Laudaev Part IX, “The Acceptance of Islam by the Chechens”


The Acceptance of Islam by the Chechens


The Chechens say that their forefathers were kerestan. Based on the assonance of this word, undoubtedly, kerestan means Christian. At present, the Chechens call all unbelievers by this name, for example, Christians, Jews, Lamaists, and often Persians, who follow the Mohammedan Shiite sect. According to their understanding, Kerestan-nity consists of one category.  But, when analyzing where this word comes from, it’s clear that it doesn’t mean pagan, rather Christian. The Chechens call the mountain Pagans dyn-batsu-kerestan, i.e. Christians without a faith or with no knowledge of the single God. They call Christians and Jews simply kerestan, which is to say, they believe in a single God, but don’t recognize the Prophet Muhammad. It’s clear therefore that, at first being Pagans, they accepted Christianity, and then, having accepted Muhammadism, became religious enemies of the Christians, calling them unbelievers without differentiating them from the rest. Without a doubt, Georgia, during the powerful period of her history, could not remain indifferent to the pagan faith of such close neighbors as the Chechens. Having power over them, it wasn’t hard for Georgia to convert them to its religion. Generally, primitive tribes, with the change from Paganism to a Monotheistic religion, can resist the conversion by adherence to the older [religion], but not from the strength of their conviction. It wasn’t difficult for the Chechens to leave their simplistic Paganism on understanding the clear argument for the oneness of the God of the Christians. To achieve their conversion, the Georgians probably didn’t spare with gifts, which the poor mountain people had a weakness for. The Georgians had communication with them along various, albeit difficult, roads. They could offer clergy and church membership to the Chechens. [But] the era of Georgia’s might passed and with it, naturally, it was more likely that the newly realized dawn of the Christian faith would extinguish rather than that the clergy could remain without any aid.  Then the Chechens became semi-Christian, i.e. they began to return to the pagan faith. Having once received knowledge of the true God, they quickly accepted Islam with the appearance of Muslim missionaries because in both of these religions there is only a single commonly-recognized God. There were other factors that sped up the conversion. In those troubled times, atrocities were committed ubiquitously. The Christian faith, which preached meekness and humility as dogma, was not suited to the contemporary spirit of the nation’s condition. Muhammedism, however, didn’t judge the actions of a person.  And where the Gospels order forgiveness for one’s enemy, the Koran allows one to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as per the law of Moses. Naturally, the latter appealed more to a semi-wild people. A ritual bath, as a rite in sharp contrast to the life of the eternally dirty and grubby mountain people, also served as a [good] cleaning for them.

The Chechens received Islam from the neighboring Dagestan tribes, and thus they follow the precepts of the Shiite persuasion. Legend names someone [called] Termaol as a missionary.  In this same legend it can be seen that they converted to the new faith by force of arms and that with this conversion there occurred persecution, coercion and other disorders.[1] Accepting Islam, the Chechens agreed to pay yasak to the Shamkhal, who was called the Vali (vice-regent) of Dagestan. These payments didn’t go on for very long. Although legend belittles the sort of faith from which the Chechens converted to Islam, they were doubtlessly Christians previously.  Besides their ancestors’ being called kerestan, there are other facts corroborating this truth.[2] Those who didn’t want to accept Islam couldn’t remain in the country and therefore they went over to the Russians in large numbers. The legends about this have remained fresh. The spread of Islam, beginning with fanaticism and coercion, towards the end adopted a more peace-loving character.

Until the acceptance of Islam the Chechens were peaceful towards their neighbors. At the same time, the Kabards and other tribes, earning their daily bread by raiding only and had no knowledge of cereal cultivation, an activity the Chechens were engaged in. The western mountain tribes acquired powder and firearms from the Black Sea coast from the Hungarians, Genoans, Greeks and Turks and traded them to the Chechens for cereals. Besides this, the neighbors herded horses and cattle into Chechnya to trade for cereals.  The mountainous and rocky environment of the Dagestan tribes didn’t abound with cereals and thus they traded their products: fruit, carpets, silk and others, for Chechen cereals. At the same time, the neighbors of the Chechens, with the knowledge of their princes, arrogantly set out in crowds to loot the Russians, with a blessing for the road by a mullah or a forecast from the book of stars (sedai-zhaina or astrology) about the fortunate outcome of their enterprise. The Chechens, in small gangs of maybe two or three, would secretly take leave of parents and comrades, and set out for beyond the Terek. Not infrequently did the bravadoes lose their heads in the Christian land or, being captured, were exiled into Russia.   Many dashing deeds were done by them, but there was nobody to pass the [news of] them on to the native village in order that the kinsmen could mourn the fate of the unfortunates.

