Islam in Dagestan

Amri Shikhsaidov


Amri SHIKHSAIDOV is Professor and Head of the Department of Oriental Manuscripts at the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography at the Dagestani Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


It is a well-known fact that Islam has become one of the most influential and important factors of sociopolitical life in Dagestan: the situation in the region can no longer be understood outside the context of the religion. Political scientists describe Dagestan as the most Islamized republic of the Russian Federation, and this is no exaggeration.

The Process of Islamization in Dagestan

It is logical to start the analysis of the religious situation in todays Dagestan with a brief overview of the past and the specifics of the process of Islamization in Dagestan.

This unprecedented process has taken place over 1000 years on the small territory of the north-eastern Caucasus with a dozen more or less independent ethnic and political structures. Only by the end of the 16th century had Islam acquired the status of the official religion of all Dagestani feudal possessions and numerous alliances of rural communities. Foreign political forces (the Arabs, Turks, especially Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Persians and others) persistently and consistently conducted the policy of Islamization. The final result was that the Shafiite (Shafii) school of Sunnite (or Sunni) Islam was established in Dagestan. Another important fact that ought to be recognized is that Sufism became a form of daily life in Dagestan.

Islam stands out in the history of the peoples of Dagestan as an inalienable part of their culture. The Islamic factor manifested itself most distinctly in the 19th century in the liberation struggle led by Shamil and the 1877 uprising.

The 20th century up to the beginning of the 1980s went down in history as an era of triumphant militant atheism that caused the collapse of the religion-based culture, dislodging the roots of religion. Religious experiences and values were totally rejected. Whereas tsarist Russia left Islamic ritual practices and education almost untouched, and meddled only slightly with the judicial system (it preserved mosques, religious and ordinary schools, and Shariah courts), the new socioeconomic formation founded in October 1917 minimized Islamic civilization and removed it completely from the sphere of state, economic and political life and, to a considerable extent, from everyday life and ritual practices.

The establishment of the Soviet Government signified a new, militant, attitude to religion. The Bolsheviks repressed the clergy and closed mosques and Muslim educational institutions madrasahs. According to the Dzh. Karkmasovs information, before the revolution Dagestan had about 10000 functioning Muslim schools including 2311 registered madrasahs, 1700 mosques, 5000 mullahs, and 7000 mutaalims. The mosques owned about 35100 acres of waqf land, representing an impressive ideological and economic force. In 1988, there remained in Dagestan as few as 27 functioning mosques and, according to official statistics, not a single madrasah or maktab, not a single institution to train Muslim clerics, not a single registered school for the Quran or the Arabic language. At the same time, and despite the harshest measures against religion, in Muslim schools in a number of villages in Dagestan (especially in the Avar, Dargin and Kumyk districts such as Akusha, Levashi, Khunzakh, Gubden, Kumukh, Khashtada, Tarki, Endirey, Urada, Tidib, Batlukh, etc.) instruction in the Quran and Arabic continued in secret.

The laws On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1990 and On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations passed by the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Dagestan in May 1991, opened up what was actually a new stage of the countrys re-Islamization process. In Dagestan, it was marked by the opening of many religious buildings. By July 1995 there were 1270 mosques, of which more than 850 were registered ones. Attached to the mosques, there were 650 schools and groups to train young people in the basics of Islam. Working for the religious societies were 2200 imams and muezzins. By that time 25 madrasahs were already training clerical personnel for Dagestan. It took only three years to build 388 mosques and hand back to Muslim communities nearly 300 mosques that had been converted to other uses. According to data of the Administration for Religious Affairs of the Republic of Dagestans government, in April 1998 there were

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