The State’s Embrace of Traditional Islam Puts Both In Danger

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 13

The issue of official support for “traditional Islam” to counterbalance radical Islam once again emerged as a pressing theme following the June 7 murder of the Head of the Institute of Theology and International Affairs, Maksud Sadikov, in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Yet, Islam cannot itself be radical, or traditional, or anything else by its very nature. Radicalism can be applied to a person or an individual, but not to the Islamic religion as a whole, which has among the world’s largest number of followers ( One has to reckon with this fact and try to understand how this community operates from within.

For several decades now, it has been customary in Russia to distinguish between “traditional Islam” and any other Islamic movement. Moreover, those in power have voiced their support for “traditional Islam.” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for instance, did exactly that after the terrorist attack at Domodedovo airport in January, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the airport’s arrivals hall, killing up to 40 people and wounding up to 200 ( Vladimir Surkov, the deputy chief of the Russian presidential administration and chief ideologist of the country’s ruling party, United Russia, said something similar during a visit to Dagestan. He drew attention to the fact that “traditional Islam in Russia is a religion of peacefulness, neighborliness and historical relations formed between all peoples of Russia.” The Russian Orthodox Church also did not remain on the sidelines, advocating for traditional Islam ( In other words, the authorities clearly do not intend to conceal their sympathies, and want to herd everybody in under the term “traditional Islam.”

However, one can distinguish “traditional Islam” by looking at it from the standpoint of the state and from the perspective of society itself.

The state understands Islam as fully under its control. In other words, Islam in Russia functions through people appointed (elected) by the authorities, or with the support of the authorities. These government-backed religious leaders are thus expected to be loyal to the authorities and oppose Islamic ideology, which is capable of penetrating the country and circumventing the state. Muftis and imams are often not respected in society itself, however, because they maintain close contact with the authorities. Paid as they are by the government, they have to pursue policies determined by Moscow. That is how Islam is understood by the authorities. Two federal Islamic universities were established in the North Caucasus (in Nalchik and Makhachkala) for this purpose. As the authorities see them, these universities should prepare cadres for the local Muslim clergy using a program determined in Moscow by non-Islamic structures ( as of August 31, 2009, “Green banner with a double-headed eagle”).

The authorities thus intend to fully concentrate on those whom it will train as future imams, qadis and people with a general Muslim education. It is now discussed in Russia with all seriousness that students studying overseas (first and foremost in Egypt) allegedly train in militant camps rather than learn the fundamentals of Islamic theology ( It is therefore not surprising that people openly begin discussing things that they would not even have whispered about ten years ago, such as a possible ban on receiving an Islamic education abroad and on using mosques (except for performing namaz at certain times), among other things (

As understood by society itself, however, traditional Islam is Islam that embodies national aspects it absorbed as it adapted to a particular region. Ethnic customs and traditions are always a part of the local interpretation of Islam. The North Caucasus is no exception. Here, the local traditions are consistently woven into major Islamic doctrines. The local clergy, represented by the local qadis whose authority is on a par with Sharia law, always mention the local pre-Islamic law – the adats. The adats are met with fierce resistance from the adherents of Salafism, who do not recognize any additions to Islam from the pre-Islamic local customs and traditions, however positive they may be.

In Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, the term “traditional Islam” is used in reference to Sufism, which here is based on forms not fully customary for this branch of Islam in other regions of the Muslim world. In Chechnya and Ingushetia, this is a Sufism of the early twentieth century, “conserved in time.” Here, Sufism does not progress, but is in a state of stagnation, which makes it a weak link in the face-off with Salafism. Sufism is also slightly different in Dagestan, where people have managed to preserve traditions of world Sufism. Yet, the policies pursued by state authorities undermine their stance against Salafism. The Dagestani authorities, in particular, did not come up with anything better in pursuing their policies than placing their bet on one of the numerous sheikhs, which led to a situation in which yesterday’s Soviet Communist Party members suddenly all became the followers of Sheikh Said-efendi Chirkeiski of the Shazili tariqa – a rare form tariqa in these areas ( In Chechnya, a similar bet was made on one of the Sufi brotherhoods by supporting Ramzan Kadyrov. As a follower of the Kadiriy Sheikh Kunta-Khadzi Kishiev, Kadyrov essentially elevated the teachings of his sheikh as a matter of state policy. Support for a particular sheikh leads to opposition within the Sufi environment itself, with those left out of the state-backed Sufi brotherhood joining the authorities’ opponents.  

It is thus worth keeping in mind that the government’s active intervention in movements inside Islam immediately leads to a rejection of the official clergy as a way to protest against the policies of the government itself. In other words, the government itself incites followers of Islam against it by pursuing a crude policy of seeking to regulate Islam through appointments of loyal mullahs, imams and qadis. Traditional Islam, which survived the onslaught of atheistic communist propaganda, may not be able to withstand a new confrontation, against both Salafi influence and the government, because the policies pursued by the government have completely discredited the generally accepted interpretation of traditional Islam. Thus, it is Islam that will become the ideological base for the internal disintegration of the state. The current Kremlin policy shows that its toolkit does not contain anything other than tools that have been employed since the Tsarist period. This suggests there are no prospects for settling the conflict anytime soon.