by Shamil Shikhaliev & Paolo Sartori, Vienna

It was a cold day of early January 1957 and the mountains encircling Buynaksk were covered by a mantle of white snow. A man hurried home: quick steps, hands stuffed in his coat, adroitly avoiding cars splashing puddles of melted rain and oil. He was stocky, dressed in grey, sported moustaches under his hat. He was Muhammad-Rasul Mugumaev (1932-2005) and had made it back from Bukhara a few months earlier. Mugumaev had spent several years in Uzbekistan while studying at the prestigious Mir-i Arab madrasa, one of the very few places in the USSR which offered Islamic higher education. In Buynaksk, the second largest city of the country, our Mugumaev enjoyed both visibility and respect: once back to Dagestan, he was immediately appointed as deputy imam of the congregational mosque and he was therefore effectively the second most important religious figure in town. And there we are on January 2 1957 when, back home after a hiatus of several years, Mugumaev filed a complaint with the Committee for Religious Affairs (henceforth CARC). Mugumaev’s target was big game: Muhammad-Hajji Kurbanov, the mufti of the Muslim Spiritual Board of the North Caucasus (henceforth DUMSK). The complaint was straightforward: to retaliate against him for having exposed DUMSK’s “religious fanaticism,” Kurbanov went around discrediting Mugumaev’s good name. Written in a garbled Russian, the petition centred around the immaculate figure of Mugumaev, of course, designed to represent the ideal type of Soviet Muslim: loyal to the USSR, fearful of God, studious, modern in tastes and garb:

"When I give lectures [i.e., sermons at the mosque],” he writes, “I do not intrude into politics...When I do not pray, I study Arabic literature, philosophy, the history of Islam, the history of the USSR, the foreign and domestic policy of the Soviet state...I read every [new] issue of journals such as Pravda, Ogonyok, Novoe Vremya, Vokrug Sveta.... I celebrate the New Year...I [even] go to the cinema twice a month; I dress as a cultured man: I wear a suit and I sport a hat à la European….”

Such an idiosyncratic self-portrait of a Soviet citizen, chiefly interested in fighting against DUMSK’s religious fanaticism, was far from intelligible even to the Commissioner for Religious Affairs. Baffled as he was by such a petition, CARC commissioner must have asked himself: who is this Mugumaev?

According to his brief biography, Mugumaev was born in 1932 in the village of Orota in the Khunzakh district in central Dagestan. For almost 10 years, until 1949, he studied with mullahs in underground circles while hiding in various Avar villages. In 1953, at the request of the DUMSK, he was sent to Bukhara, and he was the first Dagestani to be accepted at the Mir-i Arab madrasah under Soviet rule. Having received a good training at home, Mugumaev immediately enrolled into the senior courses, and after barely two years in 1955 he had already completed the madrasah curriculum.

Muhammad-Rasul Mugumaev's complaint did not fall on deaf ears. In fact, it provoked an immediate response from Kurbanov. From the deep reaches of DUMSK’s archive, the Dagestani mufti pulled out two letters which he had received from none other than the head of the Muslim Spiritual Board Central Asian, mufti Eshon Khon Bobokhonov. Back in 1954, Kurbanov had made inquiries about Mugumaev when the latter was studying in Bukhara and the assessment he received from Tashkent left little doubts: Mugumaev was not a diligent student and spent too much time in the company of Sufis; he was irascible, and rude; he was unwilling to learn Uzbek; and, surprisingly, he made frequent mistakes in Arabic. Bobokhonov concluded with a sardonic note: he hoped that in the future DUMSK will be able to send Bukhara more talented students and better educated individuals.

