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Russia: Dagestan's Religious Tensions- Analysis

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 19 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In the Dagestani village of Chabani-Makhi last week, a violent confrontation broke out between rival Muslim groups. Members of the Wahhabi group clashed with those of local Tariqat Sufi orders. Two people were reported killed and three hospitalized in rioting, and 18 Wahhabis were briefly taken hostage before order was restored, after special police has sealed off the village.

These events underscore the tensions that have arisen in many Soviet successor states as a result of the relaxation of Soviet-era restrictions on religious proselytizing, which has enabled foreign missionaries to seek converts.

The Wahhabi movement has been looked upon with suspicion in several CIS members. A Sunni group, the Wahhabis have been active in Central Asia and Muslim regions of the Caucasus. The group has a reputation for going beyond simply teaching its form of Islam. The group is usually well funded, helps construct mosques and brings in Korans printed in local languages. The Wahhabis, generally, receive their money from Saudi Arabia. However, their presence in the North Caucasus and the Fergana Valley in Central Asia is resented by other sects, particularly the various Sufi orders which have been present in the Muslim areas of the CIS for centuries.

The Wahhabi movement originated in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century. It was a reformist Sufi movement aimed at cleansing Islam in Arabia. The Wahhabis advocated an orthodox view of Islam, one which refuted the inventions of the religion after the death of the Prophet Muhhammad. Wahhabism rejected "magical rituals," and the veneration of Saints or any human being, something which had become commonplace among Sufi orders. The Wahhabi movement united the Arabian tribes in the 18th century and later, in the early 20th century, provided the foundations for the modern state of Saudi Arabia. The aggressiveness of Wahhabism in proselytizing is matched by its strict interpretations of Islam, and hence has often been labeled fundamentalist.

Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus was preserved, first in Tsarist Russia and then in the Soviet Union, through Sufi orders, mainly - but far from exclusively - Naqshbandiya Sufism. Tariqat is a term which simply denotes the Sufi brotherhoods, which can be Sunni or Shia. Sufism was the major vehicle for spreading Islam to countries outside Arabia. Though Islam had spread north into the Caucasus and Central Asia during the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, Sufism penetrated Central Asia in the 12th century and into the northern Caucasus in the early 18th century. Its success was in great part due to its ability to adapt some local beliefs or customs into Islam. For example, set down in the Koran are the five pillars of Islam. As the religion spread from Arabia, it was recognizable that one of these pillars, the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holy site in Mecca, was beyond the means of most of the faithful. Sufis recognized this and also that insistence upon this aspect of religious duty would complicate the conversion process in areas far from Mecca. In place of the Hajj, many Sufi orders substituted pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, who were usually the founders or inspiration for the various Sufi orders.

The appearance then, of groups such as the Wahhabis, poses a dilemma for Muslims in the former Soviet Union, some of whom have kept Islam alive by clinging to their familiar Sufi orders, which differ from culture to culture, and country to country. While some people may be willing to accept Wahhabi interpretations of Islamic duty others are, and have been, satisfied with the religion the way it has been practiced in their region or even village for years, if not centuries. Sufi masters especially object to the arrival of these outsiders, particularly the Wahhabis, who are teaching that these masters and the tombs of previous masters do not deserve any special respect. For heads of state, it is equally disturbing that Wahhabis reject secular forms of government, and this group is among the first mentioned in republican press as potentially disruptive, though no state has yet gone so far as to ban Wahhabi activities. So, it is natural that a group such as the Wahhabis would eventually come into conflict with the established religious orders. Possibly the only surprising thing about the violence in Dagestan is that it took more than five years for something like this to happen.