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Defending the homeland is a sacred duty: stories of Muslims in the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Soldiers of different faiths, ethnicities, and worldviews are currently defending Ukraine from the Russian invasion at the frontline. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, every fourth battalion of the Ukrainian army has Muslims serving. Each of them has their own story, but all of them share the same desire – Ukrainian victory.

Serhii (Murad) Putilin

“Now, there are a lot of Muslims in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Crimean Tatars and Muslims who came from Europe and other parts of the world to fight for Ukraine. I can’t even say the exact number. Still, the count is in the thousands,” says Murad Putilin, Head of the Department of Military Chaplaincy of Muslims of Ukraine, an Officer of the Department for interaction with religious organizations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Mr. Murad was born in Kharkiv and reverted to Islam in 1996. In 2015, he started working as a military chaplain.

Photo: Natali Kravets

“A chaplain is a person who works with the spirit of a warrior and provides spiritual and pastoral care. This means visiting his brothers in faith, reading the Koran, praying together, socializing, even just cooking, and reading dua (a Muslim’s prayer, an appeal to Allah – ed.). All these things encourage and recharge a person. You feel this exchange: you give and take. It’s just human communication.”

Murad Putilin was one of the drafters of the law on military chaplaincy. This institution is now gaining momentum in Ukraine, although it sometimes faces criticism. As a successful example, he cites the chaplaincy service in the United States, which has been operating there for almost 250 years.

Putilin says that in 2022, he traveled 5,000 to 6,000 kilometers every month. He visited the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Izium, Bakhmut, Kupiansk, and other places where active hostilities occur. The goal is the same: to find Muslim soldiers, take them under care, and help them. According to Mr. Murad, since 2022, the number of military personnel professing Islam has increased significantly.

“There are several battalions of Crimean Tatars, a few Dagestani, 3-4 Chechen. There are many guys from Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. There are a lot of them. There are those we know and those we have not heard of. However, it is simply impossible to check the exact number. At least for now.”

Many soldiers who practice Islam hide their identities to protect their families who stay in the temporarily occupied territories. This practice is common among Crimean Tatars and Chechens fighting for Ukraine. 

Muslim military chaplains. From left to right: Yevhen Glushchenko, Mufti Sheikh Said Ismagilov, Murad Putilin.
Photo: Religion in Ukraine

Despite the large number of Muslims in the army, Murad says that there are still unresolved issues regarding the specifics of their service. The main one is halal food, as there are no such options in the military field rations in Ukraine yet.

“We have already started to move forward regarding amendments to some regulations on halal food. This issue is still being resolved, and Inshallah (God willing – ed.), it will be resolved. At the beginning of the war, this was a big problem. But now, the guys tell us that even in stores near the front, you can find halal meat.” 

There are some ritualistic actions that a Muslim must perform, for example, praying five times a day and fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, Murad explains. “But this is combat. We all understand that. A soldier cannot say, ‘I’m going to pray now and let the enemy attack there.’ In Islam, all these rituals are adapted to life situations. It is even written that when you are a ‘traveler,’ you have an easing from Allah. You can do three prayers instead of 5. You can postpone or shorten them. The same is true of the fast during Ramadan. You don’t have to keep it but must fulfill it when you can. This can be done throughout the year until the next Ramadan. Nevertheless, many guys observe it, even during active hostilities.”

Muslims are also fighting in the ranks of the Russian Armed Forces. For example, the “Kadyrovites” (militaries controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic – ed.) emphasize that this is their “holy war.” “It is not clear against whom and what,” Murad says.

“We are fighting for the truth and defending our homeland, our native land, our families, our homes. This is our duty. It is written in the Koran. There is a story about a man who came to the Prophet Muhammad and said: ‘My neighbor wants to take my land,’ and the Prophet said not to give it away. And if you have to fight for it, then fight. ‘If they kill you, you will go to Jannah (afterlife for the righteous Muslims – ed.). If you kill him, he will go to Jahannam.’ It’s simple: defending the homeland is a sacred duty of a Muslim and a human being in general.”

