new alphabet based on Arabic morphology, and submitted this project to famous linguists, orientalists, and various scientific bodies in Iran and Turkey. Consequently, he began to fight actively for alphabetical reform. His initial efforts focused on modifying the Arabic script so that it would more adequately satisfy the phonetic requirements of the Azeri language. First, he insisted that each sound be represented by a separate symbol – no duplications or omissions. Arabic script expresses only three vowel sounds, whereas Azeri needs to identify nine vowels. Secondly, he hoped to rid the script of diacritical marks such as “dots and loops”, which he felt slowed down the handwriting process. Thirdly, he felt that literacy would be facilitated if the script were written in a continuous fashion with no breaks in words. This would enable people to more readily discern where words began and ended. In 1863, Akhundov went to Istanbul and personally presented his ideas to the Scientific Society of Osmanlis. He even got a Medal of Honour from the Turkish government. However, his proposals triggered serious debates in the Turkish newspapers. A number of publishers and intellectuals were against this reform. Yet, the poet Namik Kamal strongly defended his efforts.

Hot debates ensued and were amplified by those who sought to purify Turkic languages and purge all Arabic and Persian words from the Turkish vocabulary. In the end, conservative forces won out, not only in Azerbaijan, but in Turkey as well. The greatest resistance came from those who believed that since the Koran was written in the Arabic script, it is holy and should not be tampered with. Akhundov finally realized that it would be impossible to carry out even negligible reforms in regard to the Arabic alphabet. Archival materials at the Institute show that Iran strongly opposed this project, according to views set forth by the Iranian Ambassador to Turkey. He described Mirza Fatali as an evil-wisher of the Turkish community, an enemy of the Islam religion.

Describing his travels, Akhundov wrote a satiric-biographical poem, although, this poem is in Persian and remains difficult to translate. By 1878, Akhundov had given up trying to reform the Arabic script and was refocusing his attention on introducing a modified Latin alphabet with a few Cyrillic characters. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he included a few Cyrillic characters in the proposed script, the Russian government did not lend any support to his efforts. And again, this project failed.

Fighting for alphabetical reform and a cultural renaissance for Muslim people yielded no results, all of which raised a sharp sense of hatred on Akhundov’s part against despotic Eastern aristocrats and reactionary Muslim leaders. After returning from Istanbul, he wrote his politically charged philosophical treaties “Three Letters of the Indian Prince Kamal al Dovleh to His Friend, the Iranian Prince Jalal al Dovleh”. He wrote this in order to uncover the basis of eastern feudal rule. Perhaps his intention was to wake up Muslim people from their ignorant dreams; to destroy their fanaticism and to enlighten their outlook. Eventually, he translated this work into Persian with the help of his friend Mirza Yusif Khan. In 1874, he adapted this text into Russian with the aid of the Russian orientalist Adolf Berje.

Sadly, all his efforts to enlighten his people weakened Akhundov’s health, and he got heart disease. Azerbaijan lost its most gifted son on 27th of February 1878. He was buried in Tbilisi, near his teacher and friend Mirza Shafi Vazeh.

Akhundov’s poetry nevertheless, occupies a definitive position in his rich literary legacy. He started his creative career as a poet in his youth and continued composing poetry until his death. At times, Akhundov wrote in a classic style, whereas at others in folk poetry forms; such as lyrical goshma (poems) and geraylies, letters (expressed in verse), not to mention satirical and didactic poems, odes and medhiyyas (eulogies).


Müsəlmanlar! Orda burda az danışın yalanı

Gəlin həqqi unutmayın, insaf eyləyin bir az!

Deyirsiniz, çoxdan keçmiş xariqələr zamanı

Peyğəmbərlən sonra bir də möcüzələr yaranmaz

Bu sözlərə kim inanar, bir əfsanədir bunlar

Öz fikrimi isbat üçün mənim dəlillələrim var:

Yetmiş altıncı illərdə Polşadan gələn kimi

Tiflisə bir günəş doğdu, bu möcüzə deyilmi?

Cavab versin burdan axan, dünya görmüş dəli Kür

Bugünə tək kim Tiflisdə iki günəş görmüşdür?

Adı Vanda, özü mələk, yanaqları nar kimi

Onaltıncı baharında yetişdi bahar kimi.

Moslems! Don’t speak lies everywhere,

Let’s not forget truth, be a little fair !

You say, miraculous times have past long ago,

Miracles will not rise again after the prophets?

Who will believe these myths?

I have proof for my thoughts;

Coming from Poland in seventy-six years

A new Sun gave birth to Tiflis, isn’t it a miracle?

Let him answer, the old, mad Kur

Who has seen the twin Suns up to this day?

Her name is Vanda, an angel herself,

She ripened like the equinox in her sixteenth spring.

No one knows when Akhundov started to write poetry, even though critics have commented that “A complaint about the times” is his first known poem, written under the nickname of “Sabuhi”. This poem was written in Persian, in a classic genre. Moreover, it has autobiographical characteristics, which can be divided into two parts; firstly, a pessimistic outlook where Mirza Fatali talks about his life, unlucky fate and the social environment surrounding him. The second part was written with optimistic possibilities in mind. Furthermore, Akhundov’s second poetic work, known as “Eastern poem” (1937); was inspired by the death of famous Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. In this he expressed his deep love of the great Russian poet’s life and lyrics;

Nəzm evini süsləyən Lomonosovdu

Orda Puşkin xəyalı oldu bərqərar.

Derjavin tutmuşdusa sözün mülkünü

Yerində Puşkin oldu nəzmilə muxtar.

