Biographies of Three Naqshbandi Shaykhs from Daghestan [Part 4/4], by Shamil Shikhaliev

This text is the last out of a four-part series :


Until the end of nineteenth century, biography and hagiography as literary genres were not widespread in Daghestan. One of the earliest manuscript textual hagiographies of the region is a Ṭabaqāt al-ḫwājagān al-naqšbandiyya wa sādāt al-mašāʾiḫ al-ḫālidiyya al-mamūdiyya by the Daghestani Naqshbandi shaykh Shu‘ayb b. Idris al-Bagini (1858–1912). This treatise consists of three parts. The first is a compilation of the Rašaāt ʿayn al-ayāt by Husayn b. ‘Ali al-Kashifi, which had been translated from Persian to Arabic by the Tatar Muslim scholar Muhammad Murad al-Ramzi (d. 1935). It contains biographies of the Naqshbandi shaykhs of a spiritual line [silsila] that goes from Prophet Muḥammad to ‘Ubayd-Allah Ahrar (1404–90). The second part is also compiled and borrowed by al-Bagini from the Nafāʾis al-sāniat, written in Arabic by abovementioned Muhammad Murad al-Ramzi. This chapter consists of biographies of Naqshbandi shaykhs from the successor [ḫalīfa] of al-Ahrar, Muḥammad-Zahid al-Samarqandi (d. 1529) to Khalid Shah al-Baghdadi (1779–1826). The third chapter of this treatise is an original. Here, the author proposes the biographies of a line of shaykhs from al-Baghdadi’s successor Isma‘il al-Kurdamiri al-Shirwani (d. 1828) to author’s contemporary shaykhs from the Caucasus (from Daghestan, Azerbaijan and Chechnya). The whole structure of al-Bagini’s work is based on the focusing of the readers’ attention on ‘miracles’ then considered an important proof of the ‘holiness’ of certain shaykhs.

In the late imperial and early Soviet periods, hagiographic literature developed within the framework of this written literary genre. After WWII, however, numerous stories on the ‘miracles of the saints’ transformed from written to oral history. Moreover, stories on miracles, which are typologically quite different, have a wandering narratives and are often transmitted in oral tradition in relation to completely different persons. In the post-Soviet period, we already see the return of the genre of biographies to the written tradition combining also the oral tradition as well. Contrary to the pre-Soviet period, new hagiographical works are written in Russian or in local vernacular languages (Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Lezgi, etc.) in Cyrillic instead of Arabic.

These evolutions in the transmission of information did not remain without impact on the contents of hagiography. After a pre-Soviet period characterised by written Arabic-language tradition, the period from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s witnessed the appearance of Arabic-script Sufi literature in local languages of the North Caucasus, in Avar and Kumyk especially. This change resulted from the influence of the early-twentieth-century Jadid movement – a set of reformist trends popularised by a regional press in Arabic language –, later combined with the impact of the Soviet nationality policy. If Sufi shaykhs initially opposed the ‘Jadids’ and, even more, the Bolsheviks, they adopted the Jadids’ national ideas and embraced the early Soviet development of national literatures in their hagiographic writings.

This period of quick and deep transformation was followed by an era of repression, from the mid-1930s onwards, during which these nascent written traditions were interrupted, supplanted by an era of orality, performed of rare ritual occasions. Hagiographic discourses, for example, were passed over during mawlid festivals (of anniversary of Prophet Muhammad). This was a period when women played a key role in oral storytelling and in the transmission of the vitae of saints within their lineage. (The author himself often took part in these mawlid assemblies as a child, and his first acquaintance with the shaykhs of the Daghestani past came through them, complemented in these childhood years, by a grandmother’s stories.)

The fourth stage of this evolution, already post-Soviet, has consisted of a return from the oral to the written, with changes in both language (Russian and local Daghestani languages) and script (Cyrillic script). Written hagiography included the translation of pre-Soviet hagiographic works into Cyrillic in the Avar language. In parallel, oral traditions continued to develop, in connexion with the restoration of pilgrimages (ziyārāt) and with the assistance of local mosque imams. The latter, sometimes critical of stories that ‘contradicted fiqh’, endeavoured in these years to codify hagiography as well as the practice of ziyārāt, promoting  a general smoothing of traditions in the name of the Sharia and of the norms of local fiqh, as the author could observe during his expeditions. Here as elsewhere in the former Soviet South, Islamic norms were supplemented, in a way, by references to works by post-Soviet academic scholars specialising in ‘Oriental’ studies, if not by the latter’s mobilisation for the writing of articles of the shaykhs of the past, for . . . the website of the Mufti of the Republic of Daghestan. This rationalist turn, and the resort to academic norms and knowledge, can be explained, at least partly, by the pressure exerted on the Mufti’s apparatus as well as on the Sufi hierarchy, by the so-called Wahhabi or Salafi propagandas.

Above are presented the original texts and translations in Russian and English of the biography of al-Bagini’s shaykh from Shirvan, Ahmad al-Talali (1835–1904), of al-Bagini’s own autobiography within the Ṭabaqāt al-ḫwājagān, as well as of a biography of the famous late Soviet and post-Soviet Naqshbandi shaykh Sa‘id Afandi Atsaev of Chirkey (1937–2012), published in Russian in his book Sokrovishnitsa blagodatnykh znanii (Makhachkala, 2003).

© Shamil Shikhaliev for the Russian and English translations.


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