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Dagestan

By:
Kirill Nourzhanov
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Dagestan

Dagestan is a secular republic within the Russian Federation. Its population of 2.7 million (2007) is extremely heterogenous and includes over a hundred distinct ethnic groups. The largest of these are the Avars with 29 percent, then the Darghins with 17 percent, the Qumyqs with 14 percent, the Lezghins with 13 percent, the Laks with 5 percent, and the Tabasarans with just 4 percent of the total population. Islam is the dominant religion, professed by 98% of all people of faith in the republic. The majority of Muslims in Dagestan are Sunnīs adhering to the Shāfiʿī and Hanafī madhāhib (legal schools). There are about 80,000 Shīʿī Azeris living mostly in the south of the republic.

Islam first came to Dagestan in the seventh century as part of the caliphateʾs expansion into the Caucasus. The city of Darband (Ar., Bāb al-ābwāb) submitted to Arab troops in 645, received thousands of Muslim settlers from Iraq and Syria, and over the next three centuries functioned as a major center of Islamic learning and dissemination.

The slow process of converting diverse ethnoreligious communities inhabiting Dagestan unfolded from the south to the north. The Lezghins, Tabasarans, and Rutuls embraced Islam by the tenth century, and the Laks and Aguls followed suit during the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. The displacement of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and paganism prevalent in the area was gradual and often superficial. It was only after the victory of Timur over pagan Mongol ruler Tokhtamysh in 1385 that the Islamization of Dagestan became irreversible. By the sixteenth century, Darghins, Qumyqs, Avars, and Aki Chechens were won over by Islam, and all of Dagestan was at least nominally Muslim.

The persistence of traditional highlander communities with strong vestiges of tribal democracy and customary law (adat) continued to influence the character of Islam in Dagestan until the twentieth century. This was particularly evident in the legal system where even the most deeply Islamized communities did not rigorously apply the sharīʿah in administrative, criminal, and inheritance matters.

Sufism played an important part in spreading Islam in Dagestan, smoothing differences between the high doctrinal creed and ingrained local customs, and eventually uniting Muslims against Russian imperial penetration. By the eighteenth century, four major Sūfī ṭarīqahs were firmly rooted in the area: Naqshbandīyah, Shādhilīyah, Jazulīyah, and Qādirīyah. In 1785, Naqhsbandī Shaykh Mansūr sanctioned a jihād against Russian outposts in northern Dagestan but was quickly defeated. It was another famous Avar, shaykh Shāmil (1797–1871), who for twenty-five years led the resistance of North Caucasian Muslims to tsarist rule. While Russia managed to seize Dagestan in 1859, this struggle gave Avars and other Dagestanis a sense of pride and made Shāmil a hero in the eyes of a wider Muslim community.

After its incorporation into the Russian Empire, Dagestan retained a vibrant religious life. On the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 it had over 1,700 prayer houses, 356 cathedral mosques, and 766 madrasahs. It provided the rest of the Caucasus with many well-trained ʿulamāʿ and respected Ṣūfī murshids (masters). In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, Dagestan was one of the foci of the jadīd modernist movement in Islam. The jadīd newspaper, Jaridat Dāghestān, which was published in Arabic during 1913–1918, had broad circulation among Muslims all over the Russian Empire.

Under Soviet rule, the majority of mosques and religious schools in Dagestan were closed down, mullahs and Muslim scholars were brutally repressed, and the teaching of Arabic was banned. During the Stalin era, only twenty-six mosques were allowed to function officially, and they were put under strict supervision by the state-run Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of North Caucasus (DUMSK), set up in 1944. Unofficial Ṣūfī networks continued to exist, albeit in a much weakened form. In the early-1980s, the total number of murīds (Ṣūfī disciples) in Dagestan was estimated at a paltry two thousand.

Gorbachevʾs perestroika and especially the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in a period of Islamic renaissance in Dagestan. By 1999, it had 1,700 registered Muslim communities, 1,429 mosques, 178 madrasahs, and 15 tertiary Islamic institutions. The numbers of pilgrims to Mecca expanded dramatically. In 2007, 13,000 Muslims from Dagestan performed the ḥājj, accounting for more than half of all pilgrims from Russia.

The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan (DUMD) replaced DUMSK in 1990 as the main official Islamic body in the republic. Headed by a muftī, it functions independently of the government. DUMD has a monopoly on religious education, scrutinizes activities of imāms in registered mosques, publishes books and periodicals, and broadcasts on radio, TV and the Internet. The current DUMD leadership takes ideological guidance from the Avar Naqshbandī shaykh, Said Atsaev of Chirkey.

In the 1990s unofficial jihādī Islam began to take root in Dagestan, especially among Aki Chechens. The war in Chechnya, difficult economic conditions, and extremist propaganda from abroad were contributing factors. Known locally under the collective name of Wahhabis, these radicals assassinated the muftī of Dagestan in 1998. An incursion by Chechen field commanders in 1999 and their attempt to establish an Islamic state on the territory of the republic antagonized the absolute majority of Dagestani Muslims and rallied them around DUMD, traditional Ṣūfī leaders, and local and federal authorities. The Wahhabis were repulsed, but have continued with low-intensity warfare, with 2005 witnessing the peak of terrorist acts, at over a hundred.

Bibliography

  • Gammer, Moshe, ed.The Caspian Region. Vol. 2, The Caucasus. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hahn, Gordon M.Russiaʾs Islamic Threat. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Ware, Robert Bruce. Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus. M E Sharpe Inc., 2009.
  • Zelkina, Anna. In Quest for God and Freedom. The Sufi Response to the Russian Advance in the North Caucasus. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
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