by Shamil S. Shikhaliev, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Amsterdam

Growing up in Dagestan

I was born in 1974 in Buinaksk, a small town of what then was Soviet Dagestan. My father was a farmer and grew fruit saplings. My mother was a teacher at an elementary school. In the early 1980s, when I was a child, sports were the only entertainment Dagestan could offer: football in summer and hockey in winter. Back in the day we had no stadiums, so we played in the open space, especially in the yard. Then there was wrestling, boxing, and judo: these were the options.

In those years the pressure that the Soviet ideological system exerted upon me and my friends was overwhelming. We were molded after Marxist ideals through an intellectual trajectory in which Lenin's cult of personality accompanied us all from the kindergarten. At the same time, every class I took at school started off with an exposé of the “perfidious plans of Western imperialism.” It could be Russian literature, mathematics, physics, or geography, it made no difference. In almost every lesson, and especially in extracurricular activities, our teachers warned us about “false Western values,” and told us that the West was disfigured by “unemployment,” “racial discrimination,” “genocidal policies” “social inequality,” and of course, “colonialism”. In the great play of good and evil, Soviet propaganda assigned the United States the character of the devil, whose main task, as the school teachers went about to explain, was “the destruction of our just Soviet society” and “the enslavement and exploitation of all mankind.” Needless to say that English was the language spoken by our “ideological enemy” and therefore our English-language classes were bereft of references to literature, the culture of English-speaking countries, and their complex history. This can most probably explain why students lacked fluency in English, at least in the provinces. To be fair, other subjects, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, or geography, were taught very well. However, it is curious how, under such an ideological pressure, I, like many of my peers, developed a love for the Soviet system and a hatred for Europeans, whom we had never even seen. While at school I went through all the stages of the Soviet ideological system. First I became a “Little Octobrist” (oktobrënok), then a “Pioneer” (pioner), and finally a Komsomol member. And with all this atheistic baggage, I was far from any form of religious sensibility.

I usually spent my summer vacations with my older brothers in my ancestral village of Nizhnii Dzhengutai, where we stayed with my grandfather Zainalbek. Since my grandfather did not have a TV set, I got interested in reading. And when I was not reading, I just chatted away with him. His life stories together with his reflections on the Soviet system deeply shocked me: being a deeply religious man, he was critical of the atheist state and its violent secularist policies. In the 1930s dozens among his acquaintances were exiled and murdered by the government, and their only sin was to be either wealthy or respected as scholars. The unquestionable authority of my grandfather in the village did not allow me to brush aside his opinions. I often thought about what we were told at school and contrasted it with my grandfather’s narrative, his version of the past. This is how a seed of criticism towards Soviet ideology began to grow in me. That is, I began to recognize that there existed a dark side of the Soviet Union. While as a child I could often attend various religious ceremonies, such as the festivals celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (Mavlid) or the end of Ramadan (Uraza Bayram), I did not realize that in addition to the reality speaking Soviet, there was another one which spoke Islamic. They were not just parallel worlds, however! In fact, they were organically integrated into each other. This is hard to imagine, but the Islamic reality, which at the time I understood merely as “traditions,” was closely intertwined with the Soviet. Let me explain what I mean. Officials working for the local party cell would often come to my grandfather with the request to perform a Muslim marriage (nikah). Also die-hard communists came to my grandfather seeking his advice. They wanted to salvage a marriage, for example, after their threefold repetition of the word talaq, which had necessarily led to a divorce from their wives. Moreover, I often heard of the nikah ceremonies conducted by my grandfather when the newlyweds were school masters who in their everyday life taught atheism. I was underage then, and I could not attend such ceremonies. However, it was then when I realized that the shining image of Soviet power was in fact ambiguous. There were people like my grandfather who were far from idealizing the Soviet system.

My grandfather’s fate was common to many people of his generation. His father worked in the local militia of the Tsars, and after one incident in 1911, he was mortally wounded and died when my grandfather was only about two-months old. My grandfather’s grandfather, Alibek, was a former serviceman. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and was knighted with the Cross of St. George (Georgievskii krest) for bravery. By birth Alibek was an emancipated communalist (uzden’). This means that he was a wealthy man and owned much land which he rented out. He adopted and raised his grandson, i.e., my grandfather. Financial resources allowed him to send my grandfather to the Abd al-Latif al-Hutsi madrasa, an Islamic secondary school which at the beginning of the 20th century was widely known throughout Dagestan. My grandfather was educated there until the end of the 1920s, when Islamic schooling was discontinued.

