A Wahhabi Ideologist on Shrines in Daghestan (2006), by Vladimir Bobrovnikov
The fragments below are translated from a book by ‘Abdullah Muhammad ad-Dagestani, Litso Sufizma v Svete Ubezhdenii Liudei Sunny i Dzhamaata (Akhl Sunna va Dzhamaa) [The Face of Sufism in the Light of the True Muslims’ Convictions], translated from Arabic into Russian, [Moscow:] Badr, 2006, 607 p.
In 2006, the Salafi Dagestani publishers ‘Badr’, specialising in books on Islamic predication (da‘wa) and basic ritual norms (for ablutions, prayer, etc.), published a plump volume entitled The Face of Sufism in Light of True Muslims’ Convictions. It was written by a certain ‘Abd-Allah Muhammad al-Daghestani. This pseudonym was used by the most renowned ideologist of North Caucasian Wahhabis, Bagauddin Magomedovich Magomedov (born in 1946, otherwise Baha’ al-Din Muhammad), of the Khvarshi village of Santlada in North-Western Dagestan. In the late 1990s already, he fled to the Arab Middle East, where he is reported to have stayed to date. By the early 2020s, his name and works had been forgotten, but he used to be considered one of the most important informal Muslim leaders in the region from the late 1980s to the 2000s. He took part in the creation of the All-Union Party of Islamic Revival (Nahda) at its first and last congress in Astrakhan in 1990. He established and managed the madrasa al-Hikma of Kizilyurt (1991-97) and set up the political party Islamic Jama‘at of Daghestan (1997-99).
In the 2000s, his book was popular in Dagestan. Its genre relates to the Muslim creed or dogma known as ‘aqida. It consists of 128 chapters of different length, in which controversial issues of Islamic religious practice and hagiography are discussed with references to the Qur’an, the Sunna and other Islamic written authorities from the field of religious tradition. The title of the book hints that it was initially composed in Arabic, but no traces of its Arabic original have been discovered to date.
Partial English Translation
From the Author’s Preface
To clarify the reasons that prompted me to write this book, I will briefly tell about my life and the environment in which I grew up.
I was born on 20 April 1946 in the village of Vedeno. Now, it is a Chechen village. However, at that time the Chechens were in exile and we, the Dagestani Highlanders, were forcibly relocated to the towns and villages that they had abandoned. My father knew Arabic to such an extent that one could say of him: a small scholar. However, he loved Arabic, revered it and collected books in it whenever possible and taught it to others. When I was three years old, the authorities arrested my father without any misconduct on his part, and without any court proceedings. Simply because he was a man of faith and observance and never left the performance of namaz, even in his workplace. For them, it was a crime worthy of imprisonment and exile . . . . After seven years in prison, he came out in good health and well-being. By then, I was ten years old. He began to teach me various sections of Arabic grammar and instilled in me a love for the language, and may Allah have mercy on him in His infinite mercy, as he taught me when I was small . . . . (p. 4)
In the time I was born, political and social tensions diminished relatively, compared to the despotic Stalinist period that preceding it, especially in the 1930s. The explanation was Stalin’s death . . . . As for the 1920s and 1930s, everything was possible, that words cannot convey. A person was grabbed, usually in the middle of the night, simply because someone had informed on him, without finding out whether it was true or false. Or because there was a book in Arabic or a copy of the Qur’an in his house, or he belonged to a family that was known in the past for their wealth and landholdings. Or even for no reason at all . . . . After arrest, he was imprisoned, exiled to Siberia or the Far North, and he could come back only after twenty years, with his health undermined, or not return at all. Most often, the arrested person was ground in mills intended for people, placed in gas chambers or he died a slow death from sophisticated torture . . . . In general, it was a dark and scary time. Godless communism ruled then, which was a shameful stain on the face of the history of nations . . . . Seventy million souls were murdered in our countries, not counting those killed in the [Second World] War. All this was aimed to destroy everything that has to do with religion. In such circumstances, it goes without saying, that [religious] knowledge and scholars disappeared completely, as well as books, which were also burned and destroyed upon discovery. This is the reason that we lack of Islamic knowledge and have no scholars — and to date there is not even a single authoritative Islamic scholar in all Russia and the Caucasus, and in the republics of the former USSR.
