Sufism in Chechnya

Excerpts from: "Mystics and Commmissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union"X, Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush,C. Hurst and Company, London, 1985.


"The arrest of the sectarians, the deportations of their leader, the Shali affair, where more than a hundred zikrist adepts perished, has sobered Chechnia. The zikrist movement disappeared as rapidly as it appeared" A. Ipolitov, from "Uchenie zikr ego posledovatali v Chechne i Argunskom Okrug, Sbornik svedenii of Kavkazhiskh gortsakh, 1869, Tiflis.

"Today the sectarians have been reduced to an insignificant minority." A.M. Tutayev, Reaktsionnaia sekta Batal Haji, Grozny, 1968.

"Weakness and cowardice never saved anybody." [Imam Shamil]

p. 2

Sufism, a corpus of techniques concerning the "journeying" of a mystic adept toward God, appeared in the first centuries of Islam. In the beginning it was a purely individual experience based on the personal relationship between the disciple, or murid, and his master, variously called sheikh, murshid, pir, ustad, or ishan. The master alone was responsible for the progress of the student along the path, or tariqat, to God.

In the twelfth century, when for the first time in the history of the Muslim world Islam was threatened by invaders -- the Qara Khitai in the East, Crusaders in the West, Sufis assumed the role of defenders of the faith, and Sufism swelled into a popular mass movement of organised brotherhoods of adepts, who were grouped around a master and bound by compulsory rules which regimented every aspect of their life.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the development of Sufism in the territories of the present day Soviet Union followed three different patterns. In some areas - where the Islamic character of society was not under immediate threat - the Sufi orders became part of the ruling establishment. In the Tatar regions of the Middle Volga, where the Muslim community was challenged and threatened in all fields by an overwhelmingly superior Russian presence, the Sufi orders assumed the leading role in the intellectual renaissance of the late nineteenth century. Many Naqshbandis, in particular, were in the forefront of the modernist liberal jadid reform movement.

In the North Caucasus, in the Turkmen steppes, in the Ferghana valley in Central Asia, and in those areas where Russian conquest was met by massive popular resistance, Sufi brotherhoods played a primary role in inspiring, organising and leading the fight. Partly as a result of its role in popular resistance, Sufism in these regions never acquired the same elitist character as it did elsewhere. Rather it preserved and extended its popular roots.

Contrary to the situation in other countries that have Sufi orders (Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Arab countries), where fundamentalist currents and organisations are independent and often opposed to Sufi activity, in the Soviet Union fundamentalist and radical Sufi tendencies are often, but not always, in harmony. In the particular case of the North Caucasus, Sufi orders have gained control not only over fundamentalist trends but also over all national resistance movements from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

It was only in the 1960's that fundamentalism reappeared -- to stay up till the present. At this time Muslim intellectuals began to search their own national past in the hope of discovering ideological roots for their societies other than the Russia Marxism-Leninism and jadidist Islamic modernism. In their search thorugh the past they encountered among other legacies. its militant tradition, symbolised by the Caucasian Naqshbandiya and its two-centuries-long resistance to Russian domination. In this same period Soviet observers were discovering that the Sufi brotherhoods had not disappeared at the time of the Revolution and the great anti-religious drives (1928-1939); on the contrary, they had gone underground, a self-imposed restriction from which they were now slowly emerging.

p. 7 [Naqshbandiya]

Naqshbandi groups exist all over the world from Morocco to Indonesia, and from China to East Africa.


Today the Naqshbandiya is represented in almost all Muslim areas of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it has practically disappeared from the Cherkess territory of the northwestern Caucasus, and there is little evidence to suggest that it has survived after the 1917 revolution in the Tatar-Bashkir territory.

The predominance of the Naqshbandiya over other brotherhoods may be explained by several factors. First, it has a double character, at once elitist and popular.