In the 1930s, when collectivization began, my great-great-grandfather passed away. My grandfather, Zainalbek, instead, was forced to transfer “voluntarily” all his properties to the collective farm (kolkhoz), where he subsequently worked. In 1942, during World War II, he was mobilized to the front, where after the first battle, he was wounded and made prisoner. As a POW he worked mainly in Germany and then in Belgium. After the war and released from captivity, he, like many Soviet soldiers who were former POWs, was exiled to a forced-labor camp (GULag). In 1953, after Stalin’s death, he was released and he could make return to his native village, where he worked at the local collective farm. My father was barely one-year old when his father was drafted into the Red Army and twelve when Zainalbek came back home (after the war, the POW camp, and the GULag). In the mid-1960s, after a break of many years, Zainalbek could pursue further the study of Islamic sciences in the neighboring villages. In the 1980s, he was the only scholar (‘alim) left in his native village Nizhnii Dzhengutai. Together with ritual practices, he was an expert of Islamic legal jurisprudence, gave advice to local residents on Islamic inheritance issues and disputes of all sorts.

While with my grandfather, I noticed that he often read manuscripts written in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, which he kept in a niche in the wall and covered with a carpet. Often he would read texts and tell me their contents in my native Kumyk language. Since the only entertainment in the village was talking with my grandfather and reading, the exposure to his world of knowledge was significant. While I was reading works of different genres (from Lermontov to the The Adventures of Sindbad), in the same room my grandfather was reading Arabic manuscripts or telling me the story of the mythical snake Shahmaran, the legends of the prophets, their journeys, the malevolent spirits (jinns). I often took the opportunity to open these manuscripts, and I can still remember how fascinated I was by the rustling of the pages turning over, trying to penetrate into the complex entanglements of Arabic ligature. This was the beginning of my fascination with the “East” (vostok) in the best Orientalist tradition, as Edward Said would have it. I was fascinated by the Arabic world, which looked exotic, mysterious, i.e., an imaginary world of fairy tales, beautiful palaces, palm trees, caliphs, spirits and adventures. I dreamed of visiting the mysterious Maghreb, the land of evil wizards described in legends. The beauty and exoticism of the Orient was in sharp dissonance with the Sovietness of my everyday life. So I decided to study Arabic in order to plunge into the world of manuscripts and re-read all the rich library my grandfather had kept for himself. What also increased my desire to learn Arabic was the fascination for the scholars who often came to visit him. Charismatic, rugged and bearded, slow in their gestures, laconic, wearing Dagestani national hats (papakha), these old men often talked with my grandfather about topics I could not grasp, often quoting texts in Arabic which I did not understand, of course. This deeply impressed me. So, in the summer of 1984, at the age of 10, while on vacation I asked my grandfather to teach me Arabic. My grandfather smiled, and agreed.

Learning Arabic from My Grandfather

The method of teaching Arabic that my grandfather used is a curious one. It began with the study of the Arabic alphabet. Zainalbek wrote for me in a notebook the four shapes of the Arabic letters (initial, middle, final, and isolated position), by paying close attention to their correct pronunciation. There were letters of the Arabic alphabet which I found difficult to pronounce, for they have no analogues either in my native Kumyk, or in Russian, which I knew already quite well. As I was learning more and more letters, my grandfather connected them to each other in various forms, adding a few extra sounds, so that I could write a few words in Arabic-script Kumyk. Later on, he would write for me combinations of words, sentences and short texts Arabic-script Kumyk. After that, he would read them aloud to me, and I would repeat them after him and sort out the meaning of the texts on my own. The next day I had to read to him the text of the previous lesson, without stuttering, and my grandfather paid close attention to my careful reading. After I had completed the alphabet and was able to read the Arabic text fairly well, Zainalbek proceeded directly to teach me how to read some surahs of the Qur’an, which he wrote in my notebook, paying attention to the rules of their reading (tajwid). Realizing that I wasn’t yet ready to understand the Qur’an, and probably with the purpose of keeping me interested in reading more difficult texts, Zainalbek translated from Arabic into Kumyk a fragment of the story of the prophet Daniel and his meeting with the angel Gabriel. He wrote down his translation in a notebook in Arabic-script Kumyk, read it several times, paying attention to the spelling of this or that letter, and gave me an assignment. The point of the homework was that I had to copy an Arabic-script Kumyk text by myself, read it fluently, and retell it to my grandfather. Since my grandfather wrote a fragment of the story each time, I was very curious about what would come next, and I looked forward to each lesson. My grandfather did not write or tell me anything about Islamic religious practices. The world of Arabic fairy tales and the stories of the prophets and caliphs were the only topics that fascinated me.

Autumn came and my vacation was over. I went back home to go to school. Before I left, my grandfather warned me very sternly not to tell anyone that he had taught me Arabic, or else our whole family would be in danger. Later, of course, I realized that had somebody found out that my grandfather was teaching me Arabic, he would have run into big troubles with the Soviet secret service (KGB). My mastery of the Arabic script (still so exotic to me at the time!), inspired me to the extent that I tried to write short stories in Kumyk in the Arabic script. When I visited my grandfather on weekends, I would show him these notes. He always praised me and said I was a very promising student, thus encouraging me to cultivate further my interest in Arabic. However, my studies and my social engagement at school pulled me into the whirl of Soviet reality so much so that I soon devoted less and less time to the Arabic and eventually stopped studying it altogether. My grandfather took it with some regret, joking about the fact that “TV and games do not leave me much time to study Arabic.” But he didn't scold me.

