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Zikr, Mystical Sufi Dance Performed by Chechen Sufis

NYT – The men stamp in time as they sway, and grunt from the abdomen and throat, filling the room with a primal sound. One voice rises over the rest, singing variants of the names of God.

The men stop, face right and walk counterclockwise, slowly at first, then fast. As they gain speed they begin to hop on their outside feet and draw closer. The three circles merge into a spinning ball.

The ball stops. It opens back up. The stamping resumes, softly at first, then louder. Many of the men are entranced. The air around them hums. The wooden floor shakes. The men turn left and accelerate the other way.

This is a zikr, the mystical Sufi dance of the Caucasus and a ritual near the center of Chechen Islam.

Here inside Chechnya, where Russia has spent six years trying to contain the second Chechen war since the Soviet Union collapsed, traditional forms of religious expression are returning to public life. It is a revival laden with meaning, and with implications that are unclear.

The Kremlin has worried for generations about Islam’s influence in the Caucasus, long attacking local Sufi traditions and, in the 1990’s, attacking the role of small numbers of foreign Wahhabis, proponents of an austere Arabian interpretation of Islam whom Moscow often accuses of encouraging terrorist attacks.

But Chechnya’s Sufi brotherhoods have never been vanquished — not by repression, bans or exile by the czars or Stalin, and not by the Kremlin of late.

Now they are reclaiming a place in public life. What makes the resurgence so unusual is that Sufi practices have become an element of policy for pro-Russian Chechens. Zikr ceremonies are embraced by the kadyrovsky, the Kremlin-backed Chechen force that is assuming much of the administration of this shattered land.

Post-Soviet Russia tried to make zikr celebrations a symbol of Chechen aggression, portraying zikr as the dance and trance of the rebels, the ritual of the untamed. Now zikr is performed by the men the Kremlin is counting on to keep Chechnya in check.

The occasion for ceremony on this day was the blessing of the foundation of a mosque that will be named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-backed Chechen president who was assassinated in 2004.

The mosque, whose foundation rests on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Communist Party’s regional committee, is meant to replace older associations. Not only is it an implicit rebuke of Communism, it is situated beside the ruins of another, much smaller mosque that was being constructed by the separatists in the 1990’s.

Its scale and grandeur are intended as public statement. At a cost of $20 million, it will be a sprawling complex, with room for a religious school and a residence for the mufti, said Amradin Adilgeriyev, an adviser to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin premier and son of the slain president.

The mosque will hold 10,000 worshipers, making it the largest in the republic. Its minarets will rise 179 feet in the air. It will speak not just of faith, but of power.

And so on this day the men dance. And dance. Tassels on their skullcaps bounce and swing. Sweat darkens their shirts. They are perhaps 90 in men in all, mostly young. They look strong. But zikr is demanding. As some of them tire, they step aside. Others take their place.

Their stamping can be heard two blocks away.

The entrance to the construction site is controlled by gunmen who make sure that none of the separatists enters with a bomb. Other young men boil brick-sized chunks of beef in caldrons of garlic broth, stirring the meat with a wooden slab.

Zikr has several forms. This form traces its origins to Kunta-Haji Kishiyev, a shepherd who traveled the Middle East in the 19th century, then returned to Chechnya and found converts to Sufism. Initially his followers pledged peace, but in time many joined the resistance to Russia, and their leader was exiled. They fought on, becoming a reservoir of Chechen traditionalism and rebellious spirit.

In 1991, when Chechnya declared independence from Russia, the Kunta-Haji brotherhoods, long underground, fought again. Sebastian Smith, who covered the Chechen wars and wrote “Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus,” noted that they became a source of rebel resolve.

At one zikr ceremony he observed, the men were dancing, he wrote, until a Russian bomber screamed low overhead, buzzing the village. Mr. Smith watched their reaction. “No one even looks up,” he wrote. “The whooping grows louder.”

The Sufis resisted the influx of Wahhabis who came to fight Russia beside them, but whose version of Islam aligned more closely with that of the Afghan Taliban.

Mr. Kadyrov said in an interview that he hoped to help restore Chechen Sufi traditions as part of an effort to preserve Chechen culture. He has reopened the roads to Ertan, a village in the mountains, where Kunta-Haji Kishiyev’s mother is buried. Her grave is a shrine and a place for pilgrimages, which for years were not made. This spring the roads to Ertan are crowded with walkers, who visit the grave to circle it and pray.

Still, efforts to incorporate Sufi brotherhoods into a government closely identified with the Kremlin contain contradictions. Some see manipulation on Mr. Kadyrov’s part, noting that Chechen self-identity has never been suppressed, even by some of the most repressive forces the world has ever known.

Whether Mr. Kadyrov can control the forces he taps into is unknown. The zikrists dance on this day with state approval. But for whom?

“Kadyrov wants to show that he is a supporter of Chechen traditional Islam,” said Aslan Doukaev, a native of Chechnya who is director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. “But Sufis always wanted Chechen independence, and that signal is being sent here too.”

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  • artpreneure@gmail.com'
    December 9, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    ZIKR, Sufi dance, holds a wealth of meanings in Chechen Sufis’ stories. How this article is relating the two reminds me of this sharply acute dance quote from Chuck Davies:

    “To understand the culture, study the dance. To understand the dance, study the people.”

  • artpreneure@gmail.com'
    December 9, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    ZIKR, Sufi dance, holds a wealth of meanings in Chechen Sufis’ stories. How this article is relating the two reminds me of this sharply acute dance quote from Chuck Davies:

    “To understand the culture, study the dance. To understand the dance, study the people.”