Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume 21 Issue 2
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
The analysis of the role of Islam in contemporary Abkhazia thanks to the meeting with Nar Taniya in Sukhum allows the understanding of the country’s modern society and culture and, in addition, relations between Sukhum and the Arab-Muslim world.
Indeed, Islam is one of the traditional religious groups on the territory of Abkhazia. According to a sociological survey in 2003, 16% of the country’s inhabitants consider themselves Muslims.
Currently, according to the chairman of the Edinoe duhovnoe upravlenie musul’man Abhazii (EDUM – Unified Spiritual Assembly of the Muslims of Abkhazia) there are two mosques in the country, one in Gudauta and one Sukhum. Abkhaz communities abroad have made efforts in recent years to increase the influence of Islam and repatriate Abkhaz from abroad, most of whom are Muslims.
During our official visit to Sukhum, SpecialEurasia met with Nar Taniya, the muezzin of the Mosque of Sukhum, to discover more about Islam’s role in Abkhazia and the life of the current Muslim umma (community) in this Caucasian republic.
Could you talk more about the history of Islam in Abkhazia?
“Islam was developed in Abkhazia during the 19th century at the time of the Muhajirs, Abkhaz Muslims who left their homeland after the end of the Caucasian War (1817-1864) and emigrated in different countries in the Middle East, especially Turkey.
After the Tsarist experience, the Soviet power left a remarkable sing since the Communist authority strived in the process of eradicate any religion in the country, also in Abkhazia. Therefore, the recognition of Islam as a legitimate religion within state structures waned. Despite the relentless persecution by the emerging Soviet government, devout Muslims clandestinely continued their religious practices, shielded from prying eyes, particularly those of party officials.
With the disintegration of the USSR, on July 23rd, 1992, the Supreme Council of Abkhazia reinstated the 1925 Constitution of Abkhazia, alongside adopting a new emblem and flag for the Republic. In response, on August 14th, 1992, Georgia started a war against our country, resulting in the occupation of a portion of its territory.
After over 13 months of occupation, Abkhazia was ultimately liberated from Georgian forces on September 30th, 1993, thanks in part to support from Muslim volunteers from the North Caucasus (Chechens, Dagestani, Ingush, Adighe, Karachay, Circassians) and Abkhaz-Abaza communities in the Middle East.
In the wake of the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993 and the return of Abkhaz diaspora members from Turkey, Islam assumed a more prominent role in the lives of some Abkhazians.
If from 1993 to 2008 the process of Islamisation (or re-Islamisation) was slow and slightly financially supported, something changed in 2008 thanks also to new technologies such as mobile phones, internet, social media, which allow Abkhaz Muslims to reach a broad audience. Furthermore, with the possibility of searching different websites, people started showing more interests towards Islam. It is a natural process. Actually, no one elaborated a strategy of proselytism!
Regarding our community, the Abkhaz Muslim umma look at the future with hope considering also that the number of converts to Islam is developing and the area of our mosque is increasing. Regarding our mosque in Sukhum, let me tell you that the construction was financed thanks to people’s money which send their offer anonymously to our mufti. Therefore, there is no specific organisation or state behind the building of our religious places: even though there were some rich and influential people who offered money to build the mosque in change of calling it in honour of a specific person, we kindly rejected this opportunity because we wanted that our place of worship was for the people from the people.”
What are the main numbers and characteristics of the Muslim umma in Abkhazia?
“Looking at the number of Muslims in Sukhum we can estimate around 660 people which, for the capital of Abkhazia, is a significant result. In the Gudauta region, for instance, we bought a plot of land and we obtained the necessary documents for the construction of a religious complex composed of a local mosque with minarets.
Although the local Muslims have yet poured the pillow under the foundation of the complex, because this project is significantly expensive, it is hard to predict the end of the building considering that money is collected gradually from the people.
Our community is heterogenous comprising, of course, Sunni Muslims who belong to different madhāhib (plural of madhhab, a school of thought within the Islamic jurisprudence) as Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali. There are also a few Shiites in our country. By the way, this characteristic does not cause a division inside our community. Everyone is welcomed in our mosque and community: the only condition is that a person respects our rules of conduct.
Though our community is heterogenous and we have translations in different languages of our Holy book to allow anyone to read it and understand the meaning, we perform the Salat (prayer) in Russian and Arabic and we teach the Holy Quran in Arabic.”
Are there any relations with neighbouring Muslim organisations?
“Our muftiate (an administrative territorial entity under the supervision of a mufti) has relations and contacts with the representatives of muftiate in the North Caucasus, South and Eastern Russia, where the number of Muslims is higher than in Abkhazia.
For instance, in July 2023, the representatives of a delegation of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Adygea (DUM AR) and the Krasnodar Territory (DUM KT) visited Abkhazia to transfer monetary donations to the leadership of the Unified Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Abkhazia (EDUMA) for the construction of the EDUMA administrative complex in the city of Gudauta.”
Since the Abkhazian Diaspora in Turkey is significant, do you have any relations with the Turkish umma?
“Of course, we have contacts and relations with Turkey and our Turkish brothers. We have economic and spiritual ties with Turkey and our community showed all the support to the Turkish Muslims after the earthquake severely hit the country this year.
Discussing the earthquake, before this event, Turkey financed our community by officially sending money and their representatives. Unfortunately, the earthquake not only hugely affected part of the Turkish territory but also influenced Turkey’s financial support of our community.
The absence of an economic support does not represent a problem. Indeed, we continue to develop relations with Turkey and we can ourselves provide a salary to our mufti.”
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