Islam in the Balkans. Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World

Harry T. Norris




So tear down minarets and mosques,

and kindle the Serbian yule logs,

and let us paint our Easter eggs.

Observe the two fasts honestly,

as for the remainder, do as you like.

I swear to you by the creed of Miloš Oblilić

and by the trusty weapons that I carry,

our faiths will be submerged in blood.

The better of the two will rise redeemed.

The ‘Īd can never live in peace with

Christmas Day. 

    (Petar II, Petrović-Njegoš, monk, poet and prince of Montenegro who reigned between 1830 and 1850)


“Trust in Allāh.” “Surely this is a Catholic wedding?” “I know”, says Lida, our intepreter, “But the atheist years have eroded the distinction. Some of the Muslims in my class wear crucifix earrings, even go to Mass.” 

    (Ian Thomson, ‘Flesh and Blood in Albania’, Observer Magazine, June 21, 1992, p. 29)


1. The battle of Kosovo and the Serb crusade against Islam  257

2. Syncretic movements and religious bridge-building in the late Middle Ages  263

3. Romanian monasteries and mosques and links with the Arab East  268

4. Islam in Kosovo  271

5. The Future  277



In previous chapters, we have attempted to introduce certain peoples of the Balkans in selected periods in their history when, as Ottoman subjects, directly or indirectly influenced by Middle Eastern culture in much of their life, as townsfolk or as peasants, they witnessed the evolution and growth of a Muslim society in their midst. This was among their own kith and kin, or among Muslims from Asia who had settled as neighbours beside them. It was influenced by their contact with Muslim peoples in the Middle East and beyond, with whom they traded or had cultural relations (Plate 12). The Ottoman age was unquestionably decisive although, as has been shown, other long-term factors that brought this Muslim community into existence had also to be taken into account.







The Balkan peninsula does not house a ‘Muslim nation’, homogeneous and geographically bounded, in the sense that this can be said to exist elsewhere. However, the Muslims of the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina, have since 1969 been recognised as a nationality and they number some 1,600,000. [1] They are, or were, a local majority community within the fractured society of what was once known as Yugoslavia. On a number of counts, Bosnia and Hercegovina may be regarded as the historical heartland of the world of Islam in the Balkans. In a booklet entitled Islam our choice, compiled and edited by Ebrahim Ahmed Bawany and published by the Muslim World League, there is a curious undated testimony, allegedly by Dr Abdul Karim Germanus, Professor of Oriental Studies in the University of Budapest:


During a summer vacation I was lucky to travel to Bosnia, the nearest Oriental country adjacent to ours. As soon as I settled in a hotel I dashed forth to see living Muslims, whose Turkish language had only beckoned to me through its intricate Arabic script from the pages of grammar books. It was night, and in the dimly-lit streets I soon discovered a humble café in which on low straw stools a couple of Bosnians enjoyed their kayf. They wore the traditional bulging trousers kept straight at the waist by a broad belt bristling with daggers.


Their headgear and the unfamiliar costume lent them an air of truculence. It was with a throbbing heart that I entered the kahwekhane and timidly sat down in a distant corner. The Bosnians looked with curious eyes upon me and I suddenly remembered all the bloodcurdling stories read in fanatical books about Muslim intolerance. I noticed that they were whispering among themselves and their topic was my unexpected presence. My childish imagination flared up in horror; they surely intended to draw their daggers on the intruding ‘infidel’. I wished I could safely get out of this threatening environment, but I dared not budge.


In a few seconds the waiter brought me a cup of fragrant coffee and pointed to the frightening group of men. I turned a fearful face towards them when one made a gentle salaam towards me accompanied with a friendly smile. I hesitatingly forced a smile on my trembling lips. The imagined ‘foes’ slowly rose and approached my little table. What now? — my throbbing heart inquired — will they oust me? A second salaam followed and they sat around me.



1. On the Muslim population of Bosnia and Hercegovina and ex-Yugoslavia generally, see Alexandre Popović, L’Islam balkanique, op. cit., pp. 356-66, and Hugh Poulton, The Balkans: Minorities and States in conflict, Minority Rights Group, 1991, pp. 39-45. For the number of Muslims in Kosovo and Macedonia see Odile Daniel, op. cit., p. 28.





me. One of them offered me a cigarette and at its flickering light I noticed that their martial attire hid a hospitable soul. I gathered strength and addressed them in my primitive Turkish. It acted like a magic wand. Their faces lit up in friendliness akin to affection — instead of hostility they invited me to their homes; instead of the falsely anticipated daggers they showered benevolence upon me. This was my first personal meeting with Muslims. [2]



His first bizarre impressions were of a country that was still wild, barbaric and apparently lacking in law and order. How little it has changed we now know. It was nonetheless precisely under the Austrian occupation that there was to be a stirring, culturally, ethically and philosophically, among the Bosnian and Hercegovinan Muslim community.


A representative figure at that time was Mehmed Beg Kapetanović Ljubušak (1839-1902), [3] whose Risalei Ahlak, was the first Moslem book to be printed in Bosnia Hercegovina in Latin characters. It aimed at providing strongly ethical schooling for Muslim youth. Later another work Šta misle Mohamedanci u Bosni (What Bosnian Muslims think) expressed the thoughts of a writer whose works were to make an impact not only in his own Muslim circles but also among Muslim groups in Croatia and Serbia.


Kapetanović studied Oriental languages in Mostar, at a time when his Muslim community felt a loss of identity, compounded by illiteracy and cultural stagnation, which had the effect of making it introspective and withdrawn. It was in this situation that a renaissance began: reading rooms were opened, and Muslim authors such as Kapetanović began to write in Serbo-Croat. The first translation of the Qur’ān into that language was made in 1875 by Mico Ljubibratić from the French; it was of course in the Latin script. Kapetanović’s own career was widened by travel in Europe and the Middle East, and he also had diplomatic experience. Other writers, scholars and thinkers in Bosnia and Hercegovina were to publish a number of books and journal articles



2. Islam our choice, Muslim World League, Mecca, Cairo and Beirut, no date, pp. 39-43. On the widow of the alleged author, Mrs Abdul Kerim Germanus, see Mohammad bin Nasir al Aboud, ‘Muslim Experience in Eastern Europe: a First Hand Report’, Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. VII, no. 2, p. 99. See also The Muslim East: Studies in Honour of Julius Germanus, edited by Kaldy Nagy, Lorand Eötvös University, Budapest, 1974.

3. See the entry on Mehmed Beg Kapetanović Ljubušak in Enciklopedija Jugoslavije, Zagreb, 1962, vol. 5, p. 190; likewise Muammad Mūfākū, Risālat Yūghūslāfiya fī’l-akhlāq al-islāmiyya, al-‘Arabī, no. 372, 1989, pp. 185-9.





devoted to Islamic history, translation from archival documents and, on a more personal level, their private views of Islamic doctrine and aspirations. Among such works is the biography of the Prophet and a study of Islam by Osman Nuri Hadžić (1869-1937), Muhamed A S i Kur’an, published in Belgrade in 1931 and republished in Sarajevo in 1968. [4] To this may be added the growing revival of interest in ūfīsm, especially in the verse and thought of Rūmī, and the publication at the same time of several ūfī periodicals by the orders in Bosnia. One of the most important and fateful expressions of contemporary Muslim thinking in Bosnia is to be read in the fifty-page Declaration (translated into English, German, Arabic, Turkish and Farsi) written by Alija Izetbegović in 1970 which caused thirteen Moslem intellectuals to be arraigned before the Grand Bench of the District Court in Sarajevo. Their indictment was their alleged intention of creating an ‘ethnically pure Muslim Bosnia and Hercegovina’. In this far from ‘fundamentalist’ document their position in relation to the Christian world is clearly and logically defined:


With regard to Christianity, we make a distinction between Christ’s teaching and the Church. In the former, we see God’s announcement, albeit somewhat distorted, and in the latter we see an organization which, with its inevitable hierarchy, policies, wealth and interests, has not only become anti-Islamic but even anti-Christian. Whoever is required to determine his attitude towards Christianity seeks to have it first defined: whether it concerns Christ’s teaching or the Inquisition, throughout its existence the Church has constantly swung between these two poles. The more it is the expression and interpreter of the ethical teachings of the Gospel, the farther it is from the Inquisition, and, consequently, the nearer to Islam. We welcome the new tendencies in the Church, manifested at the last Vatican Council, because we regard them as moving closer to the original Christian fundamentals. If Christians should want it, the future may offer an example of the understanding and cooperation of two great religions for the well-being of all people and mankind, just as in the past was the scene of their senseless intolerance and friction. [5]