Those who are unfamiliar with the history of our countries may be surprised at how our peoples around are wallowed in ignorance . . . . (pp. 4-5)
We remained in this position for some time until Allah showed us a great mercy in recent years by breaking the ‘Iron curtain’ in front of us, and we finally got the opportunity to travel abroad, beyond this ‘curtain’, whether to perform hajj or ‘umra, to study or trade. And we got books and writings that neither we nor our fathers had ever possessed. We have read them, understood them and much of what we have learned from our fathers has changed. We discovered that many heretic innovations and misconceptions had entered our worship and that of our fathers, and our creed or ‘aqida contradicts partly the creed of our righteous ancestors. We began to search, study and investigate, and eventually came to the conclusion that many of our beliefs are false, and the Truth is in the books we read. Then, we firmly decided to return to the Truth, following the Qur’an and the Sunna as a basis. We abandoned fanatical adherence to the opinions and the madhhab (school) of a certain person, and followed the ‘aqida of our righteous predecessors, like the four Imams and those who followed their path — the shaykhs of Islam Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (may God have mercy on them) (p. 7).
Russian authorities watch us and collect on us information. They have realised that the situation worsens for them and that, if everything goes on as it is now, the reins of the government will pass from their hands into the hands of the followers of this ‘aqida without war and bloodshed. This has made them to think about what accusations they could charge us with and what nicknames they could label us with. And they unearthed what history has long buried — accusations of ‘Wahhabism’ and the ‘Wahhabi’ label. They used all this against us, accusing us (naturally, groundlessly) of being British spies and agents working for dollars. They asserted, too, that we destroy religion, defaming imams and depreciating them. Moreover, they claimed that we deny madhhabs, reject the existence of saints close to God (awliya’) and the miraculous abilities (karamat) bestowed upon them. And so on, in the same spirit . . . . Common, unenlightened people from those who were born in that dark time believed them. They had no yardstick that helped them distinguish truth from falsehood. Add to this the huge material base of our enemies, and the mass media which worked for them (p. 8) . . . .
From Ch. 8. The Ability to Resurrect and Demolish
Perhaps someone will say: ‘You really disregard completely the ability of some righteous people to perform miracles (karamat), given to them by Allah himself as a sign of honour. It is true that resurrection and demolition can be one of these miracles.’ We will answer: ‘We do not denigrate karamat nor the fact that Allah Almighty entrusts them to some righteous people, but the word karamat is misunderstood by adherents of Sufism. These miracles should not corrupt the mortal race, mislead them and enslave them by people like them. They rather occur to assist a Muslim and strengthen him, as well as to confirm the Truth and exalt the Word of Allah in the mortal World . . . . May Allah protect us from the delusions of the Sufis and the temptations of charlatans and deceivers (p. 57).’
From Ch. 20. Of the Holiness of Shaykhs’ Tombs?
Contrary to the graves of other people, the Sufis consider the graves of their shaykhs holy. Thus, they fence them and erect monuments and domes on them, build mosques on them and decorate them with various ornaments and tie scraps of cloth on them and around them, as they consider them sacred. They also kiss them and perform circumambulation (al-tawaf) around them, pour earth from the graves on themselves and take this earth to ask for blessings and healing. And we saw all this with our own eyes (p. 95).
