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The only European country with a Muslim majority. Albania emerged in 1992 from nearly half a century of communism and state-sponsored suppression of religious beliefs. The Balkan nation, which borders Serbia,Macedonia, and Greece, is the poorest and most isolated country in Europe. The rugged Albanian countryside is dotted with hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers-a bizarre legacy of Enver Hoxha, the Marxist leader who feared foreigners and who in 1967 declared Albania the world’s first atheist state.

No reliable census has been taken since 1945, but experts say an estimated 70 percent of Albania’s 3.3 million people either practice Islam or come from Muslim families. Another 20 percent are Orthodox Christians, and the remaining 10 percent are Roman Catholic.

Archaeological excavations at Butrint, along the Adriatic Sea near Albania’s border with Greece, show that the country was first inhabited by the Kaon tribe, who lived in the area from around 8oo to 600 BCE. Albania, known in ancient times as Illyria, was invaded by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Turks. A beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater at Butrint dates from the second century CE; nearby are Ottoman tombstones with markings in Arabic script dating from the fifteenth century.

In addition to the spread of Islam’s influence into Albania, the Middle Ages also saw the birth of the Bektashlyah, a Shi’i-influenced liberal Sufi order based on the teachings of Shaykh Hajji Bektash, a thirteenth-century scholar who built a large following in Anatopia.

Today an estimated 800 mosques can be found throughout Albania, in addition to 36o Bektashi holy places or tekkes.Albania’s oldest mosque was built in I 38o in the town of Berat, around the time the Ottoman Empire began setting its sights on the territory. In Korce can be found Albania’s second oldest Muslim site, the Mosque of Ilias Mirahori, constructed in 1494. The Shkoder mosque is the only one in Albania influenced by the imperial style of Istanbul. The Abdurrahman Pashi mosque near Peqini is considered one of the most important examples of Islamic culture in Albania; built in 1822, its clock tower and minaret are connected by the main section.

The medieval warrior Skanderbeg, whose statue dominates the main square of Tirana, is still revered in Albania for having held the Turks at bay for thirty-six years. He was ultimately defeated by Sultan Mehmed II in 1479. Except for the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Ali Pasha of Tepelena established a shortlived principality in the southern half of the country,Albania was little more than a backwater of the vast Ottoman Empire. That status continued until 1912, when another patriot, Ismail Kemal, rose up to declare Albania’s independence.

Through the long years under Ottoman rule many Albanians came to practice Islam; others were won over by the Orthodox Church of neighboring Greece, and still others-influenced by the Vatican-chose Roman Catholicism. As Lord Byron once said of the Albanians, “The Greeks hardly regard them as Christians, or the Turks as Muslims; and in fact they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither.”

In a biography of Ismail Kemal, the Italian historian Renzo Falaschi wrote, “With their indomitable and adamantine character, the Albanians imposed even more adaptations to Islam than vice versa. It could be said that [the Albanian Muslims] have accepted Baha’ism spiritually, Illuminism philosophically and, practically, the European nationalism of the nineteenth century. On the whole, they have created an Islam that has the meditation of the East and the dynamism of the West” (Ismail Kemal Bey Vlora, Rome, 1985, P. 346).

That combination of meditation and dynamism persisted into the early twentieth century, whenAlbaniaunexpectedly became the world headquarters of the Bektashiyah. In 1928, when Kemal Ataturk’s secular reforms forced the Bektashis out ofTurkey, their leader Salih Dedei came toAlbaniaand established himself in Tirana.

In fact, until the Communist takeover in 1944 Albania was noted for its religious tolerance. During the Fascist and Nazi occupation of World War II, Albania refused to turn over its 300-member Jewish community to the Germans. Because of the shelter provided by their Muslim and Christian neighbors, only five Albanian Jews perished.