With the acceptance of Islam everything changed with the Chechens. The Koran instilled in them an irreconcilable enmity with the unbelievers. [Their] fellow-tribesmen- the Galgai remaining pagans as did some Ossetians- were made into religious enemies.[3] Amicable prior to this, the Russians and Chechens started to be hostile towards each other. The clergy excited the fanaticism of the people, they termed night-time raids and theft “war for the faith” and promised heaven to people who fell in these exploits, calling them kazavat, i.e. martyrs for the faith. However, this was more often done because of the greed of the clergy.[4]

With the acceptance of Islam, contentious business among the Chechens had to be resolved according to Shariah. But how could an unrestrained people, following adat for centuries, submit to Shariah. Shariah is fine for pious people who have full knowledge of the meaning of this word, or in the case that power is concentrated in the hands of one person, able to, in cases of disobedience, to force submission with threats or orders. The Chechens were in no way such a people who needed Shariah. They were pious only in the superficial carrying out of the rites of Islam. They didn’t understand its inner virtues.  More to the same, they didn’t have a national ruler and thus followed Shariah only when it went along with adat. The country expected all the best from this, but in fact it caused the opposite, the disorder grew. Usually, two litigants would go to a kadi (judge) to settle a case. The kadi would impartially proclaim his judgement, [but] its carrying out resting on the litigants’ will and fear of God. It often happened that if the loser of the lawsuit was from  a powerful clan, he would disregard Shariah and turn back to the old adat, not so much to resolve the case to his satisfaction as to avoid redress. This evasive twisting and turning is still strong among the Chechens. Allowing for guilt all around, currently, it often happens that an expert on adat follows correct procedures and surreptitiously laughs at his opponent.

Right-thinking people always strived to rectify the evil amongst the people. In order to remedy the incommodities in the Shariah, they found it necessary to harmonize it with adat. Harmonization had already been introduced among various mountain tribes and therefore needed to be taken over by the Chechens. At present, the institution of makhkama (national court) proceeds more correctly than earlier legal proceedings. And with the vigiliant supervision of a Russian leader, it can satisfy national needs. Although Chechen deputations still can’t boast of total impartiality, at least they aren’t subjected to, as in earlier times, ridicule and tale-bearing amongst the people concerning the injustice of their rulings.

Only now do the formerly untamed Chechens enjoy their freedom. Space has been provided for their habitation, scattered about in small auls and farmsteads clustered together and forming proper large auls, [already] being called shakhar (city) with their own authorities and court. In many places they form bazaars, where Russians and Chechens shake hands, trading with each other, and where Chechens can profitably sell their wares. They are a hundred times happier than in the former untamed time when they had to sleep with weapons in their hands to fight off the nighttime thief, who circled their homes like a wolf in order to steal a bull, cow or ram. Now they are no longer comparable with those naked and hungry crowds, who, twenty years ago, desolated by the Naibs, shyly gathered at [the promise of] Russian protection.

