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

Harry T. Norris



Islam in the Balkans

Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World


H. T. Norris


Hurst & Company, London




The tragic events that began to unfold in the former Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s have drawn the world’s attention to the history and rich culture of the Muslim communities of Bosnia especially, but also of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia — the historic heartland of Muslim Europe. Here H. T. Norris breaks new ground by focusing on their religious and intellectual links with the Arab world, Persia and Central Asia, whereas the few previous publications on the subject have been mostly concerned with the more obvious links between the Balkan Muslims and the Turks. Norris illustrates from a wide range of sources the many channels through which the Arabs and Persians were linked with Balkan peoples, especially after the Ottoman conquest, in their art, architecture, literature and religion — direct contacts were also forged through ūfīsm. From the earliest times, also, many Balkan Muslim soldiers and bureaucrats, as well as scholars and poets, made an impact on the wider Islamic world, the most prominent being Mohammed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt.


The resurgence of Muslim identity in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo has of course much to do with the aggressive nature of Serbian nationalism. But it is also a legacy of the region’s relations over many centuries with the Arab countries and Persia, now given a new meaning in the wake of Serbian attempts to ‘cleanse’ Sarajevo and other cities of their Muslim inhabitants.


As the wider world has become aware, for the first time in several generations, of the phenomenon of Muslim Europe, many people of all persuasions now want to know and understand more about it, and the forces which have been tearing ancient communities apart and threatening a wider conflagration. Up till now, the sources available to them have been largely concerned with power politics, economics and demography. H. T. Norris’s cultural investigation, the fruit of many years’ research, corrects this imbalance.


For a note on the author, see back flap





Until his retirement in 1991, Harry Thirlwall Norris, born in 1926, was professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


Within the field of Islamic studies he has conducted research on the history of the Moors, Tuareg and Berbers of North Africa — resulting in the publication of seven books — and the history of the Muslim communities of Eastern Europe. He has made extensive travels throughout the Balkans.


Printed in Hong Kong




A 19th-century map printed in Arabic in Malta, showing Ottoman territories in the Balkans. It will be observed that the ‘Albanian territories’ (Arnā’ū) extend beyond Albania deep into Macedonia and the borders include Salonica. Epirus is also deemed to be part of Arnaut territory. Some of the place-names do not follow the standard Ottoman spellings. 





Acknowledgements page vii

Note on Transcription xiii

Glossary xiv


Introduction 1



1. The Arabs, the Slavs, the Hungarian Saracens and the Arnauts 10

The Arabs enter Balkan history 10

Middle Eastern beliefs among the Slavs 14

The Arab threat to Byzantium 19

Arabs and Bulgarians at the beginning of the tenth century 20

Dubrovnik and the Arab East 24

Pecheneg and Khwarizmian Muslims in medieval Hungary 26

Al-Idrīsī (548/1154) describes the Yugoslav coast, Albania and the Macedonian interior 31

The Arnauts 33

Balkan regions, the 'Chanson de Roland’ and medieval Arabic folk epics 37


2. Oriental influences on Islamic and non-Islamic life and literature in Bosnia, in Macedonia and among the Albanians 43

The Bogomil and Christian background 43

Islam and the Balkan city 49

Mosque, tekke and library 54

Arabic and Persian scholarship 58

Early Islamic poets in Albania 61

Islamic popular literature 64

Early nineteenth-century poets 73


3. ūfī movements and orders in the Balkans and their historical links with the ūfīsm of Central Asia 82

The Baktāshīyya 89

Non-Shī‘īte ūfī orders in the Balkans 100







The Qādiriyya 105

The Mawlawiyya 109

The Khalwatiyya 111

The Naqshabandiyya 112

The Malāmiyya 115

Shaykh al-ā’ifa al-Bayrāmiyya 119

The origins of the Baktāshīyya in Albania 123

When were the first tekkes built in the heart of Albania? 127

Krujë 129


4. Muslim heroes of the Bulgars, the Tatars of the Dobrudja, the Albanians and the Bosnians 138

Oriental legends about the Arabian and Central Asian ancestry of the Bulgars and Arnauts 139

The folk epic, religious mission, miracles and many tombs of Sari Saltik 146

Krujë, Sari Saltik and Gjerg Elez Alia in Albania and Bosnia 155


5. Albanian ūfī poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their impact on contemporary Albanian thought 161

The writings of Naim Frashëri 162

Naim Frashëri’s poem on Skanderbeg 166

Naim Frashëri’s Baktāshī works 169

The historical background to Naim's ‘Qerbelaja’ 174

The tekkes of Iraq 176

The epic of Fudūlī and his influences on later Albanian literature 178

‘Qerbelaja’ 182

Twentieth-century ūfī poets of Kosovo 188

The Baktāshī legacy in the verse of Baba Alī Tomori 190

The neo-mysticism of Hamid Gjylbegaj 192


6. Balkan Muslims in the history of the Maghrib, Egypt and Syria and the influence of the Arab East in the courtly life of Alī Pasha of Tepelenë 196

Albanians and Bosnians in Algeria and Tunisia 201

Albanians in Egypt 208

Albanians and the Cairene Baktāshī tekkes 211

The history of Shaykh Muammad Lufī Bābā and Shaykh Amad Sirrī Bābā 218





al-Häjj Umar Lufī Bashārīzī 227

Alī Pasha of Tepelenë 231

The Albanians in Syria 244


7. Bridges and barriers of Islamic faith and culture within Balkan Muslim and non-Muslim societies 253

The battle of Kosovo and the Serb crusade against Islam 257

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

Romanian monasteries and mosques and links with the Arab East 268

Islam in Kosovo 271

The Future 277


Select Bibliography 281


Appendix: The Serbian view of Islam in the 1980s 295


Index of Terms 299

Index of Places 300

Index of Persons and Nationalities 302


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