At the time of the Russian invasion, 43-year-old Mufti Said Ismahilov, one of Ukraine’s Muslim spiritual leaders, had already decided to step down from his religious duties to fight for his country.
Late last year, as warnings of an impending attack grew louder, Ismahilov began training with a local territorial defense battalion. By then he had served as mufti for 13 years.
Born and raised in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Ismahilov had fled Russia once before, in 2014 when Moscow-backed separatists took over his town. He eventually moved to a quiet suburb outside Kyiv called Bucha – only to find himself, eight years later, in the heart of Moscow’s assault on Kyiv and the site of atrocities that shocked the world. It was as if the threat of Russian occupation would never end.
“This time I made the decision that I would not run, I would not run 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 of the region is heating up.
Ismahilov began working as a military driver for paramedics evacuating the wounded from front lines or besieged towns. Tasked with driving in very dangerous conditions, but also emotionally supporting seriously injured people, Ismahilov says he sees his new job as “a continuation of my spiritual duty before God.”
“If you are not afraid and you can do it, then it is very important. The Prophet himself was a warrior,” says Ismahilov. “So I follow his example and neither will I run away or 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, an important religious holiday in Islam. The mosque is now the last remaining operational mosque in Ukrainian-controlled territory in the Donbass. Ismahilov told the AP that there are around 30 mosques in the area in total, but most are now in Russian hands.
Last week, Russia captured the town of Lysychansk, the last major Ukrainian resistance stronghold in the eastern province of Lugansk. The governor of the Lugansk region said on Saturday that Russian forces were now moving towards the border with neighboring Donetsk region.
Muslims make up nearly 1% of Ukraine’s population, which is predominantly Orthodox Christian. There is a large Muslim population in Crimea – home to Crimean Tatars and illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. The numbers there climb to 12%. There is also a large Muslim community in eastern Ukraine, the result of waves of economic migration as the region industrialized and many Muslims immigrated to the Donbas region to work in mines and factories. .
The 2014 conflict forced many Crimean and Donbass Muslims to resettle in other parts of the country where they joined long-established Tatar communities or built new Islamic centers alongside Turks, Arabs and Ukrainian converts.
But the invasion forced many people to flee once again. The Kostiantynivka Mosque once hosted a local Muslim population of several hundred people. On Saturday, few local residents were in attendance, having traveled west with their families. Instead, the congregation was made up of soldiers or combat medics from different units: Crimean Tatars and converted Ukrainians from Kharkiv, Kyiv and western Ukraine.
In his sermon following the traditional Eid prayers, Ismahilov told the congregation that this year’s Eid had symbolic significance in the midst of war, and asked them to remember the Muslims living in the occupied territories, where many lost their homes and several mosques were destroyed. destroyed by bombing. Referring to a series of arrests of Crimean Tartars following 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 the situation of Muslims there,” he said.
Ismahilov told the AP he views Russian Muslims invading Ukraine, including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s infamous Chechen battalions, as “criminals”.
“They commit sins and… they came as murderers and occupiers, to a territory which is the homeland of Ukrainians and Muslim Ukrainians, without any justification. Allah did not give them this 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, said Russia was trying to “wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth”. Bashei began working as a frontline paramedic in the Donbass in 2014. She considers this war to be her “jihad”, a term for a holy war or personal struggle in Islam.
“This war is my war, and I am defending my jihad because I have nephews, I have a mother and I am defending 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 prayer, you kind of turn away from war because you read the prayer and you have a connection with the Almighty. For me, the Islam is a force that sustains me even in times of war.”
As soldiers prepared the usual sacrificial sheep for the Eid holiday, a residential area of Kostiantynivka, several miles away, came under heavy shelling. The incoming artillery shook the ground. Soldiers ran towards the mosque bunker. Others ignored it and continued to drink their tea and eat dates. The bombardment caused several fires, injuring several residents and reducing roofs to ashes.
Ismahilov said 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 killed go to heaven and that all Muslim soldiers who defend their country are accepted as shahids (martyrs) by Allah.”