Chechen Religious Culture from Historical Roots to the Present

Ancient religious cults, of which we can judge from the funeral implements of archaeological cultures, appeared in the Neolithic Era, when the funeral ritual reflecting Stone Age religious beliefs emerged in the North Caucasus.

Caucasian Eneolithic religious and mythological ideas (of the 4th-3rd millennia B.C.) were rather versatile. They mainly reflected economic activities of local tribes—land-tilling cults, dominated by the worship of the fertility goddess; the solar cult and the related fire cult; and, probably, the hearth cult[1].

Religions of Early Bronze tribes (the Maikop archaeological culture of the 4th-3rd millennia B.C.) included solar, heaven and animal cults, most probably borrowed from West Asia, alongside the earlier established mountain, river and forest worship. Fragments of clay figurines unearthed in archaeological complexes of the Maikop culture and having analogies in ancient West Asian cultures of the 3rd millennium B.C., to all appearances, relate to ancient land-tilling cults. The rich choice of funeral implements shows belief in the afterlife. 

To all appearances, stone played a special role in the funeral rite and religious beliefs of North Caucasian tribes of the Late Bronze Age (the North Caucasian, or Terek-Kuban archaeological culture of the 2nd millennium B.C.). First, stone was widely used in interment, just as in the Maikop culture (stone pavement of burial mounds and circular cromlechs round tombs). Second, stone amulets found in North Caucasian tombs show the prominent role of stone in everyday life, and supernatural quality ascribed to it. The Chechen language preserves specific traces of the stone cult: tIo – “stone”, tIa – “palm of the hand”, tIura – “warrior”, tIom – “war”. The word tIo is the basis of a semantic row meaning “stone” + “palm” = “war”. Thus, the Chechen word for “war” ascends to stone—man’s first weapon—clasped in the palm of the hand.

Weapons, jewels and pottery found in the tombs show that people of the North Caucasian culture believed in the afterlife, which they considered mere continuation of this life—a belief that Nakhs retained even in the Middle Ages.

Religious cults of the North Caucasian culture stayed almost unchanged since the Early Bronze Age—the heaven, sun, mountain and ancestor cults.

Materials of the so-called Koban culture (an archaeological culture of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages) give an idea of North Caucasian religious life in the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium through the end of the 1st millennium B.C. A sanctuary and ritual articles (altars, clay human and animal figurines, amulets, and pintader seals with magical representations of the cross, the swastika and the spiral) have been unearthed on one of the shelter hills of the Serzhen-Yurt settlement in East Chechnya[2]. Most probably, Koban religion based on the worship of sun and heaven[3], as shown by swastikas, spirals[4], and clay wheel models found among the ritual articles of the sanctuary. Man and animal figurines may testify to a fertility cult of the Koban tribes. Older cults of holy mountains, streams and groves might have existed since the Early Bronze Age. They survived within the Chechen environmental culture up to the mid-20th century.

The solar cult, later transformed into the idea of Supreme God, was the principal religion of the Alanian era.

The Chechen pagan pantheon had taken final shape in the Early Middle Ages. Dela the supreme god transformed into the lord of light and the upper world from a sun and daylight deity. The name Dela derives from De-ela (lord of the day). Iela was the lord of darkness and the nether world, Stela/Sela the god of thunder and lightning, Hinnana the water goddess, Laьttnana the earth goddess, Unnana the deity of disease, TsIu of fire, Ielta of land-tilling and Tusholi the fertility goddess.

The mediaeval Chechen idea of the supreme divine element was absolutely abstract, which made it far closer to early Christianity and Islam than to other monotheistic religions. It could not materialise in whatever concrete forms and sacred images, the way it was in the later Christianity, and did not require any idols. Secondary deities’ role reduced to the functions of Christian and Muslim saints. Architecture brought the idea to complete abstraction in pillar sanctuaries—small stone pillars that were the final developmental stage of pagan temples and sanctuaries.

Johann Anton Gueldenstedt wrote about it in the early 19th century: “They [Chechens—L.I.] possess certain traces of Christianity, which are even more pronounced than with the other Caucasian peoples. They believe solely in the One God, whom they name Decla [Dela—L.I.], and do not know any other gods nor idols nor saints”[5].

Ancient traditions retained the memory of Christian churches and monasteries in the Chechen mountains, and of missionaries—most probably, Byzantine and later Genoese monks.

