REVIVAL OF ISLAMIC EDUCATION IN THE NORTHERN CAUCASUS

Akhmet IARLYKAPOV


Akhmet Iarlykapov, Ph.D. (Hist.), research associate, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, RAS (Moscow, Russia)


The last decade of the 20th century saw an upsurge of interest in religion in Russia and a revival of the traditional confessions of which Islam comes second where the number of believers is concerned.

Islam in Russia, and in the Northern Caucasus as its part, has a long and interesting past. It is one of the key components of ethnic self-awareness of nearly all local peoples. In fact, there is no distinction between the Muslim and the ethnicboth are seen as elements of the local ethnic culture and this despite the fact that Islam and nearly all its rites are mainly based on Arabic, the tongue that few understand. The mullahs, allims and effendis have at all times enjoyed respect in the North Caucasian society that even the efforts (that went on for decades) to impose atheism could not efface. Islamic education was equally highly respected and played an important role that became even more noticeable in the last 10 to 15 years when the fetters of atheism had been removed. Since that time the Muslims have been able to openly profess their religion and to educate the clergy. Today, the Muslims of the Northern Caucasus have hardly a more urgent task than to revive the system of Islamic education.

An obvious confrontation between supporters of two educational traditionsthe local and the foreign oneshas added weight to the problem of Islamic education in the region. Some of those who had to go abroad to study religion brought back extremist and socially hazardous ideas. That resulted in a conflict among the Muslims. Unfortunately, when holding forth about what caused the conflict many researchers either ignore or diminish the role of educational traditions within which the sides were raised.

There is another aspect of the same problem: the radically minded circles are insisting on the rule of the Sharia. They, too, attach special importance to Islamic education and are dissatisfied with the way the educational system is developing. They are actively looking for alternative roads and present their ideas in a somewhat camouflaged way on the pages of national newspapers.1

Time has come to identify the social and cultural role of Islamic education in the Northern Caucasus and the problems of its revival. The present article is devoted precisely to this.

At all times religious education in the Northern Caucasus has been playing an important role: this started as soon as Islam came to the region. By the 18th-19th centuries there was a logical and smoothly functioning system that consisted of several consecutive elements: Koranic schools, mektebs, madrasahs, and individual studies with prominent scholars. The majority stopped at the lowest stage while those who went further up reached good results and earned respect in the region and outside it: Daghestani religious scholars were well known in Yemen, Syria, and other Muslim countries.2

In the early 20th century it became obvious that the system had exhausted itself and could develop no further. The progressive-minded people were well aware of the need to remove the old scholastic teaching methods, to revise the curricula and to write new textbooks. The ideas of Jadidism and the need to introduce at least some novel elements in the mektebs and madrasahs preached by Abusufian Akaev, Ali Kaiaev, and other progressive-minded Muslim thinkers were rejected by the wide public.

The old system of Islamic education survived till the late 1920s: as of 1 February, 1925 there were at least 175 madrasahs in Daghestan with not less than 4,795 students.3 In 1928-1930 Soviet power launched a resolute offensive against Islam that wiped away, in several years, nearly the entire network of schools that taught according to the old and new methods.4 Teachers were exterminated. For example, in 1928 more than 800 Islamic scholars were exiled from Daghestan to the Komi A.S.S.R. and Arkhangelsk Region. Abusufian Akaev was one of them. He died in a camp in 1931.5 This started a wave of repressions that went on unabated for nearly ten years.

These measures proved efficient to a great extent: the results were especially impressive in the Northwestern Caucasus where there were fewer religious educational establishments and the quality of teaching was much inferior than in Daghestan, Chechnia, and Ingushetia. No matter how hard Soviet power was trying to uproot religious training, people continued studying Islam high up in the mountains and piedmont areas of Daghestan. The local people tacitly approved those of the allims who having survived repressions continued teaching. Such teachers were working in the villages of Akusha, Gubden, Kumukh, Urada, Khunzakh, Khushtada, and others.6 Koranic schools that functioned in homes of mullahs survived the repressions and continued to replenish the ranks of the unofficial clergy. By the latter half of the 20th century the level of education dropped unprecedentedly low. There were cases when mullahs taught the prayers and the Koran written in Arabic with the Cyrillic script yet a shortage of the clergy made even the poorly educated mullahs very much needed. The North Caucasian peoples preserved their respect for books written in Arabic, mullahs and other Islamic figures throughout the years of Soviet power. In other words, though the local people never doubted the merit of secular education they still had high regard for the pitiful shreds of the old Islamic educational system that was barely alive. At all times those who could read and write in Arabic have been respected.

Perestroika gradually slacked state control over religions that allowed the Muslims to start rebuilding the system of Islamic education in the Northern Caucasus. Mektebs were opened at mosques in great numbersthe aim was to provide primary education to the Muslims. It was these schools that in the early 1990s produced the mullahs who plunged into reviving Islam. Significantly, the mektebs are opened and closed depending on the local needs in the same way as in the past. According to official information, in July 1995 there were 650 schools at the mosques of Daghestan.7 By May 2000 when the rush had ended there were 203 schools.8 By August 2002 there were 327 mektebs with over 4,200 students.9 As before, the schools have no strict timetables and terms of studies though people spend less time at schools: in the past the future mutaallims studied from early morning till night, now people spend several hours a day. Some of them come after office hours or on their days off. As before the mektebs teach Arabic script, the Koran and the prayers and the way the rites should be performed. In many schools Koranic studies are limited to the most popular surahs; few people learn to read the entire book while those who can recite the Koran by heart are few and far between.

The higher stage of Islamic education was also restored, yet more or less effective madrasahs were opened in the Northeastern Caucasus while their number across the region was growing much slower than the number of mektebs. The number of madrasahs in Daghestan was increasing by leaps and bounds: in April 1998 there were 25 madrasahs,10 while by August 2002 there were 131 of them with over 5,700 students.11 It should be said that the teaching standards are much lower than before the revolution. The teachers are using the manuscripts that survived repressions.12 As before the madrasahs are housed in the buildings with classrooms that follow the traditions of the old times: students from other cities and villages live in the classrooms. The madrasahs are mainly supported by donors and, in some places, by lump sums coming from the authorities. They are gradually growing richer yet this has not yet been translated into high teaching standards. It should be added that methodological knowledge of many teachers leaves much to be desired. They continue using outdated textbooks either handwritten ones or published early in the 20th century by M. Mavraevs printing shop. They do not teach secular subjects, which is not a great fault unless we take into account that in some of the villages of Daghestan madrasahs have replaced secondary schools.13 The divorce from the well-oiled system of secular education is fraught with serious problems both for the state and the young people themselves.

The madrasah in Urus-Martan (Chechnia) set up in 1997 has preserved its state status. Today it is functioning in another district, it is called the Islamic State Madrasah of the Achkhoi-Martan District and is headed by a woman Elvira Mugdanova (a unique case for a Muslim educational establishment). It has 80 students but as all other madrasahs in the Northern Caucasus it does not offer a complete course of a secondary school: it teaches Russian, English, and informatics.14

The so-called Islamic institutes and universities are an absolutely new feature in the Northern Caucasus. (I believe that the level of education there is more or less the same as in madrasahs.) In the 1990s such institutes were organized in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), Grozny (Chechnia, where it does not work), the Ordzhonikidzevskaia village (Ingushetia) and Cherkessk (Karachaevo-Cherkessia). Daghestan has outstripped its neighbors: the number of Islamic institutes was rapidly growing. There were 9 of them in April 1998; 12 and 33 branches in May 2000; 16 and 49 branches in August 2002.15 There were 2,900 students in 16 Islamic institutes of the republic. The figure becomes even more impressive (5,730) if we add 2,830 students of the branches.16 Until recently, the Saifulla Kadi Islamic University in Buinaksk and the Islamic institute in Kiziliurt were considered to be the best. They trained officials for the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Daghestan.17 The former trains 830 students while its branches have 600 students. In 2002, the M. Aripa North Caucasian Islamic University was set up in Makhachkala.18 It shows good results and can become the main educational establishment of Daghestan and the Northern Caucasus.

