Vienna, April 22 – Despite the “widespread” belief that Wahhabism arrived in the North Caucasus only after the collapse of the Soviet union, a new study shows that this trend of Salafi Islam in fact appeared in Daghestan almost a century ago, sparking the same theological and political disputes that continue to reverberate there today.
In a thesis prepared for his kandidat degree, Abduzagir Mantayev, 33, uses both archival materials and rare printed materials in Arabic to document this neglected chapter in the history of Islam in the North Caucasus. A summary of his work is available at
www.islamcom.ru/material.php?id=586; that url contains a link to his dissertation.
Mantayev cites three basic sources for his contention that what many Russian officials call Wahhabism, the Saudi form of Salafi Islam, arrived in Daghestan in the years just after the Russian revolution of 1917 and led to a counter-attack by the Sufi form of Islam dominant there at that time and now.
First, he examines the memoirs written approximately 60 years ago by Abd al-Khafiz of Ukhli, who served for a long time as imam in Makhachkala’s central mosque. In it, al-Khafiz wrote that the first person to bring “Wahhabism” to Daghestan was the first Daghestani to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Others took up the ideas of “Wahhabism,” the Makhachkala imam observed, although he describes some of them as “jadids,” a term usually applied to those Muslims who believed in reform and one that used in this context suggests how slippery the term Wahhabism has always been in the Russian context.
Second, Mantayev pointed to the fact that the very first issue of the Arabic-language Daghestani religious journal, “ Bayan al-Khakayk” (which appeared from 1925 to 1929), was devoted to the question of and problems that Sufi leaders in Daghestan saw in Wahhabism.
And third, he cites the unpublished 1922 correspondence between Mukhammad Abd ar-Rashid of Arakan, a representative of the “new thinking” as many called Salafi Islam at that time, and Mukhammad ibn Nurmukhammad of Asavy, a noted Sufi sheikh in highland Daghestan.
The two men squared off on all the issues that continue to continue to agitate Sufis and those known as Wahhabis in the North Caucasus to this day: the possibility of interpretation of Islam, the issue of whether Sufism has been able to distance itself from “heretical” forms, and the possibilities of joint worship.
What is striking about Mantayev’s research is not just how much material he was able to find still in the archives. In many cases, Russian scholars working on Islamic questions in the 1920s have found the files have been carefully selected, making an accurate portrait of what took place at that time impossible to form.
More intriguing is the places where he has been conducted his studies. Mantayev received his first degree at Daghestan State University in Makhachkala, exactly where one might expect such a scholar to work. But he received his advanced degree at Moscow’s Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats for service abroad.
Thus, someone in authority in Moscow is interested in this topic, wants to have a young specialist who can work either in the Caucasus or in Saudi Arabia available, and perhaps most important is interested in sending a message to the expert community that the Russian authorities have a deeper understanding of Wahhabism than many suspect.
And that in turn suggests that the Russian government may be hoping to penetrate the Wahhabism movement in its homeland, Saudi Arabia, either to block it from continuing its penetration of Russian territories or, more speculatively, to undermine the Saudi monarchy, whose ideology Wahhabism is.