Christian traces survived in the names of many mountain places, including centres of worship, in the calendar and the Chechen language. However, Christianity pure and unadulterated did not take firm root in the North Caucasus, with the exception of certain localities. A majority of highlanders viewed Christian ideas through the prism of pagan beliefs. Paganism won, in the final analysis—yet it was no longer idol worship but a syncretic religion bearing Christian, Muslim, pagan and even Hebrew features.

The solar cult was one of the basic and oldest Nakh religions. It eventually transformed into the worship of the One Almighty God—the Maker, who gives light to the worlds. His name, doubtless, derives from the name of the Indo-European supreme god of heaven * deiuo (cf.: Greek Zeus, Dios, and Latin Deus). The names of practically all Vainakh pagan gods and demons have parallels in ancient West Asian and Mediterranean cults, and Vainakh mythology echoes Greek and other myths—suffice it to mention the myth of Prometheus and the Chechen myth of Pkharmat, the Nart giant chained to the top of the Kazbek Mountain and sentenced to eternal torment for stealing heavenly fire from Sela the thunder god to bring it to humans. Pkharmat of the Chechen myth was a blacksmith who excelled in bronze weaponry, which allows date it to the late 3rd or early 2nd millennium B.C. The name of Anu the Hurrite heaven god (Sumerian An) has a parallel in the Nakh Ana (the Chechen for horizon is anayist, lit. “the end of the sky”, or Ana.

Parallels with West Asian cult names are the names of such Nakh deities as Eshtr—Ishtar, the Assyrian love goddess, Ma—Ma the Mother of Gods, and Dika—Dike the Greek goddess of justice.

The Chechen language also reveals an interesting parallel with ancient Egyptian cults. Thus, Egyptian mythology knew one of the nine essences of man as sa-khu, the cover of the soul, while sa-khu means “seed of the soul” in modern Chechen.

Nakh pagan cults and mythology are practically unstudied—especially compared to West Asian, Mediterranean, Celtic, Teutonic and Slav myths, which reveal many parallels with the Nakh. Bashir Dalgat’s work—mainly informative—remains the only general study of the theme[6].

Apart from the basic cults, mediaeval Nakhs had other, auxiliary cults of applied functions, while pagan deities were anthropomorphic and could assume the human or animal form to interfere in human life.

Thus, Maista venerated Lam-Tishuol, a mountain spirit and protector of warriors and hunters, who lived on the top of the Dakokh-kort, or Maistoin-Lam, Mountain. Dika the goddess of justice, who taught humans to tell good from evil, lived on the same mountain top. A sacred grove lies on the north slope of the Maista Range. No hunter dares enter it without an ablution in the river lest a snowstorm come from the ice-clad Tebulosmta Peak to kill the sacrilegious one.

Other parts of the Chechen mountains also had their sacred groves until quite recently. No one dared pick a flower or break a tree branch there, let alone hunt. Such groves were wild animals’ paradise. Even objects of blood feuds found refuge there without fear of being killed by avengers. Chechens believed that a long sojourn in a sacred grove cured many diseases.

Chechens venerated trees. Since times immemorial, they knew how to cherish forests and rationally use timber. Pear and walnut trees were sacred and never to be cut. Chechens believe to this day that hell awaits the one who dares cut such a tree. Random woodcutting was taboo, and cutting a tree for no purpose was a heinous crime equal to murder. Only sick and fallen trees were taken for firewood, and valuable trees were never cut down for fuel.

Hornbeam, another sacred tree, was used for weapons, so its cutting was strictly limited.

The cult of mountain tops was also widespread. Thus, the people of Maista addressed the Tebulosmta Peak, the highest of the Maista Range, with the following incantation: “O sublime Tuloi-Lam! O sacred Tuloi-Lam! To thee is our request. Intercede for us with Great Dela!”

The kulli, or khasha ben, roadside inns also might belong to cult buildings. These small stone houses with gabled roof were usually placed near springs and brooks for wayfarers. They were initially related to the road cult, which survives in the old customs and traditions of the Caucasian Mountains.

The Chechen regard the road not as a practical but an ethical category. Everything pertaining to travel was sacred since times immemorial. There is a belief that one who builds a road or a bridge deserves eternal bliss. To tend a road bypassing a village was all villagers’ cherished duty. They also bore moral responsibility for all wayfarers going past their village, and were obliged to display hospitality. Whatever could spoil the road was harshly forbidden. One could not even pick a pebble off the road, while destruction of a bridge was one of the worst crimes. Chechens have a sophisticated ethical system of wayfarers’ and their hosts’ conduct. The word nakъost (fellow traveller) also means “friend” or “comrade”.