Isa Akaiev (Nariman Bilyalov)

“I first came to Crimea in 1989; in the early 90s, I moved there with my family. At that time, the return of Crimean Tatars to their homeland had become widespread. There was no direct permission yet, but there was no ban either. Therefore, taking advantage of the weakening of the communist regime, the majority of Crimeans began to return home,” says Isa Akaiev (Nariman Bilyalov), a Crimean Tatar and a commander of the Crimea Battalion.

Photo: Edgar Su

His family, along with all Crimean Tatars, was illegally deported from Crimea by the Soviet regime in 1944. Isa first heard about the peninsula from his grandmother, but he says he did not see what she described when he returned there years later. Much of it was destroyed by the Soviet regime or never rebuilt after World War II.

“But it felt like when a person had been looking for something for a long time, and then he returned to his family, he realized that he had been looking in the wrong place. It was like coming home after a long journey.”

Until 2014, Akaiev was involved in the construction business with his younger brother. The business was finally formed in 2013-14, but “Russia came and crossed everything out again” with the war and the occupation of Crimea.

Akayev is in the center of the photo.
Photo: Isa’s personal archive

“I was ready to take part in the fighting. I realized that if Ukraine as a state does not survive, it will be terrible for the Crimean Tatars. In any case, all our memories will be destroyed by Russia. This time, Russia is trying to obliterate both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.”

Isa Akaiev notes that even now, Crimean Tatars are still hiding their identities for the safety of their families who stayed in Crimea.

“We understand that the occupiers can use this to threaten their families. Russians have no moral principles or boundaries. They connect things that cannot be connected, and it is unclear how they fit it into their heads.”

Currently, Russia illegally detains 190 Crimean political prisoners, 123 of whom are Crimean Tatars.

“Russia took away not just our land. It took away our culture and the opportunity to develop as an ethnic group. We lost our language, our people. We constantly consider ourselves inferior. But what did Russia give us? Nothing. Without Pushkin and Dostoevsky, I would live quietly until I was a hundred years old. What they consider great is of no value to us.”

Mr. Isa went to the front in 2014 in the eastern direction. At that time, the formation of the Crimean volunteer battalion began. It is now officially part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

“In Islam, your every action must be justified. When I took up the weapon, I repeated the words of Allah: ‘Fight those who expelled you from your homes.’ This is enough for me. I don’t know what arguments they (Russians – ed.) have.”

Akaiev recalled an emotional story about support from soldiers of other faiths, emphasizing that he had never faced misunderstanding or humiliation from others.

“When fasting in 2014, I was the only Muslim in the Mariupol airport. I will never forget how fellow soldiers saved some smoked fish from their military field rations because they knew I could not eat during the day. They would bring it to me and say, ‘This is for you for the evening, to warm you up.’ There were many such moments. Everyone was very understanding.”

Photo: Edgar Su

Isa believes that stereotypes about Muslims are a product of Russian propaganda, which calls his religion a relic of the past and associates it with “terrorism.” 

“Allah tells us to think and analyze constantly. Think about everything around us. We have to think and evolve. Everything I have achieved, who I have become, is from the Almighty. Thanks to Islam, I became who I am.”

The soldier is confident that he will be the first among those who will enter Crimea during its liberation and return to live on the peninsula after the victory.

“I left Crimea in 2014 only to return to it later. I have no right to give up the fight. Even if I want to, I won’t be able to do it because I would betray the memory of the people: their deaths would be meaningless. The living must understand this responsibility. We need a victory.”

Roman Zahorodnii

“True freedom is not an absolute permissiveness. True freedom is when you understand what is good for you and what is evil. Islam makes this difference clear,” says Roman Zahorodnii, a Muslim soldier who joined the Armed Forces in February 2022. He reverted to Islam in the summer of 2021.

Photo: Roman’s personal archive

“There are many roads to Islam, and each one is different. I was surrounded by many Muslims who followed the Koran, serving as righteous role models for me. Stereotypes have gradually faded; I studied Islam and eventually reverted. Islam gives meaning; all your life and everything you do becomes meaningful. If I were to summarize Islam in a few words, it’s about putting faith first.”

