'I find strength to fast': Ukraine's Muslims celebrate Eid under Russian bombs

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7 min read
04 May, 2022
In-depth: Whether on the frontlines of battle or seeking refuge from the fighting, Ukrainian Muslims have faced a difficult and emotional Ramadan, with Eid celebrations overshadowed by violence.

As Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the lunar month of Ramadan, for Ukrainian Muslims it was a bittersweet festivity.

Many have spent the month fasting during the daylight hours, away from home, either as refugees or fighting on the front lines against Russia’s invasion, only to break their fast during a lull in the war.

Many are internally displaced in Ukraine, separated from their families. Others embraced Islam later in life and are separated from their spiritual family, the Muslim community of Kyiv.

On this Eid, while Muslims celebrated the fact that their country survived the initial Russian invasion, they enter an uncertain future, unsure where they will be spending their next Ramadan.

"Almost all of Ukraine's Muslims have been displaced due to the war"

Ukraine's Muslims

Prior to the 2014 annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, Muslims comprised about one percent of Ukraine’s population. While the Statistical Office of Ukraine does not have figures available, Sheikh Said Ismagilov, the mufti, or spiritual leader of Ukraine’s Muslims, estimates that the numbers range close to a million before the 2022 invasion, or 2%.   

Most of Ukraine’s Muslims are Crimean Tatars, the indigenous community of the Peninsula, and other Muslims from the former USSR or Russia proper, including Azeris, Uzbeks, and Muslims fleeing from the North Caucasus and the turmoil there.

Ukrainian Muslims also include those who might have been raised in Christian or secular households and embraced Islam later in life.

The community also consists of Arab, Turkish, or South Asian Muslim immigrants. After the annexation of Crimea, most Ukrainian Muslims lived in the capital Kyiv. All of these Muslims came together for Friday prayers in Kyiv prior to the war, and last year’s iftars included food ranging from biryani to Palestinian mansaf.

Almost all of Ukraine’s Muslims have been displaced due to the war.

Ukrainian Muslims, including some soldiers, gather to perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv on May 2, 2022. [Getty]
Ukrainian Muslims, including some soldiers, gather to perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv on 2 May 2022. [Getty]

Crimean Tatars

The history of the Crimean Tatars is that of dispersion and diaspora. Some fled the Peninsula centuries ago, when it became part of the Russian empire, primarily moving to the Ottoman Empire and living in today’s Turkey.

In 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported more than 191,000 Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan for allegedly being sympathetic to the invading Germans, even though a good number fought in the Red Army. Herded into cattle train cars, more than half died on the way.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Tatars were able to return to the Peninsula, which was part of an independent Ukraine. Nonetheless, since World War Two their homes had been occupied and they were never given any reparations or compensation.

In 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Tatar local assemblies were banned, and the community was discriminated against for being sympathetic to Ukraine. Close to 10 percent of the Tatars left the peninsula, some going to the capital, many going to the nearest Ukrainian city Kherson, which was occupied by Russia early in the 2022 war.

Some Crimean Tatars have therefore been made refugees twice in the last decade, in 2014 and 2022. Others went to Zaporizhzhia, the city next to the devastated Mariupol, which could be the next target of Russia’s offensive. 

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Ramadan under bombs

Ukrainian Muslims of all backgrounds witnessed disruptions to their lives prior to Ramadan 2022.    

Lisa, who embraced Islam as an adult, spoke to The New Arab about her experience of Ramadan in Ukraine during the war. When asked about the difficulties she faced, her first and most immediate concern was not for herself, but about the Ukrainian Muslims on the front lines and the difficulties they faced, fasting while defending their homeland.

She fled the capital Kyiv, where there was a Muslim community, to a small town in the Ukrainian countryside to the west with her children. There she commemorates Ramadan and Eid in a town where there are practically no other Muslims.

“Most of the people here do not understand the traditions associated with my faith,” she said.  

"Many have spent the month fasting during the daylight hours, away from home, either as refugees or fighting on the front lines against Russia's invasion, only to break their fast during a lull in the war"

“At first I even forgot that Ramadan is approaching with all the relocation and terrible news coming day after day. I wasn’t prepared for war. No one was. My mom reminded me that Ramadan starts in two days. I had no second thoughts on whether I should fast or not,” Aishe, who is of Crimean Tatar heritage, and fled to the Netherlands, told The New Arab.

Despite the circumstances, she was determined to fast, even though her weight dropped to 45 kg while displaced in Ukraine. Before Ramadan she volunteered at the refugee centre, but felt guilty for going there only three times during the holy month.

In the context of the war, the meaning of Ramadan took on new significance. One thing that stood out to her about Ramadan during war is her willingness to forgive. 

“I can manage to restrain myself from being angry or thinking and feeling bad about people who invaded my country. I am so proud of myself that in this difficult situation I find the strength to fast and Allah helps me a lot.”

She too is isolated, living in a foreign country, separated from her fellow Ukrainian Muslim community, but others have been welcoming and understanding of their faith. 

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“All the people who hosted us in the western part of Ukraine were very kind and tolerant to my Muslim background. The food they gave us was halal and they cooked just halal food while we were in their house,” said Elnara, who left Kyiv with her daughter on the 25th of February for the western part of Ukraine.

As the Russian offensive continued to move westward, Elnara and her daughter moved to Germany, where a family took them in.

“This family was also so tolerant of our religion. They bought just halal food for us,” she explained. However, she decided not to fast this year.

“We lived three families in one house. Some people slept in the kitchen. It was impossible to eat while people were sleeping there,” most likely speaking of the suhur meal prepared before sunrise. She simply did not have the luxury of concentrating on the “spiritual value of fasting during this stressful period of time”.

"On this Eid, the Ukrainian Muslims that spoke to The New Arab had one message for the world: that they and their nation not be forgotten as global attention fades from the war"

'To our victory, and beyond'

Sheikh Ismagilov, the mufti of Ukraine’s Muslim community, is a native of Donetsk and like other Crimean Tatars had to flee his hometown after Russian-backed separatists occupied eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. As he was an outspoken critic of the invasion, he faced the threat of arrest.

He remains undeterred and continues to be a voice of Ukrainian Muslims as well as a critic of the Russian invasion, particularly the Russian Muslim religious leaders who have backed Putin’s actions.

As a result of the war, he has become an imam-chaplain of the military forces defending Ukraine, along with a network of imams who attend to the needs of Muslim soldiers, including burial rites.

When asked by a local Ukrainian news organisation, “Do you plan to remain in Kyiv until victory?” he replied, “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.”

On this Eid, the Ukrainian Muslims that spoke to The New Arab had one message for the world: that they and their nation not be forgotten as global attention fades from the war.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi