For a long time the Chechens worshipped natural deities, especially the sun-god Malkha-Dela, whose name has become the generic Chechen term for God. In the mountain regions graves are still called sun-graves, and ancient rock art with solar symbols testifies to the cult of the sun. One of the oldest Chechen tukkhum (tribe) is Myalkiy, the “people of the sun”. Other gods revered by the Vainakhs (Chechens and Ingush) include Ziu-Dela (the fire-god), Elta (god of hunting), Tusholi (goddess of fertility) and Erda (goddess of the house). Others were Dika-Dela (goddess of truth), Kchokha-Dela (goddess of peace) and Pkha-Dela (god of place). Chechens still recall a rite of rain to summon the rain-god Khin-Dela.
A group of children would go from door to door, among them a boy with a waterproof bag over his head. They would cry: “Send a storm, God of Rain!” The occupants of the house would drench the lad with water and hand out sweets to the children.
There is no evidence that Chechnya fostered any links with Christianity in Armenia, Georgia and Caucasian Albania. If they did, any missionary attempts proved as unsuccessful as those of the Arabs seeking to spread Islam in the 7th century.
The form of Islam practised in Chechnya today, the Sufism of the Naqshbandi and Qadiri tariqats (orders), arrived from Dagestan in the late 18th century. The essence of Sufism is a close bond between a pupil (murid – the seeker) and a teacher, the sheikh. The sheikh promises to help the murid obtain mystic experience of God and to intercede for him at the Last Judgment. The murid shows humility and obedience to the sheikh and receives his instruction on all questions of religion and life. We do not know for certain whether Sufism was already being taught by Sheikh Mansur Ushurma, who organised ghazavat (holy war) against the conquering Russian infidels from 1785 to 1791 on the basis of strict religious morals and the shariat (Islamic law). From 1825 the Chechens began to back the Dagestani religious leaders Mullah Mohammed, Ghazi Mohammed and Imam Shamil. Shamil established a theocratic state with religious foundations in Chechnya and Dagestan, and for forty years it resisted Tsarist expansionism. It eventually crumbled, however, being too autocratic to suit the Chechen concept of freedom, exacerbated by incompatibilities between shariat and adat, and no doubt the powerlessness that prevailed in the face of Russia’s untiring armies.
During the Soviet era religion was heavily repressed but survived in small tariqat units called virds, which worshipped different saints and were sometimes hostile to one another. The deportation of the Chechens between 1944 and 1957 encouraged the emergence of a collective Chechen sense of national identity and a renewal of the links with Islam. The Qadiri Order was to play a prominent role in this. After the return to the Caucasus, Sufism – which had become infused with many popular traditions – was increasingly infiltrated by state agencies and the KGB. Almost all muftis (religious leaders) who were allowed to study were KGB officers. This diluted form of Islam is particularly unacceptable to young Chechens. They find greater appeal in the radical Islamic renewal sought by Wahhabism, which stresses the oneness of God, the absolute authority of the Koran and the prophets, the strict rules of the shariat, the equality before Allah of all believers and an end to often naïve folk traditions.
Interestingly enough, the earliest Wahhabi preachers in Chechnya – such as Adam Deniev – were KGB agents. It is not unlikely that Wahhabism was used by the KGB in the early nineties to counter the revival of popular Islam. During the Chechen wars Wahhabism has above all been promoted by donations and volunteers from Saudi Arabia.
Of course, 70 years of Soviet rule also left traces of secularisation. There are many Chechens who are atheists and only follow Islamic traditions because these form an integral part of the newly forming national identity.