Meanwhile several years passed, and somehow, while going through my old books, I came across my notebook. I thumbed through it and immediately recalled the world of Arabic fairy tales in which I had been immersed, and decided to resume studying Arabic. So in 1990 I asked my grandfather to teach me Arabic again. With a cheerful chuckle, he replied: “Last time it did not work out, let’s see what happens this time.” Since I was still in school, I could see him only during weekends. I took lessons from him and did my assignments during the week until the next weekend. This time, learning the Arabic alphabet began with Mu‘allim Sani, a textbook by the Tatar modernist intellectual Ahmad Hadi Maqsudi.

After completing this textbook, my grandfather gave me a lithographed copy of the last part (i.e., the thirtieth) of the Qur’an (juz’). It is noteworthy that before reading it, my grandfather told me about the Prophet Muhammad and that the Qur’an represents God’s revelation to him. At that point, Zainalbek told me this: “the Qur’an is our Holy Book and you are not allowed to touch it without ritual ablutions and without performing a prayer. Therefore, if you want to continue learning Arabic and reading the Qur’an, you have to start praying.” I knew that my older brothers had tried before me to learn Arabic from my grandfather, when they were 10-12 years old. They did not make it past the alphabet, though. When our grandfather explained them that they ought to pray to be able to read the Qur’an, one of them said: “we can’t pray, we’re Young Communists and God does not exist!” Full of rage, my grandfather kicked them out of his house.

In order not to repeat this unfortunate experience, I immediately agreed to pray. My grandfather taught me the sequence of ablutions, and the importance of ritual purity. Finally, I began to pray five times a day together with him. The morning prayer was especially difficult for me, when my grandfather woke me up at dawn. I can still recall that I prayed almost unconsciously, without any commitment to Islam whatsoever. In fact, I didn’t feel any attachment to religion, and all I wanted to do was to please my grandfather. I still perceived Arabic and Islam as something distant, exotic. At an older age, having been exposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution, physics, and astronomy at school, I was no longer interested in the fabulous world of magic, the jinns or Aladdin. I was a materialist, after all, and all that literature ranked as nonsensical fiction. At the same time, the “Islamic East” was part of my worldview. In particular, I had been exposed to works (mostly in Russian) about the Muslim world, i.e., scholarship devoted to the history of Islamic medicine, astronomy, and architecture. I always felt that Islam was much broader a civilization than I had been taught and that if I could only master Arabic I would be able to unlock new secrets and make new discoveries hidden in the world of manuscripts. This fascination with the unknown stimulated me in pursuing further the study of Arabic.

Under my grandfather’s guidance, I was able to complete this section of the Qur'an within a short time and continued to study Arabic from the textbook entitled Durus al-Shifahiyah by the aforementioned Ahmad Hadi Maqsudi. Further, after completing this book my grandfather began to teach me the basics of Islamic dogmatics from a manuscript called Mukhtasar penned by the medieval Dagestani scholar Ali al-Ghumuqi (d. 1528). It should be noted that in the Soviet period there was an extreme shortage of printed literature in Arabic. However, my grandfather had his own rich library of manuscripts and lithographed books, so I had to improve my reading skills if I wanted to find my way through codices which had been copied 200-300 years ago. At the beginning some of them were still difficult for me, but later on I improved considerably my ability to read manuscripts.

Learning the Mukhtasar required understanding the text I was reading and memorizing it by heart. At the initial stage, it was more difficult for me to read this manuscript, and my grandfather demanded that I read the text quickly and without a single stutter. I was expected to read it properly, then to learn it by heart, and finally to summarize it to my grandfather in Kumyk. After completing this book, we proceeded to study the Arabic grammar. He did not pick a modern-style grammar such as Maqsudi’s Durus al-Nahwiya. He chose instead something “traditional”, the Tasrif al-‘Izzi, by ‘Izz al-Din ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Zanjani, written in 654/1257 CE.

And so the time of my graduation from high school came and with it the opportunity to choose a university. Earlier I had assumed that I would continue my father’s work in agriculture. However, my interest in Arabic changed my mind. And this was happening in the summer of 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. So I began to look for universities offering Arabic. Soon did I realize, however, that such universities in the USSR were far and few, i.e., only in Moscow, Leningrad, Tashkent, and Baku. However, at the time I rarely left Buinaksk, and all these cities seemed so far away that I soon lost hope. One day, my grandfather showed me an advertisement published in a local newspaper: a newly established madrasa in Makhachkala was offering Arabic, Turkish and Persian, together with classes on medicine, astronomy and other Islamic sciences. Encouraged, I decided to enroll in this madrasa despite having done reasonably well at school. I wasn’t religious, however. An added incentive was that my grandfather, whom I deeply loved, was very happy about it. So, while the USSR was falling apart, I became a student of the Islamic University in Makhachkala.