Cultural reform through satire: A forgotten co-founder of Molla Nasreddin

Omar Faig Nemanzadeh (1872–1937)

by Ulvi Pepinova, January 25, 2021

Modernist movement in the Islamic world

Muslim-majority countries at the fin de siècle are often portrayed in the Western media as backward, religiously conservative, violent and anti-Western. This mainstream perspective that has shaped the Western views of the Muslim World overlooks how the intellectual voices from within the region were often in the avant-garde in confronting the conservative establishment by inculcating progressive ideas and challenging existing orthodoxies. Local intellectuals influenced by Modernist thinking sought to advance modernist values through reform of the schooling system, political liberalization and the advancement of print press.

A defining feature of this movement, according to Kurzman (2002, 4), was “the self-conscious adoption of ‘modern’ values — that is, values that authors explicitly associated with the modern world, especially rationality, science, constitutionalism, and certain forms of human equality.”

Molla Nasreddin №4, 1906

In the Muslim Central Asia and Caucasus during the tsarist period, this advocacy for cultural reform and social progress through education is known under the label of Jadidism (Khalid, 1999). A group of intellectuals that formed around the celebrated satirical journal Molla Nassredin published in Baku, Azerbaijan (Garibova, 1996) was perhaps one of the most remarkable frontrunners of this movement. The emergence of Azerbaijani-language press outlets and literature at the turn of the twentieth century contributed to the spread of literacy and education and the dissemination of social reform ideals. As historian Audrey Altstadt (2016, 24) put it,

“The teachers and writers who led language and school reform were the same men and women who produced the plays and poetry, the operas and operettas, and performed the works for Azerbaijan’s growing public. As the secular modernist core, they reached out to the working and rural populace to build a nation”.

Unsung hero in turbulent times

While several prominent Azerbaijani literati contributed to the establishment of this avant-garde journal — most notably Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, Mirza Alakbar Sabir — the role of its co-founder and publisher Omar Faig Nemanzadeh [Azerbaijani: Ömər Faiq Nemanzadə] (1872–1937) is often omitted, especially in English-language publications.

Portrait of Omar Faig Nemanzadeh

Few people know that Nemanzadeh’s name had remained blacklisted up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the 1956 rehabilitation of the formerly executed “enemies of the people” that had also included Nemanzadeh, inertia and a deep fear embedded in the minds of intelligentsia and academics deeply prevailed. The latter remained faithful to the established ideological dogmas of the Soviet era and preferred to bypass the inconvenient world view and ideals of Nemanzadeh. Only around the mid-1980s, some literary critics — living witnesses of those times — dared to revive his name.

On the path to liberalism and enlightenment

The seed of Nemanzadeh’s rebellion against traditionalism and his embrace of liberal thinking goes back to his childhood. Nemanzadeh was born on December 24, 1872, in the village of Azgur, Akhaltsikhe, Tiflis province. By birth, he was a Turk known today as Akhaltsikhe (Ahıska in Tur. or Meskhetian Turks). Nemanzadeh received his early education in the madrasa of his home village. After a few years of studying in this religious school, where he showed no interest in the main subject of religion, he switched to the newly opened Russian school. His father wanted to send him to a secular gymnasium in Gori for further education, but his devout Muslim mother opposed this — “My son will not be studying among unbelievers” — and at her insistence, in 1882 Nemanzadeh was sent to his uncle in Istanbul to continue his studies in the top religious madrasa of Fateh (Nemanzadə, 1985).

That didn’t last long either. Sticking to his independent views at this young age and having maintained a keen interest in the natural sciences, he subsequently convinced his uncle to transfer him to the Darush-Shafag school, at that time well known as a hotbed of liberal ideas in Turkey. Once, the students there even opposed the leadership of the school. However, the rebellion was suppressed, and a number of students were arrested while others were beaten. Omar received a month in prison and 30 lashes. After a hard time in prison, he ended up in hospital for two months (Nemanzadə, 1985).

