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A Growing Gap in Pankisi Gorge

In a largely Muslim region of northeastern Georgia, sectarian rifts are widening along generational lines.

by Eka Chitanava and Marika Kochiashvili 25 August 2010

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia | “La ilaha illa Allah,” a woman is singing – “There is no god but Allah.” Her head is covered with a white scarf; she presses fingers against her temples, closes her eyes, and starts whirling round a room.  About 15 elderly, barefoot women follow her by clapping, rhythmically stamping their feet, and praying loudly – Sufi women performing the devotional act of Loud Zikr (remembrance of God).


“Sometimes I feel bad or fragile, but when I start praying, all my sorrows and pains go away,” says Raisa Alkhanashvili, the leader of the congregation.


Zikr is the invocation of Allah's divine names, verses from the Koran, or sayings of the prophet in order to glorify Allah. It is performed every Friday in a Sufi mosque in Duisi, a village in the heart of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. The mosque is a low-ceilinged room with a floor covered by purple and crimson carpets.


Pankisi Gorge is home to the Kists, a small ethnic group that traces its origins to the North Caucasus. The ritual of Loud Zikr was established by the 19th-century Chechen mystic Kunta-haji Kishiev, an adversary of Imam Shamil, the religious and political leader of Muslims in the North Caucasus at the time. In Chechnya Kunta-haji started practicing a combination of prayer, recitation, singing, and dancing that he called Loud Zikr.


Elderly Kists living in Pankisi villages are adherents of the rites established by Kunta-haji, rites that have been passed down orally for generations.


Sufi women engage in the ritual of Loud Zikr at a mosque in the Georgian village of Duisi.

Just a few meters away, an Islamic call to prayer sounds from another house of worship that attracts a younger crowd.


Bearded men with rolled-up trouser legs are preparing for the obligatory Friday prayer. They are imitating Muhammad, who used to walk similarly in the seventh century so as not to dirty his garments. The Jamaat congregation, as they call themselves, practices Wahhabi Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia and is increasingly popular among Chechens.


Wahhabism flowed into a dozen Pankisi villages in the 1990s, popularized by young people educated in Arab countries. While the older generation clings to Sufi traditions, young people scorn their ancestors’ practices and opt for new, gleaming mosques.


For years, this generational split triggered no clashes between adherents of the two interpretations of Islam, in large part because in Pankisi villages most dwellers are kith and kin to one another.


The first conflict between the young “Jamaat” and Sufi adherents emerged more than three months ago in the village of Birkiani, when young people decided to build a new mosque on the remnants of the old Sufi shrine.


Twenty years ago, Sufi adherents in Birkiani renovated a school building and turned it into a shrine. The space for religious services was divided into areas for Sufis and the young Wahhabi.


Three months ago youngsters announced plans to tear down the old shrine, which they said was ramshackle, and replace it with a big new mosque that would tower over the village. Elders considered the proposal an insult and demanded a stop to the reconstruction. The shrine was razed nonetheless (except for a small portion of the old building, now used for storage), and elderly Sufi found another space for worship.


The young mosque organizers said they would invite Sufis to the “New Mosque,” as it is called, but the elderly give the idea the cold shoulder. Unlike the old shrine, the new building would not have separate prayer areas. As Teimuraz Phareulidze, a Sufi worshiper, explained, “Rites are different, so they can’t share the same space for religious services.”


Amur Khangoshvili, a 28-year-old imam in Duisi, was educated in Lebanon. Today, unlike some Kists, he speaks fluent Georgian and reads the Koran for Pankisi residents in Arabic. He says the New Mosque is dedicated to preserving the founding tenets of Islam, shunning rituals that originated later. “We are against any recently emerged practices in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t mention,” Khangoshvili said.


The congregants of the New Mosque do not call themselves Wahhabi but agree they are practicing a form of Sunni Islam similar to that which prevails in Saudi Arabia.


Zikr, one of the common Sufi practices, obviously was not propagated by Muhammad. Some contemporary Sufi masters even say Sufism cannot be limited to only one religion – rather, they term it “the pure essence of all religions.”


Sufis are also emphatic that Islamic knowledge should be learned from teachers and not exclusively from books, while the Wahhabi say they do not need a mediator between them and God.


However, another reason the younger generation disdains Sufi rites could be the growing lack of awareness of the rituals among the elderly themselves. The Sufis of Duisi seem to be losing the genuine idea of Zikr. When asked about the difference between Sufism and other forms of Islam, Raisa Alkhanashvili of the Duisi congregation said, “It’s the same Koran, we just read it louder than others.”


“They do not have a theologian or a spiritual leader who would explain the meaning of their rituals,” said Khaso Khangoshvili, a Kist historian and no relation to Amur Khangoshvili.


Pankisi is reportedly the only place in Georgia where people keep Sufism alive, but the size of the Sufi congregation is gradually dwindling. It now numbers about 50 in the village of Duisi. Khaso Khangoshvili, who lives in Duisi, said his son asked for permission to pray in the New Mosque with his peers.


“I couldn’t say no. It’s his choice,” Khangoshvili said. As the influence of Sufi spiritual leaders decreases in Pankisi villages, their traditions are under the threat of sinking into oblivion.

Eka Chitanava is a reporter and Marika Kochiashvili a reporter and photographer at the Tbilisi magazine Liberali, in which a version of this article originally appeared. Photo by Marika Kochiashvili.

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