Secondly, the Naqshbandiya has a unique ability to adapt to changing social and political conditions. An adept is not an ascetic: he remains "in the world" (Khalwat dar anjoman -- "solitary in the world"; Safar dar Vatan -- "journaying toward God while remaining in the world"). Thus, as an individual, the Naqshbandi adept is required to adjust his social behavior to meet the requirements of everyday life: that is to say he must be socially flexible.

Thirdly, the Naqshbandiya is linguistically accessible to everyone.

Fourthly, the Naqshbandiya has gained immense prestige as a result of its providing the leadership in the wars against the Buddhist Kalmyks in Turkestan (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) and against Russians in the Caucasus, from Imam Mansur in 1783 to Imam Najmuttin of Hotso in 1920-21.

Fifthly, the Naqshbandiya is a highly decentralized order which maintains its unity only through a community of purpose and the practice of a simple ritual -- what we would today call, anachronistically, "a common ideology". Its activities are safeguarded by the order's clandestine nature, of which the silent zikr is a perfect expression.


Finally, this order embodies what we might think of as doctrinal liberalism, in that it excludes fanaticism and radicalism. It is for this reason that the Naqshbandiya has been successful in superimposing itself on other brotherhoods, absorbing them without insisting on their elimination.

If one is to judge by the intensity of Soviet anti-Sufi propaganda today, the Naqshbandiya appears to be particularly active in Daghestan, the eastern part of Chechnia, and the northern districts of Azerbaijan.

p. 9 [Qadiriya -- probably the second most prestigious and influential]

The new brotherhood played an important role in the Islamisation of the Chechens and Ingush in the second part of the nineteenth century, but has remained limited to this region.


Because Muslims do not cease to be active believers when their mosque is closed -- for a mosque has little of the proprietary significance in Islam that a church has in Christianity -- Islam is an elusive target. It cannot be attacked and destroyed by one frontal assault; rather all aspects of its manifestation in daily life must be assaulted simultaneously.

[A quick history of the Caucasian's defense of their homelands]


After his victory in 1785 in the battle of the Sunzha river where he destroyed an entire Russian brigade, Mansur called the mountaineers to holy war against the encroaching infidels and for some years unified practically the whole of North Caucasus, from the Chechen territory in the west to the Kumyk steppes in the east.

p. 19

Henceforth the Naqshbandiya tariqat was to play a very important role in Caucasian history. Iron discipline, total dedication to its ideals and the strict hieararchy on which it was based explain the epic resistance of the Caucasian mountaineers to Russian conquest -- a resistance that lasted from 1824 till 1855 -- in which not only the leaders of the movement but also the local authorities (naibs) and the majority of the fighters were Naqshbandis. It can be said that the nearly fifty-year long Caucasian wars made an important contribution to the material and moral ruin of the Tsarist empire and hastened the downfall of the Romanov monarchy.

The brotherhood achieved another deep and long-lasting result: it transformed the half-pagan mountaineers into strict orthodox Muslims, and introduced Islam into the animist areas of upper Chechnia and among the Circassian tribes of the western Caucasus.

The final defeat of muridism in 1859 and the subsequent massive migration of the Caucasian muslims to Turkey did not destroy the Naqshbandiya in Daghestan and Chechnia; its roots had spread too wide and deep.

p. 20 [The Qadiriya and its offspring]

Kunta Haji preached non-resistance to evil and the acceptance of infidel domination, slogans that were popular among the war-weary mountaineers. The order, which took the name "Kunta Haji tariqat" in the Caucasus, practiced the loud zikr as opposed to the silent zikr of the Naqshbandis, with ecstatic dances, songs and later even music, all practices forbidden by Shamil and the Naqshbandiya. The new tariqat enjoyed an immediate and spectacular success especially in Chechnia, in the Avar country and in northern Daghestan, that is in the areas where the war effort had been particularly strong and where the Russian pressure had been especially severe. From Chechnia, the Qadiri murids penetrated into the still animist Ingushetia, a territory still at that time untouched by Islam, which they converted by the 1870's.

