by Shamil Shikhaliev Post-doctoral Fellow, University of Amsterdam

Me and My classmates
Having passed the Qur’an-reading exam, I became a student at the Dagestan Islamic University named after the Naqshbandi Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaragi (d. 1838), subsequently renamed the Imam Shafi‘i University. It is noteworthy that the university was originally named after a Sufi sheikh, despite the Soviet state’s policy against Sufism. In 1991 we had no school premises of our own, so the administration of the university rented the building of the former Fish Technical School, in the courtyard of which there was a bust of Lenin. Subsequently, the government of Dagestan allocated to us the building of the former Music college, which had been originally designed as a mosque in 1899 and later repurposed into a Shi‘ite mosque Turkic and Persian-speaking Muslims.

It should be added that the university itself opened in February 1991, so that by the time I got there (in September 1991) two groups had already been formed, and entered their second year.

The course in which I was to study was large: there were more than 100 students, so we were divided into 4 groups. The contingent of students was quite diverse, both in age and ethnicity. We had Karachays, Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, and, of course, representatives of the various ethnic communities in Dagestan: Avars, Kumyks, Dargins, Laks, Tabasarans, Lezgins and others. Because of this wide linguistic diversity, we communicated with each other in Russian. As for the age group, in our group there were students ranging from 13 years old, all the way up to one 70-year-old retired Karachai whose name I do not remember. Naturally, students had varying levels of education.

Together with my classmates I discussed different subjects. Sometime we talked about religious issues too, including hagiographic stories about the sheikhs and the prophets, which I had little interest in, to be perfectly honest. We talked about everything, about life in general, work, the school, about the customs of peoples from rural areas, and so on.

Often our conversations morphed into fierce controversies, especially when we touched upon the Soviet school and the qualifications it gave us. I had received an excellent Soviet education, which allowed me to easily solve trigonometric equations, compose and successfully solve problems in chemistry and physics. Moreover, the Soviet education system itself was aimed at a comprehensive in-depth study of various disciplines - from trigonometry, astronomy and molecular physics to literature and geography. And coming from this background, I often found myself in an uncomfortable situation when communicating with young madrasa students, some of whom had not formal education and were sincerely convinced that the earth is flat. Being deeply religious, some of my classmates categorically refused to accept many things that were obvious to me, such as the origin of the earth, the theory of evolution, and even elementary physics. To be honest, I had little in common with some of my classmates, since they believed in hagiography and the supernatural miracles of saints and their movement through time and space.

The motivation of the students was also highly varied. Some were sent to study Islam by their parents, and they were genuinely happy to be free from parental custody. Some sincerely wanted to learn Islamic sciences, to study fiqh and hadith, so that they could refine their mode of conduct according to Islamic principles. Many of the students had no intention of taking up the position of imam or madrasa teacher after completing their studies, but planned, instead, to go into business or learn another specialty. They did not link their future professions with their studies at the Islamic University. All they wanted to do was to learn more about Islam. Some necessarily saw themselves as imams or madrasa teachers. And some, like me, went to university only to learn Arabic and make it their specialty, with little to do with religion.

Regardless of our different social or educational backgrounds, we found common topics, we became friends, and even many years later I still maintain good relations with some of them.  Curiously, I did not have such close contacts at a secular pedagogical university, where I entered later. And I hardly remember my classmates there. I have no close, friendly contacts with them, such as I have had with my former classmates at the Islamic University.

Islamic University VS Soviet Ideology

The fall of the Soviet system passed unnoticed for us students. Because of our age, we paid little attention to politics. But the onset of hyperinflation, empty shelves in the stores, and rampant criminality and banditry in Makhachkala showed us in full measure that the Soviet regime no longer existed. The beautiful slogans about democracy that they broadcasted on TV were of no interest to us: we were just hungry. It was more important for us to be able to feel nourished, at least once every two days.