Roadside inns were built in the mountains since times immemorial. Usually situated close to a river or spring, they had a hearth, and animal skins were spread on the floor. Guests usually left a stock of food there for next arrivals, while hunters donated furs and deer or goat horns to wayfarers’ heavenly protectors.

According to Vainakh mythology, wayfarers were guarded by taram spirits, men’s doubles. Their care became greater with nighttime. The ritual content of everything that pertained to the road ascends to the Chechen road cult of olden times.

Petroglyphs—magical signs on towers and vaults, widespread throughout the Chechen mountains—preserve ample information about ancient pagan cults. Until quite recently, petroglyphs were dated to the 11th-16th centuries, the time of active tower and vault construction. However, the latest studies proved their much greater age and similarity to signs made by tribes of the Koban culture on pottery and metal articles early in the 1st millennium B.C.[7] Koban signs include almost analogous labyrinths, double spirals, diverse solar symbols—in particular, swastikas with rounded or rectangular tips, human hands, serpentine signs, and human and animal figures. Such petroglyphs are among the most widespread magic signs to be seen on mediaeval buildings in the Chechen mountains.

Solar signs and representations of luminaries and the Universe are among petroglyphs occurring the most frequently—certainly, due to the solar cult. One of the oldest religions in the Caucasus and any other seat of ancient civilisations, sun worship emerged with the Nakh, presumably, in the 3rd-2nd millennium B.C. to survive almost till the end of the 1st millennium B.C. Chechens worshipped Del the Almighty, the One God and the Lord of all creation in heaven and on earth, long before Christianity came to their land in the Early Middle Ages, to say nothing of their Muslim conversion. Doubtless, the Del cult was influenced by sunlight worship.

The solar and the related fire cult were principal with the Nakh in the Bronze and Early Iron Age, and with Alanians, i.e., the Nakh of the plains, in the first centuries A.D.

Even the Nakh tribal military-political alliance of the second half of the 1st millennium B.C. was known to sources of the Antiquity and to the neighbouring Abkhaz and Adyg by the name of Malkh, Sun—the Nakh supreme deity.

The cross, an encircled cross surrounded by dots, the swastika and the triquetra are the oldest solar signs widespread in Egypt, West Asia and the Mediterranean. The cross as a solar sign grew to symbolise resurrection and immortality. Its four arms stood for the four cardinal points, the four seasons, and the four elements—fire, water, air and earth. Later on, Christianity accepted the cross as its religious symbol, while Islam retains its earliest meaning as the symbol of the four cardinal points. The cross as protective amulet is met on many towers in the mountains of Chechnya. It is placed on keystones to bar entrance to anything evil and hostile—in particular, on the Koshan-Bouv combat tower in the vicinity of the Tsoi-Pede necropolis, on the Nikaroi combat tower, and numerous dwelling towers in the Sharo-Argun and Argun gorges.

The swastika with curved ends symbolising the route of Sun across the sky, and the movement of all creation is the most interesting form of the cross. The swastika stood for eternal life and immortality with ancient Nakhs. It was their amulet against all evil. It is represented on Chechen towers in many variants—rectangular, curvilinear and conventionalised. The classical rectangular swastika is carved on the doorway of the dwelling tower in the village of Khimoi. Similar signs occur on ancient Central European pottery. A curvilinear swastika is carved on the keystone of the dwelling tower in Itum-Kale and another in Zengali, in Chechnya’s west. Similar signs were found on North Caucasian pottery and metal articles of the 1st millennium B.C.[8]

Also connected to solar disk worship is the representation of the circle, to which many pagan rites and talismans ascend. The symbol of the encircled cross appeared later than the circle and the cross as such. This ideogram—the sign of the mythological solar chariot—symbolises unbroken movement of the solar disk about the sky. Such petroglyphs can be found on many Chechen mountain towers—in Melkhista, the Argun Gorge, Cheberloi and elsewhere.

So-called rosettes and daisywheels, also among the solar symbols, pertain to the land-tilling calendar. Four-petal daisies stand for the calendar year, and three-petal for the farm year.

All those symbols emerged together with land-tilling civilisations and were connected, above all, to the ancient land-tilling cults of the death and resurrection of the sun, the death of Nature in autumn and its resurrection in spring.

