Dagestan’s Warrior Priest


Written by Corey Shepherd

July 23, 2021

In the fall of 1832, a young solider suffered a bayonet wound to the chest and was nursed back to health by his wife in a mountain hideout. In later correspondence he would remember this time of his wife’s care as one of the happiest of his life. That is, until she asked him how he could stay and rest while his people sought his guidance. Not long after that exchange, the young solider would leave his mountain hideout and become Imam Shamil, the great warrior priest of the Caucasus who is famous for the 25-year resistance he led against the advancing Imperial Russian Army.    

Every culture develops folk heroes over time whose legends grow through generations to mythical proportion. Their lives are remarkable for some principle they held to, a feat they accomplished or character trait they personified. In Dagestan, Imam Shamil stands alone as the greatest of all folk heroes.

Shamil remains one of the most common names Dagestani parents give to their boys. The main street in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, is named after him. His face is often seen on T-shirts, car windows, the sides of large buildings, and hanging in living rooms and offices alike.  Dagestani historian Zurab Shovkrinsky says of him, “Shamil is the very personification of Dagestan.”

As a boy Shamil excelled academically, mastering Arabic and Islamic theology and jurisprudence.

Humble Beginnings

Shamil was born in 1797 to an Avar family in the rugged mountain village of Gimry in Dagestan.  His birth name, Ali, was eventually changed by his grandfather because the boy struggled with chronic sickness. Name changing – believed to scare away evil spirits – was a common practice of Dagestani mountaineers.

As a boy Shamil excelled academically, mastering Arabic and Islamic theology and jurisprudence. His learning and spirituality earned him the respect of his village elders but not of his peers. Their jealousy eventually led a group of them to ambush Shamil, beating and stabbing him. In Dagestan’s culture of bravery and honor, it would have been shameful for Shamil to retreat to his parents for help, so he crawled into the forest where shepherds nursed him back to health.    

Imam Shamil wearing the traditional “Cherkessk” coat together with kinjal (knife) and a white turban to signify his spiritual authority

A Growing Legend

After he recovered, Shamil devoted himself to both academic and physical pursuits. He eventually grew to 6 feet, 3 inches tall and was a talented horseman, swordsman and warrior. The aforementioned bayonet wound occurred in the midst of hand-to-hand combat with Russian Imperial soldiers. In Sabres of Paradise, one of these soldiers wrote of Shamil’s physical prowess after witnessing this particular clash:

“This man, who was very tall and powerfully built, stood quite still, as if giving us time to take aim. Then, suddenly, with the spring of a wild beast, he leapt clean over the heads of the very line of soldiers about to fire on him, and landing behind them, whirling his sword…he cut down three of them, but was bayoneted by the fourth, the steel plunging deep into his chest. His face still extraordinary in its immobility, he seized the bayonet, pulled it from out of his own flesh, cut down the man and, with another superhuman leap, cleared the wall and vanished into the darkness. We were left absolutely dumbfounded.”

Shamil was one of only two mountaineers to survive the battle. He soon became the new leader of the Caucasian resistance that defied the Russian Empire without any aid from foreign armies from 1834 to 1859.  The Russian Empire had recently defeated the Persian Army, the Ottoman Empire and the French under Napoleon. Its rule extended all the way to China. The London Times, which often wrote about Shamil, called him the greatest chieftain that ever lived and dubbed him “The Lion of Dagestan.”  To the south, the Persians adopted a saying that “it was only a foolish shah who would attack Dagestan.”

For Western readers to understand Imam Shamil’s status among Dagestanis, a comparison might be made to George Washington, who for the sake of freedom fought a more powerful foe; to Paul Bunyan for the legend of his superhuman strength; to Billy Graham for his trusted spiritual counsel; or to Martin Luther King Jr. for his quest to bring justice to a repressed people.  For Dagestanis, Imam Shamil is all of these rolled into one figure.

As such, he is much more than a military champion. As a scholar and priest, he became an ambassador of Islam among the mountain peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya. In fact, one important factor enabling his military success was his ability to unite otherwise rival tribes in Dagestan and Chechnya through their common hatred of infidel Russian invaders. In Islam, he found an ideology to support resistance against Russian imperialism. The sabers of Shamil’s men, said Lesley Blanch, became their “keys to paradise.”

The London Times, which often wrote about Shamil, called him the greatest chieftain that ever lived and dubbed him “The Lion of Dagestan.”

Drastic Measures

Folk legends often reach their culmination when the hero gives his own life for the cause for which he lived. Shamil is sometimes criticized because he did eventually surrender to Imperial Russia rather than fighting to the death. But there is a story from his life that captures his readiness to sacrifice himself for the principles he taught and spread. 

Nine years into his rule as the leader of the Caucasian resistance, the loss on the part of mountaineers was great and many were calling on Shamil to give up the bloody fight and surrender to the Russians. Shamil’s mother, Bahou Messadou, was among those who sought an end to the ongoing conflict. After one particular meeting with Bahou, Shamil retreated to the mosque to pray and seek the will of Allah.  After three days in the mosque, Shamil emerged with an edict from on high — 100 lashes to the person that advised him to surrender to the Russians.

The imam knew this meant his mother. She was bound and brought before a watching crowd to await her sentence.  Shamil took the whip in his own hand and began to deliver the blows.  After five lashes, Bahou lost consciousness and Shamil could not bear to continue. But he believed the decree was from Allah, and so he commanded one of his assistants to administer the remaining 95 lashes to him instead of his mother. The assistant was hesitant, but Shamil threatened death if the soldier did not obey.  Ninety-five lashes later, Imam Shamil staggered to his feet bloodied and near unconsciousness himself. In stammering words, he commanded that news of the event be spread among the community, warning the war-weary to continue on in the great cause to which they had vowed themselves — even to death.   

Shamil’s mother was not the only member of his family to get caught up in the painful realities of war. In 1839 Shamil agreed to temporarily give his seven-yearold son, Jamaladin, to the Russians as a sign of good faith in negotiations. Against the terms of the agreement, the Russians secretly sent Jamaladin to St Petersburg where he remained in Russian captivity for 10 years. Shamil was enraged, and his resolve to fight was transformed into the fanaticism of a father robbed of his firstborn son. Shamil regained his son only after he and his men kidnapped and held hostage Princess Anna. She was one of the largest landowners in Georgia at the time and a former lady in waiting to Empress of Russia Alexandra Fedorovna. The capture of Anna became salacious news across the empire and eventually led to the writing of several best-selling novels. 

To this day, Shamil remains a topic of fascination and disagreement among both Caucasian and Russian historians and writers.

The Legend Lives On

Shamil occupied a larger-than-life status among Russians despite his enemy status, and his character often made it into novels and musicals of the time.  To this day, he remains a topic of fascination and disagreement among both Caucasian and Russian historians and writers.  

When Imam Shamil finally surrendered in 1859, he was treated as a returning hero in Russia. His accommodations outside of Moscow – and eventually Kiev – were generous for anyone, but especially an enemy commander who had caused the death of so many Russian soldiers. From captivity Shamil wrote, “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.”

Dagestan is now solidly part of Russia, and a terrible war was fought to answer that question. The legacy of Shamil, however, lives on, calling Dagestanis to aspire to his ideals of fairness, love for his land and people, bravery and dignity.  

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