Zikr

[by Jenna Brightwell]

The zikr, “the circular dance and incantatory ritual” (Wood, 26) used by the Qadiri Sufi Islamic brotherhood, Qadiriyya, as a form of prayer, developed into a symbol of national identity and national unity for the Chechens beginning with its introduction in the mid-nineteenth century and throughout its years under Russian rule.  The dance became a rallying cry for the resistance movements in Chechnya under the tsarist rule, the Soviet regime, and the current Russian Federation.

When the Chechens converted to Sunni Islam in the 16th century, they were immediately drawn to Sufism, the mystical Islamic tradition, specifically Naqshbandiyya, which helped to unite the North Caucasus to revolt against annexation by the Russian tsar (Gaal, 32).  In the 1850s, Kunta Haji brought Qadiriyya, another “one of the four oldest and most prestigious Sufi [brotherhoods]” (Gammer, 73), from Dagestan.  Kunta developed into a national legend; Chechen myth portrays him as exceedingly intelligent, pious, and just.  Qadiriyya was less intellectual than Naqshbandiyya, which appealed more to those Chechens who could not read or did not have access to Islamic texts (Bullough, 331). The Qadiriyya also introduced the zikr as a “loud ecclesiastical prayer” (Bullough, 331) as opposed to the silent prayer the Naqshbani used.  In one of the few instances the Naqshbandi did use the loud zikr, Imam Shamil was able to “mobilize support and strengthen morale” (Gammer, 75) for the Caucasian War in the mid-nineteenth century, so the loud zikr already had a tradition in the resistance movement in Chechnya.

Zikr under Tsarist Rule

Kunta originally preached the peaceful acceptance of Russian authority and gained the
support of the Russian administration.   The Chechens, exhausted by the ongoing resistance movement, accepted Kunta’s proposal for peace; “he [Kunta] supplied them with the religious legitimation to end their struggle and gave the hope of salvation” (Gammer, 76).  However, soon Russia changed its view on the Qadiri brotherhood and
deemed it “‘fanatical’ and extremely dangerous to Russian Rule in the Caucasus” (Gammer, 76).  The Russians greatly feared the potential of Qadiriyya uniting the population of Chechnya.  The Russians targeted the loud zikr; they saw it as the symbol of the Qadiriyya resistance because of its presence and visibility within Chechen culture.  When the Russian tsar arrested Kunta Haji on 15 January 1864, a group of 3,000 Chechen demonstrators grouped at the Russian fort in Shali to demand his return.  They were denied access to the fort so they started to dance a continuous zikr in protest.  As the Chechens approached the fort, Russian soldiers attacked, killing between 100 to 400 Chechens in the “Battle of the Daggers” (Gammer, 77-79).  The Russians considered the demonstrators revolutionaries and used their actions as justification to “eradicate the zikr from within the tribe” (Gammer, 79).  Massive arrests of Qadiri leaders ensued and the “performance of the zikr [was] prohibited on pain of deportation” (Gammer, 79).

Despite the Russians efforts, Qadiriyya spread especially as resistance to Russian rule become increasingly popular among the Chechens (Gammer, 81).  On 13 June 1877 another uprising broke out in the upper Bass region, led by Albik Haji.  Groups of Chechens converged in mosques and began to dance the zikr.  As the success of Albik Haji increased, “the people of Shali started to ‘sing the zikr’”(rammer, 90) and the revolution spread.  Though the Russians suppressed the movement by the end of 1877, the use of the zikr as a way of rallying support for the revolutionaries solidified it as a symbol of Chechen nationalism.  Qadiriyya continued to gain momentum and almost all Chechens participated in Qadiri Sufism by WWI (Bullough, 331).

Zikr under Soviet Rule

The importance of the zikr continued during the Soviet period, beginning with the “Last Gazavat” during the Bolshevik revolution.  In 1917, the North Caucasus worked together again in the hope of creating an independent state. The movement clearly had Islamic roots.  One Bolshevik described a scene of a group of North Caucasians performing a zikr  as they gathered together at the home of Uzum Haji, the leader of the resistance: “Under the green banners rhythmic religious dances started, accompanied by religious songs and numerous drums…the ecstasy of the dancers increased and many reached
exhaustion…The crowd was in the fog of religious excitement” (Gammer, 131).  Even after the North Caucasus fell under Soviet rule, the Sufi brotherhoods led the Chechen resistance movements, and soon the persecution of the Stalin regime “propelled the Sufi [brotherhoods] into the center of the Chechens’ national life and identity…the zikr ‘formed an unbreakable shield’ around their ‘sense of identity and self-confidence’” (Gammer, 194-195).  The influence of Soviet atheism did not stop Chechens from performing the zikr, even though all of the mosques were closed.  Chechens gathered in the homes of the Qadiri leadership to practice the zikr along with other religious traditions, calling the meetings “social gatherings” (Gaal, 33-34).  The Sufi brotherhoods actively resisted Soviet oppression by publishing religious literature, developing an underground education system, and recording zikr ceremonies (Gammer, 196), which helped continue the zikr tradition in the Chechen culture.

Zikr Today

When Dudayev became President of Chechnya in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, hordes of Chechens danced the zikr in the central square in Grozny, showing their support for Dudayev and expressing their dedication to Chechen nationalism: “[the zikr became] an independence dance as one desperate dancer ran around the circle brandishing a Chechen flag” (Gaal, 32-33).  During the subsequent war with Russia, a constant flow of people danced the zikr in Freedom Square to express their disapproval of Russia’s invasion (Gaal, 195).  During the Battle for Grozny in January 1995, even after the Russians had entered the city, the zikr continued to play an central role in the lives of the Chechens living there: “Chechens still held much of the city centre…they gathered in and around the circular conference hall at the back of the Presidential Palace and even danced their traditional zikr while the anti-aircraft guns turned slowly watching the skies” (Gaal, 205).  The Chechens’ dedication to performing the zikr continues still today as an integral part of both their personal and national identity (Bullough, 336).

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Works Cited

  • Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame be Great (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
  • Carlotta Gaal and Thomas De Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
  • Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).

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