There is a widespread opinion that Wahhabism, or Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam, is not a traditional religion for the North Caucasus. Many scholars, especially in Russia, say that the only form of traditional Islam in the region is Sufi Islam. (Sufism is a branch of Islam whose disciples focus mainly on a mystical perception of God, moral perfection and asceticism. A cult of sheikhs and saints is common for Sufism. A Sufi brotherhood, or tarikat, typically has a strict hierarchy where all members, or disciples, called murids, are completely obedient to their teacher, or sheikh.)
As for Wahhabism, it is now common to link it with al-Qaeda, which is spreading militant Islam throughout the world, including in the North Caucasus. In a report published by the state-owned RIA Dagestan news agency, Kaflan Khanbaev, a scholar with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ research center in Dagestan, said that Wahhabism was born in Chechnya and Dagestan only twenty years ago, and it is being supported by “international Islamic organizations and other outside forces that provide its adherents in the region with great financial and material assistance” (RIA Novosti – Dagestan, October 20, 2006). Khanbaev claimed that Wahhabism was unknown in the North Caucasus in the past. There are, however, people who dispute such assertions.
The Kavkaz-Center website recently posted a research paper written by a Dagestani scholar, Yaseen (Makhach) Rasulov, entitled, “Jihad in the North Caucasus.” Yaseen Rasulov was killed in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, on April 10, 2006 when police special forces stormed a house where a group of rebels, including Rasulov, was staying. Following the operation, Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov said that Rasulov had been the main propagandist of the regional rebel group, the Sharia Jamaat.
Rasulov’s “Jihad in the North Caucasus” would not be interesting if it were simply a propagandistic leaflet. However, he carried out his research strictly according to the rules of academic work. In it, Rasulov quotes many Russian scholars specializing in the history of the North Caucasus. Yaseen himself was an extraordinary man: for a time, he studied as a postgraduate student at Dagestani State University, and he spoke fluent Arabic and French. Before joining the insurgency, Rasulov was on the editorial staff of a local journal, The Islamic Civilization, and a correspondent for the Novoye Delo newspaper. He also had his own program on Islam on republican TV (Kavkazky Uzel, April 11, 2006).
Unlike many scholars, Rasulov, in his research, does not separate the modern situation in the Caucasus, especially in Dagestan, from its history. The main idea of “Jihad in the North Caucasus” is that the current insurgency in the region is a continuation of the 200-year-long resistance of the Caucasian nations against Russian colonization. Rasulov says that Wahhabism (Salafism), and not Sufi Islam, has been the driving ideology of the anti-Russian rebellion in the region since the very beginning, starting from the 18th century. Wahhabism was born on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century as a part of Sunni Islam. Its founder was Abdul-Wahhab, who is sometimes called the Martin Luther of the Islamic world. Wahhabism is famous for its violent religious radicalism, social orientation and militant rebel spirit. Wahhabism has often been used as a tool to unite a Muslim country, as was the case in Arabia in the 18th century, or to inspire a rebellion against foreign, non-Muslim invaders, as was the case in Algeria, the Muslim region of India and Indonesia.
Nevertheless, Wahhabism is only a part of a larger movement in Islam: Salafism, or the movement for a “purer Islam.” Salafism has a much longer history than Wahhabism. The founder of Salafism is Ahmad Ibn Taimiyah (1263-1368). He criticized Sufis and all other innovations in Islam. In his research, Yaseen Rasulov writes that the ideas of Ibn Taimiyah were already popular in Dagestan in the 16th and 17th centuries. Yaseen also discusses the Dagestani Islamic scholar Muhammad Al-Kuduki (1652-1717) and calls him the founder of the Salafi movement in the North Caucasus. Al-Kuduki spent several years in Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, and he was a disciple of the famous Salafi scholar Salikh Al-Yamani. According to Yaseen, Al-Kuduki spread Al-Yamani's ideas in Dagestan. Thus, Yaseen proves in his research that Salafism has a 300-year history in Dagestan, and Salafi notions, such as jihad against infidels, criticism of various Islamic schools regarded by Salafists as divisive sects and also criticism of Sufism, were already popular in the region in the 17th century. “Thus,” Yaseen writes, “the idea that Salafism or Wahhabism is extraneous to the Muslims of the North Caucasus is vain and one should talk only about a revival of Salafism in the North Caucasus in the early 90s.”
Yaseen says that all the leaders of the anti-Russian resistance in the history of the North Caucasus, starting with the Chechen Sheikh Mansur in the 18th century and the Dagestani imams Kazi-Mukhammad and Imam Shamil in the 19th century, were Salafists or Wahhabis, and not Sufis. Yaseen writes that Imam Kazi-Mukhammad quoted Al-Yamani and Abdul-Wahhab, but not any of the Sufi preachers, in his works. “An armed resistance or jihad has never been the core of the Tarikat (Sufi brotherhood),” Yaseen says. “Tarikat focuses on jihad of another kind – man curbing his flesh.” He points to the fact that Sufi leaders in Dagestan like Mukhammad Al-Yaragi never supported calls for jihad (an uprising against Russian authorities).
At the end of his research, Rasulov concludes that the current Chechen war that has already spread to other Caucasian regions is simply a continuation of the war between the Russians and the Caucasian nations that started in the 18th century.
Such an interpretation demands thoughtful attention if we want to comprehend the roots of the current security problems in the North Caucasus. Yaseen Rasulov’s research could help us understand the deep motivations of the young people in the North Caucasus who are joining the insurgency, and to see that their motivations may be much more complicated than just unemployment or the influence of radical Islamists coming from the Middle East.