Chechnya's leading Islamic cleric has formally rejected suggestions that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was made to travel recently to Saudi Arabia to apologize for a religious edict that was seen as a snub of Salafism.
Mufti Salakh-hadzhi Mezhiyev called "untrue and an outright lie" reports that the Kremlin-backed leader went to Jiddah to present his apologies for the fatwa, adopted at a conference in Grozny three months ago, that designated Salafism -- an ultraconservative strain of Islam widely professed in Saudi Arabia -- as "an aberrant sect."
Several media outlets in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had reported that Kadyrov did indeed offer apologies. Whether the anodyne remarks attributed to him constituted a genuine apology is a matter of interpretation, however.
The August conference of Islamic scholars in Grozny was pegged to the 65th birthday of Kadyrov's late father, Akhmed-hadzhi Kadyrov. Its stated purpose was to discuss the alleged abuse of Islamic ideas to propagate "extremism," and to establish the criteria for determining who qualifies as a true follower of the Sunna (the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).
The conference ended with the adoption of a fatwa stipulating that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four "madhhabs" (legal schools), and follow the path of moral self-perfection espoused by the great teachers, primarily the Sufi sheikhs. It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam as a "dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect," along with the extremist militant group Islamic State (IS), Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.
Predictably, that controversial and categorical definition triggered widespread protests, both in Russia and abroad. The International Association of Islamic Scholars reportedly criticized the Grozny conference as "a shameful attempt to sow dissent within the Muslim community." Respected theologian Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Islamic University, who had attended the opening session of the conference, publicly distanced himself from the fatwa.
In late September, the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) issued a resolution saying the text of the fatwa should be fundamentally revised because it risks "causing a split within the country, and between the Muslim community in Russia and that abroad." It has become clear from a detailed analysis, the statement continued, that the fatwa "reflects primarily the situation in one of [Russia's] regions," meaning Chechnya, and does not constitute reliable guidance for Russia's Muslims with regard to those intrinsic hallmarks of true Islam that differentiate it from fallacies. Specifically, the resolution rejected the importance attached to "one single current of Islam -- Sufism" as the hallmark of true belief.
That resolution occasioned a bitter polemic between the Russian Council of Muftis chairman, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, and Chechen mufti Mezhiyev.
Mezhiyev, together with Kadyrov's adviser on religious affairs, Adam Shakhidov, both accompanied Kadyrov on his tour of Persian Gulf states. On November 21, the day before Kadyrov and his entourage were reported to have arrived in the United Arab Emirates, a Daghestani blogger quoted the Arabic-language news portal Al-Sabaq as saying that Kadyrov had already extended apologies to the Saudi authorities, and that the purpose of his upcoming official visit to Saudi Arabia was to do so in person. Kadyrov was quoted as stressing the "strong, friendly ties between his country and Saudi Arabia" and as affirming that "the conference, which gave rise to numerous disputes, was directed against those who falsely pose as Salafis and use the slogans of those who follow the true path."
"We are not against the true Salafis who stand firmly on the path of their righteous predecessors," he reportedly added.
On November 27, the Emirates News Agency similarly quoted Kadyrov as saying in an interview that "there were attempts to split the ranks of Muslims by interpreting the Grozny conference incorrectly...as aimed at singling out one particular group or state," according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.
What Kadyrov actually said during his meeting on November 26 with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz is not known. Kadyrov reportedly wrote on his Instagram account that "particular attention was focused on questions of countering extremist ideology and the fight against terrorism. We agreed that neither terrorism nor extremism has anything in common with true Islam."
According to Mezhiyev, in the course of that meeting, "we presented a true picture of the Chechen conference," the essence of which, Mezhiyev said, was distorted by "envious and extremist" groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Mezhiyev said the true aim of the conference was not to inflict damage on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or to sow dissent among Muslims, but to counter the "extremist ideology" that sought to usurp the title of true believers and brand other Muslims unbelievers. Mezhiyev said the crown prince was "pleased" by this explanation.
Similarly unclear is whether Kadyrov might have been ordered to apologize to the Saudis by Russian President Vladimir Putin so as not to damage Moscow's relations with the Gulf states, or perhaps decided of his own volition to do so in order not to jeopardize hopes of extensive investment. According to the Russian news agency Regnum, among the topics Kadyrov discussed with Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz were the possible participation of Saudi oil companies in unspecified Chechen energy projects and enabling Chechen students to study at Saudi universities.
A third possibility is that Kadyrov was annoyed by the visit one month ago to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman ibn Abdulaziz by Republic of Ingushetia head Yunusbek Yevkurov. Kadyrov and Yevkurov have been at daggers drawn for years, most recently over Yevkurov's efforts to sideline Ingushetia's mufti, Isa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, who shares Kadyrov's antipathy toward actual or suspected Salafis.
Yevkurov had met in April with the Saudi ambassador to Moscow to discuss the prospects for trade and economic cooperation. During his talks in early November with Saudi officials, agreement was reached on setting up a working group to focus on imports of agricultural products, and on the possibility of Saudi businessmen or charitable funds providing financial assistance for construction of a large mosque in Magas.
Regardless of the motives for Kadyrov's reported apology or the terms in which it was possibly couched, two separate Russian scholars of Islam commentators have already concluded that he has irrevocably sabotaged any chances he may have had to secure for himself recognition in the Arab world as the leader of Russia's Muslims.