Chechen Sufi revival —between Russian occupation and Wahhabis

How interesting. In an implicit acknowledgement that their hardcore Islamophobe policies are backfiring in Chechya, the Russian authorities are embracing the indigenous peace-loving Sufi tradition as an alternative to the violently intransigent Wahhabism imported from the Arab world. But this could also backfire—as the Sufis themselves also seek independence from Russia, even if they aren’t willing to blow up civilians to acheive it. The implications are “unclear” indeed. And while it is good to see the Kunta-Haji Sufis on page 4 of the New York Times, we’re not sure they would appreciate the writer’s depiction of their chanting as “grunts.”

A Whirling Sufi Revival With Unclear Implications
GROZNY, Russia — Three circles of barefoot men, one ring inside another, sway to the cadence of chant.

The men stamp in time as they sway, and grunt from the abdomen and throat, filling the room with a primal sound. One voice rises over the rest, singing variants of the names of God.

The men stop, face right and walk counterclockwise, slowly at first, then fast. As they gain speed they begin to hop on their outside feet and draw closer. The three circles merge into a spinning ball.

The ball stops. It opens back up. The stamping resumes, softly at first, then louder. Many of the men are entranced. The air around them hums. The wooden floor shakes. The men turn left and accelerate the other way.

This is a zikr, the mystical Sufi dance of the Caucasus and a ritual near the center of Chechen Islam.

Here inside Chechnya, where Russia has spent six years trying to contain the second Chechen war since the Soviet Union collapsed, traditional forms of religious expression are returning to public life. It is a revival laden with meaning, and with implications that are unclear.

The Kremlin has worried for generations about Islam’s influence in the Caucasus, long attacking local Sufi traditions and, in the 1990’s, attacking the role of small numbers of foreign Wahhabis, proponents of an austere Arabian interpretation of Islam whom Moscow often accuses of encouraging terrorist attacks.

But Chechnya’s Sufi brotherhoods have never been vanquished — not by repression, bans or exile by the czars or Stalin, and not by the Kremlin of late.

Now they are reclaiming a place in public life. What makes the resurgence so unusual is that Sufi practices have become an element of policy for pro-Russian Chechens. Zikr ceremonies are embraced by the kadyrovsky, the Kremlin-backed Chechen force that is assuming much of the administration of this shattered land.

Post-Soviet Russia tried to make zikr celebrations a symbol of Chechen aggression, portraying zikr as the dance and trance of the rebels, the ritual of the untamed. Now zikr is performed by the men the Kremlin is counting on to keep Chechnya in check.

The occasion for ceremony on this day was the blessing of the foundation of a mosque that will be named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-backed Chechen president who was assassinated in 2004.

The mosque, whose foundation rests on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Communist Party’s regional committee, is meant to replace older associations. Not only is it an implicit rebuke of Communism, it is situated beside the ruins of another, much smaller mosque that was being constructed by the separatists in the 1990’s.

Its scale and grandeur are intended as public statement. At a cost of $20 million, it will be a sprawling complex, with room for a religious school and a residence for the mufti, said Amradin Adilgeriyev, an adviser to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin premier and son of the slain president.

The mosque will hold 10,000 worshipers, making it the largest in the republic. Its minarets will rise 179 feet in the air. It will speak not just of faith, but of power.

And so on this day the men dance. And dance. Tassels on their skullcaps bounce and swing. Sweat darkens their shirts. They are perhaps 90 in men in all, mostly young. They look strong. But zikr is demanding. As some of them tire, they step aside. Others take their place.

Their stamping can be heard two blocks away.

The entrance to the construction site is controlled by gunmen who make sure that none of the separatists enters with a bomb. Other young men boil brick-sized chunks of beef in caldrons of garlic broth, stirring the meat with a wooden slab.

Zikr has several forms. This form traces its origins to Kunta-Haji Kishiyev, a shepherd who traveled the Middle East in the 19th century, then returned to Chechnya and found converts to Sufism. Initially his followers pledged peace, but in time many joined the resistance to Russia, and their leader was exiled. They fought on, becoming a reservoir of Chechen traditionalism and rebellious spirit.

In 1991, when Chechnya declared independence from Russia, the Kunta-Haji brotherhoods, long underground, fought again. Sebastian Smith, who covered the Chechen wars and wrote “Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus,” noted that they became a source of rebel resolve.

