Eurasian Politician

The Eurasian Politician - October 2003

The Background of Chechen Independence Movement II:

The Sufi Resistance

Anssi Kullberg, 1 Oct. 2003

The two most significant religious schools among North Caucasian Muslims have been the two Sufi brotherhoods, Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya, occurring globally. Of these, the Naqshbandis have traditionally been higher educated and more aristocratic, and very often a driving force promoting national revival and ascent, reformism, and nationalism. The traditionally more pacifist Qadiris have been more folksy, but in Caucasia, they have also been more secret-societal, which has helped underground activity during the worst persecutions, for example in the Soviet period.

The Naqshbandiyya is hundreds of years older brotherhood among the Chechens, and for instance the famous Imam Shamil belonged to it. The teachings of the Qadiriyya were spread to Chechnya - especially among the Ingush - by Kunta-Haji Kishiyev from the Gudermes region, since early 1850s.

It is impossible to study the conflict in Chechnya without casting a glance at the times of the Murids. The Chechen term for holy war is gazavat, and the Russian invasion to Chechnya in late 1700s launched a full century of gazavats, in which the resistance struggle was led by Sufi religious leaders, sheikhs and imams, whose warrior troops were called the Murids.

The first significant Murid leader was Sheikh Mansur (1732-1794), who was chosen by the elders in 1785 to be the first imam of the North Caucasians. Mansur's Murids at first consisted of Chechens, Avars, Laks, and Ossetians, but later also included Kabards and Kumyks. After suffering a defeat against the Russians in Tatartub, November 1785, Mansur removed to west, to join the Circassians, who enjoyed the protection of the Turkish Sultan. Among them, Mansur put together a new resistance army. Later the Circassians, however, turned their backs to Mansur, who fled to North Circassian town of Anapa on the Black Sea coast, near the Kerch Straits of the Sea of Azoff. Mansur ruled in Anapa until June 1791, when the Russians conquered the town and captured Mansur.

After Mansur had been defeated, Russia targeted Chechnya with a wave of terror, which was led by General Aleksey Yermolov, notorious for his cruelty. His doctrine of systematic terror against civilian population aimed at "total subjugation of the Caucasians". Yermolov's "fire and sword" campaigns were raging across the country. In 1819 he ordered the mountain village of Dadi-Yurt to be completely destroyed, and the whole population, including women and children, to be slaughtered. Yermolov believed that the Chechens could be suppressed by extreme cruelty, but his theory proved most wrong, as what he actually managed to do was to unite and raise all Chechen population into punitive and revenge attacks, where several Russian forts were destroyed. Suppressing the Chechen uprising only succeeded after there appeared internal strives amongst them. Each time when the Russians have conquered Grozny, they have erected a statue for Yermolov there, while the Chechens have systematically blown up or otherwise sabotaged it.

After Sheikh Mansur, the resistance was led by two leaders, Gus Beg and Djimbulat, who are little known. After them, the most famous and best described phase of the "Great Gazavat" followed, led by the three imams of Dagestan: Gazimulla, Hamzad Beg, and Shamil. Gazimulla (1793-1832) was born in the village of Himri in Dagestan, and his original name was Muhammed son of Ismail. ("Gazi" means a hero or a warrior, while mullah is the Islamic jurist-theologian, often erratically translated into "priest".) Young Muhammed was raised by the mullah of the village of Berekkai, who noticed the boy's talents, and sent him to the court of Aslan Khan of Hunza, where Muhammed became the apprentice of a qadi (judge). When the qadi fell into disfavor of the khan, young Muhammed ended up as a wandering scribe, in which essence he traveled around the Caucasus and learned to know the region widely. Finally he became a student of a Naqshbandi sheikh, who influenced in the mosque of the village of Yarag. The sheikh supported Muhammed's opinion that a holy war should be raised against the Russian invaders.

Gazimulla started uniting an army in 1829, and soon achieved large and broad-based support among the North Caucasians. Russia's grip on the Caucasus was based on one hand on local vassals on Russian payroll, and on the other hand on the "fire and sword" campaigns, in which villages and cropfields were burn, and the properties of the Caucasians were looted. Resistance spirit prevailed everywhere, thanks to Yermolov's methods, and all that was needed was a strong and legitimate leader to unite the scattered resistance movement into an integrated armed uprising. The biggest obstacle on Gazimulla's ambitions was the Avar widow heiress of Aslan Khan, Khaness Pakhubike, who ruled her court in Hunza, the capital of Avaristan, and acted as a vassal of the Russian Empire. Most of the Avars took Gazimulla's side, but Gazimulla was himself killed when defending Himri in 1832.

