Sufism in the Caucasus

Saints of the Caucausus

By Mateen Siddiqui

Islam first came the Caucasus when forty of the Companions of the Prophet r rode northwards from Arabia to reach the gates of Derbent, on the Caspian Sea. Translated literally as “Iron Door”, this fortress town in today’s Dagestan became known as “the Northern Gate of the Islamic Caliphate.”

Daghestan is Turkic for “land of mountains,” whose tallest peaks soar to 17,000 feet above the low-lying plains. Known as the “mountain of languages”, Daghestan and the northern Caucasus was home to some 37 ethnic groups and over 157 languages. The variety and disparity between the many tribes and nations proved even more formidable than the towering Caucasus range they inhabited to the spread of Islam.

Between the 8th - 11th centuries, evidence of the spread of both Christianity and Islam can be traced through burial sites and artefacts. Despite largely unsuccessful attempts by Georgians to baptize people, Islam’s influence continued to grow perceptibly over the 15th and 16th centuries. The population of the northern Caucasus was killed or deported; woods and agricultural lands were destroyed.

By the mid-16th century the Ottoman, Persia and Russia began to vye for control of the strategic Caucasus. In 1561, the Tsar Ivan the Terrible married Princess Maria Temriuk from the northern Caucasus region of Kabardino. Seeking to increase his control of parts of the northern Caucasus the Tsar brought many Karbardines into his government.

By 1587 the Russians were attempting to establish a foothold in the southern Caucasus, building forts at Vladikavkaz, and Terek Gordok, and trying to cross the Terek river into Chechnya and Daghestan.

Islam did not take firm root in the Caucasus until well into the 18th-mid 19th centuries, with the mountain regions last. However when Islam finally did enter the hearts of the Caucasian mountaineers, it was impregnated with iron firmness, like the towering Caucasian ramparts themselves. This remarkable change was brought about not by chance, but under the masterful leadership of true saints, awliya, whose lives were dedicated to spreading the religion, its moral and legal code and its inner perfection.

Shaykh Mansur

The first shaykh to stand forth with the call to Islam was Ushurma, a Chechen, born near the Sunzha River in 1732.

Later titled Shaykh Mansur, a Naqshbandi master, he declared himself Imam of all the mountain peoples. He preached a message of unity to the diverse tribes, and was able to bring together much of the Northern Caucasus under his rule. First encouraging the tribesmen to eliminate evil customs retained from their recent pre-Islamic past, he called them to establish Allah’s Divine Law – the Shariah, and to eliminate those aspects of the `adat, custom, which countered Islam’s pristine message of spirituality, justice and moderation. Russian encroachment on the northern Caucasus grew under direction of the ambitious Tsarina Catherine “The Great”, who had wrested power from her husband Peter the 3rd in 1762 and seen him killed. Soon large groups of Kabardians, Ossetes and some Ingush, all inhabitants of the Central Caucasus, were co-opted or conquered by Moscow.

The banner of jihad passed from the Naqshbandiyya to the Qadiriyya and back several times, but was never allowed to falter

Declaring himself, with approval of the tribal leaders, Imam of the Caucasus, Shaykh Mansur saw no option but to introduce the concept of Jihad against the Russian invaders. Under his leadership, resistance to Russian rule waxed passionately in both the western and eastern mountains of the North Caucasus. In a jihad which lasted six years (1785-1791), the mountaineers were able to oppose Russia’s imperial designs. However when Ottoman support fell away, with the Caliphate’s loss of Crimea and Georgia, the mountaineers united under Shaykh Mansur were finally defeated. All of the lowlands fell into Russian hands, and the Russians made new inroads into the mountains. Northern parts of Chechen-inhabited territories were conquered. Along the rivers running from East to West in lowland Chechnya, fortresses and Cossack villages shut off the Chechens who lived in the mountains from access to the North.

Russian conquest

After the conquest of the North-central Caucasus, the incorporation of the Southern Caucasus had priority, and the Russians crossed the mountains through Ossetia and Western Ingush territories incorporating Eastern Georgia in 1801 followed by most of the Transcaucasus by 1829, leaving only Chechnya and the highlands of Daghestan still free.