Upon graduation in 1891, he began working for the Galata Telegraphy in Istanbul where he received unlimited access to newspapers and magazines from Europe. This had a big influence on the formation of Nemanzadeh’s personality, his political views and outlook. It was a period of acquaintance with and awareness of European social values and liberalism. The European example didn’t interfere with and, in fact, actively contributed to the clear orientation of Nemanzadeh’s national identity (Kemaloglu, 2015).


In 1894, upon returning to the Caucasus, Nemanzadeh joined the Azerbaijani Democrats — a group of activists advocating for liberal democratic values with a special emphasis on culture and education. Nemanzadeh embarked on promoting scientific education in his home village of Azgur but was only nicknamed “Gyavur Omar” (“Infidel Omar” in Turkish) for his activities. He wanted to open a school in the village but could not get permission in Tiflis. He left his village, and in that same year began teaching secular sciences in Sheki (Şəki), one of the oldest cities in Azerbaijan (Əhməd, 2015).

With the help of the local intelligentsia, he created a small community group. In its initial stage, one of the most important tasks of this group was the opening of an usuli-jadid school. The most important aspect of these new-method schools was the teaching in the native Azerbaijani language, whilst Russian was offered as an additional, independent subject. Science subjects were also introduced into the curriculum.

The first usuli-jadid school of Sheki. Photo: Çapar magazine collection

However, initially these attempts were opposed by certain forces both in the upper circles of Sheki and in the local population. Even those who were at least somewhat interested in enlightenment simply did not believe in the ability of young people to succeed. Nemanzadeh explained the reason for this distrust:

“In the guise of clergymen from Turkey, many charlatans came to these parts, and the people already felt a sense of disgust towards them and did not want to see any of these people” (Nemanzadə, 1985).

From Nemanzadeh’s memoirs, it became clear that after a long campaign of persuasion, the group received license from the local authorities. They opened the first usuli-jadid Turkic community school in the Caucasus with a new teaching method which became a good example for other cities and towns.

A little earlier, M. T. Sidgi, who played a significant role in the educational movement in the Caucasus, introduced a similar new teaching method in Nakhchivan, creating the basis for a new progressive pedagogical trend in Azerbaijan (Camalov, 2015). Following them, M. I. Gasir in Lankaran and M. M. Neva in Shusha also began widespread activity in this area.

This pioneer project — a four-year course in Sheki — became the first school of this new type. On the first day of the school opening, it admitted 200 students, most of whom were children from low income backgrounds. There were only four teachers on the staff: Nemanzadeh, Mohammed Hafiz Effendi Sheikhzadeh, Mullah Tadjeddin and seminary graduate Gazanfar (Qurbanov, 1992).

In Sheki, Nemanzadeh’s activity was not limited to teaching. Theatre and drama was another initiative by Nemanzadeh gathering young intellectuals of Sheki around himself and performing the comedy “Monsieur Jordan and Dervish Mastali Shah” by M.F.Akhundzadeh, leading the role of a Dervish. He was also actively engaged in journalism and published articles on education and shared the latest updates and achievements of the school in newspapers and magazines of the period. For example, in an article signed as “Teacher Nemanzadeh” sent from Sheki to the Crimean newspaper Tərcüman qəzeti, 5 iyul 1898, №22 Nemanzadeh writes:

“Pupils of a new-method school, once graduated, often cannot continue their further studies in big cities but are obliged to sustain and take over their fathers’ jobs. Due to lack of education, they can neither make further progress in their fathers’ professions, nor can they embark on a new path. Therefore, we decided this year to open a vocational training department in the Sheki school, which will become a worthy example for other schools. At the initial stage, children will be taught the profession of silk production” (Nemanzadeh 1898).

In 1900, Nemanzadeh arrived in Baku, the capital city, with the aim of further engaging in social and educational activities as he had done in other cities such as Shamakhi and Tiflis. In Baku, he witnessed the absence of schools in Turkic language and the poor conditions of Muslims with a few exceptions such as the Muslim Female Boarding School which was built by oil philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1823–1924) (Azerbaijan International 1998). Nemanzadeh wrote:

“If I had not seen the gymnasium for girls opened by Taghiyev, I would have considered the Turkic education in Baku to be zero” (Nemanzadə, 1992).

