Muslims of Ukraine: History of Solidarity — 2

Sheikh Said Ismagilov: “In the Soviet era, the state did not recognize the existence of Islam in Ukraine”
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In the first part of the interview, Said ISMAGILOV, Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah,” described how the life of Ukrainian Muslims, particularly those who are on the occupied territories now, had changed in the past two years, and shared his own views on why this country had not been truly updated after the Revolution of Dignity. Read now about the sheikh’s viewpoint on the spiritual transformations that await Europe in the near future and the Muslims’ attitude to the challenges of secularization.

Sheikh Said, there have been more and more fears lately about the danger of Europe’s Islamization obviously following the inflow of refugees and especially after terrorist acts in Paris. What would you say to this? Is it right to speak of Islamization, taking into account the powerful impact of Muslim scientists and philosophers on the formation of European civilization?

“In my opinion, debates on the danger of Europe’s Islamization occur because Muslims are rather religious. Coming over from Morocco or Algeria, they try to attend mosques as much as they did in their homeland. Conversely, European society is very secularized. Most of the European Christians do not often go to church. For this reason, if you compare the religious practices of Christians and Muslims in Europe, you may gain an impression that there are too many of the latter there – sometimes there is not enough room for them all in a mosque and they have to pray right on the street. So, the idea of an Islamic danger emerges because followers of other religions are not so conspicuous. In reality, there are not so many Muslims in Europe.

“In Ukraine, it is in general ridiculous to speak of Islamization. Hypothetically, there are about a million Muslims in this country, but if you count those who go to mosque at least once a year, you will not gather even a half of this number. No one knows where the rest are. If representatives of other ethnicities, including Ukrainians, for whom this region is not traditional, embrace Islam, they do so as a result of longtime inner search. But there are very few instances of this kind. For example, I know that only 66 people have done so in Kyiv in the past 10 years, for I record all the new Muslims in my logbook.

“As for the inflow of refugees in Europe, the impression is that somebody deliberately caused them to go there. I was in Germany in late August and saw the beginning of it. The crowds of migrants shocked me. I wonder how this could happen at all. I remember having to produce fingerprints and bring photographs several times when I was applying for a visa. But these people get there without any documents. Obviously, someone who stands to gain from this organized a ‘corridor’ for them.”


Secularization is often regarded now as one the causes of a certain crisis of ideas and a decline of value-related guidelines among Europeans. Is this problem arising in the Muslim world? How is present-day Islam responding to these challenges?

“The problem of secularization is that it is unable to offer any alternative to the Divine, religious values. For human civilization emerged on the basis of the latter. Any morality has religious roots – it is based on the commandments that can be found in all worldwide religions: ‘thou shalt not kill,’ ‘thou shalt not steal,’ et al. See the constitution of any country – they are all based on religious rules, just without mentioning God. There is no such thing as ‘secularized morality’ – humans have invented nothing on their own. The crisis of ideas emerges because people reject religious values but are unable to find anything in lieu.

“The phenomenon of secularization also occurs in the Muslim world. The Muslims who have migrated to Europe are often not as religious as their parents were. For them, faith often turns into just honoring the tradition. In this context, it is a certain ‘adaptation’ to the realities of European society. We have the same problem here in Ukraine. For example, it was always considered that a lot of Tatars lived in Kyiv. We do not know where they are now. Older people are saying that their children and grandchildren ‘consider themselves Muslims’ but do not attend mosque. We can see similar tendencies among Christians.

“The best way to resist these phenomena is to bring up children properly. I am convinced that children should be taught Divine values, faith, a particular religious culture and tradition. As is known, one’s personal example is the best way of education. If a child grows up in this kind of a milieu, later, on reaching adulthood, he or she will be if not religious then at least respectful of the religious tradition. Of course, it also happens that excessive religious upbringing triggers a protest or even leads one to atheism, but occurs very seldom. In our Muslim community, we try to teach children to respect faith and religion.”

One of the key signs of the current secular era is transformation of religion into an object of choice. For even a few hundred years ago, one could not imagine a situation when they would have to decide whether or not to believe in God or which of the many religions to “choose.” Religious awareness was an integral part of human existence. Speaking of Islam in the world and in Ukraine particularly, can we say it is still mostly “a faith of parents”? What part of the believers is making a deliberate choice in favor of this religion?

“Before the 20th century, Islam was, almost like Christianity, very traditional. The Muslim world was on the decline, for religion was treated as a faith of parents, a folk tradition. But then Islam saw a period of rapid resurgence. There emerged a number of thinkers and preachers who called for updating Islam and turning it into a living and active missionary religion. Although they were in no way linked to each other and hailed from different countries, they managed to implement this program. Ukraine did not escape the overall trend either. Suffice it to recall the Jadidism movement founded by Ismail-bey Gasprinsky in Crimea. These people were convinced that Islam could no longer be an ossified archaic religion and must be updated from inside to become modern and dynamic. Muslims eventually became much more religious and began to preach actively. Today, Islam is not perceived as just a faith of parents. Of course, you can still come across the old ‘traditional’ approach in the villages and small towns of some Muslim countries, but in the progressive Muslim societies faith is a personal choice of everyone. In the Soviet era, the state did not recognize the existence of Islam in Ukraine. There was not a single mosque, no holidays were marked  – everything existed underground only. Some Muslims have ‘assimilated’ – they are entirely out of touch with religion. But those who have re-embraced Islam as a certain choice of life philosophy are very active and passionate today.

“Islam is being reborn differently in various countries. Unfortunately, this aspiration leads to radicalism sometimes. This is caused by some inner factors. It is not enough for some people to be ‘just’ a Muslim. They need something more – to fight for something or to search for an enemy. These ‘passionaries’ are easy prey for all kinds of radical groupings. We can thus say that the rebirth of Islam has a certain ‘side effect.’”


The talk about a “decline” of Western civilization has been periodically coming up for at least the past 100 years. The ordeal the West has undergone lately has revived this debate again. What do you think is the essence of European values? Do they need any transformation or, on the contrary, a more consistent protection?

“In my view, Europe is not only far from being ‘on the decline’ but, on the contrary, is developing very rapidly in some respects. But, to tell the truth, these achievements occur in the material sphere. From a spiritual viewpoint, Europe is, unfortunately, in a certain crisis indeed. The root cause is rejection of Christianity. Europeans are now reaping the fruits of such things as secularization and antireligious struggle in the late Middle Ages and in modern times. If Christianity wielded as much influence in Europe today as Islam does in the respective countries, there would perhaps be none of these problems. For if one is strong spiritually, has a certain goal in life, and knows what he or she is living for, this person will always be strong, enduring, and self-confident. Why are Muslims and representatives of some other religions showing activity and an inclination to expansion today? Because these people have a spiritual linchpin. Having rejected a religious, spiritual, linchpin, Europe offered certain secular ideas – let us be spiritual but without God… We can see now the consequences of this approach. It is no accident that Angela Merkel said recently: ‘If you don’t want Europe to be Islamized, go to church.” It seems to me that Europe will soon see a rebirth of Christianity. Or, maybe, it will turn to some other religions. At the same time, taking into account the fact that Catholicism is now actively transforming and strengthening its positions, I think it can become Europe’s guide on the way to Christianity. The Catholic Church has brought itself much up to date since the Second Vatican Council. Today, it is an active and dynamic religion which knows how to attract people.

“A desire to believe is inherent in the very nature of man – such was the creation. If an individual does not believe in God, he or she begins to believe in science or something else. If one cannot find a mainstay which would guide them and make their life worthwhile, this individual begins to ‘wither away.’ If Europeans fail to return to God, they will face a still graver spiritual crisis. What we can see today are only the first signs – it will be worse later on.”


Do you think the revival of religious awareness requires the rejection of universal principles, such as human rights? Or, maybe, the two ideological strata can be united?

“In most cases, religious and secular ideas can be combined. Yet there are, naturally, some differences. Religion will always oppose same-sex marriages, prostitution, legalization of abortions or drugs – these things are banned by all religions. Both the Bible and the Koran warn: ‘Do not do so, for otherwise humankind will go into decline.’ But if you consider yourselves wiser than God, inquire about the destiny of the ancient peoples that thought like this. So we can presume that Europe’s return to Christianity will call for revising certain secular European values which are being imposed on the whole world today.”

A portentous event occurred this year for Ukrainian Muslims – the Koran was translated into Ukrainian for the first time. The translation was done by Mykhailo Yakubovych. What do you think about the quality of this work?

“Mykhailo Yakubovych and I cooperated. On the whole, I positively appraise his work. I had some criticisms, but they were taken into account in the second edition. I will remind you that the translation was first published in Saudi Arabia. The second edition saw the light of day past spring at the Kyiv-based Osnovy publishing house. Yakubovych has done a big and important job. Every Muslim who comes to the holy Mecca to perform the Hajj receives a Koran and its translation into his native language, as a gift from the kingdom, before leaving for home. Until now, Ukrainian Muslims were presented with a Russian translation. But when Yakubovych’s translation was approved by the Holy Koran Institute in Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian pilgrims began to be presented with it. The Ukrainian translation is now available at all the world’s largest mosques. Therefore, thanks to this publication, the Muslim world will know more about the Ukrainian language, and Ukrainians – about the holy book of Islam.”

By Roman HRYVINSKY, The Day

№76, (2015)

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