Crosses and swastikas were placed mainly on keystones, while spirals—double, for the most part—on cornerstones. Many variants of double spirals, often conventionalised, are also among the petroglyphs most frequently occurring on Chechen mountain towers. They are seen on numerous combat and dwelling towers in the Tazbichi Gorge, in Sharoi, Itum-Kale, Melkhista, Maista and elsewhere, while a triple spiral is carved on a stone of a combat tower in the vicinity of Khaskali.

Some scholars consider double spirals solar signs symbolising the movement of Sun across the sky from dawn to dusk, while others assume that they repeat the shape of the Universe. Be that as it may, they mainly appeared on stones and tower walls—which suggests that they were called to make the structure lasting as they associated with eternity.

The labyrinth sign, also widely occurring on Chechen mountain vaults, is connected with the spiral symbol.

To ancient man, the labyrinth stood for the initiation ritual, in which the soul went through the many circles of the Purgatory in the nether world to come back to its man pure and renewed.

A unique petroglyph of two crossing rings (the planetary symbol of Saturn) is carved on the wall of a combat tower near the village of Khaskali. Characteristically, its analogues or semblances never occur on other Chechen towers or in the entire Caucasus.

Petroglyphs of a hand or an open palm are met in European rock paintings even since the Upper Palaeolithic, and are present on almost all Chechen combat towers. The image of the human hand meant power and creation. Possession was another of its meanings. To all appearances, the imprinted palm was the earliest kind of personal seals. The Chechen names of the outward attributes of property—kov, “gate”, kert, “enclosed landed possession”, etc—derive from ka, “the palm of the hand”.

The North Caucasus, as the entire Europe, knew the custom of severing the smitten enemy’s right hand to nail it to the door of the victor’s home[9]. Perhaps, it based on the belief that the slain man’s power passed to the victor. The hand petroglyph on Caucasian towers is considered a pictographic signature of the master builder, made after construction was finished. However, other hand petroglyphs also occur on Chechen towers—two palms on the dwelling tower of Itum-Kale, and a human hand, palm down, in the doorway of the Khaibakh combat tower.

Diverse petroglyphic representations of human figures also frequently occur on Chechen towers. Figures with disproportionally large hands are probably the oldest. Similar figures are met in North European petroglyphs, Koban bronze figurines, and many Chechen mountain towers. Some figures have an oversize phallus, which reveals their connection with fertility worship—one of the earliest land-tilling cults[10]. Such petroglyphs appear on the window arch of the Khaskali dwelling tower, and their conventionalised version on the Khimoi tower. Conventional human figures are represented side by side with curvilinear swastikas on the dwelling tower in Itum-Kale.

Rider petroglyphs, occasionally conventional, also frequently occur on Chechen mountain towers—for instance, on the combat towers in Etkali, Dere and Chinkhoi. They also belong to the earliest man and animal representations and are met on rock paintings of the 4th millennium B.C. The petroglyph is occasionally turned upside down, as on the Dere combat tower—which is due to the re-use of stones bearing petroglyphs. Such stones were most probably considered holy, and so were taken to newly built structures. They are very often older than the towers they belong to, and differ from them in processing and finishing. This is especially noticeable in the dwelling tower of Vaserkel in Maista, whish has almost an entire row of stones lavishly decorated with petroglyphs, and differing from the rest in texture, colour and finishing.

Some Chechen towers also have petroglyphs representing a hunter or a hunting scene, e.g., the wall of the dwelling tower in the Tazbichi Gorge. Representations of the bow and arrow ate also frequent—as in Cheberloi and Maista.

Animal figures, mostly conventional, occur occasionally. Deer are the most frequent. To all appearances, deer worship was one of the longest-established Nakh animal cults. Bronze deer figurines of the Koban culture have been found in the Central Caucasus, which Nakhs’ ancestors populated in times immemorial. Testifying to the oldness of deer worship is the Chechen word for “deer”, sai, belongs to the lexical row of sa, “soul” or “light”.

Horse petroglyphs also occur. Chechens considered horses holy. Thus, they had never eaten horseflesh before deportation to Kazakhstan in the mid-20th century, though Islam does not prohibit it. Horse worship is usually connected with solar cults. People of old regarded the sun as a deity travelling across the sky on a chariot drawn by golden steeds. To all appearances, the petroglyph of a man, wheel and horse on the dwelling tower in the Tazbichi Gorge concerns that myth.

