by Yavus Akhmadov, Stephen R. Bowers, Marion T. Doss, Jr., Yulii Kurnosov

Executive Summary
Religion in the North Caucasus
Vakhabism and the Chechen Conflict
The Vackhabite Perspective
Concluding Remarks
Appendix: A Vakhabite View
About the Authors

Religion In the North Caucasus

The "men of faith" praised by Bassayev and others had a dramatic impact on the development of the North Caucasus in previous centuries as well as contemporary times. The first of these men were Christians but, by the 8th century, Arabs began to convert many of the Caucasians to Islam. In the first part of this study we will focus on the role of religion in Daghestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. We will also examine the situation in some of the less frequently studied parts of the North Caucasus.


The Republic of Daghestan spreads over 50 thousand square kilometers and has a population of approximately two million people. The overwhelming majority of them are Muslims - 85%, while 4% are Shiites, primarily Azerbaijanis, and 8.5% are Orthodox Christians. There are also small communities of Catholics and Baptists. Daghestan once had a Jewish community of over 30,000, but most of them moved to Israel. As a result, the Jewish population now numbers only 1,000 people.

Thus, Islam is the overwhelmingly dominant religious group in contemporary Daghestan. Spiritual leadership and governance in Daghestan began to change with the appearance of perestroika and the subsequent social disintegration. Up to that time, there had traditionally been a single dominant Muslim leader for Daghestan. During this disruptive transitional period, numerous independent Muslim leaders appeared and gained local followings and cultivated their own acolytes. Consequently, one may identify the following communities as those having independent spiritual governance (muftiyas): Avartses with a population of 600,000; Dargintses with a 320,000 population; Kumyks with 260, 000; Lezghins with 240,000; and Laktsts with 100,000. This diversity reflects the national composition of Daghestan. There are 95,000 Chechens-Akkins in the region, 30,000 Naghaitses, and an assortment of about forty additional national groups. Most of Daghestan's Sunni Muslim population belongs to the shafiit mazhab organization. During the last decade, the Sufi brotherhoods, which had lost importance during the Soviet era, have been restored.

Currently there are over 40 Sufi brotherhoods in Daghestan. The major representatives of modern Sufism in Daghestan are theologists Said Chirkeisk and Tadjuin Hasavyurt. Together, these men hold the allegiance of many devout Muslims who are adherents of a strict interpretation of the Koran. Historians will record that in this region of the Northern Caucasus there are other people, individuals such as Maghomed Djeranskyi, who are less concerned about theology and, through their violent actions, bear much responsibility for the violence in the Caucasus. Djeranskyi, of course, is not alone as there are many others who share his militant attitude.

In Daghestan there are approximately 1700 large and as many as 6000 small "district mosques." There are nine Islamic spiritual educational institutes and 600 mosque schools throughout the republic. In addition, a significant number of Daghestani students study in Muslim schools abroad. Of the 17,000 -18,000 Russian citizens participating in annual hadj, no less than 13,000 to 14,000 of them are citizens of Daghestan. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that the Daghestanis are more active in Muslim affairs that the entire populations of Tatars, Bashkirs, and other Muslim nationalities.

A group that has attracted great attention in recent years is the Vakhabites or Vakhabists. They are referred to as fundamentalists in much of the Western literature on Islam. They first appeared in the North Caucasus in the 1980's and emerged as a serious force in the next decade. Most recently, their main communities were in Mahachkala and Hasav-Yurt.

Today Vakhabite activity is prohibited in Daghestan. As a result, their schools and organizations operate secretly and they are involved in a variety of clandestine activities. There are three main Vakhab factions in Daghestan. The first faction is under the leadership of Ahmed Ahtayev, an activist with a long history of clandestine work. The second faction is led by Baghaudin Muhhamad Daghestani. Because of official pressure against his activities, he left Daghestan and is now based in Chechnya. The third faction is based in communities in the Astrakhan region, a stronghold of Vakhabite support, but has not prominent individual leader.

In August 1999, many Daghestani radicals began training in the camps run by a Saudi Arabian calling himself Khattab. Khattab's group had joined Chechen extremists and numerous Arab terrorists who invaded Daghestan. The goal of this union of Islamic radicals is to bring about the secession of Daghestan from the Russian Federation. While this association failed to achieve its immediate goal, it did bring about the introduction of Russian forces into Chechnya, a situation that has greatly increased hardships throughout the region. Many feel that this was probably one of the objectives of those who organized the attacks in Daghestan.

One of the main reasons for the growth of Vakhabism in Daghestan and Chechnya is the difficult social and economic situation in the North Caucasus as well as the generous financing of the Vakhabites from abroad. Thus, it is not surprising that the joint attacks by the Daghestani and Chechen militants coincided with the aggravation of tensions in the Middle East and the renewed international confrontations over oil and gas routes.