Richard Melson

January 2006

Shamil & Russia

Imam Shamil

Imam Shamil of Chechnya

Imam Shamil (1797 - March 1871) was an Avar political and religious leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucasus. He was a leader of anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War and was the third Imam of Dagestan and Chechnya (1834-1859).

Imam Shamil was born in 1797 in the small village of Gimry which is in current-day Dagestan. His father was a free landlord, and this position allowed Shamil to study many subjects including Arabic and logic. Shamil also joined a Sufi order, and established himself as a well-respected and educated man among other Muslims of the Caucasus. He made a pilgramige or hajj to Mecca in 1828 and there he met Abdel Kadir, from whom he learned guerrilla war tactics.

Shamil was born at a time when the Russian Empire was expanding into the territories of the Ottoman Empire and Persia (see Russo-Persian War, 1804-13 and Russo-Turkish Wars). Supported by the Persian Shah, many Caucasian tribes rebelled against Russian rule in what became known as the Caucasian War. Some of the earlier leaders of Caucasian resistance were Sheikh Mansur, and Ghazi Mollah. Shamil was actually childhood friends with Mollah, and would become his disciple.

In 1834, Ghazi Mollah died at the battle of Ghimri, and Shamil took his place as the premier leader of the Caucasian resistance. Shamil was effective at uniting the many, frequently quarreling, Caucasian tribes to fight against the Russians. He made effective use of guerrilla warfare tactics and the resistance continued under his leadership until 1859. On August 25, 1859 Shamil and his family surrendered to Russian forces and were jailed in the Dagestan aoul of Gunib.

After his capture, Shamil was sent to Moscow to meet the Tsar, and then was exiled to Kaluga, a small town near Moscow. In 1869 he was given permission to retire to the holy city of Mecca, and he travelled there through Istanbul. He died in Medina in 1871 while visiting the city, and was buried the Jannatul Baqi which is also the site where many important personalities from Islamic history are buried. His two sons became officers in the Russian army.

Shamil continues to be revered in the Caucasus for his resistance to the Russians, and is held up as a role-model by those leading the current fight against Russian control of the region.

The Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev is named after him.

Further reading


January 2, 2006