Salafist-Sufi Tensions Threaten Greater Instability in North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 109

Ingushetian imam Khamzat Chumakov

Muslims in the North Caucasus anxiously watched the incident at a mosque in Ingushetia’s Nasyr-Kort (Nazran) municipality on June 5, when several thousand supporters of the republican mufti, Isa Khamkhoev, and the imam of the mosque, Khamzat Chumakov (see EDM, August 1, 2013), clashed with each other (YouTube, June 5). Multiple gunshots can be heard on a video of the incident posted on the Internet, which means that people went to the prayer with guns, assuming that there would be physical violence. A day earlier, on June 4, the governor of the republic, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, used his official Facebook account to call on residents of the republic to abstain from provocations and conflicts based on differences over Islamic teachings (, June 4).

Chumakov had earlier decided to stop performing the midday prayer on Friday, but that decision led to the conflict. The Nasyr-Kort imam said that this was the recommendation made at the International Islamic Theological Conference that took place in Ingushetia on May 15, 2015 (, May 15). The purpose of that conference was to let well-known Islamic theologians call for moderation among the Muslims of the North Caucasus.

According to the Shafi’i madhhab, which is one of the four legal schools of Islam, the midday prayer after the Friday prayer is not necessary. The Sufis of the North Caucasus, however, consider the midday prayer on Friday as mandatory. The problem appears to be a quite trivial one that could have been settled through discussion instead of fighting. However, this was only a small aspect of a broader rivalry and competition between the supporters of the two Islamic schools. The conflict at the Nasyr-Kort mosque should have affirmed the victory of the Salafis on this relatively small issue once and for all. In deciding to stop performing the midday prayer on Friday, Chumakov cited Islamic theologians of the Middle East—above all, the Secretary General of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, Ali Muhiddin al-Karadaghi (, June 5).

For his part, Khamkhoev received Ali Muhiddin al-Karadaghi’s views coldly. The official republican cleric had not expected the well-known theologian to support the opponents of the Sufis. At midday on June 5, Khamkhoev and a large crowd of Sufis entered the Nasyr-Kort mosque, where imam Chumakov was delivering his sermon. According to the rules of Islam, a person who is delivering a sermon cannot be questioned or interrupted. Khamkhoev nonetheless tried to approach Chumakov, but was stopped by two bodyguards. The fighting ensued, involving several thousands of Muslims in the mosque. The Salafis eventually forced the mufti out of the mosque, but the fighting continued in the mosque for some time. That same evening, Khamkhoev explained his position, saying he had gone to the mosque on behalf of co-villagers who disliked the fact that Chumakov was putting constraints on them (YouTube, June 5). The mufti of Ingushetia said no one had appointed Chumakov as the mosque’s imam and called him an impostor. The republican mufti said he had been trying to correct the situation and wanted to address the parishioners of the mosque, but was attacked by Chumakov’s supporters.

Nearly all of Ingushetia’s police forces were dispatched to the mosque, which was surrounded by special forces, who prevented anyone from entering, allowing people only to exit (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 5). It is unclear why the police let those who had weapons and fired shots in the mosque leave the scene and did not even try to identify them. The next day, the official media sided with Khamkhoev and condemned the supporters of Khamzat Chumakov, blaming them for what they labeled a preplanned provocation (, June 6).

It is not only the Salafis of Ingushetia who have defended Khamzat Chumakov. Abu Umar Sasitlinsky of Dagestan also called on the Salafists there to support the Salafist imam of Ingushetia (, June 5). Chumakov’s reputation has been bolstered considerably, and the active part of the Muslim population of the North Caucasus is closely watching him and the government’s actions against him. Various experts have also come out in support of him, saying that Chumakov was right in this dispute (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 6). Chumakov himself preemptively addressed President Vladimir Putin, asking him to prevent the conflict around the mosque from escalating (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 6).

The June 5 incidents in Ingushetia were only the tip of the iceberg of the growing regional problems between the Sufis and Salafists. This incident shows that the tensions between the two groups may spiral into actual clashes between the supporters of the rival Islamic teachings (, June 5). As soon as the Salafists feel government pressure is receding, they will likely create a mini-Syria in the North Caucasus and prevent the Sufis from practicing Islam according to their beliefs.

The Russian authorities do not realize that the armed Islamic underground movement has long chosen a parallel way of integrating into society. The Salafists realize that they cannot defeat the Russian army and the security services in an open fight, so they have adjusted their tactics. Now they are trying to establish themselves in their own mosques and spread their propaganda legally via the Internet. The Salafists are thus trying to spread their influence, which diminished after 16 years of military actions against them by the Russian authorities. The Salafists in the North Caucasus have mutated significantly, which means that further outbreaks of violence in the region may occur at any time just as the above mentioned incident erupted recently in Ingushetia.