Monday, November 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow and Grozny Each Seek to Exploit Sufism Abroad for Their Own Ends

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 10 – In the last decades of the Soviet period, Western analysts like Alexander Bennigsen and Enders Wimbush called attention not only to the many ways in which Sufism not only helped to keep Islam alive under communism but also to how it this mystical trend in Islam contributed the rise of national movements in the Muslim parts of the USSR.
But now, in a remarkable turnabout, Moscow and Grozny each appear to view at least one strand of Sufism -- that of Kunta-Haji, the founder of the Qadyria order in Chechnya 150 years ago -- as a possible means of expanding their standing with and influence on Islamic intellectuals beyond their respective borders in the Arab world and Africa.
At one level, the interests of Moscow and Grozny do in fact coincide: Both could benefit from being seen as supporters of this intriguing school of Muslim thought. But at another, deeper one, they clearly diverge, with Moscow wanting to penetrate that world while Grozny hopes to develop a resource that could give it greater flexibility vis-à-vis Moscow.
In recent months, there has been a spate of articles about Kunta-Haji, a thinker widely known in the Muslim world but little known beyond it. (For two intriguing recent examples, see and in particular Shamil Shikhaliyev’s analysis that was posted online last week at
But the role that Moscow and Grozny hope Kunta-Haji’s legacy will given them was highlighted more clearly by the decision earlier this year of the Russian and Chechen governments to name the new Russian Islamic University after the 19th century Sufi and by a comment on Friday by the chief mufti of Chechnya.
Sultan Mirzayev, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Chechen Republic, told that the teachings of Kunta-Haji currently have “approximately two million followers” in Libya, Senegal, Mauritania and other African countries as well as in Europe (
The Chechen mufti said that while in Libya, where he was received by Muammar Qadaffi, he met with leaders of the Islamic Appeal, an international body within the Muslim world, and discovered that the ideas of Kunta-Haji had penetrated Senegal and Chad already in the nineteenth century.
And added that some Chechen scholars believe that Kunta-haji may have travelled to Africa between 1858 when he left his homeland because of differences with Sheikh Shamil and 1861 when he is known to have returned. But most specialists think that Kunta-Haji’s ideas spread there via Chechen Muslims performing the haj to Mecca.
But in order to understand why both Moscow and Grozny think they may be able to exploit Kunta-haji, it is important to know rather more about his life, his thought and perhaps especially the amazingly contradictory ways in which his thought has been applied by others not only in Chechnya but elsewhere as well.
Born in the Chechen village of Melcha-Hi sometime around 1830, Kunta made the pilgrimage to Mecca at 18 and acquired the honorific haji by which he is known. After returning to his homeland, he condemned the war Imam Shamil was waging against Russian forces, arguing that “spiritual independence” was more important than fighting an external enemy.
Not surprisingly, Shamil was furious at what Kunta-Haji was preaching, especially when the latter attracted a large number of followers by his mysticism, reflected in ecstatic dances, and is essentially pacifist views in the midst of the war. Even worse from Shamil’s point of view, Kunta-Haji said Turkey would not help Shamil’s forces, an accurate but unpleasant conclusion.
And more intriguing still for the way in which his thought has echoed since that time, Kunta-Haji sought to bridge the gap between the traditional norms of the region (adat) and shariat law and drew on ideas from other religions including Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism.
Because of his differences with Shamil, however, Kunta-Haji in 1858 left for another pilgrimage. But when he returned three years later, he attracted to his Qadiria order some 6,000 adepts, making him one of the most influential figures in the region, particularly after Shamil himself was taken prisoner by the Russians.
Kunta-Haji’s growing influence and his unorthodox views led more orthodox Islamic mullahs to denounce him to the Russian authorities, and in January 1864, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately exiled to a small town in Novgorod gubernia. There, three years later, on May 19, 1867, he died alone.
After his death, the followers of Kunta-Haji refused to elect a new sheikh or master, preferring to organize themselves in a council until his return. And because of that, it happened that at the time of the 1917 revolution and again after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, his followers became some of the most militant anti-Russian forces of all.
Indeed, according to many students of Chechnya, Kunta-Haji’s Qadiria order played a key role in the coming to power of Jokhar Dudayev in 1991 and continue to serve as the state religion of Chechnya, with its adepts sometimes stressing Kunta-Haji’s opposition to violence and at others his support for the right of his followers to organize themselves.
Given the dual nature of Kunta-Haji’s teachings, it is obvious why both Moscow and Grozny are interested in making use of him. For Moscow, his pacifistic views play to the Russian government’s professed opposition to terrorism and allow Moscow to reach out to one of a strain in Islamic thought that maintains links to Christians, Jews and Hindus.
But for Grozny, the game is more complex. On the one hand, the Chechen authorities are clearly interested in promoting a version of Islam Moscow is comfortable with, at least in the short term. But on the other, they are certainly aware that the spread of Kunta-Haji’s teachings in the Middle East and Africa gives them a new resource.
At the very least, it means that Chechnya will occupy a more prominent role in Moscow’s policies toward the Muslim world, a role few in the Russian capital will want to dispense with. But more than that, it gives Chechnya leverage against Moscow by generating for Grozny a new source of support abroad, support that could in time be turned against Russia.

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