Naturally enough one doubts that each of the numerous educational institutes can show equally good results: twenty years, or even slightly more than two decades are not enough to train well-educated teachers for higher educational establishments. This explains why as late as the middle of the 1990s Muslim youth in great numbers opted for religious education abroad, in the Muslim countries of the East. According to official, probably incomplete, data, about 1,500 young men from Daghestan were studying abroad in 1996.19 In 1998, 200 young men from the Karachai areas were studying in Turkey and Arab countries.20 Nobody knows how many young men went to study abroad on their own initiative.

Strictly speaking, the North Caucasian Islamic institutes can hardly be regarded as such for several reasons. Lets take the Imam as-Shafia Daghestani Islamic University, the oldest in the republic, as an example. It was opened in 1990 as a madrasah, a year later it was transformed into an institute and has been called university since 1993. It is registered with the Ministry of Justice and has a license. Enrolment is based on interviews; interviewers are free to decide whether any particular candidate can become a second- or even a third-year student. The university has two faculties: of the Arabic language and Islamic law. The majority of the textbooks the students use were published early in the 20th century; there is only one recent teaching aid, a five-volume textbook of Arabic published in Saudi Arabia. Teaching is limited to the as-Shafia mazhab that is hardly appropriate for a university. It should be said in all justice that Sufism is also studied by the works of sheikhs Ilias Tsudakharskiy, Abdurakhman as-Suguri, and Jamaluddin Kazikumukhskiy. If one takes into account that secular subjects are not taught at all one has to recognize that the curricula better fits a common madrasah. In an interview given to the Daghestanskaia pravda newspaper Chairman of the Republican Committee for Religions A. Magomedov pointed out: The level of education in those Islamic institutes that do not teach secular subjects cannot be regarded as appropriate of higher educational establishments.21 Prominent teachers working in well-known Islamic institutes agree with this. Roshani Hashim from the Malaysia International Islamic University believes that the methods of teaching of religious subjects in a university should differ from those used at schools. This is all the more important because our students are more mature and critically minded. This shows that the students engaged in upgrading their religious education should be offered a wide spectrum of subjects from other fields of knowledge, namely, natural and social sciences and the humanities.22

The Arabic language faculty of the Imam as-Shafia University trains Arabic tutors and translators. Its graduates have found it hard to compete for jobs with graduates of other educational establishments, the State University of Daghestan, in particular. The graduates of the Islamic law faculty trained as imams and other members of the clergy find little vacanciesthere are no jobs on the local labor market. Two other institutes (in Nalchik and Cherkessk) that have no licenses and no adequate material and technical basis have even less reasons to claim the status of a higher educational establishment. The Abu Khanif Islamic Institute (its rector is Ismail-hajji Bostanov) has constant troubles with paying communal services and is regularly left without water supply and telephone communication. This cannot but affect the quality of teaching. The institute does not offer secular coursesit was devised as an imam-training establishment. In other words, it is rather a madrasah than a higher educational establishment. It seems that none of the institutes and universities of the Northern Caucasus can offer theological education that would meet the world standards.

The majority of them refer to money difficulties when trying to explain an absence of secular subjects from their curricula. They live on private donations, on zakiat (in places where it is collected) and on the rent (if they have floor space to be rented out). The state does nothing to support them. The students live on sadaki (voluntary donations) collected on Fridays and during holidays. When applying for a license future educational establishments especially those that claim a higher educational establishment status list a great number of secular courses in their curricula to support the claim. Once registered they drop such courses out of their programs. It has been discussed for a long time now with no positive results that the students should be taught the Russian and one of the foreign tongues. This can hardly be accepted. Aleksei Malashenko has justly noted in one of his works that the graduates of the Islamic institutes will sometime later influence to a great degree the spiritual and moral orientation of the Muslims of Russia, in the provinces, in the first place.23

An absence of secular courses from the curricula is one of many weak spots of Islamic education in the Northern Caucasus. A lopsided approach to the Islamic sciences is another. I have written above that the students are taught the rules of one of the Islamic trends dominating in the area. According to Omaraskhab Amirkhanov, a specialist in religions from Daghestan, who graduated from the Zeitouna Islamic University in Tunisia the religious schools in the republic pay little attention to Islamic ideology, creed, and philosophy. The Sharia sciences the study of which are in the center of attention play an important role in the lives of all Muslims yet conscious faith requires the study of the aqida24 and of other related sciences. The best result is possible only if these two trends merge in the process of education.25

In the 1990s there was an alternative system of religious education in the Northern Caucasus set up by Wahhabi ideologists. Their largest and best-known madrasah was working in 1989-1997 in Kiziliurt under Bagautdin Muhammad (Kebedov), the main ideologist of the Wahhabis of Daghestan. It taught up to 700 students at any given time.26 Sometimes the Wahhabi madrasahs turned into quasi-military camps in which studies were combined with diligent physical and military training27 offered on the grounds that in the contemporary conditions jihad was inevitably developing into an armed struggle.28 Today, all religious educational establishments of the Wahhabis have been closed down yet clandestine teaching centers mainly high up in the Chechen mountains are still functioning.

By way of summing up one can say that the liberalization of the state order in Russia gave a chance of revival to the system of Islamic education ruined by Soviet power. The chance was not used to the full. The system recovered to a certain extent in Daghestan while elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus it ran against paramount difficulties created, in the final analysis, by the lack of well-educated people. The lowest stage was reestablished in places. The system of religious education in Daghestan has problems of its own. The republic is reviving the system that was in existence early in the 20th century and that has proved irresponsive to the new conditions: neither the teaching methods nor the curricula have changed. The Islamic institutes that had mushroomed in the 1990s and that were expected to be the vehicle of new methods remained on the madrasah level. The traditional Islamic institutes could barely compete with the Wahhabi educational centers. At the same time specialists in the Arabic language cannot compete with their colleagues educated in secular institutes and universities. To put the problem in a nutshell, the educational standards are still the main headache of the Islamic educational establishments in the Northern Caucasus.


The article has been written with support of the Interregional Research in Social Sciences Program, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (the U.S.) and the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation and paid for by the Carnegie Endowment in New York (the U.S.), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (the U.S.), the Open Society Institute (the Soros Foundation.) The ideas expressed in the article may not coincide with the opinions of the above charities.
1 See, for example: Muhammad Biji-ulu, Strakh pered obrazovaniem, NG-religii, No. 16 (63), 23 August, 2000, p. 6.
2 See: I.Iu. Krachkovskiy, Daghestan and Yemen, in: I.Iu. Krachkovskiy, Izbrannye sochinenia, Vol. VI, Moscow, Leningrad, 1960, p. 581.
3 See: G.I. Kakagasanov, Religioznye musulmanskie (primechetskie) shkoly Daghestana, in: Islam i islamskaia kultura v Daghestane, Moscow, 2001, p. 137.
4 See: Ia. Roy, Islam v Sovetskom Soiuze posle Vtoroy mirovoy voyny, in: Islam i etnicheskaia mobilizatsia: natsionalnye dvizhenia v tiurkskom mire, Compiled by S.M. Chervonnaia, Moscow, 1998, p. 128.
5 See: G.I. Kakagasanov, op. cit., p. 132.
6 See: V.O. Bobrovnikov, Daghestan, in: Islam na territorii byvshey Rossiyskoy imperii. Entsiklopedicheskiy slovar, Issue 1, Moscow, 1998, p. 32.
7 See: A.R. Shikhsaidov, Islam v Daghestane, Tsentralnaia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999, p. 109.
8 See: A.V. Malashenko, Islamskie orientiry Severnogo Kavkaza, Moscow, 2001, p. 91.
9 The figures supplied by the Committee for Religions at the Government of Daghestan were specified by city and district administrations as of 1 August, 2002. The author wishes to thank I.R. Shikhzadaeva, head of the Committee for Religions Department for Contacts with Local Administrations, for this information.
10 See: A.R. Shikhsaidov, op. cit., p. 109.
11 The figures supplied by the Committee for Religions at the Government of Daghestan as of 1 August, 2002.
12 See: V.O. Bobrovnikov, op. cit., p. 32.
13 The situation had reached alarming dimensions. It was discussed at a joint sitting of the State Council and the Security Council of the Republic of Daghestan on 16 October, 2002. Chairman of the State Council M. Magomedov reproached the heads of local administrations and said that they failed to control the Islamic educational establishments that teach children who have not yet completed 9 years of secondary education and in which they do not teach secular subjects (see: U. Eldarov, Ocherednaia mobilizatsia? Severniy Kavkaz, No. 42 (598), October 2002).
14 See: A. Sapronov, Uchitel v Chechneprofessia geroicheskaia, information site of the Uchitelskaia gazeta newspaper [http://www.ug.ru/02.18/pv3.htm].
15 The branches of Islamic institutes are actually madrasahs patronized by the institutes.
16 Information supplied by the Committee for Religions at the Government of Daghestan as of 1 August, 2002.
17 V tseliakh rasprostranenia Islama (interview given by Mufti of Daghestan Akhmad-Hajji Abdullaev to Assalam newspaper) [http://www.assalam.dgu.ru/html15/a5_9.html].
18 In fall 2002 it also acquired a branch for women (see: Assalam, No. 16 (174), August 2002).
19 See: D.V. Makarov, Ofitsialniy i neofitsialniy islam v Daghestane, Moscow, 2000, p. 5.
20 See: B. Laipanov, Islam v istorii i samosoznanii karachaevskogo naroda, in: Islam i etnicheskaia mobilizatsia: natsionalnye dvizhenia v tiurkskom mire, p. 165.
21 Daghestanskaia pravda, 2 October, 2001 [http://dagpravda.ru/ob/relobr0210.htm].
22 Roshani Hashim, Islamizatsia uchebnoy programmy [http://islamUA.net/islam_ua/todae/curriculum.shtml].
23 A.V. Malashenko, Islamskoe vozrozhdenie v sovremennoi Rossii, Moscow, 1998, p. 81.
24 Aqida is a symbol of creed, of faith, and religious ideas. This name normally applies to works offering concise and clear expositions of trends or personal positions related to dogmas and law.
25 Islamskoe obrazovanie v Daghestane i za rubezhom (M. Gamzatov interview with Omaraskhab Amirkhanov), Islamskiy vestnik (online version) [http://www.islam.dgu.ru/i24-1.html].
26 See: V.O. Bobrovnikov, A.A. Iarlykapov, Wahhabity Severnogo Kavkaza, in: Islam na territorii byvshei Rossiiskoy imperii. Entsiklopedicheskiy slovar, Issue 2, Moscow, 1999, p. 21.
27 See: Kh. Shavdonaev, Zapiski iz lageria mudjakhedov, in: Dia-Logos: Religia i obshchestvo. 2000-2001, an Almanac, Moscow, 2001, pp. 220-222.
28 See: A. Iarlykapov, Credo Wahhabita, in: Dia-Logos: Religia i obshchestvo. 2000-2001, pp. 240-243.


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