At one zikr ceremony he observed, the men were dancing, he wrote, until a Russian bomber screamed low overhead, buzzing the village. Mr. Smith watched their reaction. “No one even looks up,” he wrote. “The whooping grows louder.”

The Sufis resisted the influx of Wahhabis who came to fight Russia beside them, but whose version of Islam aligned more closely with that of the Afghan Taliban.

Mr. Kadyrov said in an interview that he hoped to help restore Chechen Sufi traditions as part of an effort to preserve Chechen culture. He has reopened the roads to Ertan, a village in the mountains, where Kunta-Haji Kishiyev’s mother is buried. Her grave is a shrine and a place for pilgrimages, which for years were not made. This spring the roads to Ertan are crowded with walkers, who visit the grave to circle it and pray.

Still, efforts to incorporate Sufi brotherhoods into a government closely identified with the Kremlin contain contradictions. Some see manipulation on Mr. Kadyrov’s part, noting that Chechen self-identity has never been suppressed, even by some of the most repressive forces the world has ever known.

Whether Mr. Kadyrov can control the forces he taps into is unknown. The zikrists dance on this day with state approval. But for whom?

“Kadyrov wants to show that he is a supporter of Chechen traditional Islam,” said Aslan Doukaev, a native of Chechnya who is director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. “But Sufis always wanted Chechen independence, and that signal is being sent here too.”

We hope history is not about to repeat itself. “The Religious Roots of Conflict: Russia and Chechnya” by David Damrel (originally published in Religious Studies News, September 1995, now online at the Belfast Islamic Center) outlines the long historical cycle of tolerance and repression the Sufis have faced in the Caucasus:

The history of Russian expansion into Caucasia – the remote, rugged, mountainous territory between the Black and Caspian Seas that is home to over 30 different ethnic groups–began in the late eighteenth century with Catherine the Great’s attempts to forcibly annex the region. But the Russian invaders inspired fierce, unexpected resistance from a broad ethnic coalition of Caucasian Muslims who had united in loyalty to one spiritual leader – a Chechen Muslim mystic warrior named Shaykh Mansur Ushurma. Declaring the struggle a jihad, Shaykh Mansur and his Muslim mountaineers inflicted a crushing defeat on Czarist forces at the Sunzha River in 1785 and were briefly able to unite much of what is modern Daghestan and Chechnya under their rule.

Shaykh Mansur headed a branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, an Islamic mystical brotherhood that originated in fourteenth century Central Asia. Islamic mysticism – known as Sufism – spread quickly among both Muslims and non-Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia, largely through the missionary activities of itinerant Sufi scholars and mystics. These popular shaykhs (saints, literally “friends of God”) often acquired reputations as miracle workers, and their tombs frequently became shrines (mazars) and pilgrimage sites. As recently as the late 1970s, Soviet authorities testified to the abiding attraction of these shrines, listing more than 70 active mazars in Daghestan and over 30 more in Chechnya. More traditional Muslim religious leaders often attacked the Sufi “cult of saints” for un-Islamic practices, but from early on in the Caucasus, Sufism helped attract converts to Islam at a popular level and offered a powerful source of spiritual guidance and social identity.

These Sufi shaykhs usually directed a tight, clannish organization of disciples (murids) bound to them with oaths of absolute obedience. Senior disciples were allowed to initiate new devotees into the brotherhood, and these deputies were often dispatched to spread the order in villages deep in the mountains. Frequently, charismatic and ambitious murids formed their own branches and subbranches within an order. Certain Sufi orders and suborders became closely associated with specific ethnic groups and with particular notable families.

Zikr (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 or various divine names of God. The Naqshbandis favor a silent form of zikr that is closed to outsiders, but other orders sometimes permit vocal and public zikr assemblies.

Reliable membership figures are impossible to establish, but a 1975 Soviet survey in Chechnya claimed that half of the Muslim population there belonged to local Sufi orders–a stunning total of over 300,000 murids. The Naqshbandis, joined later by the Qadiri Sufi brotherhood, have dominated north Caucasian Muslim spiritual life from the late eighteenth century to the present day. Naturally secretive and disciplined, with broad-based social support and foreboding mountainous terrain for cover, these orders have proven formidable adversaries for whoever has tried to rule the Caucasus.

