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Russia: Islam Plays Fundamental Role In North Caucasus Life (Part 2)

  • Francesca Mereu

The Russian republic of Chechnya is located at the northeastern end of the Caucasus mountains, which extend some 1,100 kilometers from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and largely separate Christian Europe from the Middle East. The Muslim nations of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are only a few hundred kilometers from Grozny, the Chechen capital. Though Chechens were converted to Islam quite late, their belief was strong, and the religion became part of the Chechen national identity. Today, Islam continues to play a fundamental role in the lives of the Chechen people. In the second of two stories on the cultural and religious heritage of Chechnya, RFE/RL correspondent Francesca Mereu reports on the traditional Chechen religion and how it has changed over the years.

Moscow, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Islam was introduced into Chechnya over a period of centuries, gaining a number of converts by the 15th and 16th centuries but not taking firm root until well into the 18th and mid-19th centuries.

The Chechens were converted to the Sunni branch of Islam, with particular emphasis on its mystic Sufi form. Sufism has come to mean those who are interested in finding a way or practice toward inner awakening and enlightenment.

Sergio Salvi is a history professor at the University of Florence in Italy and author of many books about Chechen history and religion. He explains the peculiarity of the Sufi interpretation of Islam:

"As far as Sufism is concerned, it is [a movement] of organized brotherhoods, who are grouped around a [spiritual leader or] sheik. [Sufi followers] understand Islam in a mystic way. Sufi doesn't differ from Islam in the theological point of view, to use a Western term. The [Sufi interpretation] is a different way to look at Islam. Ardor is the medium to get in touch with God. [Sufi followers] use a variety of techniques [to move toward God], like singing, circular dances, etc."

Mikhail Roshin is a professor with the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He says the goal of the Sufi interpretation of Islam is to establish direct contact with God:

"The fundamental nature of Sufi is that the person who [has chosen] this path can reach an individual contact with God. Sufi followers have a teacher who acts as an intermediary between God and the person. [The teacher] gives the precepts according to which people should behave. Usually Sufi followers respect these rules."

More than 800 mosques and numerous Islamic schools were located in Chechnya at the turn of the 20th century. But from 1928 to 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin tried to eliminate the country's Islamic traditions. Most mosques were closed and Muslim clerics and believers in the Chechen and Ingush republics were arrested, deported, or executed -- in all, some 14,000 people. Sufi spiritual leaders and believers were labeled "counterrevolutionaries."

A small number of Chechens are believed to have colluded with the German army when it occupied the North Caucasus in 1942-43. In 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush population to Kazakhstan as punishment. Stalin is also believed to have been concerned about an armed conflict with Turkey and thought it too risky to have Muslim communities in the North Caucasus.

According to Roshin, far from destroying the Sufi brotherhoods, the mass deportation actually had the opposite effect:

"It may seem strange, but the deportation played a conservatory role for the Islamic traditions, since [Soviet] authorities thought that [the Chechens] were in exile and did not care about them anymore. [Chechens] preserved their spiritual life, their inner Islamic world."

Russian novelist and poet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, describing Stalin's mass deportations in his masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago," wrote that "only one nation refused to accept the psychology of submission" -- Chechnya.

In the late 1950s, after Stalin's death and Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign, the Chechens were permitted to return home. But the persecution of Sufi brotherhoods did not end.

In Chechnya and Ingushetia, the control of the organs of Soviet power remained in Russian hands, with no concessions to local authorities, as in other Soviet Muslim republics. Only in 1979 did Soviet authorities allow the opening of a few mosques, to stop the growth of clandestine Sufi brotherhoods. Indeed, the orders themselves organized their own clandestine Arabic classes and schools where the Koran was taught. In Chechnya and Ingushetia, there were five legal and 292 clandestine mosques.

When Mikhail Gorbachev's program of economic, political, and social restructuring, or perestroika, began in 1986, it also brought about wage cuts, price hikes, food shortages. and unemployment. The North Caucasus republics were not spared. On the one hand, massive unemployment caused the rise of criminal structures, destabilizing Chechen society. On the other hand, people enjoyed more religious freedom.

According to Professor Salvi, Sufi brotherhoods were unable to function in the new conditions. The sheiks were able to exercise their moral authority only in conditions of relative social peace. But from the start of perestroika, that peace was under threat. This situation encouraged the spreading of a fundamentalist movement called Wahhabism.

Said Yakhyev is a Sufi spiritual leader who teaches Islam at Moscow State University. Yakhyev lived in Chechnya during perestroika. He explains how and why this radical Islamic religious movement took easy root in Chechnya:

"Wahhabism in Chechnya began to spread in the 1980s in the period of glasnost, when thing were allowed. And people who got freedom [for the first time] began to think about a new kind of religion, about new ideas. It was very fashionable at the time. Wahhabism was able to spread in Chechnya because at the time nobody was able to face it and to negate its false dogmas. There was no real religious opposition to it, and now it is the same."

Wahhabis call themselves the followers of pure Islam and oppose all practices not sanctioned by the Koran. They look at Sufi Islam as a deviation from the original Islamic rules.