Overall, from 1893 to 1903, Nemanzadeh carried out educational activities in schools across Azerbaijan (Sheki, Ganja, Shemakha, Baku).

He regarded education as first available means to reach out to a wider audience. His one-off publications in Turkish and Crimean newspapers were episodic during the years of his teaching, he looked for a bigger tribune. He dreamed of a free, independent publishing house belonging to him. That wasn’t easy in the Azerbaijani literary-cultural circle which entered the 20th century with no press culture.

His first full-scale involvement in public life kicked off at Shargi-Rus (1903), the first Azerbaijani newspaper published by M.Shahtakhtinsky in Tiflis. He considered this kind of newspaper ‘a new light’ for the awakening of national consciousness and socio-political development. In this newspaper, Nemanzadeh propagated education reforms amongst Turkic people, extensively wrote about the language, national awakening and identity issues, though in many occasions his powerful speeches caused censor’s objection:

“The pain from social and political wounds that arose as a result of what I saw in Ahiska, Sheki, Shemakha, Ganja, Baku and other places for ten years from 1893 to 1903 is still in my heart. But with two or three censors on top of your head, it is difficult to openly write about political tyranny and oppression by the government. Therefore, I considered it reasonable to veil the political despotism and write about the religious tyranny that led to it” (Nemanzadə, 1985).

The Forgotten Founder and Author of Molla Nasreddin

Today, as a result of the Soviet historiography the Molla Nasreddin magazine is primarily associated exclusively with the name of Mirza Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, Nemanzadeh’s close lifelong friend. However, the very idea of creating a satirical magazine using caricatures first belonged to Nemanzadeh, which he then developed with Mirza Jalil. Nemanzadeh was directly involved in running the publishing house as well as creating the content of the magazine, especially in its first phase in 1906–1911 (Qurbanov 1992; Əhməd, 2015).

Nemanzadeh’s introduction to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, a literary star of the period and founder of modern Azerbaijani literature, occurred in 1903 at the Shargi-Rus newspaper (Mammadguluzadeh, 2004). Meanwhile, Nemanzadeh, as an advocate of liberal views so alien to the society of that time, was closely watched by the local authorities — ready to issue arrest orders anytime and with any excuse. There was little chance for Nemanzadeh to get a licence on his own to set up and run the press in the Russian Empire.

In 1905, Shargi-Rus went bankrupt and the owner M. Shakhtakhtinsky decided to sell the publishing house. With the closure of Shargi-Rus, a new milestone began between the work of Nemanzadeh and Jalil Mammadguluzadeh.

Nemanzadeh wrote about this in his memoirs as follows: “I told Mirza Jalil that they could not allow the Turkish publishing house to fall into the hands of merchants or let it close, it was necessary to save it at any cost.” Jalil laughed and said, “Of course, I agree, but surely Magomed-aga will want money for the publishing house, and neither you nor me have it. And also, Faig, I am afraid that if Magomed-aga finds out that the publishing house will go into your hands, he will refuse to sell it.” Nemanzadeh said, “Do not utter my time and ask Magomed-aga to wait, promise that you will find the money, do not be afraid!’ Jalil Mammadguluzadeh recalls those days as follows “… for acquiring a publishing house and further work, we began to look for a third party to get involved with at least some money” (Nemanzadə, 1985).

Nemanzadeh finds himself such a person. Meshedi Alaskar Bagirov from Nakhichevan lent them the cash to buy the publishing house, and later took over the expenses of the publishing house and the magazine Molla Nasreddin. The new publishing house began its work in March 1905 under the name Geyriat launching a new stage in the literary and cultural life of Azerbaijan. The ideological trend known as “Mollanasreddinçiler” originates precisely in the publishing house of Geyriat. One of the first books was written by Nemanzadeh himself, and on April 2, 1905, he received permission to print it in the censor’s commission. The book called “Nashri Asara Davet” [trans. Invitation to a Publishing House] was soon published and distributed free of charge (Hüseynov, 2013).