Shaykh Mansur’s disciples continued their low-key resistance against the Russians even after his death in prison in 1793. Full-scale armed revolt against the Russian occupation of Daghestan and Chechnya resumed in 1824, when a series of Naqshbandi Sufi leaders called Imams began a bitter guerrilla war that would last for over 30 more years. The most famous of these Sufi warriors, the Naqshbandi Shaykh Imam Shamil, actually established a short-lived Islamic state in Chechnya and Daghestan before his capitulation in 1859. With Shamil safely imprisoned, the Russians moved to crush the remaining “Muridists” and pacify the region. Many of Shamil’s

The Qadiri order, with its origins in twelfth-century Baghdad, first appeared in the Caucasus in 1861 headed by a Daghestani shepherd named Kunta Haji Kishiev. Based in Chechnya, Kunta Haji taught a mystical practice that, unlike the Naqshbandis, allowed vocal zikr, ecstatic music and dancing. And, at first, he counseled peace with the Russians. His popularity surged but soon his following, swelled by many murid fighters from Shamil’s former army, so alarmed the Russians that he was arrested and exiled in 1864. That same year at Shali in Chechnya, Russian troops fired on over 4,000 Qadiri murids, killing scores and igniting a fresh wave of violence. The brotherhood–whose remaining leaders all claimed spiritual descent from Kunta Haji–became implacable Russian foes and struck deep roots in the Chechen countryside. Together with the rejuvenated Naqshbandis, the Qadiris rose up against the Romanovs in 1865, 1877, 1879 and the 1890s and plagued Czarist rule in the Caucasus through the Bolshevik Revolution.

The revolutionary years were especially bloody in Daghestan and Chechnya. The Qadiris, and a Naqshbandi movement led by Shaykh Uzun Haji battled for eight years against the White and the Red armies to create a “North Caucasian Emirate.” The pious, uncompromising Uzun Haji – whose tomb remains a major pilgrimage site for Chechen Muslims – saw little difference between the Czarist Russians and the atheist communists. “I am weaving a rope,” he was quoted by his enemies, “to hang engineers, students and in general all those who write from left to right.”

His uprising in Daghestan was suppressed in 1925, but the Soviets, branding the Sufis “bandits,” “criminals” and “counter-revolutionaries,” continued to arrest, execute and deport the “zikrists” almost up to the outbreak of WWII. The brotherhoods braved the crackdown as they always had: the shaykhs disappeared deep into the mountains, the murids organized their zikr assemblies in private homes, and the orders ensured their secrecy through the double bond of spiritual initiation and tight-knit clan loyalty.

During WWII, when disturbances occurred in Chechnya in 1940 and again in 1943, Stalin responded with astonishing brutality that bordered on genocide. Accusing them of still unproven collaboration with Nazi Germany, in 1944 he forcibly relocated six entire Caucasian nationalities, including the whole Chechen and Ingush populations, to special camps in Central Asia. All told, more than a million Muslims from the Caucasus were deported, with tremendous loss of life. By some estimates one third to one-half of the population of Chechen-Ingushetia alone – well over 250,000 people – disappeared after the republic was liquidated in February 1944.

The Chechens and other groups spent more than a decade in isolated work camps in Kazakhstan. But by all accounts, the forced resettlement failed to break either the Sufi brotherhoods or Chechen national spirit. Describing the fearsome “psychology of submission” that prevailed in Soviet relocation camps, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that only one people refused to be broken by the ordeal: “the nation as a whole – the Chechens.” And in later sociological surveys Soviet academics euphemistically noted that “the special postwar conditions” had actually strengthened religious beliefs within the exiled Caucasian peoples.

In 1957, when the Chechens and other exiled Caucasian groups were proclaimed “rehabilitated” and returned to their republics, they found that their land had been “Russified.” Hundreds of thousands of Russian farmers brought in to work the land during their absence had become permanent residents and now comprised a quarter of the region’s population.

The Chechens, Ingush and Daghestanis also discovered a land scoured of Islam. Soviet authorities had experimented with the near total suppression of Islam in the region, closing over 800 mosques and 400 religious colleges. Mazars were demolished, converted into state museums, or made inaccessible. Only after more than 30 years, in 1978, Soviet authorities in the Caucasus allowed under 40 mosques to reopen and staffed them with less than 300 registered ulema.

We have also noted that Sufis face harsh persecution in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

See our last post on the North Caucasus.