Chechnya Becomes Home to Sufi Revival

May 24, 2006

Source: The New York Times

On May 24, 2006 The New York Times reported, "Three circles of barefoot men, one ring inside another, sway to the cadence of chant. The men stamp in time as they sway, and grunt from the abdomen and throat, filling the room with a primal sound. One voice rises over the rest, singing variants of the names of God. The men stop, face right and walk counterclockwise, slowly at first, then fast. As they gain speed they begin to hop on their outside feet and draw closer. The three circles merge into a spinning ball. The ball stops. It opens back up. The stamping resumes, softly at first, then louder. Many of the men are entranced. The air around them hums. The wooden floor shakes. The men turn left and accelerate the other way. This is a zikr, the mystical Sufi dance of the Caucasus and a ritual near the center of Chechen Islam. Here inside Chechnya, where Russia has spent six years trying to contain the second Chechen war since the Soviet Union collapsed, traditional forms of religious expression are returning to public life. It is a revival laden with meaning, and with implications that are unclear. The Kremlin has worried for generations about Islam's influence in the Caucasus, long attacking local Sufi traditions and, in the 1990's, attacking the role of small numbers of foreign Wahhabis, proponents of an austere Arabian interpretation of Islam whom Moscow often accuses of encouraging terrorist attacks. But Chechnya's Sufi brotherhoods have never been vanquished not by repression, bans or exile by the czars or Stalin, and not by the Kremlin of late. Now they are reclaiming a place in public life. What makes the resurgence so unusual is that Sufi practices have become an element of policy for pro-Russian Chechens. Zikr ceremonies are embraced by the kadyrovsky, the Kremlin-backed Chechen force that is assuming much of the administration of this shattered land. Post-Soviet Russia tried to make zikr celebrations a symbol of Chechen aggression, portraying zikr as the dance and trance of the rebels, the ritual of the untamed. Now zikr is performed by the men the Kremlin is counting on to keep Chechnya in check."