When the publishing house Geyriat kicked off, Nemanzadeh, together with Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, came up with the idea of ​​creating a new print magazine and first turned to the government for permission to publish a magazine Torpag (Earth). Nemanzadeh writes, “Mirza Jalil insisted that the leadership of the magazine was entrusted to me” (Nemanzadə, 1985). But the Main Directorate of Press, under the pretext of Nemanzadeh’s Turkish education received in Istanbul, did not grant a permission for a new magazine. After some time, the Novruz newspaper, which Mammadguluzadeh wanted to publish, also could not see the light of approval. Finally, in 1906, the friends obtained permission to publish Molla Nasreddin. The official editor was Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and the main author was Nemanzadeh. Nemanzadeh was also in charge of administrative and financial maintenance matters of the magazine (Qurbanov,1992).

Most of the caricatures that brought fame to the magazine and a genuine delight to the public (including the illiterate) were drawn by two ethnic Germans, O. Schmerling and D. Rotter, whom Nemanzadeh knew well from Tiflis and brought them to the Molla Nasreddin’s board. Nemanzadeh and Mirza Jalil took on the task of defining the character and composition of caricatures.

From the memoirs of Nemanzadeh:

“Many of the caricatures and graphics in Molla Nasreddin related to our public life are in fact not caricatures, not fiction or likening. I would dare to say these are the true photos of people and realities” (Nemanzadə, 1992).

In the first six years, the magazine turned into the key arena of his activities. His writing became more critical addressing the remnants of the past, backward rites and customs of the local populace. He noted in the article titled “For a few days”:

“We are Molla Nasreddins. Our profession is to laugh at wild customs, our service is to annoy snakes and frogs” (Molla Nasreddin, 1907).

At the same time, Nemanzadeh published in a number of newspapers and magazines such as Irshad, Iqbal, Hayat, Achiq Soz, Tereqqi, Azerbaijan, Yeni Iqbal, Kaspi, Fuyuzat and others. These publications, addressing primarily a literate part of his circles, evidently echoed and mirrored in political feuilletons and caricatures of Molla Nasreddin.

In his article “The oppressed are the great oppressor” (Irshad, October 18, 1906, No. 245) he notes that the main reason why the nation was under oppression was that it was too acquiescent and fell into the habit of obeying the authorities. He goes further by saying that the real cruelty comes not from who oppress, but from those who bear this oppression and discrimination:

“Enough! Enough for so much patience, enough for the insult you get! It is time for us to demand our rights: (beyler) gentlemen, we want to study in our language. We want to run our schools in our language. We don’t mind studying in Russian, French, German voluntarily to be culturally acquired, but let us rule national issues ourselves so that ignorance and cruelty of those who have no idea about our nation (ad. author i.e. Tsarist regime), do not disappoint us further. Yes, it is time. Let’s go and try to protect our rights. Let’s not sleep ignorantly like helpless and poor people when there is a struggle for rights and equality” (Nemanzadə, 1906).

The harsh political speeches of Nemanzadeh in Molla Nasreddin engendered hatred and anger among the ruling forces and respect among democratic enlighteners. In 1907, he, as one of the founding fathers of Molla Nasreddin, was arrested for portraying Sultan Abdulhamid as a monkey before the European states, but at the request of the people he was released after two months.

Cover of Molla Nasreddin with the image of Nemanzadeh and the words of the poet Sabir. Source: Molla Nasreddin №37 (September 24, 1907).

When in 1907 Molla Nasreddin was temporarily closed by the authorities, Nemanzadeh wrote in Irshad newspaper:

“The poor things, they believe that by closing the magazine Molla Nasreddin, they can conceal their shame. They are not aware that many of us are already Molla Nasreddins. Today they shut down Molla Nasreddin, and tomorrow there will be ‘Molla Hayreddin’” [Nemanzadeh, 1907].