These Sufis are real ‘grave worshippers’ (al-kuburiyyun) and, therefore, they are not confined to consecrating the graves in which their shaykhs’ bodies are buried, but also consider any place related to these shaykhs to be holy, even when it is just where the funeral prayer over them was read on their way to the cemetery. They turn this place where the funeral prayer was read into a place of prayers and everyone who passes it in funeral procession should gather pebbles along his way and throw them at this place. After a very short time a mountain of stones and pebbles is formed on this spot. And if a person, passing by, does not pray at this place and does not throw a stone into the pile, then he at least stops if he is walking or stops his car or riding animal if he is driving and reads an orison piously. And at the same time, his soul is absolutely calm and he is convinced that he has done a good deed pleasing to Allah and to the shaykh for which he will be rewarded (p. 96).
The followers of Shaykh Husayn al-Sasitli have made for their shaykh such a place on the spot, where they had read the funeral prayer over his body. It is located on the way to his native village of Sasitli in the Tsumada District of Daghestan. And it has been preserved to this day on the bank of the Andi Koisu River. It is lined with stones and there is a place for prayer in it.
Places, where any Islamic leader, prominent imams and martyrs have perished are considered holy, too. I witnessed with my own eyes how Sufis and ignorant Muslims turned the spot of Ghazi Muhammad’s death into a shrine. (He was one of those Dagestani imams who waged Jihad against Tsarist Russia.) They built a mosque there, planted trees around it and tied colourful scraps of cloth to their branches and tombstones, so if you see this place from afar, you will consider it a bazaar of fabrics. And people travel from afar to go on a pilgrimage and visit the shrine.
The same is the case of Mount Ahulgo, where a major battle between the troops of Imam Shamil and the armies of Tsarist Russia took place, in which many of the Imam’s fighters perished. Eventually, it came to the point that a leader of the criminal mafia in Daghestan, Hajji Makhachev, once claimed: ‘From this day on, believers do not need to travel to Mecca, to the al-Haram Mosque and the House of Allah for Hajj, because they have Hajj destinations here, on our land. These are Ahulgo and the place of the fighter Ghazi Muhammad’s death. And people will stop visiting those places (i.e. Mecca) and turn to these ones.’
Sunnis do not believe these shrines are holy at all, whether it is the grave of a shaykh, of a young man or a child. They consider the consecration of graves to be the doorway to turning these shrines into idols, and the deification of those whose corpses rest in them (p. 97). All the actions that the Sufis perform on the graves of their shaykhs are considered pagans by the Sunnis — including fencing them, building vaults and mosques on them, decorating them and tying rags to them, kissing them and touching their land, asking for blessings from them and treating their diseases through them, performing circumambulation around them, as well as their belief that orisons read near these graves will not remain unanswered. They are based on beliefs inherent to polytheists and Islam has nothing to do with them (pp. 97-8).
Before we knew the Sufis’ mystical teachings, we believed that sacred is the place that fits well to performing prayers and worship, and reciting the Qur’an. And people come to visit it as they do in the three principal mosques of Masjid al-Haram, the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina and al-Aqsa. In addition, it is known that God has chosen the Sacred Valley (al-Wadi) for [the Prophet] Musa (peace be upon him) (pp. 99-100).
From Ch. 24. Circumambulation at Graves
The adherents of Sufism perform circumambulation around graves of their shaykhs and their relatives. They consider it an action pleasing to Allah and bringing them closer to Him. For instance, we have seen followers of Kunta-Hajji visiting the grave of his mother Khedi in [the village of] Ertan in Chechnya: they make seven circumambulations, do prostrations, touch it, kiss it and bow to it, exalting it, and perform other rites what even pilgrims to the Ka‘ba do not do when performing the hajj. When they leave, they back away, not turning their backs [to the grave] until they can distinguish it no more.
There are many similar shrines in the world. Among them: the graves of Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi in Damascus, of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in Baghdad and of Ahmad al-Badawi in Cairo. There are also similar graves in Sudan, Yemen, India and other countries of the Islamic world. Pilgrims visit them, make circumambulations around them and sacrifices on them (p. 112).
Sunnis believe that circumambulation concerns worship but worship of anyone but God is forbidden. Islam imposes on us the duty of the circumambulation at the Ka‘ba only. There is no other place around which it is allowed to perform al-tawaf except the Ka‘ba, whether it is a grave, a house, a tree, a stone or anything else (pp. 112-3).
From Ch. 66. The Saints (Awliya’)
I argue that the Sufis’ claim — namely, that when a person becomes a wali (saint), it is a gift from Allah, which He grants to whomever He wishes — and their other assertion that outstanding awliya’ are given by Him the right to turn themselves anybody they want into a wali show well their exaltation of their own awliya’, whom they venerate like deities . . . . (p. 323)
The Sunnis have another definition of the word wali, which differs completely from its Sufi counterpart. They do not associate awliya’ with those who know the Innermost or with miracle-makers or those who have insights or those who behave abnormally, namely with persons shouting in markets and urinating on roads, crazy and feeble-minded, leaving their own children and family, with hermits who live in solitude in dark caves or with those buried in mosques. For them, the awliya’ do not include persons on whose grave a mausoleum or mosque is erected, or whose shrine is visited by pilgrims coming from far away, with scraps of cloth tied to their grave, even those able to fly through the air or walk on water or those to whom fire brings coolness and rest, not burning them. According the Sunnis, none of the signs mentioned above denotes a wali (pp. 322-3).
In their opinion, a wali is just a servant of God who believes in Allah, fears Him and seeks to gain His satisfaction following the rules established by the Shari‘a . . . . According the [above-mentioned] ayat, in order to become a wali or a creature close to Allah, any servant of God must possess inner faith (iman) and God-fearing . . . . The degree of this closeness to God (wilaya) depends on the level of his faith and God-fearing. Consequently, the best awliya’ are God’s Messengers (peace be upon them), because they have more faith and God-fearing than all other people. They are followed by the Prophets, then the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), then other awliya’ or [God’s creatures] ‘close’ [to God]. (pp. 323-4).
From Ch. 70. Miracles (Karamat)
Sunnis and Sufis perceive and define miracle (karama) differently. For the Sufis, any supernatural manifestation which cannot be explained by the human mind — like walking on water, flying through the air, healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, overcoming long distances in the blink of an eye — is a message related to the realm of the incomprehensible, a miracle (karama). They also include into this category any naughty and vicious act, perversion and deviation. The range of things and phenomena that Sufis consider miraculous is extremely wide. All of them, in their opinion, are miracles, without any conditions and restrictions. Therefore, they regard every able miracle maker as a wali, without conditions and restrictions too.
Sufis pay great attention to miracles and all supernatural things. They absolutely rely on them, considering them the sign that allows distinguishing a wali. In the Sufis’ view, a miracle (karama) and the position of saint (wilaya) are closely interrelated: there is no wali making no miracle and, vice versa, there is no miracle (in their views) done not by a wali. From their part, Sufis blame the Sunnis for denying the existence of miracles, but this assertion is a lie (p. 372).
[. . .] For the Sunnis, a karama is a supernatural action performed by a God-fearing and pious Muslim, endowed to him by Allah to honour him, if all the conditions I will mention below are compiled with. The Sunnis will not relate any supernatural event to the category of miracle and will not consider a miracle maker a wali if all required conditions are not met: there is no close correspondence between miracles and the degree of wali. It is possible for a person to belong to the awliya’ Allah without performing miracles, as the majority of the Prophet’s companions did. It is also possible for a person to perform a supernatural action without being related to the awliya’, as for magicians, sorcerers and diverse wonder-workers (pp. 372-3).
[. . .] Therefore, we have established that making miracles does not show that a certain person is preferred by God and close to Him. It happens that a man unable to perform miracles is better and closer to Allah than another endowed with supernatural abilities. Their position is determined by the level of faith, God-fearing and the extent to which a person adheres to the path of Truth. As already mentioned, not any supernatural event can be defined as miracle (karama). In order to fit its criteria, some distinct conditions should be compiled with. Here they are (p. 373):
- A miracle as such should not involve disobedience to Allah, like the public exposure of awrat [parts of the body], defecating into a vessel or urinating in front of people, tugging a vessel with testicles, copulating with donkeys, pawing at woman or young man’s ass, etc. All these acts, even if some of them have nothing to do with the supernatural, cannot be denoted karamat because the first condition is not met in them.