[1]     [Laudaev Extended Comment 29] The Pagan beliefs of the Chechens have mixed with Islamic beliefs and thus are very difficult to separate out one from the other as these beliefs have already taken on a general Islamic guise. For example, having accepted Islam, along with it the Chechens accepted the belief in the existence of angels and devils (maliak and shaitan, or satana). In addition, they still believe in genies (djinn), who, according to their understanding deriving from the Koran, are divided into good ones and evil ones, or white ones and black ones. The white sort of genies are Muslims, but the black ones are Christian. These genies are found in the same sort of antagonism as angels and demons. There are still other beliefs among the Chechens, for example, the belief in almas and uburs, about which the Koran says nothing. Therefore, this belief was already found amongst the people in the Pagan era. An Almas is a being of female gender, who appears to people in human form in cemeteries, in the evenings in lonely parts of the aul, forests, on the road and else[where].  These beings are half-flesh and half-spirit. They herald the death of a person with a plaintive song, often proclaiming the name of the victim and letting out a deep sigh for them. The belief in almas is still strong among the Chechens. The Ubur is some sort of thing, like a vampire, which usually sucks the blood of infants in cradles. Chechens deal with almas, satans, and jinn without ceremony. For example, it was known to us that Nogai-Mirza one evening was coming from the field and spied a woman in white garb on the road who was sitting on the ground and weeping [great] sobs. Nogai-Mirza caught her ill-omened words, which were speaking about the coming death of his favorite sister. He quickly ran up to the woman with shashka in hand. The almas sprang up and ran away, leaving behind in the hand of Nogai-Mirza her plait, which he managed to cut off with the shashka. This plait, like a trophy, hung on the wall of the hut and was lost at the time of a raid by Chechens of the Terek auls. In the same manner they deal with the genies, who, far from human vision, converse amongst themselves in human form. If it happens that a Chechen, who has become lost in the forest or in a deserted place, happens on their community, then [he] fires on them, and the timid spirits disappear. Different chances in life (e.g. madness, physical debilitation, a fit of exhaustion, epilepsy, etc.) are also attributed to the schemes of the genies and shaitans. In a few instances, pagan beliefs are manifested in national songs. In such a manner, the national refrain of the Chechens, used by them as a chorus and a solo, for festive and mournful occasions, by rich merchants and poor shepherds, is made up of the following words:

Dalai, dalai, vai dalai, dalai

Yalai, yalai, laila, Yala lai.

These words, which now signify nothing, in all probability go back to that period of Chechen history when they, [still] pagans, were oppressed by another people. Dalai or Dalo means god in Chechen; the word yalai or yala means to die or death. In translation this refrain means:

Oh god, god, our god, god

Yala, Yala, let him die, let him die.

            It’s possible that in this refrain the word yala signifies some sort of pagan divinity, specifically a divinity of death.

In the legends of the people, the name of the first missionary of Islam amongst the Chechens is preserved. He was somebody [named] Termaol. He was a man eloquent and severe. Enthused by the flow of his speech, the Chechens submitted to him. At a gathering of the entire people, in solemn words he described the almighty God of the Muslims. With vivid colors he portrayed paradise, which had been prepared for true believers. He spoke about the sixty houris (khurial), who had been allocated for the elect. The houris will meet their bridegroom at the gates of Paradise, and singing hymns to the Prophet and praise of their new master, will conduct him to the house prepared for him, built of musk, gold and silver and decorated with expensive stones: diamonds (zhaukhar), sapphires (yagut), emeralds (zubarzhat) and others. In it will be found seventy rooms with magnificent couches. [There,] eternally young and virginal houris, their glances, full of love and passion, will be turned towards their master, anticipating his orders. They will be dressed in 60 gowns, one over the other, but due to the whiteness of their unblemished and clean flesh, the marrow in their bones will be visible through 60 gowns as if through clear crystal. He said that the righteous will have a height six times higher than their normal one in order to savor the sweetness of Paradise six times more. Such speeches fired up the Chechens, who, although they were still a little in doubt, immediately became Muslims. The national fanaticism went so far that the elders, in the final days of their lives, carried out the rite of circumcision.   Surrounding himself with diligent disciples, Termaol began to more boldly produce conversions and kill opponents, calling them enemies of God (deli-mastakhoi). This insult, now having come into general use, appeared for the first time among the Chechens at that time. They say that he had the habit [after] having killed a thousand unbelievers, of standing a corpse upside down. Apparently, he once passed a day putting three corpses in similar poses. In other words, he killed three thousand persons and was only mollified when the wives of the slain, having covered their heads with pots, went out from their homes as a symbol that they would no longer tend fire or water for anyone. When the country was finally reduced, this cruelty of Termaol was not forgotten by the people. He became an example for impertinent children, who pretended to play at knocking over corpses. Not being in a state to bear such humiliation, he dug himself a grave and lived in a cellar.  Burying himself in, he said “Goodbye Muslims, from now on you don’t need me, but I will come when you feel the need of me.” Even now, a few fanatics await his appearance. His tomb is located in Ichkeria, on the land of the Enokalin clan.

