The Sufi interpretation of Islam has been practiced in Chechnya since the end of the 18th century. The Sufism of the Naqshbandi tariqa (or brotherhood) was the first to make its way to Chechnya (by Sheikh Mansur, Imam Avko, Imam Tashu-Hadji and many others). In the 1850s, at the time of military defeats for the Imamate of Shamil, the Qadiri tariqa was introduced to Chechen society, which at the beginning advocated spiritual resistance but by no means physical confrontation. This brotherhood was represented by Sheikh Kunta-Hadji Kishiev.
The uniqueness of Sufism in Chechnya lies in the transformation and development of the two tariqas since the 19th century. The Naqshbandiyya, known in the Caucasus as a base of support for those who resisted Russian aggression in the 18th and 19th centuries, abandoned that view and adopted a stance of peaceful coexistence with the official authorities. At the same time, the Qadiri tariqa, which had come to Chechnya promoting nonviolent resistance to Russian colonization in the 19th century, has now become the main force of Sufi opposition to the authorities.
Throughout the history of Sufism in Chechnya, the Sufi brotherhoods preserved structures bearing a resemblance to the military organizations of Chechen murids (disciples), individual followers of a Sufi leader or sheikh. Each village was divided into blocks, the leaders of which had to coordinate their actions with the heads of other blocks. They, in turn, were united in groups of one hundred. Thus, the blocks – villages – districts were led by a turkh (leader), and there was a leader of the Republic (most often a descendant of a Sufi sheikh), who coordinated the actions of the whole brotherhood.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the members of the Sufi brotherhoods encountered for the first time active propaganda by members of the Islamic Party of Renaissance, who encouraged Chechens to reject Sufism and follow a radical interpretation of Islam, pejoratively referred to as Salafism or Wahhabism. Adam Deniev (who later, having realized the absence of prospects for this ideology in Chechnya, realigned with the Sufis), Islam Halimov and Isa Umarov (Movlady Udugov’s brother), were the first to try to impugn the foundations of Sufism as incompatible with the dogmas of Islam as a whole. But their activity came to naught due to the flat refusal by the majority of Chechens to recognize their ideology. The activity of these “reformers” was viewed as hostile and alien to Chechens: it was considered anti-Islamic, as Sufism meant Islam to Chechens.
Time has demonstrated that the Sufis were not prepared for such intrusions; that the murids unconditionally believed everything that the sheikhs told them. This is a paradox, as the murids managed to survive and strengthen their ranks due to their own counter-propaganda against the communist regime. Perhaps, that was the result of Islam’s seclusion within the boundaries of Chechnya and Dagestan, its isolation from the world Islamic centers, and from the higher education centers of the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandiyya, all of which undoubtedly affected the nature of Sufism in Chechnya.
Speaking about the relative sizes of the Sufi brotherhoods of Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya, some mistakenly define the latter of comprising a great majority of the Chechen population. Unlike the Qadiris, the Naqshbandis practice their ways covertly, which limits the participation by those who are not members of the brotherhoods. Most likely, however, the ratio of participation between the two is 1 to 1.
The Qadiri tariqa, which never concealed its attitude toward the communist authorities, became a base of support for Djokhar Dudaev, who once was a member of the Naqshbandi tariqa, but later decided that he would find a reliable ally in the Qadiris. But choosing a tariqa as an ally is not enough; the most difficult task is to avoid a division in society. The Chechen authorities failed to achieve that: choosing the Qadiri tariqa created a counterbalance through which the Naqshbandis took the side of the opposition and assumed a stance of non-recognition of the new authorities led by Djokhar Dudaev. Among those who joined the opposition were the descendants of Deni Arsanov, whereas the descendants of Dokku Shaptukaev and Sheikh Solsa-Hadji Yandarov, most of whom live in the plains around Grozny, ignored the government of Djokhar Dudaev without openly condemning it. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that not all the Naqshbandis were in opposition to Dudaev: the members of the brotherhood of Imam Tashu-Hadji and Ghazy-Hadji Zandaksky (who live in the eastern part of Chechnya on the border with Dagestan) supported the new authorities and gave all military aid possible.
