Islam in Kabardino-Balkaria

18 December 2023

Kabardino-Balkaria is a republic within the Russian Federation. The subject belongs to the North Caucasus Federal District and economic region. The capital of the republic, its administrative, educational and cultural centre is the city of Nalchik. The majority of the population of Kabardino-Balkaria is made up of Kabardians, Balkars and other traditionally Muslim peoples. A large Christian community coexists alongside Muslims.

The penetration of Islam into the lands of Kabardino-Balkaria is inseparable from the history of Muslim belief in the North Caucasus. Thanks to Arab influence, the process went through the city of Derbent, the ancient abode of Islam in the historical lands of Russia, and later the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Empire played their roles in strengthening the position of the religion. The spread of Islam among the Kabardians and Balkars was predominantly peaceful.

Medieval foreign travelers noted that the beliefs of local peoples were a bizarre combination of paganism, Christianity and Islam. The syncretic religious consciousness of the Kabardians still retains the veneration of nature. In folk legends, the name of a pagan god is associated with Mount Elbrus - with the advent of Islam, the hill became the dwelling place of Jin-Padishah, the Lord of Spirits.

Kabardians belong to the Adyghe peoples, the main national feature of which is the existence of a peculiar ethical code. Adyghe Khabze is a set of rules of family, domestic and economic life, as well as a knightly code of honor. According to some researchers, it was Adyghe ethics that made Kabardian Islam more religiously tolerant and cultured, and favored the emergence of Muslim intellectuals - the aristocracy of Kabarda.

The Balkars are a Turkic people; in the established Russian pre-revolutionary historiography they were commonly referred to as Mountain Tatars. The Balkars also have their own folk etiquette - Tau Adat (Mountain Adat), as closely linked to Islam as the Kabardians. Many researchers believe that it was from them that the Mountain Adat was borrowed. The revival of Islam, which began in the years of Perestroika, is in a complex relationship with folk codes: from symbiosis to violent mutual conflict.

The development of Islam in the region was also influenced by the Balkars’ residence in Central Asia and Kazakhstan during their deportation from 1944 to 1959. There, Muslim life in the Soviet Union was freer and more intense than in the North Caucasus. When they returned to Balkaria with elementary religious education and literature, they maintained ties with the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Some later began working at schools attached to mosques - the collapse of the USSR led to the formation of an ideological vacuum, which Islamic religious figures gradually began to fill.

The late XX and early XXI centuries are characterized by the strengthening of the role of Islam in the public life of the region. In 1989, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria was established. In the 1990s, two or three Islamic communities emerged in each settlement of the republic, which, as a rule, united believers living in one neighborhood - jamaat - and visiting one mosque or prayer house. Jamaats are also called modern Islamic communities in the republic.

Each community has either a mosque or a cemetery prayer house. The tradition of Friday prayers in cemetery prayer houses was established during the Soviet years, when most mosques were closed. Young imams, usually more educated than older clerics, try to tell the mullahs that according to Islamic rules it is not allowed to perform namaz in such places. Within the congregations themselves, there are divisions between young and elderly worshippers.

Young Muslims rightly believe that the majority of older Muslims lack the necessary knowledge of Islam. In turn, the activities of Muslim youth are full of erroneous views, actions, lack of understanding of the complex political situation and inherent religious ignorance, and most importantly, impatience and lack of gradualism. The conflict of generations was formed in 1996-1998, and in the early 2000s it became open, developing against the background of the opposition of traditional Islam to Wahhabism.

The young Muftiate of the republic, like most other Russian spiritual administrations of the 1990s, faced the problem of a shortage of educated imams. It was decided to send promising young Muslims to educational institutions in Arab countries, many of which were under the control of radical organizations. By that time, Wahhabism had been already expanding into Kabardino-Balkaria: in 1993, the Islamic Centre was established in Nalchik, which became a recruiting structure for Arab Wahhabis.

Many mosques in the republic fell under the influence of the Wahhabi underground, and not only networks of armed cells but even parallel authorities were formed at the same time. Terrorist acts of the Wahhabis and attempts to overthrow the government, despite the laws adopted in the republic on the prohibition of extremist activities, forced law enforcement agencies and security structures to act more actively. The lack of unambiguous criteria for identifying Wahhabis led to unjustified detentions of well-meaning Muslims and the closure of mosques, which ultimately attracted new adherents to the extremist ranks.

The authorities of Kabardino-Balkaria continue their fight against the Wahhabis, which can sometimes lead to armed clashes. Among the measures taken, the most noteworthy are the elimination of gangs formed by members of Wahhabi jamaats, strict regulation of the work of mosques in the risk zone, detention and deportation of foreign emissaries, seizure and banning of extremist literature and closure of suspicious educational institutions.

Prevention of extremism is one of the main areas of activity of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria at present and consists mainly in improving work with young people and raising the educational level of imams. The Kabardino-Balkarian Islamic Institute, renamed the Abu Hanifa North Caucasus Islamic University in 2007, operates under the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria and is open to both boys and girls. Involvement of young people in religious life is characterized by theatrical performances on Islamic themes during sacred holidays and the holding of games and competitions, such as Muslim football teams.

The revival of religion in Kabardino-Balkaria has brought back to the local peoples the relevance of Islamic values, both spiritual and behavioral. For a growing part of the region’s population, following the everyday traditions of Islam, especially in the ceremonial sphere, is becoming a commonplace phenomenon, despite ethno-cultural peculiarities. In 2023, a significant event took place in Nalchik - the laying of the foundation stone of the first Anas-Hajji Pshikhachev Cathedral Mosque, designed to accommodate 5 000 worshippers at a time. Anas Pshikhachev was one of the most influential religious figures in the North Caucasus, known as an ardent supporter of social reforms and a fighter against Wahhabi sentiments in society.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

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