There is an almost ‘Neo-Bogomil’ sentiment in this thoughtful document. The Albanians — the number of active Muslim believers among whom must surely now be considerably reduced — are not, as some enthusiastic Middle Eastern Muslims would have one believe, a ‘Muslim people’ in the sense that we may use such an expression about, say, the Arabs and Berbers in Algeria or Morocco. In Kosovo and adjacent Macedonia



4. See the bibliography in L’Islam Balkanique, op. cit., p. 438ff.

5. ‘The trial of Moslem intellectuals in Sarajevo: The Islamic Declaration’, South Slav Journal, vol. 6, no. 1 (19), Spring 1983, pp. 84-5.





there are well over a million, perhaps two million, believers and more survives there of a genuinely Islamic-conscious community than can now be found in Albania itself. Within Bulgaria the Turk and Tatar minority, whose identity was wilfully suppressed till recently, includes altogether some three quarters of a million to a million Muslims, including Pomaks (Muslim Bulgars), Gypsies (Romas) and heterodox Kizilbaș (heterodox ‘Alīds). Beyond the borders of these countries, which were all, to a varying degrees in the past, centres of Muslim urban and rural life and practice, one is well aware of isolated pockets of believers — in Greece (in Western Thrace and the island of Rhodes), Romania (Northern Dobrudja — Turks 29,533 [0.1%], Tatars 24,649 [0.1%]) and a tiny handful in Hungary, geographically separated from the Balkans though historically linked to the Balkan peoples.


Islam is therefore of major cultural and political significance in Bosnia, and this can be viewed favourably or otherwise. True, with Orthodoxy and Catholicism, it has dramatically shaped the ideals, the language and literature and the individuality of the Albanian nation. These communities contain genuinely ‘Balkan Muslims’, whose Islam, in their view, does not necessarily cut them off from their local allegiances and shared past in the midst of the family of European peoples. As for the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Serbs and the Romanian Turks and Tatars, they are condemned by the circumstances of post- medieval history to be associated with alien invaders from Asia whose yoke bore heavily on peoples of strong national identity who have seen themselves increasingly as Europeans, either as a human bridge or as a bulwark, between the West and Dār al-Islām.



1. The Battle of Kosovo and the Serb crusade against Islam


The battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 may not have been a key battle in European history as some have maintained. However, it is viewed by the Serbs as the most crucial event in their history. The memory of it among the Serbs recalls King David’s lament for Gilboa. Its implications — cultural, political and religious — cannot be ignored. Furthermore, its results were not decisive merely with regard to the Serbian attitude to the Turk. The Albanian succeeded the Turk and the role that each plays is both national and cultural. It is also religious, for notwithstanding the Albanian Catholic minority in Kosovo, it is the Albanian Muslim, as a Muslim, who is seen as the ultimate rival





(since the Croat impinges on another border) for hegemony in this ‘holy land’ which, for the Serbs, houses the prized treasures of their faith, their Canterbury and York. This unshakeable conviction long predates the beginning of modern nationalism and the independence movements in the Balkans as a whole, and, in this particular instance, the resurgence of Serbian sacred historical memories and a vision of historical territorial integrity. Such headlines as ‘Christian civilisation’ and ‘Asiatic despotism’, ‘the Battle for Christ and for Europe’, ‘Holy Serbs’ and ‘Kosovo and the European cultural heritage’, as they appear in print in Belgrade, [6] are heavily loaded expressions or slogans, and are, without doubt, precisely meant to be so.


The existence of a deeply held and seemingly growing contemptuous hatred for ‘Islam’ among the Serbs was confirmed by an interview with two journalists, reported by S.P. Ramet in an article, ‘Islam in Yugoslavia Today’. [7]


Typical of this atmosphere was a conversation in which I found myself, at a Belgrade cafe, as two local journalists drew and redrew maps of the Balkans, showing a menacingly large arrow projecting northward from Istanbul through Serbia, while they told me of their fears of a Muslim threat to European civilisation (Plate 13). ‘Albanian Muslims and Bosnian Muslims are in this together,’ they told me in deadly earnest. ‘They have big families in order to swamp Serbia and Yugoslavia with Muslims, and turn Yugoslavia into a Muslim republic. They want to see a Khomeini in charge here. But Belgrade is not their final goal. They will continue to advance until they have taken Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London — all the great cities of Europe. Unless they are stopped.



And yet who won the battle of Kosovo and what its precise outcome was is a matter for controversy, wrapped up in a national folk epic. According to Ferdo Šišic, [8] ‘After Bulgaria had fallen under Turkish rule, Serbia was next in line. In the early spring of the year 1389,



6. Some Serb comment, though strong in its religious and patriotic sentiments, is tempered by charity. Dimitrije Bogdanović, in his article ‘The Serbian Church during the Kosovo hardships’, remarks: ‘The Serbian Church will have to keep on preaching love, not hatred, and pardon, not vengeance, modelled on the tradition of the holy Christian confession and martyrdom. Where the Albanian people are concerned, regardless of their religion and denomination, the Church must take care that the sentiments of justice and humantiy, the generosity and dignity of the Serbian people do not ever, at any cost, diminish.’ p. 144, in The Battle of Kosovo, 1389-1989, Časopis Malice Isiljenika Srbije, XXXVI, 1989, p. 344-7, Belgrade.

7. S.P. Ramet, ‘Islam in Yugoslavia Today’, in Religion in Communist Lands (Keston College), vol. 18, no. 3, August 1990.

8. ‘The Battle of Kosovo Polje’ in The Battle of Kosovo, 1389-1989, op. cit.





Murād led a large army out of Plovdiv and across Ihtiman, Kjostendil, and Kratovo into the final battle; both armies met at Kosovo Polje on the 15th day of June.’ Šišic tells us it was a most significant battle. It has often been described in the minutest detail, and many folk songs have been written about it. Sources for descriptions of it are numerous, and have increased in recent years, but they are sometimes contradictory. What is known for certain is that the Turks occupied the more suitable southern part of the field, while the Serbs took up the more awkward northern position. Both sides fought bravely, and at first it appeared as though the Serbian side would win, especially when news spread that Sulān Murād himself had been stabbed in his tent by the Serbian knight Miloš Obilić. Later the Turks attacked the Serbs with great power and forced them to retreat, capturing Prince Lazar the same day and beheading him in revenge for the death of their Sulān. The Bosnian army (which King Stjepan Tvrtko had sent as a reinforcement) fought alongside Prince Lazar under the command of Duke (Vojvoda) Vlatko Vuković.


The prevailing feeling within the Serbian and Bosnian camps was that the Turks had been defeated, for only with that kind of interpretation of events can Serbs explain King Stjepan Tvrtko’s gesture in Sutjeska, on August 1, when he informed the municipality of Trogir that on June 15 he had gloriously defeated the enemy of the Christian people, the infidel Murād, who had already conquered many peoples with the intention of marching into Bosnian and Dalmatian territory. An identical message was sent by Tvrtko to Florence, from which in turn he received a commendation on October 20. A message about the event was also received in Paris.


The earliest texts referring to the struggle of the Serbs make clear the view they had of their enemies. Murād and his band, even if not presented as the heroic yet diabolical Saracen foe who appeared with his weaponry, idols, carbuncles of flame and lurid banners in the Western Chansons de Geste, were nonetheless ethnic and religious stereotypes. According to Thomas A. Emmert, [9]


The writers describe the battle very simply as a struggle between the forces of good and evil: Murād with his band of bloodthirsty beasts and Lazar with his pious army of God-fearing Christians. The Turks are identified as Ishmaelites or Hagarites — an obvious and derisive reference from the Old Testament. In Zitije kneza Lazara the Ishmaelites are ‘arrows released by God because of our sins’,



9. Thomas A. Emmert, Serbian Golgotha: Kosovo, 1389, New York: Columbia University Press (East European Monographs), 1990, pp. 68, 77, 78.





and Murād is ‘the beast who came like a roaring lion seeking to devour Christ’s flock and to destroy our homeland’. In Patriarch Danilo’s Slovo o knezu Lazaru Murad, the head of the Ishmaelites is compared to Alexander of Macedonia and Xerxes of Persia. Having gathered a countless multitude of men from both eastern and western lands, Murād attacked ‘like the cruel lion’. To the writer of Prološko zitije kneza Lazara Murad is the ‘evil, heathen Ishmaelite emir, who, like a roaring lion, rose up and conquered many peoples’. Approaching Lazar’s territory he went ‘mad with wild fury, closed his ears like the deaf adder, and lunged at them’.


