Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chechnya’s Plan to Use Sufism to Unite Russia’s Muslims Seen Sparking More Conflicts

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 21 – The Muslim hierarchy in Chechnya, likely with the support of Ramzan Kadyrov, is seeking to promote the kind of Sufism its followers practice as a unifying force for Muslims throughout the Russian Federation, something already triggering new conflicts among that broader community in which historically sufism has played a smaller role.

            At the end of Augusst, Grozny hosted a World Islamic Conference on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the birth of former Chechen president Akhmad-khadzhi Kadyrov, the father of the current Chechen leader.  It adopted a declaration that it styled as a fetwa making the Sufi kind of Islam in Chechnya obligatory for all Russia’s Muslims.

The fetwa/declaration is available in full at It has now been analyzed in detail for the Portal-Credo portal by Valery Yemelyanov at Moscow’s Time and World analytic center ( who also considers its implications for Russia’s Muslims as a whole.

            Orthodox Muslim sufism is represented on the territory of present-day Russia primarily in Chechnya and Daghestan by the Naqshbandia and Qadiriya orders. These have long histories but they are not defined by the Koran or the Sunna.  And consequently, any effort to make their practices and beliefs mandatory for all Muslims violate customary norms, Yemelyanov says.

            The Grozny fetwa/declaration not surprisingly has an interesting history given that it makes exactly that declaration. In its text, the analyst says, is the following declaration: “the current fetwa is the agreed decision of the muftis and scholars of Russia and is obligatory for execution by all Muslim organizations of the Russian Federation.”

            There are obvious problems: Far from all the leading Muslims of Russia were present and agreed to this. The authors themselves at one point call their declaration a fetwa, that is, a legal interpretation, and in others a declaration which has a much lower legal standing in Islamic jurisprudence.

            Despite these ambiguities, Yemelyanov says, some of those who have analyzed the document conclude that its main thrust is its insistence that “following Sufi requirements is the main criterion which defines ‘a full-fledged’ Sunni Muslim” and that those who diverge are sinning or on their way to sin.

            The document offers an open-ended list of “’incorrect Muslims,’” including Wahhabis, ISIS followers, and other sectarians, with the clear indication that one might add any others that one didn’t like, including Al Qaeda, Sunni Modernists, Shiites, Alawites, as well as representatives of other Sufi tariqats.

            Obviously, Yemelyanov says, one should ask why was such a document adopted now and in this way.  He suggests there are two major reasons: On the one hand, Islam in Russia is increasingly subject to “ethnicization,” with the faithful in one national community going in one direction and insisting on its traditions and languages.

            And on the other, he continues, it is part and parcel of the conflicts which have riled Islam in Russia for the last several decades, conflicts which used to be fights among Tatars but which now are extending to other groups, including the North Caucasus in general and Chechnya in particular.

            It is unclear just how much Ramzan Kadyrov was behind the adoption of this fetwa/declaration, Yemelyanov says. He didn’t attend the meeting, but it is consistent with many of the things he has said about Islam in the past and with his desire to present himself as the most important leader of Russia’s Muslims.

            At the very least, this represents a direct challenge to the Kazan Tatars whose moderate version of Islam has dominated the Muslim community in the past.  Yemelyanov dismisses as overblown reports that Sufism has already penetrated the leadership of Tatar’s Muslims although he concedes there are some Sufis in the Middle Volga.

            If the Chechens push this fetwa/declaration forward, the religious expert says, there are certain to be more conflicts among the various Muslim communities in Russia, especially those with little experience with sufism. And there is another danger: sufism can be a breeding ground for religious and even political extremism.

            For both these reasons, Yemelyanov says, this fetwa/declaration only exacerbates the religious situation among Russia’s Muslims and is likely to shift its status from “a softly latent” form of disagreement into “an open and sharp” one.

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