Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

The female Sufi mystics of the Pankisi Gorge

In a Georgian valley with a reputation for arms smugglers and aspiring terrorists, a group of women keep the Sufi musical tradition alive

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Religion, Spirituality & Ethics

DUISI, Georgia — The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, is rarely heard in Georgia. In this fiercely religious Christian nation, minority religious practice is often suppressed: Last year, citing import laws, local authorities in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region dismantled a mosque in the village of Chela. Resisters were beaten or detained. But here in the mountainous Pankisi Gorge, approximately 100 miles by road from the Chechen border, the adhan echoes five times daily; Arabic is taught alongside Georgian and English in village schools; and pigs — common on rural Georgian roads — are notably absent. And unlike in other parts of Georgia’s Kakheti province, where viticulture drives the local economy, no families sell wine here.

The residents of Pankisi have historically been Kists, ethnic Chechens who migrated to the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the aftermath of the 1999 Second Chechen War, however, an influx of Chechen refugees — estimates put their number at 7,000 — temporarily doubled the region’s population. Today, between two and three hundred refugee families remain.

The government’s presence is minimal here, but this is less a testament to tolerance than to suspicion. In recent decades, Pankisi has acquired a reputation as a lawless corridor to the North Caucasus for arms smugglers and would-be jihadists, a reputation that has repeatedly prompted American as well as Russian calls for intervention in the region. Though Georgian military action in 2003 reportedly cracked down on militancy in the region, among Georgians, Pankisi still has a reputation as a dangerous place, full of aspiring terrorists.

But nothing could be further from the truth, says village elder Makvala Margoshvili, who goes by her childhood nickname, Badi. Most Kist Muslims identify as Sufis, practitioners of a mystic brand of Islam. Of these, most consider themselves to be Hadjiists, followers of the 19th-century Chechen Sufi mystic and pacifist Kunta Hadji-Kushiev, who preached a doctrine of brotherly love and nonviolent resistance. Their religious rituals center around the Hadjiist version of the zikr. Literally translated as “remembering,” the zikr is an ecstatic communal recital of the names of God that takes the form of song, dance and, here in Pankisi, the call for “marshua kavkaz”: peace in the Caucasus.

Marshua Kavkaz is also the name Badi gave to the nonprofit she founded in 1999, just after the outbreak of the Second Chechen War. She wanted to promote Chechen and Kist culture and its legacy of peace both in Georgia and abroad, and foster tourism in Pankisi. “I wanted to go against the war with peace,” she says through a translator, “to tell the world that [we] want peace in the world and in Chechnya. These songs are words of peace.”

Listen: Sufi mystics chant 'There is no God but God'

The songs of the zikr are usually performed privately, in single-sex groups. (Traditionally, says Badi, men practiced the zikr, but around the turn of the 20th century, female-only groups began cropping up in Grozny, Chechnya's capital). Practitioners begin by sitting in a circle in a darkened room, chanting the names of God with increasing intensity, until they are inspired to start moving, first by stamping and clapping along with the music, then by running in ecstasy, singing over and over, “La ilaha ilallah” there is no God but God.

But Badi saw in the songs and prayers of the zikr an opportunity to present a different face of Chechen culture. Soon after the war began in 1999, Badi approached a village elder, a woman, for permission to publicly perform some of the zikr music, to demonstrate to the world that there was more to Chechnya than violence. Permission was granted, and Badi created Ensemble Aznash, a group of all-female vocalists, which has since performed at festivals of sacred music in Poland, Turkey and Morocco, among other places.

Badi, the leader of the female Sufi group, shows off pamphlets from trips and tours the group completed.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

Watch: Video of a zikr recital

Badi’s desire for peace, she says, was instilled in her at an early age. As a child during the Second World War — in which a disproportionate number of Pankisi men were killed — Badi saw firsthand the effects of violence. She found solace in song. “At school I was very shy,” she says. “I couldn’t say a word. But I was always singing.”