He adds:


In time the Battle of Kosovo came to be seen as the source of all the misfortune Serbia was to suffer during her long years of subjugation to the Turks. The theme of defeat at Kosovo was necessary for the companion themes of hope and resurrection. Lazar and the Serbian people gave their lives freely for the faith and for the land; and because of this martyrdom at the hands of the heathen enemy the Serbs knew that God would protect His people and return them one day from their captivity.



The identification of the Turk with the (Arabian) Ishmaelite and the Hagarite is relevant to a comment made by Dr Rade Božović about the way pre-existent folk memory has been rekindled at various times among the Southern Slavs:


The arrival of the Turks marks the beginning of a revitalization of the Arabs’ function. The myth fades and reality returns. Thus, with the Turks, the Arab enjoys a comeback in the epic poems of Southern Slavs. He will remain until after the new national enemy, the Turks, have finally established themselves. [10]



It is ironic that in spite of the way the Muslim (be he Arab, Turkish or Albanian) is regarded by the Serbian Orthodox Church and indeed by the Eastern Orthodox Church as a whole, the Western authors and editors of the Chansons de Geste du Cycle du Roi should deem this Balkan people to be allies of the ‘paynim’ and so equally meriting combat and denigration. Paul Bancourt [11] mentions several Eastern European peoples who were dismissed as ‘pagan’ despite centuries of conversion to Christianity — including Hungarians, Russians, ‘Esclavons’ and Bulgars. They were considered to be in a ‘pre-Christian’ state of ignorance,



10. Rade Božović, op. cit., p. 224.

11. Paul Bancourt, Les Musulmans dans les Chansons de Geste du Cycle du Roi, Aix-en- Provence, Marseille, 1982, vol. 1, pp. 28-9.





and of some the chroniclers knew next to nothing. Any people suspected of hampering the Crusader advance in the First Crusade was suspect. Byzantine service was altogether damnable, and in one episode the Hungarians are bracketed with the Bulgars. Since the ‘Slav’ Wends in the Baltic region had only been subdued and Christianised in the twelfth century, no Slav whatever was above suspicion, including the Southern Slavs, who had hampered and even harassed the forces of Raymond de St Gilles in the Balkans. William of Tyre, for example, mentions the Dalmatians with disfavour; and the Greeks are frequently referred to as ‘allies’ of the Turks.


One only has to read the following passage from The Song of Roland to appreciate the Western view of the part played by the Serbs as companions in arms with Saracen foes, whose monstrous shapes recall the giants, gnomes and other strange creatures in the marriage feast and the lamentable end of King Dodon in Le Coq d’Or:


The great Emir goes riding through the host,

And after him his son, of mighty mould,

King Dapamort and King Torleu also.

In thirty columns their force they soon dispose;

Their knighthood makes a marvellous great show —

The least can reckon full fifty thousand souls.

The first is formed of men from Butentrote;

Myconians next, with huge and hairy polls,

Upon whose backs, all down the spine in rows,

As on wild boars, enormous bristles grow;

The third has men from Nubia and Polose,

The fourth, from Brune and the Slavonian coast,

The fifth of Sorbs and Servians is composed. [12]



Episodes after the battle of Kosovo (long after the Chansons) during which, as vassals and allies of the Turks, the Serbs fought the Hungarians are enough to dismiss some extreme claims of the Serbs as ‘the defenders of Christendom’, as sheer romanticism, although of a dangerous kind, notwithstanding that by the end of the Middle Ages the culture of Serbian Christianity was truly of a high order in the fourteenth century and had many links, both cultural and dynastic, with the West.


The traditional Albanian Muslim folksinger’s view of the battle’s significance, in so far as it has been recorded, appears to share common



12. The Song of Roland, transl. Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Books, 1957, p. 174.





sources with the Serbs, but to show certain differences as well. [13] According to Alois Schmaus:


The Albanian poem of Kosovo consists of two, clearly divided, main parts. The first includes Sulān Murad’s campaign from Constantinople to the plain of Kosovo. Murad is here described as a great champion of the faith, a righteous man and a miracle worker. The four poems describe mainly the same events: the Sultan’s dream and its interpretation; the gathering of the army and the Sultan’s discharge of those who sinned and those who are not prepared to die in the name of the holy crusade; the first miracle: the Sultan opens the sea (as Moses did); the campaign to and conquest of Edirne, Salonika and Skopje; the sudden almost victorious advance (usually in Kacanicka gorge). According to historical facts, Sultan Murad was not a saint, but a merciless and rigid ruler. With some acts of his, however, he proved his righteousness and generosity. Historians emphasise his severity with war plunderers (for example, during the siege of Konya). The facts confirming this siege can be found in the Tronoska Chronicle. ‘Murad’s passing through Serbian territories — writes Mr Radojcić — is described here in the same manner as it is in an Albanian poem about the battle of Kosovo’. In the poem Murad’s righteousness is sublimated to sacredness. Heading the holy war, Murad is prepared to sacrifice his life. In order that God help his army he must take, with total commitment, the soldiers’ destiny on himself. That is why he warns and discharges all those who are not prepared to die. In this poem, Murad does not conclude an agreement with the Supreme Truth — as the Turkish historian Neshri wrote — but he has his destiny predicted in a dream before leaving Constantinople. In spite of that, his character resembles that of Prince Lazar in the Serbian tradition. Lazar submits to the Heavenly Kingdom, and Murad is prepared to sacrifice his life. Exactly like Murad, Lazar discharges — after Vuk Branković’s escape — all those who want to follow Vuk’s example and leave him. In the Albanian poem, Sultan Murad is not only chosen by God, but is also a miracle worker: as Moses did, he divides the seas in order to enable his army to cross to the other side. The poetical changes of Murad’s character will not amaze us if we have in mind the great respect, among the Moslems, for his tomb on the plain of Kosovo and the habit of the sick to visit it in order to be cured.



The second part of the poem is concerned with the heroic self-sacrifice of Miloš Obilić in slaying Sulān Murād. Here, too, Alois Schmaus spotlights Oriental traditions in the Albanian version:



13. See the Battle of Kosovo in Stavro Skendi, Albanian and South Slav Oral Epic Poetry, Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1954. There is also an interesting article ‘Le Chansonnier Albanais sur la guerre de Kosovo, 1389, in Culture Populaire Albanaise, Tiranë: Academic des Sciences de la RPS d’Albanie, Institut de Culture Populaire, 1985, pp. 57-68.





In this part of the Albanian poem the local tradition is also used. ‘The story says that Miloš, having been executed, took his head and went to Banja in order to stick it back with healing water. Already entering Banja, a girl saw him and immediately died struck by the curse.’


We shall comment on this tradition. The existence of the belief that a hero can carry his cut head has already been ascertained, especially in regard to Kosovo. This is what Nusić says about the tombs on Gazi-Mestan: ‘Turkish folk tradition, very similar to that describing Milos’s death, says that the Turks did not die on the very spot where their tombs are, but down in the plain. Each of them took his head, put it under his arm, and brought it to Gazi-Mestan in order to bury it.’ Many years ago I listened to Moslems in Priština narrating the same tradition about four tombs located next to the Tash Mosque. As can be seen from this discussion, it becomes clear that we can talk about the presence of the legend of Kosovo in Albania only in regard to the legend of Miloš Obilić. This latter represents an older and more primitive level of a common Serbian legend in its local Kosovo form. [14]



One of the bizarre reports as to what actually happened during the battle of Kosovo was brought to Europe from the East. The Spanish Ambassador, resident in Samarqand, Clavio Ruy Gonzales, who had been sent by King Juan III of Castile to Tamerlane in 1403, wrote of his journey and experiences and reported that ‘Murād was an excellent knight who was killed by the Christian Prince Lazar, slain in battle by a spear-thrust. It pierced his chest and came out of his back. Then Jyldrym Bāyazīd revenged his murdered father, killing Prince Lazar, by his own hand, in the battle.’ Gleaned in Constantinople, this report was inaccurate in most of its detail. Interestingly, the cause of Murād’s death, a spear thrust in place of a dagger is phrased in a manner that strongly recalls Islamic maghāzī and epic formulaic narrative. The spear thrust that protruded glintingly through the back of an opponent in single combat is a formula used time and again in the wartime exploits of ‘Antar, or of Sayyid Batāl Ghazī.



2. Syncretic movements and religious bridge-building in the late Middle Ages


If the memory and past and present myths of the battle of Kosovo may be said to represent the polarisation of the very real opposition and even



14. Alois Schmaus, ‘About the tradition of Kosovo amongst Albanians’, in ‘The Battle of Kosovo, 1389-1989’, Belgrade, 1989, pp. 60-1 and 344-7. On the tradition of Kosovo among Albanians see ‘The Battle of Kosovo, 1389-1989’, op. cit., pp. 60-2.





hatred that so clearly still exists between Christianity and Islam in the Balkans, there were always other elements and tendencies, shaped by individuals, that militated in favour of meaningful dialogue between the two hostile religions.


In order to study these, one has to have in mind a number of factors that relate to the conversion process in the Balkans. For example,


(1) Many converts were very young and many too were poor and illiterate peasants. What John Fine says of the Bogomils would apply equally to many of the early converts to Islam and to syncretic and heterodox movements that appeared after the Ottoman conquest: ‘The religion of Balkan (and other) peasants is practice-orientated and deals primarily with this world. It has little or no doctrine and its emphasis is chiefly or even entirely upon practices that aim at wordly goals: at the health and the welfare of family, crops and animals.’ [15]


(2) Split marriages sometimes resulted when only one partner was converted.


(3) In far rarer cases, a change of religion took place more than once. Women were more prone to this than men.


(4) Occasionally a Christian cleric was converted.


(5) Conversion among Balkan women tended to be superficial: numbers of them continued to adore local Christian saints, so that a Balkan sayings runs, ‘Saint Ilia up to mid-day, and after mid-day Alia.’ [16]


(6) There was no ‘follow-up’ or instruction in sound Muslim doctrine and rules of regular prayer among the converted.


(7) Jewish communities (for example in Bitolj and Salonica) were more likely (than Christians) to convert to Islam in family groups.


(8) There was unspoken agreement, dictated by a common interest among priests, rabbis, educated imams and others, to seek for some religious common ground.


Syncretism was a major factor in the conversion of Balkan peoples to Islam, as has frequently been mentioned in previous chapters. Its importance compared to other reasons for conversion has been a subject continuously discussed and subjected to shifting appraisal.



15. J. A. Fine, The Early Medieval Balkans: A critical survey from the Sixth to the late Twelfth Century, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987, p. 171.

16. On the relationship of Alī’b. Abī ālib to Elie, allegedly mentioned by Jesus (together with the assimilation of the latter to ‘Alī) see Irène Mélikoff (citing Sadeddin Nuzhet Ergun’s Becktaši Sairleri ve Nefesleri, 1, p. 77), ‘L’Islam hétérodoxe en Anatolie’, Turcica, vol. XIV, 1982, p. 151.





Peter F. Sugar, in his Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804, is solidly in favour of it as a major cause for mass conversion:


In order for this identification to occur, the dervi^es had to move around and reach the various localities of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike the akhi, the der- vi$es wandered almost constantly, preaching and practising their tarikat and numerous related ceremonies. They were the babas, a sort of combination of holy man, miracle worker, medicine man, etc. and were often regarded as living saints. Their eclecticism and pragmatism knew practically no bounds. Given the numerous similarities between folk-Christianity and folk-Islam, they had little difficulty in fitting local customs into their tarikats. Furthermore, what they preached had certain advantages. The old formulae that ensured ‘good fortune’ were broadened by the addition of customs that they had brought with them, and by the not negligible circumstance that those who followed them passed from the zimmi to the Muslim group. What emerged was a curious variety of European, or rather Balkan, ‘folk-Islam’, which included icons, baptism to prevent mental illness, and many other basically non-Muslim features.


It was not difficult for Christians whose faith was of the superstitious folk variety to pass over to a similar but more secure folk version of Islam. I believe that this explanation of the early mass conversion, advanced by several scholars, is more believable than the equally popular interpretation that attributes such conversion either to the wish of the population to retain its landed possessions or to the desire of previously persecuted heretics (mostly Paulicians and Bogomils) to become the master of their oppressors. [17]



In Evliya Çelebi’s account of his journeys in what is today Romania and was once Yugoslavia, it is not suprising to see such eclecticism colouring his account and at the same time revealing the curious religious fusion and confusion that prevailed across the Balkans in his time. For example, he mentions the fourteen fortified monasteries in Bucharest, all protected by iron gates. One was dedicated to Voivode Michael (Kodja Mihai), another to St Demeter, another to St Nicholas, another to St Constantine; others were Radu Veda monastery (Radul Bey), the ‘monastery of Sari Saltik’ (Sary-Saltyc), almost certainly a second monastery originally dedicated to St Nicholas, and yet another to St Mary. Equally remarkable, and in many ways similar, was what he witnessed in Dubrovnik where on Sunday eve, and on the ‘eve of Sari Saltik’, of St Nicholas, Khir Ilyās, St Mary and the Archangels, and at Easter, there was a festive spirit in the air, yet a hushed anticipation, to be broken by the pealing of bells so that a man who was in ignorance could believe that the day of the Antichrist, and the last judgement,



17. Peter F. Sugar, Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977, pp. 53-4.





had unexpectedly arrived. The cosmopolitan character of the city with its citizens and visitors from both West and East, enhanced the hybrid character of local belief in the minds of outsiders who, perchance, beheld such celebrations. [18]


The dervishes were but one of the groups most active in implementing a policy of religious accommodation. Among the ūfī orders, the Baktāshiyya was arguably the most conspicuous and successful. This process began before it arrived; other factors contributed to it, and continued long after the order’s heyday in Albania and beyond. Orthodox Islamic religious writers have commonly adopted a hostile, or at least a highly critical, attitude to it, arguing in effect that it has paid too high a price, sacrificing a true faith in an omnipotent God in order to justify a temporal success, the augmentation of an Islamic constituency so nominal that in Albania at times it sought a distinct religious status. [19] Other famous though short-lived movements at the end of the Middle Ages show convergences. Yet they remain, as far as can be discovered, distinct, consecutive efforts, arising out of exploits of the akhis and dervishes of a remoter age, guided from different directions and by independent motivators.


The period 1400-16 marked a coordinated attempt in both Asia Minor and the Eastern Balkans to found a revolutionary syncretic movement led by Badr al-Dīn. It was partly ūfī-inspired, partly social and political, and partly heterodox in its aims. Though chronologically contemporaneous one cannot be clear to what extent, if any, the urūfīsm of Nasīmī (1369/70/1417/8), who was one of the leaders of the Malāmiyya and who spent much of his life in Tabriz, Brusa and Rumelia, might have influenced the thought of Badr al-Dīn. The urūfiyya had its advocates among ūfīs in Mamlūk Cairo, and there are certain similarities between the disregard of differences between Islam and Christianity in Badr al-Dīn’s appeal and in the speculations of Falallāh al-urūfī as presented by Nasīmī. Kathleen Burrill remarks:


It is interesting that some have attributed Christian beliefs to him. As early as the sixteenth century, the Italian Menavino wrote that he had read some



18. Hazim Šabanović, Evlija Celebi. Putopis odlomci o Jugoslavenskim, Sarajevo, 1967, p. 422, and Michael Guboglu, ‘Evlija Celebi: De la situation politique, administrative, militaire, culturelle et artistique dans les pays roumains (1651-1666)’, Studia et Acta Orientalia, V-VI, 1967, pp. 44-5.