p. 21

In 1862-62 a wave of unrest swept over Chechnia, and early January 1864 the Russian authorities, frightened by the fast growing number of Qadiriya murids and convinced that a new revolt was unavoidable, arrested and deported Kunta Haji and several dozen of his murids. On 18 January 1864 some 4,000 murids who had gathered in the village of Shali were dispersed by gunfire; 200 of them were killed, about 1,000 were wounded, and many were arrested and deported. Kunta Haji in May 1867 died in a Russian jail. His tariqat was not officially outlawed, but the loud zikr was strictly forbidden, and the Russian authorities encouraged a massive emigration of Qadiris to Turkey. In 1865 some 5,000 Chechen families left the North Caucasus for the Ottoman Empire. But despite all this, the expansion of the Qadiriya order was not slowed.

p. 22

In 1877, the two tariqa, Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya, took an active part in the great rebellion in Chechnia-Daghestan.Those leaders who had not been killed in battle were nearly all hanged and thousands of murids were deported to Siberia. But once more, by a strange paradox, the defeat of the 1877-78 revolt, far from marking the decline of the tariqa in the North Caucasus, served as a starting point for a new period of expansion: "Between 1877 and the 1917 revolution, almost all of the adult population of Chechnia-Ingushetia belonged to either the Naqshbandiya or to the Qadiriya tariqat" [26]. The same was true to a less extent in Daghestan.

Nevertheless, the defeat of 1877 marked a turning point in the nature of the Sufi brotherhood's activity in the North Caucasus. For a while, the idea of holy war had been discarded, and both tariqa acquired the character of underground semi-conspiratorial organisations. Between 1879 and 1917, in spite of fresh recollections of two major defeats and severe repression (many of the leaders were arrested and deported to Siberia), the Sufi brotherhoods acquired considerable prestige in the region.

To appreciate how exceptional that was in the context of the time, one must keep in mind that elsewhere in the Muslim world mystical orders were losing their political influence and were being pushed into the background by liberal or radical jadid movements, which flourished with extraordinary vigour in Volga, Tatar, and Crimean and Azeri Islam. By a strange historical reverse, the Sufi orders in the Caucasus, far from waning, practically absorbed official Islam.

p. 23

However during the 1880's and 1890's a certain territorial symbiosis took place between the two orders. He [Elikhan] was arrested and deported to Siberia. Sheikh Deni-Arsonov, his successor,a Chechen from Ken-Yurt and a "bandit of honor", or abrek, for many years raided the Terek Cossack settlements and enjoyed a reputation for great piety. He was finally killed in battle by the Cossacks with many of his murids in 1917.

p. 24

After August 1917, a Congress of Daghestani ulemas and religious leaders held in the aul of Andi in Avaristan, proclaimed the Naqshbandi sheikh Najmuttin of Hotso (or Gotso; in Russian Gotsinski) imam of Daghestan and Chechnia, resuming in that way the tradition of North Caucasian Imamate abandoned in 1859 with the capture of Shamil. During the tragic revolutionary years of 1917-1921, which were especially bloody in the northeastern Caucasus, the Sufi brotherhoods played a central role.


By 1918, imam Najmuttin of Hotso and sheikh Uzun Haji had at their disposal a small army of some 10,000 murids composed mainly of Naqshbandi adepts, which was the best fighting force in the North Caucasus. With these troops Uzun Haji repulsed and finally defeated Denikin's White force during the offensive of the summer and autumn of 1919. In the autumn he proclaimed liberated Chechnia and northwestern Daghestan to be a "North Caucasian Emirate".

Uzun Haji died in May 1920. In the summer of that year, when the North Caucasus was occupied by the Bolsheviks, Chechen leaders led the great revolt of Daghestan-Chechnia against Bolshevik rule. The resistance lasted over a year. Mohammad of Balakhany was commander-in-chief of the insurgent army at the battle of the Arakan valley, where an entire Red Army brigade was wiped out and one of its commanders, Safar Dudarov, head of the Daghestani Cheka, was taken prisoner and executed on the spot. The revolt was finally quelled in September 1925, when the Bolsheviks captured Imam Najmuttin and two surviving Naqshbandi leaders.

