Hamzat was raised in an Avar noble family in Dagestan and grew up in the former household of the khan of Avaristan. At an early age, Hamzat became involved in resistance movements and rose quickly through the ranks. He soon become a close confidante of the future first imam of Dagestan, Ghazi Muhammad. Muhammad’s attempts to initiate sharia law across all the tribes of Dagestan came at a time of divided loyalties among many tribes between Islamic influences and Imperial Russian pressures. The divisions throughout the north Caucasus led to civil war. Matters were further complicated when Russian forces intervened to quell the violence. Hamzat was chosen as the second imam of Dagestan by Naqshbandi leaders in mid-1832 following the death of Muhammad at the hands of Russian forces at the Battle of Gimri (King, 71-2).
The conflicts between believers in strict adherence to sharia law and those who followed the dual practice of local customary laws, or ‘adat, alongside Islamic sharia law had caused the civil war. Many highlanders in the Caucasus had converted to Islam years prior, but still retained ‘adat. These dual loyalties were a great source of frustration among many of Dagestan’s scholars and elites, and both Muhammad and Hamzat were staunchly opposed to any attempt by the highlanders to place Islam alongside “inferior” practices (Bobrovnikov, 2-3).
Moving to secure the loyalty of Dagestan’s tribes, Hamzat ordered offensives against towns and prominent leaders who did not submit to his orders to implement sharia law. The capture of the Avar capital in mid-1834 was one of Hamzat’s more violent offensives. Following this attack, Hamzat ordered the summary executions of the members of the ruling house, which included several former friends. After this act of brutality, many undecided factions turned against Hamzat. Later that year, Hamzat was murdered by several of his followers (King, 72).
The most notable depiction of Hamzat in popular culture is the dramatization of the Caucasus wars in Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat. In Tolstoy’s work, the protagonist is a guerilla fighter involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hamzat in retaliation for the summary executions of the Avar khans (Woodward, 75-7).
- Bobrovnikov, Vladimir. “Al-Azhar and Shari’a Courts in Twentieth-Century Caucasus.” Middle Eastern Studies 37 (Oct. 2001): 1-24.
- Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2008).
- Woodward, James B. “Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat”: The Evolution of Its Theme and Structure.” The Modern Language Review 68 (Oct. 1973): 870-82.