What is the Zikr?
Three concentric circles of men, swing and sway to the beat of the chant. They stomp in time with the cadence of the chants and grunt from their abdomen and throat, the sounds filling the room. Every so-often one voice rises over the rest and the chant rises as a chorus of voices reciting and singing variants of the names of Allah. The men then pause, face right and walk in a counterclockwise motion, slowly at first then increase speed. As they gain speed, they start to jump on their outer feet and draw closer into the circle. The concentric circles then combine and begin to look like a spiralling ball.
The ball then stops and opens once again. The stomping resumes slowly at first and then louder. Most of the men are entranced and are gripped in their devotion. The air around them hums, the floor shakes and the men turn left and once again accelerate the other way. The ritual is called a Zikr, the transcendent Sufi dance of the Caucasus, a tradition held deep in the heart of Chechen Islam.
The Origin of Zikr
The Zikr, used by the Qadiri Sufi Islamic brotherhood, as a form of prayer grew into a symbol of national unity and identity for the Chechens starting with its introduction in the mid-nineteenth century and later throughout under Russian rule. The ritual of dance became a call for resistance in Chechnya under the Tsarist rule, the Soviet regime and the current Russian Federation.
When Dzhokhar Dudayev became the President of Chechnya in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, throngs of Chechens danced the Zikr in the central square in Grozny, showing their support and encouragement for Dudayev and expressing their dedication to Chechen nationalism after a long tumultuous history.
During the subsequent war with Russia in 1995-the Battle for Grozny, even after the Russians had invaded their city, a constant flow of people danced the Zikr in the Freedom square to express their discontentment of the Russian invasion. The Chechens’ dedication and ardor to performing the Zikr even now continues as an important part of both their religious and national identity.
Present Day- The Zikr and its implications for the Chechen future
Inside Chechnya, where past Russian efforts to try to contain and eliminate the beginnings of a second Chechen war since the Soviet Union collapsed, the customary forms of Chechen religious expression are gradually returning to public life. It’s a revival burdened with deep meaning, and with implications that are unclear for the future of Chechnya.
Now that the form of religious expression is reclaiming a place in public life and the daily respects of Islam in the Chechen people, the resurgence is quite unusual seeing as the practice of Zikr is seen as an element of policy for Chechens who are pro-Russia. The fact remains, however, that Chechnya’s Sufi brotherhoods had never truly been vanquished- not by bans, repression, or exile by either the czars during the Tsarist rule or Stalin during the Soviet Era, and not by the Kremlin of late under Russia.