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Chechnya’s Mufti-For-Life Sidelined

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov received the support of the previous mufti.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov received the support of the previous mufti.
Meeting on June 11 in Grozny’s central mosque, Chechnya’s religious leaders unanimously elected theologian Salakh Mezhiyev as their new mufti. Mezhiyev replaces Sultan-hadji Mirzayev, who at the proposal of then Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was elected Chechnya’s mufti for life four years ago. On June 3, it had been announced that Mirzayev, 49, is no longer able to discharge his duties due to ill health. His first deputy, Magomed Khiytanayev, was “temporarily” appointed acting mufti in his place.

Ill-health was the reason adduced in May 2005 when Mirzayev was first appointed mufti in place of Akhmad-hadji Shamayev. Shamayev admitted, however, that the real reason he stepped down was his disapproval of unspecified developments in Chechnya and inability to influence the situation there. It is not clear whether he was alluding to the appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as deputy prime minister one year earlier.

Mirzayev studied theology in Daghestan prior to the demise of the Soviet Union. Following the 1994-1996 war, he served under Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov as imam of the Ichkeria National Guard and chairman of the republic’s Sharia court.

When Russia again sent troops into Chechnya in the fall of 1999, Mirzayev switched sides and aligned himself with Moscow, as did Kadyrov’s father Akhmad-hadji, who had been mufti under Maskhadov. In 2000, Mirzayev was named an advisor to Akhmad-hadji, and two years later – first deputy mufti.

For years, Mirzayev has unquestioningly supported and promoted Ramzan Kadyrov’s obsessive inculcation of a bizarre syncretic amalgam of Chechen Sufism and popular Islam; canonical Sunni Islam, as represented by the Shafii legal school; and, more recently, Christian practice.

He has never publicly challenged Kadyrov’s outrageous and at times heretical statements, such as that Islam was brought to Chechnya from Turkey, or his characterization of Sufi saints as “companions of God.” Neither did he raise any objection to Kadyrov naming new mosques after himself or members of his family. Some theologians consider that practice heretical.

In 2011, Mirzayev ordained that Ramadan should begin in Chechnya one day later than in the rest of the Muslim world. He has also issued a formal ban on the burial of slain insurgents in Muslim ceremonies with the appropriate religious rites.

Assuming that Mirzayev’s health is not the primary reason why he has been replaced, it is not easy to guess what he may have said or done (or not done) to incur Kadyrov’s displeasure. Over the past six months, Kadyrov has identified as a new threat to the “purity” of the bastardized Islam he espouses, and called for a resolute campaign to eradicate, the Habashi ideology formulated by Ethiopia-born Islamic scholar Sheikh Abdullah Al- Harari, of which Ukrainian mufti Sheikh Akhmed Tamim (who is originally from Lebanon) is reportedly an adherent. That ideology is described as “combining Sunni and Shi’i belief systems under the umbrella of Pan-Sufism, specifically of the Rifa’iyya, Qadiriyya, and Naqshabandi religious orders (tariqa).”

Why Kadyrov should nonetheless consider Habashism (which is not banned in the Russian Federation) so pernicious is not clear – unless a comparison highlights the extent to which he has bastardized Chechen Sufism. (Could the Ukrainian Habashi connection have been a contributing factor to Kadyrov’s repeated expressions of support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine?)

At the same time, since the start of 2014, the Chechen authorities have launched a wave of reprisals against young believers suspected of preferring Salafism to Kadyrov’s reinvention of Chechen Sufism. The targets are those young men whose beards are considered “too long” (meaning longer than Kadyrov’s) and women who wear a black hijab. Young men who were found to have downloaded sermons by Salafi preachers to their mobile phones were detained for questioning; some were reportedly beatn or tortured. Between January 1 and March 7, the insurgency website Kavkazcenter reported 13 such incidents at mosques in Argun, Avtury, Gudermes, Alkhan-Yurt, Urus-Martan, and various districts of Grozny.

If Kadyrov’s primary concern is to wean the younger generation away from beliefs he considers anathema, the question arises: why did he then promote as Mirzayev’s successor Mezhiyev, rather than Khiytanayev? A graduate of the Al-Fatih Islamic Institute in Damascus, Khiytanayev served for the past two years, until January 2014, as chief qadi in Grozny. During that time, he met more than once with university students and reportedly succeeded by virtue of his “charisma and refined sense of humor” in establishing a rapport with his listeners and convincing them of the perils of heeding “dubious persons who seek to lure you from the one true path.”

On the other hand, Khiytanayev may have forfeited all credibility with those young believers who reject Kadyrov’s version of Islam.

Mezhiyev for his part is widely respected as a learned scholar and a decent human being, according to RFE/RL’s Radio Marsho. Kadyrov characterized him as a very moral person with a secular education in addition to his profound knowledge of theology, “who for long years has worked to spread genuine Islamic values,” meaning the values tolerated by Moscow and considered by the Chechen strongman himself as correct and unquestionable. That seems to be the most important reason why he was picked as a successor to the inarticulate, inefficient, and unpopular Mirzayev. Besides, Mezhiyev as a fluent speaker of Arabic and respected theologian is likely to find favor with visiting Muslim clerics who may look askance on some of Kadyrov’s more egregious pronouncements.

-- Liz Fuller, Aslan Doukaev

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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