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June 23, 2017

Islam in Balkans – How Islam spread in Southeast Europe

Islam in Balkans

Since the late fourteenth century there have been Muslim communities in southeast Europe. For most of their history they were an important and integral part of the Ottoman Empire. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when ethnic-based nation-states came to power in the Balkans, most of these Muslim communities lost prominence and some disappeared. Recent attempts by certain nationalist forces to erase the history of Muslims in the Balkans have led to new interest in these Muslim peoples of Europe.

Expansion of Islam into Southeast Europe

Ottoman armies and Sufi missionaries brought Islam into southeast Europe in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Beginning with the conquest of eastern Thrace in the mid-1300s, the Ottomans soon took Macedonia. They fought Serbian prince Lazar and his Balkan army at Kosovo in 1389, and defeated Bulgaria soon after in 1393. Along with military conquest, the Ottomans brought Muslim settlers from Anatolia to occupy main march routes and river valleys. In 1456 Athens fell to the Ottomans, followed by Bosnian and Albanian lands, and finally Belgrade in 1521.

There was significant conversion of local people to Islam, principally among Bosnians and Albanians, but also across the Balkans. This conversion was gradual, continuing throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and even later among some Albanians. Except for the devsirme, the forced recruitment of Christian boys for special military and governmental service, this conversion to Islam was voluntary. The Balkans had been a region of contention between western, or Latin, and eastern, or Byzantine, forms of Christianity. In Bosnia and Albania neither form of Christianity had been well preached or well established. In contrast the Sufi missionaries brought a tolerant form of religion and the Ottoman state a system of order based broadly on religious affiliation. The advantages of being Muslim were economic and cultural and included exemption from the head tax, privileges in land owning, and opportunities in state administration and the military, as well as links with the vibrant culture and society of Istanbul.

islam in balkans map

History and Main Developments

During the Ottoman period, lasting from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth century, the history of Muslims in the Balkans largely parallels the history of the empire itself. When the Ottoman Empire was at its height in the sixteenth century, the Balkan cities of Edirne, Sarajevo, and Salonika (the latter with a significant Jewish population) were rich cosmopolitan centers of trade and learning, with impressive mosques, madrasas (schools), and bridges. Three of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s grand wazirs—Ibrahim the Greek, Rustem the Bulgarian, and Mehmet Sokullu, a Slav from  Bosnia—were converted Muslims from the Balkans. At the end of the seventeenth century, Albanian Muslims from the Koprulu family (Mehmet, Ahmed, Mustafa, and Husein) served as grand wazirs and provided well-needed stability in a century of decline. For, as western European countries gained power in trade routes and military prowess, formerly the purview of the Ottomans, the Ottoman Empire weakened economically and the Austro-Hungarian Empire took territories from the Ottomans, including Hungary, part of presentday Croatia (1699), and later Bosnia (1878). The position of Muslim communities gradually declined as well until the breakup of Ottoman power in the Balkans left many of them vulnerable. The following period in the history of Muslims in the Balkans, the time of growth of nation-states, began variably in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with southern Greece becoming independent in 1821, followed by Serbia (whose northern part had been autonomous since 1815), Romania, and Bulgaria, all in 1878, and later by Albania in 1912.

During these times there were forced migrations, massacres, and expulsions of Muslims, especially from the eastern Balkans, for the new nation-states were largely conceived as ethnic units tied to language and a form of Christianity. In contrast, many Balkan Muslims, who did not fit in the new nation-state design, were seen as allied with the Ottomans who had been increasingly ineffective and oppressive in the last century of their rule. Thousands of Muslims were forced to flee to Turkey. This would continue throughout the twentieth century with Balkan Muslims from Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria emigrating to the safety of Muslim Turkey. The exceptions to this were Muslims from the western Balkan lands of Albania and Bosnia. Most stayed in the Balkans throughout these times, although some Bosnian Muslims did emigrate in and after 1878.

The large part of Bosnian Muslims, themselves Slavs, continued as landowners and free peasants under Austria-Hungary’s rule, and remained later as part of Yugoslavia. As for the Albanian Muslims, some led the Albanian nationalist movement for independence; overall, Muslims made up 70 percent of the new independent state of Albania. There were also smaller communities of Slavic Muslims, Albanian Muslims, and Roma Muslims who stayed where they were and thus became minorities in different Balkan lands. Nationalism also came to the Turks. It is interesting that an Albanian Muslim from Struga in present-day Macedonia, Ibrahim Temo, was one of the four founding members of what became known as the Young Turks. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, was a Balkan Muslim from Salonika.

