The Religious Roots of Conflict: Russia and Chechnya

By David Damrel


There is something basic missing from most Western commentary on Russia’s ferocious war against the secessionist Chechen Republic: the Chechens themselves. While many analysts ponder Yeltsin’s pursuit of his costly, unpopular war in the Caucasus or ask how the international community should respond to Russia’s decimation of Grozny, the Chechens--who call themselves the Nokhchi--appear as little more than an unexplored foil to the Russians.

But what sustains just under a million Muslim Chechens in their improbable resistance to Russian might? What are the religious dimensions of the conflict? How has Islam--and the powerful, clandestine Islamic mystical brotherhoods in particular--survived there, despite two centuries of brutal Czarist, Soviet and now Russian persecution?

While the majority of the former Soviet Union’s 48 million Muslims gained independence with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation still contains over seven million ethnically and linguistically diverse Muslim peoples. Two groups of these "internal Muslims"--the Tatars and the Chechens--are important to the Russian Federation for two key reasons. The first is economic: both Chechnya and Tatarstan possess substantial oil reserves, with Tatarstan alone producing 25% of the Russian yield. The second reason is political: of all the former Russian republics and autonomous republics, only Tatarstan and Chechnya refused to ratify the 1992 Russian Federation Treaty that established Yeltsin’s present Russian Federation. Moscow immediately attacked both de facto secessions, and the Tatar case is pending appeal before the new Russian Constitutional Court. In Chechnya two years of Russian threats, bluster and empty negotiations ended with invasion in late 1994.

That the political situation in Chechnya erupted into warfare comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Moscow’s long and bloody history in the north Caucasus. The Muslim peoples of this multiethnic region claim a tradition of opposition to rule from Moscow that is entering a third century. Invariably at the heart of this Chechen resistance have been the remarkably resilient, furtive, and politically active Islamic mystical brotherhoods of 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 followers were hanged or deported, while his senior deputies escaped to Mecca, Medina or Turkey. But with the suppression of the Naqshbandis, a new order--the Qadiri--entered the fight.

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.

These measures against "institutional" Islam had little impact on the Sufi brotherhoods, which had never relied on mosques and madrasas as their centers. Indeed, the orders themselves--particularly the Naqshbandis--are noted to this day for organizing their own clandestine Arabic classes and schools to teach the Qur"an. And, throughout the 1970s, the orders regained their popularity in Chechnya behind a new Chechen Sufi brotherhood--an order that had formed during the exile in Central Asia.

This new brotherhood--called the Vis Haji after its founder, the Chechen Sufi Uways "Vis" Haji Zagiev--is an offshoot of Kunta Haji’s branch of the Qadiri order. First identified in the camps in 1953, the Vis Haji combine scrupulous adherence to "conservative" Islam with unremitting anti-Russian, anti-Soviet rhetoric. Nevertheless Vis Haji murids are permitted to work in state industries, even those involving tobacco and alcohol. Described by some observers as "fiercely xenophobic," the order exploits modern technology to spread a message of spiritual rectitude and political activism. Reports under the Soviets indicated that in some regions the Vis Haji secretly convened their own Islamic courts and illegally collected various religious taxes.

Vis Haji zikr, employing violins and sometimes drums, also accounts for some of the order’s popularity. Attractive even to nonmembers, zikr performances sometimes provide the basis for public assemblies and displays during religious holidays in many Chechen villages. In another unique practice, women are welcome to participate in Vis Haji zikr, and there are reports of women shaykhs leading their own circles of female adepts. Crucial in preserving Chechen Muslim identity during the exile, the Vis Haji are recognized today as the most active and innovative order in the Caucasus.

It is unlikely that Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation can fully succeed in Chechnia where generations of harsh, repressive rule and even abortive genocide have failed. It is wrong to locate President Dzhokhar Dudayev’s support against the Russians entirely with the Chechen Sufi brotherhoods: his agenda is not theirs, and his fidelity to Islam is considered politic and superficial. But faced with an invading Russian army, the brotherhoods have already joined the fray on his side. Earlier this year Chechen fighters retired to the mountains and abandoned Grozny, and the end of the Chechen war became as elusive as the Sufi orders themselves. In this tired battle of wills between Moscow and the Chechen Muslims, Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation rank as their weakest opponents yet.

David Damrel is a Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, and an Associate Faculty Member in the Department of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Originally published in Religious Studies News, Sep. 1995, Vol. 10, No. 3., p. 10.
© 1997 AAR, Atlanta, GA.

© 2007 Chechen Republic Online