The ox is among the most widespread holy and totemic animals of West Asia, the Caucasus and the Mediterranean. The holy ox symbolised fertility and pertained to Divine Mother worship. The Chechen mythology retains numerous plots in which the ox personifies everything sacred—e.g., the legend of the origin of Lake Galanchozh[11]. The worship of Stela the thunder god in the Nakh pagan pantheon is connected with the ox.

The Chechen language retains kinship terms derived from stu, “bull”—e.g., ste, “woman” or “wife”, stuntskhoi, “in-laws”, or stunana, “the wife’s mother”.

The ram also occurs on Chechen towers though as stone sculpture not petroglyph. A stone ram head adorns the facade of the dwelling tower in Khimoi, while the facade of the combat tower on Mount Bekkhaila is decorated by two ram sculptures, a large and a small.

Chechens have had a fairly precise calendar since times immemorial. It underwent a certain Christian influence in the Early Middle Ages. The year had 12 months and 365 days, with four seasons. According to Zura Madayeva’s field data[12], the months had the following names:

  1. Nazhi-butt, January;
  2. Markhi-butt, February;
  3. Biekarg-butt, March;
  4. Tusholi-butt, April;
  5. Seli-butt, May;
  6. Mangal-butt, June;
  7. Myatsel-butt, July;
  8. Egish-butt, August;
  9. Tav-butt, September;
  10. Ardar-butt, October;
  11. Erkh-butt, November;
  12. Ogoi-butt, December.

 

Each month consisted of four weeks, and a week of seven days:

 

  1. Orshot-de, Monday;
  2. Shinari-de, Tuesday;
  3. Kkhaari-de, Wednesday;
  4. Eari-de, Thursday;
  5. Periska, Friday;
  6. Shuota-de, Saturday;
  7. Kiran-de, Sunday.

 

The week opened with Monday—another testimony to Christian calendar influences.

The Chechen day and night divided in the past in four periods, just as the year—vertically and horizontally. Morning associated with good and the advent of sunlight, while evening with the dark spirits. Evil reigned at night, so work and the start of anything important was prohibited in those hours.

Time was told by several means: by mountain peaks (Iuьire-Dukъ Mountain in the Terloi community), by sundial (Khimoi village), by special stone steles, and notches on tower walls and door or window arches.

Chechens used their ancient calendar even in the later mediaevality, after Islam established itself as the principal religion in a greater part of Chechnya.

As tradition has it, the Chechen Mekhk Khel proclaimed in the 17th century that all Chechen communities in the Confederation of Teips (clans) were embracing Islam. After that, its rapid advent started in the entire Chechnya, while Christianity, paganism and Islam had coexisted peacefully previous to that time, as archaeological data bear out.

However, the rigid system of Shari’a governs public and private life severely from above, classifies moral precepts as judicial norms, and regards sin as crime. It was doomed to clash with ancient Chechen democratic traditions, which always considered privacy inviolable just as personal freedom and human dignity. Similarly, Chechens would not put up with corporal punishment up to mutilation, which Shari’a stipulates. That was why the Mekhk Khel made a number of decisions envisaging the preservation of Chechen ethnic identity.

First, it refused to apply Shari’a norms in all legal spheres with the exception of property and inheritance law.

Second, the Mekhk Khel determined to preserve essential Chechen traditions in various spheres of activity, largely to predetermine the unique mentality that differed Chechens from other Muslim peoples, whom Arabs promptly assimilated as they borrowed the Arab way of life, world perception, law and even costumes.

The initial spread of Islam in Chechnya was gradual as it adopted ancient traditions and coexisted with paganism and Christianity, as archaeological data bear out[13]. The end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th made Islam more active in Chechnya to force Christians into mass flight to Cossack-populated areas across the Terek, where the Russian-speaking community eventually assimilated them.

The final strengthening of Islam in Chechnya in the late 18th century was connected with Sheikh Mansur, who led North Caucasian resistance to Russian colonial expansion. Sheikh Mansur combined military leadership with missionary activity. His ardent sermons denounced ignorance, avarice, hypocrisy, vice and blood feuds. He called his flock to asceticism and spiritual purity.

To all appearances, that was when Sufism began to spread among the Chechen. This mystical Muslim trend originally appeared as opposed to official religion.

Sufis regarded the world as one essence, the Absolute imbued with Divine light, which was the Truth. Man was to them no mere element but a replica of the Absolute, its most perfect being. To embrace the Truth, man was to understand his ego—not the outer bodily self but the innermost, which reflected the Absolute.

