Caucasian Imamate

Caucasian Imamate
إمامة القوقاز


Capital Not specified
Languages Arabic (official)[1]
Northeast Caucasian languages[2]
Religion Islam
Government Dīvān
   18281832 Ghazi Muhammad
  18321834 Gamzat-bek
  18341859 Imam Shamil
  1918 Najmuddin Hotso
   The Gazawat begins, the Imamate is established to combat the Russians 1828
   Overthrown by the Russian Empire 1859
Succeeded by
Russian Empire
1. ^ official,[1] administrative,[1] and religious language.[1]
2. ^ Incl. Avar, Dargin, Lezgin, Kumyk, Lak, Tabasaran, Rutul, Aghul, and others.
Not to be confused with the Caucasus Emirate

The Caucasian Imamate (Arabic: إمامة القوقاز `Imāmat al-Qawkāz), also known as the Caucasus Imamate, was the state established by the imams in Dagestan and Chechnya during the early and middle of the 19th century in the Northern Caucasus, to fight against the Russian Empire during the Caucasian War, where Russia sought to conquer the Caucasus in order to secure communications with its new territories south of the mountains.


Previously in the Northeast Caucasus, there had, since recordable history, been a large array of states.

Caucasian Albania had existed in Southern Dagestan, for most of its history being a vassal under the direct rule of the Parthians and later the Sasanid Persians, but eventually, the majority converted to Islam following the Muslim conquest of Persia, as their overlords did. Traveling Arabs proved to be instrumental in this, and after they left, they relinquished the new Muslim states of Lezghia (centered in the Islamic learning center of Derbent), Lakia (centered in another, rival city of Islamic learning, Kumukh) and their less important neighbors. In these areas (Southern and Southeast Dagestan), where interethnic conflict was often present, Islam served a unifying role, and it was often the clerical establishment which mediated disputes. To this day, this is the most devotedly Islamic region of the Caucasus, with this as one of the major reasons.

Islam was far less well-ingrained, but still highly important, in Central and Western Dagestan. These areas had always lain far outside the influence of Caucasian Albania and similarly fiercely fought off (as the neighboring Chechens, or Vainakh at that time, did) the Arab invaders, with assistance from the Khazars.[2] Here lay Massaghetia, the Dargins and their neighbors, Didoya (probably a state of the modern, now marginal Dido peoples), and Sarir. The Georgian chronicles noted the existence of a Dzurdzuketia (Dzurdzuks, the Georgian name for the Vainakhs, the ancestors of Chechens and Ingush), which appears to have been absorbed into Alania at times, constituting an important part of the latter. Sarir was the strongest. Sarir at times adopted Christianity as the nominal, but not in reality, official religion.[2] It was reduced at various times to a puppet state of Alania, Khazaria, or Sarmatia. In this area, kingdoms arose and fell or were subjugated frequently, and the Dido were reduced to their current state.

In Chechnya, Islam was considerably less ingrained than in the Imamate's other claims. Islam only began to make inroads in the 16th century in Chechnya, and even then was not highly important, with the indigenous Vainakh religion still holding strong. It was only at the point of the threat of Russian conquest that people began to turn en masse, to Islam as a way to mobilize a coordinated resistance to Russian encroachment. Islam was spread to the Chechens this way mainly through the work of Sheikh Mansur. Nonetheless, as Shamil and his predecessors discovered, the actual commitment of the Chechens to Islam was disappointingly small. Paganism remained in practice until the early 19th century, and Chechen Islam today is often described as lax (often epitomized by the popularity of tobacco and alcohol) and is indeed, highly syncretic with Chechens building mosques near streams, and referring to God as Deila, the old head of the Vainakh pantheon. For these reasons, the Chechens became "unreliable" and there was a mutual dislike between them and Avar Imams.

However, although Islam was indeed extremely important in parts of the Caucasus, and was also a unifying force for resistance to Russia, political Islam was challenged by many different groups. Islam in Central and Northern Dagestan and Chechnya was overwhelmingly Naqshbandi at this time.[3] However, Naqshbandiism, which was highly mystical in nature, had internal divisions over whether it should be political or whether, indeed, political Sufism tainted the religion's purity.[4] The drive to establish sharia law in particular was opposed on many fronts. First of all, the indigenous Caucasian elites of states run by Avars, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks and others (particularly the widow ruler Pakhu Bike, Queen of the Khanate of Avaria) opposed it as it seemed to take legitimacy away from their own positions.[5] Sharia also clashed with adat, the indigenous law system that many, especially peoples such as the Chechens, viewed as superior to sharia.[5] For these reasons, and other more subtle ones, in most areas the Imamate claimed as its domain, it was, in fact, simply viewed as the lesser evil to Russia.


Parts of the Muslim population started to radicalize due to rapacious Russian activity and taxation, and were calling for a Gazawat (Holy War) and the enforcement of Sharia. Two radical imams, Imam Ghazi Muhammad and Imam Shamil, attempted to initiate the Gazawat they called for by trying to seize the capital of Khunzakh from the khan of Pakkou-Bekkhe in 1827. The attack failed and so, disheartened, the imams bided their time, waiting for the various Muslim tribes to agree with one another. In 1828, the two attacked again, this time in Northern Dagestan, and with success.