Roman was born in Mariupol. None of his close friends were Muslims, but everyone accepted his reversion to Islam quite positively. The soldier says that religion is not complicated; it is the person who makes it difficult.

“Islam is adapted to the life of a believer. For example, the Ramadan fast can also be postponed for a soldier or “worked off” by feeding the poor. This is the wisdom of religion because Allah does not burden a person so much that he cannot cope. He gives you the best possible tests to help you even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.”

Roman speaks positively about military personnel of other faiths, saying there were no clashes, only support for each other. As for halal food, he thinks it will be healthier for everyone. After all, many factors are considered when choosing halal meat, not just religious ones. For example, whether the manufacturer does not sponsor a terrorist state or whether it complies with sanitary standards.

Zahorodnii says that Islam is a way of life, and at the same time, Muslims have many responsibilities.

“Now we are under attack and have a duty to defend our country. Building good relations with fellow Ukrainians, investing, and doing the best for our country is also essential. This is all our responsibility.”

The most challenging thing for him during the war was the lack of opportunity to visit the mosque and communicate with his brothers and sisters in faith. However, he keeps his religious duties such as praying, studying, and fasting during hostilities.

“My first fast was during the offensive. I walked 5-8 km with 20 kg of equipment on me. It was difficult, but I managed to endure it.”

The soldier has not communicated with Muslims from the Russian Armed Forces, but he says he would like to ask them a few simple questions. 

“Why are you doing this? Why do you call me an attacker? And how am I an aggressor if my family lived peacefully in Mariupol and you destroyed it? I would say: how can you justify what Russia is doing and be part of its army? You go to someone else’s land, do wrong, and sin blatantly. Of course, the Russian Federation keeps religious structures in their country completely under control. The same applies to Muslims in Russia. Our only duty here is to resist justly.”

“In the end, we Muslims believe that you will be asked what you have done for your family, community, and country. You personally. And each of us is responsible for this contribution,” says Roman.

Serhii (Khalid) Khlystunov

“Islam is interpreted equally for all Muslims. If someone truly professes it, they will never go to war on someone else’s land. On the contrary, every Muslim should protect those who are oppressed,” says Serhii (Khalid) Khlystunov, a Muslim soldier who has been at the front since 2015 and reverted to Islam in 2019. 

Photo: Serhii’s personal archive

“I was interested in Islam long before the war, and when I got to the front… Things quickly escalated. It was then that I realized that something was keeping me in this world, and it was god,” Serhii explains.

During the ritual of reversion to Islam, Serhii chose his new name, Khalid. He explains that Khalid is a warrior, the sword of Allah, who has not lost a single battle.

“Islam requires certain actions and rules. You cannot just be a Muslim, and that’s it. These are prayers, fasting, and other important rituals. At first, it was difficult and uncomfortable in the conditions of hostilities, but you get used to it. An important point is hygiene and ablution before each prayer. Everything must be clean so that there is no impurity.”

Khalid did not witness any conflict situations among the Ukrainian military. He explains this by the fact that Islam teaches justice and goodness, so his actions cannot cause an adverse reaction; on the contrary, they are aimed at giving to people, not taking something from them.

“In my country, I am a mujahid – a fighter for justice. I am fighting for my land,” Khalid emphasizes.

Currently, thousands of Muslim soldiers in the Armed Forces are united by one goal: victory in the war. In addition, everyone said they would like to see unity in the Muslim community in Ukraine and internationally.

“Mentally and ethnically, we may be different. I am a Ukrainian Muslim, and there are Crimean Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, Yangush, and Dagestanis. Maybe this is the wisdom of Allah: “I created you as different peoples so that you could recognize each other,” said Murad Putilin.

Isa Akaiev calls Ukraine a unique example of unity, where three indigenous peoples, the Kyrymly, Karaites, and Crimeans, live alongside Ukrainians. They all have different languages and cultures but live in harmony. “This should show the world that it is possible to live together and create, not destroy.”