On March 16, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency posted a message on its Telegram channel claiming that Russia’s Islamic muftis – legal scholars – had come out in support of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
“Russian muftis expressed support for the special operation in Ukraine and called it a forced preventive defensive measure, ‘based on the Holy Quran’,” RIA Novosti’s message read.
The statement originated at a conference called “Spiritual Service and Social Mission of Religious Organizations in the Context of the Formation of All-Russian Civil Identity” in the city of Vladikavkaz, in Russia's North Caucasus region. The statement was signed by, among others, all the muftis of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus and Talgat Tadzhuddin, who is chairman of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia and the Supreme Mufti of Russia.
Trouble is, the notion that Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine was “defensive” or “preventative” is baseless Kremlin propaganda.
Russia’s war in Ukraine began in 2014 but escalated dramatically with a full-scale offensive on February 24. Ukraine planned no attack or hostile action against Russia. Not in 2014, and not in 2022. Nor did the NATO, the 30-nation security alliance whose members abut Ukraine’s western border, threaten any attack on Ukraine.
Furthermore, Kremlin leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and other top diplomats, repeatedly lied about having no plans to invade Ukraine even while building up a huge military force on the borders prior to the attack.
Now, the death toll – civilian and military – rises daily, with Russian bombardments pounding even residential areas and safe havens, Ukrainian authorities and survivors say.
Muftis are Islamic scholars whose role is to interpret Muslim law. So what does the Quran, Islam’s holy book, say about the ethics of waging war?
An oft-cited verse on the matter is Sura (chapter) 2:190: “Fight in the cause of Allah (God) those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.”
“Those who fight you” implies a defensive war. The context of the verse was the period in Islamic history when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers fled persecution in the city of Mecca and made a new home in the city of Yathrib, later known as Medina.
The Meccans continued to wage war against Muhammad’s Muslim followers, and the latter were commanded to fight back. This led to the Battle of Badr in 624 C.E., when a small Muslim force defeated the large Meccan army.
There is no substantiated evidence that Ukraine threatened Russia or its large Muslim population. Hence “fight those who fight you” makes little sense in Ukraine’s circumstances. Putin’s claims of mistreatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine, including in the Donbas region, where the Kremlin instigated deadly separatist fighting in 2014, were widely considered contrived to help create a pretext for war.
More importantly, the Quranic precept not to “transgress” is generally interpreted to mean Muslims must not engage in attacks on civilians, mutilations, or destruction of crops and livestock, for example.
By comparison, Russia’s current offensive against Ukraine has included indiscriminate attacks. According to the Ukrainian government, nearly 3,000 civilians reportedly have been killed just in Mariupol, where Russian arms hit a mosque that was sheltering 80 people. Suffice it to say, Russia has transgressed quite a lot and continues to do so.
Islamic just war theory permits fighting in response to a state’s persecution of Muslims. That would seem to make Russia a legitimate target, given that Muslims live in and are fighting for Ukraine and that Russia has long waged a campaign of suppression and violence against its own Muslims in the Caucasus, the Ural region and occupied Crimea.
In fact, Ukraine’s own Muslim leaders made appeals to Russia’s Muslims, pleading with them not to participate in the aggressive war against Ukraine.
“Your path to Ukraine in these circumstances is a true path either to murder or to death,” said Ayder Rustemov, the top mufti in Ukraine.
“There is no third possibility for you or for us. If you take part in the invasion, you will be directly or indirectly killing Muslims. You may encounter Muslims here who will defend their property, families and honor. And if they die, they will inshallah die as shahids (martyrs).”
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Muslim Crimean Tatars have frequently been the targets of Russian raids, searches and phony terrorism charges. Russia also has a history of tightly controlling the Muslim clergy.
For example, in 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)reported that Abdulla Agydamov, then acting mufti for the Russian federal republic of Tatarstan, expressed the need for greater scrutiny of imams who received education abroad. (RFE/RL is a sister U.S.-funded news agency to VOA.)
Islam is the second most common religion in Russia, although the number of adherents (7 percent of the population) is small compared to the overwhelming majority (63 percent) of Orthodox Christian believers.