On the evening of February 15, 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov, at that time still Chechnya’s prime minister, prayed together with members of his family in his native village of Tsentoroi. According to his press service, later that evening Kadyrov received the news from Moscow that President Vladimir Putin had finally appointed him as president of Chechnya. When Chechen officials heard about it, they immediately went to Tsentoroi to congratulate Ramzan personally. Members of the regional government, as well as members of the republic’s parliament, stood in line to demonstrate their loyalty to the new Chechen president. However, Kadyrov announced he was not going to stay that night in Tsentoroi. He stated that he planned to travel around the republic to visit ziyarts, the tombs of famous religious leaders in Chechen history. According to Kadyrov’s press service, Ramzan Kadyrov visited five tombs in the villages of Sayasan, Koshkeldi, Bachi-Yurt, Ertan and Serzhen-Yurt (Kommersant, February 16). Accompanied by numerous bodyguards as well as by many officials, Kadyrov stopped to pray at each of the tombs. The longest prayer was recited in Serzhen-Yurt near an especially popular place, the tomb of Kheda, the mother of Kunta Haji, a 19th century Chechen Islamic spiritual leader.
Kunta Haji, or Kunta Kishiev, was the founder of a mystical Islamic movement in Chechnya called zikrism. Followers of zikrism perform an ecstatic dance, the zikr, along with songs and music, as a collective prayer to Allah. Zikrism became popular among the Chechens in the 1860’s, just after the end of the Caucasian war. Kunta Haji’s message of non-violence and, “non-resistance to evil,” found broad acceptance among the populace, who were exhausted by their long war with Russia.
The name of Kunta-Haji has recently become well-known in Russia as a result of the conflict between Ramzan Kadyrov and Alu Alkhanov, the former Chechen president. In an interview with Moskovsky komsomolets published on January 23, 2007, Alkhanov compared the fate of Imam Shamil with that of Kunta-Haji. Imam Shamil was the leader of the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War of the 19th century who later surrendered and won the respect of the Russian authorities. Alkhanov told the newspaper that Kunta Haji never took part in any fighting. Furthermore, he always, “called for living in peace with the Russians and taught that war was savagery.” Despite all this, he was banished to Siberia and died in exile.
Ramzan Kadyrov used the interview as a pretext to initiate a campaign against Alkhanov. The Republic’s mufti, Sultan Khadzhi Mirzoev, sharply criticized Alkhanov for his assertion that Kunta-Haji Kishiev had died. The mufti said that the followers of Kunta-Khadzhi believe that he has not died and will eventually return. Ramzan himself declared that many followers of Haji asked him to explain to Alkhanov how wrong he was in saying that Haji had died (see Chechnya Weekly, February 8, 2007).
It should be noted that in their struggle for power, both Alkhanov and Kadyrov wanted to demonstrate their adherence to Kunta Haji’s teaching. It is clear that in his Moskovsky komsomolets interview, Alu Alkhanov wanted to demonstrate that it was he who was the true follower of Kunta Haji, given that he had always been loyal to Russia, while Ramzan, given his rebellious past, was more like Imam Shamil. At the same time, Kadyrov wants to be seen as the true follower of Haji in modern Chechnya.
Why has the name of Kunta Haji come to play such an important role in Chechen politics?
Zikrism is very popular in Chechnya. Various political forces in the republic are trying to use it for their own purposes. In 1994, during the first Russian invasion, the Chechen rebels danced the zikr to prepare themselves for battle against the Russian army. However, it soon became clear that zikrism was too peaceful an ideology to be used for an extended period during a time of war with Russia. Today it is giving way to Islamic fundamentalism, with its ideas of a Sharia state and armed resistance against infidels – an ideology that was used by the Caucasian insurgency in the past and has again become the banner of militants in the North Caucasus.
At the same time, the Russian authorities began to look at Kunta Haji’s teachings as a branch of Islam that could be used to nullify the anti-Russian forces in the region. In 2005, the Kremlin, together with the pro-Russian forces in Chechnya, initiated a campaign against “Wahhabism” (the term commonly used in Russia when referring to Islamic militancy). It was announced that Chechen policemen who were fighting the rebels were in fact fighting against Wahhabis, who were portrayed as the enemies of Islam (see Chechnya Weekly, August 18, 2005).
Nevertheless, both the Kremlin and pro-Russian Chechen leaders understand that while pointing at Wahhabism as the main enemy, an alternative for the local Muslims needs to be found. Zikrism seems to be the best option.
Since early 2006, the name of Kunta Haji has been mentioned more and more often in official speeches.
On June 19, 2006, Alu Alkhanov declared that Wahhabism was no longer a threat in Chechnya and said that proof of this was the fact that half a million pilgrims had visited the tomb of Kheda in the first half of 2006 alone (Interfax, June 19, 2006).
On August 18, 2006, Kadyrov told a Moscow News journalist that he was a murid (disciple) of Kunta Haji. Kadyrov said he had been fighting against the Wahhabis since 1997, when an Arab in Chechnya insulted Haji by calling him “a whistler.” Kadyrov added that Kunta Haji had always called for peace, not war.
Last July 14, Chechens and Ingush gathered in Ingushetia for a special meeting near a location where Kunta Kishiev had preached Islam. They commemorated his memory by reading the Koran and sacrificing animals (Interfax, July 14, 2006). On October 4, one day before Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday, many followers of Haji gathered in the Chechen village of Dzhalka to celebrate the upcoming event by dancing the zikr (Kavkazky Uzel, October 4, 2006).
Clearly, the authorities are using the cult of Kunta Haji to fight against the insurgency and also as a way to legitimize Kadyrov’s regime in the eyes of the Chechens. Ramzan Kadyrov and other officials constantly repeat that Kishiev preached a message of peace, hoping that this will persuade the rebels to surrender. However, they forget to add that Kishiev advocated not only peace, but also non-violent resistance to the Russian infidels. His popularity can be explained only by the fact that in the wake of the Caucasian War in the 19th century, the exhausted Chechen nation might no longer have been able to resist through military action, but could continue to resist by using non-violence. That is why despite Kunta Haji’s pacifism, the Russian authorities regarded him as a dangerous figure and sent him to Siberia. His arrest in 1864 sparked a new uprising in the region.
Kunta Haji is in fact highly respected as a preacher of Islam in the North Caucasus and the zikr has already become a part of Chechen culture. Still, if Ramzan Kadyrov, who is disliked by many Chechens, continues to use the name of Haji to strengthen his power, it could backfire and possibly damage the reputation of the zikrism movement and make militant Islam even more popular in Chechnya.