This is the text of my lecture, plus a few important links, that I gave last weekend during the "Lost Virtues" conference organised by Prophetic Guidance.
I was really impressed by the whole affair, which was very well organised. I also got to meet Yahya, the most frequent comment contributer to this blog! Which was great.
There are a few reasons that I chose Imam Shamil, the leader for twenty five years of Chechen and Dagestani resistance against Imperial Russia in the 1850’s.
The first is because when Abu Esa phone me about the conference he told me it was going to be based around outstanding Muslim personalities. So Imam Shamil came to mind. I have recently being doing a lot of reading about Chechnia ever since I was asked to become a supporter of the save Chechnia campaign, and the first book I read was the epic work of Lesley Blanch, The Sabres of Paradise: conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus. It is a book just as much about Tsarist Russia under Nicholas I as it is about Shamil, but her sympathies are with the Imam, even if it is with the Orientalist’s view of him as the “Noble Savage”. She based her account of the Imam and his life on the accounts written by one of the Imams close followers, Muhammed Tahir of Karahi.
The second reason I chose the Imam was in no small part
because he was a Sufi from the Naqshabandi tariqa. In these days when Jihad has
become synonymous with terrorism, Wahabism and Salafist some Sufi’s have
unashamedly used this atmosphere of confusion and fear to lay all the blame at the
Wahabist door and to portray the Sufi
path as entirely peaceful and pacifist, and the internal and spiritual Jihad
espoused by themselves as the only authentic and valid Jihad. It seemed a perfect
opportunity to remind them, ourselves and others how short sighted, shameless
and ultimately false such sectarian opportunism is. It certainly hasn’t fooled Robert Spencer of
Jihad watch. Most of the great Mujahids resisting European Imperialism were
Sufis. Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al Jeziri, who actually met Imam Shamyl on hajj, and
discussed guerrilla warfare tactics together. Sheikh Abdul Qair fought the
French for ten years, until the sheer brutality of the French army massacring
civilians forced him to give in. Shah
Differences, I suspect, we will always have, by these should kept between us. Whatever differences we have as Muslims, we can and must present to those who are ready to destroy us a united front.
‘Verily, Allah loves those who fight in His Cause in rows (ranks), as if they were a solid structure.’ Surat-as-Saff (61), ayah 4)
There is no doubt that this unity, presenting a solid
structure, is one of the lost virtues. Imam Shamyl understood the importance of
this, and it is one of remarkable qualities of the Imam how was able to unite
the dazzling mosaic of enthnic groups and rival clans of the
Shamyl combined diplomacy, mauitha (Islamic enoucragements) and harsh punishments for dissenters to maintain this unity. He made it clear that that would be and must no talk of compromise with the Russians. Victory needed total commitment. Anyone dissenting could receive a hundred lashes as punishment. In one famous incident, and at a time when Muslims were particularly hard pressed and suffering many physical hardships, and were in so hard pressed fighting the Russians that they were on the point of surrender. But no such thing was allowed by the Imam. Shamyls mother was persuaded to approach him to encourage a compromise, but when he came to hear of this his order was that anyone who even suggested such surrender was to to be lashed 100 times! The order was carried out, but after only several lashes Shamyl threw himself across his mother and ordered the rest of the lashes to be carried out on himself, and threatened death to the administrator of the punishment if the lashes were not hard enough. After this he called for those who had talked of surrender and thus caused such a punishment to befall his mother.
You can imagine their terror and what punishment might fall on them.
“Return to your homes, and depart in peace, and hold fast to the Rope of Allah.”
No more talk of surrender was heard.
Shamyl’s Murids where know for fighting to the death, and even, it seemed beyond.
They lay there, mangled, pierced, and bled white: they drank the herbal brews, submitted to torturing treatments-and generally recovered. The Russians found them a most stubborn enemy. Killed-or so it seemed they still lived. One Murid, or holy warrior, would rush out of a beleaguered aoul brandishing his shashka in one hand, a pistol in the other, his kindjal between his teeth, and hurl himself on the astounded Russians, firing rapidly in all directions, then, dropping his gun, begin to thrust and slash with his steel, so that five or six enemy were accounted for before he too fell; and even in the dying he would usually contrive another deadly thrust. 'They don't seem to know when they ought to die, sir,' says a Russian soldier in one of Lermontov's Caucasian tales. 'Indeed, sir, these villains can hardly ever be killed. They are a people without the slightest idea of propriety.'