The Daghestani-Chechen revolt was a widespread popular mass movement, resembling a peasant war, but the guerilla fighters displayed an efficiency that only a brotherhood leadership comparable to that of Shamil's fighters, with their spirit of total dedication and iron will, could ensure. For a whole year the mountaineers effectively opposed the Red Army, which had conquered Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia in a few short weeks.


The situation in the North Caucasus after the liquidation of the 1920 revolt was similar to that which followed Shamil's defeat [in 1864] in both cases military disaster did not lead to the decline of the Sufi orders. On the contrary, while the Naqshbadiya was engaged in jihad, the Qadiriya's influence was growing. Noted Samurski in 1925:

Recently muridism has been expanding in Daghestan. The Sufi adepts claim to be "communists" and it is not entirely without grounds that they call themselves "communists". Their doctrine certainly has some communist characteristics, but they are those of a primitive, religious, ascetic communism comparable to that of early Christian communities. [31] .


According to the Soviet sources, many members of the Chechen Communist Party were "zikrists" during this period, and several communist leaders, did not hide their sympathy for the brotherhood. Naturally enough, such a situation born out of Civil War anarchy could not last. Late in 1923, an antireligious campaign was launched in the North Caucasus. All the Shariyat courts were abolished. During the winter of 1923-24, the Red Army disarmed the Chechen population and liquidated the "bandit's nests" (groups of Naqshbandi guerilla fighters in the high mountains and the underground Qadiri). [A list of leaders, communist and religious who were executed].

p. 28

That first massive purge of Sufi adapts provoked a new wave of rebellions. The revolt started in the autumn of 1929 in the Chechen territory. a few months later, the movement switched to northern Daghestan.

The fighting went on until the spring of 1930. In spite of the intervention of a Red Army division, it ended in a compromise: an armistice followed by general amnesty. However this did not bring peace to the country. Soviet authorities made use of the armistice to annihilate the "national-clerical" elements, and the brotherhoods fought back. In the summer, the Russian chief of the Ingush secret police (GPU), responsible for the purges was killed by a Kunta Haji murid. After that, another adept killed the GPU chief for Chechnia (also a Russian). In 1931, the authorities responded by executing all the leaders of the 1930 and by arresting, trying and executing many of the adepts.

In 1936 the revolt was quelled.

What were the aims, expectations and the political goals pursued throughout this fifteen year long struggle? Soviet sources tell us that Sufi leaders and adepts were "reactionaries", "counterrevolutionaries", "defenders of the clerical-feudal system", "bourgeois-nationalists", and so forth. They are also accused of being "agents" of various foreign imperialisms: mainly Turkish, British, and after 1933, Japanese and German. It is more likely that the brotherhoods were fighting without any precise goals in mind, except to expel the Russians-- simply because they could not submit to the new Soviet regime with its old Russian character and its new militant atheism. Of course, it is hardly possible to claim that the brotherhoods were the only enemies that the Soviet government had to reckon with in the Caucasus between the wars. For example, Daghestani and Chechen communist parties were purged of various "enemies" several times during those years. Many leading North Caucasian Bolsheviks, among them Samurski were executed for "nationalism". Some of the mountain resistance groups were organised by nonreligious leaders. Nevertheless, it is certain that at the time, just like in the nineteenth century and later during the Second World War, only the Sufi brotherhoods could supply an organised, disciplined and efficient fighting force to oppose the Soviet regime.