Following the Communist victory over the Nazis and the declaration of an Albanian People’s Socialist Republic, however, Hoxha warned Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic clergymen alike not to preach against his hardline government. Two prominent Bektashi leaders, Baba Fajo and Baba Fejzo, were killed in March 1947 in circumstances that still are unclear. Other Muslim clerics who disappeared included Mustafa Effendi Varoshi, mufti of Durres, Hafez Ibrahim Dibra, former grand mufti of Albania, and Sheh Xhemal Pazari of Tirana. By 1968 the New York-based Free Albania Committee reported that the Communists had executed or sentenced to labor camps some two hundred clergymen of all faiths.

In 1967 Hoxha took his views a step further and declared Albania the world’s first officially atheist state. By May of that year 2,169 mosques, churches, monasteries, and other houses of worship had been either closed, converted to other uses, or destroyed. Believers caught wearing religious symbols risked up to ten years’ imprisonment. The regime proudly announced that “the last and most parasitical form of exploitation of the masses has been swept away.”

In 1985 Hoxha died, and by late 1990 the democratic reforms sweeping across eastern Europe reached Albania. In the face of unprecedented student demonstrations, Hoxha’s hand-picked successor Ramiz Alia was forced to reverse the ban on religion, allow freedom of speech, and permit the formation of new political parties.

In 1991, shortly after religious worship was allowed once again, more than fifteen thousand onlookers crowded into and around the Ethem Bey Mosque in downtown Tirana for Albania’s first legal Muslim service in twenty-four years. Shortly after that the Bektashi mosque, surrounded by crumbling apartment buildings on the city’s outskirts, was rededicated; precious Islamic works of art were brought out and displayed after years in hiding. By early 1992,Albania had announced its intention of joining the forty-five-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, a move welcomed bySaudi Arabiaand other Muslim states.

In addition to the dominant Sunnis and the Bektashis, Albania also has members of the Rifa`iyah, the Khatwatiyah, and at least six other small Muslim groups-some of them numbering fewer than one hundred adherents. Prominent Muslims estimate that there are only two hundred practicing imams throughout Albania, and that fewer than three thousand Albanian Muslims can read Arabic.

This situation is rapidly changing. Since March 1992, with the inauguration of cardiologist Sali Berisha as the country’s first democratically elected president, Pope John Paul II has visited Albania, and Mormons, Baha’is, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Protestant evangelicals have flocked to Albania, bringing food, clothing, and medicine along with new religious ideas. Likewise, Muslim missionaries from Saudi Arabia,Kuwait, and the United States have set up offices in Tirana to promote Islam and provide funds for the restoration of mosques. Thanks to Arab charities, new mosques are also being built throughout the country, though they rarely follow traditional Albanian architectural styles.

Arab companies are also becoming prominent in business. One of the country’s first private lending institutions, the Arab-Albanian Islamic Bank, was established in 1993 as a joint venture between Albania’s state-owned National Commercial Bank and a group of investors from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The bank, which occupies a former Communist Party office, has $loo million in authorized capital and promotes investment within the guidelines of Islamic banking principles. Another company, fromKuwait, is buildingAlbania’s first fivestar luxury hotel on the outskirts of Tirana.

[See also Bektashiyah.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Biber, Mehmet. “Albania, Alone against the World.” National Geographic 158 (October 1980). Unusual account ofAlbaniaduring the Hoxha regime.

Brewer, Bob. MyAlbania: Ground Zero.New York, 1992. Anthology of essays and photos chronicling the fall of communism inAlbania. Doder, Dusko. “AlbaniaOpens the Door.” National Geographic 182 (July 1992)

Prifti, Peter R. SocialistAlbaniasince 1944.Cambridge,Mass., 1978. Political appraisal of the Hoxha dictatorship.

Sidoma, Michel. “Le pays qui a chasse I”Islam.” jeune Afrique, no. 1097 (13 January 1982). French journalist’s report, one of the first published, on Albanian Islamic life under Marxism.

LARRY LUXNER

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/albania/
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  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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