Russia being in the news lately, MuslimSkeptic has published articles related to the country, not only on the ongoing Ukrainian conflict but also on how, historically, Russia dealt with the Muslims of Chechnya.
We thus have the opportunity to talk of another north-Caucasian republic in the Russian Federation, neighboring Chechnya: Dagestan, an overtly Islamic but also multi-ethnic region where the Avars are the most represented, at around 30%, followed by a dozen of other ethnic groups such as the Dargins, the Kumyks, and so on.
Nowadays Dagestan is famous for its athletes, as the republic of 3 million residents or so has punched above its weight in the field, the archetypal case being the undefeated MMA champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. But we could multiply the names easily, such as the freestyle wrestler Abdulrashid Sadulaev and many, many others.
But, despite these achievements in sports, Dagestan has also been an important yet underrated center of Islamic scholarship, an aspect apparently unknown to many in the Ummah.
The Arrival of Islam
Islam came to the region with a Companion, Suraqa bin ’Amr (radyAllahu ‘anhu), in 642, so just a decade after the passing away of the Prophet ﷺ, when he led a contingent of Arab-Muslim fighters at Derbent, a Dagestani city overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Interestingly, because of many reasons, such as the region’s topography, that invasion wasn’t very successful, to the point modern Russia was spared due to the resistance Dagestanis offered. Yet these Dagestanis would eventually accept Islam en masse later on.
The authors of Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus begin their book as such, in pp. 4-6:
Though the Muslims finally took Derbent in 686, they were never able to control Dagestan’s interior. Yet if the Arabs never conquered Dagestan, they planted the seeds of its conversion when Derbent’s population gradually adopted Islam (…) by the fourteenth century, Islam had reached Dagestan’s largest ethnic group, the Avars. By the end of the fifteenth century, most Dagestanis had subscribed to the Shafi’i madhab or school of Sunni Islam. Among Dagestan’s numerous ethnic groups, Islam struck its deepest chords among the Avars, Dargins, and Kumyks (…) the Arabs may have failed to conquer Dagestan in the name of Allah, but Allah eventually triumphed over the next 1,000 years.
The author continues about the imperialist failures of later would-be conquerors such as the Mongols, who were compared by Dagestanis to “fresh meat” and “were compelled to pay tributes in order to stop the mountaineers from raiding them.”
Also, like in many other cases, such as the Berbers of the Maghreb who also fought the Arabs before themselves becoming Muslims, we can’t say that the spread of Islam was directly linked to “Arab imperialism,” as some neo-Orientalists argue.
A World-Renowned Center of Islamic Knowledge
While modern Dagestan is known for its MMA fighters, in the “Middle Ages” it was associated with the Islamic sciences, its scholars being highly respected in the Ummah.
In the collective work Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe, we read in pp. 248-249, under the pen of Galina Yemelianova:
In the middle ages Dagestan was one of the world centres of Islamic learning and scholarship. During its ‘golden age’, which lasted from the late sixteenth till the middle of the seventeenth centuries, Dagestan had a reputation as the bahr al-‘ulùm (‘the sea of sciences’) and the country of ‘ulamà (Islamic scholars). The Dagestani cities of Derbend, Tarki, Kazikumukh, and Kunzah became recognised places of spiritual enlightenment for the Muslims of Eurasia. The Dagestani ‘ulamà” Ali-Haji al-Kumukhi, Muhammad al-Kudutlya, Abu Bakr al Aymaki, Tayid al-Kurakhi and Muhammad al-Akusha were highly respected outside Dagestan.
In what’s considered a classic of modern Orientalist scholarship, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, John Obert Voll writes in p.123:
As was the case in other areas, initial Islamic activism took relatively traditional forms. One of the most dramatic movements of this type was in the Caucasus region of Dagestan, where, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there had been a flowering of Islamic thought. Scholars from Dagestan had traveled widely and had participated in the major trends of eighteen-century Muslim thought. They were part of the cosmopolitan community of scholars in Mecca and Medina and were noted teachers in Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere.
So, whereas today you have Dagestani fighters flying all over the world to showcase their martial capabilities, back then they traveled all over the Muslim world to both learn and teach the Islamic sciences in the traditional intellectual and cultural centers.
Also note how Islamic cosmopolitanism compares with the neoliberal one: in one case you travel to seek and teach ‘ilm (beneficial knowledge), in the other, it’s all about “tourism,” that is a purely materialistic and consumerist approach to travel.
Kaflan Khanbabaev, writing for the collective book Radical Islam in the Former Soviet Union, gives more details about these dynamics, writing in pp. 87-88:
The Islamization of Dagestan enhanced the development of the written culture, Islamic scholarship and philosophy. Many Dagestanis knew Arabic, Turkish and Farsi, which enabled them to travel and to study at the major centres of Islamic learning in the Middle East. According to some documents, in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries over 400 Dagestanis studied abroad every year. Renowned Russian scholar Ignatii Krachkovskii wrote that ‘Dagestani Muslim scholars fully mastered the Arabo-Islamic heritage’.
