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SHAMIL (c. 1797–1871), Muslim religious leader.

Born in Gimrah, in the Avar region of Dagestan, the Muslim religious leader Shamil founded his Islamic state in the Northeast Caucasus region of Chechnya and Dagestan from 1834 to 1859. This area was then part of the Russian Empire and remains part of the Russian Federation in the early twenty-first century. Shamil, who had access to the long and distinguished history of Dagestani contributions to Islamic scholarship, established Islamic law (sharia) and promoted ascetic Islamic customs among the diverse peoples of the region. His forces fought a protracted guerilla war against the Russian empire until he was surrounded and captured at the mountain hideout of Gunib in 1859.

Because of their regular and victorious wars against both the Ottoman Empire and Iran, the Russians were increasingly in control of southern borderland regions such as the Crimea and the Caucasus from the eighteenth century on. Georgian monarch Erekle II requested Russian support in 1783 against the surrounding Turkish, Persian, and North Caucasus mountain population, and Georgia served throughout the nineteenth century as an important Russian base for the military, administrative, and cultural incorporation of the region into the empire. Shamil's resistance in the mountains to the north continued to occupy Russia's military forces, however. Like other regions distant from the traditional centers of historic Islam, Shamil drew on the radicalism of local Sufi orders and networks. The conflict was a chapter in the larger story of Christian-Islamic tension prompted by European colonial expansion, with the Orthodox Georgians and Russians cooperating in the struggle against Shamil. The forces of Shamil famously assaulted the Chavchavadze estate in Georgia in 1855 and abducted a Georgian princess, whom Shamil later exchanged for his own son taken by the Russians in 1839.

After Shamil's capture in 1859, the Russian military turned its forces to the Northeast Caucasus mountain range, decimated this area, and exiled approximately four hundred thousand mountain inhabitants across the Black Sea to Ottoman Turkey. Subsequently Shamil lived with family members under Russian surveillance in Kaluga. In 1870 he traveled to the Ottoman Empire on a hajj to the Islamic holy lands, and died in Medina in March 1871.

The North Caucasus mountain regions remained prone to rebellion and opposition to rule from both imperial St. Petersburg and socialist Moscow. During World War II, Joseph Stalin and forces of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) accused the Muslim peoples of the region, such as the Chechens, Ingush, and Balkars, of collaboration with the approaching Germans, leading to the exile in 1943 and 1944 of approximately five hundred thousand people to Central Asia. As in the nineteenth century, many of those exiled died en route.

Shamil and the mountain insurgency in the North Caucasus was an ongoing subject of fascination for Russian literary figures from Alexander Pushkin to Leo Tolstoy, and the region remains a source of exploration in contemporary Russian cinema. Shamil's tour of Russian cities, including his journey to St. Petersburg to meet the tsar, in 1859 was extensively covered in the Russian press, where his story was presented as one of cultural transformation in the face of the virtues and superiority of Russian and European culture. In the North Caucasus, Shamil is remembered differently. The memory of the history of empire and deportation continues to inspire opposition to Russian rule, most recently in the ongoing Chechen Wars, which began in 1994. Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel, military strongman, and perpetrator of hostage-taking episodes and other forms of terrorism, claims to be distantly related to the nineteenth-century Shamil.

See alsoColonialism; Imperialism; Russia.


Gammer, Moshe. Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London, 1994.

Jersild, Austin. Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845–1917. Montreal, 2002.

Kemper, Michael, Amri Shikhsaidov, and Natalya Tagirova. "The Library of Imam Shamil." Princeton University Library Chronicle 64, no. 1 (2002): 121–140.

Layton, Susan. Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Sanders, Thomas, Ernest Tucker, and Gary Hamburg, eds. and trans. Russian-Muslim Confrontation in the Caucasus: Alternative Visions of the Conflict between Imam Shamil and the Russians, 1830–1859. New York, 2004.

Zelkina, Anna. In Quest for God and Freedom: The Sufi Response to the Russian Advance in the North Caucasus. London, 2000.

Austin Jersild

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