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Kadyrov's 'Chechen Sufism' Accommodates Christmas Trees, 'Holy Water'

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) escorts the Prophet Muhammad's purported chalice and carpets from the airport to Grozny's central mosque in September.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) escorts the Prophet Muhammad's purported chalice and carpets from the airport to Grozny's central mosque in September.
There can be little doubt that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov sees himself -- and craves recognition -- not just as a secular political leader, but as the head of a national-religious community.

In that latter capacity, Kadyrov has sought in recent years to systematically impose, by force if necessary, his own eclectic vision of what constitutes "traditional Chechen Islam," along with the code of behavior, ethics, and dress he considers one of its key components.

But although some eminent Arab leaders treat him with respect, Kadyrov's relentless promulgation 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 has alienated many clerics and ordinary believers in Chechnya. Few dare risk incurring his wrath by openly expressing dissent, however.

A classic example of Kadyrov's idiosyncratic approach is the way he has sought to exploit his acquisition last summer of a chalice allegedly owned by the Prophet Muhammad and two rugs that temporarily covered his grave.

One of the two rugs has been placed on the grave in the village of Khosi-Yurt of Kadyrov's father, former Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, which has become a site of pilgrimage. Cisterns containing "holy water" from the chalice, liberally diluted with tap water, have been delivered throughout Chechnya in light of its imputed miraculous healing and reconciliatory properties, even though the Christian concept of "holy water" is totally alien to Islam.

While individual Chechens are reportedly convinced of the miraculous qualities of the chalice, theologians remain divided over whether Shari'a law permits the veneration of material objects considered sacred.

It is both odd and incongruous that Kadyrov, the son of a respected mufti who studied in the 1980s first at a madrasah in Bukhara and then at the Islamic University in Tashkent, should have grown up with such a rudimentary and flawed understanding of both Islamic dogma and ritual. In contrast to 20-year-old insurgent commanders who quote the Koran in flawless Arabic, he has never been known to quote verbatim from the Koran in public.

Some of Kadyrov's assertions border on the heretical. Addressing religious advisers last month, he characterized Sufi saints as "companions of God" whose lives the media should make familiar to every Chechen. At the same meeting, he equated respect for the secular Russian state with piety, affirming that "he who is embarrassed to rise to his feet when the flag of the Russian Federation is hoisted is no Muslim."

Workers decorate a New Year's tree on Grozny's Vladimir Putin Prospekt in December 2010.
Workers decorate a New Year's tree on Grozny's Vladimir Putin Prospekt in December 2010.

Such pronouncements play into the hands of the North Caucasus insurgency, whose members profess a puritanical Salafi Islam that is increasingly proving more attractive to young Chechens than Kadyrov's bastardized Sufism. Salafis reject such elements of Sufism as the worship of Sufi saints and pilgrimages to holy places ("ziyart").

The insurgency's ideologues routinely denounce Kadyrov and his henchmen, including the republic's official clergy, as "murtads" (apostates) and "mushriks" (idolators). Challenging Kadyrov's pronouncements is fraught with risk, however. An imam from Urus-Martan who publicly denounced last year as a pagan ritual the celebration of the Christian New Year, complete with the traditional Russian New Year's tree, was abducted by Kadyrov's security personnel and beaten to within an inch of his life.

Chechen Saint Kunta-Hadji

Central to Kadyrov's institutionalization and exploitation of Chechen Sufism for political ends is his elevation to cult status of the 19th-century Chechen Sufi preacher Kunta-hadji Kishiyev, one of the most venerated representatives of the pacifist Qadari tariqah (Grozny's Islamic University is named after him).

Kunta-hadji advocated the acceptance of infidel Russian domination in order to avert the extinction of the Chechen nation in an endless war against the Tsarist regime. To that end, he even advised believers to enter an Orthodox church if required to do, as "it is only an edifice."

Such dissimulation, whether or not consciously deriving from Kunta-hadji's teachings, was widespread among Chechens in the 1970s and 1980s. In his stellar "Chechnya. Tombstone of Russian Power," the British scholar Anatol Lieven quotes Chechen friends who explained to him that it was not considered a sin to deny one's membership of a Sufi "vird" (brotherhood), or even to consume pork while serving in the Soviet military.

Kunta-hadji was deported in January 1864 to central Russia, where he died in prison three years later. His followers have never been able to come to terms with the collective trauma of losing their spiritual leader. To this day they await the return of their sheikh; he is rumored to have been sighted in Mecca in 1971.

The importance imputed to Kunta-hadji by Kadyrov and the Chechen official clergy serves two interrelated political purposes. First, it substantiates Kadyrov's implicit claim to religious leadership by showcasing the Kadyrov family's association with the saint: Akhmed-hadji's great-grandfather Iles was reportedly arrested together with Kunta-hadji.

Second, the superficial resemblance between Kunta-hadji's creed of nonviolent resistance and dissimulation in the name of preserving the Chechen nation and the professed subservience to and financial exploitation of Moscow espoused by first Akhmed-hadji and then Ramzan Kadyrov serves to rationalize, even ennoble that latter strategy in the eyes of the Chechen population.

The anniversary of Kunta-hadji's deportation on January 3 was celebrated this year on a far more lavish scale then ever before. And increasingly, Kadyrov and his advisers attend public functions dressed in the traditional garments and skull cap favored by Kunta-hadji's followers.

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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