Clearly, until 1957, DUMSK employees did not give any thought to Bobokhonov’s letter as long as Mugumaev showed loyalty to the mufti and kept a low profile. As soon as Mugumaev reared his head, Kurbanov sharpened his knives. The 1954 letter was not enough, the latter thought. And so in June 1957 he wrote again to the Uzbek mufti, who by this time was Eshonkhon Bobokhonov’s son Ziyouddin who was ready to provide for a negative assessment. But Kurbanov did not stop here, of course. It rallied the Muslims of Buynaksk and had them craft a complaint addressed once again to the CARC Commissioner claiming that Mugumaev “did not receive a full religious education in Bukhara...,” and that, as a consequence, he makes mistakes during worship and when reading the Koran.” In addition, according to the complaint, Mugumaev behaves disrespectfully to the elderly, threatens them, and “curses the government.”. In their petition the Muslims of Buynaksk asked for Mugumaev to be dismissed from his position due to his incompetence and inappropriate behaviour. Just a few weeks had passed, when the CARC Commissioner received another set of letters, this time from Mugumaev’s acolytes who in turn mobilised to clarify that “Mugumaev, as we know him, is a good preacher of Islam and he neither violates Soviet laws nor those of shariah.”

It is reasonable to imagine that the Dagestani CARC Commissioner would have had enough of skirmishes at this point of the story. Mugumaev, instead, blindly forged ahead and penned a second complaint against the mufti claiming that, not only his actions “contradict Islam and the Party,” but also that the mufti enjoyed a promiscuous sexual life. Indeed, the letter argued that “there isn’t a single prostitute in the city of Buynaksk who hasn’t slept with the Mufti!” It is ironic to note that at the time the mufti was almost 70 years old, and Mugumaev’s denunciation left many bewildered.

Finally realising that the confrontation between Mugumaev and DUMSK did not tip the scales in either direction, Kurbanov resolved once again to make use of his friendly ties with the Uzbek mufti. Kurbanov’s fixation with the Muslim Spiritual Board of Central Asia was in fact well placed, for Ziyouddin Bobokhonov enjoyed enormous authority not only within the Islamic institutions of the USSR, but also among Party officials. Most probably at Bobokhonov’s request, the Uzbek CARC Commissioner N. Inogamov sent a letter to Moscow with a negative assessment of Mugumaev, which stated that “...according to the director and the staff of the [Mir-i Arab] madrasa, Mugumaev fared poorly in his studies, and showed indiscipline. Furthermore, he systematically violated the rules of the school. Despite the instructions of the teachers, Mugumaev showed interest only in Sufism, something which is absolutely incompatible with the tenets of Islam. His character makes him a fanatic adhering to reactionary views. He did not enjoy authority among the students of the madrasa. Respect for him was finally undermined after he beat up his innocent wife.”

Was this enough for Mugumaev to lose his job in Buynaksk? The answer must be in the negative, for the Dagestani CARC Commissioner knew that Mugumaev commanded authority over the local community of believers. But many in Buynaksk wished to get rid of him, at least for a while. Mugumaev was thus sent on an official mission to the Sixth World Youth Festival which took place in Moscow in July-August 1957. Mugumaev was tasked to assist a delegation of students from the Middle East and serve as an interpreter.

Meanwhile, deeply disillusioned with Soviet authorities which proved either unwilling or unable to remove Kurbanov from the post of mufti, Mugumaev crafted an appeal in Arabic flamboyantly entitled A Complaint on behalf of sixty million Muslims imprisoned by Communism in the USSR to all the Muslims of the Free World! A vitriolic charade, the text was a manifesto of Islamic dissidence which stated that Dagestanis were ready to take up arms to fight for the liberation of Muslims from the communist yoke and for that purpose requested material support from other Muslim countries. Mugumaev rolled the letter into a tube, put it inside a thermos, boarded the train and off he went to the Word Youth Festival. While in Moscow he handed over his pamphlet to the head of the Iraqi delegation, one Omar Abu Rad, at their first meeting. The latter, however, turned out to be a KGB informant, and on the evening of the same day Mugumaev was arrested. On 14 January 1958, he was sentenced by the Moscow City Court to 7 years' imprisonment in a Correctional Labour Camp, and was transferred to the Mordovian ASSR, where he served his sentence until 1964.

Upon his return to Dagestan, he tried to be reinstated into his former position at the DUMSK, but with little success, of course. However, thanks to his fellow countryman, the prominent Orientalist Muhammad-Said Saidov (1902-1985), Mugumaev found a job at the Institute of History, Language and Literature of the Dagestani branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. As a fellow of the institute, he travelled around the regions collecting manuscripts and translating them from Arabic into Russian.

In 1978, a denunciation against the staff of the Oriental Studies Department of the Institute of History, where Mugumaev worked, reached the desk of the KGB. As the story goes, a student had planted a book in Turkish in the desk of the Turkologist G.M.-R. Orazaev, which was later discovered by KGB officers. In those years, half of the staff of the Oriental Studies Department were scholars who had miraculously survived the Red Terror. Nonetheless, many of them had undergone interrogations by the NKVD in the 1930s, and Mugumaev had a criminal record for anti-Soviet activities. The KGB charged them all with reading foreign literature, anti-Soviet activities, Islamist propaganda, and for praying in their workrooms. Thanks to the intercession of some members of the Dagestani Regional Committee of the Communist Party, as well as a number of academics, the case was closed and no one was prosecuted. Nevertheless, it did not go smoothly for the staff of the Department. Its head, Professor Amri Shikhsaidov, received an official reprimand from the Party. Some members were demoted; others were dismissed altogether. Among the latter was Mugumaev, who, having a previous criminal record, was lost again his job and with a negative record. After his dismissal, thanks to relatives of his second wife (his first wife died in 1962, when Mugumaev was in prison), he found employment at a research institute in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, where he worked until 1981. But things could not just go down smoothly for him. In that same year, he was again prosecuted for carrying a small folding knife in his pocket and sentenced to one year's correctional labour.

During the Perestroika, the restless Mugumaev intensified his political activities. Having gathered like-minded people around himself, he organised a Perestroika club, participated in the publication of the independent newspaper Impuls’, and organised rallies in support of Gorbachev. In 1990, Mugumaev finally received what he deserved, he thought: he was elected mufti of the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples, an inter-ethnic association which advocated for the independence of the Caucasian republics from the USSR.

In the early 1990s, he spearheaded a humanitarian mission during the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict and had close contacts with then Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the Chechen politician Dzhokhar Dudayev. When the latter declared Chechnya's independence, Mugumaev was his closest adviser. However, he soon drifted away from Dudayev. Here is how he explains it in his memoirs:

"At the end of 1991, after the declaration of state sovereignty of Chechnya, I reported to President Dzhokhar Dudayev on the real situation in the republic and informed him about the [worrying] situation of the Russian-speaking population, the robberies, and especially about the illegal distribution of weapons. But extremist personalities gathered around him, who tried in every possible way to steer him against Russia; and I could not accept this. In early 1994, I therefore left Grozny in disagreement with the policy pursued by Dudayev’s entourage and moved back Makhachkala".

Mugumaev died on 21 March 2005 in Makhachkala, where he spent the last years of his life. At this point of our story, there is perhaps no better way to do justice to Mugumaev than to refer to an eye-witness account of him, a real-life tale that can shed light on his personality.

Once, in the early 1980s, Grozny hosted a major conference jointly organised by party organs, Soviet philosophers and social scientists to criticise Islam as a “relic of the past". Unbeknownst of the conference’s topic, Mugumaev was invited to this academic event and this is how our source remembers him then and there:

"The conference was held in the building of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party in Grozny. Most probably, Mugumaev wasn’t aware that the conference had been organised to criticise Islam. Otherwise, as I know him, he would have turned down the invitation. It was only after listening to several papers that Mugumaev came to understand the nature of the event, and at some point, he stood up and left the hall. After a while, I myself got tired and left the event: I wanted to stroll in the fresh air. As I was walking down the stairs inside the building, I heard a rhythmic humming sound coming from the basement. Intrigued, I followed the noise and found a door opening to a back room from where the rhythmic humming was coming from. When I opened the door, I saw a group of local Chechens who were performing a loud zikr under the direction of Mugumaev. I quietly closed the door and left the building. This was what Mugumaev was all about. Protesting against a conference [against] Islam, he gathered a group of Chechen who held the Party in disrespect, and brought them into the building. And he organised this zikr not just somewhere in the city, but precisely in the same building where the anti-Islam conference was taking place. This was his own way of protesting.”