August 13th 2005 · Prague Watchdog / Emil Souleimanov · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Islam as a uniting and dividing force in Chechen society

Emil Souleimanov, special to Prague Watchdog

Islam has traditionally played an important role in the life of Chechen society. It has been a part of its ethnic identity for more than two centuries, and at critical times of national history it was a powerful source of social mobilization.

Islamization of Chechnya

The religion of the Muslims started to spread in the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was promoted by missionaries from the neighboring Dagestan (especially Kumyks), as well as through contacts of lowland Chechens with neighboring Kabardinians, Nogays, and Crimean Tatars. In Ichkeria – the mountainous region in south-eastern Chechnya – and in Ingushetia (where Georgian orthodox Christianity had spread in the medieval period) Islam took hold only towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.

The actual degree of religious conviction of Chechens strongly grew rather during critical moments of history, such as during the national liberation wars against Russian colonial expansion when warrior–missionary sheikh Ushurma Mansur (1785 – 1791) united tens of nations of Northern Caucasus under the banner of a holy war to defend their homeland, liberty and religion. Another such period occurred during the reign of the great imam Shamil of Gimry (1834-1859).

In the decades of existence of the imamate of Chechnya and Dagestan (1840 – 1859) Islamic sharia law became the basis of the legal system, nearly replacing customary “adat” law as the social code of conduct.

Nevertheless, pre-Islamic customs and standards are still observed up to this day. In many cases they have merged with Islam and in the beliefs of Chechens they are today closely associated with religion. The Islamic religion in Chechnya and in the Northern Caucasus in general thus gained in academic circles a specific name definition “People Islam”, underlining its organic affiliation with ethnic traditions and customs.

Islam in Chechnya is represented mainly by the Sunni Shafia tradition, e.g. Sufi tariqs (teachings, “paths” in Arabic), Nakshbandiya (predominant in lowland regions of Chechnya) and Kadiriya (predominant mostly in mountainous regions). The tariqs are subdivided into brotherhoods – so called virds. Each vird is named after a Sufi murshid (teacher), consisting of murids (learners, pupils). The names of virds are, for instance, Apti Aksayev, Tashov-Hadzhi Sayasanovskiy, Kunta-Hadzhi Kishiyev, Ali Mitayev, and others.

During the Soviet era, despite all efforts, the authorities failed to uproot Islam from the Northern Caucasus, though they were quite successful in promoting in the society. According to a 1991 sociological survey, however, 94% of Chechens considered themselves Muslims.

Islamic state in the 1990s

The Islamic renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s was intensified by the fears of Russian aggression in Chechen society. The beginning of the Russian – Chechen war (1994 – 1996) came next as an extremely powerful impetus for increasing ethnic consciousness among the Chechens, and naturally resulted in a genuine Islamization of the national identity.

In the Chechen view, war against an external (i.e., Russian) threat has been traditionally associated with war in the name of ghazavat. The fight for land, freedom, and “national honor” inevitably acquired a revolutionary Islamic tinge. This was probably an expression of Chechen national memory, with still vivid images of the romanticized national liberation wars of the 18th – 19th centuries led against constant Russian colonization efforts under the green flag of Islam.

In an interview for Time magazine Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev recalled the politicization of Islam in the first half of the 1990s. Dudayev stated that Russia forced Chechens to take the path of Islam, even though they were not well prepared for accepting Islamic values.

Russian expert K. Khanbabayev agrees, “After the Russian army entered the republic in 1991, Islam played an integrating role in uniting Chechens into a single force opposing the Russian troops.”

The fierce and exhausting war, which took the lives of tens of thousands of Chechens and entirely destroyed the infrastructure in the republic, naturally led to radicalization of the society.

This radicalization was also influenced by the leaders’ aspirations to establish state ideology and law and order in a country with a poor notion of (secular) statehood, which led to their declaration of sharia law as a basis for legislation in the republic.

While still under Dudayev, Chechnya designated itself as an Islamic country, though little was done to adopt Islamic standards in the day-to-day life. In this context it is interesting to note that in 1999 there were about 500 active mosques in Chechnya, a majority of which were built or reconstructed after 1991.

In addition, the second president of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, introduced Islamic law and the Arabic language as compulsory subjects in all secondary schools in the country. During his presidency, as well as during that of his rather secular successor Aslan Maskhadov, consumption of spirits was strictly forbidden, sharia courts were established throughout Chechnya, and public punishments and executions became commonplace in certain regions.

The intention of the government was that Islam and sharia law, which had undisputed authority among the people, were supposed to unify the traditionally disunited Chechen society that was divided into family-clan units – “teips.”