Islamism, which was spread at first by force, always had a largely epic character, which can be seen from the following legend.

Towards the conclusion of the establishment of Islamism amongst the Chechens, there was someone famous among the people [named] Bersa (Bersan), of the Kurchalin clan. He had influence among the people; they named him an imam and shaykh (saint). In the aul of Guni he had a great friend  [who was also] of great influence among the people, but he was an old opponent of the Koran. Bersa rode to the village of Akhshpatoi, not far from Guni, to convert those [there] remaining in Paganism. Bersa’s friend from Guni was offended because [Bersa], in contradiction to the national custom of hospitality, didn’t stop by his place and [thus] offended him in particular. He quickly took this hurt to heart and personally rode over to Bersa to voice his displeasure. Presenting himself to Bersa, he heaped reproaches on him. Bersa answered that when he was a Giaour like him, he was able to be his friend, but now, having accepted Islam, he couldn’t be friends with an unbelieving impure person and, “if I meet with such a one in the field,” added the shaykh, “I’ll start fighting with him so that the unbeliever can be saved by dying. My heart feels a stronger love for you than before, but our spirits are divided by a barrier that only you can break down.” The man from Guni was agreeable and loved Bersa, thus he agreed to accept Islam but asked for a period of one month. He said “I have thirty suckling boars. Eating one boar a day, I’ll finish them up during the course of a month and then, satiated with my delicious vittles, I’ll accept Islam.” “A month passes like the twinkling of an eye,” said the Shaykh, “[but] could you guarantee than within the hour the Angel of Death won’t end your life? And then, having not taken the words of a friend, you will quickly become acquainted with the truth of God and suffer all the horrors of torment in hell. Is it possible that the advice of a friend is less important to you than foul sucking pigs? Now or never!” yelled out the Shaykh loudly. The man from Guni accepted Islam and set out for home in order to convert his clan. But who among mankind isn’t susceptible to weakness or hasn’t strayed from the rules of religion?  Furthermore, [who] can blame him considering the all-but forcible conversion of the man from Guni an hour previous? Coming home, he grew hungry, and spying a sucking pig, he was tempted. Instead of teaching his family the new faith and impressing upon them the significance of fasting, like a new missionary, he ordered his wife to quickly set the cauldron and boil up ten sucklings. “It’s not for me to throw them away to the dogs,” thought he. “I labored hard, fattening the boars. Three days of misfortune, a fortuitous repentance, and maybe having gobbled up ten sucklings, I’ll fell disgust for them. Then I’ll become a Muslim without any backsliding.” The food was already ready, he went to unsaddle the horse and came back, smelling the odor of the fat sucklings [which] was still issuing forth. But how was his surprise, when, coming into the room, he saw the Shaykh in the place of honor for guests, [and] was frightened to say anything to him. The Shaykh took the pot out to the courtyard and threw the meat to the dogs. Struck by this miracle, the man from Guni became a zealous Muslim and made a vow to fast the entire month.


[2]    [Laudaev Extended Comment 30]       I found some information, which demonstrates that the Chechens were Christians prior to receiving the Koran.

According to Biblical legends, God himself assigned the first six days for work and the seventh, Saturday, for rest. This procedure for ordering the week is followed by the peoples of Asia Minor, Arabia, Egypt, Persia and other places. After the resurrection of Christ, Christians changed the preexisting order of the week in memory of this event. Namely, their holy day was set as the Old Testament’s first day and after it, in order, are named the remaining days. Thus the Old Testament Sabbath became the Christian sixth day, and the first Old Testament [day] is the Christian seventh, or holy, day.

Muhammad also renamed the days; namely, following the former Old Testament numbering of days, then existing in Arabia. He started his holy day [on] its sixth day, the Christian fifth day. Calling it djuma, the rest of the days remained in the preexisting Old Testatement order.

