Saturday, September 8, 2018

Ever More Young Chechens Turning to Sufism, Surveys Show

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 8 – New sociological studies show that the number of followers of the Sufi orders in Chechnya has experienced “significant growth” especially among the younger generation, something that both Ramzan Kadyrov and Moscow have reasons to welcome as well as reasons to fear.

            On the one hand, both Grozny and Moscow view Sufism as a bulwark against Islamist fundamentalism; but on the other, both are aware that in the past Sufi orders, while occasionally cooperating with the Russian and Soviet authorities, have also helped to mobilize North Caucasians against Russian rule (

            Sufism is not an equivalent to the two main trends of Islam, Sunnism and Shiism, but rather a mystical aspect of Islam that takes from both and can be followed by those in either of the two basic traditions, thus making it a channel for the inter-penetration of Muslim ideas and also a syncretic element that absorbs local traditions as well.

            Today, Sufism is the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya as well as Daghestan and some other portions of the North Caucasus. Sufi missionaries brought Islam to Chechnya from Daghestan, and they organized the two brotherhoods, Naqshbandia and Qadiria, that continue to dominate the religious space in that republic.

            The Naqshbandia led the resistance to the Russian imperial advance in the 19th century. It was the faith of Imam Shamil. The Qadiria sought a modus vivendi, but scholars now say that many Russian imperial officials were more worried about and hostile to the latter, viewing it as subversive of their control under the guise of cooperation. 

            The relations of the two groups to the Soviet authorities evolved over time. Initially, the Bolsheviks reached out to them, but by the end of the 1920s, Moscow sought to disband the orders viewing them as a threat to its control. But because the authorities closed many formal Muslim institutions like mosques, the orders became the basis for the survival of Islam.

            “From 1958 to 1964,” as part of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, many Sufi leaders were tried and convicted of crimes against the state, that that effort failed, the Russia 7 portal says, and it “was not able to stop the growth of the influence of the Sufi brotherhoods” in Chechnya and elsewhere.

            Under Brezhnev, Moscow tried a different tack: it sought the help of the orders in fighting social practices such as blood feuds.  And “thanks to the interference of the sheikhs” as the leaders of the brotherhoods are called, “the number of such feuds was sharply reduced” in the last years of Soviet power.

            According to Soviet sociologist Viktor Pivovarov, in 1975, “’more than half of the believing Muslims of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic were members” of the Sufi orders; and in 1986, another researcher reported that there were 280 Sufi groups with some 8,000 followers in that republic. Today, those numbers are far higher.

            The two dominant orders in Chechnya now are the Naqshbandia and the Qadiria, which are approximately equal in size. According to Daghestani researcher Garun Kurbanov, the former gains strength from being at one and the same time “elite and simple” and adaptable “to changing social and political conditions.”

            The Qadiria in contrast wins support both because it is more demonstrative – its practices are far more public and dramatic, in some cases resembling Shiia Islam, and because it enjoys the active support of Ramzan Kadyrov who is himself a member of this order or tariqat and who promotes its growth.

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