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The Resurgence of Islam in the Northern Caucasus through the Prism of the Sufi/Salafi (‘Wahhabi') Confrontation

"Over the past fifteen years, many Muslims from the Caucasus, have been traveling to the Middle East to study ‘pure' Islam at local religious institutions, and upon their return to their republics, many of them became disseminators of new forms of Islamic ideologies, sometimes referred to as ‘neofundamentalism,'" said Alexander Knysh, professor of Islamic studies, University of Michigan, and fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center. Speaking at a 3 December 2007 Kennan Institute lecture, Knysh analyzed political and religious movements in the Northern Caucasus through the prism of the ongoing conflict between two competing interpretations of Islam in the area, namely Sufism and Salafism.
Knysh explained that the area of the Caucasus he focuses on is within the Russian Federation between the Caspian and Black Seas, and includes present-day Dagestan, Stavropolskii krai, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Adygea. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, non-indigenous interpretations of Islam have begun to take root in the Northern Caucasus, including Salafi interpretations. In Russia and the West, he added, this trend is more commonly known as "Wahhabism," which has a negative connotation due to its close association with Islamic militancy along the lines of al Qaeda and other radical groups waging war against their governments and the West. Areas of Chechnya, which for more than a decade remained outside of Russian control, and other republics in the region have become safe havens for foreign and local jihadists who condemn the local forms of Islam as an aberration and heresy. The growing spread of neofundamentalist ideas of "pure Islam" among the Muslim populations of the Northern Caucasus has added to interethnic and religious conflict that has made the Northern Caucasus very unstable.
According to Knysh, the most basic characteristic of Islam according to the Salafi/Wahhabi creed is jihad, which serves as an animating force behind Islamic faith. If it is neglected by Muslims, then Islam itself is subject to corruption, misinterpretation, and distortion. Knysh continued that the Salafis/Wahhabis believe that it is a violation of the cornerstone of Islamic monotheism to express faith, trust, or other emotions in any other being besides God. It is on these grounds that they disapprove of most of the Sufi practices, traditions, and beliefs, viewing them as a covert expression of "polytheism." In particular the Salafis find abhorrent the Sufi belief in the unity of God and his creatures, namely that God and all creatures are one.
The above beliefs, Knysh elaborated, were quite typical of the Salafi/Wahhabi creed that can be found in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Kuwait—it is directed against all varieties of shirk, which is polytheism. These doctrinal condemnations have concrete behavioral and social implications for the Muslim societies of the Northern Caucasus as local Wahhabis routinely condemn their Sufi counterparts as heretics, refuse to eat or pray with them, do not intermarry, do not attend Sufi funerals, and so on. Sufis, likewise, refuse to have any social interaction with local Salafis/Wahhabis, Knysh said. They call them grievous innovators who have abandoned the Islam of their ancestors in favor of a faulty, alien version of Islam.
In studying this Sufi-Salafi divide, Knysh has found that the majority of opponents to Sufism belong to the younger generation; they denounce it in part because they want to free themselves from the traditional structures of power, loyalty, and authority, which are exemplified by traditional Muslim scholars, who more often than not belong to a Sufi initiatic lineage. In Dagestan and Chechnya, the egalitarian rhetoric of young Salafi/Wahhabi leaders shows their desire to break away from the traditional structures of kinship and patronage, and become citizens of a global Muslim community, unconstrained by a patriarchal system. Salafi Islam's claim to "purity" is a convenient way to express its followers' protest against the social status quo, which has always favored the older generation, and demanded obedience from the young. In theory, Knysh observed, Sufism too can serve as an ideology of protest for both young and adult Muslims unhappy with the social and political status quo. However, the Salafi/Wahhabi proponents have gone to great lengths to discredit Sufism as an "illegitimate," "corrupt" version of Islam. As a result, in Knysh's view, Sufi Islam is no longer seen by Caucasus Muslims as a viable and compelling option for those eager to resist the authorities by conducting jihad against them.
Finally, Knysh concluded, external factors play an important role in the conflict between these two Islamic sects. Government authorities penetrate Sufi groups in the region in hopes of curbing the allure and influence of the Salafi/Wahhabi ideology. Sufis, in their turn, seek to manipulate the resources of the state to their advantage. This "unholy alliance" threatens to discredit Sufi ideology, as Sufism comes to be seen by the masses as a tool of the authorities and thus associated with their misdeeds and corruption. Under such circumstances, Knysh stated, Sufism's best hope is that its leaders should try to avoid the state's suffocating embrace with a view to preserving its credibility in the eyes of believers.


About the Author

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin

Program Associate;
Kennan Institute
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more