Accepting Mohammedism, the Chechens would have had to follow the Muslim system of numbering the [days of the] week, but we have seen the opposite. Not only do they follow the Christian procedure for numbering the days of the week, and the names of the days in their language correspond with Russian names. This is clear from the following table:













From this tablet it can be clearly seen that the Old Testament and Mohammedan numbering systems are alike and the Russian-Christian corresponds with the Chechen.

The names of the days amongst the Chechens have the same meaning as in Russian. In Chechen, Tuesday is called shinera, from the word shi, which means two, which is to say the second day or Tuesday. Wednesday is kara, from the word ko or three, which is to say the third day. Thursday is iera, from the word yu, which is to say four. Until the coming of Islam, Friday was called pkhera, from the word pkhi, which is to say five. Accepting Islam, the Chechens called Friday pereski, from the Arab word farz, i.e. the revelations of Islam, given by God through the Koran. The Chechens pronounce the  Arab letter ﻑ (fu) as pu, thus farzski, the name for Friday, is pronounced pariski, as it is said in the mountains, or pereski in the flatlands, which is to say the day on which it is required to proclaim the farz. Saturday is called shabat and Sunday is kirin-de, i.e. week day, or the important day of the week. The name kirin-de comes from two words, kira [meaning] week and de [meaning] day, i.e. holiday.

By chance, an Arabic manuscript came to me from a person, who generally wasn’t interested by it. It lays out the events in the Caucasus in a chronological list and among them the story that Chechens were Christians 104 years before they accepted the Muslim faith. Then, assuming that the Chechens began to convert to Islam gradually starting at the beginning of the 18th century, it’s possible to conclude that they were Christians for the entire 17th century, and accordingly that Christianity was revived among them by the Russians. Able to serve as corroboration of this is the fact that [there were] Chechens, in the period of [the Chechens] accepting the Koran, who didn’t want to accept it, [and] went over to the Russians. If the Chechens had been pagans, they would have naturally gone over to fellow tribesmen and co-believers, to the Nazranovets (the Galga), the Ingush and others, and not to the Christian unbelieving Russians. They went over to the Russians because they considered them brothers in the faith. That  [some] Chechens in fact went over to the Russians at that time is confirmed by the Cossacks themselves of the Chervlennoi and other stanitsas. Up to the present, they have not forgotten their ancestral clans, and they themselves confirm that they originated as Chechens, from the Billeto, Varando, Akhshpato, Guno and other clans. Even now they have kunachestvo (fictive kinship/solidarity/long-term friendship) with the Chechens.



[3]    [Laudaev Extended Comment 31]       Accepting Islam, the Chechens were made into religious enemies of all unbelievers, including their pagan fellow tribesmen. A song has been preserved about their religious battles.

It happened that in these difficult times, the daughter of an influential Galga was stolen by a Chechen and carried off to Chechniya. The Galga, at the shrine of his god Tsu, called down hatred and vengeance on the Chechens. To execute his malice, he brought ten fattened bullocks as a sacrifice and began to gather a band. Furthermore, it is said that there joined his band a young Ingush, with a stately and beautiful horse. He reared his horse like a member of his own family. [When] he would come home from a late party, he wouldn’t lay down to sleep without [first] giving the horse half a cake of bread.  If he would come back from work, he would split some of the food given him with the horse. The band started out for Chechniya. Learning of this, the Chechens also gathered, and surrounded their enemies at night and fell to fighting at dawn. The greater part of the Galgas were wiped out [and] the horse under the leader fell. Spotting the young Ingush on the spirited horse, the leader said to him, “let me mount your horse, I’ll drive off these timid Chechens. Like starlings from a hawk, they will fly off scattering to all sides from my hands. Then we’ll return home with glory and loot.” “No,” said the Ingush, “you aren’t ignorant of how I reared him. I deprived myself of half my food so that on a black day he would save me from misfortune. Now comes this ill-fated day. Do as you think best, but I will return home as a herald of our misfortune.” Saying this, he galloped safely through the ranks of the Chechens, who were raining down a shower of bullets from their rifles. The band was destroyed [and] the desire to harry the Chechens [then] fell on the Ingush.

