Is Sufi Islam Losing Its Dominant Role in Dagestan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 217

Parishioners gather for prayer outside the mosque on Kotrov Street in Makhachkala, Dagestan (Source:

The statutes of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan say that all imams in the republican mosques must be appointed by the official mufti of Dagestan. In practice, this does not normally happen. The communities themselves propose the candidacies of mosque imams and ask the official mufti to confirm their choices. In some cases, the official mufti confirms the appointment of an imam in accordance with the Muslim parishioners’ wishes. In other cases, when the official mufti dislikes the proposed imam because the latter has rejected the dominance of Said Chirkeisky’s Sufi brotherhood, the officials still eventually approve him to avoid creating tensions. Still in other situations, the parishioners apply for the official confirmation of the new imam, but live their religious lives independently from what the official mufti decides. The third situation is frequently found in Salafist Muslim communities. Over the past several years, the official mufti’s struggle to control all of Dagestan’s mosques has intensified.

The latest episode in this struggle took place at the mosque on Kotrov Street in Makhachkala. The mosque has a bad reputation, largely due to journalists portraying it as a Salafist mosque. In reality, a large percentage of the mosque’s parishioners are not Salafis. The mosque is specific ethnically rather than religiously, because ethnic Laks comprise the majority of its parishioners. The Laks, who are one of the many Dagestani ethnic groups, built the mosque in 2000, when they were under the leadership of the well-known opposition politician, Nadirshah Khachilaev. Khachilaev’s views combined Salafism and Lak nationalism. The Lak politician was killed in August 2003 (, August 13, 2003).

On November 20, 2015, the police in Makhachkala started to detain select parishioners of the Kotrov Street mosque after Friday prayers and send them to various police stations of the city, as it does routinely (, November 22). The story would not have broken had the police not accidentally also detained a reporter, Grigory Tumanov, which caught the attention of the media (Kommersant, November 20). This time, the authorities did not limit themselves to detaining Muslim parishioners. Representatives of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan unexpectedly arrived at the Kotrov Street mosque during evening prayers on the same Friday and announced that they decided to replace the mosque’s imam. The religious officials proposed to replace the imam, Khasan-Haji Gasanaliev, with Davud-Haji Tumalaev (, November 20). However, the ensuing tensions, clashes and threats forced the new imam to resign within four days of his appointment. The resignation was a blow to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan. In a face-saving move, they dispatched the imam of the central mosque of Makhachkala, Magomedrasul Saaduev, to take the position (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 25).

The Dagestani religious authorities’ appointment of another loyalist did not help much, however. Moreover, Saaduev stated that the religious authorities had received orders from the government of Dagestan either to replace the imam of the Kotrov Street mosque or close it down. The republican authorities’ influence in this decision was easy to detect. Earlier, the authorities cracked down on a Salafist mosque on Vengerskikh Boitsov Street in the republican capital. The police summoned the mosque’s imam on a Friday and kept him in the police station for several hours without explanation. The police also detained people who looked like Salafists to them—i.e., wore long beards and shortened pants. The authorities apparently applied pressure first on one Salafist mosque to prevent its parishioners from helping the other Salafist mosque under siege. Dagestani media reported that the authorities would soon replace the imam of the Salafist mosque on Vengerskikh Boitsov Street as well (, November 28). Thus, the authorities’ intention is to control all mosques in the republic by removing those imams who are respected by their communities but disapproved of by the government.

Meanwhile, Magomedrasul Saaduev was also unable to survive as an imam of the Kotrova Street mosque for more than four days. On November 29, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan posted a brief announcement on its website: “The mufti of the Republic of Dagestan has decided to relieve the recently appointed Magomedrasul-Haji Saaduev of the duties of imam at the An-Nadyriya mosque in Makhachkala to allow the mosque to choose its own new imam” (, November 29). Thus, nine days after the attempts to remove the existing imam of the Kotrova Street mosque, the official mufti of Dagestan decided to surrender and allow the Muslims parishioners of the mosque to decide who they want as their leader. The parishioners who came to morning prayers saw their mosque free of police cordons. This is a Salafist victory, showing that the official mufti could do nothing to rein them in. However, the republican authorities might now decide to close down the Salafist mosques in the republic altogether, since they did not succeed in replacing their leaders. Such a move would be in line with the aggressive Russian policies abroad in the Middle East. Some experts, however, warn that such a move would force the young Muslims who are in opposition to the official religious authorities to join the ranks of the armed Islamic underground movement that has operated in Dagestan since 2000 (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 24).

The significance of this conflict is that its outcome will be an indicator of strength of the Dagestani Salafist community. If the official mufti fails to control the Salafist mosques, it will show that Salafist influence in the republic has increased and possibly signal the imminent end of Sufi Islam’s two centuries of dominance in Dagestan. Thus, while facing many other problems in the republic, including the armed underground movement, crime, ethnic strife and land conflicts, the authorities have also unwittingly triggered a conflict over control of the republic’s mosques.