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The Islamic communities of the Balkan states and southeastern Europe in general (all Sunnis of the Hanafi school) comprise a relatively large number of ethnic groups speaking about ten different languages. They have lived and continue to live under social and political conditions that vary widely from one state to another, according to their numbers on the one hand and according to the ideology professed by the successive regimes of each state on the other. Despite these differences, the Balkan Muslim communities have much in common. They share a common history beginning with the invasion and occupation of the region by Ottoman forces beginning in the fourteenth century. Their populations can be traced to the same three origins-Turkish-speaking settlers who arrived in the wake of the invasion or some time later, Muslim settlers from other parts of the Islamic world who were established in the region by Ottoman power, and indigenous people who converted to Islam. Conversion was most common in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria (the Pomaks of the Rhodopes, whose mountain lands also extend into the modern states of Greece and Macedonia), and Crete. During the Ottoman era these groups enjoyed privileged status, since non-Muslims were denied full citizenship. After the Christian reconquest they were reduced everywhere except in Albania to the status of an inferior religious and/or ethnic minority. Today, in all the countries of the region except Albania, Muslim communities remain minorities-sometimes very small ones-in predominantly Orthodox Christian or Catholic societies. This history has affected different Muslim communities in different ways, depending on the regime in power, the historical period, and the group’s ethnic origins.

Hungary. Two distinct Islamic communities have existed in Hungary. The first was formed there between 1526 and 1699 as a result of the Ottoman conquest and occupation of many Hungarian territories. It disappeared immediately after the reconquest, when those Muslims who did not flee with the retreating armies were either massacred or forced to convert to Christianity.

A new Islamic community was created, beginning in 1878, by the immigration of a small number of Muslims from Bosnia-Herzegovina (occupied at the time by Austria-Hungary), as well as an influx of Ottoman Turkish craftsmen, traders, and students. Over time, however, these groups shrank as their members were assimilated into the general population. Today in Hungary there is no organized Islamic community, although a few hundred-perhaps a few thousand-individuals adhere to the faith; they include Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis, Iranians, and other immigrants, along with a handful of local converts.

Romania. Two small Islamic communities have existed on Romanian territory in modern times. The first was built on Ada Kale, a small island in the Danube conquered by the Ottomans late in the fifteenth century. At the end of World War II the island’s population numbered about one thousand, but the community was dispersed in 1968 when the island was submerged by the construction of the Iron Gate hydroelectric dam.

The second community is in Dobroudja, a region conquered by the Ottomans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but ceded to Romania in 1878, an event that triggered a mass exodus of Muslims to Turkey. Today the population numbers about fifty thousand Turks and Tatars, mostly farmers. Under Communist rule this small community found itself in a difficult situation: Turkish and Tatar schools were closed, as was the country’s only Muslim seminary at Medjidiya; Muslim religious publications were banned; and travel restrictions made pilgrimage to Mecca impossible. Beginning in 1972 the changing international situation and the country’s enormous economic difficulties forced the authorities to grant a few concessions to the Muslims in a clear effort to improve Romania’s image with wealthy Arab and other Muslim states. Today there is little information available on the Muslims of Dobroudja or on the ties they must have developed over the past four to five decades with religious bodies in Turkey, the Arab states, and other Islamic countries.

Greece. The regions that comprise modern Greece were conquered by the Ottomans in the mid-fourteenth century (some islands were not seized until the sixteenth or seventeenth century) and underwent a long occupation until they were liberated during the War of Independence and subsequent campaigns from 1821 to 1912. Much of the Muslim population then fled; those who did not were expelled from their lands, massacred, or forced to convert. After Greece and Turkey exchanged populations in 1923, the only Muslims left in Greece were three small communities with a total of 130,000 to 150,000 inhabitants, about 2 percent of the national population. These groups include the Turks (and Gypsies) of western Thrace (numbering 100,000 to 120,000), the Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks in the Rhodopes (about 25,000), and a handful of Turks (perhaps 3,000) in the Dodecanese islands, primarily Rhodes and Kos.

The Dodecanese group is gradually disappearing as its aged members die. The Pomaks, who live in the Rhodope Mountains along the Bulgarian border, form a virtually closed village society, self-reliant and isolated from the outside world by both rugged terrain and strategic considerations: the Greek government has declared the area a military zone and closed it to all outside civilians.

The principal Muslim group is thus that in western Thrace, a community that is alive but restricted by local authorities and very much at the mercy of day-to-day changes in relations between Greece and Turkey-relations that are in turn influenced by its presence. At present there is no sign of improvement in the religious, political, social; or economic conditions of this disadvantaged community, which the Greek government wishes would simply disappear.

Bulgaria. The lands of modern Bulgaria, like those of Greece, were under Ottoman occupation for a long period, from the fourteenth-century conquest until 1878 in northern Bulgaria and until 1908 in the south. Here, however, the number of Muslims was so large that despite the dislocations of war, subsequent massacres, forced and voluntary migration, and some incidents of forced conversion, the 1946 census found that 13.35 percent of the Bulgarian population still identified itself as Muslim. The Bulgarian Islamic community is composed of four distinct and quite different ethnic groups.

