Arts & Culture Humanities


Maryam Vakhidova, PhD., Grand PhD

Since it is the matter of both joint research projects and knowledge sharing, as it has been stated in the programme of the conference, I would like to introduce one personality to the participants of this top level forum, the personality that had an enormous influence on Leo Tolstoy’s spiritual and ethical world, but he has been little studied so far, even in Russia.

Empires can wage their endless wars of conquest, but sooner or later Lord in the Highest himself shields the peoples that are being annihilated, sending saints to them entrusted with the mission to save their peoples. In Chechnya was Sheikh Kunta-Hadji Kishiyev that person, the golden age of whose teachings happened to be when Tolstoy was staying in the Caucasus.

“The Caucasus has brought me enormous benefit”, Leo Tolstoy wrote to his brother Sergey on December 5, 1852, “Even if I have to live a few more years at this school, on the other hand, if there remains at least one year for me to live in freedom, I shall be able to live it well”. Omitting a lot of other similar evidences, Tolstoy wrote about later as well, but being already a world-famous writer, let us answer the question about what kind of benefit he was writing about, all the more so “enormous” that the Caucasus brought him.

Tolstoy came to the Caucasus, when the national liberation struggle of Chechens under the leadership of Imam Shamil had been going on for 17 years, but for the first time the Word opposed the total extermination of the people in the unequal struggle.

This was the word of the holy Kunta-Haji Kishyev, Sheikh from Ilskhan-Yurt, a humble man of God who called his people to lay down arms in order to save and preserve the nation, stop the senseless bloodshed, pray, surrendering to the will of Allah, love our neighbor, help the poor, widows and orphans to survive, forgive enemies and blood feuds, not multiplying victims, enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor, and so on.

Many followers of the Sheikh united in a religious brotherhood, headed by their Ustaz (Teacher) and on the land ravaged by continuous wars, where up to 200 thousand people had been killed, a powerful roar of dhikr rose, performed in the name of peace, for the salvation of the people. It was this atmosphere which Tolstoy plunged in, thirsty for self-knowledge, moral perfection while being in the Caucasus.

Kuntahadzhints while engaged in the dhikr – dance-prayer which glorifies Allah – were driven into an ecstatic state – shouk. An extraordinary burst of energy, which even the people in poor health felt, especially elders, convinced in the Divine Providence of what was going on. So not only did Tolstoy see for the first time what power is hidden in the prayer, but when performing the dhikr together with his friends from Stary Yurt, experienced the “high moments of religious ecstasy”.

Once and for all by believing in the power of the prayer, ever since until the end of his life Leo Tolstoy stood in prayer for an hour, and always barefoot, as he is depicted in the portrait by Repin “Leo Tolstoy Barefoot”. But Repin should have named the painting “Tolstoy Is Praying”. Let us listen to the artist himself:

“…Now I will go alone”, suddenly Leo Nikolaevich said…

Seeing that I was surprised, he added:

  • Sometimes I like, in fact, to stand and pray somewhere in the depths of the forest.
  • Is it possible to do for a long time? – I asked naively …
  • An hour passes unnoticed, – Leo responds thoughtfully…” [1].

Leo Tolstoy returns to Russia not only being a well-known Russian writer, but, first of all, he is Kunta-Haji Kishiyev’s disciple, a follower of his teachings. For this reason Tolstoy, even 50 years after returning from Chechnya, would be interested in the people who are active in the fight for human rights, but without violence. Thus, Leo Tolstoy was extremely interested in the fate of the American nonresistant (advocate of principle of non-resistance to evil) Lloyd Garrison and corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi, who fought against the apartheid in South Africa. Tolstoy called Harrison “one of the greatest people not only in America but in the entire world”, he subscribed for his biography from the United States, written by Oliver Johnson, because he thought that “the very fact that Harrison was nonresistant do him more credit than any other fact in his biography” [2].

