The Caucasus is a culture of polar opposites, jarring contrasts and occasionally unexpected juxtapositions. Russian author Viktor Pelevin was on to something when he wrote his noir novel Generation ‘P,’ a cult hit that portrayed an opiate-addicted Chechen racketeer who “usually lay on a mattress in a half-empty trailer … listening to Sufi music” (Pelevin, Generation ‘P,’ 1999). Sufism has long become the default setting for Muslim life in the northeastern Caucasus and an important vehicle for individualized spirituality. As Sufi brotherhoods proliferated in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, music, chants, recitations and ecstatic dances became part of the ritual. It is not surprising, therefore, that even a gangster should try to handle the blast radius from his drug-fueled and crime-ridden existence by listening to devotional music.
Some Sufi worship songs have become so popular that they can be heard in cafes and stores, vying in popularity with pop tracks. Chechen government propaganda even uses them as background music in video footage from Ukraine, giving Sufi detractors ammunition to tarnish the movement and undermine the value of its message (T.me/RKadyrov_95, December 23, 2022). Critics, especially of the Salafi persuasion, argue that in the modern setup—and in a departure from their original doctrines—Sufi orders have become a tool to legitimize state power and policies by the authorities. But such claims are at best only partially true.
The recent mass migration of the Batal-Haji brotherhood’s members from Ingushetia to Chechnya tells one as much about the two Russian republics and their tortured relations with various Muslim congregations as it does about the religious community in question (Meduza, December 12, 2022). When an event concerns a subject as touchy as religion, prejudices inevitably arise, leading to the skewing of facts and attempts to usurp and distort the truth. But the Batal-Haji Qadiri order is not merely a community of believers. It is also somewhat of a political organization and an economic institution with considerable financial and real estate holdings in Ingushetia.
Qadiri Sufism (Qadiriyya) emerged in the northeastern Caucasus in the mid-19th century, at the end of the Caucasian War, likely as a reaction to the suffering wrought by decades of violence and the inability of religious institutions to put an end to it. The Qadiri tariqa, or initiation path—brought to the Caucasus by the charismatic Chechen preacher Kunta-Haji Kishiyev after years of spiritual journeys in the Middle East—is most closely associated with the practice of dhikr, or divine remembrance of God. Contrary to what its adversaries claim, Qadiriyya, which came to be known in the Caucasus as “muridism,” is not a specific sect of Islam, but rather a set of rituals and practices believed to be necessary for an adept to achieve mystical union with God.
Countless sayings and ideas are attributed to Kunta-Haji, a good many of which are probably apocryphal, but it is generally posited that the sheikh inculcated strict morality in his followers (murids), taught them not to covet worldly possessions and condemned blind attachment to dogma as well as scholastic theology while allowing for the possibility of accepting Russian domination for the sake of physical survival. The Russians, however, seemed to believe that the freshly conquered populace of Caucasians had to be subjugated not only militarily but also spiritually. In 1864, Kunta-Haji was arrested and deported to the northern Russian town of Ustyuzhna, where he died shortly thereafter and was buried secretly, in an unmarked grave.
Despite such reprisals, Sufism blossomed in parts of the North Caucasus where Kunta-Haji’s closest disciples had settled, including Batal-Haji Belkharoyev, the founder of the eponymous brotherhood. The group would continue to propagate Kunta-Haji’s teachings, providing spiritual guidance and directing the affairs of various local congregations. It is largely owing to the efforts of these figures that a successful and resilient Sufi movement has persisted to the present day. Batal-Haji, however, would not escape the wrath of the Russian overlords. In 1911, he and a group of other Chechen spiritual figures were exiled to central Russia, where he died three years later (Kunstkamera.ru, August 8, 2012).
Modern-day Sufi devotional practices are easily recognizable even to the uninitiated. No documentary about the Chechen wars is complete without footage of a Sufi circle dancing with their haunting, soulful chants. The Batal-Haji order is known not only for that, however. Most Sufi Qadiri orders in Chechnya and Ingushetia generally advocate a kind of quietism that absolves the murids from an ethical responsibility to fulfill any specific political or social role. Conversely, Batal-Haji’s followers have actively engaged in Ingushetia’s political and economic life and have frequently challenged the powers that be since the collapse of Communism. In Ingushetia—the smallest Russian republic with few opportunities and scarce resources—that effectively meant a war on many fronts.
Highly disciplined and skillfully marshaled by a centralized leadership, the Batal-Haji murids had little difficulty repelling sporadic and uncoordinated attacks from their local foes. But everything changed on the last day of 2018 when Ibrahim Belkharoyev, the great-grandson of the order’s founder and its unofficial security apparatus chief, was killed when his car was ambushed in Ingushetia’s largest city, Nazran (Ingushetia.sledcom.ru; Kavkaz
Less than a year later, the head of Ingushetia’s shadowy anti-extremism Center E, Ibrahim Eldzharkiyev, was gunned down in Moscow in what was widely suspected to be an assassination ordered by the brotherhood in revenge for Ibrahim Belkharoyev’s death (RIA Novosti, November 2, 2019; Interfax, December 18, 2019). The Batal-Haji murids appear to have acted on the intelligence that the Center E chief, and by extension the leadership of the republic, was behind the hit on one of their leaders. This suspicion was indirectly confirmed by the subsequent wave of arrests, searches and patently absurd charges of terrorism leveled against the brotherhood’s members (Interfax, July 22, 2020; May 27, 2021).
The Batal-Haji order—which numbers at least 10,000 members—seems to be targeted as much for its alleged involvement in violent crime as for its politics, economic resources and mobilization power. The order may also be seen as a threat because it provides genuine social services to its community, which the republic’s corrupt and inefficient authorities are frequently unable to do. Lastly, the brotherhood has always maintained good relations with the leadership of neighboring Chechnya, not only for reasons of political expediency but also because of Batal-Haji’s ties to the region. That alone can make the order suspect to Ingushetia’s parochial politicos.
As for the Chechen authorities, they view the brotherhood—just like any other Qadiri Sufi order—as allies in their long-standing fight against Salafists and Wahhabis. Chechnya’s current leadership has maintained that only Sufis, who in the past have been targeted by Wahhabi groups, possess the doctrinal tools, determination, intellectual skills and political cunning to demolish the Salafi ideology, which has proved attractive to so many young people in the North Caucasus.
An added consideration in granting the Batal-Haji murids safe-haven in Chechnya must have been the hope that they will eventually boost the ranks of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s private militia. The Chechen authorities have already cobbled together a Batal-Haji Rapid Response Unit and dispatched it to eastern Ukraine, apparently to test their loyalty (T.me/RKadyrov_95, December 15, 2022; December 19, 2022). Thus, this brotherhood may yet play a key role in bolstering the Chechen forces fighting on the Russian side against Ukraine.