Fieldwork Report – Vladimir Bobrovnikov & Shamil Shikhaliev – Daghestan, Aug.-Sept. 2021

Many participants in the RedGold ANR Project are specialists of written materials, even if some deny it. We sometimes underestimate oral history and cultural memory in the study of modern hagiographic experiences. When RedGold was planned, the two authors’ own respective projects used to rely on written hagiographic literature, which as historians we knew better than oral tradition. As a matter of fact, Shamil Shikhaliev specialises in Arabic and Turkic Sufi writings of modern Daghestan while Vladimir Bobrovnikov (who established the present joint report of the basis of two individual diaries), who carried out anthropological studies, had to rely for his hypotheses on written Arabic and Russian evidences of the nineteenth century and of the first half of the twentieth. However, the common fieldwork realised in summer and early autumn 2021, in the framework of the RedGold Project, has corrected our expectations, while confirming some basic assumptions of the project, especially about historical continuity and change in Daghestan in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Shamil Shikhaliev’s case study was particularly promising. It focuses on a biographical dictionary, the Tabaqat al-khwajakan al-Naqshbandiyya wa sadat mashayikh al-Khalidiyya al-Mahmudiyya [Ranks of the Masters of the Naqshbandiyya and of the Shaykhs of Holy Ancestry of the Khalidiyya Mahmudiyya], composed between 1903 and 1911 by Shu‘ayb b. Idris al-Bagini (1853–1912), from the Avar village of Baginub in Western Daghestan. A long time imam of the village of Tsakhur, in Southern Daghestan, al-Bagini was buried in Baginub and his grave soon became an object of veneration. During our fieldwork, Shamil and I have often heard citations or references to his dictionary, which had been first published in the mid-1990s. It had been introduced in Southern Daghestan, in the 2000s, by graduates of madrasas and Islamic universities of Avar-speaking areas, in the centre and north of the republic. This was the moment when, according to our personal observations, exemplary narratives on mediaeval Arab shaykhs credited with the conversion to Islam of Daghestani highlanders, quite popular in the twentieth century, were replaced in popular favour by oral stories on more recent Sufis and holy fools.

During our expedition, Shamil and I have visited more than thirty shrines, focusing on the most relevant for RedGold. In each, we have gathered oral and written evidence, took photos of the sanctuary and of its relics and inscriptions, interviewing village imams, shrine keepers and guides, pilgrims and other respondents. Our goal was to measure continuity and change in the Muslim hagiographic related to popular sacred sites of Southern Daghestan. A special attention was paid to oral narratives of miracles connected with the shrines and the holy figures buried in them. Though these stories, we have tried to analyse the people’s views on sainthood, against the backdrop of public discussions on this notion among scholars of religion and specialists of the Shari‘a (including staff of the Muftiate of Daghestan in Makhachkala, which was set up in 1992 and is, since the mid-2000s, the only accredited Muslim representative institution in the republic). All textual and visual data were digitalized and uploaded to a Google disc. Important interviews are currently deciphered by my student Ilona Shmilevskaia, from the Higher School of Economics of Saint Petersburg, who took part too in the expedition, assisting us in the digitalisation and translation of the Arabic inscriptions and manuscripts we were discovering, and in the preparation of the present report.

Our main observations can be outlined as follows:

