The battle for the soul of Chechnya: with separatist rebels embracing radical Islam, the republic's Moscow-backed president is busy promoting a Sufi revival
Khadzhi Aul: High on a hillside in eastern Chechnya, a new mosque rises serenely in a grove of pear trees, its freshly painted walls dappled with sunlight.
In a cemetery nearby, workmen have just finished repairing the white cupola that stands over a simple tomb draped in green cloth.
"With Allah's help and the support of our president, we are putting this sacred place in order," said Magomed Daskayev, a stout man in a green tunic who is imam of the local village, Khadzhi Aul.
This ziyarat* on the Ertan ridge, an hour's drive from Grozny, is one of the most hallowed spots of traditional Chechen Islam: the final resting place of the mother of Kunta Khadzhi Kishiev, a shepherd who became a Sufi sheikh.
The new mosque will provide accommodation for a stream of visiting pilgrims. And its construction is a potent symbol of the Sufi revival that is sweeping Chechnya under its impulsive, 31-year-old president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The renaissance comes as the last 700-odd rebels fighting Mr Kadyrov's pro-Moscow administration have lurched toward radical Islam.
Today, it is not independence fighters who are leading the Sufi revival but rather the supporters of Mr Kadyrov, who has strong backing from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Mr Kadyrov, a murid of the Qadiri order, holds a zikr at his home every Thursday evening in honour of his father, who was assassinated in 2004.
Vakhit Akayev, an expert on Sufism at Grozny State University, said it was not so strange that the pro-Moscow administration was now championing Sufism.
Sufism has been the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya for almost two centuries but was forced underground in Soviet times.
During the 19th century, its followers, called murids, drew strength from their belief as they battled the soldiers of the invading Russian empire.
Imam Shamil, the legendary leader of the resistance, who fended off tsarist advances from his mountain stronghold for over 20 years, was a member of the Naqshabandi Sufi order.
But these Sufi forces were later slowly replaced by radical militants who despised their devotion to saints and dervishes.
"Only positive energy flows from a mosque," said Magomed Abdurakhmanov, 32, an official from the mufti's administration, as he gave the Guardian a tour of the construction site. "This building will radiate goodness across Chechnya."
[Picture: Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya. Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty]
* Ziyarat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziyarat