Imam Shamil was born in 1797 in the small village of Gimry which is in current-day Dagestan, Russia. He was Avar like Nurmagomedov Family. His father was a free landlord, and this position allowed Shamil and close friends Ghazi Mullah to study many subjects including Arabic and logic. Shamil also joined the Naqshbandi Mujaddidy Khalidiya Sufi order, and established himself as a well-respected and educated man among other Muslims of the Caucasus.
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 (1804-1813) and Russo-Turkish War). Following the Russian invasion, many Caucasian nations united in resistance to harsh Tsarist 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 and the Imam of the Naqshbandi Mujadidyi Khalidiya Tariqat. In 1839 (June-August), Shamil and his followers, numbering about 4000 men, women and children found themselves under siege in their mountain stronghold of Akhoulgo, nestled in the bend of the Andee Koisou River, about ten miles east of Gimry. This epic siege of the war lasted eighty days, resulting finally in a Russian victory. The Russians suffered about 3000 casualties in taking the stronghold, while the rebels were almost entirely slaughtered after extremely bitter fighting where typical of the war, no quarter was either asked or given. Shamil and a small party of his closest followers, including some family miraculously managed to escape down the cliffs and through the Russian siege lines during the final days at Akhoulgo. Following his escape he once again set about regaining his following and resisting the Russian occupation. 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 Saint Petersburg to meet the Emperor Alexander II. Afterwards he was exiled to Kaluga, then a small town near Moscow. After several years in Kaluga he complained to the authorities about the climate and in December, 1868 Shamil received the permission to move to Kiev, a commercial center of the Empire's southwest. In Kiev he was afforded a mansion at the Aleksandrovskaya Street. The Imperial authorities ordered the Kievan superintendent to keep Shamil under "strict but not overly burdensome surveillance" and allotted the city a significant sum for the needs of the exilee. Shamil seemed to have liked his luxurious detainment as well as the city as confirmed the letters he sent from Kiev.
In 1869 he was given a permission to take Hajj to the holy city of Mecca. He traveled there by ship from Kiev through Odessa and Istanbul. He died in Medina in 1871 while visiting the city, and was buried in the Jannatul Baqi which is also the site where many important personalities from Islamic history are buried. His two sons (Cemaleddin and Muhammed Şefi) became officers in the Russian army, while two other sons (Muhammed Gazi and Muhammed Kamil) served in the Turkish 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.