But it was not until the 1990s — a decade that saw war not only in Chechnya but also between Georgia and the separatist regions of Abkazia and South Ossetia — that Badi began writing songs herself, crafting lyrics to go along with traditional Chechen religious music. “Let’s entreat the High God to annihilate the war’s sorrow,” one poem goes, “to establish in the world/Peace and friendship together.”

Although the zikr remains popular in Chechnya, only a few men still practice it, Badi says — though a few do attend small Monday sessions. Women tend to be more interested, perhaps unsurprising in a region where women’s options for activities outside the home remain limited.

But the zikr seems less popular among the young of either gender. Of the 13 women who attend Friday’s noontime session in the annex of the old mosque in Duisi, Pankisi’s largest village, only one looks to be under 60; the rest are far older. When their chanting reaches a fever pitch and the women push aside the carpet, racing in ecstatic circles around the room, more than a few are forced to temporarily rest against the walls; others have difficulty sitting or kneeling, and must use small stools for support.

Badi dismisses the notion that younger people are less interested in the zikr, citing space constraints to explain the low attendance. But among the younger generations, new ways of understanding Islam are taking hold; what locals here call “traditional” Islam, a religion suffused with Chechen and Kist cultural traditions, is dying out. What is taking its place is a more pared-down, Quranic approach to religious practice. Omar Alkhanashvili, a Duisi local who identifies as an adherent to this more modern form of practice, explains that under the repressive Soviet regime, his elders had little information about Islam. Few knew Arabic; fewer still could read the original Quran. Now, as young men learn Arabic, the Islam they practice is more in line with strict Quranic teaching, in which customs like the communal zikr are discouraged in favor of private worship. As 19-year-old Nona Margoshvili, a distant relative of Badi’s, puts it, “Twenty years ago, people had cigarettes, they were drinking. They did not have [much] information about Islam.” Her community’s elders have been slow to change. “Old people don’t listen,” she says, laughing.

The shift has had a palpable influence in the community. A new mosque, called the Wahabist mosque by locals and built with Saudi money, dominates Duisi’s main road; the young men who spend their days outside it — unemployment is rife here — sport long beards, while most older men are clean-shaven. It was once customary for girls to keep their hair uncovered, as Nona does, until marriage, but now about half of female children wear headscarves. Rumor has it one young man recently chastised a local shopkeeper in the village of Jokolo for selling beer. Alarmed, community elders notified the Georgian police. And a few of the men who tell their families they have gone to study Arabic in Saudi Arabia end up in Syria; only last year, two brothers returned in body bags.

But both Badi and Omar insist that Pankisi is a peaceful community; differences in religious outlook are largely theoretical rather than practical. “My father practices the zikr,” Omar tells me. “I do not.” Older people may practice what they see as a more “traditional” — that is, traditionally Chechen — form of Islam, “but we are all Muslims. God will know who is right.”

The building used for the zikr recitals, right, is located in the courtyard of the town's old mosque.
The building used for the zikr recitals, right, is located in the courtyard of the town's old mosque.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

For her part, Badi, curious about the younger generation’s perspective, set out to find a definitive answer on matters of doctrine and practice. As a child during the Soviet era, she says, she had little access to information about Islam. But she remembers hearing about the sultan of Brunei’s religiously motivated anti-alcohol stance. As a publicly Muslim figure, “he may know better,” she reasoned.

About five years ago, she sent him an email from Tbilisi to ask whether it was true that the zikr was un-Islamic. She didn’t have Internet access at home in Pankisi, she says, so she doesn’t know if he ever answered.

As the interview with Badi comes to a close, she asks if she, along with three other members of Ensemble Aznash, can perform a song. They sing one about life and death, and the life to come.

When they finish, Badi has tears in her eyes; this song always moves her. When the ensemble performed it in Germany, she says, “[We] were all crying; we could not stop.”

They conclude with another song, the one with which they begin nearly all of their public performances: “Marshua Kavkaz,” the prayer for peace.