Gazimulla got his successor in Hamzad Beg (1789-1834), who was the son of a high-ranking Avar warlord Iskender from Khutsali. He had studied Arabic and the Koran in the court of the Khaness of Hunza, and he had been adventuring and drinking, until he finally got impressed by Gazimulla's heroism and piety, and became one of the latter's most passionate Murids. Hamzad Beg, however, did not turn out to be a leader like his late master, but his years in leadership of the Murids were plagued by intrigues, atrocities and murders. In spite of this, he finished Gazimulla's work by conquering Hunza, and executed the then 60-year-old Khaness. Hamzad Beg was finally assassinated in a blood-feud, because he had ordered the execution of the under-aged heirs of his opponent.

The most famous of the Murid leaders was Shamil (1797-1871), who was another Avar from Himri. By the time of Hamzad's death, Shamil had gained a legendary reputation: He had been extremely disciplined and pedantically righteous from his childhood. In combat, he had shown such heroism, and more than once he had escaped from an almost certain death, that he had achieved the fame of an almost immortal hero. Since the times of his youth, he had also exercised both his physical strength and his talents in presentation and rhetorics, and he became famous for his inspiring speeches and for poems that were chanted on battlefields. The Dagestani poet Berek Beg wrote that Shamil "spoke flashes of lightning in his eyes, and flowers on his lips". When the Russians warned him that they have soldiers as many as there is sand on the beach, Shamil replied that his Murids were the waves that will wash the sand away.

For the next decades, battles followed each other, and thousands of Russian soldiers were killed in the beech forests of Chechnya, and in the mountains of Dagestan. Russians destroyed villages and towns, spreading death and horror, but the Caucasians quickly reconstructed their destroyed houses. Every now and then, the rows of the Caucasians were split, but Shamil had exceptional charisma both as a politician and as a military commander. He was the first, according to Professor Moshe Gammer, to found a national territorial state in Chechnya, while so far every town and village had been independent in practice. Shamil was skilful to employ the spreading of rumors before him, and he staged public spectacles that appealed on the sense of honor of the Caucasians, obliging them back to the united front. However, the numbers and weaponry of the Russians were overwhelmingly superior, and the aging Shamil met an increasing amount of military setbacks and defeats, having fought for a quarter of a century. An increasing number of the Caucasian tribes left his front.

Probably partly for getting his family safe, partly because of his age, Shamil finally decided to surrender after twenty-five years of continuous fighting. He was kept prisoner in quite luxurious circumstances in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kaluga. In 1870, the Czar finally decided to allow Shamil to travel abroad, to perform haj, pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way, he received a diplomatic mission from the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople, and he completed it in Egypt, after which he continued to Mecca. He died in Medina on 4th February, 1871. When the Wahhabis seized power in Saudi Arabia and conquered the two holy cities in 1926, their first action was to destroy Sufi shrines and monuments, among which they destroyed also Shamil's grave memorial in Medina.

The British traveler of the Caucasus, John Baddeley, described Imam Shamil's importance "as the protector of the British Empire and India" in his book, published in 1908: "And such were the people, who, without any external help, without artillery except what they could capture from the enemy, without trust in anyone but God and His Prophet, their own right hands and flashing swords, defied the Russian might for more than half a century; defeating her troops, attacking her colonies, and laughing with scorn at her wealth, pride, and numbers. And the story of their heroic struggle has its specific justification for the sympathy of its English readers. It is true that they fought for themselves alone – for their faith, freedom, and land. But they also stood, albeit not knowingly, as the protection of the British rule in India."

Although the Russians usually consider the independence of Chechnya and Dagestan to have ended in Shamil's surrender, in reality the resistance never died. Caucasians rose into rebellion every time, when there was a chance for it. During the Polish Rebellion in 1863, the Caucasian uprising was first time led by the Qadiris. According to Professor Gammer of the University of Tel Aviv, the fact that also the Qadiris, who were known as pacifists, joined open armed resistance, "was as such a statement of what the Russian rule in the Caucasus was like".

