The Islamic revival in the
‘land of the mountains’: 

Life as a Muslim in Dagestan

The Islamic revival in the ‘land of the mountains’:

Life as a Muslim in Dagestan

QRM speaks to the Imam of the central mosque of Kaspiysk, Abdullah Khidirbekov, to find out more about the lives and history of Muslims in the Russian republic of Dagestan.

Rising from a dark past

“During the era of the Soviet rule, Muslims suffered a lot,” imam Abdullah Khidirbekov begins. The head of the Muslim community and leader of prayer at the central mosque of Kaspiysk — a city in the Republic of Dagestan — comes from a family of imams.

Situated in the North Caucasus mountains, Dagestan can be found in the southernmost part of Russia, sharing a land border with Azerbaijan, while also bordering the Russian republics of Chechnya and Kalmykia. The name directly translates to ‘land of the mountains’ due to its Turkish and Persian origin. 

Islam came to Russia in the mid seventh century as part of the Muslim conquest of Persia. The first group of people to become Muslims within current Russian territory were the Dagestanis, who converted after the Arab conquest of the region in the eighth century. Thereafter followed a rapid growth of the religion in the region.

However, the Soviet era witnessed a different reality for Muslims where the government followed an unofficial policy of state atheism, seeking to gradually eliminate all religious belief, culture and traditions from within its borders.

“Grandfathers would share stories of how scores of Arabic scholars from the same village would be arrested overnight and sent into exile or even executed. My relatives recalled how my great-grandfather was sent into exile in Siberia. He was later released only to be arrested again and this time executed after being shot near the Russian city of Makhachkala.

“The majority of Arabic scholars in the region were gradually eradicated and thus no longer around. Only a few were left to pass on the knowledge of Islam to the younger generations,” the imam explains.

Mosques were closed, some were ruined, whilst others were even used as cinemas instead. 

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region of Dagestan witnessed an Islamic revival.

“In the time of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev — who by the 1970s had consolidated power to become the regime’s undisputed leader — people began to gradually come back to the religion of Islam, or feel less intimidated to call themselves Muslims,” imam Abdullah tells QRM.

“Muslims who did not criticise the Soviet authority were allowed to work during the day and teach Islam at night. People from nearby villages would come to see my grandfather to learn more about the religion. I learnt a lot about Islam from my uncle. He was an imam for almost 20 years and taught me during the Perestroika political movement. Later I became an imam and now I work to pass on my knowledge of the religion to the new generations. This is the continuity.”

A way of life

By 1996, the region had around 1,670 registered mosques, 9 Islamic universities and 25 madrassas (Islamic educational institutions) while it was estimated that nearly one in five Dagestanis were involved in an Islamic education.

Talking more about Islam, the imam says it is a way of life. “The religion encourages goodness… The Prophet Muhammad was once asked: ‘Who is a Muslim?’ and explained that a Muslim is an honourable man who respects himself and others around him.”

However, Abdullah does feel that in today’s time, some of the Islamic values like respect and women’s rights have become lost, blaming society and education for the downfall.

“The elderly are no longer respected how they should be, while the youth have lost value of what is important and often there is negligence towards women,” he believes.

Prayers, celebrations & coexisting 

This April, millions of Muslims around the world celebrated the holy month of Ramadan, where they abstain from food, drink and intercourse from sunrise to sunset, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity and performing the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. The month is then followed by Eid celebrations.

“Fasting is compulsory for all Muslims, unless you are a child, elderly, sick or pregnant, and it really tests the strength of one’s belief,” imam Abdullah says.

The Islamic calendar follows a lunar one and Ramadan begins when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. While most countries rely on Saudi Arabia – home to Islam’s holiest sites – to make the announcement, Dagestanis prefer to sight the moon themselves. Also, this year saw Ramadan start at the same time in Dagestan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, which happens once a century, the imam explained.

Imam Abdullah Khidirbekov

“Eid al-Fitr is an important Muslim holiday. The night before almost nobody sleeps. I only managed to get an hour’s sleep the day prior as I was arranging payments of zakat — a form of obligatory charity. We created a special group to work with donations for the poor and needy as our mosque plays the role of a charity fund. During the last few days, we spoke to people who were struggling or on low incomes to find out what they needed. The idea is that even the poorest people should have a rich table for their feast on Eid day,” he says.

Imam Abdullah Khidirbekov

Eid al-Fitr celebrations in Dagestan are a truly joyous day for all – the streets can be seen full of children, with bags of candy being shared and distributed, and doors are left open for visitors to exchange wishes and pleasantries. 

Muslims will also be celebrating Eid al-Adha — the second Islamic holiday — later this year. Due to take place in July this year, the ‘Festival of Sacrifice’ honours the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to Allah’s command. But before Ibrahim carried out the difficult request, Allah produced a lamb for him to kill instead.

Speaking about religious festivals, imam Abdullah takes pride in how all religions are respected in Dagestan.

“For example, during Ramadan we exchange presents not only with Muslims, but also with Orthodox Christians, ” he tells QRM.

“In 2006, the Dagestani town of Derbent was recognised by UNESCO as the most tolerant city in the world. Judaic, Christian and Islamic communities peacefully coexist there and the town is a cradle of three religions in Russia.”

PHOTOS: Alice Kuchinski

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