The Kremlin’s War on Islamic Education in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 34

Moscow is attempting to once more tightly control the spread of Islamic ideology in the problematic region of the North Caucasus. Events in Chechnya and the spread of armed conflict across the whole area confront the Russian government with the same problems that were present during the Soviet period. This means that the state seeks to subjugate all of the structures of Muslim society and isolate, as far as possible, the Muslims of the Russian Federation from all foreign contacts, with the activities of various Islamic foundations and humanitarian organizations being seen as running contrary to Russia’s wellbeing.

The muftis of the North Caucasus, represented by the Coordinating Center for Muslims of the North Caucasus (its head, for the second term running, is the mufti of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Stavrapol Krai Ismail-hadji Berdiev), raised the question of Islamic education in the region during a meeting with Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District (Interfax, July 13). It was expected that the Russian government would make concessions to the official Muslim religious leaders in exchange for their loyalty to the Kremlin’s Caucasus policy. These expectations seem to have been accurate. Recent events in the North Caucasus (the Chechen wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2006) have forced the Kremlin to try different approaches to solving the problems posed by Islam, and specifically trying to place under strict control all the religious leaders (imams, mullahs, theologians, etc.) of the region. The wars in Chechnya have shown that Moscow has lost ground in comparison to the Soviet period, when the only Islamic institute in the whole country was in Tashkent, the only madras was in Bukhara, the only religious council in Ufa, and the overwhelming absence of mosques made it easy for the KGB to track those who refused to embrace atheism.

With the fall of the USSR, the post-Soviet countries were filled with Islamic missionaries from the Middle East and Turkey, with many of them trying to influence the political events in Muslim-heavy regions of the Russian Federation. Starting in the 1990’s and continuing up to the year 2000, for example, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation officially registered and permitted unfettered activity for a variety of Islamic foundations and organizations. These included a branch of the League of the Islamic World, a regional bureau of the World Muslim Youth Assembly, the Russian foundation “Ibrahim ben Abd al-Aziz al-Ibrahim” (Saudi Arabia), a branch of the humanitarian organization “International Humanitarian Call” (United Arab Emirates), a branch of the scientific society “A Commission for the Study of Scientific Signs in the Koran and the Sunnah,” a branch of the Islamic agency for help and rescue, and a branch of the humanitarian organization “Islamic Relief” [1]. According to other sources, Al-Haramein, a Saudi foundation, and IHH, a Turkish organization, were also active in the region. Not only were all of these groups officially registered and accredited in Moscow, but several of them had regional offices across the North Caucasus in Mahachkala, Nalchik and Maikop (, October 24, 2004).

While none of these entities managed to be reaccredited by the Russian Ministry of Justice in subsequent years, numerous educational institutions were also axed along with them. Following official governmental inquiries, steps were taken to eliminate the following: The International Dagestani-Turkish College and its branches, the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Turkish Lyceum, the Islamic Institute of Kabardino-Balkaria, an Arabic language school in Ingushetia, the Al-Fatkh madras in Udmurtia, and the Rasul Akram College in Moscow, among others [2]. All Islamic institutions in Chechnya (two institutes, many madrassas, and schools and courses for the study of Arabic)were also closed.

The recent statements made by Kozak are interesting for several reasons. First of all, the creation of a new regional university was mentioned, a suggestion later modified by the muftis to that of two universities, since the population of the North Caucasus is split between two legal schools (mazhab) of Islam—the shafii and the hanafi. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are all aligned with the former, while the Muslims of Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia are partisans of the latter (, July 15).

The necessity of creating religious institutions of higher learning is not new, and it became apparent ten to fifteen years ago. The 1990s saw a boom of mosque building and repair, and while the Union of Religious Affairs indicated that in 1985 there were only 47 mosques in the region (27 in Dagestan, 12 in Checheno-Ingushetia and eight in Kabardino-Balkaria), by 2000, Dagestan alone had 1,585, while Ingushetia had 200 and Chechnya had 400 (in 1999), Kabardino-Balkaria had 96 and Karachaevo-Cherkessia had 91 (both in 1997), with the first mosque being opened in the capital of Cherkessk in 1999. Overall, the North Caucasus was home to more than two dozen Islamic institutes, up to 200 madrassas and numerous maktabas (Koranic study schools), which were present at almost all mosques [3]. During this time, North Caucasian society was simply unable to provide the sufficient number of qualified religious personnel and in order to correct this deficit, energetic young men were sent to study in the Middle East [4].