After Shamil's surrender, Russia's war campaigns concentrated in the Circassian lands of the Northwest Caucasus and the Black Sea coast. To oppress the Circassians, Russia ended up in a solution that was to have sinister historical significance: All the historical territory of the Circassians, the Kuban plains and the Black Sea coast, were to be cleansed of the original population. The Circassians were given two choices: they could move to the interior parts of the Empire, or flee to Turkey. Most Circassians chose Turkey. Mass deportations were started in 1860, and the consequences were catastrophic. A humanitarian disaster followed, and the Circassians immediately organized armed resistance, and made Sochi (Sashe) their capital, appealing for Turkey and the Western states to recognize independent Circassia. Their appeals were ignored.

In 1862, Russia again started violent deportations, and by May 1864, the Circassian resistance had been crushed. More than 400'000 Circassians as well as 200'000 Georgian Abkhazians and Ajars were compelled to flee for Turkey. The deportation did not take place without major violence, but the Russian imperial troops committed horrible massacres, and besides, thousands of people starved to death. In 1865, Russia decided to use the same methods to cleanse Chechnya, from where 5'000 extended families were deported to Turkey (the amount was huge compared with the size of the population at the time – a family is a very large unit).

It was really the first intentional large-scale genocide of the modern times, as well as the model case of the consequent tradition of ethnic cleansing. It was also the largest single genocide of the 19th century. It preceded the wave of pogroms and deportations that Russia used against the Jews, and it also preceded the tragic consequences that the same Russian expansion wars against Turkish territories had on Armenians after the turn of the century. For some reason, the Circassian genocide has never been given proper attention or researched well. The Circassian genocide ended at about same time with the launching of the Jewish deportations in 1880s, when more than three million Circassians had been expelled from the territories occupied by Russia. The numbers of those who were killed, are not known. Anyway, it meant 90 per cent of the whole Circassian population.

The Circassian genocide was followed by a wave of anti-Russian resistance, which, according to Gammer, was the greatest of the period, although it is much less known than the Murid Wars. While the time of the Murids from Mansur to Imam Shamil is known as the "Great Gazavat", the shorter but more intensive resistance war is known as the "Little Gazavat", and it was fought during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-1878. On the Turkish side, also Shamil's son Gazi Mahomed fought in this war. Unlike in the previous wars, this time Turkey – considering already its core areas threatened – openly supported the Caucasians, and organized for their support a cavalry division that was mainly constituted by Caucasian emigrants.

The vital strength of Sufism has always lied in its deep roots in the social structures and traditions of the mountain regions. Because of its local character, and because it developed around scholars and heroes, who were respected as individuals, rather than around hierarchic and authoritarian institutions, Sufism proved much more able to resist the Russian central power both in czarist and Soviet times, than the Sunni Islam of Hanafi school that prevailed in Central Asia. As early as in the czarist period, Russian colonial administration noticed that it served their interests to employ as their vassals the most authoritarian local regents of the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the conservative Muslim clergy, the ulama. Russia considered the conservative Qadimists as their allies, while the reformist Jadidists, who supported more liberal interpretation of Islam, were considered as enemies of Russia.

The Russian strategy did not, however, work equally well in the territories of the Caucasus, where the Sufi brotherhoods prevailed. The Sufi brotherhoods maintained continuous resistance spirit against the Russian occupiers. The secret-societal nature of the brotherhoods guaranteed that when Russia prohibited the functioning of madrassahs and mosques, executed mullahs and scholars, destroyed classical literature, and changed the alphabets, the practice of religion continued in private homes and underground.

The Sufi brotherhoods, especially Naqshbandiyya, have worked as the initiating and maintaining force behind almost all Muslim anti-colonial resistance and independence movements: In the 1800s, they led the resistance against the French in North Africa, against the Russians in the Caucasus, against the British in India, against the Dutch in Indonesia, and against the Turks in the Arabian Peninsula. In the same way, the Sufi brotherhoods have worked as the leading force behind the resistance against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, against the Indian occupation in Kashmir, against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, and against Russia in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Tajikistan.

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