Al-Imam al-Mansur al-Mutaakil ‘ala Allah, commonly known in Russian and Western sources as Sheikh Mansur, was a Caucasian religious leader and resistance fighter who waged a campaign of military resistance against the Russian Empire from 1785 until his capture in 1791. Sheikh Mansur’s military and political strategies established the basic principles for subsequent Caucasian Muslim resistance to Russian imperial expansion. Most important for a long-term study of nationalism on the peripheries of Russian and Soviet rule is Mansur’s present status as one of the founding figures of the Chechen independence struggle and a convenient link between contemporary Chechen leaders and valorized national tradition.
According to historian Charles King, Sheikh Mansur was the first to lead “large-scale, organized resistance to Russian expansion in the Caucasus highlands” (King, 66). However, he claims that little is known about the motivation for this resistance. Although subsequent nineteenth century fighters would employ his methods (Gammer, 28) and twentieth century leaders would invoke him as a predecessor (King, 234), it is not clear if Mansur “was even an ‘Islamist’ leader in any meaningful sense” and information about his origins, “his followers, or his major political aims” is limited (ibid., 66).
Other scholars are less equivocal. Moshe Gammer presents Mansur as a Muslim leader fighting both for a purer Islam and a free Caucasus region. Andreas Kappeler supports the view that even the earliest organized resistance to the Russian Empire was religiously motivated, although the two writers disagree on Mansur’s connection to the then-dominant Naqshbandiyya Sufi brotherhood (Kappeler, 182; Gammer, 19). In any case, Mansur serves, at least in retrospect, as a predecessor to later resistance fighters both in his methods and in his essential motivations. According to Gammer, Mansur was fundamentally a religious leader, and the source of his authority lay in his credentials as an Islamic scholar (Gammer, 18). This points to the fact that Mansur’s gazavat, or holy war, was motivated first and foremost by the desire to strengthen and purify Islamic practice in the Caucasus. The priority of Islamic reform over military resistance would remain in place for later resistance movements, which drew their strength from various schools of Sufi teachings. Mansur preached that local Muslims “should repent of their sins and return to true Islam, or, in other words, abandon the ‘adat [local tribal custom] and live only according to shari’a [Islamic law]” (ibid., 19). Furthermore, “he gave this task precedence over jihad against the infidel rule” and preferred negotiation to open conflict with the Russian authorities (ibid.).
On several occasions in the following years, Mansur’s fighters inflicted considerable losses on Russian troops. At the same time, Mansur endeavored to enforce the shari’a and convert non-Muslim mountaineers (ibid., 24-25). However, the movement began to wane as Mansur’s repeated attempts to enlist Ottoman support failed. This changed with the outbreak of hostilities between the Russian and Ottoman empires in 1787. At this point, Mansur fought in support of the Ottoman sultan, leading the Circassians, Kabartay, Chechens, Kumyks, and Daghestanis in minor raids against the Russian army (ibid., 26). He even attempted to negotiate a simultaneous uprising among the Kazakhs, but coordination between the two groups was minimal (ibid.). Mansur’s resistance came to a decisive end when he was captured and taken into Russian captivity, where he would die three years later in 1794.
Sheikh Mansur is more important for his subsequent influence on Caucasian and, in particular Chechen, resistance to Russian and Soviet power than for his relatively minor military successes. “[H]is grand strategy (adopted and developed by later leaders of resistance) [consisted] of […] two separate but parallel paths: one, to unite all the Mountaineers (and also the steppe nomads) in armed resistance to Russia, and two, to obtain Ottoman assistance” (ibid., 28). Mansur’s resistance established a precedent for later and more famous Caucasian fighters, such as Imam Shamil, who would attempt to unite the Caucasian tribes under the banner of Islamic renewal. The relative popularity and longevity of his resistance indicated that, “[g]iven the right circumstances, a martial ethos and feuding culture could be transformed into a movement of organized rebellion and, on occasion, infused with Islamic significance,” thereby further strengthening its appeal (King, 67). In fact, one of Mansur’s most important contributions was the “crucial role” he played “in completing the Islamisation process of the lowland Chechens [and Circassians] and initiating it among the Ingush” (Gammer, 28).
The dominance of contemporary nationalist ideas and the recent movement for Chechen independence encourage the interpretation of Sheikh Mansur and later resistance leaders as defenders of Caucasian nations against Russian encroachment. However, in the self-understanding of the northeast highland leaders, the central thread linking the three imams [Ghazi Muhammad, Hamzat Bek, and Shamil] with each other and with earlier political-spiritual leaders, such as Sheikh Mansur, was not the fact that they were all committed anti-Russians but that they were committed Muslims (King, 81). In a pre-national age, religion offered a compelling source of unity – “imagined community” (Anderson) which could transcend the unstable intertribal relations of the Caucasian peoples and facilitate the spread of resistance – both to local syncretism and to Russian power – across tribal or linguistic barriers.
All the same, from the point of view of the present, Mansur is “regarded as the initiator of the Chechens’ long National-Liberation struggle which is still being waged” (Gammer, 27). Not surprisingly, Chechen separatist leaders in the 1990s “self-consciously resurrected the memory of Sheikh Mansur and Shamil” (King, 234). During the nationalist phase of the Chechen independence movement, Mansur functioned as an early national hero fighting for the Chechen people, although he devoted much of his efforts to the eradication of local ‘adat “local tribal custom” (Gammer, 19) and most likely viewed himself first and foremost as a Muslim fighting for his religious beliefs. As more and more fighters turned to Islamic fundamentalism for their guiding principles during the years of Putin’s presidency and resorted to the nineteenth-century terminology of “unbelievers,” “hypocrites,” and “martyrs” to describe Russians, Chechen collaborators, and themselves, respectively (King, 240-241; Gammer, 76), it is likely that Mansur, if his name is still invoked, now functions as a proto-Islamist in the modern sense of the word.
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2001).
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).
- Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule (London: Hurst & Co., 2006).