At university, I encountered students who were very different in their social views. In Buynaksk I grew up in a predominantly secular environment, and I had encountered religious students only at my grandfather’s house. I was therefore at first deeply impressed by the large number of religiously motivated students. It was as if the Soviet regime and its antireligious policy and the secular school had never existed in the first place. Most of my classmates came from religious families in which Islamic was absorbed from childhood. As a rule, they had a strong negative attitude toward everything secular: they did not like theatres, cinemas, museums, Soviet schools, former Soviet holidays such as May 1, May 9, November 7, or the New Year’s Day, which were still celebrated in Dagestan. In addition, a sharply negative attitude toward Soviet power was embodied also by our teachers. For the most part, many of my classmates hated the Soviet Union because of its policy of atheism and the repression of religious authorities in the 1930s. Obviously, these stories were passed down in their families, just as the hatred for Soviet power clearly did not first manifest itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union but was cultivated in a certain part of the population for a long time. This caused a kind of dissonance in me. I had actively participated in Soviet ideological and social activities, and attended various Soviet clubs. Not to say that I was so unconditionally sympathetic to Soviet power! I understood of course that at school everything Soviet was idealised, and as I have said before, I had a somewhat critical attitude toward it, to several principles that I considered either fundamentally wrong or erroneous. Once, for example, when I was at school in a Social Science class, I asked the teacher whether the state was one big exploiter of the working people. The reason for my question was that the factories belonged to the state  – so did it really matter whether the factory belongs to an exploiter in the form of the Soviet state, or to an exploiter in the form of a private individual, a notional “John Smith” or the “Sony” Corporation? The teacher got mad at me and threw me out of the classroom and later I was summoned to the principal’s office, where I was scolded very badly. At the same time, despite all this, I still felt like a Soviet citizen and appreciated how much the state had done for me and my improvement. And I certainly did not cultivate the kind of hatred that many of my fellow students felt toward everything Soviet, including Lenin or Stalin. I can clearly remember one such remarkable incident. Once a classmate of mine was late for his first class and was not allowed into the building. Out of boredom, he climbed up the statue of Lenin in the courtyard of the University and broke its nose. I was struck by the reaction of our supervisors. They scolded him and almost expelled him, not for vandalism, not for damaging a symbol, even a bygone era, but for damaging a monument which belonged to the Technical School from which we rented the premises, and which could therefore terminate the rental agreement with us! One can only wonder how sincere, rather than feigned, this dislike of the Soviet was on the part of our teachers, who were born and lived in the Soviet system, under the auspices of which they were raised, educated, and so on.

It is noteworthy that despite such demonstrative dislike for everything Soviet, the educational process was still informed by Soviet pedagogical practices. The language of instruction was Russian, which has been the lingua franca of Dagestan since the late 1920s. Each lesson consisted of two 45-minute lessons, with a 10-minute break in between; at the end of each lesson the bell rang, like in Soviet schools. There were two semesters, one in winter and one in summer, after each of which we had exams and tests. Summer and winter vacations coincided with vacations at secular universities. All official public holidays also applied to our university. The only exception, perhaps, was that our day off were not Saturday and Sunday, but Friday and Saturday. In addition, there was even a case where, at the suggestion of one of our teachers, the bell signal announcing the end of class was replaced by students who walked down the halls at the end of class and shouted “Allahu Akbar” instead of the bell. However, later this innovation was cancelled for some reason and the bells kept ringing. In their educational conversations with us, many teachers reproduced the Soviet narrative of the equality of all nations in their Islamic rhetoric. Only instead of the Soviet “friendship of peoples” and “social equality of Soviet citizens,” our teachers talked about “friendship and brotherhood of Muslims” – making no mention, however, of any brotherhood of Muslims with atheists and Jew. 


