Sufism in Chechnia: its influence on contemporary society.

This extract is taken from Mairbek Vatchagaev’s chapter in Anne Le Huérou, Aude Merlin, Amandine Regamey, Elisabeth Sieca- Kozlowski (eds.) Chechnya at War and Beyond, (London: Routledge, 2014). Footnotes are not included.

The politicisation of Sufism

The numerous Sufi brotherhoods that exist in Chechnia all belong to one of two tariqas known throughout the world: the Qadiriyya and the Naqshbandiya. These two tariqas, which became established in Chechen society in the nineteenth century, still remain fixtures for Chechens at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Each Sufi tariqa in Chechnia is represented by a great number of diverse Sufi brotherhoods (the virds). Each Sufi brotherhood represents the interests of a particular group of people within Chechen society. They function as a mechanism for the political regulation of Chechen society as opposed to a vehicle for the mystical teachings of one or another sheikh intent on bringing his brotherhood closer to understanding the mysteries of Islam. 1

Ever since the Sufi brotherhoods appeared in Chechnia, they have undergone significant transformations in their relationships with power. The Naqshbandiya brotherhoods, which offered armed resistance to Russia’s conquest of Chechnia and which, following the conquest, organised uprisings in the years 1877-1888, saw a large number reach an accommodation with the authorities in the Soviet period. While, in contrast, those of the Qadiriyya, who had come to Chechnia as opponents of both the war and of any possible compromise with Imperial power, became antagonists during the Soviet era.

During Soviet rule in the country, the classical roots of Sufi traditions were lost. Chechen Sufism paid more attention to retaining religious practices and the ceremonial aspects; it became less spiritual. That thread linking a local sheikh to the wider Sufi world was lost. Sufism became completely bound up with the authority of the local sheikh. The entire history of a Sufi brotherhood was linked to the aggrandisement of the sheikh and to facts supporting the exclusiveness of their sheikh’s position of precedence in the international Sufi silsila (the genealogy of the tariqas). This led at times to contradictions with the foundations of Islam, as a brotherhood’s sheikh might be elevated to the level of the prophets.

At specific periods in Chechen history, the sheikhs have acted not as the leaders of Islamic groups but of political groups in Chechen society. In fact, the Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnia are prototypical political parties for the Chechens. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the example of the collapse of the Russian Empire, when Bolsheviks, monarchists, socialists and Islamic theologians all tried to bring as many murids from the various Sufi brotherhoods over to their side as they could.

The followers of Sheikh Bamat-Giray-Khadji Mitaev considered the Bolsheviks to be incapable of taking the lead in the race for power, and so their approaches to the Bolsheviks were only made on the basis that they might potentially be temporary allies in the struggle against Denikin. These forces were led at the time by Sheikh Ali Mitaev. The followers of Sugaip-Mulla Goisumov, in contrast, found it possible to reach agreement with the Bolsheviks. They did so as a counterweight not only to Denikin’s army but also to the Dagestani Imam Gotsinskii’s pretensions of becoming the single leader of the whole Muslim North Caucasus. The effect was also felt here of Sugaip-Mulla’s personal hostility towards Sheikh Uzin-Khadzhi Saltinskii,2 who had declared the creation of a Northern Caucasus Emirate, with its capital in the Chechen village of Vedeno. Some individual sheikhs, such as the followers of Sheikh Solsa-Khadzhi Yandarov, observed a strict neutrality towards all the warring forces which arose between 1917-19.

The division of the Sufi brotherhoods along political lines was directly related to the question of whom to form alliances alongside in the new, post-Tsarist Chechnia. In this situation, the sheikhs acted as political leaders, while their followers (the murids) were their electorate, over whom the political forces fought, each trying to pick up as many supporters as possible in order to establish their authority in Chechnia.3

In this instance, we are not dealing with parties as usually understood, but with indirect imitations. The Sufi brotherhoods on the ground work towards their own aims and objectives, without acknowledging any of the parties that are formed in Russia, most often at Moscow’s behest. These aims are by and large the same for each: to promote their people in the structures of power; to protect the interests of the members of their brotherhood; to help members of the brotherhood to receive higher education; to help them find employment, and so on. Naturally, the brotherhoods do not have manifestos, unlike political parties for whom such action plans are essential. In our example, all this is done exclusively through the authority of a family member of the sheikh, to whom the fate of the brotherhood has been entrusted. His actions are not to be discussed, let alone criticised; he is not to be bypassed, or even offered advice. This autocratic structure is endemic to nearly every Sufi brotherhood in Chechnia.