The recent elections for the sheikh and imam of a mosque located on Vengerskikh Boitsov Street (Hungarian Fighters Street), in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, were quite characteristic of the situation throughout the republic. According to official rules, a mosque imam is appointed by the mufti of the republic, regardless of the type of mosque—i.e. whether it has Sufi or Salafi parishioners. The authorities introduced this rule to control the parishes and implement a unified government policy. In reality, however, Dagestan’s official clergy has yielded to the demands of the parishes and appoints people who are approved of by the parishioners. This shows the weakness of the centralization efforts made by the republic’s official Muslim body.
One of the most respected Sufi sheikhs in Dagestan, Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov, passed away on November 11. Babatov represented the Naqshbandiyya tariqa (Sufi order). Apart from serving as sheikh for his own murids (disciples), who were predominantly ethnic Kumyks, Babatov also served as the imam of Makhachkala’s Ikhlas mosque (Onkavkaz.com, November 12). The Kumyks had high regard for Babatov, who could have become the leader of a powerful movement had he wanted. However, after the demise of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Babatov abandoned all political activities and focused only on religious activities. Along with Said Afandi Chirkeiskiy and Sirazhudin Khurikskiy, Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov Kyakhulaiskiy was one of the most influential sheikhs in Dagestan. Babatov came from the town of Kyakhulai, located on the outskirts of Makhachkala. Said Afandi Chirkeiskiy, who was considered the Avars’ sheikh, was killed in a terrorist attack, in August 2012. Sirazhudin Khurikskiy held high authority among southern Dagestanis, primarily Lezgins and Tabasarans. Khurikskiy was killed in the front yard of his own home, in the village of Khurik, in Dagestan’s Tabasaran district, in January 2011 (Regnum, November 12).
Babatov maintained little contact with Dagestan’s official Muslim clergy, which mainly represents the small fraction of Avars who were supporters of Said Chirkeiskiy. The rocky relationship between Babatov and the official clerics was demonstrated by the storming of the official mufti’s building, by Babatov’s followers, back in September 2001. Babatov’s murids demanded that the official clergy stop attacking their leader. In 2004, Babatov’s followers attempted to create their own mufti organization to limit the influence of Said Chirkeisky on the religious life of Muslims in Dagestan (Islamnews.ru, April 15, 2010).
Babatov was one of the few Sufis who agreed to debate the Salafis not only in Dagestan, but also abroad (Ansar.ru, accessed November 20). The cleric also supported the Chechens in their struggle against Russia in 1994, despite the pro-Russian position of Dagestan’s official clergy. There were other Kumyk sheikhs apart from Babatov—for example, Arslan-Ali from Paraul—but most people trusted Babatov’s knowledge of Islamic theology in general and Sufism in particular. Thus, Babatov was not simply one of the respected imams and sheikhs of the Kumyks in Dagestan, but one of the few who was a Sufi and, at the same time, opposed to the official clergy. Babatov’s death, therefore, may have a lasting impact on the Kumyks’ relations with the official muftis and other Sufi sheikhs in Dagestan.
In Dagestan today there are about 25 tariqa groups, which are also referred to as “wirds.” The majority of the Dagestani wirds belong to two spiritual Sufi orders—the Naqshbandiyya and Shadhiliyya tariqas. Also present are followers of the Qadiriyya tariqa, most of whom are found among the Chechens of Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district and the Avars of the republic’s Botlikh district. The divisions among Sufi sheikhs, their constant mutual insults and refusal to recognize each other as religious authorities, play into the hands of the Salafis. It is of vital importance, therefore, for the Kumyk community of Makhachkala to retain the Sufi order’s control over their mosque after their sheikh passed away. Supporters of the Kumyk clerics have apparently decided to appoint Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov’s son, Ibragim-haji, as the new sheikh and imam of the mosque. This will allow their wird (group) to retain control of the mosque and continue the policies of the deceased sheikh. The new sheikh received a good Islamic education from his father and other Muslim clerics. He is also a hafiz (i.e. has memorized the Quran in its entirety), as are his many siblings.
The official muftis will have no other choice but to recognize the candidacy proposed by Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov’s followers. The new sheikh will have an estimated 3,000–10,000 murids that he will “inherit” from his father, which is a large number of religious supporters for a republic the size of Dagestan (Ndelo.ru, November 18). Ahmad-haji Abdullaev, an Avar and member of Said Chirkeiskiy’s wird, is the current mufti of Dagestan. Abdullaev will try to establish friendlier relations with Babatov’s son and successor in order to increase the influence of the official clergy among the Kumyks. Currently, Dagestan’s mufti is only formally representing all Muslims of the republic. The authorities bet all their chips on Sheikh Said Chirkeisky and, therefore, cut themselves off from the tens of thousands of murids of other sheikhs. It is unlikely that the authorities can change that situation.
Babatov’s death also may have an impact on the Salafis. Babatov often criticized the Salafis, but he did not call for the elimination of Salafism in the republic, as do nearly all the other Sufi sheikhs.
Thus, the death of the Naqshbandiyya Sheikh Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov may trigger a chain reaction among the Sufis and politicians of Dagestan. The balance of power has changed because the Sufi forces that were opposed to the official Muslim clergy and at the same time supported a policy of coexistence with the Salafis have been weakened.