Later in the twentieth century, the Muslims in Bosnia came to be seen as an ethnic group as well. Before World War II they were considered a religious community. But after the war, with the secularization of the Communist Party and growing importance of “nationalities,” they officially became an ethnic group under the label “Muslim” in 1968. Just as “Jew” in the United States can have both ethnic and religious meaning, so “Muslim” had both meanings in Yugoslavia. With the warfare in the 1990s, this ambiguity became a problem so that today the ethnic term for Bosnian Muslim is “Bosnjak.”

Characteristics and Cultural Achievements

The Muslims of the Balkans are largely Sunni of the Hannafi school. There are also Sufi communities with more inclusive theologies, including the Sunni Naqshibandi, as well as the Halveti, Mevlevi, Qadiri, Rifa_i, Sa_di, Melami, and Bektashi orders. Of these, the Bektashi rose to special prominence in Albania in the twentieth century, only to become a target of Communist Enver Hoxha’s regime (1944–1991). Also in Bulgaria there are communities of Ali_ids. As in other parts of the Ottoman world, religious poetry known as merthiyes and nefes stems from these orders, and mevluds and ghazels from the larger Muslim communities.

Better known to the broader world than religious poetry is the remarkable architecture of Muslims in the Balkans. This includes the older sections of cities with their bazaars, mosques, fountains, hamams (baths), türbes (mausolea), madrasas (schools), and old Ottoman homes. One of the masterpieces of Ottoman architecture is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne (1575) by Sinan. Also well known were other remarkable mosques like the Ferhat Pasha Mosque of Banja Luka (1579), the Aladza Mosque in Foca (1550), and the Gazi Husrevbegova Mosque of Sarajevo (1530), all in Bosnia, as well as the famous Ottoman bridge at Mostar in Herzegovina (1566).

Contemporary Situation and Concerns

The war in Bosnia (1992–1995) between Serbian and Croatian nationalists and Muslim Bosnians led to the destruction of the famous mosques of Banja Luka and Foca and the severe damaging of the Gazi Husrevbegova Mosque in Sarajevo, as well as the destruction of many more Islamic sites throughout Bosnia. The famous bridge at Mostar, and the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, where important historical documents of the Ottoman period were housed, were both deliberately targeted and destroyed. The war in Kosovo (1999) led to the destruction of many Islamic monuments and documents there as well. One of the purposes of these civil wars was to erase the Islamic heritage of these regions of the Balkans. This is not new. There were once many mosques in Belgrade that were destroyed in the late nineteenth century. Such destruction was in marked contrast to the usual Ottoman policy that had promoted tolerance for Christian and Jewish institutions.

Nevertheless there remain Muslim communities in the  Balkans. The greatest number of Muslims are still in Bosnia, although many were killed in the war and many more became refugees. The next largest population of Muslims in the Balkans is in Albania, but many were secularized during the long communist rule. Albanians in Kosovo are also mainly Muslim. But of all the Albanian Muslims in the Balkans, those in western Macedonia are among the most observant. They form at least one-third of the population, but have been kept out of most state jobs and universities. Bulgaria has three different Muslim populations: Turks, who are the largest group; Pomaks, who are Slavs living in the southern mountains; and Roma, who are largely Muslim. During communist rule in Bulgaria, there were at times direct policies to “bulgarize” the Muslim peoples by forcing them to change their Muslim names to Slavic Bulgarian ones, and there were prohibitions against circumcision. In the 1980s over 300,000 Turks from Bulgaria went to Turkey rather than submit to these policies. Since then, some have returned and the policies in post-communist Bulgaria are not as restrictive. Romania has two small Muslim communities. In Greece, most Muslims left or were part of the population transfers in the early 1920s. There remain, however, the Turkish Muslims of western Thrace in northeast Greece.

An irony of the fighting in Bosnia at the end of the twentieth century is that the attempt of Serbian and Croatian nationalists to eradicate the Islamic history and the Muslim people of the region has resulted in a reinvigoration of Islamic practices there. The Bosnians, who were once among the most secularized of Muslims, now include those who are more observant. But the long tradition of tolerance and mutual respect of Balkan Islam, for which places like Sarajevo were justly famous, has been severely damaged.

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