Shamyls struggle was part of a larger and longer gazwat (as
they called it) that started in the time of Catherine the Great who invaded the
Caucusus and was opposed by the forces of Sheikh Mansor. The fight was taken up again by Khazi Mullah,
who was a friend of Shamyl. But Khazi
Mullah’s rebellion was ill timed and short lived. It all ended in the siege of
the fortified mountain
This is the account of a Russian soldier:
It was dark: by the light of the burning thatch we saw a man standing in the doorway of saklia, which stood on raised ground, rather above us. This man, who was very tall and powerfully built stood quite still, as if giving us time to'take aim. Then, suddenly, with the spring of a wild beast, he leapt clean over the heads of the very line of soldiers about to fire on him, 'and landing beliind them, whirling his sword in his left hand [Shamyl, it will be recalled, was left-handed] he cut down three of them, but was bayoneted by the fourth, the steel plunging deep into his chest. His face still extraordinary in its immobility, he seized the bayonet, pulled it out of his own flesh, cut down the man and, with another superhuman leap, cleared the wall and vanished into the darkness. We were left absolutely dumbfounded. The whole business had taken, perhaps, a minute and a half.
things have always shocked me about many Muslims since I embraced Islam. The
first is how could a Muslim be illiterate when the first word revealed was read? The second was how physically feeble and unfit so many Muslims are. I recall
one of my early trips up North as a new Muslim and was shocked that Muslims
boys didn’t play rugby because their parents considered it too rough! There is
a truth in the saying that the
“The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, while there is good in both.” Muslim
Salih al-Fawzaan had the following to say about physical strength and its relation to our belief and actions:
“The believer who is strong in his belief, body, and actions is better than the weak believer, the one who has weak belief, or a weak body or weak actions. That is because the strong believer is productive and accomplishes things for the Muslims, and thus they benefit from his physical strength, actions, and his strong belief.
“So this hadith is an encouragement to have strength, as Islam is the Religion on strength, the Religion of honor, the Religion of prestige!
“So the strength that is sought from us in Islam is strength in belief and its tenets, as well as strength in our actions and bodies, because all of this brings forth good things for the Muslims.
“The believer who has strong belief is more likely to be fit and in shape. This is because he understands the importance of striving and staying in shape in preparation for it, while the weak believer may easily get fat and out of shape, from his overeating and laziness. Physical strength is a direct result of strength in belief.”
It is not to belittle the many qualities of Imam Shamyl that I have chosen him to represent this lost virtue of physical strength and toughness, but he exemplifies this virtue so admirably.
When young it seems Shamyl was very sure of himself but without the physical sature to match it. Some young boys from his village took a dislike to this and stabbed him in the stomach and left him for dead. Returning to consciousness Shamyl's first instinct was to hide from both taunts and sympathy. He dragged himself back to the mountains, contrived to bind up his own wounds and obtain those herbal concoctions for which the mountaineers were famous. The methods used for treating wounds with herbs (a skill which was given plenty of opportunities to perfect itself in this part of the world) were known and respected by even the Russian army surgeons. Sometimes the village doctors succeeded in clamping shut the torn arteries by means of applying a large, ferocious species of local ant. Once the pincer-like mandibles had fastened on the arteries, the rest of the ant's body was snipped off-the pincers remained in place. The gaping wound was bound up, herbs were applied, and no blood poisoning followed.
So the stoical young Shamyl hid his wounds and his humiliation, and did not return to Ghimri until he was not only recovered, but toughened by an implacable, self-imposed regime of physical culture. From that moment on, he forced himself to feats of endurance, changing himself into a lean, iron-hard athlete.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) commands us saying: “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding.”
Shamyl could out-fight, out-ride, out-swim and out-run all the rest of the mountain people; just as they had their own methods of curing wounds, so they had their jealously guarded methods of training and hardening both themselves and their horses (usually bred in the plains, or from Kabarda) to be able to cover the enormous distances and endure the violent changes of climate their raiding tactics and the country demanded. And likewise, the Caucasian... mountaineers, trained themselves to an extraordinary stamina.