Waiting impatiently to be regimented even at least in the capacity of a private soldier in Chechnya, young Tolstoy wondered: “…Under the influence of which feeling does a man make his mind with no apparent benefit to expose himself to danger, and, what is more surprising, to kill his own kind?”; “Don’t people live so penned up together in this beautiful world, under this immeasurable starry sky? Is it really possible that amid this charming nature the human soul keeps a feeling of malice, vengeance or the passion of destruction of their own kind?” [3].

“He is a pathetic man. What does he want?…” – let us continue with Lermontov’s words, as Tolstoy was in the war, which had begun long before the poet’s birth and lasted after his death for 11 years! There should have been someone to appear in this land, after all, to stop this purposeful and bloodcurdling extermination of the people which began back to 1706, when Field Marshal Sheremetyev was appointed to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Kizlyar Territory. But one did not have time to think about peace on earth, the other saw no point in doing this. And then the Almighty sent to earth the person who during his lifetime was counted among the “356 Muslim saints, constantly dwelling on the earth and saving the humanity” [4].

After going pilgrimage in 1848 to Mecca, visiting Turkey and the Arab countries, Kunta-Haji returned to Chechnya in 1850 as a member of the Sufi Order of the Qadiriyya, deeply convinced that there was no place to wait for help from, it was necessary to save his people relying on the will of the Almighty. By begirding with his followers the land with the Chechen spiritual circles of dhikrists that shook the foundations of the Imamate of Shamil, Kunta-Haji with his loud public prayers began to win back the supporters of the war from the great Imam to the bitter end, and the people accepted the proposed alternative.

While being in the Caucasus “I began to think the way people have the power to think once in a lifetime… Never, neither before nor after, I have reached such a height of the thought, peeped into there, as it was at that time that lasted for two years. I could not understand that a man could reach such a degree of mental exaltation which I reached then… And everything that I found then, will remain my conviction“ [5], Leo Tolstoy wrote, years later. Whether it was a coincidence that it was to her, cousin of his parent, whom Tolstoy would write to so frankly: “…But please, do not turn me to Christian… please, look at me as I am a kind Mohammedan, then everything will be fine…” [5]

These were not just words. Two years spent in Chechnya in prayers, outweighed in Tolstoy’s fate 56 years, which he lived in the same prayers after Chechnya, but without dhikrs!

Tolstoy defended persistently and relentlessly his right to be what he was, believing in the religion “of our fathers” and “respecting it”, as he described in detail in the text which he called “My prayer”. Therefore there is nothing surprising in the fact that all his life, Tolstoy wore the clothes of Chechen elders [6] (with a beanie-skullcap on the top and soft “Caucasian” boots on the feet), sewed Chechen blouses for himself, which “peculiar style” was noted by everybody, without exception; he trimmed his hair and beard “once a month, when it was the new moon”, saying that “he had learned it from the Mohammedans” [7].

Tolstoy, like all other kuntahajinians was very moderate in eating. Knowing about the fate of Sheikh and his murids, Tolstoy dreamt to “suffer for his faith” and often said that “he would be happy to be persecuted” [8]; being an advocate of non-resistance to violence with violence the writer was the culprit of mass “objections to military service” [8] even in 1896.

According to the observation of Makovitsky D.P., when leaving the elders in the Optina Hermitage, Tolstoy sent carriage forward: “he used to” go forward on foot, “when he left from where he was on a visit”, [9] the Tolstoy’s personal physician recalled. It is the custom of Chechens: as a sign of respect to the host, the guest goes a good distance from the house on foot, having sent forward the transport, which he came on.

We learn from Tolstoy’s deathbed testament that he wanted to be buried without a cross on his grave, “as soon as possible” and not to put wreaths on his coffin” [8]. Tolstoy would have been buried in Chechnya this way. So, when he realized that he did not have enough time to reach Chechnya, Tolstoy bequeathed to be buried in Yasnaya Polyana, not realizing that his desire to be buried according to a Mohammedan rite would be passed by his relatives and friends for a primitive desire to find his resting place under the “ant heap” in the place of the “green stick” of the salvation of the mankind, once buried. Ironically, the man that denied any miracles, was not only suspected, but, to some extent, found guilty in the belief in the miraculous power of some stick and “ant brotherhood”.