When the Russian armies finally focused their war efforts on the northern Caucasus after the Napoleonic wars, they encountered fierce resistance. In Chechnya and Daghestan, in particular, the call for Jihad was raised. General Yermolov, appointed in the Caucasus in 1816 after success against Napoleon, used brutal tactics to conquer the Muslim mountaineers. As land was taken, he built interlinked fortresses and Cossack villages (‘stanitsas’), sealing off areas under Russian control from unconquered areas further south.

The Chechens rose against the encroaching Russians in 1825, and neighbouring regions followed the Chechen example. Yermolov, infamous for his statement “The only good Chechen is a dead Chechen”, cruelly subdued this and subsequent uprisings.

Rise of Naqshbandiyya

It was during this time of turmoil and repression that the Naqshbandiyya shaykhs emerged to lead an inexplicably successful resistance against all attempts by Russia to take the northern Caucasus for over a third of a century. It is the story of the Sufi saints of the Caucasus and their struggles – the inner and the outer.

In 1827, Yermolov was dismissed for his infamous cruelty and five years passed in relative peace. Then to the extreme surprise of the Russian military, Chechnya and much of the North Caucasus rose again, this time under Ghazi Mohammad.

The Russian armies, under Rosen, had great difficulty quelling this uprising, after which they directed their main attention to the Western mountains. However, soon afterwards the East exploded again. New expeditions were sent to Chechnya and Daghestan, with varying success. The new leader of the resistance was Shaykh Shamyl, a Naqshbandiyya leader. Shamyl created an administration, the Imamate of Shamyl, and he led Jihad against imperialist Russia for more than two decades. He was a fine guerilla leader and a ruthless autocrat whose actions were widely reported in the press in Western Europe, among others by Karl Marx. The Western and Eastern mountaineers rarely coordinated their actions. The Ingush on the whole did not support Shamyl in his struggle. Shamyl was finally defeated in 1859; the last West Caucasians held out till 1864.

The Russian generals used harsh measures against the North Caucasian peoples: during the numerous punitive expeditions villages were razed to the ground, their population killed or deported and woods and agricultural lands destroyed. Deportation of people from newly conquered areas was routine: they were either deported to regions immediately beyond the front line, such as present-day Northwest Chechnya, or further away to Siberia. It is claimed that the Chechens lost half of their population in the decades of warfare before 1859. Tolstoy’s “Haji Murad” gives a good picture of the resistance of the Chechens against the Russians.


Although Chechnya remained under tight military control after the final conquest, insurrections against Russian rule were quite regular. Uprisings in the 1860s led to massive exile to Siberia, and around 1864 some 25,000 Chechens saw themselves forced to emigrate to Turkey. The subsequent massive migration of the Caucasian Muslims to Turkey did not destroy the Naqshbandiyya in Daghestan and Chechnia; its roots had spread too wide and too deep. The last large uprising before 1917 was that of 1877/78, led by the young Ali-Bek Haji. This uprising was jointly organized by the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya tariqas.

The Russian armies had great difficulty reconquering the Chechen area. Again, thousands of people were deported, and the leaders executed. The movement for freedom from the overbearing yoke of Russian rule was never fully quelled. Under different shaykhs, but always under one banner, “la ilaha ill-Allah Muhammadu Rasulullah,” the Muslims fought on. Resistance would come in waves, with some years quiet and others full of ferocious fighting. The banner of jihad passed from the Naqshbandiyya to the Qadiriyya and back several times, but was never allowed to falter, even at the height of Soviet-era atheist subjugation.

As time passed acts of resistance against the Soviets were only undertaken by ‘abreks’, i.e. outlaws who had taken to the mountains and attacked Russian civil and military servants from there, as well as Chechens who collaborated with the Russian authorities. The abreks were popular among both the Chechens and Ingush, like Robin Hood of English lore today, and never lost their heroic luster. For every Caucasian, the names of Mansour, Ghazi Mollah, Hajji Murad and above all Shamyl, were the stuff of legends, and few home were without a portrait of the steel-eyed Shamyl.

© 1997-2005, Islamic Supreme Council of America
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