p. 29

In the winter of 1940, a major new revolt broke out in Chechnia. This time it had a non-religious leader, Hasan Israilov, a former journalist, and a member of the Communist Party. In February 1942, when German troops were still 1,000 miles from Chechnia, another rebellion broke out, also led by a former Communist Party member, Mairbek Sharipov. The Germans never reached the Chechen border, and the rebellion was crushed by the Red Army. On 23 February 1944, the entire Chechen and Ingush populations were rounded up and deported en masse to Siberia and Kazakhstan. but recent Soviet sources reveal that three years later, after the deportation of the Chechen and Ingush population, guerilla fighting was still going on in the higher mountains of Chechnia, Ingushetia and eastern Ossetia. He [the leader of the querrilas] was captured only in 1947 by Soviet troops and condemned to ten years imprisonment. He was released in 1957 and returned to Chechnia where he again assumed the leadership of his brotherhood.

p. 30

Most Soviet specialists of anti-Islamic propaganda recognize that the attempted genocide through deportation of over a million North Caucasian Muslims had a striking, unforeseen result: far from destroying the Sufi brotherhoods, the deportations actually promoted their expansion. For the deported mountaineers the Sufi orders became a symbol of their nationhood in the lands to which they were exiled. Moreover, these orders proved efficient organizers, thus to ensure the community's survival.

When after Stalin's death the surviving North Caucasians were rehabilitated and permitted to return to their homeland, they left behind them in Central Asia well-organised Sufi groups, especially Qadiriya. Central Asian Soviet sources reveal that Sufism expanded during the 1960's and 1970's among the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, and the Karakalpaks. During the deportation years in Kazakhstan, new Sufi orders appeared among the Chechens, the most popular being the Vis Haji group.

In the late 1950's, Sufi brotherhoods in the Caucasus were once more subjected to systematic, relentless persecution about which the Soviet press itself provides abundant information. Members of Sufi brotherhoods were hunted down as "criminals" and no longer simply as "reactionaries" or "dissidents". They were and are accused of immutable hostility towards the Soviet regime, and of economic sabotage, "banditism", "terrorism", and "armed rebellion". Soviet sociologists classify them as "extreme fanatics" and "hardened adversaries of the Soviet regime". [a list of trials in 1958, 1963, and 1964 in Makhach-Kala, Grozny and Nazran.]

Soviet sources testify that repression was and still unable to stop the expansion of the Sufi organizations which appear today more powerful and influential than before the War, probably even before 1917. V.G. Pivovarov, a leading Soviet sociologist, wrote in 1975: " More than half of the Muslim believers of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic are members of a murid brotherhood."

p. 47

Present day Sufism is not monachist, it does not reject the world, and it has no ascetic trends. French scholars like to compare today's Sufi orders in Central Asia to the zawwiyya of North and West Africa, emphasizing their "maraboutic" character. British scholars are fond of looking for Hindo-Muslim syncretism in Central Asia Sufism, while the Turkish error lies in presenting Sufi brotherhoods as heterodox (Shi'a extremist) organisations comparable to the Bektashis. Pre-Revolutionary Russian scholars often emphasized the shamanist background of the Sufi orders. Post-revolutionary Soviet characterisations of the Sufi orders are typically bold, frequently amusing and usually wrong. To most Soviet scholars, the orders represent clandestine surrogate political organisations whose adepts are foreign agents, spies and saboteurs. More sober minds among them present the brotherhoods as heterodox sects, which of course, is also wrong. Western Marxists playing on a variation of this theme, insist on de-spiritualizing Sufism and reducing it either to a simple social protest or to ritual magic. We can also speak of an "Iranocentric" view of Sufism among some scholars, which consists of reducing Sufism in Central Asia and the Caucasus to fundamentalism "a la Khomeini". Finally, although the study of Sufism has come only recently to the United States, some American scholars have already fallen into an unfortunate and atypically unimaginative error; they insist that Sufism in the Soviet Union has little significance because there is only limited data on it. In fact, evidence is plentiful and revealing.

Sufi brotherhoods are not secret societies comparable to Freemasonry, and nor do they represent, as Soviet sources insist, a "parallel Islam" in the sense that it constitutes a religious alternative.


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