  • As is well known, the Islamisation of the Northeastern Caucasus started in Southern Daghestan already in the beginning of the second century of the Hegira (late seventh–early eighth centuries CE). As a result, the area is full of written and architectural monuments of that period when it became a northern outpost of the Caliphate. Monumental inscriptions in Arabic, especially, were uncovered by archaeology in the first years of this century. A majority of the oldest active Muslim shrines (Ar. ziyarat) of the Caucasus are located there. Visiting the most popular, we noticed however, among the young generation, the oblivion of pre-Soviet and early Soviet figures of Islamic sainthood. For example, the names and deeds of post-Mongol Sufi masters of the Khalwatiyya and Suhrawardiyya Sufi Paths had been completely forgotten. Indeed, the funeral inscriptions of some (in the villages of Utamïsh and Shiri for instance) have been uncovered recently. Generally speaking however, we observed that the tombs ascribed to Arab propagators of Islam suffered from the pilgrims’ disaffection – with the exception of the grave of Shaykh Pir Sulayman, of the Lezgi village of Lgar (or Pirkent), on the holy mountain of Shalbuzdagh, who is ascribed by the Daghestani believers to descendants of Shaykh Abu-Muslim, le semi-legendary convertor of the Daghestanis.
  • Another of our observations was the higher level of secularisation in mountain rural districts (such as Akhtï, Rutul, Kurakh, Sulayman-Stal’sk) than in lowlands of central and northern Daghestan peopled by Avars, Avar-speaking minorities, Dargins and Laks. As a popular, yet pejorative saying states: ‘The Lezgis [the majority ethnic group of Southern Daghestan] were the first Caucasians who converted to Islam; they are also the first who abandoned it.’ In the 1920–30s, antireligious campaigns had proved especially cruel in Southern Daghestan, due to the suppression of anti-kolkhoz uprisings — especially of the revolt of the Kurakh District, led by a local Sufi guide, Shaykh al-Hajj Muhammad Afandi of Shtul, defeated in 1930 and still venerated in a sacred site located near his native village. In Akhtï, we noticed that pre-Soviet cemeteries and shrines of the village centre had been destroyed; a House of Culture, two museums and a Park named after a local ‘people’s poet had been built in their place during the following decades. In the 1950s–1970s, the massive resettlement of highlanders to the cotton-growing lowlands of Daghestan contributed, also, if not to secularise, at least to de-Islamise the area. The political scientists and some historians still insist nowadays on the supposed ‘weak religiosity’ of Southern Daghestanis — an assessment which is not based on sound observation, as our fieldwork data suggest.
  • On the contrary, our eldest respondents told us that under the Soviet rule, pilgrimage to holy sites continued. The most venerated were Pir Sulayman, on the sacred mountain Shalbuzdagh, and the mausoleum of Shaykh Ramazan of Shtul (the father of the head of the anti-kolkhoz uprising of 1930). When we visited the latter, people told us that in the past, the site’s visitors used to perform there propitiatory prayers, asking for rain or sun during agricultural works (an operation described in the literature of the Soviet period). Shrine keepers and pilgrims also used to light candles and lamps on saints’ graves, to treat the sick with the drinking water mixed with earth from the shrine, to slaughter animals and distribute their meat as alms (Ar. sadaqat). Such practices were then blamed by the propagandists of atheism and by the Spiritual Board of the North Caucasus Muslims, set up in Buinaksk in 1944, as ‘pre-Islamic pagan survivals’. (One of the two museums of Akhtï exhibits examples of antireligious propagandist painting on this subject.)
  • It is noteworthy that most of the practices mentioned here are still performed in shrines, even when the life story, sometimes even the name of the premodern saint buried there have been erased from memories. These rituals, at the same time, are coming under increasing criticism, under the influence of rural imams educated in schools controlled by the Muftiate. From this viewpoint, our fieldwork has provided interesting and fresh insights into ongoing change in terms of the actors in the hagiographic process. It has suggested us, among others, that Southern Daghestani villages can be divided into two groups: those where imams are appointed by the Muftiate and those whose imams are beyond the latter’s control. If many observers agree that the Muftiate has failed, to date, to control South Daghestan, we discovered that the majority of village imams in the area are either appointed by the Muftiate or have informal connections with it. As for the so-called Wahhabis or Salafis, their criticism of the cult of saints remains marginal in the area.
  • The cult of the saints itself is changing, as the overall religious situation in Southern Daghestan since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fieldworks implemented in the region by Vladimir Bobrovnikov in the 1990s. To date, it remains understudied, especially from the viewpoint of the emergence of new protagonists. New educational, social, political networks have been influencing the public discourse(s) of Muslim sainthood. Graduates from the region’s Islamic universities remain now connected via social networks’ groups. The imams of the mosques of Southern Daghestan supervised by the Muftiate often meet, at various occasions: get-togethers, sport competitions, etc. In September 2021, we could observe such a meeting in the village of Kaka, in Akhtï
  • In villages whose imams are independent from the Muftiate, pre-Soviet shrines are seldom visited. The local population often ignores the name of the figure buried. In those where the imam maintains close relations with the Muftiate, veneration focuses on local Sufi shaykhs of the eighteenth to early twentieth century included in the dictionary by Shu‘ayb al-Bagini. There is also in local cult of saints a smaller number of holy fools who remind us of the Christian Orthodox figure of iurodivyi and are called awliya’ or ‘people close to God’. The most popular incarnation of this category is a certain Waghuf Buba (d. 1972), from the Lezgi village of Although he was locally venerated as a saint or wali Allah already in the 1980s, his cult has really flourished since the last years of the twentieth century. We were told a number of stories on his miraculous healing of seriously ill persons and on his encounters with Soviet officials. The Sufi shaykhs identified by Bagini and homologates by the Muftiate, on the first hand, and on the other hand the local saints celebrated for their charismas form the two major groups celebrated by present-day Muslim hagiography in the region.