19. There is a detailed discussion on the whole question of Baktāshī cult status in Alexandre Popović, L’Islam Balkanique, op. cit., see especially Annexes II, IVB and V, in Nathalie Clayer, L’Albanie pays des derviches, op. cit., Annex D, and F. de Jong’s publications on the Baktāshiyya both in Albania and in Egypt.





of Nesimi’s works and that from these it was clear that the author adhered closely to the Christian faith. Ishak Efendi, in his Kâșif-ül-esrar, says: They [the Hurufis] also believe in the three Persons of the Christian Trinity’. He is correct to the exent that Hurufi writings, like many ūfī works, do contain fairly frequent references to Christ and to the ‘Holy Spirit’, but this in no way signifies acceptance of the Christian Trinity. On the contrary, Christ is regarded by Hurufis merely as a prophet who did not reach the same perfection as Muammad. [20]



Shaykh Badr al-Dīn Mamūd b. Isrā’īl b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz (born 760/1358), was, through his alleged descent, a successor to the Saljūq, ‘Izz al-Dīn Kaykā’ūs II (d. 1260). We have seen (pp. 148-9) how in 1259 he had sought refuge with Michael VIII in Byzantium. The itinerent Saljūq ruler heralded the arrival of the company of the warrior saint Sari Saltik into the area of the Dobrudja. Two of his grandsons married Byzantine royalty and were converted, with their relations, to Christianity.


The father of Badr al-Dīn, Ghazī Isrā’īl, was the ī of Samāwnā near Adrianople. He was highly respected and held high office. Melek, his wife, was a Muslim Greek. Badr al-Dīn himself showed early promise as a scholar, studying in Brusa, Konya and Jerusalem. He went to Cairo (he also visited Mecca) during the reign of the Mamlūk Sulān, Barqūq (1382-98), and became tutor to Faraj, Barqūq’s son.


A noted Ṣūfī from Akhlā in Armenia, Sayyid usayn al-Akhlāi, had come to Egypt with a number of his company. Babinger has suggested that the event may have attracted to itself some legendary substance, offering a kind of inverted account of Sari Saltik’s emigration to the Dobrudja (or for that matter Arabs to the Caucasus and the Balkans from Egypt or Arabia); here a ‘flight into Egypt’ being a kind of prelude to events deemed to be of a semi-eschatological significance. Badr al-Dīn saw such events as prophetic for himself and for another important figure whose acquaintance he had made, namely Sayyid usayn. Badr al-Dīn, hitherto a strong critic, was now won over to ūfīsm. He was particularly attracted to the thought of Ibn al-‘Arabī.


Having been given a licence (ijāza) by Sayyid usayn, Badr al-Dīn,



20. K.R.F. Burrill, The Quatrains of Nesimi: Fourteenth-Century Turkic Hurufi, Paris: Mouton, 1972, pp. 35-6. On the movement of Badr al-Dīn, see Franz Babinger, ‘Schejch Badr-ed Dī, der Sohn des Richters von Sīmāw’, Der Islam, vol. 11, Berlin and Leipzig, 1921, pp. 1-105; the article by H.J. Kissling in the Encyclopedia of Islam, 1, p. 869, W. Witteck, ‘De la défaite d’Ankara a la prise de Constantinople (un demi-siècle d’histoire Ottomane)’, Revue des Etudes Islamiques, 12, 1938, pp. 1-34, and the major study by N. Filipović, Princ Musa Šejh Bedreddin, Sarajevo, 1971.





who was himself to be a writer not only on law but also of substantial works on ūfīsm, visited Tabriz in 1403, but returned to Cairo to escape the notice of Tamerlane. At this stage his views were unorthodox, seemingly Qalandarī, gnostic and communist. He established contact with the Genoese on the island of Chios.


He next returned to Adrianople, where he entered into a retreat though all the time he was gaining a following in Thrace, Macedonia, Deli Orman (Ağaç Denizi) and the Dobrudja among both Muslims and Christians. Some heterodox Turks in the Dobrudja supported him, and he came to be regarded as a valued ally by Mircea ‘the Old’ (cel bâtîn), the independent Voivode of Wallachia (d. 1418). Following the Ottoman disaster at Ankara in 1402, Mircea had already inflicted a major defeat of the Turks before Silistra (now in Bulgaria) in 1407-8. Eventually, deemed a liability and under suspicion, Badr al-Dīn was banished to Izniq where he wrote and taught — such was his scholarly reputation.


By 1415, Badr al-Dīn’s movement in Asia Minor received the active backing of Börklüce Muṣṭafā, his disciple and a former servant, and of Torlaq Hū Kamāl. Börklüce’s own ideas were either derived from, or all but coincided with, those of Badr al-Dīn. Around Mount Stylarios, near Izmir, he preached a semi-communist Islamic message advocating the abolition of all personal property and possessions. Only wives were exempt from his dictate. In his view, as that of his master, differences between Islam and Christianity, which both revered a common divinity, were negligible and insignificant. Twice Sulān Mehmed I sent forces to defeat him. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, but eventually a large army commanded by his sons Murād and Bāyazīd was despatched, and in 1416 Börklüce was captured on the Karaburun promontory. Brutal massacres were committed and the leader’s closest followers were butchered before his eyes. Then he was crucified.


Meanwhile, Badr al-Dīn had moved to Europe to establish a second front disclosing himself Malik Mahdī. He fled to Deli Orman (Agaç Denizi) and the Zagra plain to rally his heterodox movement of abdāls. His support (including for a time that of Mircea) faltered and broke. He was taken to Serres in Macedonia and hanged there. Within the Balkans, as in Asia, the remaining supporters of Badr al-Dīn and Börklüce became attached to various ūfī and heterodox groups within the peninsula.



3. Romanian monasteries and mosques and links with the Arab East


Romania offers some unusual examples of the impact of the Arab East (in contrast to the Ottoman East) on a Balkan people. One of the earlier





sources is the account in the diary of Macarius, Patriarch of Antioch, written in Arabic by his son Paul, Archdeacon of Aleppo, during the course of their journey through Romania to Russia between 1652 and 1660. This is a remarkable account and here and there are found allusions to the many links joining the Romanian church to the Arabic-speaking churches in the Middle East, especially the Patriarchate of Antioch. [21] Describing the wall-painting in the church of Vaslui, a former capital of Moldavia, he noted:


On the gate of the wall of Vashlui church is a picture of the last judgement. It shows Moses leading Annas and Caiaphas and the other Jews towards our Lord. They have woeful countenances. Behind them is a troop of Turkish figures in their white shawls, turbans and flowing kaftans, accompanied by their dervishes. The Kashidbari is in front of them, in his cap. Devils are driving them on and mocking them. One is climbing on to their leader’s shoulder and upsetting his cap from his head. The interior of the church is entirely covered with paintings. [22]


Macarius mentions mercenaries and military units of varied Balkan nationalities in the service of Christian Romanian and Moldavian princes who were to employ at least nominally Muslim units to protect them:


When the Cossack troops, vanquished and routed, arrived in successive groups, elsewhere the rumour ran that the prince and his son-in-law had disappeared. But on the Tuesday before Whitsun they arrived unexpectedly and they entered the palace in a lamentable state. They told Hmiltinoki (Akhmīl) about all that had happened. One was aware then, for certain, that they had vanquished the Hungarians, the Vlach and the Serbian army four times and that none was able to stand up against them. This was until they arrived at a day’s march from Tergovist, the capital of the Prince of Wallachia. Prince Matthew went forth and marched against them. He encountered them with a huge army which was composed of Vlachs, Hungarians, Serbs, Greeks, Albanians (Arnā’ū), Bulgars and Turks. [23]



It can hardly be doubted that in this mixed company both Christians and Muslims were represented. Arabic was a useful language to know on this journey and he made good use of it. Those whom he and his son



21. Basile Radu, ‘Voyage du Patriarche Macaire d’Antioche’, Patrologica Orientalis, vol. XXII, Paris, 1933.

22. ibid., fasc. 1, p. 153.

23. ibid., fasc. 4, part 3, pp. 495-6 (255-6). The account of Macarius mentions the settlement of Tatars and Turks in the Dobrudja. On nomad settlement in all this region see pp. 25-32.





chanced to meet were sometimes familiar with Oriental tongues. [24]


What the narrative of Macarius shows is that there was an Arab East (both Christian and Muslim) subject to, yet quite distinct from, an Ottoman East. The Romanians were aware that a Christian body of some size and importance was to be a partner in dialogue within that Islamic sea, the waves of which broke high above, or down upon, the plains, the valleys and the peaks of the Balkan peninsula.