“The fundamental difference between Sharia and Tariqa is that Sharia is … a deal between the religion and reality. Tariqa indeed is an absolute conclusion from the spirit of the law setting the reality at defiance. According to Sharia a Muslim can somehow get along with people of other religions; according to Tariqa it is impossible” [10], Fadeyev R. underlined in his book “The Caucasian War”. As Kunta-Haji Kishiev’s murid Tolstoy attempted periodically to run away from home and, in the end, he made his escape at that age and in that physical state, when a person is not going to live but die and be buried according to his faith!.. In the book “Tolstoy’s Demise”, which was published in 2014, the doctor Dushan Makovitsky’s words are first quoted; he writes that staying at a hotel in Shamordino, looking at the map of Grozny and its surroundings, Tolstoy said: “I have a feeling that I shall see it again” [11]. In the neighborhood of Grozny there is a village Stary Yurt, where Tolstoy’s kunaks lived – they were kuntahajinians.

“…In the holy places of Muslims, where the law is respected in all its purity, the infidel can never be admitted to come so as not to infect the air with his breath, the air in which the faithful pray” [10], we read in Fadeyev’s book. The fact that Tolstoy was allowed to perform the dhikr in Chechnya, says that they did not considered him to be an adherent of different faith [12]. That was why, when he lived at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy always went into the woods to pray, wasn’t it? (His household was Orthodox.)

And we learn about it not only from the memoirs of the artist Repin. After another quarrel with her husband, before his final departure from Yasnaya Polyana, on October 14, his wife Countess Sophia Andreyevna wrote to him: “So, dear Leo, you go for a walk to pray, and having prayed, think carefully about it…” [5]. Tatyana, the writer’s eldest daughter, writes: “Having woken up, he went into the woods or to the field. According to him, he went “to pray” …” [8]. The way Tolstoy was praying in the forest, we can see in the picture by Repin. Only a Muslim is praying that way.

“In my dream I saw that I was talking to a priest about drunkenness, about tolerance and about something else … As for tolerance: not to despise nor Jew, nor Tatar, love them. As for me: not to despise an Orthodox” [13], Tolstoy wrote in his diary on February 28, 1890, while staying in the Optina Hermitage.

Kunta-Haji urged his people of tolerance too, when persuading them: “Because of the systematic wars, we are drastically decreasing… The further war is not pleasing to God … if they say that you should go to church, go, for it is only a premise. If they force you to wear crosses, wear them, since they are only pieces of iron… Only if they touch your women, make you forget your language, culture and customs, rise and beat to death the last remaining!” [14]. The Sheikh who did not abjure the fight at least to the last Chechen, was as immediately reputed a pacifist, together with Tolstoy, who denied extreme measures only in exceptional cases. “Everything about him – his eyes, manners, way of expression – indicated that  the principle laid down deeply in him by nature itself – was not the humility and obedience, but a struggle, a passionate fight to the end” [15], the playwright Timkovsky N. wrote, calling the writer’s works “lashes” that “incurred displeasure with the mighties of this world”.

“Do not carry weapons on you. Stay away from it. Weapons remind you of violence, and take away from the Tariqa. The power of weapons is nothing compared to the power of the soul of a man, who is following Tariqa the right way” [14], Kunta-Haji urged his people.

The Almighty welcomes that murid who spends his time doing good, for instance repairing roads and bridges, planting trees along the roads… Murid is obliged to visit the sick… He should be interested in what the elderly, orphans, all the sickly and feeble need, provide them with all possible assistance…” [14], we read in the teachings of the young Sheik. Who does not recognize the good works of Leo Tolstoy in them, down to the “project of stocking the entire Russia with forests” developed by him? [16] And if he was not fated to implement this project, then he “laid out apple orchards” and “carried out a great afforestation” in Yasnaya Polyana [16], Stepan Andreevich Bers writes about it, emphasizing that in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy managed the household himself.

“The attitude to animals should be more careful than to the man, for they do not know what they do. One should not beat, curse the animal that got into the garden… To torture, torment animals is a grave sin. It is a sin to kill innocent birds, insects, all living things. All living things, if they do not harm the man, should be protected by murids” [14], Sheikh urged.