Freedom of choice was among the essential philosophical problems of Sufism. Though Sufis recognised predestination, they held that man always had the choice between Good and Evil. Providence put the sword into human hands but it was up to man’s personal choice to become a noble warrior and proponent of faith or a robber.

Sufis did not recognise reason as a tool of cognising the Truth because, as they held, sentient experience and rational judgment based on it could comprehend only a shadow of the essence—not the essence itself. Mystical experience alone led to direct contemplation of the Truth[14] through Love of the Truth as manifesting the Divine. Sufis regarded intuition as the most reliable tool of cognition, and the heart as the organ of objective perception of reality. The heart, as contrasted to reason, held a unique place in the Sufi philosophy. It was the receptacle of the Divine and the innermost human ego, and the organ objectivising whatever knowledge. The Sufi counterpoised the ma’arifa, knowledge obtained through personal emotional experience, to ilm, rational knowledge[15].

However, intuition alone did not suffice to grasp the Supreme Truth.

First, a Sufi was to choose his Sheikh instructor and follow the tariqah way pointed by the Sheikh.

Second, he was to exercise ascetic practice on his road of spiritual perfection.

Third, he was to master a complex of respiratory and psycho-physical exercises creating a psychological and emotional state that led to the contemplation of Divine light.

Zikr, or dhikr, the pronunciation of Allah’s name during meditation, was one of the principal characteristics of Sufism as a trend of Islam.

There were two types of zikr, loud and silent.

The techniques of meditation varied in the various Sufi fraternities. They practised dance worship, singing, and respiratory devices promoting trance.

Sufism was not only a philosophy but also a system of social organisation. Sufis gathered in fraternities on a severe hierarchical principle. The members were to obey the Sheikh blindly and follow his example in whatever they did.

Not only the theology and ethics of Sufism but also its social institutions had a powerful impact on Chechen social development in the various periods of time.

The next stage of strengthening Islam in Chechnya came as it joined Shamil’s Imamate—a militarised theocratic state arranged on the principles of Shari’a.

Imam Shamil, member of the Naqshbandi Sufi fraternity, promoted the Muslim cause in Chechnya and the entire North Caucasus not only by sermon and conviction but also by the force of arms—which eventually made a majority of Chechen communities part ways with him as they would not put up with his attempts to obliterate their traditional culture and ethnic identity.

Chechnya obtained a new spiritual leader in the last years of Shamil’s rule. That was Sheikh Kunta Hajji Kishiev from the Chechen village of Iliskhan-Yurt, an adept of the Sufi tariqat Kadiriya.

The Sheikh denounced war as violence hateful to the Almighty, and regarded armed resistance to the Russian Empire as pointless and threatening the very existence of the Chechen people. Kunta Hajji said in his sermons: “Allah wills not further total resistance to the authorities! If you are ordered to go to Christian churches, go there, for they are mere buildings as long as we retain our Muslim soul. If you are forced to wear the cross, wear it, for the cross is mere metal as long as we retain our Muslim soul. But when your women are ravished, when you are forced to give up your language, culture and customs, rise and fight to the last drop of blood! A nation’s freedom and honour is in its language, customs and culture, friendship and mutual assistance, mutual forgiveness of wrongs, help to widows and orphans, and sharing out the last slice of bread”[16].

The essence of Kunta Hajji’s doctrine is in humility, brotherhood, non-resistance to evil by force, and spiritual self-improvement. In one of his sermons, the Sheikh said that he would willingly part with his life if a baby shed a tear through his fault[17].

His doctrine spread not only in Chechnya but also in the neighbouring Ingushetia, and rapidly acquired the practical form of Sufi fraternities.

The organisational unit of a Sufi fraternity was the vird, a community of Murids—disciples and followers of the Sheikh, their spiritual instructor. The units were headed by vekils (the Sheikh’s legates) in larger villages. Tamada elders were subordinate to them. The smallest units were ruled by the turkh. The Sheikh led the Murids to spiritual perfection, and it was their duty to believe in him and obey him in everything. While adhering to the basic precepts of Muslim orthodoxy, Sufis worship saints, sheikhs and ustaz miracle-workers, and make pilgrimages to their tombs.

