Muhammad Amin: Imam Shamil’s Naib to the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 154

Muhammad Amin

Muhammad (Asiyalo) Amin ibn Hajjio al-Honodi al-Daghestani, Shamil’s third naib, was the most significant deputy of the imam in the Northwest Caucasus in the mid 19th century. He occupied an important role in Circassian social, religious and political life for more than a decade (1848-1859), mainly among the egalitarian sub-ethnic group, the Abdzakh. His main goals, within Shamil’s jihad (holy war) concept, were “to raise the word of God,” [1] to bring all the divided Circassian sub-ethnic groups to join forces “into one combat body,” [2] and, finally, to join this united force with the imam and all the people of the North Caucasus in a concerted attack against Russian colonial expansion.

Muhammad Amin was born around 1818 or 1819 in the Avar village of Honoda in Daghestan. According to Shamil, when he was born his father gave him the name Muhammad as well as his mother’s name, Assii, as a nickname. In this way he became known among the people of Daghestan as Muhammad Asiyalo. Shamil, who corresponded with him in Arabic, addressed him as “ila Muhammaduna al-amin” [to our loyal Muhammad], probably as a sign of appreciation for his loyalty. The people amongst whom he acted misunderstood the imam’s letters, which is why both the Circassians and the Russians added amin [loyal] to his name, replacing the nickname Asiyalo. [3]

After the death of his father when he was 11 years old Muhammad Amin started to wander as a student (telmidh) seeking religious learning and experience. During his childhood he was taught by Diet-Bek, the judge (qadi) of Honoda, and completed his studies with the well-known Avarian Naqshbandi Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman (Abu Ahmad) al-Sughuri. [4] In 1834 to 1835, he joined Shamil’s movement as a murid and, as time passed became one of the imam’s most loyal men. Shamil made him a naib and Head of Province (mudir) in Little Chechnya before sending him to the Circassians. [5]

At the end of 1848, at the Circassians’ request, Muhammad Amin, in obedience to Shamil’s commands, arrived amongst the Abdzakh and “called upon the parties subjected to Russia, as well as upon those who were independent to unite in one common cause and expel the Russians from their country.” [6] Upon hearing this, thousands of families “of the independent Circassian tribes entered readily into the band of submission of the sacred law. [They then] threw off their allegiance to Russia, and devoted themselves to carrying out […his] measures [in order to paralyze] the ascendancy of the enemy of […their] faith and race.” [7]

Since his arrival amongst the Abdzakh, Muhammad Amin did not spend more than a week in the same place. His energy and personal experiences, achieved through his previous positions as a naib and mudir in the imam’s administration, helped him create a new internal order (nizam) based on the sacred law of Islam (shari‘a). The naib began rounding up all the Abdzakh males between the ages of 15 to 60 and asked them to repeat the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith). He recorded the names of the believers and insisted that they swore an oath of allegiance. [8]

During the winter of 1848 and 1849, Muhammad Amin was able to establish his authority amongst the Abdzakh. Thanks to his creativity and energy, the young naib enforced a “new order” among the local population in just a few months. The naib’s success paved the way for him to spread the orthodox-activist ideals of the Sufi movement of the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya brotherhood among other Circassian sub-ethnic groups in the Northwest Caucasus.

From 1849 to 1850, after order had been established amongst the Abdzakh, along with an increase in the recruitment of murtaziqs (horsemen and infantries) within the enlisted forces, Muhammad Amin began to force the hierarchical sub-ethnic groups into submission, including the Yejarquay, Makhosh, Chemgwi, Hatiquay, Bzhadugh, Beslany, and the Kabardian Emigrants (Beglye Kabardintsi) who lived in the region of the Kuban, Laba, and Urup rivers. Afterwards, the naib invaded the territories of the Shapsygh, Natkhuay, and Ubykh, while many parts of these egalitarian sub-ethnic groups became obedient, some voluntarily and others by force. [9]

In just two years, despite frequent Russian counteractions and opposition from factions of the local population, Muhammad Amin succeeded in enforcing an administrative system based on the shari‘a among a great part of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus. The naib efficiently erected courts of law (mahkamas), mosques, traditional schools (madrasas), a treasury (bayt al-mal) and introduced, as Shamil did in the Northeast Caucasus, a traditional Muslim system of taxation, which consisted of two main types of taxes: alms (zakat) and land tax (kharaj). He appointed muftis, qadis, imams, and mukhtars, who encouraged people to perform their religious duties. “All those who did not perform their duties were reprimanded by these authorities, who collected and organized, when necessary, the war contingent due from each tribe and punished all acts of violence and oppression among the people.” [10]

While unity and tranquility were thus established in the Northwest Caucasus, the Russians sowed the seeds of dissent among the allied Circassian sub-ethnic groups, “bribing some with money, supplying salt to others and gaining over the influential men among the tribes by many promises.” [11] A significant part of the local population, especially those who were brought into submission by force and who had only recently given Amin an oath of allegiance and recognized his authority, began to undermine him, causing his administrative system to collapse. Apart from a small group who agreed to grant him asylum, Muhammad Amin had lost his authority, but not his resourcefulness.

