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Caucasus

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Caucasus

    The Caucasus, also known as Caucasia, refers to a mountainous region that lies between the Caspian and Black Seas. The Caucasus Mountains are traditionally considered to be a boundary between Europe and Asia. Islam was first introduced to this area in the 600s and spread throughout the region, despite repeated efforts to suppress it. Today Islam is the major religion of the Caucasus.

    The Land and Its People.

    The main range of the Caucasus Mountains divides the region in half. The northern section is called the North Caucasus and the southern part is referred to as Transcaucasia, or the South Caucasia. The entire area consists of forested mountains, high grassy plateaus, fertile river valleys, and low-lying coastal plains along the Caspian and Black Seas. The climate ranges from semitropical along the coasts to temperate at higher elevations. The area is rich in minerals, especially oil. Constant invasions and migrations have made the Caucasus one of the most complex linguistic and ethnic regions in the world, with over 50 distinct peoples speaking dozens of languages. Modern-day Caucasian countries include Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the southwestern portion of Russia.

    Early History.

    Since ancient times, the Caucasus has served as a vital link between Europe and Asia. Arabs conquered the eastern part of Transcaucasia in the mid-600s, bringing Islam to the region. Within a hundred years, the majority of people in the area had become Muslim. Over the next few centuries, Islam penetrated further into Transcaucasia, spread by Muslim merchants along fur and silk trade routes.

    During the 1200s, Mongols from the East invaded the Caucasus. Many Mongol leaders were Buddhists or Christians, and their rule was strongly anti-Islamic. Islam survived in Transcaucasia during this period largely through the efforts of Muslim groups that spread Islam widely among the people. Eventually, Mongol leaders became Muslims themselves. In the 1400s, Mongols introduced Islam into the North Caucasus for the first time. Ottoman Turks and other invaders also helped spread Islam into the North Caucasus.

    Russian Expansion.

    Around the same time, Russia was expanding its empire and attempting to counter the spread of Islam. Ivan the Terrible, who ruled in the mid-1500s, treated Muslims in the Caucasus as Russian subjects and denied them the rights given to Christians. Ivan took over the Muslim aristocracy and encouraged conversion to Christianity. He expelled Muslim religious leaders and destroyed mosques.

    Despite these efforts to repress Islam in the Caucasus, the religion remained strong. It grew even stronger during the reign of Catherine the Great in the mid-1700s. She believed Islam had a more civilizing influence on Asia than Christianity, so she supported it. She guaranteed religious freedom to Muslims, sponsored the construction of mosques, and created Islamic institutions with broad authority over the Muslim population throughout her empire. She also encouraged Sufi missionaries to work in the North Caucasus.

    Chechnya, a land-locked region of the North Caucasus close to Russia, was one of the last areas of the North Caucasus to undergo conversion to Islam. The Russians began to invade Chechnya in the early 1700s, taking over the region around 1800 . At that time there were some local mullahs in Chechnya, but they still had little influence.

    Resistance and Conquest.

    Russian efforts to control the Caucasus continued throughout the 1800s, but they were often met with Muslim resis-tance. In the early 1800s, for example, a succession of imams led rebellions of peasant landowners and aristocrats against the Russians. Although the rebels were defeated, they paved the way for later Sufi resistance leaders. The most famous of these men, a Sufi named Shamil , tried to create an Islamic state in the Caucasus in the mid-1800s. Although Shamil failed, Islam became stronger.

    By 1900 Russia had completed its conquest of the Caucasus, instituting a strongly anti-Islamic policy. This policy gained greater strength after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the beginning of Soviet rule. Over the next several decades, Soviet policy toward Muslims alternated between repression and tolerance. In the 1930s, for example, Soviet authorities closed or destroyed thousands of mosques and shot or imprisoned Muslim clergy. During World War II, the authorities relaxed the anti-Islam policy, hoping to gain the support of Muslims in the war against Germany. The change of policy proved ineffective, however, and thousands of Muslims defected to the German side to fight against Russia.

    In the 1950s, the Soviets launched a new anti-Islamic campaign and closed the majority of mosques in the country. Russian leaders later relaxed this policy, viewing Islam as a useful tool for helping the Soviet Union gain acceptance in the larger Islamic world. To that end, Soviet leaders created a variety of official Islamic institutions in Soviet regions with primarily Muslim populations, including territories in the Caucasus. This policy continued throughout the 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union went even further by launching a policy of religious freedom.

    Islam in the Caucasus Today.

    After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the newly independent states of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia were created in the Caucasus, along with the official establishment of autonomous (self-governing) regions in Chechnya and Daghistan that remained part of Russia. The majority of peoples in Azerbaijan and the autonomous regions are now openly Muslim and have re-established ties with the larger Islamic world.

    In 1991 , Chechnya declared its independence and became involved in a brutal war with Russia. Although a peace accord brought a pause in the fighting, the conflict resumed in 1999 . The future political status of Chechnya remains uncertain. See also Communism and Islam; Mongols; Sufism.

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