Considered since the early 1990s as ‘the most Islamic subject’ of the Federation of Russia, Dagestan has been devoted one of the first volume of this new collection on “Islam in Russia” edited in Moscow by prominent political scientist, historian of Islam, and intellectual in the best Russian tradition, Prof. A. V. Malashenko. The author, E. F. Kisriev, a leading sociologist of political Islam in the Northern Caucasus, develops on a number of specificities of Islam in Dagestan, beginning with this religion’s long history in the region since the arrival of Arab troops in front of Derbent in 22 H/642-3 CE, with the role of Islamic or Islamised religious and legal norms in the construction of successive polities in the region ― with particular interest in mediaeval city-states (jama‘at) ―, the role of Sufi organisations and discourses in the mobilisation of highland populations against Tsarist, early Soviet, and present-day Russia.
Divided into four parts, the book begins with a chapter on the history of Islam in Dagestan from the origins to the end of the Soviet period. The author’s narrative is interestingly centred on Dagestan’s trans-historical struggle against all kinds of invaders: Arabs, Iranians, and Russians from the early eighteenth century onwards. The phenomenon of ‘muridism’ (мюридизм), a notion inherited from Oriental studies in Tsarist and Soviet Russia, is not really discussed, and introduced as a reaction of the jama‘ats’ free populations to the brutality of Russian occupation (p. 22). The author gives special attention to the discourse on ghaza (غزا, the war for the enlargement of the territory of Islam, reinterpreted as liberation war) by Naqshbandi shaykh Muhammad of Yaragh. Special paragraphs are devoted to the adoption by the Russian administration, from the 1860s onwards, of the territorial entity of Shamil’s Emirate, and to the Russian adaptation of some categories of the Sufi paths’ (turuq) vision, such as the opposition of custom (‘adat) and Islamic law (shar‘). The revolutionary period is dealt with through the emergence of a public movement and press in Dagestan in the 1900s-10s, and through the regional events of the 1917-19 period (notably the proclamation of the ‘jama‘at-i islamiyya’ of Buinaksk [then Temir-Khan-Shura]). As far as the Soviet period is concerned, among other things the author has perfectly noticed the beginning of a revival of religious and Sufi practice from the 1950s onwards, even if very few information is conveyed by the book on the content of religious practice during the following decades.
The second chapter tackles the public and political transformations of the period since 1989: the emergence of ethnic organisations and parties from 1989 to 1994; the growing confrontation between Sufi paths (grouped under the denomination of ‘tarikatists’) and the so-called ‘Wahhabis’ from 1994 onward, till the forbidding of the ‘Wahhabi current’ on the territory of Dagestan in September 1999; a fourth period opened by Russian military operations against ‘Wahhabi’ positions and enclaves from August 1999, with support of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Dagestan. As in the author’s other works, the explosion of religious activity and activism in Dagestan during the last decades of the Soviet period is explained merely by the growth of interest in ethnic identity and ‘traditional culture’. Apparently deprived of elements of information on the inner life of the religious milieu during this period of time, the author’s narrative is focused on the emergence of the Party of the Islamic Revival and its opposition to the registered religious personnel of the republic. The emergence of religion as a public question in late Soviet Dagestan is dealt with through the highly symbolic issue of the hajj (pp. 55-8) and through the impact of foreign preachers and teachers from the Northern Caucasian diasporas of the Near East (66-8).
An overview of the currents and trends of the past decade is given in chapter three, with two subsections (with numerous repetitions of things explained in chapter two). The first of these subsections deals with the history and current situation of the three main historical Sufi paths in Dagestan (Naqshbandiyya, Shadhiliyya, and Qadiriyya), through short biographical notes on their main shaykhs in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and with a brief paragraph of the continuous practice of uwaysi initiation. The subsection about “New Muslims” (the so-called “Wahhabis” cherished by the KGB and its successor organisations) are more innovative, with original considerations (pp. 82-3) on the role played by mass migrations from highland regions to the lowlands of Khasaviurt, Kiziliurt and Buinaksk districts, as well as in the whole south of the republic, in the appearance there, from at least the mid-1970s onwards ― in fact since at least the early 1960s, if we take into account the development of the first clandestine circles for the study of Islam ―, of protest religious movements. Deepening his tentative sociology of political Islam in post-soviet Dagestan, the author establishes a distinction between a “Wahhabism of the poor” developed in highland districts, and a “Wahhabism of the rich” peculiar to the wealthy agrarian migrant communities of the Khasaviurt, Kiziliurt and other southern areas. E. F. Kisriev sheds light on the religious and economic ideology developed by market gardeners of these lowland districts, and its insistence on both liberation from the Soviet system of integrated economy and authority of the religious establishment of Soviet Dagestan. His analysis continues with a reconstruction of the growing conflicts between the ‘tarikatists’ and New Muslims in the 1990s, notably about the designation of district qazis, and in the aftermath of the Chechnya war. Special paragraphs are devoted to the short independence of communities like that of Karamakhi-Chabanmakhi, until the heavy military campaigns of 1999.
The fourth chapter deals entirely with the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Dagestan and with its role on the history of Islam in the region over the past twenty years. The author exposes at length the endless quibbles of this period of time for the control of this institution, between ethnic groups (Avars and Kumyks, especially) and Sufi networks within the tarikatist movement. He then provides elements for a narrative of the struggle led by the Board against the New Muslims, as well as on the collusion between the Board and the political power in Dagestan for successive reformulations of the legislation on religious practice and institutions. The last paragraphs of the book are an evocation of the impact of the War of Chechnya on the inner situation and on the growth of public violence in Dagestan in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the eventful 2000s are let aside of this narrative.
It is greatly to the credit of the present volume ― and of the other titles of the same collection, intended for a wide audience, far beyond academic circles ― to provide a clear and intelligible survey of the complex history and present situation of Islam in a still poorly known region of the Federation of Russia. Far from the derogatory stereotypes conveyed ad nauseam by Russia’s mass media, the author has been proposing a balanced analysis, meritoriously endeavouring to stand up for Dagestan and the Dagestanis. Among the overall methodological aspects that would deserve to be discussed is probably the fact that, like in many other studies in modern and contemporary Islam on the wide territory of the former Russian Empire and USSR, religion is still often confused with politics, which drives a great many authors to concentrate on public and institutional aspects of the history of Islam, while continuing to ignore its global functioning as a religious system. This approach notably drives to elementary dichotomies inherited from a close past ― like that between the turuq and the ‘Wahhabis’, or ‘traditional’ vs. ‘non-traditional’ Islam ― without allowing a real questioning of such categories. At the same time, through his sociological study of the “new Muslim” trend in Dagestan, E. F. Kisriev has managed to propose a narrative more convincing that those of a majority of political science studies on political Islam in the Northern Caucasus. From this viewpoint, his book can be considered much more than a mere popularisation work on Islam in a region of Russia, and one of the most encouraging contributions of the past decades on Islam and politics in the former Soviet domain.