Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Islam in the North Caucasus

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Islam in the North Caucasus

Article excerpt

Religious diversity has had a dramatic impact on the development of the North Caucasus region. People do not identify primarily with either a national or international Islamic community, although the fundamentalist Vakhabite community has become a major regional force during the past decade. Numerous official attempts to suppress Vakhabite influence has resulted in the emergence of a clandestine Vakhabite network supported by Islamic radicals from abroad, mostly of Saudi and North African Arab origin. These have joined with the Khattab group to receive military training in terrorist camps in support of the Chechen resistance to Soviet forces.

Following the first Chechen war (1994-1996), differences arose between the Sufi and Vakhabite movements, with Sufi Muslims called for creation of a secular state that would preserve traditional social patterns, while Vakhabites demanded the eradication of local customs which they regard as having tainted Islamic purity.

Key Words: Russia, North Caucasus, Chechnya, Chechen War, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Islam, Muslims, Sufi, Sunni, Vakhabites,

While ethnic animosities have a long history in the North Caucasus, the religious flavor of these conflicts appeared more recently. With time, Islam became a uniting force that helped many people of the North Caucasus assert their struggle against oppression by those whom they viewed as "men without faith." However, while Islam served as a rallying point for disparate groups within the region, Islam itself did not assume a unified organizational model. Local customs and paganism had a profound impact on Islam as it developed throughout the North Caucasus. Almost no expression of faith could be characterized as "pure Islam."

When the religious element emerged as a significant one in this part of the former Soviet Union, it varied greatly whether one encountered it in Daghestan, Inghusetia, Chcchnya, North Ossetia, Kabardin-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, or Adygeiya. With the appearance of perestroika, religious diversity had a dramatic impact on the traditional Islamic community. It may be that the only common element in the Islamic community was the religious fervor that gripped so many people. New mosques appeared by the score and Daghestan combined with Chechnya produced more pilgrims for the annual hadj than the rest of the USSR combined.

Islamic diversity was driven by a variety of factors. One of those was the influx of foreign money from Middle Eastern Islamic states. The persistence of local traditions was another, but the most important was the increased prominence of the Vakhabite movement within the Islamic community. The central theme of this movement was that Islam in the North Caucasus had been distorted by misunderstandings as well as by the "impure" influences.

Along with some other North Caucasian peoples, the Chechens converted to Islam on the eve of Russian expansion into their ancestral lands in the early nineteenth century. For a variety of reasons they largely adopted the Sufi forms of worship and followed Shamil, the third Imam of Daghestan, in his efforts to impose the Sharia (Islamic Law) on the faithful while defending their homeland from the encroachments of the Russian Empire in early nineteenth century by waging a holy war (Ghazivat). The Chechens suffered severe losses in these wars and then left the Naqshbandiya tradition in droves to follow a later Sufi tradition, the Qadiri, under the leadership of the nonviolent "Chechen Gandhi," Kunta Hadji of Kishicv.

When Kunta Hadji was captured by the Russians and died in captivity, his followers eschewed non-violence and joined with the Naqshbandis in periodic uprisings against the Tsarist regime and its Soviet successor. Each effort to regain some vestige of independence was suppressed. Between 1944 and 1957, the Chechen people were removed from their indigenous lands and deported to central Asia in order to be punished for alleged collaboration with the German Nazi regime. …

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