When the Russians invaded, Mufti Said Ismahilov, 43, one of Ukraine’s Muslim spiritual leaders, had already decided that he would step aside from his religious duties to fight for his country.
Late last year, as warnings of an impending attack mounted, Ismahilov began training with a local territorial defense battalion. By then he had served as mufti for thirteen years.
Born and raised in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Ismahilov had fled Russia once before, in 2014, when Moscow-backed separatists captured his city. He eventually moved to a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv called Bucha, only to find himself, eight years later, at the heart of Moscow’s assault on Kyiv, and the site of atrocities that shocked the world. It seemed that the threat of Russian occupation would never end.
“This time I made a decision that I would not run away, I would not run away, but I would fight,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in Kostiantynivka, a town near the front lines in eastern Ukraine where a battle for control is raging. of the region intensifies.
Ismahilov began working as a military driver for paramedics evacuating the wounded from the front lines or from besieged cities. Ismahilov says that he sees his new job as “a continuation of my spiritual duty before God.”
“If you are not afraid and you can do this, then it is very important. The Prophet was a warrior himself,” says Ismahilov. “So I follow his example and I will neither run away nor hide. I will not turn my back on others.”
Ismahilov was one of dozens of Ukrainian Muslims who gathered at the Kostiantynivka mosque on Saturday to mark Eid al-Adha, a major religious holiday in Islam. The mosque is now the last remaining operational mosque in the Ukrainian-controlled territory of Donbas. Ismahilov told the Associated Press that there are about 30 mosques in the region in total, but most are now in Russian hands.
Last week, Russia captured the city of Lysychansk, the last major bastion of the Ukrainian resistance in the eastern province of Lugansk. The governor of the Lugansk region said on Saturday that Russian forces are now pushing towards the border with the neighboring Donetsk region.
Muslims make up nearly 1 percent of Ukraine’s population, which is predominantly Orthodox Christian. There is a large Muslim population in Crimea, home to the Crimean Tatars and illegally annexed by the Russians in 2014. The numbers there rise to 12%. There is also a sizeable Muslim community in eastern Ukraine, the result of waves of economic migration as the region industrialized and many Muslims migrated to the Donbas region to work in mines and factories.
The 2014 conflict forced many Muslims from Crimea and Donbas to move to other parts of the country where they joined long-established Tatar communities or built new Islamic centers alongside Turkish, Arab and Ukrainian converts.
But the invasion has forced many to flee once again. The mosque in Kostiantynivka used to serve a local Muslim population of several hundred people. On Saturday, few local residents who had traveled west with their families were present. Instead, the congregation was made up of soldiers or combat medics from different units: Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian converts from Kharkiv, Kyiv, and western Ukraine.
In his sermon after the traditional Eid prayers, Ismahilov told the congregation that this year’s Eid had a symbolic meaning in the midst of war and asked them to remember Muslims living in the occupied territories, where many have lost their homes and several mosques have been destroyed. destroyed by bombing. Referring to a series of arrests of Crimean Tatars in the wake of the 2014 annexation, Ismahilov said Muslims in the occupied territories do not feel safe.
“There is a lot of fear. … The war continues and we have no idea what is happening in the occupied territories and what situation the Muslims there are in,” he said.
Ismahilov told the Associated Press that he considers Russian Muslims invading Ukraine, including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s infamous Chechen battalions, to be “criminals.”
“They are committing sins and… they have come as murderers and occupiers, to a territory that is home to Ukrainians and Ukrainian Muslims, without any justification. Allah did not give them that right,” says Ismahilov. “They will answer for all this before God.”
Olha Bashei, 45, a lawyer-turned-paramedic from Kyiv who converted to Islam in 2015, says Russia is trying to “wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth.” Bashei started working as a frontline paramedic in Donbass in 2014. She regards this war as her ‘jihad’, a term to denote a holy war or personal struggle in Islam.
“This war is my war, and I defend my jihad because I have nephews, I have a mother, and I defend my home. I don’t want my nephews to ever see what I, unfortunately, saw in this war,” she said.
“Islam even helps me because in Islam, in the prayer, you somehow get distracted from the war because you read the prayer and you have a connection with the Almighty. For me, Islam is a force that supports me even in war.”
As soldiers prepared the customary sacrificial sheep for the Eid festival, a residential area in Kostiantynivka, several kilometers away, came under heavy shelling. The incoming artillery shook the ground. Some soldiers ran to the mosque bunker. Others shrugged and continued to drink their tea and eat dates. The bombardment caused several fires, injured several inhabitants and reduced the roofs to ashes.
Ismahilov said that they would pray for victory and the liberation of the occupied territories.
“We pray that our Muslim compatriots are safe, that our families are reunited, that the Muslims who are killed go to heaven, and that all Muslim soldiers defending their country are accepted as shahids (martyrs) by Allah.”