A second important point made by Kozak during his meeting with the muftis was that a university was necessary in order to limit overseas influence. As he put it, “It is necessary to study pure Islam, so that young people will not need to go find a place to learn somewhere on the side” (Interfax-Religion, July 14). This suggests that such a university would be created in opposition to the Islamic centers of the Middle East, thus pushing those wishing to learn into an institution where the control of the Russian state could reduce the quality of the education offered.

In the years 1996-98 (according to the Board of Religious Affairs of Dagestan), up to 1,500 Dagestanis studied abroad. In 1998, hundreds of students from Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia were also abroad (with Karachai and Balkar students generally choosing Turkey because of the favorable conditions extended by its religious colleges to Turkic-speaking students), and thousands of Chechens were studying in the Middle East, Pakistan and Malaysia. Before opening such a university, Kozak noted, it is necessary to “first determine the educational program of the future colleges, and only then, discuss the placement of such colleges (, July 14). This suggests that the state would have a voice in what is taught, who is taught and how the teaching is done in such an Islamic university.

Finally, there is the question of actually reestablishing the office of unified head mufti of the North Caucasus through the institution of the Coordinating Center for Muslims of the North Caucasus. Though the Center has been located in Moscow since its inception in 1998, there has been talk of moving it to Mineralnyi Vody, in Stavropol Krai. Such a choice is not accidental, since the city is centrally located within the Caucasus region and is thus geographically very convenient. That said, this site would be a serious concession by the Muslims of the North-East (Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan), who had hoped to once again make Dagestan the center of Islam in the region, just as it had been during the Soviet period.

There is also the matter of whether this organization should exist at all, a question raised by the muftis of Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan following the resignation of Ingush mufti Mahomed-hadji Albogachiev from the post of president of the Center. Having lost the presidency and also the location of the organization’s headquarters, they might question the need for the Center, and thus the office of unified head mufti. In fact, the collapse of the former Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the North Caucasus occurred in 1989 precisely because it had lost the support of Dagestan and Chechnya. The former head mufti, Mahmud-hadji Gekkiev, a Balkar, was physically ejected from the headquarters of the Board and accused of being a hanafi (from the North-West) and thus unable to represent the North-Eastern shafii believers of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The current situation seems to be a rehash of one of the poorer elements of Soviet atheism, when the authorities prepared sermons and fatwahs and muftis were forced, as they are today, to speak of peace and support for the authorities [5]. It was this practice of having mullahs speak with the voice of the government that pushed most believers away from the official religious leaders of the time and caused them to seek answers among those considered to be representatives of “pure Islam”—the salafis [6]. Thus, while today’s Russian authorities may be able to repeat the actions of the Soviet government, it is possible that the results will be similar to those seen in the 1980’s and 1990’s.


1. I.P. Dobaev and V.I. Nemchina, The New Terrorism Across the World and in Southern Russia: It’s Essence, Evolution and Ways of Countering It, Rostov-on-the-Don, 2005.

2. Institute of Religion and Politics. 5.5. Measures for the Prevention of Terrorism in Southern Russi,

3. A. Malashenko, “Islamic Self-Identification,” in Islamic Guideposts.

4. Vladimir Bobrovnikov, “’An Islamic Renaissance’ in the Russian Caucasus: A Few Lessons,” The Foundation for Strategic Culture. December, 12, 2005

5. The blessing of Ahmad Kadyrov and his son Ramzan Kadyrov are demanded in many Chechen mosques during Friday prayer.

6. “Otechestvennyi Arkhivy,” No. 2, 2006. Documents relate to state-religious relations in the Northern Caucasus in the second half of the 20th century.