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

Harry T. Norris




        - Note on the use of certain ethnic, geographical and historical terms in this volume, in the light of the current situation in the Balkans and especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina






This book began as a study of the relationship between the Arabs and those sundry peoples that inhabited Europe to the north of the Black Sea. Circumstances were to prevent the publication of such a wide study. The field of interest soon appeared to be over-ambitious. By then, it had become narrow and focused upon the Balkans, and upon Albania in particular. The stimulus that was provided by such works as F.W. Hasluck’s Christianity and Islam under, the Sultans (Oxford, 1929), and Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush’s Mystics and Commissars: ūfīsm in the Soviet Union (London: Hurst 1985) may be detected in the pages that follow. Travel in the Balkans was also a spur. The thrill of entering unknown territory as one carried one’s luggage through the wild no-man’s-land between Yugoslavia, as it then was, and the atheist PSR of Albania at Hani Hoti in the days that followed the death of Enver Hoxha was a memorable experience. Subsequent visits to Macedonia, Romanian Dobrudja and Bulgaria stimulated and sharpened an interest in these Muslim peoples, which has in no way diminished over the years. Even during visits to North Africa it was an extra pleasure to meet representatives of the dwindling Balkan communities that survive in Algiers and elsewhere.


Apart from the valuable essays brought together in the publication Islam in the Balkans (papers arising from a symposium held to celebrate the World of Islam Festival at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, 28-30 July 1976, published in 1979), there are few current works in English that aim at being a general introduction to the subject. It should be said at the outset that in my book it is principally the selected list of books and journals in the bibliography and the notes accompanying each chapter that provide such an introduction. Some of the references listed are in Balkan publications. I have however found that it is quite possible to obtain xeroxed copies of many of these publications through inter-library loan arrangements and the facilities afforded by good lending libraries in Britain. Some other publications are in Arabic and Persian. Their inclusion is deliberate. There is much ignorance of Balkan Islam among many Muslim readers in the Arab world, Africa, Pakistan and South-East Asia. As many of these Muslims have a reading knowledge of Arabic, it seemed reasonable to include these references together with those in West European languages.


Islam in the Balkans is often viewed as suffering from a kind of







terminal ailment, deprived of almost all means of self-renewal, with nothing to contribute to the reform and revivification of world Islam as a whole, and dependent on funding from the heartland of the Arab East. Professor W. Montgomery Watt wrote in his book What is Islam? (Longman/Librairie du Liban, 1968), p. 142:


There are also three and a half million Muslims in Europe [sic] (other than Turkey), chiefly in Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria; but this is a part of the periphery where Islam has been on the defensive, and indeed in retreat, for centuries. These European Muslims are unlikely to make any great contribution to the general life of Islam in the visible future, but influences from other parts of the Islamic world might some day lead to revival and renewal among them.


It is a fact that for centuries there has been quiet and continuous contact between Balkan Muslims and the Islamic Middle East, besides Turkey, either individually or through the Balkan families that established homes in Egypt, Syria and North Africa.


Historical and religious studies (I exclude anthropological ones) devoted to the Muslim peoples of the Balkans (especially Albania, Bosnia and the Turks in Bulgaria) may be divided broadly into two angles of vision. The first regards Islam in the Balkans as a branch of Ottoman studies, and the region as one formerly part of the ‘Ottoman East’ (the ‘Near East’, as it was often called in an older distribution of the ‘East’ as viewed from Western Europe; D.G. Hogarth wrote that ‘the East’ denoted ‘some regions also of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe’). This view is admirable and eminently sound if one considers the overwhelming impact that the Ottomans indeed made on every aspect of life (for example architecture of all kinds) in this part of Europe. In the weighty articles and books by writers such as Hasan Kaleši, Alexandre Popović, Peter Sugar and Machiel Kiel, the Balkan lands tend to be seen as part of ‘European Turkey’. Their views are sustained by archival documentation, numerous linguistic borrowings and the styles of both religious and secular architecture. Theirs is a very formidable case, even though it does not explain the whole story.


The second point of view is that of a quite independent ‘European Islam’. A distinguished writer on the cultural achievements of the Bosnian and Hercegovinan Muslims who sees it in this light is Smail Balić, together with several other contributors to articles published in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. The ‘Islamisation of the Balkans’, in their view, is not merely to be equated with ‘Ottomanisation’. The gateways are many and the people diverse, and the genius of Islam is to be perceived at its deepest in the character of the Balkan peoples themselves.





Islam reflects their own identity just as hitherto Oriental Christianity has become acclimatised among the Illyrians and the Slavs.


These two views are not mutually exclusive. They are a matter of relative weight and balance. I admit that my approach is sympathetic to the latter, and this is one of the themes that run through the seven interrelated chapters of this book. Those links are emphasised that have brought together the Balkan Muslim peoples and the Arab world in particular. Nevertheless, I do not share all the premises of those who advocate a ‘European Islam’. That cause, seems at times to be almost an apologia not backed by adequate proof. Sometimes its advocates seem to be trying too obviously to show, or prove, that Islam is not a ‘heatbelt religion’. It is capable, in the Balkans, as it was in the ex-USSR via the Caucasus or the Volga, of being propagated among European peoples, however one happens to define ‘European’.


A scholar such as Francis Robinson in his Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (Oxford, 1982, p. 176: ‘Islam in the West’) remarks: ‘The map illustrates, as far as can be accurately ascertained, the Muslim populations of European societies and the main places from which they came. The Muslims of the Balkans are long established.’ However, what it is that unites, say, a Bosnian Muslim in Sarajevo, a convert in Bradford, a Maghribī settled in Marseille and a Tatar in Helsinki is nowhere properly explained other than by the fact that the dictate of geography determines that they share an abode in a locality on a specific continent that is marked in a particular colour on the pages of an atlas. In many ways the thoughtful and moving article by Michael Ignatieff, ‘Stones of Sarajevo put us to shame’ (the Observer, 17 May 1992, p. 19), answers that question.


‘Balkan Islam’ has come about because it is a part of the European continent that is a cultural bridge and has a coastline (and to a degree an interior) adjacent to and opposite the great heartland of Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. In the same way that al-Andalus, parts of Italy, Sicily, the Balearics, Crete and Cyprus became, for a while at least, important cultural centres of the medieval world of Islam, so it was destined that at least some parts of the Balkans would become directly or indirectly a mission field, a ‘tide-mark’, for the Islamic faith. It was to gain a tiny following in that peninsula before the arrival of the Ottomans in the fourteenth century, just as it has obviously survived the Turks’ departure. Seeds of Islam were nurtured in Mamlūk Egypt and Syria before they were transferred to fertile soil in parts of the Balkans; so too other cultural elements were transplanted via Hungary





or came direct from the steppes and river systems of Eastern Europe and from Central Asia. Slavs who had once been settled on Byzantium’s Syrian frontiers were to be influenced by the manners, customs and folk-epics of the Persians, the Arabs and other Muslim enemies. Albanians and Bosnians who served as Janissaries in the Maghrib or Mashriq were exposed to various Islamic influences. Their relationship with the Arabs sometimes had a detached relationship to life in the Ottoman heartland in Asia Minor or west of the Bosphorus.


A brief word may be added about the frequent invocation of ‘syncretism’ and ‘heterodoxy’ in these pages. To many a pious Muslim in the Middle East (Sunnite Albanian-Arabs among them) such a term may cause distress. It is equated with unorthodoxy, heresy and beliefs gauche or queer. This is an outsider’s subjective view. Furthermore, the heterodox in the Balkans have much in common with the Middle East, where Druze, Nuayrī Ismā‘īlī and Kizilbaș display some kindred beliefs. There are numerous Balkan Muslims, especially in Bosnia, who are orthodox Sunnite to the core, sober and God-fearing, lofty in ethic, loyal servants of the Prophet. Where ūfīsm is to be found among them, it is a personal matter and tends to be scholarly. To this may be added a further point. The ‘heterodox’ do not at all view themselves as such. Baktāshī Bābās and the like regard themselves as no less ‘orthodox’ than their peers (as one may see from extracts from the writings of Baba Rexhebi and Shaykh Ahmad Sirrī Bābā in this book). Some even maintain that their daring and questioning Islamic ideal is a fulfillment of the Qur’ānic message, and in particular even a refinement of the teachings of ūfīsm.


Be this as it may, it will also be observed that in the past there was a difference between Slav Islam, as practised in Bosnia, and much nominal Islam as practised amongst the Albanians. Believers may be shocked to read this description by M. Edith Durham, in her book High Albania, published in London in 1909, p. 313:


The ground fact is this. The North Albanian tribesman is an Albanian first. He has never absorbed the higher teaching of either Christianity or Islam (I speak of the masses only). Christ and Mohammed are to him two supernatural ‘magic dickies,’ each able, if propitiated, to work wonders. Looked at, impartially, through the eyes of a tribesman, which has succeeded better? As a Christian, the tribesman was trampled by that hated unbeliever, the Slav (he has never called the Slav a Christian). With the help of Islam, on the contrary, the Slav has been beaten back. The Albanian has regained much territory. But for foreign intervention, he would have regained much more. The magic of Mohammed has given him fat lands, ruling posts in the Government,





has not exacted compulsory military service, has paid him well when he chose to fight, and has never troubled to teach him Mohammedanism properly, but has left him free to keep his old customs.


He does not veil his women, nor seclude them more than do many Christians, and rarely has more than one wife, save a sister-in-law. He pays no more attention to his Hodja than to his priest. Except at a mosque, I have never seen him perform either the proper prayers or ablutions. If he be an earnest believer, he belongs to some Dervish sect — preferably the Bektashes — which love the Orthodox Mohammedans as do the Dissenters the Church of England. Briefly, he has had all the advantages of Islam, and gone his own way. As a counterattraction, Christianity offers him the position of underdog, problematic advantages in another world, and, mark this, probable foreign domination in this one.



Can Muslim Albanians (their faith eroded by years of Marxism) be judged benighted in having such an earthbound view? Is Islam, or indeed Christianity, primarily a portfolio of investments to secure unending bliss in the world to come (al-ākhira)? On this criterion alone, are the Balkan Muslims given a low rating for piety, commitment to their faith or a show of sincerity in their confession? Has the Westerner ever truly understood the real Albanian Islam? In the past, Sunnite orthodoxy has been disparaged by Westerners. The gnosticism of the Baktāshīyya has been viewed with a sympathy beyond its deserts, possibly because its creed has been seen as a ‘half-way house to Christianity’. All these are valid questions, and it is hoped that in these pages Islam in the Balkans (not simply because of its topicality) may enjoy a far higher regard, and that those who profess the faith there and indeed who are dying for it may receive much more support from Arab and non-Arab fellow-believers.


The feeling of neglect among Yugoslav Muslims, in particular the Bosnians, is stressed by the Arab journalist Munir Naīf: [1]


But they scold their Arab Muslim brethren. How often have we heard cross words of complaint, that Muslim brethren in the Arab and non-Arab countries do not know much at all about the Muslims of Yugoslavia. The University [of Belgrade] is desirous of being supplied with books, with sources and with cultural and literary journals and Arabic newspapers. A Muslim Yugoslav student, who was studying Arabic language and literature, said to us, ‘Isn’t it strange that Arabic books and newspapers reach Athens, capital of Greece, and



1. In his article ‘Arabo-Muslim Civilisation in Yugoslavia’, al-‘Arabī, Kuwait no. 233, 1978, p. 75.





stop there. The distance by air between Athens and Belgrade is no more than half an hour.’


The journalist was not surprised by the student’s remarks since during his visit to Belgrade and Sarajevo, which lasted a fortnight, no Arabic newspaper could be purchased. Arab students studying in Yugoslavia had complained to their ambassadors, who had promised to help, but so far nothing had been achieved.


Muslims in Britain in their unstinting support for victims of the tragedy of Bosnia have shown what should be done by way of sympathy, aid relief and understanding. Believers and unbelievers alike should have more thought for the faith and the culture that has made its individual and fascinating contribution to the life of South-Eastern Europe.


Note on the use of certain ethnic, geographical and historical terms in this volume, in the light of the current situation in the Balkans and especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina


            The origin of the Bosnian Muslims. This subject is still a controversial one. The historical facts are unclear and are open to wide differences in interpretation. The simple equation ‘ex-Bogomils’ equals ‘Muslims’ is a gross over-simplification and unlikely to be correct. According to Ivo Andrić in The Developement of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule: [2]


The situation in Bosnia was all the more awkward on account of the frightful religious struggle that was raging within the country. As mentioned, this struggle had reached a critical point just before the invasion when some resolution was unavoidable, whatever the direction taken. Bosnia might have turned entirely to the Catholic West and participated to the fullest in its spiritual life. (The fact that two of the last Bosnian kings openly leaned towards Catholicism, followed by a respectable number of the nobility, makes this the most likely possibility.) Or on the other hand, less plausible, a kind of minor scale Slavic Reformation in Bosnia’s spiritual life would have been brought about by a victory of the Patarins.


At the decisive moment this far-reaching process was abruptly broken by the sudden intrusion of a conquering people foreign in faith, spirit and race. The confusion was compounded when the upper, better-off part of the population, in order to save its possessions, adopted the religion of these intruders.



2. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 16-17.





