A Chechen adhering to views taught in Saudi Arabia and commonly referred to in Russian-speaking Islam as “Ahlus Sunnah,” will either be against any Muslim involvement at all in the war, or will take the side of Ukraine. By contrast, a supporter of official Islam is more likely to support Vladimir Putin’s regime, while talking about defending the homeland and opposing NATO and the collective West. 

Russia’s Spiritual Administrations of Muslims (SAM, or Muftiats) has long been part of the regime’s bureaucratic apparatus. But while muftis are officials by their function and cannot have a point of view that differs from the state, their support is not just about a fear of dismissal.  

Muftis are natural allies of the Kremlin, as it enables them to defend their power and status, not just their religious views. Many recall the late 1990s and early 2000s when they lost young people to Salafi Islam, which became a religion of social protest. They support a regime that opposes democracy and globalization because they fear democratization and globalization will destroy their spiritual and political power. 

Members of SAM not only announced that participation in the war in Ukraine is “halal” (permissible) for Muslims, but also demanded the same position from imams under their control. The mufti of Chechnya, Salakh Mezhiyev, recorded an appeal shortly after the full-scale invasion justifying Muslim participation in the war by arguing there is freedom of religion in Russia and it prohibits homosexuality. Soldiers would die as martyrs, he said, and sent representatives of the Chechen SAM to preach sermons on the frontline.  

The Mufti of Kabardino-Balkaria, Khazretali Dzasezhev, also supported the decision to launch the “special military operation” and called on the faithful to rally around Putin so the country could live in peace and tranquility. A similar call was made a month after the invasion by a gathering of muftis from across the North Caucasus (except muftis from Ingushetia and Dagestan) in Vladikavkaz. They issued a statement saying the war was halal and those who died fighting for Russia would be regarded as martyrs (much as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church promised that Christian soldiers dying in Ukraine would be cleansed of their sins.) 

At first glance, it would appear the Muslim communities of the North Caucasus have been obedient to their religious leaders and are united in supporting the war. Many hundreds of men from the region (close to 1,600 according to journalists) have fought and died in the conflict, and support has been shown through flash mobs, appeals, and collections of humanitarian aid for soldiers.  

However, this is a superficial impression; in reality, Muslims have an ambiguous attitude toward the invasion. 

Akhmed Sagov, who claims to be an official representative of the Muftiat of Ingushetia, was among the first to support Putin’s invasion and used an Instagram video to endorse the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy, citing verses from the Koran and drawing a parallel between the “sovereign” mentioned in the extract and the Russian president. But Ingush activists took a different view, labeling Sagov a “false mufti,” and demanding he should be prohibited from representing the Ingush community. 

Get the Latest
Sign up to receive regular emails and stay informed about CEPA’s work.

They regard Isa Khamkhoev, who has faced opposition from the authorities over recent years and remained publicly silent on the war in Ukraine, as their rightful mufti. In private, Ingush imams are known to discuss ethical concerns about participation in the war, angering those in power.  

The Prime Minister of Ingushetia, Magomed Evloev, was overheard criticizing an Ingush imam who said it was “haram” (forbidden) to engage in hostilities in Ukraine after the funeral of a serviceman who lost his life there. 

Dagestan, which has been scarred by conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, has seen a significant number of Muslims leave due to religious persecution.  

Those who voluntarily sign contracts and serve in the Russian army should no longer be considered Muslims, because the army has been involved in the killing of Muslims in Syria and other countries, Sasitlinsky said in a YouTube video viewed more than 240,000 times. Those who die while serving in Ukraine will not attain the status of martyrs, he warned. 

Dagestan has been historically marred by conflicts between religious movements and ethnic groups. The region has witnessed a significant number of Muslims leaving due to religious persecution.  

Sasitlinsky argued that no Muslim can serve in the Russian army, and those who die while serving there will not attain the status of shaheeds (martyrs.) Additionally, Abdullah Kosteksky, who is also wanted for alleged involvement in terrorist activities, stated on February 26, 2022, that it is forbidden for Muslims to fight in the army of the taghut (an Arabic term referring to a tyrannical authority), and that serving non-Muslims is considered haram (forbidden.) Kosteksky emphasized that Muslims should not participate in battles between two non-Muslim factions, regardless of whether it is in the Russian or Ukrainian army. I would venture to say that the followers of Abu-Umar Sasitlinsky and Abdullah Kosteksky in Dagestan are no fewer than those of Mufti Akhmed Abdulaev. 

Sources in Kabardino-Balkaria who have spoken to this author report that likewise, many imams there say privately that it is forbidden for Muslims to engage in this war, and agree those dying in the conflict will not be considered martyrs. 

There are two other significant Muslim responses. The first is Muslims actively involved in fighting for Ukraine, including Chechens, Dagestanis, Circassians, and Ingush, some of whom were already in Ukraine before the full-scale invasion. Religious Circassians maintain their own telegram channel, and Dagestanis living in Turkey present a radically anti-Russian Islamic perspective on the war on social media

In October, Ruslan Azhiev, also known as Abdul-Hakim Shishani, a prominent field commander from the Caucasus who had been operating in Syria, arrived in Ukraine along with several dozen of his fighters. One of his goals was to encourage greater Muslim participation in the conflict with Russia. 

One barrier to more Muslims taking up arms for Ukraine is a lack of trust in international institutions, which they see as having allowed the mistreatment of Muslims in countries such as Syria, China, Burma, and Russia. 

Views about the war among Muslims in the Russian North Caucasus are often influenced by their personal connections with the Russian bureaucracy, underground movements, or dissident circles. As elsewhere, support for the war and the governing regime is primarily driven by people’s concerns about threats to their material well-being and fear of reprisals.  

Faith gives people the strength to stand against that tide. 

Zarina Sautieva is an in-residence fellow with CEPA’s Democracy Fellowship program. Her research centers on human rights and civil society formation in the North Caucasus. Previously, she was a Galina Starovoitove Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution and a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Zarina also served as a human rights defender at Stichting Justice Initiative in Russia and Minority Fellow at the OHCHR in Switzerland.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
Read More