- A miracle maker must follow the path of Truth and not be inspired by career considerations, lies, affectation, desire to be famous and glorious, since all this casts doubt on his intention and purpose.
- A miracle must be performed only to support religion, to help a Muslim and if there is a real need for it. If a person has done something resembling a karama but this action did not aim to achieve what Allah loves and what He is pleased with, or was performed aimlessly, then all these acts do not correspond to karamat (p. 374).
[. . .] To conclude, Sunnis do not reject the karamat at all, as Sufis accuse them of. They are even convinced that karamat occur but only if certain conditions, mentioned above, are met. On this issue, the Sunnis stick to the ‘golden mean’ . . . . They do not side with those who, like the Mu‘tazila group, deny the very possibility for believers (with the exception of Prophets) to perform such miracles. On the other hand, they do not side with those who believe that any supernatural action relates to karamat, and any person who performs it is by definition close to Allah, as a wali, regardless of his faith, God-fearing and righteousness. Consequently, it follows that the Sufis’ views and their charges against the Sunnis are untenable and do not stand up to criticism (p. 376).
 Almost forty five years, Bagauddin Magomedov lived under the Soviet rule. He had a rich experience of encounters with the authorities who suppressed religious activists. However, the period of massive Stalinist repressions, which ended with Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, fell on his early childhood. Nothing other than a memory error can explain his absolutely fantastic statement about gas chambers in the Soviet concentration camps. Perhaps Soviet war films about the atrocities of fascists in Nazi Germany, which the author contaminated with his Soviet memories, also influenced his memory of the Soviet past.
 Here, the author distorts historical facts: under Soviet rule, village congregations who commissioned the erection of prayer houses, mosques and madrasas on holy sites took into account the prescriptions of the Shari‘a: these buildings were built not on the shaykhs’ graves but on territories adjacent to them, outside cemeteries. It was the case even of the neighbourhood mosque of Samilakh, added to the mausoleum of the legendary Arab missionary Abu-Muslim in the village of Khunzakh (cf. The Face of Sufism, p. 157).
 The Naqshbandi-Mahmudi and Shadhili shaykh Husayn, son of Kurbanaw (1900-64), of the village of Sasitli, succeeded the shaykh Humaid Afandi (d. 1952) of Andykh, before making his successor Taj al-Din of Ashali. His spiritual genealogy (silsila) goes back through Hasan Hilmi (d. 1937) of Kakhib to the famous Naqshbandi shaykh Sayf-Allah Qadi (d. 1919) of Nitsovkra — who had introduced the North African brotherhood Shadhiliyya to the North Caucasus in 1915. The chief opponent of Bagauddin Magomedov, Shaykh Sa‘id Afandi (1937-2012) of Chirkey also belonged to this branch of the Naqshbandiyya-Mahmudiyya. (On him, cf. https://redgold.hypotheses.org/850.) The shrine of Shaykh Husayn al-Sasitli lies close to the native village of Bagauddin, Santlada, which is also located in the Tsumada district in North-Western Dagestan.
 The mausoleum over the grave of the first imam of Highland Dagestan and Chechnya, Ghazi Muhammad (d. 1832), at the cemetery of the Martyrs in the outskirts of the village of Gimry, Untsukul District, was restored for the 200th anniversary of Imam Shamil (1797-1871), widely celebrated in Dagestan in 1997.
 The cemetery of fighters of Imam Shamil, who fell martyrs during the second assault on the Akhulgo rock by the Russian troops in 1839, is venerated as a holy place. It is located near Gimry in the same part of Untsukul District. During the celebrations of the 200th Anniversary of Imam Shamil in 1997, a large mosque with madrasa was built at the bottom of Akhulgo together with a shopping area for the pilgrims. Numerous banners were installed on the top and bottom of the rock, with memorial inscriptions in Avar and Russian languages.