Some avenues for further reflexion

Several explanations can be proposed for these observations. One is that in the 1990s, a new system of Islamic higher education has made its appearance in Russia. Called a restoration or revival by their promoters, new forms of Islamic education emerged: Islamic colleges for instance (later turned into universities), the foundations of which date back to the Cold War period, when an Islamic institute was set up in Tashkent in 1971. After 1991, their number increased and dozens of them operated in Daghestan, until most of them disappeared during the following decade. In parallel, since the mid-1990s Islamic institutes flourished under control of the Muslim Spiritual Board, the future Muftiate. They began to train students from Southern Daghestan through manuals written by Daghestani shaykhs of the Naqshbandiyya Mahmudiyya, such as Sa‘id Afandi of Chirkey (1937–2012). These textbooks included the dictionary by al-Bagini, first published in Syria in the 1990s and republished several times in Daghestan.

Since the 2000s, village imams who graduated from these schools have promoted the veneration of once forgotten men of God of the fifteenth to nineteenth century. Present-day hagiography is however different from what we knew earlier. Under Russian imperial rule, local saint cults relied on oral stories of their miracles (karamat) for the pious visitors of their shines. In the early twentieth century, these stories were collected and recorded in Arabic by Shu‘ayb al-Bagini. A judge (qadi) of personal status and successions in Tsakhur, in the Samur District of Southern Daghestan under Tsarist rule, Bagini was in close contact with Sufi shaykhs from the area and from Shirwan, in present-day Azerbaijan. Under Soviet rule, only rare Avar shaykhs of the Khalidiyya Mahmudiyya in Northwest Daghestan had access to his dictionary, which was preserved in a single manuscript. After the book’s printing in 1996, a new generation of village imams popularised his Tabaqat — a late Tsarist oral tradition turning written before becoming oral again.

In parallel, the cult of saints itself was changing. Soviet pilgrims and shrine keepers had continued to light candles, to drink water mixed with holy earth, to rub up against the stones of sacred sites and to sleep near saints’ graves. The new generations of practising Muslims, represented here by the pro-Muftiate village imams and their followers, blame such rituals although they do not prohibit them. They even keep on the sacred sites the equipment required: candles, lampas, spoons to scoop the earth from the saint’s grave and vessels with holy water). The imams whom we interviewed explain such acts of tolerance by their attempt to attract older generations grown up under the Soviet rule. Some find Sufi explanations to practices ‘not conform to the Shari‘a. For the imam of the Lezgi village of Khliut, in the Rutul District, for instance, the lightening of candles in saints’ shrines is a kind of restoration of the rabita (link) between disciples and their guide. It helps develop tawassul, the role of saints as intermediaries between the believers and the Divine. And when the villagers see the light on their ziyara, they remember their Sufi master and perform an orison (du‘a) for him. These interpretations reflect the wide diversity of ways taken today by local Muslim hagiography.

