The article is comprised of sections on the history of Sufism, on Sufism in “public” and “private” spheres after the end of Communism, and on the conflict between Sufis and “Wahhabism” in the North Caucasus (Dagestan and Chechnya). The first, historical part stands in the tradition of Western Sovietology, which stressed the importance of Sufism for political opposition to Russian and Soviet rule in the area. This view leads the author to broad generalisations which have no foundation in any historical sources, as for instance “(b)y the eighteenth century, the majority of Muslims in the North Caucasus were Sufis” (p. 663, referring to Bennigsen & Whimbush, Mystics and Commissars, of 1985). What kind of Sufism did they adhere to? The Naqshbandiyya brotherhood gained popularity only in the 1820s, and even for the nineteenth century there are no reliable data whatsoever on how many Muslims regarded themselves as Sufis. Yemelianova then depicts the anti-colonial resistance of the late-eighteenth-century Chechen rebel Mansur (clearly a Naqshbandi shaykh in her mind—Bennigsen was more careful in his evaluation of Mansur in 1964) and Shamil (1834-59). Following an old-established Russian/Soviet custom, she subsumes this Sufi resistance under the term “Muridism,” which, in her terminology, was “a specific and militarised version of Tariqatism (p. 663)”. However, her term “Tariqatism” is just as misleading and superfluous as “Muridism”, and both are never defined in the article. This usage seems to be driven by the desire of Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian authors to describe the Dagestani and Chechen Sufi traditions as something outstanding and unparalleled in Islamic history; in reality this terminology just reveals the authors’ lack of acquaintance with standard works on Sufi brotherhoods in general and with Sufi anti-colonial resistance in particular in other areas of the Islamic world. This shortcoming is also reflected in Yemelianova’s misspelling of rather common Arabic Islamic terms, which are regularly rendered in a mixed Slavic-Arabic transcription (making a “Naqshbandii” out of a Naqshbandi, and a “Khanbali” out of a Hanbali).
The other parts of the article are mainly based on interviews that the author has conducted with various shaykhs and informants in Dagestan and elsewhere. To be sure, these interviews may be a valuable source for otherwise inaccessible information, and it should be kept in mind that Dagestan is not a very safe place for field trips these days. However, the author seems to take all oral information at face value, without analysing or challenging them. Thus Yemelianova tells us that “the concept of karamat does not exist in mainstream Sufism and is perceived as vulgarised deviation,” which, as the footnote shows, goes back to an interview of the author with a certain “Professor Maissam al-Janabi, Moscow (p. 672),” about whose identity or viewpoint no information is given. Why not consult a book to come to a better understanding of the basics of “mainstream” Sufism, whatever that may be? Based on these interviews, important names from the context of jihad in Dagestan are being confused (al-Madani was not the son of Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Sughuri, p. 673). Why not consult the local Dagestani written sources to corroborate, or reject, oral information?
Obviously, Yemelianova’s informants came mainly from the camps opposed to the contemporary Naqshbandi shaykh Sa‘id (not: Sayid) Efendi Chirkeevskii, and the selection (or availability) of interview partners predetermined the outcome of her research. Yemelianova rightly characterizes Sa‘id as the most important shaykh in Dagestan today, yet she reveals surprisingly little information on him. In tracing back his spiritual tradition (p. 674) she fails to mention that his tariqa, a branch of the Naqshbandiyya Khalidiyya, is called Mahmudiyya in Dagestani Sufi circles. Yemelianova goes on to claim that Sa‘id “does not reveal a deep knowledge of Islamic doctrine and Arabic,” and the interview she apparently had with him even left her with the impression that it might have been somebody else who wrote the Arabic books that are sold today under his name (p. 675). Any evidence? The author does not seem to have studied Chirkeevskii’s books, otherwise she would have understood that they are written in Avar, not in Arabic.
The last section deals with the clash between “Tariqatism” and “Wahhabism”. The author claims that “[b]y the end of 1990 Wahhabis already made up between 7% and 9% of Dagestani Muslims”. The source for these precise data? An interview with a leader of a political splinter group. In general, Yemelianova uses the term Wahhabism (in italics but without quotation marks) as a synonym for any anti-Sufi political Islamic movement, without discussing that this terminology implies a direct connection of Dagestani “Wahhabis” to Saudi Arabian sources, an impression which is supported by her long list of Saudi-related financial supporters to Dagestani “Wahhabism”. What is hard to believe is that among these alleged Wahhabi-supporters are also two Iranian organisations (p. 687, fn. 81); is this list based on an interview?
Yemelianova’s article reveals the dilemma of much of the current political research on Muslim societies in the former Soviet Union. Historical and contemporary written sources, which the Sovietologists of the 1980s did not have at their disposal but which are available now, are still largely neglected (my guess is: because their analysis would require special training). It is easier to maintain old stereotypes, and support them by individual opinions gathered at random and put together in order to form a nice and allegedly coherent picture.