[Max Gordon]

For the past two hundred years, resistance to Russian and Soviet rule in the Caucasus has been inextricably coupled with Islam. Often perceived by an ignorant West as a monolithic, unified force, Islam even within the Caucasus has in fact always been varied, dynamic, and frequently at odds within itself. Sufism was the primary branch of Islam to take root in the North Caucasus. Arriving in the Caucasus in the late 18th century, it was (and is) a form of Islamic mysticism centered around a master-disciple relationship. The Naqshbandi order (and especially its Khalidi branch) was the largest sect of Sufism in the Caucasus. Its founder, Baha al-Din Naqshband (14th century) stressed the importance of dhikr (meditation), as well as the traditional Sufi master-disciple relationship: “only through strict observance of the teachings of a venerated master could adepts hope to attain the perfect ‘recollection of God’ made possible by the dhikr” (King, 69). In fact, the Russians referred to Sufism in the Caucasus as muridizm (from the Arabic word murid, meaning disciple).

As in the North Caucasus, Sufism throughout the Muslim world proved to be more recalcitrant toward colonial/imperial powers than the more traditional, non-mystic Islamic schools. According to Austin Jersild, “regions distant from the great city mosques of Islam were the most likely to possess active and radical Sufi traditions,” being “more likely than the ulema (urban religious leaders) to respond to the Qur’anic duty of…waging holy war,” as exemplified by resistance to the French in Algeria, the British in Sudan, and even to the more orthodox Muslim Ottomans in Arab lands (Jersil, 20). This both belies the conception of Islam as a unified body and reveals that the developments within the Caucasus were not unique. Rather, they were similar to the resistance by Muslims to the forces of imperialism throughout the world, lending credence to the notion that the ‘radicalization’ of these Sufi sects was a direct product of (and response to) imperial aggression.

With the advent of Sufism in the late 18th century came the push to instate sharia (Islamic religious law). The first major proponent of sharia in the Caucasus was Sheikh Mansur, who was to lead the first large-scale gazavat (holy war) against the Russian occupation. Sharia was, at different times and to different people, either a means, an end, or both, to this struggle. Mansur claimed that “only once the sharia had been re-established and Muslims had returned to the right path would they become virtuous and strong again…in order to liberate themselves from foreign threat or occupation,” and he actually prioritized this over jihad (Gammer,19). Likewise, the hope of the future establishment of sharia also functioned as a drive, an objective. After all, “changing society and not simply the heart of the believer became a major goal” (King, 69), and to some, obtaining the freedom to change society meant driving the Russians out.

Whether Mansur was a true Naqshbandi or not, his mantle was later taken up by Ghazi Muhammed, the first Naqshbandi to establish a religious Imamate, and the man who would initiate the second gazavat. He was able to appeal to the North Caucasus peoples as common allies against a Russian enemy (Gammer, 48), which he did partially on the basis of a common Muslim identity. Both Ghazi Muhammed and his successors (including Shamil, the greatest of the imams to rebel against Russian rule) continued to encourage the adoption of sharia, augmenting Sufi influence in the region. Furthermore, it was largely through the social infrastructure provided by Sufism that the great imams were able to operate. By relying on their prestige as great religious leaders, they were able to communicate to the populace, to utilize the master-disciple relationship to garner support and militarize followers, etc. The great imams, and especially Shamil, managed to firmly entrench Sufism in the North Caucasus. Naqshbandiyya, the school of Shamil and Ghazi Muhammed, was decimated in Chechnya (though it remained prominent in Daghestan) following Shamil’s final defeat. However, it was largely replaced by another Sufi school, Qadiriyya, during the 1850s-60s, and Sufism as a whole survived to remain an integral part of North Caucasian identity. Qadiriyya was less intellectual than Naqshbandiyya and replaced the quiet dhikr meditation with a loud and dramatic dhikr dance.  Again, though, Islam was never a unified front: “some Muslims, such as the Shi’a of Azerbaijan, remained consistently hostile to Shamil” (King, 81). Even in the North, fellow Muslims displayed varying levels of loyalty to Shamil, and many were ambivalent. It is also incorrect to conflate Islam, even Sufism, with North Caucasian identity. While it is true that it formed an integral part of North Caucasian tradition, the great imams toiled to uproot ‘adat (tribal customary law), which they often saw as a competing with sharia. ‘Adat was tied to an animist past, and carried customs such as clan loyalty, indulgence of alcohol, vendettas and blood feuds, which Shamil explicitly disapproved of and even parodied (Griffin, 24). There existed, then, two very different traditions competing for influence, both significant parts of North Caucasian identity. As it played out, Sufism became not only politicized but militant, although not inevitably so. It is interesting to note that the Naqshbandis quarreled amongst themselves over the place of Islam in politics. Some believed that “the purity of the Naqshbandi way was, in fact, soiled when it was implicated in politics” (King, 69). Early on, Sheikh Mansur discouraged sedition, aiming to enter negotiations with Russian authorities. Only when they attacked his native aul (mountain village) did he respond with violence. Following the fall of Shamil and Naqshbandiyya, Qadiriyya emerged and brought with it a shift in the focus of Islam. It was brought to the Caucasus by Sheikh Kunta, who during the 1850s gained a sufficient following to rival that of Shamil. Unlike its predecessor, Qadiriyya “centred mainly on personal rather than communal salvation, and [was] far less centralized and disciplined than the Naqshbandiyya…”(Gammer, 73). Whereas for the Naqshbandis sharia had acted in part as a means of mobilizing the population against the Russians, to Kunta armed resistance was sinful, contrary to the teachings of Islam, and he espoused active withdrawal from the realms of politics in favor of personal retreats, prayer, and meditation. Only after Russian troops arrested Sheikh Kunta in 1864 (he died in captivity three years later) and after the forced emigration of thousands of his followers to the Ottoman Empire did the Qadiris acknowledge Russia explicitly as their enemy. By the end of the 19th century, Qadiriyya was the dominant form of Islam practiced by Chechens, and “would take part in all the uprisings against Russian rule – Tsarist and Communist alike – and lead some of them” (Gammer, 81).

Thus, though Sufism was not at all used as a political weapon, it nonetheless remained a voice of the North Caucasians, and a vehicle by which they could mobilize and act. This was so throughout the rest of the Tsarist era until the fall of the Soviet Union, but even Sufism did not prove to be immutable. During the 1990s, much of the Chechen population became radicalized. At its fore was Shamil Basaev, the prime minister of Chechnya until he resigned in 1998 to form a Shura, which amounted to a warlord council in opposition to the Chechen government. Basaev, killed in 2006, was a member of a school of Islam known both by the Russians and the local Sufis (Naqshbandi and Qadiri) as the Wahhabis, or the more politically correct term, salafis. Through the decades of Soviet rule the schools of Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya had grown somewhat liberal with regards to sharia (Trenin, 31). The Wahhabis, many immigrating from Arab countries and supporting Basaev with money, military experience, and weapons, were (and remain) Sunni fundamentalists, advocating strict adherence to sharia and the founding of an Islamic republic in Chechnya. Rather than allying with the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya, the Wahhabis have engaged in open aggression with these more traditionalist schools. In 1995, they went so far as to attempt to destroy the grave of Sheikh Kunta’s mother in 1995. According to Dmitri Trenin and Aleksei Malashenko, the Salafis’ goal of reinstating sharia would require “such an overhaul [that it] would be difficult without a civil war, an option rejected by most Muslims in the North Caucasus” (Trenin, 84). They constitute a minority, but remain an active and powerful one, albeit with diminished influence since the death of Basaev. Thus, we encounter a paradox: the most significant resistance to Russian rule is presented by the Salafis. They are the strongest armed force for Chechen independence, and yet they are not of that traditionally Chechen brand of Islam, and in fact are quite frequently antagonistic toward it. This begs an important question about Chechen religious identity, and indeed about religious identities in the North Caucasus as a whole: what is the real North Caucasian Islam of today, and can we indeed even point to any single school? What do the North Caucasians turn to as a basis of identity in the 21st century?


Works cited

  • Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).
  • Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Dmitri V. Trenin and Aleksei V. Malashenko, with Anatol Lieven, Russia’s Restless Frontier: the Chechnya Factor in Post-Soviet Russia (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004).
  • Austin Jersild, Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002).
  • Nicholas Griffin, Caucasus (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).