Our fieldwork has established, too, a museumisation of sacred sites in Southern Daghestan. The personal belongings of twentieth-century shaykhs and saints were turned into sacred relics. These artefacts do not differ themselves from relics venerated in earlier periods of history. Usually, they include the cane or staff (in the villages of Mishlesh and Lutkun, in the Kurakh District, of Rutul and Shinaz in the Rutul District, for example). A cane is kept in the shrine of a female wali, Ayishghay, who is reported to have lived in Shinaz in the eighteenth century. One of her descendants told us that, when the staff is aimlessly disturbed, the saint appears in dreams to the women of her clan and asks them not to do so. The miracles of several saints are connected with her or his cane, a mandatory lifetime attribute, necessary to make rain fall or to protect their community from an invasion of locusts. Among other attributes: skullcaps, outerwear, boots. Despite the reverent attitude of pilgrims and shrine keepers towards the saint’s relics, they are preserved in sanctuaries sites as museum items. The shrine itself recalls a local state museums, with display stands. Anyone can have access to the relics and the keepers show them to the pilgrims, allowing them to touch and handle them. Interviewed shrine keepers condemned the use of these relics with the purpose of causing miracles, considering these acts in contravention of the teachings of Islam.

  1. What is your name? When and where were you born? What lineage/clan do you belong to? Were any religious leaders among your parents and relatives?
  2. Where did you grow up? What is your educational and professional background? What were the professions of your parents?
  3. What local shrines do you know? Please, name them. Where are they located? What are they famous for?
  4. Did any shrine play some role in your life or in the life of your relatives and friends? If yes, please, tell us of these cases in more details.
  5. Why do people visit shrines (ziyarat, pir), and address to their shaykhs with a prayer (du‘a)? Did you witness such cases? If yes, please, tell us of this in more details.
  6. Do you know names and biographies of saints who are buried in sacred sites you mentioned above, or related to them? Where did they come from? Were there Arabs and other foreigners among them? If yes, please, tell us of this in more details.
  7. What does the title of Sufi (or Sefi/Safi) mean when it is mentioned before the name of a saint? Do you known any saints of this sort? When did they live, what are they famous for? Please tell us of them in more details.
  8. Did the shaykhs you mentioned know each other, or had they any other connections between themselves and with other shaykhs? If yes, please, tell us of their ties in more details.
  9. Do you believe in the saints’ blessing (baraka) and miracles (karamat)? Did local shaykhs possess baraka and perform karamat? If so, how are miracles manifested? Have you ever witnessed miracles at shrines? If so, please tell us of them in more details.
  10. Have you yourself ever performed pilgrimage (ziyarat) or led its rituals? Are you going to go to any shrine? To which of them? Tell us more about what you did on sacred sites.
  11. Have your request been satisfied after the pilgrimage? What was your impression of visiting the shrine?
  12. Is it worth visiting shrines of saints for a true Muslim believer? If yes, which of them and when? If not, why not? What should Muslims do, and what should they not do while visiting shrines? Why?
  13. Did anything change in sacred sites of your village and district in the last two or three decades? If so, then what is exactly changing? Is it right or wrong? Tell us more about it in details.
  14. Is it for bad or good when believers forget about shaykhs who were buried in sacred sites, and their funeral steles and mausoleums are going to ruins? What cases of such oblivion do you know?
  15. Did new shaykhs, saints and venerated shrines appear after the fall of Soviet rule? Are they ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ than the old ones? Did you address to the new saints and perform pilgrimage to their shrines? Tell us more about it in details.




Cite this blog post
Red Gold (2021, November 23). Fieldwork Report – Vladimir Bobrovnikov & Shamil Shikhaliev – Daghestan, Aug.-Sept. 2021. RedGold. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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