Since the breakout of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Sheikh Said Ismagilov, Mufti of the “Ummah” Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, has swapped his religious garments for a military uniform and became a chaplain for Muslim fighters in Kyiv’s volunteer Territorial Defense (TD) force.
Ismagilov met with NV at the city’s central railway station, where he was picking up an aid shipment dispatched from volunteers across the country. Currently, the preeminent spiritual leader of Ukrainian Muslims has great responsibilities, and typically works late into the night. In a moment of candor, Ismagilov said he was hoping to simply enlist to become a ordinary member of the TD, but his status propelled him into become a chaplain imam.
In conversation with NV, Ismagilov spoke about the involvement of Ukrainian Muslims in the war, the collaboration of Russian muftis with the FSB, and the influence of the Russian propaganda machine on religious Middle Eastern people.
NV: Where were you when the Russian invasion started on Feb. 24?
Ismagilov: I was asleep at home, and woke up to explosions. I lived – I can’t really say I still do, at this point – in an area of Kyiv Oblast that’s currently under temporary occupation.
Prior to that, I lived in Donetsk, which also fell under occupation in 2014. So, I’ve had to uproot and leave my home thanks to Muscovite “liberation” twice.
By the time they attacked last February, I’d already spent three months training with the TD. Our commanders warned us that the Russians were expected to invade at some point after Feb. 20. That meant I was ready for what was to come, mentally and otherwise, and acted accordingly, by the book.
NV: You joined the TD three months before the invasion?
Ismagilov: Yes, I enlisted in December, trained and took part in exercises. Even though I realized that the war was likely imminent, it wasn’t yet clear if it would come close to Kyiv. One still had to train and get ready.
NV: You said that on the invasion day, you were somewhere that’s currently under occupation. Did you leave for Kyiv immediately, or spend some time defending the area with TD forces?
Ismagilov: I had to get to Kyiv, since Russian troops were advancing rapidly, taking settlements in the region. Once in the capital, I joined a TD battalion.
NV: What are your duties there?
Ismagilov: At first, I joined as an ordinary line member. Unfortunately – because I didn’t want to do the same thing I do in my daily life – I was soon recognized, and a corresponding order made me a military chaplain. An imam-chaplain of Kyiv’s TD battalion, specifically.
NV: You didn’t want to be a chaplain?
Ismagilov: The commanders told me there was no one else who could perform religious rites and discharge religious duties. All others muftis and imams have apparently vanished and fled, or are doing nothing to provide spiritual support to our armed forces. So, the leadership of Kyiv’s TD asked me to assume these duties, and I had to relent.
NV: How would estimate the fighting spirit of the soldiers in your charge?
Ismagilov: Extremely positive. While I mostly talks to Muslims, I have non-Muslim friends and acquaintances. Everyone’s eager to fight. They strive to defeat the enemy and liberate Ukraine as soon as possible. Muslims are particularly keen to liberate the whole country, including Crimea and Donbas. Everyone is determined, fighters flock to mosques for Friday prayers. Naturally, their duties prevent some from attending every prayer session, but every Friday we have at least 30 warriors in attendance.
NV: What does your typical day look like?
Ismagilov: I wake up and do morning prayers. Then I get on to planning my day. I have orders to carry out in the battalion, do volunteer work, chaplain duties. On top of that, I’m also responsible for media relations with journalists from majority-Muslin countries (mostly Arab states and Turkey, among others). I brief them on the situation on the ground, explain nuances about Ukraine, and its Muslim population. It’s a lot to do, I usually work late into the night. Sometimes I have to appear on air on the TV channels of Arab and Muslim countries. I then need to somehow find the time to perform my duties as a chaplain, and do some volunteer work and also my regimental duties.
NV: How is the Muslim community aiding Ukraine?
Ismagilov: We are a part of our country and our society. The same as everyone else, we are involved in aspects of its life. There are Muslim doctors, paramedics, volunteers, chaplains, soldiers, border guards, National Guardsmen, and TD force volunteers. There are Muslim politicians, officials, and journalists. Basically, all of us are working towards our collective victory, in a collaborative fashion.
NV: You mentioned leading prayers for our fighters. What’s the situation with mosques in other hot spots around the country?
Ismagilov: Three mosques were shelled: in Kostyantynivka in Donetsk oblast, in Mariupol, and in Severodonetsk in Luhansk oblast. It’s unclear what the condition is of several mosques in Kharkiv. Imams from the mosques in the occupied areas around Luhansk were abducted, held captive somewhere for two days. They were then brought back to Luhansk Mosque, handcuffed, and coerced into renouncing their ties with our spiritual hierarchy, submitting to Russian spiritual authorities instead. This was then publicized as imams of the so-called “LPR and DPR” siding with Moscow’s spiritual authority.
NV: And they agreed to this?
Ismagilov: Who wouldn’t agree after two days of being imprisoned somewhere? They’re only human.
NV: Most prominent Russian muftis approve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Did you attempt to contact them, to explain what’s really going on?
Ismagilov: No, I didn’t even try. I know their Russian operation very well. All (Russian) muftis are in complete thrall to the FSB – it’s an open secret. I recorded an address to Russian Muslims, in Russian, when the war started, and it got me accused of extremism. I care little about that. When our women and children are getting murdered, when our very country is being destroyed in a war, there is no room for decorum and diplomatic procedure. The enemy should be called out, and met at every front: information, economic, and spiritual. On March 16, Russian muftis were gathered in Northern Caucasus, where they issued another statement of staunch support of Putin’s war on Ukraine. They all gave it their blessing.
NV: Our General Staff warned of Russian efforts to recruit people in the Middle East to fight in Ukraine. How would you characterize those Muslims who answer this call?
Ismagilov: Categorically negatively. I addressed the Muslims in the Middle East and the world, too. I told those who are tempted by Russia’s offer they would be siding with sin, crimes, and injustice. I tried to convey an objective outlook on what’s going on. I warned them that by siding with the aggressor, they would ride with sin, violence, death, and murder.
NV: Did your appeal garner a reaction?
Ismagilov: Yes, many Muslim TV channel from around the world contacted me, asking to paint them a realistic picture of the situation. However, many remain under the influence of many years of Russian propaganda, their Arabic TV station, broadcasting to Muslim countries.
NV: Do you plan to remain in Kyiv until victory?
Ismagilov: Until the victorious end, yes. I would go to the border, if need be. Being a member of the battalion, I expected to be but a fighter, not a cleric. So yes – to our victory, and beyond.