The Russians, who at the time ruled over Northern Dagestan, were used to fighting on the open battlefields of Europe in lined formation instead of the Thick woods of the Caucasus and so were very unprepared for the guerrilla tactics the two imams, resulting in a victory for Ghazi and Shamil. Though, this action would start the Caucasian War, a war between the Imamate and Russia that would eventually lead to the capture of all the Caucasus by the Russian Empire.

Here the Imamate was formed, with Ghazi self-appointed as its first leader. The supreme government body of the Imamate, the State Council (Dīvān) was formed which consisted of Sufi Muslim scholars and students as well as Shamil's military lieutenants, his Naibs.

For military details see Murid War.


During the war the Imamate would see support from other Muslim tribes, eventually amalgamating with Chechnya, parts of Ingushetia and the rest of Dagestan during the Imamship of Imam Shamil. The western tribes, the Adyghes would fall under the control of the Imamate during Shamil's rule as well, but a problem arose in the form of the Kabardins and Ossetians that sat in between Shamil's east and west tribes, so these tribes were run mainly by Shamil's naibs who had traveled to the west instead of the Dīvān itself.


The Imamate's first leader was Imam Ghazi Muhammad, who ruled from 1828 until 1832, when he was succeeded by Gamzat-bek four years later. When he was murdered in 1834, by a band which included Hadji Murad, Shamil became the third imam. The Imamate reached its peak under Shamil's rule, spanning all of the Muslim Northern Caucasus.

The Imamate was a highly militaristic country, having been at war since its establishment. Its politics were always concerned with the furthering of Islam or the Caucasian War. As such, the only people that ever sat on its council were Muslim scholars or military naibs.

The war and the surrender of the Imamate

The war with Russia had several great victories early on, but at the time Russia hadn't really committed to the war seriously. With their great victory over Napoleon's Grand Army, the Russian people saw little concern in the petty Asiatic resistance occurring on their southern border. However, the Caucasians did reach a point where they pushed the Russians back hard enough to warrant a full-scale attack. In 1832, Shamil and Ghazi launched a failed attack on Vladikavkaz, which was at the time a Russian military fort mockingly named "Ruler of The Caucasus". The Russians countered, launching an assault on what was as close to a capital as the Imamate had, Gimry. This resulted in the seizure of the town by the Russians and the death of Ghazi Muhammad. Shamil himself was the only man to escape the battle, after which he went into hiding to evade the Russians. Everyone assumed him to be dead.

In the absence of Shamil, an imam by the name of Gamzat-bek ruled. Gamzat-bek was an imam who had played a vital role in securing the Avar Khans for the Imamate, and had since been a naib to Shamil and Ghazi. Shamil returned a year later, only to have Gamzat-bek assassinated by the same Avar Khanates he had defeated. With no one else to take the position, Shamil became the 3rd leader of the Imamate. Shamil would turn out to be the greatest of the Imams by far, and would rule for 27 years. He would conquer the Western Muslim tribes, and transform a group of small bickering villages into a united country. However, he would also see great casualties to his people too, particularly in the Siege of Akhoulgo where he would personally lose around 4500 of his own people. But he would continue to rule until 1859, when the Emperor of Russia would offer Shamil a peaceful surrender, he would even be a guest of the royal palace. Shamil agreed, and The Caucasian Imamate was no more. However, fighting did not immediately cease.

The fate of Imam Shamil

As Charles King notes,

Whereas previous enemies of the empire had been imprisoned, killed or exiled, Shamil became a national celebrity [in Russia]. After his surrender, he settled into a comfortable retirement in Kaluga, southeast of Moscow.[6]

In 1859, Shamil wrote to one of his sons: "By the will of the Almighty, the Absolute Governor, I have fallen into the hands of unbelievers... the Great Emperor... has settled me here... in a tall, spacious house with carpets and all the necessities." [6][7]

Fourth Imamate

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, an attempt to reestablish the Imamate with the help of Turkey, during March–April 1918 was made by the son of one of Shamil's naibs, Najmuddin Hotso. This name stems from the Dagestani settlement of Gotso (when he was awarded nobility by Tsar). He was pronounced the fourth Imam of the North Caucasus and deposed the Soviet power, but was soon defeated by the Soviets. Hotso only had support in Dagestan, and there he carried on his fight (in Chechnya, meanwhile, North Caucasian nationalists of various creeds similarly went into guerrilla war against the Russians). Both were finally quelled in 1925.[8]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Zelkina, Anna (2000). Owens, Jonathan, ed. Arabic As a Minority Language. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 98–100. ISBN 9783110165784.
  2. 1 2 Jaimoukha, Amjad. The Chechens: A Handbook. Page 32
  3. King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. p69
  4. King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Page 69
  5. 1 2 King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Pages 64-73
  6. 1 2 King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Page 91.
  7. Pis'mo Shamilia Mukhammadanu, NOvember 24, 1859, in Omarov, ed. 100 pisem Shamilia
  8. Dunlop. Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict. Pages 40-42

Further reading

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