Saturday, December 26, 2015

‘Traditional Islam Does Not Exist,’ Chechen Official Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 26 – Experts and officials in both Russia and the West routinely contrast in the Russian Federation what they call “the extremists” and “traditional Islam,” but a Chechen official who fought for Ichkeria, emigrated to Georgia and now has returned to work as a specialist on fighting extremism says that “traditional Islam does not exist.”

            In a comment for “Caucasus Review,” Islam Saydayev argues that far too many people use the term “traditional Islam” without reflecting upon what it means or whether in fact it refers to anything other than the dreams and aspirations of those who use it (

            And he suggests that to the extent the term has any referent at all, it should be more properly expressed as “the ‘traditional ideology’ of Muslims of Russia rather than as ‘traditional Islam,’” which in fact is something different and in almost all cases hostile to the Russian state past, present and future.

            Most people who speak of “’traditional Islam’” in the context of Russia believe they are talking about “a form of Islam characteristic of the peoples of Russia.”  But in fact, Saydayev says, “this definition is incorrect a priori since such Islam in general does not exist,” especially when those who use it suggest that “traditional Islam always is a mainstay of Russia.”

            “If we speak about that Islam which for centuries has been the dominant trend in Russia (in the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus), then we must note that here ruled the Islam of the Naqshbandia tariqat, all of whose sheiks conducted an irreconcilable war against the Russian Empire or called for that.”

            He gives numerous examples of such sheikhs and thus concludes that this “so-called ‘traditional Islam’ was hardly loyal to the Russian Empire and this means never was a mainstay of Russia especially in the Caucasus.” And that in turn means, he says that “today’s ‘loyal Islam’ (which is more precisely what is meant by ‘traditional Islam’) is not traditional in its essence.”

            The real tradition of Islam in Russia was broken by the execution of the teachers of Muslims in the 1930s and 1940s, and without those teachers, few of the traditional values of Muslims in Russia could be handed down, as understood by the Muslim community and its new leaders as well.

            Those new leaders in many cases have proved loyal to the Russian state, but in no way have they been loyal to “the traditional Islam” of their predecessors in Russia, Saydayev argues. To suggest otherwise is to confuse the situation and lead Muslims in Russia and elsewhere into confusion.

            (To be sure, the Chechen expert says, there were brief periods when as a result of specific circumstances, genuine leaders of traditional Islam supported the state.  That happened in the North Caucasus in the first years after the Russian revolution and in Tatarstan over a somewhat longer period.)

            Because of the break with the past engineered by the Soviets, he continues, it is “simply not professional” to speak about religious elites in several generations in Chechnya and “even in Daghestan.”  The only ones who remained were certain representatives of the Qadiria tariqat who were treated with unending hostility by the Soviet authorities.

            The elites that emerged in Soviet times out of the Naqshbandia tariqat in contrast were “not religious but secular.” That is, they represented the state rather than Islam. When Dzhokhar Dudayev led Chechnya, those who backed him were from the Qadiria tariqat and primarily those of the Kunta-Haji Kishiyev wird.

            Muslims in the valleys of Chechnya were more attached to the Naqshbandia tariqat and so they opposed Dudayev, Saydayev says. That conflict continued for a long time and played a role in the opening of the republic to the Wahhabis, who were and are opposed to both Sufi trends.

            But Wahhabism represents not the restoration of traditional Islam either because its followers deny all the historical experience of the North Caucasians. In fact, Saydayev says, it is better to consider it as “one of the forms of Arab nationalism,” just as the secularized Muslim leadership of Soviet times became “a form of Chechen nationalism.”

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