Roshin explains that this view of Islam rejects "magical rituals," pilgrimages to saint shrines, or recitations of the Koran in cemeteries -- all activities that had become commonplace among the Chechen Sufi orders:

"[Wahhabis] deny the role of the teacher, which for the Sufi is very important. They also deny the cult of the saints and pilgrimages to the saint shrines that are widespread among the followers of Sufi Islam. Among the Northern Caucasus' Islam followers, and Chechens in particular, the ritual of condolences is widespread. When someone dies, there is a [particular] condolence ritual followed by the relatives [of the deceased] and by the entire village. But the Wahhabis think it is enough to bury a deceased person. They [think] it is useless to follow the [condolence] ritual. The inner link with God, typical for the Sufi followers, is denied by the Wahhabis."

The Wahhabis' influence became stronger in Chechnya after the Russian military campaigns in the republic. Many years of war impoverished and destabilized Chechen society, and the Wahhabis used this situation to their advantage.

Sergei Arutyunov is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the head of the Caucasus department of Moscow's Ethnology Institute. He cites the example of how Chechens had to change their burial traditions due to lack of money.

According to Chechen custom, when someone dies, the family has to feed everyone who attends the funeral. A cow or a few sheep are slaughtered to feed up to 200 guests. This tradition has always been difficult to fulfill, since most families in the region have little money.

Today, many families have lost everything in the wars. Few can afford to continue the burial tradition. Some families are forced to borrow money for funeral banquets. According to Arutyunov, it is now common for young members of a family to tell people who arrive for a funeral to leave. And these impressionable young people, after listening to Wahhabi leaders, begin to believe that the burial tradition is wrong and in opposition to real Muslim principles. According to the Wahhabis, Islamic law forbids rejoicing or eating at the funeral of a fellow Muslim.

Arutyunov says many young people are beginning to think the Wahhabis teach principles that have more relevance to current life in Chechnya.

"It is strongly contrary to the [Chechen] customary laws and habits, but many people will listen and say, 'This guy [a Wahhabi leader] is right.' He has reasons to talk so. Indeed, the custom is bad, because fulfilling the custom means to ruin his family."

In 1999, RFE/RL correspondent Oleg Kusov interviewed young people in Gudermes, the second-largest town in Chechnya. They told him they would follow the Wahhabi principles because the Wahhabis gave them $100 a month -- a large amount of money the traditional Sufi orders are unlikely to be able to pay.

According to Professor Roshin, the differences between the Wahhabi followers and the Sufi can best be understood in their differing concepts of the jihad.

"Wahhabis follow the old concept of jihad, meaning the holy war to convert the infidels. The Sufis have another interpretation of jihad. They see it not as a war against the infidels, but as a war that a Muslim has to fight against his own defects to try to reach perfection."

The Russian military refers to Chechen field commanders as Wahhabis. But Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with "Novaya Gazeta" who has covered the Russian-Chechen conflict, contends that this is a mistake.

According to Politkovskaya, Chechen field commanders loyal to Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov defend Chechen national traditions and oppose fundamentalist groups like the Wahhabis, since they believe they will destabilize Chechen national unity. Another group, according to Politkovskaya, consists of those who surround field commanders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab. This group seeks an Arab-style Islamization of Chechnya.

The Sufi brotherhoods try to keep their distance from the conflict. With no end to the war in sight, many believers and spiritual leaders have left Chechnya for neighboring Ingushetia or Russia.

Chechnya's traditional Islam has been represented by two Sufi "tarikats," or orders: the Qadir and the Naqshbandi. The Qadir order first appeared in the Caucasus in the middle of the 19th century and was headed by a Daghestani shepherd named Kunta Khaji. Khaji believed in a mystical practice that, unlike the Naqshbandi, permitted the central "zikr" ritual to include ecstatic dances, songs, and even music -- all practices forbidden by the Naqshbandi, who prefer a silent form of zikr closed to outsiders.

Zikr, which means "remembrance of God," is the central ritual practice of most Caucasian Sufi orders. This mystical ceremony, designed to lead participants into an ecstatic union with God, involves the group repetition of a special prayer.

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended in mid-December, many Chechens living in Moscow gathered to pray and perform the zikr in the capital's central mosque. Qadir Chechens performed the zikr. They danced in a circle, holding each other's shoulders and singing in Arabic, "Allah is our only God."

They clap their hands ecstatically. In the middle of the circle the imam, or prayer leader, leads followers to clap in the proper rhythm. Yakhyev explained that, in this way, believers reach direct contact with God.

Sufi spiritual leader Yakhyev explains what the zikr means for different Chechen Muslim orders: "For the Naqshbandi, the zikr is an inner ritual, what they call the zikr of the heart. For us Kunta Khaji followers [or Qadir], it is the zikr of the language. With our voice, we try to influence people that are taking part in the zikr and also people that are looking at us from the outside."

According to Yakhyev, non-believers watching and listening to the zikr sometimes fall into a trance.