The study of Arabic, together with that of other Oriental languages, can be said to have been established in Romania in the middle to later eighteenth century, both in Moldavia and Wallachia. Particularly important was the role that its rulers played in sponsoring the establishment of an Arabic typography and in the printing of Arabic ecclesiastical works for Arab Christians in the Levant, with whom there was a remarkably close relationship. [25] An important example was the support given to the Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius IV Dabbas, who obtained the backing of the Romanian prince Constantine Brancovan to print religious books. In Wallachia the first typography in the Arabic language was achieved, and the skill of Antheme of Ivir, the Superior of Snagov monastery near Bucharest, was employed in engraving Arabic letters on wood. Subsequently, Athanasius obtained the approval of Constantine Brancovan to transfer this Arabic typography to Aleppo, where printing continued till 1724.


Such links as these with the Arab East (then in deep decline) were the result of direct dealings of some importance, creating a peculiar Balkan/



24. A number of the interpreters in Istanbul and in Levant commerce were of Romanian origin, and Arabic was a language in which they were proficient. The Patriarch Macarius of Antioch, through the pen of his son, makes at least two specific references to ‘Arabs’ during his journeys. In part II, book 1 of the Voyage du Patriarche Macaire d’Antioche (transl. Basil Radu), Paris, 1933 (vol. XXIV, fasc. 4) p. 516 (276), he mentions the slaughter in Moldavia of some 100,000 men, including Moldavians (Bughdan), Vlachs, Greeks, Hungarians, Serbs, Arabs (‘Arab) and Turks. These were probably mercenaries. Later in the account (part III, book 1), about Wallachia, he remarks that most of the grooms of the princes and dignitaries of state were from Syria and Egypt, both Muslim and Christian, and that they had black slaves who were called ‘arapides’, i.e. ‘Arabs’. For this reason, Syrians were regarded as little better than grooms and black slaves. The Patriarch and his son sensed that they were despised, although when the Vlachs became aware of their learning and command of the liturgy and of classical Greek (al-Rūmī al-faī), they were greatly surprised and their contempt turned to admiration.


25. On this subject see Mgr J. Nasrallah, ‘Les imprimeries melchites au XVIIIe siècle’, Proche Orient Chrétien, vol. XXXVI, 1986, pp. 230-59.





Middle Eastern channel of communication with the Arabo-Islamic world. [26] Yet while this created a cultural bridge between Romania and the Christian Arab world, Islamic Arabic works were at this time and later to furnish the textual library of the ūfī centre in Ada Qal‘a island in the Danube river, an island which, alas, has now been submerged. It was essentially Turkish, deep within Romania, the shrine of the tombs of seven saints, one allegedly a dervish from Bukhara, who were attached later to the Baktāshī order, and who were skilled in healing and in herbal remedies (some ultimately derived from Arabic sources) and the use of formulae similar to the cabbalism of the urūfiyya. The island was also a commercial centre and a meeting-place of sundry and heterodox religious groups. Interestingly, the library was largely composed of works in Arabic, as is shown by the thirty-eight Arabic manuscripts, now preserved in the state archives of Craiova. [27] The bulk are texts devoted to Qur’ānic commentary (though including no Qur’āns as such), to canonic law, to religious practice and to Arabic language and grammar. Bestowed on this ūfī-led community, these works were the heirloom of a mosque endowed by Sulān Mamūd I in 1754. Small in number, this collection is an important and unusual one among the rich collection of Arabic manuscripts housed in a number of libraries and universities in Romania.



4. Islam in Kosovo


If Romania has furnished a bridge, Kosovo has remained a cultural and religious ‘fault-line’ within the Balkans. Yet even here, as an Egyptian journalist



26. The subject has been studied extensively and the following articles cover different aspects of it in both the Balkans and the Levant:

   — Virgil Candea, ‘Une politique culturelle commune Roumano-Arabe dans la premiere moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Association Internationale d’Etudes du Sud-Est Europeen Bulletin (Bucharest), vol. Ill, 1965, pp. 51-6.

   — Const. C. Giurescu, ‘L’aide accordée par les pays roumains à l’enseignement de la Peninsule Balkanique et du Proche-Orient’, Revue Roumaine d’Histoire, vol. IX, part 5, 1970, pp. 823-35, no. 25.

   — Mgr J. Nasrallah. ‘Les imprimeries melchites au XVIIIe siècle’, op. cit. (see note 25 above).


On the Vlach element among the Bedouin population of Sinai, see John G. Nandris, ‘The Jebaliyeh of Mount Sinai, and the land of Vlah’, in Quaderni di Studi Arabi, 8, 1990, Venice, pp. 45-90.


27. A. Deci, ‘38 de Carti manuscrise arabe și. Turcești in arhivele statutlui din Craiova’ in Revista Arhivelor, no. XII, part 1, 1969, pp. 2-12. See Val Cordun, ‘Les Saints thaumaturges d’Ada Kaleh’, Turcica, vol. Ill, 1991, pp. 100-16.





Fahmī Huwaydī has reported, the ever-present influence of heterodoxy impinges on and dilutes the Islamic beliefs and practices of its Albanian Muslims: [28]


When the discussion touched upon the beliefs of men and their customs, they said that since the Ottomans had adopted Islamic orthodoxy it had predominated [in Kosovo]. However, its hegemony was not total and there were a small number of Shī‘ītes who were centred in the town of Dakovica (Gjakova). They call themselves ‘Alawīs and they place the Imam ‘Alī b. Abī ālib over and above all the Companions. They also said that the ūfī orders continued to be present in Kosovo and that the Qādiriyya is the most noted of these orders in Prishtinë. Its name attached it to the ūfī of Baghdād ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī. There were, however, other orders that employed their energies, orders such as the Rifā’iyya, the Khalwatiyya, the Sadiyya and the Naqshabandiyya. The Malāmiyya is a sub-branch. Excluded from the list was the Baktāshiyya which was one of the renowned orders, widespread in its reputation, in the shadow of Ottoman rule.


However the real surprise is that the activity of these orders was restricted to the realm of the Shī‘ītes, whereas the customary situation that is well known in varied states of Africa and Asia is that those orders find their fertile soil amongst the varied sects of the Sunnites to a high degree. When I displayed this observation, one of the seated Imāms said that the Sunnites were not in any way linked to those ūfī orders. They disapproved of their endeavours and those heretical notions that are to be found mixed up in their practices. He further added that those who were affiliated to these orders went to an extreme point and one that was deemed to be beyond the bounds of Islam itself. Among them were those who did not pray regularly. Instead they made a habit of the circles of the dhikr.



28. The passages quoted here are from my translation of Fahmī Huwaydī’s article, originally published in the Kuwaytī journal, al-‘Arabī (no. 227), Dec. 1981, pp. 70-87. The translation first appeared in the South Slav Journal, vol. 13, nos 1-2 (47-8), 1990, pp. 38-54. Dr Famī Huwaydī was born in 1937 and graduated in law at Cairo University in 1960. He joined the research department of the Cairo newspaper al-Ahrām in 1958, and worked for eighteen years with that paper, becoming editorial secretary. After 1976, he was attached to al-‘Arabī, and was apointed director of its editorial panel. For ten years he has been a specialist in Islamic affairs and participated in most of the conferences and colloquia of Islamic dialogue (al-iwār al-Islāmī). He has undertaken field trips to various African and Asian Muslim countries and in Muslim Europe, and his writings have been aimed at acquainting Arab readers, through al-‘Arabī, with such countries. He has written several books, including one on Islam in China (al-Islām fī’l īn), published in Kuwayt in 1981. A more optimistic picture of Islamic practice in Kosovo may be observed in the pages of Dituria Islami (Knowledge of Islam), published in Prishtinë. Here are found serious articles on the ājj tradition, the Sharī‘a, Ramaān observances and the combating of public immorality. There is a marked Arab world orientation, towards Egypt especially, and much emphasis on building new madrasas.





Others made use of texts to free themselves from their duties as Muslims. Some interpreted the holy Qur’ānic verse, ‘Adore your Lord until the certain truth comes to you’, in the sense that the obligatory acts of worship, enjoined upon Muslims, are practised up to a certain specific stage, the attain- ment of certainty, and that having attained this degree of certainty in the mystical knowledge of God they were then excused from all the observances and rituals, arguing that ‘the certain thing [or truth] in the Qur’ānic verse means death. Some of them find support in the noble tradition [of the Prophet], ‘When God loves a servant, no sin will afflict him’, and so they can commit all kinds of disobedient acts that may cross their minds, or sin with the belief that their sins will be pardoned and forgiven, and so on. I said, ‘Where do these [ūfī] orders flourish?’. They said, ‘In the villages especially and in some of the towns’. I said, ‘Do they draw young people and prove appealing to them?’ They said, ‘Most of those who are members of these orders are from the elderly and the simple-minded folk who know next to nothing about their religion. They have before them no channels of canonic law so that the true knowledge can be made to reach them. They imagine that the faith [of Islam] is this [ūfī] order or that.’ I said, ‘What is the role of the Imām in the mosque?’ They said, ‘The Imām delivers his word once every week and the people live in another world. He rejects his religion and he invalidates its fundamental teachings during the remainder of the week.’ One of them added, ‘The Imām gathers the young together in order to teach them to memorize some verses of the Qur’ān in the mosque, but their parents send their children to the mos- ques before they enter the governmental schools. When they enter the schools and once they are enrolled within their classes and pass through their grades they have forgotten everything.’



