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


In 1877, the people of Chechnya and Daghestan launched a major rebellion against the Russians who enjoyed control over their region. Although the rebellion was a failure that served primarily to produce new tactics on the part of the Sufi brotherhoods of the North Caucasus, the victorious Russian authorities responded not with oppression but rather with tolerance toward the Islamic religion in Chechnya. The religious tolerance of the post-rebellion years of 1877 to 1917 has led Chechens to speak of Tsarist colonialism with nostalgia. One Chechen rebel commander, Shirvani Bassayev, brother of the well-known Chechen guerilla commander Shamil Bassayev, recently noted that had the Romanov dynasty retained power, Russia would have been a very different nation. The key, Bassayev noted, is that men without faith, such as the Communists, "are more dangerous than those who accept God as a higher power."

The spirit of rebellion, coupled with religious fervor, continues to give the politics of the North Caucasus a turbulent, violent flavor. Local people who have cooperated with "men without faith," most significantly the Russian authorities who occupy much of this region, increasingly find themselves the targets of rebels for whom this struggle has assumed a spiritual as well as a political relevance. A typical incident was reported in the summer of 2000 when Ruslan Khamidov, the mayor of Alkhan-Yurt, a small town near Grozny, was approached by "unidentified assailants" at his home early one morning. When he stepped outside his house, Khamidov was shot eleven times, an action generally viewed as another warning for those who cooperated with the "Godless invaders." This killing coincided with an attack on a Russian troop train on the rail line near Grozny. The bombing, which was carried out by remote controlled mines, was followed by a small arms attack which lasted for forty minutes. The incident left seven Russian military casualties and more than a hundred yards of destroyed track.

While outside observers might view such events as little more than another expression of the terrorism that has plagued so much of the former Soviet Union, many participants in this struggle have an entirely different perception. For them, the murder of Ruslan Khamidov was actually another episode in the continuing struggle between "men of faith" and the infidels determined to destroy their way of life.

To better understand the logic of conflicts in the North Caucasus, a brief description of the patterns of the region's religious and social life is necessary. The most important characteristic of this society is its strict division along tribal and religious lines. This is best illustrated in Chechnya. Although the Chechens are a separate ethnic group clearly distinct from their neighbors, they seldom identify themselves with that group. In everyday life, their identity is defined by two most meaningful concepts: teip - a union of households tracing their descent from a common ancestor, or clan, and tuhkum-a union of teips which do not claim a common ancestor but historically have preserved their military and economic ties and spoken one of the dialects of the Chechen language. Traditional kinship ties are of paramount importance to the Chechens, and their loyalty belongs first and foremost to their clan and then to their tuhkum, which leaves the nation itself the least relevant notion on their list of priorities.

The same pattern, although perhaps not as strongly expressed, can be observed in Chechnya's religious life. Islam not only unites the Chechens but also brings about significant divisions in the society. Again, the Chechens and other people of the North Caucaus identify themselves with smaller religious groups rather than a nationwide Muslim community. They belong to virds - autonomous religious sects headed by ustaz - religious teachers. Every vird has its specific rules, principles and canons which may differ considerably from dogmas accepted elsewhere. The members of virds - murids - pledge allegiance to their sects and are obliged to obey the orders of their religious teachers. Thus, Chechen sects are in essence religious orders or brotherhoods held together by common principles, discipline and subordination. Virds are united into two major religious unions - tarikats - each headed by a sheikh: "naqshbandiya" and "qadiriya" (one of the most famous sheiks of the latter was Kunta-Hadji Kishiev). Both of them represent currents of Sufi Islam.

Sufi Islam in the North Caucasus has a number of peculiarities which distinguish it from the Islam accepted in Asia and the Middle East. The traditional kinship values, ancient customs and norms and pagan beliefs that regulated the highlanders' lives for centuries were so deeply entrenched in the mentality of the people of the North Caucaus that Islam had to adapt and transform in order to be accepted. Consequently, the so-called "traditional" Islam that developed here was characterized by a strong influence of local customs and paganism. It is different in many ways from "pure" Islam as it exists in some other countries, and its influence on social life has always been severely limited by values and norms that had formed before the adoption of Islam.