The prospect of a war between the Ottomans and Russia “was almost like the kiss of life,” [12] not for Shamil only, but for his deputy among the Circassians as well. Muhammad Amin, who witnessed the dissolution of almost all his achievements by the end of 1851, succeeded against all odds to bring again a great part of the Circassians under submission. In this way, he became the unshakable ruler in the Northwest Caucasus. Unity between the Circassian sub-ethnic groups, such as that achieved by Muhammad Amin,, had been unprecedented. Not during the long period in which Ottoman governors (valis) dominated several forts along the Black Sea coasts, nor even during the time of the former naibs of Shamil, Hajj Muhammad and Sulayman Efendi, [13] and certainly not under traditional Circassian leadership, had this ever been achieved. In fact, Muhammad Amin managed to significantly transcend local customs and tribal divisions in order to establish for the first time a “form of a theocratic state” based on the shari’a, despite weak foundations. However, after the Ottoman Empire declared war on Tsarist Russia in October 1853, Muhammad Amin’s position changed again, but this time not in his favor.

[1] UK, The National Archives (hereafter: NA), F.O. 195/443, “Report of Mehmed Emin, Naib of Sheikh Shamil to the Grand Vizier”, 15 August 1854 (Translation).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Apollon Ronowskii in Akty Sobrannye Kavkazskoi Arkheograficheskoi Kommissiei (hereafter: AKAK), (Tiflis, Vol. XII, 1904), p.1417 (hereafter: Ronowskii’s Diary).

[4] On ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sughuri, see Zeinab Mahomedova, “‘Abd al-Rahman-Hajji al-Sughuri – Advocate of Sufi Ideals and Ideologue of the Naqshbandi Tariqa”, in Moshe Gammer (ed.), Islam and Sufism in Daghestan (Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2009), pp.57-69.

[5] This description is based on the following sources: Ronowskii’s Diary, p.1417; Mirza Alexander Kazem-Bek, “Mokhammed Amin”, Russkoe Slovo (Vol. VI, 1860), pp.231-237; Nikolai Karlgof, “Magomet-Amin”, Kavkazskii kalendar’ na 1860 god (Tiflis: 1860), p.78.

[6] AKAK, Vol. X, p.590, document No. 544, Vorontsov to Chernyshev (secret), 8 [20] November 1847, No. 117.

[7] NA, F.O. 195/443, “Report of Mehmed Emin…”, 15 August 1854.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Arkhiv Adygeskii Respublikanskii Institut Gumaniternykh Nauk, Fond (f.) 1, Papka (pa.) 79, Delo (d.) 17, pp.52-53; Ibid., pa. 49, d. 23, pp.3-4; Theophil Lapinskii [Tefik Bey], Die Bergvölker des Kaukasus und ihr Freiheitskampf gegen die Russen (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, Vol. 1, 1863), p.276.

[10] NA, F.O. 195/443, “Report of Mehmed Emin…”, 15 August 1854; AKAK, Vol. X, pp.600-602, 682, 686, document Nos. 553, 633, 636, Rashpil to Zavadovskii, 2 [14] July 1859; Budberg to Vorontsov, 22 August [3 September] 1850; Budberg to Vorontsov (secret), 4 [16] February 1851, Nos. 75, 18 respectively; Karlgof, “Magomet-Amin”, pp.84-86; Lapinskii, Vol. 1, pp.275-278.

[11] NA, F.O. 195/443, “Report of Mehmed Emin…”, 15 August 1854.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Moshe Gammer, Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan (London: Frank Cass, 1994), p.267.

[14] For Hajj Muhammad’s and Sulayman Efendi’s activities in the Northwest Caucasus (1842-1846), see D. Sokolov, “Khadzhi Magomet (Spodvizhnik Shamilia. Istoricheskaia spravka)”, Kubanskii Sbornik (Ekaterinodar: Vol. XI, 1905), pp.53-64; G. N. Prozritelev, “Posol’stvo ot Shamilia k Abadzekham”, in A. N. Osmanov, ed. Mukhammad-Amin i Narodno-Osvoboditel’noe Dvizhenie Narodov Severo-Zapadnogo Kavkaza v 40-60 gg. XIX veka (Sbornik Dokumentov i Materialov), (Makhachkala: Iupiter, 1998), pp.48-53; A. Panesh, “Deiatel’nost’ Khazhi-Magometa i Suleimana-Ëfendiia na Severo-Zapadnom Kavkaze”, in Cherkesiia v XIX veke (Maikop: 1991), pp.92-107.