Tolstoy’s servant Arbuzov S.P, while remembering the walk with the count to the Optina Hermitage in 1878, said that Tolstoy had given him 20 rubles for spending, that he “was obliged to give by 10, 15 kopecks” [16] to the poor when meeting them along the way. When the monastic elder asked him “whether the count was kind”, Tolstoy’s servant answered that “…he is kind to widows with children in particular: plows the land with his own hands, mows the grass and gathers all the crops” [16]. Why did Tolstoy help widows and orphans, paying special attention to them among overall peasant environment? We find the answer to this question in Chechnya. Permanent war increased the number of widows and orphans, who should have been cared about first of all. For Chechens it meant the rescue and preservation of the nation. For Tolstoy, who had returned to Russia from Chechnya, it was a testament of his spiritual Master.

Having managed to defend his convictions before the church, Tolstoy realized quite well that after his death he would fall into the dependence on the will of his wife who was not reconciled with him. Their almost half a century life together did not make them closer in spirit. All Leo Tolstoy’s attempts to escape from her ended in failure. And the last escape was not an exception too. However, having received on his deathbed neither his spouse nor the priest who insisted on visiting him, Tolstoy showed everyone that they were both strangers to him in the face of God. By breaking the will of the deceased and conducting the funeral rite, the Countess Sophia Andreyevna confirmed the worst fears of her husband.

In 2009 in Moscow the book “The Heritage. Sheikh Denis and Bagauddin Arsanovs. The Collection of the Contemporaries’ Memoirs” by Abdul Razak Arsanov was published (the number of printed copies is 500), which states that “Sheikh Bagauddin Arsanov at the confluence of people was discussing Leo Tolstoy at the concourse of many people. He said: “Leo Tolstoy strongly believed in God… He knew that God knows about everything on the earth, that everything that happens on the earth takes place only with the permission and will of God. Nothing happens without his permission. God referred Tolstoy’s cases to ovliys (saints – Ed.). God gave him permission to rise to the fourth heaven. If Tolstoy had been given the rank of an ovliy, they should have made Muslims his seven deceased fathers – ancestors and seven future generations. For this reason the ovliys came to the conclusion and decided to make the very Tolstoy only a Muslim and leave it as it was”.

The Arsanovs are another highly respected and revered family in Chechnya. Dany Arsanov of Taipa Engenoy was the founder of one of the largest Vainakh virds (brotherhoods) that relate to the trend of the Naqshbandi of Sufi Islam. By the will of God, he was endowed with the ability to see the hidden, foresee the future and, as much as possible, influence the fate. When remembering Tolstoy with fellow villagers, Saint Denis Arsanov’s son Sheikh Bagauddin spoke of him as he were not a writer, the Chechens who were listening to him, were not surprised and did not challenge it. There is a feeling that nothing extraordinary is heard by the audience… But Sheikh Bagauddin gives utterance to what is going on in the after-world! Everyone knows now that Tolstoy was not the “right” Christian, but he did not “leave” any direct evidence of his conversion to Islam. He was buried in a coffin, which is unacceptable in Islam, no one heard Arabic prayers from his mouth, and the fact that he went to the forest to pray, someone is even inclined to regard as the paganism, which was alien to Tolstoy at all. Which religion should one refer Tolstoy to, if the real world does not accept a halfway policy. And why should it bother a Chechen – Sheikh Bagauddin? However, one person, who has little to do with literature at all, speaks confidently of Tolstoy as a Muslim, and the other who has still little to do with the writer’s work, is committed to deliver the words about Tolstoy to the general reader.

Sheikh Arsanov says that according to the decision taken by the saints, Tolstoy is unequivocally recognized not only as a Muslim but a selected among them. After all, he was allowed to rise to the “fourth heaven”. The concept of “seven heavens” exists both in Christianity and Judaism, and Islam.