But it is not only mysticism, now in decline, that typifies the adaption of Islam to local beliefs and customs. Brought to the level of family relationships, the ceremonies of birth, death or marriage, the inter- relationship with the ancient customs of the Balkans will have a direct bearing on the social and the political problems that are central to the ethnic strife which has torn, and is tearing, the Balkans apart. Huwaydī remarks:


In the house of ājj Muammad Islamī, who had performed the duty of the Meccan pilgrimage four times and who was responsible for the affairs of the Imāms in the town up to last year, it was clear that the reception room at least belonged to the Ottoman era with its sofas fixed along the four walls and the stuffed upholsteries covered with coloured and embroided cloth. ājj Ibrāhīm said that the people during the feast leave the mosques to visit the tombs of their relatives as do many Muslims in the Orient. Then the men-folk come to visit the Imām of the district mosque on the first day. The next day he returns the visit to all those who had given him a greeting at the feast, and visits





continue interspersed with the partaking of Turkish sweet-meats; this is the characteristic feature that is basic to the celebration of the feast by the elderly.


We experienced a difficult test in our observance of the feast when we visited another Albanian family. Barely a few minutes had passed before the mistress of the house came with an iced drink which is taken with small pieces of chocolate. The lady passed by each of us with the tray full of drinks, then she stood attentively until we had finished. She collected the empty glasses and then was absent for a few moments only to return again with the same tray. On it there was a large bowl and upon this there was an unleavened loaf. The sugar and the honey were kept apart; the whole positioned in a squarish fashion. The lady of the house repeated the same story over again. She distributed our portions, then she stood waiting until we had finished. Then she collected the plates and left the dining room. She disappeared for some time then returned once more, cautiously however, fearful that any of the plates which she had arranged upon it might fall. It was apparent to us that the plates contained rice and milk to which a little salt had been added and not sugar to which we were accustomed. This dish meant a tasty mass of meaty fat. The mistress of the house remained waiting for us to finish this third course, with a constant expectancy, until she carried off the plates and left the dining room to enter a fourth time with excellent coffee. That concluded the sequence which was repeated with every one of us who had attended. My attention was aroused, too, by the fact that the Albanians in the villages more especially continue to live at the stage of a segregated [sex] community. In it the distances between men and women are far apart, and I was even told that in many Albanian villages marriages continue to be arranged and agreed through go-betweens. The one who mediates is a man, not a woman, a betrother as we [the Arabs] know. They call him mesit [middleman] who is also an agent and go-between. Usually he is amongst those personalities whose role and status is respected in the village. Heed is paid to what he says because the trust and the confidence placed in his person will usually be great.


The mesit undertakes to make the preliminary contracts and connections and, if his endeavours are crowned with success, the marriage ritual begins with a sum of money which the father of the bridegroom pays to the father of the bride to cover the expenses of her wedding. This is quite the opposite to the custom that is found amongst the Serbs, since there the bride pays for the marriage rites and ceremonies. Those ceremonies are concluded by the contract of marriage at the hands of the Imām of the village where the bridegroom goes to the bride’s house in a procession that has to be headed by the blood-red Albanian flag. It was proscribed until 1968, then people were allowed to go forth with it on occasions such as this. Behind the flag walk the family of the bridegroom and groups of men who are carrying drums and pipes and the people of the village up to where the contract of marriage is to be concluded,





in the bride’s house. Despite the fact that a monogomous marriage is the original one that is the basis that is acknowledged by the law, polygamy has not ceased to exist and the law has been unable to stop it. Rather, they have been able to benefit from the text of the law in order to determine the rights of sons [born] from second and third wives.


When I asked them they told me that polygamy existed. It remained the exception rather than the rule, although in the villages one could be found who was married to two or three women. The law does not allow anything except the registration of the first marriage even though it does not prohibit a man having long-term relations with other women, a situation that prevails in all European states.


I said to my interlocutor, who was a preacher in one of the mosques, ‘but that will cause problems for the second wife and her sons in the event of the husband’s death.’ He said, ‘The law permits inheritance by a man’s sons through any other woman even though she may not be his wife, if two testify that the man cohabits with that woman and that he has fathered children by her. But the law does not permit inheritance by the second wife who usually deliberates her affairs with the sons or becomes their trustee if they are under age.


We can add polygamy to the causes of the increased size of the Albanian family. But it continues to be a secondary cause because polygamy remains the exception and is not the rule. It is a firm fact that a family of ten sons continues to be found frequently in Albanian villages. As for the towns, the average number of sons in a family remains at five or six. This is a high average by any yardstick. Consequently, official statistics refer to the average birth-rate and population increase in Kosovo as exceeding all average levels of birth in Yugoslavia and possibly in Europe. What emerges from the official statistics indicates that this descriptive statement is by no means an exaggeration.



On this alarming note, one is reminded of the doomsday scenario of the Serb journalists at the start of this chapter. Islam for them was an expansionist threat. Similar are the apprehensions of the Bulgarians towards the Turks among them, and the growing fears of the Orthodox Macedonians amid a rising demographic tide of Muslim Albanians and Turks. Religious affiliation has become inseparable from historical memory, limited economic resources, nationalist aspirations and scores to settle. Dreams of integration within Greater Europe are shared by Muslim Bosnians as well as Albanians, who see no inherent conflict between this wish and their own Muslim history. If there is hostility, as often as not it stems from their ‘Christian’ neighbours.





Typical of an Albanian view from Kosovo is that of Skender Rizaj: [29]


The Islamization of Albanians indeed is an important and delicate problem. In this connection I will state some facts. The attitude of the Albanian towards religion is remarkable. Christians and Moslems are before all Albanians. Indifference to religion and the strong sense of nationality as overriding all other distinctions helped to make them tolerant and gave curious results.


Therefore the Greeks hardly regarded the Albanians as Christians, or the Turks as Moslems, and in fact they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither. Religion, indeed, has always sat lightly upon them. I question whether they were ever much attached to Christianity. A Catholic archbishop, writing in 1610, says that out of a population of 400,000 in the See of Antivari, 350,000 were Catholics. There are probably about one-third of that number now. It is certain that the two-thirds of the total population who now profess Islam are very loose Moslems.


On the death of the great national leader, Skender Bey, in 1468, many of the Albanian chiefs soon found it to their interest to profess Islamism. By their conversion they obtained peace and support of the Turks against other chiefs. Their followers, with the feudal attachment to their chiefs and without any great attachment to Christianity, adopted the creed of their leaders. Others were attracted to a life of adventure in the Turkish Army and adopted the creed of their comrades. Many, however, who remained at home, especially women, remained Christians. Many became crypto-Christians.



There have been several references to ‘crypto-Muslims’ and ‘crypto- Christians’ in earlier pages. ‘Crypto-religion’ and pluralism exist in a number of diverse regions of Dār al-Islām. The orthodox and the fundamentalist contemplate it with horror and with revulsion. Foes may deny a genuine Balkan Muslim existence, making no distinction whatsoever between the menace of a transplanted Khomeini-like plot, by aliens, to turn the Balkans into a springboard for a holy jihād, or a shared religious-cum-cultural legacy (indeed, part of their own Balkan heritage).



5. The Future


To quote Alexandre Popović:


It is, all the same, far more logical to believe that (unless there take place major upheavals that none can foresee) nothing will change and that these diverse



29. Skender Rizaj, ‘The Islamization of the Albanians during the XVth and XVIth centuries’, Studia Albanica, 1, 1985, pp. 129-30. Compare this with Stephen R. Bowers, ‘The Islamic Factor in Albanian Policy’, Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (see Bibliography).