During the first Russian military campaign in Chechnya (1994 – 1996), Chechen military units were formed according to membership within a particular tariqa group (wird) – Kunt-Hadji, Ali Mitaev, Ghazi-Hadji Zandaksky, Tashu-Hadji Sayasanovsky and so on. That reflected the mood of people and was natural for that time. But it was also during that time (in 1995) that militarized detachments were formed under the leadership of an ethnic Chechen from Jordan, Sheikh Fathi, which presented themselves as representatives of pure Islam. Later they were known as jamaats (see April 6, 2005 issue of Chechnya Weekly).
After the war, from 1996 to 1998, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov changed his position toward Sufism several times. Having come to power as a representative of Sufism, he immediately came to terms with the radicals, thereby trying to neutralize them as a possible opposition. Representatives of the so-called radical wing were appointed to a number of important posts in the government at the insistence of Islam Halimov. For example, Islam Halimov headed the Interior Ministry, which he renamed the Ministry of Sharia Security; Abdul-Wahab Hussainov was appointed Minister of Education; and Movlady Udugov was made Foreign Minister.
However, the military clash in the summer of 1998 in the town of Gudermes between Sufi adherents and the radicals brought Aslan Maskhadov back to the side of the Sufis. But Maskhadov, a follower of the Naqshbandi tariqa (the brotherhood of Usman-Hadji), repeated the same mistake made by Dudaev, who had counted on the Qadiris as allies. Unlike Dudaev however, Maskhadov’s policy of conciliation between Sufis brought about an incredible outpouring of enthusiasm among the followers of Sufism in Chechnya.
Sufis probably make up 90 to 95 percent of the population of Chechnya, but those numbers should not lead one to underestimate the threat posed by the radicals. Radicals, even though they represent a minority of 2-3 percent, are an active minority advancing their own interests not only in Chechnya, but also throughout the whole North Caucasus region. They have rigid discipline and large financial capabilities, but most importantly they know what they want: power.
The majority of the followers of Sufism are made up of various disunited, competing brotherhoods that do not recognize each other and have no political ambitions. Their weakness also on theological issues may add to the shift of a part of the electorate from them to the radicals.
The Sufi element is poorly represented in the current military campaign; at least it is impossible to define them visually as it was in the first war (1994 – 1996). That speaks not so much to their weakness as to the fact that the Chechen Sufis are not prepared to react quickly to changes in the situation in Chechnya. Information sources advocating the interests of the radicals depict the situation in Chechnya as if only the jamaats are fighting there. This is at odds with the reality on the ground in Chechnya. However, the defeat of Sufi brotherhoods in the information war is evident as never before.
The Russians, for their part, are trying to drive a wedge between the resistance movement and Sufism by saying that all those who fight against them with weapons in their hands are radicals. It goes without saying, however, that any attempt to force an opinion on the Chechens from above is doomed to fail. Mistrust of the authorities, and of everything that has to do with Russia, is so strong in Chechnya that the opposing side has no need to take counter measures. There is a new young generation of Chechen Sufis, who received Sufi education in Syria and Turkey, and there is a new ideology – or, more accurately, the rebirth of a forgotten ideology of resistance to Russia – which makes Sufism in Chechnya more vibrant and pure than it was ten years ago.
The policy of terror unleashed by Russia in Chechnya today works against the Russians the same way it did in the past against the communist authorities. Chechens are “retreating” into their inner selves. Sufis have again left the streets. Islam has again returned to Chechnya; it contains a mystery that is inaccessible to those who are not in the Sufi brotherhoods. Russia’s actions in Chechnya have failed to understand and recognize the force of Sufism, an indication that the Russians may have difficulty taming or suppressing the new generation of separatist fighters.