Murder of Leading Dagestani Cleric Signals Deepening Crisis in Sufi Hierarchy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 147

Dagestani Sufi Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov, murdered on August 3 (Source: islam.ru)

Yet another Sufi sheikh has been added to the list of those killed in Dagestan. On August 3, Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov, of the branch of Islamic teaching known as the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya, was murdered. The sheikh had an estimated 500–1,000 murids (followers). Ilyasov was an ethnic Kumyk and the imam of the mosque in Alburikent, a suburb of Makhachkala. The cleric was killed as he was getting into a car to take him to the mosque for his evening sermon. Unidentified people in a black car fired from a handgun at Ilyasov and his driver, killing him on the spot. The driver died later in the hospital.

Earlier, two of Dagestan’s most famous and popular sheikhs were killed. Sheikh Said-Efendi Chirkeiski was killed nearly a year ago this August 28. Chirkeiski was an ethnic Avar and one of the most prominent figures in the Sufi hierarchy of Dagestan (http://nusra.info/index.php/news/298-v-dagestane-ubit-sufijskij-shejkh-said-afandi). In October 2011, the most influential Sufi sheikh in southern Dagestan, Sirazhutdin Khurikski, was killed (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/194885/). The difference between the two sheikhs was substantial. Sheikh Said-Efendi had close ties to the authorities and was considered practically their man, as nearly all the republic’s bureaucrats were followers of his brotherhood. Sheikh Sirazhutdin Khurikski was an ethnic Tabasaran who was opposed to the central government of Dagestan and did not allow residents of southern Dagestan to become followers of Chirkeiski. So, Khurikski was in opposition to both the republican government and Sheikh Said-Efendi.

Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov, who was 66 when he was killed earlier this month, was one of the founders and ideologues of the Kumyk Spiritual Board in 1994. Ilyasov graduated from the Mir-i-Arab madrasa in Bukhara, then the Islamic Institute in Tashkent. Later, from 1978 to 1982, he studied in the Sharia department of al-Azhar University in Cairo (www.skfo.ru/people/man/Ilyasov_Ilyas-hadji_/). So Ilyasov was the most learned in the fields of Islamic theology and Sharia of the 23 Sufi sheikhs in Dagestan.

Ilyas-haji Ilyasov was considered one of the most influential people among the Kumyks. The sheikh was popular for his criticism of the government and the Spiritual Board of Dagestan. Even though he was a Sufi sheikh and harshly criticized the adherents of Salafism, the latter still visited his mosque, apparently honoring his critical attitude toward the government (www.regnum.ru/news/1570931.html). Ilyasov was not among those who supported Said-Efendi Chirkeiski (http://gazeta-nv.info/content/view/6415/216/), but he maintained close ties with Sirazhutdin Khurikski before he was killed in October 2011, and with other Dagestani sheikhs. The reason for such different attitudes was that Sheikh Said-Efendi Chirkeiski was supported by the authorities and tried to expand his influence to the territories of other sheikhs. This encroachment on their domains naturally irritated the other 22 Dagestani sheikhs, so they were opposed both to Sheikh Said-Efendi Chirkeiski himself and to the authorities for their unanimous support of him.

Thus the murdered Sheikh Ilyasov was close to previously murdered Sirazhutdin Khurikski because both rebuffed official Makhachkala, the pro-government Sheikh Said Chirkeiski and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan. So the question of who benefited from the death of Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov does not have a simple answer.

Arguably, the Dagestani authorities benefited from Ilyasov’s death, because they no longer have to face an authoritative and learned person who criticizes them for the domination of ethnic Avars in the republican government and for ignoring the interests of ethnic Kumyks.

This death also benefits the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan because Ilyasov always harshly criticized its members, accusing the board of being dominated by Avars. The fact that the four last chief muftis of the republic were ethnic Avars gave his claims some credence.

This death benefits the successors of Said-Efendi Chirkeiski, because the slain Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov tried to prevent Kumyks from joining the ranks of the rival sheikh.

Ilyasov’s death benefitted the Salafis, since the sheikh published polemical articles that harshly criticized the Salafis’ attacks on Sufism.

The Kumyk community is the only party that lost as a result of Ilyasov’s murder. The slain cleric could have represented Kumyk interests from the Islamic standpoint in multiple land disputes with other Dagestani ethnic groups that are resettling in the Kumyks’ lowlands. Ilyas-haji Ilyasov never concealed his sympathies for Tenglik, the Kumyk national movement, and he attended its conferences (www.islamdag.ru/analitika/6234). So the recent confrontation between the Dagestani authorities and Kumyk groups demanding autonomy may have been among the reasons for the murder of Ilyasov.

The fact that Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov was murdered during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan indicates that principles no longer play a role in the ongoing confrontation in Dagestan. The murder of Sirazhutdin Khurikski in fall 2011 crossed a red line, showing that appeals to the conscience and demands that Islamic traditions be respected had become out of place in Dagestan.

It is virtually certain that the latest murder will remain unsolved, like so many others over the past twenty years. The police will lay the blame for Sheikh Ilyas-haji Ilyasov’s murder on militants they kill in the near future, but no details will emerge.

Dagestan is on course for a deepening crisis and there seems to be no resolution in sight. So it is unrealistic to expect any surprises in this part of the North Caucasus anytime in the near future.