Women’s rights

Gender inequality in the patriarchal Muslim society was another core subject explored by Nemanzadeh. This part has been actively collaborated with Otter and Schmerling to then vividly illustrate it in caricatures. A quick note of the 28th issue of Molla Nasreddin on July 29, 1907 clearly illustrates the tone and the message to the readership:

“We have received many letters in our office regarding the issue of hijab asking for our position on women and how it has been settled? Our answer is: we said it at the onset of the first issue, and we still say that we should educate our daughters, we should educate our daughters, and once again we should educate our daughters. We have no further answer on the issue of hijab.”

According to Prof. Gurbanov, the leading researcher of Nemanzadeh’s work,

“neither during his life nor after his death the works of Nemanzadeh were classified and collected for publication in the form of a single book. Only the author of these lines was able to publish a scanty part of his heritage (in 1983) and memories (in 1985). With great difficulty most of the works of the publicist were collected. Along with newspaper and magazine articles, I dedicated my research to his literary works, feuilletons and other archival materials. Nemanzadeh used over forty pseudonyms. Many of them were published on the pages of Molla Nasreddin magazine, which was an extensive, free arena for his journalistic and publishing activities. So far, many of Omar Faig’s articles have not been identified, some of them were attributed to Mammadguluzadeh’s pen, and the rest are ‘author not defined’. But now, we can say with confidence that such popular articles as “Armenian and Muslim women”, “Two open letters to Sheikh ul islam” and others which triggered a strong public opinion at the beginning of the 20th century belong precisely to Omar Faig Nemanzadeh” (Qurbanov, 1992).

After 1921, when Molla Nasreddin became an instrument of Soviet propaganda. Nemanzadeh refused the offer by the new Soviet authorities of Azerbaijan to take part in the resumption of Molla Nasreddin (Qurbanov, 1992). The magazine was then published without his participation. He remained a close friend to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, who had to remain the official editor of the magazine until his last days despite his complete disagreement with the new Soviet ideas for the magazine. In 1932, in Baku, Nemanzadeh buried his friend Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (Cavanşır, 2011).


The beginning of the 20th century was the most exhilarating time period in the Caucasus — a period of introduction and awareness of social values, as well as ideas of liberalism flowing in from Europe. Inspiration from Europe was not a hindrance, but a boost for the formation of their own national perceptions and identity. It was a time of ideas to replace a traditional Islamic educational system with a reformed alternative — a mother-tongue system of public educational institutions from primary to higher. The decline and weakness of the Islamic world in opposition to the European powers of the second half of the 19th century had increasingly become apparent. It was a central topic of discussion among the Muslim communities, the intelligentsia and the clergy of Caucasus.

In the Turkic-Muslim society of the Caucasus, the press was a new and main catalyst for adaptive and integration processes, and the only effective communication mechanism through which ideas and ideals could be spread in a constrained traditional society. Omar Faig Nemanzadeh should be remembered as one of those few who stood at the origin of educational reforms, history of press in Azerbaijan, foundation of the first satirical magazine of the Muslim world “Molla Nasreddin”, on the pages of which he vividly, in words and caricatures, appealed to national consciousness and awakening of the Turkic peoples.

Nemanzadeh envisaged a clear distinction between European liberal values ​​and the realities of the Russian profound feudal autocracy. Open admittance of the backwardness of his own people, and Russian claims of spreading civilization was a distinctive feature with its own merit. It was not a religious, but a socio-psychological agenda that was advanced whilst acquiring a new set of modern ideas and values. His deep understanding of development of the social life of Turkic people are still of great interest in the context of the debate of secularist identity, modernity versus Islam, East versus West.

Omar Faig Nemanzadeh’s work and legacy that has so far been limited to a narrow circle of academics in Azerbaijan and Turkey deserved further research by scholars interested in cultural reform movement in the Muslim-populated regions in the Caucasus, Central Asia and broader Middle East.


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Suggested citation: Pepinova, Ulvi. Cultural reform through satire: A forgotten co-founder of Molla Nasreddin. Omar Faig Nemanzadeh (1872–1937). AzStudies on, January 25, 2021. URL:

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