Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 12, 2006

The Lion of Dagestan

The BBC carried this report on the death of Shamil Basayev, and an analysis on why the Chechen conflict has tragically persisted for close to ten years. His spiritual predecessor and namesake Imam Shamyl (known as the Lion of Dagestan) was a central figure in the ‘Great Game‘, spearheading a bloody guerilla insurgency against the Russian empire in the 19th century

Dagestan also happens to be home to a group known as the Mountain Jews, who claim by tradition to have reached the Caucasus region in 722 BC after the destruction of the First Temple. Like their neighbors, the Mountain Jews fostered a warrior culture but speak a distinct language. In fact, one of the Red Army soldiers who hoisted the Soviet Union flag over the Reichstag was a Mountain Jew.

Curiously enough, the Chabad branch of Hasidism sing this niggun that is said to be based on Shamil’s longing for freedom after being imprisoned in a Russian jail. A niggun in a prosaic terms is a wordless melody that Hasidim sing as part of a religious celebration that grew out of the conviction that Hashem prized sincerity above all in prayer. The wordless melody is a vehicle to express emotion or even ecstasy outside of the confines of the traditional liturgy. In more mystical terms, the notes of some nigguns correspond to Hebrew letters, which in turn spell out arcane formulations of the Kabbalah.

According to the Chabad website the niggun serves as a ‘mashal’ or parable on the soul’s yearning to free itself from the “exile” of the human body and its earthly pleasures by directing its physical being into the illuminated and living paths of Torah and Mitzvot. Obviously, the idea that a devotional song was based on the experiences of a messianic leader of the Sufi Holy Warriors has provoked this debate.



  1. 😉

    His death was duly noted on my site:

  2. Another Shamil?

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