At the end of the last century, the Chechens, following the lead of the other mountain men, began to gather in masses and harry the Russian border. [At that time] somebody [named] Mansur, a native of Aldin, of the Arestenzho family, became famous amongst the people. They named him shaykh and imam. He began his actions with the intention of driving the Russians out of Muslim lands.  He aimed to gather all the mountain tribes and act against the Russians with one spirit. To achieve his aim, he turned to religion, knowing what great respect the mountain people gave to spiritual individuals. Putting a three-day fast on the country, he began to call on auls with his retainers (murids), accompanied by zikr (glorification [of God]) singing. The inhabitants would come out to meet him; they repented their sins to him and turned to taba (penitence), committing themselves to not doing evil deeds, e.g. not to steal, not to gamble, not to smoke tobacco, not to drink strong drink, but always pray to God, not neglecting the prescribed times for doing this. The people recognized Mansur as their usmas, i.e. an intercessor with God. They kissed the skirts of his clothes, and became so filled with religious enthusiasm that they said farewell to their obligations to each other, ended lawsuits and bid adieu to their own blood (tsi). Banishing spite, envy, selfishness and so forth from it, people opened their heart to others.  They say that at that time the people had turned to the way of truth to such a degree that finding items or money, they tied them to a pole and set it by the road as long as the current owner didn’t come for them. This crisis in the existence of the Chechens lasted for two years. Fame of it spread to the other tribes. The Pagan Kabards, Galgas and Mountain Chechens accepted Islam and in one spirit with the Chechens rose up in arms against the Russians. The Chechens took on themselves [the role of] leadership and began to act more boldly. Their conceit went so far, that, for example, a few persons, who didn’t own any oxen, agreed to get together their own plow [team] and to begin the work of cultivating, drove back from across the Terek some oxen , which had been taken from the Russians. They paid bride prices, having set a period of time for payment and seizing [the agreed property] from the Russians within [the agreed] time. Legend says that to put an end to such predation the Russians planned to take and raid the nest of the predators, the aul of Aldy, Mansur’s place of residence. They crossed over to the Chechen side of the river Sunzhi without a fight and shortly went on to the aul. Mansur did nothing to prepare for them. From such a lack of action his people began to doubt his sainthood and started to grumble. The Russians were prepared to attack the aul and only then did Mansur finish his prayers in the mosque, come out of it and give a dua (prayer/petition to God) for the whole people and dashed towards the Russians. They were completely defeated. The slain were so numerous that of the stakes, with which the aul was enfenced and on which were placed the heads of the slain Russians, only two were left without trophies. Some of the Russians scattered into the forest, and for a week after the fight, suffering from hunger, they themselves appeared in the aul. But a small part of the Russians retreated back to the river Sunzha with all possible order. The Chechens tried to break the rows of the courageous [men] with a quick charge, but the Russians deflected them. They say that the Russians were kept from disorder by a single horseman on a white steed. Mansur himself fired his rifle and with an accurate shot knocked this horseman from his steed. Then the Russian party was destroyed and, as the legend says, only forage caps (laba-yolykuin) floated along the Sunzhae, [and] were seen for the first [time] by the Chechens.

A common mournful end, of an anointed one [like] Mansur, didn’t make sense to the Chechens. They didn’t want to believe that he could be gotten by the unbelievers; rather, they said he was taken into the sky and would soon come back to earth for the final destruction of all the Russians.

But, [as they] were not waiting for his appearance, they simply couldn’t carry on without an imam and thus at first recognized [any] fancy sort or hypocrite as their imam. Thus someone [named] Gauka, of the Chermo clan, against the desire of some, was proclaimed imam. And there is still visible a ditch, [going] through the Khankal gorge, which was excavated during his time to hinder the Russians’ going into Chechniya. The ditch is called Gaukai-or.

And so it went in Chechniya , when finally in 1818 the Russians built the fort of Grozni on the Sunzhae, in the heart of Chechniya.

[4]     [Laudaev Extended Comment 31]      Khams or khamsi is an Arabic word and means five. The Chechens pronounce this word kums. At the time of the Chechen raids on the unbelievers, all the booty taken from the enemy was divided into five parts. Four parts of this were assigned to the raiders, but the fifth part was given to the clergy. During the imamate of Shamil, kums was given to him. Appropriation of the kums was punished.


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