Muslim communities will continue to progress on the paths on which they have entered, in which they have become engaged and are pre-occupied. [30]



This considered view is proving to be over-optimistic. Since Popović wrote those words, the world has altered, sometimes beyond recognition, and nowhere more so than through upheavals in the Balkans, progressing backwards daily into the last century, and in Eastern Europe. The uprooted Muslims within the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of Bosnia and Hercogovina face the possibility that the sole hope for any long-term future for their religious and cultural identity lies now in some kind of insignificant rump ‘Muslim entity’, or as an appendix to the Croats. The Albanians, freed from the yoke of an enforced Marxist atheism, face chaos and famine. Turning to Turkey and the rich oil states, they are now offered the choice of a revivified Islam to be financed by a Sunnite orthodoxy seemingly foreign to them, which is undecided as to the degree of its ‘fundamentalism’. The Muslim Albanians, many of them nominal, are challenged by the renewal of Albanian Catholicism and by the unpredictable appeal of a well-organised relief movement that is Europe-oriented and often sponsored by Western evangelism. [31] In scattered tekkes in the Balkans (now only a few in Kosovo and Macedonia), and in the clandestine and nostalgic ūfī circles centred in Turkey or in exile in the West, the vision of Rūmī’s mathnawi, or the sentiments of Nesimi or of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s ‘Unity of Being’ may have lost little of their timeless spiritual appeal, especially among the academic, the sensitive and the gnostically-minded, for whom traditional Islam and traditional Christianity now seem to offer little spiritual solace. It is a fact to be faced that the future (culturally or numerically) of the Muslims in the Balkans cannot be clearly predicted.


Significantly, during one of the all too temporary lulls in the fighting, during which United Nations relief workers brought food and supplies to the besieged suburb of Dobrinja, in Sarajevo, a mass for the dead was held, which was broadcast on BBC TV news. Amid the Croat congregation, who were served the host by a Croatian priest clad in his ritual vestments, there was to be seen a turbaned and bearded imam who, out of respect, or through the sheer necessity of mutual solidarity, showed the understanding and the brotherly feelings of a Balkan Islam which knows nothing of the narrow-minded bigotry or the ethnic religion and



30. Alexandre Popović, L‘Islam balkanique, op. cit., p. 366.

31. Richard West, ‘The Victory of Faith’, The Independent Magazine, London, Aug. 17, 1991, pp. 22-7. The photographs by Michael Setboun are especially valuable.





destructive intent of those fanatics in Belgrade who conceive of Islam’s future in the Balkans as being decided and determined by ‘ethnic cleansing’.


However, there is at least one other sphere of religion where some survival for the Islamic ideas and beliefs may be envisaged. Steven Runciman, in his The Medieval Manichee [32] observed that



32. Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 94. On the conflicting views about the future of Islam in Albania, compare the answer given by Adīb al-‘Azīz al-Khashshābī of Doha, Qatar, published in al-‘Arabī, no. 159, 1391/1972, p. 85, entitled, ‘You asked and we reply — Yes, the majority of the inhabitants of Albania are Muslims’ (na‘am al-aghlabiyya min sukkān Albāniyā muslimūn) with the following statement published in the Keston College journal and newsletter, Frontier, Nov.-Dec. 1991, p. 19. Here Vanessa Townsend reports:


The Minister of Culture, Preg Zogai, feels that the introduction of all these beliefs, at a time when Albania is thirsting for spiritual ideas and literatrue, is for the good of the country. ‘I think the Lord speaks Albanian, so when the people read the Bible and the Koran, God is one.’ The degree of tolerance betweeen faiths in Albania cannot be denied. Muslims are pleased to meet Christians, fellow-believers in the One God, and equally pleased to accept Christian literature. A Muslim recently told a Christian tourist, T take what is good from my religion and anyone else’s and discard what I do not find useful.’


The new government’s line is that faith is a unifying factor, not a dividing one as formerly claimed by Enver Hoxha. Zogai believes that Albania could act as an example to other countries of how the different religious groups can live together after so many years of atheism. But he seems convinced that the faith to which Albanians will turn in the end will be Christianity. ‘The true faith of the Albanians — in their subconscious — is Christianity. Historically, this is our ancient religion.’ With 70 per cent of the population at the time of the Second World War officially Muslim how can he be so sure? ‘What I can say with certainty is that never will a Christian turn to the Muslim religion. Rather the opposite happens. Many Muslims are turning to Christ and have embraced the Christian faith.’


A recent example of this, as reported in The Independent on Sunday and Q News International (23 October 1992), is the successful bid of a Florida-based Christian fundamentalist group to take over control of all orphanages in Albania. The Hope of the World Foundation from Orlando, Florida, beat Muslim groups when the Albanian government invited bids to look after 2,500 inmates of orphanages throughout the country. This, it is alleged, was despite protests from Muslim organisations and UNICEF. ‘Asked if attention would be paid to the religious education of Muslim orphans, Janney, assistant pastor of the Orlando Baptist Church in Florida, replied that ‘this was unlikely’.


M. Edith Durham in The Burden of the Balkans, op. cit., p. 207, back in 1905, remarked that among the Baktāshīs, ‘in the event of a free Albania, it seems probable that many of the sect will turn Christian.’


It will be observed above that the term ‘Muslim’ (even the way that the term is allegedly used by Mr Zogai) makes no distinction whatsoever between Sunnī and Baktāshī (if such be deemed ‘Muslim’ at all), nor is the sprititual tabula rasa of the Albanians, a supposed legacy of Hoxha’s years, seen as having made a difference to the former numerical equation of religious allegiance in Albania proper (unlike Kosovo and Macedonia), as it surely may have done. It is interesting to compare these comments with the prophetic remarks of Margaret Hasluck in her article ‘The Nonconformist Moslems of Albania’ (Moslem World, vol. XV, 1925), where, forecasting the conquest of Albania by ’Bektashism’ (now hardly likely), she remarks on page 398: ‘Then Albania, with her face now turned towards the progressive West, feels that the conservative Koran, noble book though it be, hampers progress.’ She adds, ‘But Albanian history shows that Albanians are peculiarly susceptible to the pressure of necessity or expediency, having been converted to Islam to a degree absolutely unparalled in other Christian countries conquered by the Turks in the Balkans.’


A more searching investigation, made before the recent events and published in Italian, may be read in ‘Dati statistici situazioni giuridica delle religioni in Albania’, and Heinz Gstrein, ‘Albania, progressi della fede’, Orienterung, 21 (XV), Nov. 1984, pp. 231-3. L’altra Europa, published by Centro Russia Christiana, Milan, 1985 (May- June), pp. 132-40. There is certainly some evidence now that tekkes are being reopened in Elbasan and Krujë.


For a thoughtful historical introduction to relations of non-Muslim with Muslims in the Balkans, see the article by Aleksandar Matkovski, ‘L’Islam aux yeux des non- Musulmans des Balkans’, Balcanica, IV, Belgrade, 1973, pp. 203-11.


From the viewpoint of the ‘Islamic Revival’ the future of Islam seems more assured if one reads the article by Larry Luxner, ‘Albania’s Islamic Rebirth’, Aramco World, vol. 43, no. 4, July-Aug. 1992, pp. 38-47. He himself took the photographs of restored mosques and other Muslim structures. An expanded version of his article was published as ‘Islamic Resurgence in Albania’, The Middle East, Dec. 1992, pp. 46-7. British Muslims are well aware of the currently confused situation; the following comment appeared in the Muslim newspaper, Q News International, vol. 1, no. 28, October 9, 1992, p. 12:


After decades of communism in which ‘scientific socialism’ was literally thrusted down their throats, the Muslims in Albania now have to contend with a new kind of ‘scientific’ garbage. The loony Church of Scientology has picked Europe’s only Muslim majority nation as its priority in evangelical work. Next week 30,000 Muslim peasants in the only state that has described itself ‘atheist’ will get free copies of The Way to Happiness. More will be victims of the Oxford Analysis Capacity — a personality test the cult uses to persuade raw recruits they have problems to which Scientology or dianetics are the answer.





‘Heresies, like civilisation itself, are apt to spread Westward from the East. The Gnostic seeds were to flower most richly not in Armenia nor in Bulgaria but in the Westernmost country of the Balkan peninsula.’ Flowers of many bizarre oriental hues have blossomed there in the past. It is unlikely that some will not blossom afresh in the years ahead.


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