My Teachers

Let us now turn our attention to the USSR and the vitality of religion (or lack thereof). Since Islamic education was dismantled since the late 1920s and allowed only within the cramped confines of the “Mir Arab” madrasa in Bukhara or the Tashkent Islamic University, one might have expected our teachers to be exclusively graduates of these two institutes. In fact, most of our instructors were local scholars (‘ulama), who had received their Islamic education in the Soviet period clandestinely, and individually. Alautdin, the rector of our university (born in the mid-1950s), for example, was from the village of Paraul in central Dagestan. None of the students knew his surname, because people addressed him according to the local Dagestani tradition, that is by referring to him as “Ustaz”, “Alautdin-hadji”, and so on. He himself had no secular education, but a profound Islamic education: he could recite by heart extracts from Arab works on grammar, law, or hadith. In addition to his administrative work, he also taught some Islamic subjects. He had a somewhat irascible temper and often reacted very emotionally to negligent students who did not prepare for class. As most of the students, including me, were quite young, we often played various pranks, for which he scolded us severely. Often, he would say to us, “If you do something bad, I won’t report it to your parents! Your parents gave you to me, entrusted you to me (amanat), and I am responsible for you! I am your father now! And I will raise you!” Most probably in his youth Alautdin must have practiced wrestling because sometimes he held classes in a large room that had been converted into a gym, with soft wrestling mats covering the floor. We students would sit in a semicircle in front of him. There were times when, if someone didn’t learn a lesson, he would take that student out of the semicircle and perform a wrestling move on him, throwing that student onto the mats. Naturally, there were no complaints to the parents, because we respected him very much, were afraid of him, and we felt guilty somehow. Despite everything, his fair and level-headed attitude towards all his students, as well as his profound knowledge, especially in Arabic grammar, and his teaching methodology, made him stand out among the others.  The deputy rector was Yusup Tamayev, who had no Islamic education, but was a good administrator and easily established the teaching process. The Qur’an and the rules of reading Qur’an were taught to us by Kamil-haji, a man of advanced age, who, while not having deep knowledge, could read the Qur’an well. The basic Islamic disciplines, including Arabic grammar, fiqh and catechism (‘aqida) were taught to us by the late Muhammad Amin Absaidov (1923-2006), who received an underground Islamic education in his native village of Gubden in the 1930-50s, and during the Soviet era worked for some time as an imam of the mosque. Muhammad Amin, who was an informal curator in our group was a very kind man and loved us very much. He put all his effort into sharing his knowledge with us, he was very affectionate with us, and we in turn loved him very much. In addition to teaching at the university and serving as an imam in a mosque in Makhachkala, he taught for free children in his mosque after the lunchtime prayer and up to the night-time prayer. This is to say that his teaching last for 12 hours a day, with short breaks for prayer and lunch. Our classes in Muslim ethics were led by Muhammad-Mukhtar Babatov (1954-2015), the future Naqshbandi sheikh. The only graduate of the “Mir Arab” madrasah was Ali Omarov, son of the former Mufti of the North Caucasus Spiritual Board, Hafiz-haji (1914-2000, was Mufti in 1975-78), who taught us Arabic. Sometimes, for various reasons, some classes were substituted by other teachers, including Umar from the village of Durgeli, Muhammad Rasul Bayramukov, and Abdulla-haji Khasbulatov (1929-2009), grandson of the famous Dagestani Naqshbandi sheikh Ali-haji Akushinsky (1847-1930). The personality of the latter, Abdulla-haji Khasbulatov, is particularly interesting. He, along with his parents and relatives of sheikh Ali-Haji, was exiled by the OGPU to Kyrgyzstan, where he received his initial Islamic education at his relatives. Later, during the Soviet period, he also studied illegally with various theologians of Dagestan. An excellent expert in Islamic sciences, he also had an excellent knowledge of several Dagestani languages. In addition to his native Dargin and Arabic, which he knew perfectly well, he was also fluent in Russian, Kumyk, Avar, Lak, Kazakh, Tatar, and Chechen, and often explained some difficult texts to students in their native language while teaching them.

I studied later at a secular university as well, and I saw a different category of both students and teachers. And even though our teachers at an Islamic university often had no secular education other than Islamic, their attitude toward us was more intimate than that of the teachers at secular universities. They saw us as their children, were very close to us, were happy with our successes and saddened by our faults. Although they often scolded students who were negligent, they deeply respected and even loved them in their own way. At our Islamic university there did not exist the sort of alienation between students and our teachers, or the sort of social I later saw between students and faculty at secular universities. At an Islamic university, I did not see the cold, dismissive, and arrogant attitude on the part of teachers toward students that I saw at a secular one. Even though we were often scolded by our teachers, we understood that they loved us in their own way. Even a quarter of a century later, even though many of our teachers are no longer alive, I still remember them fondly.

Familiarity with “Wahhabism” and “Wahhabis”

Despite the turn of the population of Dagestan toward religion, the only Islamic educational institution in Dagestan at that time soon began to experience a financial problem. I did not know who and how financed the existence of our university. Perhaps there were some endowments made in the form of sadaqa, or perhaps the new established Muftiate, which replaced the old one, the North Caucasus Spiritual Board, took over some of the funding. One thing I do know for certain is that our rector, Alautdin, who was also active in commerce, spent most of his income on the maintenance of the university. However, since our university had recurrent expenses, the money he received was clearly insufficient, so Alautdin sold his three-room apartment in Makhachkala, moved with his family to the old dormitory of our university, where he lived with some of the students, and he spent the proceeds from the sale of the apartment on the needs of the university. At least that’s what one of the teachers, who was close friends with him, told us.

Nevertheless, this situation could not last. Eventually our rector became Murtazali Karachaev (b. 1948), a wealthy and well-connected man who later became one of the successors (khalifa) of the Naqshbandi sheikh Muhammad Nazim al-Kuprusi. Alautdin first served as deputy of rector and then moved to his native village of Paraul, leaving his job at the university.

Under the new rector, the university established close contacts with Middle Eastern charitable foundations that supported the university financially, including replenishing its library with teaching materials. The closest cooperation of the Institute was with the Kuwaiti foundation “Organization for the Revival of Islamic Heritage” (Jam‘iya ihya’ at-turas al-Islamiyya). Teachers from the Middle East began to come to us along with funding and educational literature. Even though Arabs did not teach our group, nevertheless, communicating with guys from other groups, we knew their names and where they were from quite well. One such person was an Egyptian graduate of Al-Azhar University, Hani Muhammad al-Mahdi. Having arrived in Dagestan, he stayed here for a long time, even went to graduate school at the Institute of History and later published in Arabic a book entitled “Sufism and Wahhabism in Dagestan”.

