Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan's Feuding Clerics

Temporary truce is called as rival factions of Muslim clergy in Dagestan seek control of worldly matters.
By Laura Magomedova

After a long-running row that has split Dagestan’s Muslims, the republic’s powerful religious body, the Spiritual Department of Muslims, has lost its monopoly over travel arrangements for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.

Earlier this month, a new government-sponsored council authorised five tourist companies to arrange trips to Saudi Arabia for the next Hajj. Only one of the firms is sponsored by the Spiritual Department.

It is a heavy blow to the organisation, headed by Dagestan’s Mufti, Akhmad-Haji Abdullayev, which has for many years claimed sole rights to direct all areas of Muslim life in the republic.

The decision to break its monopoly over running the pilgrimage trips follows a row over who exercises ultimate authority – on worldly as well as spiritual matters – over the Muslims of Dagestan, traditionally one of the major centres of Islam in Russia.

Opponents of the Mufti also won government approval to call a new “council of alims”, an influential body composed of theologians and religious teachers that elects members of the Spiritual Department.

“The conflict is now over,” said Akhmed Magomedov, chairman of Dagestan’s government committee for religious affairs, told IWPR last week.

But the damage has already been done to a republic where virtually all the two million-strong population is Muslim, and which has suffered from an influx of radical Islam over the last decade.

The Spiritual Department of Muslims has strong links to government, as the heir of a Soviet-era body founded in 1944 to allow the authorities to control Islamic affairs. It gets its income from donations given by believers, as well as a publishing house, a restaurant, and organising the Hajj.

Ordinary Dagestanis say variously that the "religious" row stemmed from politics, ethnic divisions or the lucrative earnings to be made from the Hajj – last year, pilgrims paid 1,350 US dollars each for the two-week trip to Saudi Arabia.

The formal reason given by the authorities is that the tour firm Barakat, which enjoyed an exclusive license from the Spiritual Department to send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, failed to arrange trips for 1,600 people last year.

The Spiritual Department said the unsuccessful pilgrims were late with their applications, and that they then tried and failed to book places with another Russian air company instead. The pilgrims said they not only missed out on the Barakat trip but were obstructed from flying with another firm by the Spiritual Department.

This fiasco crystallised long pent-up dissatisfaction with the Spiritual Department, and on March 17 its opponents called a "Mejlis" or assembly of Muslims.

Many imams or preachers said it was time to create a different kind of Muslim organisation, but as imam Shamil Mirzayev told IWPR, “We have not set ourselves the goal of creating an alternative Spiritual Department.

"People have come to express unhappiness that has built up over a long time. They wanted to know why, for example, 1,600 pilgrims were unable to complete the Hajj. Who bears responsibility for that?”

The chairman of the Mejlis, Ilyas-Haji Ilyasov, said that the current leadership of the department was only there because it had seized power. Others were nostalgic about the former Mufti, Bagautdin-Haji, who was ousted from office when he was away from Dagestan in 1992.

Mukhamad-Said Abakarov, imam of the mosque in Khasavyurt, said, “We all elected and recognised as our Mufti the late Bagautdin-Haji. He always consulted with us. But the current Spiritual Department ignores and sometimes even insults our alims [religious scholars]. The work done by the current Spiritual Department is not bringing unity and calm among our peoples.”

The Mejlis voted to call the current Spiritual Department illegitimate and to set about re-establishing the one that was replaced in 1992.

In turn, the Mufti refused to recognise that the Mejlis had any authority. “There are many people in Dagestan who meet here and there, and shout that Muslims have to unite,” he said. “It’s just that everyone wants to be the winner and to unite people around himself.”

In part Dagestan’s complex ethnic affiliations underlie the divisions. Members of the Mejlis alleged that the department was being dominated by Avars, Dagestan’s largest ethnic group; while supporters of the Mufti say that Ilyasov, who convened the Mejlis, had formerly wanted to set up a Kumyk Spiritual Department, representing another ethnic community.

A law passed by the Dagestani parliament in 1997 expressly forbids setting up religious organisations formed along ethnic lines.

Confessional differences in this largely Sunni region seem to have little to do with the conflict. Dagestan’s government and the pro-government clerics voice concern about the spread of radical Islamic tendencies, in particular the fundamentalist views they generally term Wahhabism.

Opponents of the Spiritual Department insist they are not fundamentalists.

Murad Magomedov, a devout Muslim who runs a private firm, accused leaders of the Spiritual Department of being “ignorant on matters of Islam”.

“I know people who have had a higher Islamic education in Saudi Arabia,” said Magomedov. “They returned to Dagestan to practice Islam at a high level. But officials from the department called them Wahhabis, though I can’t for the life of me understand how. When they are criticised they just react emotionally.”

The government says the row has now been resolved with the formation in May of a new “council for organising the Hajj”, which has given five firms the right to make pilgrimage travel arrangements.

But the established clerics are not happy about the change. “The Spiritual Department is against the creation of a council for organising and conducting the Hajj,” deputy Mufti Mukhammadvakil Sultanmagomedov told IWPR. “The Muslim clergy will do everything it can to stop this council from working.”

All four imams in the new council are opponents of the Spiritual Department.

Sultanmagomedov blamed Akhmed Magomedov, head of the government’s religious affairs committee for meddling. “He wants to get hold of organizing the Hajj himself and to strip the Spiritual Department of Muslims of Dagestan of its unity and powers.”

“No one can determine how a pilgrim goes on the Hajj, and with whom,” commented Bekmurza Bekmurzayev, permanent representative of Russia’s foreign ministry in Dagestan. “It’s all there in the five holy pillars of Islam. So why try to invent something new?”

Laura Magomedova is correspondent for the weekly newspaper Novoe Delo in Makhachkala. Musa Musayev is Dagestan correspondent for Severny Kavkaz newspaper.