Staunton, October 25 – Russians and other outsiders are accustomed to lumping together all the peoples of the North Caucasus, except for the North Ossetians, as Muslims, but what it means for each of them to be a Muslim varies widely depending on the nature of their cultural code before Islam arrived and whether it provided justice, Askhad Bzegezhev says.
Writing on Moscow’s Snob portal, the Circassian commentator says he always was struck by the fact that Russians call all Circassians Muslims while none of his relatives, friends or acquaintances go to mosques or wear the hijab or otherwise behave as Russians expect Muslims to (snob.ru/profile/32165/blog/171092/).
He argues that he has now found the answer in a study which asked various peoples of the North Caucasus to complete the sentence “to be a real Muslim means …” (cyberleninka.ru/article/n/religioznaya-i-etnicheskaya-identichnost-musulman-severo-zapadnogo-i-severo-vostochnogo-kavkaza-soderzhanie-i-osobennosti/viewer).
The typical Chechen answered: “To be a real Muslim is for me everything. To be a truly happy man. To be closer to paradise. I am proud that I am a Muslim.” But the average Circassian said something very different: “I know I am not a Christian. I am not a Muslim. Do not cry at each step that you are a Muslim.”
“But at the same time,” the Circassian said, “I certainly do not know that I am not a real Muslim (for me this is not the most important thing in life).” For him, being a Muslim means more “to be an Arab and live in one of the Arab countries.” Bzegezhev says that this difference has important historical roots.
Citing Amiran Urushadze’s 2018 book, The Caucasian War. Seven Histories, the Circassian writer argues that the Chechens and most other North Caucasians accepted Islam because they were committed to the idea of justice but did not have a well-developed and widely shared doctrine about how that was to be achieved.
Customary law, the adat, did not provide that, and so they were ready to accept Islam whole. But the Circassians were and remain in a different position. Their khabze code, “unlike the adats, including not only legal norms of customary law but a code of honor, moral norms, and religion, although not Islam but their own.”
“The Circassians had their own God and called him Tkh’a. This is God with capital letters,” and not some pantheon of divinities.” The heroes of the Nart sagas were mythical but still human beings “and you wouldn’t call them gods.” Because of their attachment to Tkh’a, many outsiders called them pagans “who then came to Islam.”
But “from all appearances, this was not the case: scholarship again has turned out to be a hostage of Euro-centrism,” Bzegezhev continues. The difference between Chechens and Daghestanis who turned to Islam to find justice and Circassians who already had their own divinity and a moral system and did not need it in the same way remains enormous.
Various groups tried to impose “not only Islam but also Christianity” on the Circassians, but it didn’t work. “Their own faith remained stronger,” and even today, Circassians whom others call Muslims still refer to God almost exclusively through their own name for the divine, Tkh’a.”
Specialists on the North Caucasus have long been aware of this, but it is important that such an idea should appear in the Russian mass media in Moscow. For far too long, Russians and others have failed to recognize that the pre-Islamic past defined what becoming Muslim meant and means. Bzhegezev’s article will help them overcome their mistake.