Several independent virds branched off Kunta Hajji’s vird toward the end of the 19th century: of Sheikh Bammatghirei Hajji from the village of Avtury, Sheikh Chmmirza of Mair-Tup in the Shali District, and Sheikh Batal Hajji from the Ingush village of Surkhokhi.

The basic ritual of all those virds, the loud zikr[18] (collective meditation), opens with slow circular movement, passing to counterclockwise whirl. To Sufis, the loud zikr symbolises angels’ whirl round the throne of Allah. The zikr requires the knowledge and exercise of rules given by the Sheikh: special rhythmic movements, regular postures, and controlled breathing. Nazm anthems are sung in between the phases of the zikr, followed by common prayer.

A majority of present-day Muslims in Chechnya belong to Kunta Hajji’s vird.

The second-largest is the vird of Sheikh Deni Arsanov, a follower of the Naqshbandi tariqat. It practises the silent zikr (meditation).

There are also the virds of Sheikhs Bammatghirei Hajji, Chimmirza, and his disciple Vis Hajji in present-day Chechnya. All those Sheikhs belonged to the Kadiri tariqat.

The virds of Dokku Hajji and Solsa Hajji belong to the Naqshbandi tariqat.

Every Chechen identifies himself conventionally with one of those virds. Vis Hajji’s vird, an esoteric sect, is the only exception. The other virds have long lost their pronounced organisational structure. Self-identification with a particular vird is a voluntary conscious act, which sets only certain rules of prayer and meditation, as bequeathed by the Sheikh who founded the vird.

Virds do not play any political or social part in the present-day Chechen community, however hard many scholars would try to ascribe it to them within recent years.

 



[1] Testifying to that are numerous clay hearth models—presumably, with ritual functions—found in settlements of the Kura-Araxes culture.

[2] Swastika, spiral and cruciform petroglyphs are the most frequent in the exterior of mediaeval Chechen buildings.

[3] Козенкова В.И. Культурно-исторические процессы на Северном Кавказе в эпоху поздней бронзы и в раннем железном веке. – М., 1996. – с.40 (141)

[4] Koban symbols—mainly the swastika and the spiral—are found in plenty on the stones of mediaeval Chechen mountain structures.

[5] Гильденштедт И.А. Географическое и статистическое описание Грузии и Кавказа (J.A. Gueldenstedt. A Geographic and Statistical Description ofGeorgia and theCaucasus). – СПб., 1809. – с. 77.

[6] Далгат Б. Первобытная религия чеченцев // Терский сборник. – Владикавказ, 1893. – Кн.2., Вып.3., с. 41 – 132 (338)

[7] Смирнова Г.Р. Кобанские аналогии некоторых петроглифов Чечено-Ингушетии // Археология и вопросы этнической истории Северного Кавказа. – Грозный, 1979. – с.131 – 135 (436)

[8] Смирнова Г.Р. Кобанские аналогии некоторых петроглифов Чечено-Ингушетии // Археология и вопросы этнической истории Северного Кавказа. – Грозный, 1979. – с.131 – 135 (Ibid)

[9] Марковин В.И. Памятники зодчества в горной Чечне. (по материалам исследований 1957-1965 гг.) // Северный Кавказ в древности и средние века. – М., 1980. – С.184-270 (396)

[10] Марковин В.И. Культовая пластика Кавказа // Новое в археологии Северного Кавказа. – М., 1986. – с. 77 (394)

[11] Иванов М.А. Верховья р. Гехи // Известия Кавказского отдела Русского географического общества. – Тифлис, 1902. – Вып. XV., с. 283-285 (361)

           [12]  Мадаева З.А. Народные календарные праздники вайнахов. – Грозный, 1990. – с. 11 (175)

 

[13] We find the assumption of many Chechen communities embracing Islam in the 9th-10th centuries groundless because it is not borne out either by archaeological data or historical sources. A majority of Chechens were non-Muslim as late as the 13th-15th centuries, according to Mongolian and Tamerlane’s chronicles.

[14] Степанянц М.Т. Философские аспекты суфизма. – М., 1987. – с. 33 (235)

[15] Степанянц М.Т. Философские аспекты суфизма. – М., 1987. – с. 45.

[16] Акаев В.Х. Шейх Кунта-хаджи: жизнь и учение. – Грозный, 1994. – с.48 (8)

[17] Акаев В.Х., Вок Г.Б., Керимов М.М. Ислам в Чечне: традиции и современность. – Грозный, 2006. –с. 31 (9)

[18] Zikr is praise to the Almighty.

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