Murder of Sufi Sheikh Could Ignite Intra-Islamic Conflict In Dagestan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 203

Muslim boy studying in Dagestan (Source: The Telegraph)

The recent murder of the Tabasaran sheikh of the Naqshbandi order, Sirajuddin Israfilov, has been extensively discussed in the North Caucasian media. Israfilov came from the village Khurik and so was better known as Sirajuddin Khuriksky. The Tabasarans are one of the highlander peoples of Dagestan, numbering up to 140,000 people. Mostly the Tabasarans live in the three southern districts of Dagestan – the Derbent district, the Tabasaran district and the Khiv district. The Tabasaran language is closest to the Lezgin language and is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, featuring 48 cases.

Local police reported that on the evening of October 27, two unidentified people gunned down Sirajuddin Israfilov after calling him out of his house in the Tabasaran district village of Khurik. The 56-year-old died on the spot. The attackers managed to escape the crime scene (, October 27).

Sirajuddin Khuriksky was a well-known figure in his region as well as throughout Dagestan. He was the founder and head of the Islamic institute in Derbent, which was eventually transformed into a branch of the Imam Shafi’i Islamic Institute in Makhachkala. The sheikh set up and built a myriad of madrasahs in the south of Dagestan, in particular in the settlements where the Tabasarans live. Sirajuddin received the title of sheikh in 1989 from his ustaz (teacher, mentor) Abdullah, who was famous for having lived 115 years. Khuriksky’s role was the same as his predecessor’s – that of spiritual leader of the Tabasaran people. This was the unique feature of Khuriksky that set him apart from other sheikhs of Dagestan who have led various sub-ethnic groups. There are 23 sheikhs in Dagestan who belong to various Sufi brotherhoods of three tariqats (Islamic orders).

Khuriksky was considered one of the most influential sheikhs of Dagestan, second in influence only to Said-effendi Chirkeisky. The latter is also the absolute authority also for the Dagestani government officials who switched their membership in the Soviet Communist Party to the status of Chirkeisky’s murids (followers). Chirkeisky reportedly did not regard Khuriksky as a true sheikh, which seriously affected their relations. However, thanks to Khuriksky’s importance in southern Dagestan, he still was appointed chairman of the ulems council in the republic (, October 28). In a sign of how important a figure Khuriksky was, almost all top Dagestani officials attended his funeral, including the head of the republic, the republican parliament’s speaker, the prime minister of the republican government and members of his cabinet (, October 29).

The official Spiritual Board of Mulsims of Dagestan will most likely not miss Sirajuddin Khuriksky. Khuriksky had a protracted conflict with the Dagestani spiritual board, opposing its attempts to spread its influence to the southern part of the republic. The southern Dagestani religious leader regarded the board’s efforts as Avar interference in Tabasaran affairs. The Dagestani spiritual board is dominated by ethnic Avars, who also provide support for Said Chirkeisky, who is also an ethnic Avar (, October 28, 2011). The Dagestani spiritual board will probably be inclined to capitalize on Chirkeisky’s death and ask the government for additional protection, especially given the fact that imams of rural mosques are killed in the republic on a regular basis.

Does this murder signify a new wave of friction between Sufism and Salafism in Dagestan? The Salafis who belong to the armed opposition – such as the jamaat that is part of the Caucasus Emirate – often criticize the Sufis, accusing them of collaborating with the government. Sufi leaders, for their part, are forced by the government to engage in a public propaganda campaign against the Salafis, even though by virtue of their nature they should not have public disputes with anybody. A Sufi brotherhood, in particular the Naqshbandi, is a closed structure that protects its own interests and advances its own people but does not fight openly with anyone. The very mechanism of the Naqshbandi tariqat’s existence assumes carrying out a secret struggle. No one is supposed to know the goals of the brotherhood or how it will seek to achieve them except the members of the brotherhood. So when the government makes the Sufis declare support for the authorities and condemn the Salafis, the Sufi brotherhoods are cast in a bad light. The Sufis lose their attractiveness to the lay public as well as their mystery and enigma. So it is the authorities themselves that primarily discredit Sufism in the North Caucasus. Against such a backdrop, young people are increasingly joining the Salafis, who proclaim themselves fighters against authorities responsible for the dire situation in the republic.

Whether consciously or not, the Dagestani authorities managed to soften the blows the Salafis were dealing them by opening a discussion about who is right – the Salafis or the Sufis. The Salafis now spend more time on their websites criticizing the Sufis than the government. By killing a high-ranking Sufi leader like Sirajuddin Khuriksky, the Salafis seek to demonstrate they are so self-sufficient that they do not need the support of a majority of the population. The version that the Salafis killed Khuriksky is the only one being entertained by the authorities (

In fact Sirajuddin Khuriksky is not the first high-ranking victim. On August 22, 1998, the mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan, 39-year-old Said Muhammad-haji Abubakarov, was killed. On July 27, 2007, the spiritual board’s deputy mufti, Kurmagomed Ramazanov, was killed. On May 26, 2009, another Dagestani deputy mufti, Ahmed Tagaev, was killed. Dozens of village imams have also been murdered.

The important thing in the case of Khuriksky is that a sheikh of an active brotherhood who had 10,000-15,000 followers was killed in Dagestan. His murids will now have to regard all insurgents in Dagestan as their enemies. Consciously or not, with this murder the armed opposition in Dagestan turned all adult Tabasarans and part of the Lezgin population into their enemies.