 Hajji Nukhievich Makhachev (1951-2013) was a Daghestani public figure and parliamentarian of criminal background. He was born and grew up in the town of Khasavyurt. In 1967-68 and 1980-84, he served sentences for serious criminal offenses in Daghestan and central Russia. In 1988, he set up the Imam Shamil People’s Front and chaired it from 1992. Later he was appointed a People’s Deputy of the Supreme Council (in 1991) and the People’s Assembly (in 1995) of Daghestan, of the State Duma of the Russian Federation (in 1999), then permanent representative of Daghestan under the President of Russia (in 2007).
 One of the most visited shrines of Chechnya is situated in the village of Ertan, Vedeno District. It is related to the grave of Khedi, the mother of the shaykh Kunta-Hajji, who had introduced the Qadiriyya Sufi Path to the North Caucasus in the 1870s. In the 2010s, the President of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, ordered the renovation of the shrine. A mausoleum was erected over the grave and a modern highway constructed for car pilgrims.
Bagauddin Magomedov’s book of 2006 is a vivid historical evidence of disputes about Islamic sainthood as they have occurred between Muslims in the Northeast Caucasus, as well as in other regions of the post-Soviet world, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Although well known to many Muslims and some academic scholars, these debates have not yet been fully reflected by social science research, both domestic and international. They allow us, however, to measure the fierceness of controversies on the cult of Muslim saints in the last decades of the Soviet period and in the current one. Often, they display a strong local flavour, with many details on pilgrimage practice in Daghestan, the popular ideas on the saints of Islam, elements of the latter’s personal profiles. From its first pages, Bagauddin’s account remains highly autobiographical. He permanently refers to his personal memories, including intimate religious experiences. Comparative investigation of his data with information drawn from documents, letters and oral histories suggests that initially, he had shared several views of the Sufi apologists of the cult of saints and even took part in pilgrimages to renowned Daghestani shrines.
Due to his short participation in the second Chechen-Russian War (1999-2009) on the side of the Chechen Mujahidin, Bagauddin entered Russian and international lists of religious extremists and terrorists. His few publications and more numerous videos of polemical lectures and sermons were strictly prohibited in Russia. At the same time, none of his works including his book of 2006 has ever been subject to official censorship. This adds a lot of value to this special primary source, though it does not make easier its analysis.
The present selection of fragments from the book has been made in order to characterise the transformation of hagiographic processes that took place in Daghestan and the post-Soviet Caucasus between the late 1980s and the 2000s. The overwhelming majority of oral and written pious hagiographic accounts of Daghestani shaykhs follow the same thematic repertoire, including such tropes as persecution of religion in the ‘short’ twentieth century, the transmission of religious knowledge, miracles as an indicator of sainthood, the Shari‘a and non-Shari‘a rites performed at shrines. The same themes can be found in the anti-hagiographic account of Bagauddin Magomedov.
In his book, he introduces himself as an enemy of the blasphemous Soviet past. He accuses it of the worst crimes against religion and humanity, attributing to the Soviet repressive machine methods of mass destruction of believers and political dissidents proper to Nazi Germany (gas chambers, cremation of the repressed in camps). At the same time, the very choice of Russian language, the system of values and arguments conveyed by the book bear the seal of Soviet culture. Involuntarily, Bagauddin appears to his younger readers as a Soviet intellectual, a relic of the Soviet past, an anachronism at the beginning of a new millennium. A lot of traces of his Soviet background can be found throughout the book. For instance, he shares the cult of objective knowledge proper to the late Soviet society. To denounce his religious opponents, he uses a set of purely Soviet politicised clichés such as ‘religious fanaticism’, ‘charlatans’, ‘deception of ignorant people’. Bagauddin even imitates rules of Soviet (and other academic) scholarly publications with footnotes, table of contents, etc.
© Vladimir Bobrovnikov for the transcription, the translation and the commentary.