Subsequently, however, I learned from some of my classmates that he had been deported by the Russian authorities with a ban on entering Russia for 10 years. There were various rumours about the reason for his expulsion. Some said he belonged to the organization “Ikhwan al-Muslimin”, which was banned in Russia. Others said that he was a representative of the Egyptian secret services and had been caught by the FSB during a recruitment attempt.

The other teachers were a certain Taha, I think one of the deans of the faculty of Umm al-Qura in Mecca; Abd al-Qadir and Ashour, both from Algeria, Abd al-Maqsud and Ibrahim, both from Iraq, Salah from Sudan. Thus, they were from different countries, but apparently knew each other quite well.

We students wished we had been taught by Arab native speakers. However, our teachers, who were very critical of Arabs, especially our supervisor Muhammad Amin and the Arabic language teacher, the aforementioned “Mir Arab” alumnus Ali Omarov, were adamantly against it. When we raised this issue in class, Muhammad Amin bluntly told us, “I don’t want these Arabs to spoil you! If I work here, if I am responsible for your group, there will be no Wahhabism here!” None of us knew what Wahhabism was. Then we turned to our teacher, Ali Omarov, who explained to us over a long session who the Wahhabis were. We were shocked by his story, and it was only natural that the dislike for the Arabs that our teachers felt passed on to us. Moreover, during our regular retreats or after classes at the mosque, we used to have fierce debates with the juniors who studied under those Arabs. We knew Arabic grammar and Muslim law much better than they did. They, meanwhile, knew the hadith better than we did, and were fluent in spoken Arabic, something we lacked. Another peculiarity was that the students who studied with the Arabs could not read manuscripts, because they were used to printed textbooks that their Arab teachers had introduced into the curriculum. The reason was that we were using textbooks that had been traditionally distributed in Dagestan for the last 300 years. And since it was impossible to buy these textbooks in Dagestan in stores, and even impossible to photocopy them, we had to study grammar, fiqh or dogmatics from the manuscripts we kept in private collections from our acquaintances and relatives. I, for example, used my grandfather’s manuscripts. Now it would be surprising to see students rushing to university 300-400-year-old manuscripts under their armpits. In the early 1990s, however, this was commonplace. In retrospect, it was a very interesting picture when there are 25 students in a class and everyone has 3-4 manuscripts as a textbook on their desks, dating back to the 15th-19th centuries. Students who studied with Arabs did not have this problem with literature and used textbooks published in the 1980s and 1990s in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon which Arab teachers introduced in a curriculum in their classes. It is only natural that, in contrast to our rivals, we read manuscripts easily, although we did not attach importance to this fact. Since Daghestani Islamic education conferred particular significance on grammar and Islam law, which were considered the main Islamic sciences, it is only natural that we treated our rival Arab students with great disdain, despite their easy command of spoken Arabic. Oral speech was not important to us. It was much more important to read the text correctly, with the obligatory pronunciation of the final voicings, without making mistakes, which we feared like snakes. Alautdin, who taught us grammar for a long time, punished us severely for the slightest mistake. If we accidentally misread a finite voicing, which is an indicator of case, Alautdin would stop us at once, scold us, and make us recount almost all the rules of syntax or morphology that we had memorized by heart. The Arab students skipped the endings altogether, which was blasphemous to us.

Later, closer to the mid-1990s, probably under pressure from our local teachers, the rector began to sack Arab teachers little by little. They did not, however, leave for their home countries, but took jobs as teachers in secular institutions that had by then opened departments where Arabic was taught. Many of their students then left their Islamic universities to enter the very faculties of secular universities where their teachers taught. Later, in the late 1990s, when the fight against Wahhabism began in Dagestan, all the Arabs left Russia. Many of their students, with whom we often had discussions while at the Islamic university, later became terrorists, and some of them were killed in anti-terrorist operations by the Russian special forces. A striking example of this is the biography of Yasin (Makhach) Rasulov, who was a junior student at our Islamic university. He was a leader among his classmates, he had a broad outlook and, in addition to speaking Arabic, he was fluent in French and English. He later transferred to a secular university, where he continued to learn from his Arab teachers. After his teachers left Dagestan, he joined the terrorists, took part in the organization of explosions and murders, and was killed in a shootout with Russian special services in 2006.

Probably because of this, our university was labelled “Wahhabi” by students at other Islamic universities that were opened subsequently.