Camə bilik meyini tökdü Karamzin

Puşkinə qismət oldu o cami-gülnar.

Lomonosov decorating poetry’s house,

Dreams of Pushkin established there

Even Derjavin held possession of the word,

In his place yet Pushkin found autonomy.

Into a cup, the wine of knowledge, poured Karamzin,

But this cup was given to Pushkin.

Indeed, Akhundov described Pushkin as “head of the army of the word”. Akhundov mourned the death of such prominent poet finishing with these sentences:

Torpağına saçmağa iki gül ətri

Qopar Baxçasaraydan bir incə ruzgar.

Tutulub bu xəbərdən ağ saçlı Qafqaz

Səbuhinin şerilə yasını saxlar.

Fragrance of flowers to perfume his soil

Tear away a delicate wind, from Baxchasaray.

Being caught by this news,

The white haired Caucasus

Mourn, with the poem of Sabuhi.

Refusing all literary restrictions, around 1876, Akhundov wrote a critical article “Mullah Rumi and his equivalents” about Rumi’s corpus “Masnavi”, as well as some stories with prose poetry. All these works were of a critical didactic character. The “Masnavi” is the great masterpiece of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, who lived in the 13th century. The “Masnavi” consists of mainly sufi teaching stories with profound mystical interpretations. It should be noted, however, that Akhundov rejected the dervish lifestyle as an ardent materialist.

Principally, it should be remembered that Akhundov is known as the founder of Drama in Azerbaijan. With the dramas he wrote from the 1850’s, Akhundov created new pathways in Azerbaijani literature, opening new ways in which it could develop. His influences spread beyond Azerbaijan, earning him honorary titles in Near Eastern scholarship. Like European and Russian enlighteners, he used theatre to broaden the mind of the masses. As a Realist, his comedies hoped to introduce the importance of everyday life to his audience. Akhundov portrayed the world as free of abstract, religious, or mythic ideas. He didn’t just picture life; he presented its real face through the medium of situations and characters. In “The Botanist Monsieur Jordan and Magician – Dervish Mastalishah” Akhundov offered an image of a rational European scientist juxtaposed with a Magician-dervish who is a fraud and a swindler, deceiving and robbing uneducated people. It is significant, of course, that Mastalishah is from an undeveloped feudal country, while the scientist comes from a sophisticated nation like France.

One of the central characters, Mr. Shahbaz, is the symbol of Azerbaijani youth, who wants to participate in the new world, get an education, become enlightened, and embrace the achievements of Europe. He is the first representation of an educated, intellectual hero in Azerbaijan literature.

Akhundov’s drama clearly played an important part in awakening the consciousness of progressive groups in the cities; he opposed lawlessness and injustice, backwardness and inertia. All in all, his theatre challenges people to adapt and evolve; to fight for a free and happier life.

Under his powerful influence Mirza Aga Tabrizi, Zeynalabdin Maragai and Abdurrahim Talibov wrote some invaluable comedies and novels, planting the basis of dramatic composition and new art prose firmly in South Azerbaijan, as well as in Iran. Mirza Fatali Akhundov’s authorship remains unique even in our time, which is why his works have entered the golden fund of Azerbaijani literature.

At this point, I would like to share with you some of Akhundov’s comment pieces. My first example is taken from a letter written to the editor of the Iranian “Nation” newspaper. It starts as follows:


My dear brother!

On the 14th of “Rabiul awwal” month, 1283 (1866), on Friday, the Iranian newspaper “Nation” arrived in Tbilisi and in it I read a number of points:

“With the order and decision of the noble, blessed King, whose property and kingdom has been consistent by God, the “Nation” newspaper is written freely, so that uneducated and ignorant people may profit from it”. This sentence outwardly shows that, anybody can write their thoughts, just for the sake of interest in the Iranian nation. That’s why, as a citizen of the Caucasus, and from the side of Islamism, and faith as a brother of the Iranian people, I dare to write my reflections to you:

First: The mosque you showed in your newspaper, as the sign of the Iranian nation, is irrelevant to me. If by the word “nation” you only mean the Iranian nation, then mosques do not belong to this nation, but to all Islamic peoples.

The sign of the Iranian nation, before Islam was the old kings’ “fences”, like Jamshid’s throne and Istakr castle. After Islam, the most famous “fence” was Safavid’s castle, which their kings believed had belonged to a different sect, which is why they brought different clans together as a nation, causing Iran to be an independent State.

Therefore, to symbolise the Iranian nation, you need to find something like a twelve cornered “Kizilbash” crown, made with red cloth, and on one side show the old Persian kings, while on the other side to remember the Safavid kings.

Second: After reading your newspaper, I saw that more than two pages consisted of biography, an ode and a gazel of the poet with the “Surush” pseudonym, and “Sun of poets” nickname.

My dear brother! You yourself wrote that uneducated and ignorant people will profit from “Nation” newspaper. I am, therefore, honestly asking you, what benefit it will give to the nation when it knows the biography of a poet with the pseudonym “Surush” and “Sun of poets” other than giving pain to those who read it?

If he is a delightful poet, you have right to claim that the nation will be delighted with his poems and that his philosophical poems give wisdom, courtesy to people, and the need to know this personage. But his ode demonstrates that he is a lesser poet; not even possessing poetical ability. And vainly did he choose the name of the angel of the sky as a pseudonym, making this biggest and brightest decoration into his nickname; how can such a man delight us with enlightening universal sun light…


M.F.Akhundzade (Azerbaijani) – Works, in III parts. “Şərq-Qərb”. 2005.

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