According to the Holy Tradition the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless him and welcome) during his miraculous heavenly journey “Miraj”, when he was taken up to the throne of Allah, visited all the seven heavens. The Holy Tradition says as well what exactly the prophet saw in each of the heavens, but we will focus on the “fourth heaven” which is of much interest for us. There he met the Prophet Idris. Having learned what the Holy Tradition says about this prophet, we shall understand, who can be worthy of the fourth heaven.

Idris is identified with the biblical Enoch. In Islam, it is believed that he wrote the first Kalam (that is, created the written language – M.V.), he sewed and wore sewn clothes, was able to count the time, was an expert on ancient scriptures.

We may note the main common advantages of the prophet Idris and Tolstoy: the first one created the written language, the second was a brilliant writer; both sewed clothes for themselves; both were experts on ancient scriptures – Tolstoy studied the Greek language in order to translate all the four Gospels by himself.

To get to the rank of an ovliy (saint) Tolstoy, as we have seen, was prevented by the fact that seven of his descendants would for sure never be Muslims. As for his fathers… In my research works I argue that Leo Tolstoy’s real (biological) father was General Alexander Chechensky, taken out from Chechnya at the age of 5years from the exterminated village of Aldy in 1785. He was brought up in a Christian family, and lived in the Orthodox country, that is why, of course, he did not perform Islamic rites (in the extant church documents of the Pskov Region there is not any evidence that he lived in Orthodoxy). But the rest of Tolstoy’s ancestors on his paternal side were the true Muslims.

The unconditional thing to do for the ovliys in this situation was “to recognize only Tolstoy as a Muslim”. And that is stated in the book of Arsanov A., which also dispels indirectly the myth that Tolstoy towards the end of his life only had reviewed his spiritual and moral principles.

The Caucasus was “a romantic poem in an unknown tongue” for Tolstoy, until he came to this country of mountains. But until the end of his days he never wanted to return from the Caucasus in his moral and spiritual life. And therefore in autumn 1910 he did not ask himself where to run to from Yasnaya Polyana. He knew he ought to return to the land of his fathers. They say that his death on the road was not accidental. I think that the way it is. There is one thing that has to be established: who else could be initiated into the personal secret of the grand old man?




  1. Repin, I. (1978). L. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries (Vol. 1, p. 483). Мoscow, Soviet Union: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  2. N. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries: In 2 volumes (Vol. 1, p. 379). (1978). Мoscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  3. Tolstoy, L. (1985). Diaries. 1847-1894. Collected Works in 22 volumes (Vol. 21, p. 79). Moscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  4. Chesnov, J. To be a Chechen: Identity and ethnic identity of the people.
  5. Tolstaya, A. (1989). Father. The life of Leo Tolstoy (Vol. 21, p. 63, 462). Moscow: «Kniga».
  6. Refer to the photo by Prokudin-Gorsky “Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana”, May 23, 1908, photo with M. Gorky, Yasnaya Polyana, 1900.
  7. N. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries: In 2 volumes (Vol. 1, p. 210). (1978). Moscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  8. Sukhotina-Tolstaya, T. (1976). The Memoirs (p. 225, 227, 455, 405). Moscow.
  9. N. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries: In 2 volumes (Vol. 1, p. 210). (1978). Moscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  10. N. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries: In 2 volumes (Vol. 2, p. 210). (1978). Moscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  11. Fadeev, R. (2005). The Caucasian War (p. 263, 264). Moscow.
  12. Tolstoy’s Leaving. 4 volumes. (2014). Moscow.
  13. Seshil, U. (n.d.). “Scratches on the ruins” about that after passing the ritual to become a Muslim, Tolstoy married a Chechen woman Zezag, who bore him two girls after his departure from Chechnya.
  14. Tolstoy, L. (1985). Collected Works: In 22 volumes (Vol. 21, p. 420). Moscow.
  16. N. Tolstoy in the memoirs of contemporaries: In 2 volumes (Vol. 1, p. 14, 294, 308). (1978). Moscow: «Hudozhestvennaya Literatura».
  17. Arsanov, A. (2009). The Heritage. Sheikh Denis and Bagauddin Arsanovs. The collection of contemporaries’ memoirs. Moscow (number of copies: 500).