So it came about that down the middle of the South Slavic lands a line was etched, a line generally following the Danube, Sava and Una rivers and the Dinaric Alps if we disregard strong fluctuations. This dividing wall split in two the Serbo-Croatian racial and linguistic complex, and its shadow, where four centuries of ghastly history were played out, was to lie heavy on the landscape to either side into the far distant future.


Therein we see the whole meaning of Turkish rule and Turkish influence on Bosnia’s spiritual life.


By right of geographic position Bosnia should have linked the lands along the Danube with the Adriatic Sea, two peripheries of the Serbo-Croatian element and two different zones of European culture. Having fallen to Islam, it was in no position to fulfill this, its natural role, and to take part in the cultural development of Christian Europe, to which ethnographically and geographically it belonged.



Far more succinctly, Alexander Lopašić remarks: [3]


A special case of peaceful conversion to Islam is Bosnia where, shortly after the conquest in 1463, a considerable number of Christian inhabitants, peasants and lesser nobility adopted Islam. Many of them belonged to a Christian sect called the Bogomils, who, after being expelled from Serbia, Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, settled down in Bosnia where they formed a kind of national church. The Bosnian kingdom was troubled by both Hungary and Rome, and as a result of this the Bogomils’ religion became an expression of Bosnian independence and national identity. It received support even from the court which was officially Catholic. After the Ottoman conquest many Bogomils accepted Islam at least formally since it did not make too high demands on them. On the other hand it secured them a future in the new political situation.



            Muslim nationality in Bosnia and Hercegovina. In my final chapter I make reference to the muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina (and to a lesser degree elsewhere) as being sui generis within the Islamic Umma. In no way is this pejorative. The whole question has been examined in great detail, and thoroughly documented, by Sabrina P. Ramet, who remarks: [4]


Today in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are Muslims who consider themselves primarily ‘Muslim Croats’, those who consider themselves ‘Bosnian Muslims’



3. ‘Islamisation of the Balkans: Some general considerations’, Islam in the Balkans, Edinburgh, 1979, p. 50.

4. ‘Primordial ethnicity or modern nationalism: The case of Yugoslavia’s Muslims reconsidered’, South Slav Journal, vol. 13, nos 1-2 (47-48), p. 15.





(i.e. ‘Muslims in the ethnic sense’), and those who, in the spirit of the ‘Islamic Declaration’, see themselves simply as ‘Muslims’. In addition, there are those Muslims who in the 1981 census declared themselves ‘Yugoslavs’. This already complex picture is made more so by the presence of persons like Fuad Muhić, who describe themselves as ‘atheist Muslims’, and who therefore completely divorce religion from nationality.


Current events are certainly changing this situation completely, including the question of Bosnian (Bosanski) identity. There is no intention here to predict the future outcome.


            Yugoslavia (Jugoslavia). Throughout this book I have used the former name of the entire Republic to express a geographical region (in the same way as ‘Indian sub-continent’ is currently in use), without any intention of a political connotation.


            Kosovo and Kosova. The former is the Serbian spelling, the latter that of the Albanian Kosovars, used also in Albania itself. I have retained the form of Kosovo since it is the most commonly used spelling in Anglo-Saxon countries; it is also the spelling used by Isa Zymberi in his Preface to Colloquial Albanian (Routledge, 1991), himself a Kosovar, and avoids the current Albanian spelling of Kosovë (as used by Ramadan Marmullaku in his Albania and the Albanians).


            Macedonia. Unless Greece or Bulgaria is specifically indicated, Macedonia denotes the republic of that name in former Yugoslavia.


            The future of the Muslim communities in the Balkans. In the concluding chapter an attempt is made to see what lies ahead for these small and predominantly minority communities. A future where Islam and Christianity will to some extent overlap seems very likely in Albania where religious friction is rarely found in popular practice or in Albanian thought. Whether ūfīsm will be revived is harder to predict. In Bulgaria, among both Turks and Pomaks, mosques are being restored and rebuilt, and increasing support, especially financial, is being sought from Turkey and Saudi Arabia in order to build madrasas and finance training courses for imāms, who are exceedingly few. Arabic is hardly understood and the Qur’ān is a closed book unless a Turkish translation is used. The size, the territory arid the character of the Bosnian Muslim community in the future cannot be predicted. Many of the refugees and





displaced persons will never return to their homes — villages and towns which have been erased from the Balkan map. Instead we are likely to see the establishment and growth of small or even sizeable Muslim communities in parts of Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary, where Muslims have been few in number since Ottoman times. The Zagreb mosque has become increasingly central for Bosnian Muslim relief and religious activities.


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