According to ethnographic sources, the religious practices of the Vainakhs (Chechens and Ingush) and East Georgian highlanders were very similar to each other. The religious system of the highlanders of East Georgia-the Tush, Pshavs, and Khevsurs is a complex admixture of pre-Christian cults and Christianity a so-called folk religion. Some scholars characterize it as a mixture of paganism and Christianity.
Surviving sacred buildings from those times consisting mainly of sanctuaries in present-day Khevsureti, Pshavi, Tusheti, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia are proof that the Central Caucasian tribes once had similar religious beliefs.
The ruins of some pre-Christian sanctuaries still exist in the Pankisi Gorge. These sacred buildings of the Tush, Pshavs, and Khevsurs were later considered sacred by the Kists as well. Although today the Kists pray in the mosque, they also pray at the sites of old, now-ruined sanctuaries. They also pray in Saint George church in the village of Joqolo and attend the religious celebration Alaverdoba in the Alaverdi church of Kakheti.
Christianity & Islam
Christian missionaries played an important role in disseminating Georgian culture among the Vainakhs. Without a doubt, Christianity was one of the important factors in establishing closer links between the Vainakhs and Georgians in the 16th to 17th centuries. This was also the period in which Islam came from Daghestan and began to spread throughout Chechnya and Ingushetia, however. It is interesting to note that fanaticism about any religion seems to have been absent among the Kists.
With time Islam began to take hold in the region and during its infancy in the valley the Kists did not allow their children to study Arabic. In 1898, a group of Duisi Muslims began building a mosque without permission. However, the local Christians opposed the new mosque and the Muslims filed a complaint with the authorities. A mullah called Abdul Bakanaghli from the village Belakani of the Zakatala region of neighbouring Azerbaijan succeeded in intervening and finally permission to build the mosque was granted and it was completed in 1902.
With the decline of Christianity, many Islamic preachers from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Azerbaijan began forming different sects in Pankisi. For example, the Kist Machig Machalikashvili disseminated the teachings of the Kunta Hajji sect. Kunta Hajji was from the village Eliskhan-Iurt. He taught that God does not like war, that all believers are brothers, and that they must trust their fates to Allah. The Kunta Hajji sect differed from that of the Nakshbandi in its ritual practices. In Chechnya and Ingushetia the Naqshbandi sect considered themselves Murids and did not perform ziarat (honoring of sacred places) and zikr (a religious ritual in which members of the sect would gather and similar to the Whirling Devishes of Turkey danced themselves into an ecstatic state). The Kists performed this ritual in their own language because they did not know Arabic. The majority of mullahs strongly opposed this teaching as heretical.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, members of the Nakshbandi sect were still gathering on Fridays in the room where their teacher, Is-Efendi, had lived until 1920. The members of Kunta Hajji continued performing their religious rituals. Both sects still had their tkhaamd (head/ leader) and turakh (deputy). Apart from these two sects, new ones were also emerging.
From 1996 to 2001, four new mosques were built in the Kist villages of Pankisi. The financing came from Arabia. The biggest mosque stands in the village of Duisi near the middle school bearing the name of its founder and prominent Kist educator, Usup Margoshvili. Additionally, an Islamic college and an Arabic school were opened in Duisi. With the help of the school.s director and a locally-based NGO, fifty children have been sent from Pankisi to Arabic countries to be educated. Today, there are classes in Arabic in every Kist village of the Pankisi Gorge.
Nazy's Guest House
Republic of Georgia