Islamic roots in Dagestan

By Leonid Osokin, BBC Online, Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK

The mountainous republic of Dagestan is home to more than 32 ethnic groups—each one with its own language.

It is this cultural diversity that makes Dagestan particularly vulnerable to nationalist and religious sentiments, although for several years the local government managed to maintain the delicate status quo and keep its political affiliations with Moscow, despite the war in neighbouring Chechnya.

[ Chechen leader Shamyl Basayev ]
Chechen leader Shamyl
Basayev is believed to
be leading the rebels

The latest developments, however, demonstrate that radical forces in Chechnya are determined to shift the balance.

A declaration of independence was signed by Dagestan's Islamic Council only days after a group of Chechen fighters reportedly crossed into Dagestan.

The fighters appear to belong to the Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabi movement.

Wahhabi movement

The movement originates in Arabia where it was founded in the middle of XVIII century by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdula Wahhab, who called on Muslims to return to the “pure” form of Islam as preached by the Prophet Mohammed.

Wahhab's idea of spreading the teachings of Islam by force as well as word was well received by a tribe, which was to become the ruling dynasty in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Although the movement is still centred in Saudi Arabia, Wahhab's teachings have spread as far as India and, in recent years, throughout the newly independent states of Central Asia and the North Caucasus.

Dagestan's misgivings

It is reported, however, that the majority of Dagestan's Muslims do not support the radical cause pursued by Chechnya's fundamentalists.

Some analysts point out that the local population is extremely wary of the Chechens and suspect that Chechnya wants Dagestan to be just a second-rate part of single Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

They also stress that the majority of Muslims in Dagestan do not support the “export of the Islamic revolution” idea, believing that it contradicts the basic teachings of Islam.