As it turned out, these attempts could not lead to unifying the society that had already been divided not only by clan and region, but also by religion and ideology. Networks of Muslims, preaching “a return to the pure Islam” of Prophet Mohammed, that had been formed in the country in the end of the 1980s only grew in strength.


Wahhabism started its conquest of the Northern Caucasus from western Dagestan, where its first cells were established in the 1980s. Followers of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab of Nejd, founder of a remarkable revolutionary puritanical movement in mid-18th century Arabia, fought for the re-establishment of the purity of early Islam of prophet Mohammed’s time.

Wahhabism confirmed the principles of the “brotherhood” of Muslims and their equality before the only God. Such brotherhood required a specific type of organization with internal discipline much stronger than in a normal Muslim community, and with explicitly expressed indivisible authority and collective liability. According to this model, Wahhabist groups are not just religious communities but rather distinctive, sometimes militarized, religious-political organizations.

The ideology of Wahhabism presented an alternative to certain believers – particularly militarized and radicalized youth unable or unwilling to fully integrate into the traditionalist socio-political structures of the Chechen society – one they could identify with, more than the complex mystical worldview of “standard” Sufi Islam.

It was also an expression of antagonism towards complicated Sufi brotherhoods and rituals, which Wahhabists considered heretic since the Sufis, in Wahhabists’ view, de facto accepted polytheism “idolatrizing” numerous Sufi saints.

Simply speaking, the “People Islam” as a specific symbiosis of Islam and ethnic customs and relicts of pagan beliefs was the main target of Wahhabist groups in Chechnya, as well as in other Islamic regions.

The specific Wahhabist “electorate” was qualitatively and quantitatively supplemented by “Islamic volunteers”, some of whom married Chechen and Dagestani women after 1996 and stayed in the country. Most of these primarily ethnic Arabs fought earlier in Afghanistan and in the 1980s were exposed to Wahhabism promoted from Saudi Arabia where it has had nearly uninterrupted official status since 1808.

Aslan Maskhadov’s attempts to unite Chechens on the basis of Islam were thus unsuccessful. Although Wahhabism filled the hearts and minds of a much smaller number of Chechen believers than traditional Sufi Islam (ca 5%-10%), the strict organization, discipline, and fanaticism of Wahhabists, generously funded from overseas Wahhabist organizations and individual benefactors, made this group a serious opponent of centralized Chechen statehood.

The Wahhabists demonstratively refused to accept the authority of Maskhadov and with powerful backers such as Shamil Basayev and a number of other field commanders they presented a real ideological, political, and military threat to the idea of a united Chechen statehood.

President’s efforts to establish a semi-Islamic or in 1999 even a purely Islamic state were waved aside by majority Wahhabists since they identified the “real” Islam with Wahhabist Islam only. Maskhadov soon spoke out publicly against Wahhabists, with the support of Akhmad Kadyrov, mufti of the republic, and representatives of traditional tariq Islam.

Division of Chechen society

Armed clashes between Wahhabists and supporters of Sufi Islam occurred throughout Chechnya. The fight between the two sides erupted fully in Gudermes in August 1998 in fierce battles between the Wahhabist “Islamic Special Operations Unit” commanded by Jordanian national Khattab and the pro-government “Sharia Guard”. In these fights, the Gudermes Wahhabists had been factually clashed down and they then moved to Urus-Martan establishing their base there.

The ideological divisions in Chechnya were reflected most apparently in the August 1999 invasion of Dagestan, led by both Chechen and Dagestani Wahhabist forces in order to “liberate their Dagestani brothers from Russian colonialism.”

These events in turn led to the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the fall of that year. The attack on Dagestan, denounced by Maskhadov in retrospect, ended in the defeat of the Wahhabist armed units which did not receive the expected support from the Dagestani Muslims. The Dagestanis, like a majority of Chechens, saw the Wahhabist “international help” as an act of aggression, and confirmed that traditional Sufi Islam played the main role in the region.

Nevertheless, up to this day Wahhabism presents a serious threat to society in Northern Caucasus, because its protest-based nature may be exploited by radically minded marginal elements in Chechnya and in neighboring regions. Some Chechen guerrillas, especially so called hardliners with links to overseas military Islamic organizations, still speak from Wahhabist positions.

As a result, the religious and ideological divisions present in Chechen society have not been overcome even during the Russian invasion. This, in itself, is unprecedented in the history of Chechen resistance.

Emil Souleimanov ( is a political scientist. He works at the Charles University in Prague.




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