They ate very sparingly, as a race, but the fighting men ate least of all: thus, in the Caucasian wars, they were better able to withstand the rigours of long marches in barren country, unfettered by the cumbersome supply-wagons which hampered Russian columns on the move and included such unmanageable objects as five-foot-high brass samovars, to hold fifty gallons of tea, without which the humblest recruit would have mutinied. Wine was forbidden….Meat was a rarity at their tables, and then only lamb, goat or chicken. Their magnificent physique was generally maintained on a few cakes of rough-ground millet, and a little goats' cheese. During a campaign, these virile creatures were often seen to eat, and appear well nourished by a few leaves, or even flowers-rhododendrons being considered particularly sustaining. They trained themselves to run great distances, swiftly, at a level speed, without panting, by carrying a bullet, or a pebble, in their mouths. Their lives were a mixture of personal austerity and heroic excess.
Shamyl lashed himself to their
strenuous pattern until, at twenty, he was famous for his feats. He could sever
the butt of a rifle with one blow of his kindjal, and was once seen to cleave a
Cossack horseman almost to the saddle in one cut. He could clear a seven-foot
wall at a leap, or, as they said in local idiom, 'stride a Khevsour'. (This
tribe, strangely blond giants, were believed to be descendants of the
Crusaders; they wore chain mail decorated with Maltese crosses, while their
swords, handed down from father to son, often bore the Crusaders' device: Ave Mater Dei. Shamyl's horsemanship was
remarkable. The mountaineers' equestrian acrobatics had the same brilliance as
the Arabs'. Perhaps it was a legacy from their Arab conquerors in the eighth
century. At any rate Caucasian djighitovkas
horsemanship and daring-were similar, and equal to, the Arab fantasia and made
even the Cossack riders seem inept by comparison; trick-riding, circus stuff,
all of it in daily use in their violent raiding warfare. Shamyl was speaking to
the people in a language they understood best when he flung himself into the
saddle at one bound, cleared the high gates of the aoul in another, and
scorning the path, leapt a precipice, hanging head-downwards under his horse's
belly, swinging up the other side to stand in the saddle and, at the gallop,
shoot a coin spun high in the air. Later, when he called them to battle, when
he preached the Shariat-the Law, and the Tarikat-the Way, they knew the mettle
of their new leader, and followed blindly. Perhaps, when the young Shamyl was
outpacing the fieriest djighits, he was, even unconsciously fostering his
legend, the legend that surrounded him by both circumstance and design all his
life, and which was, even in its more theatrical aspects, to strengthen his
other, mystical aura of leadership.
Shamyl's horsemanship was remarkable. The mountaineers' equestrian acrobatics had the same brilliance as the Arabs'. Perhaps it was a legacy from their Arab conquerors in the eighth century. At any rate Caucasian djighitovkas -festivals of horsemanship and daring-were similar, and equal to, the Arab fantasia and made even the Cossack riders seem inept by comparison; trick-riding, circus stuff, all of it in daily use in their violent raiding warfare. Shamyl was speaking to the people in a language they understood best when he flung himself into the saddle at one bound, cleared the high gates of the aoul in another, and scorning the path, leapt a precipice, hanging head-downwards under his horse's belly, swinging up the other side to stand in the saddle and, at the gallop, shoot a coin spun high in the air. Later, when he called them to battle, when he preached the Shariat-the Law, and the Tarikat-the Way, they knew the mettle of their new leader, and followed blindly. Perhaps, when the young Shamyl was outpacing the fieriest djighits, he was, even unconsciously fostering his legend, the legend that surrounded him by both circumstance and design all his life, and which was, even in its more theatrical aspects, to strengthen his other, mystical aura of leadership.
There is no avoiding the fact that one of the greatest reasons for physical strength and toughness is for jihad. It at this juncture I am forced by the reality of the state of confusion prevalent in these times to reiterate that we as Muslims do not seek confrontation or desire to initiate hostilities. Despite the many virtues of jihad we should not imagine that this means we seek physical conflict, or that in desperation we can resort to means like terrorism that is so far removed from the nobility of this religion. We want and should desire to live a peaceful life and coexistence, but we have the right, and no one can take this away from us, to defend ourselves individually and collectively against attack and aggression. We also have the right and duty to prepare ourselves against such attack. The Quran teaches this and international law affirms that also. Jihad is not something we should be embarrassed about, or made to feel embarrassed about, but it is a noble principle that no reasonable person could disagree with.
The Imam had mistakes, like all humans, but the ghazwat of Shamyl was without doubt in essance just and fair and right, and in the striving of this great Muslim personality there is an example for us all.
For an excellent short bio of the Imam read this.