By the end of the Caucasian war in 1861 there were 1,629 registered mosques and 4,500 Muslim clergy in Dagestan. Dagestan had a developed network of Islamic education. In terms of the number of Islamic schools Dagestan always exceeded all other republics of the North Caucasus. Thus, in 1899 Dagestan had 588 Islamic educational institutions, 90 of which were madrasahs (Islamic secondary schools) and the rest maktabs (Islamic primary schools). By 1925 the number of madrasahs had risen to 500 and maktabs to 766. In 1917 Dagestan had 1,700 Sunni mosques, 365 of which were juma mosques and Shi’a mosques. Islamic clergy controlled large waqf (Islamic endowment) property which included 10,000 square hectares of land. In 1928 there were 600 qadis, 2,000 mullahs, 2,000 ‘alims and 17 Sufi shaykhs in Dagestan.
We’ll spare the reader the lines about how the Soviet Union basically put an end to this Islamic scholarly vitality; it’s always a depressing read.
But it seems that in recent years, Dagestan is getting back its momentum in the field, as the same author writes in p. 91:
By 1 July 2006 17 Islamic universities, institutes and colleges functioned in Dagestan, with a total of 2,800 students, as well as 43 branches of various universities, institutes and colleges, with a total of 2,400 students. The majority of Islamic educational institutions were located in western and northern Dagestan. Of the Islamic universities and institutes, 11 were licensed by the Russian Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation. There were 132 madrasahs, with a total of 4,400 students, and 278 maktabs, with a total of 4,000 pupils. On the whole, about 14,000 people were involved in various forms of Islamic education (…) at present over 1,200 young Dagestanis are receiving Islamic education abroad – in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Tunisia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Afghanistan and Turkey
Isn’t “Islamization” beautiful? How it pushes different ethnic groups to seek knowledge in a cosmopolitan social system! On the other hand, the “liberalization” of a population has just the opposite effect.
Of course, this heavy involvement of the Dagestanis in Islamic knowledge left its long-lasting fruits: Tens of thousands of manuscripts on all fields of Islamic scholarship.
Private collections in Dagestan are thought to represent an even greater and almost entirely unstudied resource of over 25,000 manuscripts. The wealth of these collections attests to the importance of scholarship and the Islamic written tradition in the northern Caucasus from the Middle Ages onwards. The region’s significance, however, has not been reflected in Western scholarship, in large part due to the difficulty associated with accessing the relevant materials.
It seems like the lay Muslim too isn’t that aware of all of this Islamic scholarship.
About the subjects studied, we read elsewhere :
P. Uslar wrote: “If we judge about education by the proportionality of the number of schools with the mass of the population, then the Dagestani highlanders in this respect have outstripped many enlightened European nations. The teaching is available to every mountain boy. “ Outstanding scientists, spiritual mentors of the people were Sheikhs Magomed Yaraginsky and Jamaluddin Kazikumukhsky, who had a huge impact on the history of Dagestan and the entire Caucasus. Imam Shamil and his friend and predecessor, the 1st Imam Gazi-Magomed, were their students.
There were also many encyclopedic scientists in the mountains who “drank the seven seas of sciences” and were known far beyond the borders of the North Caucasus. One of them – Magomed-Khadzhi Obodiyav – had tens of thousands of followers in the Caucasus, was revered in the Middle East as a prominent scientist and was imam in Mecca for many years. As the chronicles say, “the Dagestan country, inhabited by many peoples, was a source of teachings and scientists, a spring from which courageous men and virtues came out.” Abdurahman Kazikumukhsky testifies that these words were not exaggeration. He cites a number of sciences that every literate Dagestani possessed: morphology, syntax, metrics, logic, dispute theory, jurisprudence, interpretation of the Koran, the life of the prophet, Sufism, rhetoric or al-muhadar and hulasa (mathematics). “Most of all we study morphology and syntax,” wrote Abdurakhman. – as it is necessary for students to avoid mistakes in language; jurisprudence for the analysis of human affairs related to life and faith; then the science of the interpretation of the Qur’an to explain the meaning of the suras of the holy Qur’an; biography and history to know about the life of our prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him; a metric for composing poetry in Arabic: a theory of dispute, in order to observe the rules for conducting a discussion among mutalim … “
What’s particularly fascinating is that quote from Petr Uslar, a 19th century Russian general and ethnographer who took a genuine interest in the populations of the Caucasus. Like today Dagestan is over-represented through its athletes, back then it was over-represented through its Islamic scholars.
This article is just a modest attempt at unveiling one of the many areas of the Ummah that may have escaped the notice of the average Muslim, and to demonstrate its impressive Islamic knowledge-production.