The islamized Bulgarians (numbering about 150,000) are known as Pomaks. They speak Bulgarian, know nothing of Turkish, and live in the Rhodope Mountains and in the southwestern part of the country in a region centered on Razlog. Mostly illiterate until relatively recent times, they have never really had a local intelligentsia. Since Bulgaria regained its independence, civil and military authorities have sought to weaken the Pomaks’ distinctive identity-a campaign pushed to extremes by the Communists in the past few decades. In the 1980s, for instance, the government forced all minorities to “bulgarianize” family and given names. Nevertheless, since the fall of the Communists it has become clear that both the ethnic identity and the religious traditions of the Pomaks are far from eradicated, and that they continue to pose a problem to the country’s present rulers.

Turks are the largest Muslim group in the country. Their number has varied widely over the years since 1878 and today stands at 500,000 to 600,000, by conservative estimate. They are scattered through various regions (Deli Orman, Dobroudja, along the Danube, and in the Western Rhodopes), and it is impossible to say how many of them are actually practicing Muslims. The split between religious and nonreligious Turks has come into the open with the recent emergence of two rival political groups: the Movement for Rights and Freedom is a secular political party with ties to official organizations in Turkey; the followers of the grand mufti (in 1993 there were two rival grand muftis in Bulgaria) form a party that maintains strong ties to Islamic religious organizations in the Arab world. The drive to bulgarianize names, and the xenophobic policies it heralded, brought about a massive exodus, with some 300,000 refugees reaching Turkey in 1989. Some of them have since returned, while many others eventually resettled in third countries.

Tatars number a few thousand (they were 6,000 in 1946). Practicing Muslims make up an indeterminate portion of this population. The Tatars are being gradually absorbed into the larger Turkish minority.

The last group is the Gypsies, whose number is uncertain, perhaps ioo,ooo. Most consider themselves Muslims, although religion does not appear to play a very large part in their lives.

A notable aspect of the Turkish-Tatar community in Bulgaria is that it is divided into two distinct religious groups. The vast majority are Sunni of the Hanafi school, but there is a minority of Alevis (Ar., ‘Alawiyah; locally called Alijani or Kizilbash) in Deli Orman, who are devoted to the veneration of ‘Ali.

Albania. The region of modern Albania was conquered by the Ottomans during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The conquest was followed by the spread of Islam through the local population to such an extent that by the time an Albanian state was created in 1912, 70 percent of the country’s population was Muslim. This large community has two noteworthy characteristics: it is completely homogeneous, since virtually all the Muslims in the country are Albanian by ethnic origin and by language; and it consists of two parallel communities, one Sunni (about 8o percent of the country’s Muslims) and the other comprising followers of the Bektashiyah.

These two communities have consistently pursued independent and autonomous courses. In the period between the two world wars the Albanian Sunni community separated itself from the caliphate by a decision taken at its first Congress, held in Tirana in 1923. In the beginning of the Communist period, the Bektashis gained recognition as the fourth official religion of the country, on an equal footing with Sunnis, Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics. In 1967, however, the Communist authorities banned all religious organizations in the country and closed all houses of worship. The recent fall of this repressive regime has brought about, as might be expected, the reopening of the mosques, the churches, and the tekke of the Bektashis and other Sufi brotherhoods. Albania today is witnessing a sweeping religious revival that is being watched with great interest in religious circles of the Islamic world eager to see their faith established as firmly as possible on the European continent.

Former Yugoslavia. It is in the former Yugoslaviahome to the largest number of Balkan Muslims, more than three million-that the situation has been most complex, reflecting the turmoil of history and the existence of several ethnic and linguistic groups. The Ottoman occupation of what became the Yugoslav republics took place over many decades from the late fourteenth century to the late sixteenth. Islam took root among some of the local populations, especially in BosniaHerzegovina and in Macedonia, while Ottoman military and administrative officials settled in many parts of the country. Other Muslim immigrants established themselves in parts of the country, among them seminomadic Turks and non-Turkish Muslims, like the Albanians who came to Kosovo beginning in the late seventeenth century.

Following the reconquest Muslim populations were expelled from some regions and concentrated in others, creating today’s distinct ethnic and geographic pattern. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a region occupied by AustriaHungary from 1878 to 1918, the Islamic population consists of Slavic Muslims speaking Serbo-Croatian; in Kosovo, it consists of Albanians and a small number of Turks who remained after Yugoslav independence; and in Macedonia, Slavic Muslims, Turks, and ethnic Albanians, both recent immigrants and longtime residents, live side by side.

It is clearly impossible to recount even briefly the eventful history of each of these large groups, let alone describe the experience of many smaller ones, like the one-time Turkish sanjak of Novi Pazar. The seventyfive-year history of the country as a whole falls into four main periods: the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941), World War II (1941-1944), the Communist dictatorship (1945-1989) and the present dissolution of the federation. Each of these eras has had its own impact on the region’s Muslim populations. Under the kingdom, Yugoslavia had two very different Islamic groups: the wellorganized Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose leaders were the de facto heads of an ill-defined “Yugoslav Muslim community,” and the Muslims of “South Serbia” (i.e., Kosovo and Macedonia), much less unified  because of their ethnic diversity (Albanians, Turks, Macedonian Slavs, and Gypsies). During World War II Bosnia was annexed by the puppet Croatian fascist state, and some Bosnian Muslims joined the Ustashe terrorists, often against their better judgment. Both during and after the war, ties to the Ustashe had tragic consequences. Under the Tito regime, the situation became even more complex. Beginning in 1960 the government decided to favor the Yugoslav Muslim community by granting them significant freedom of action and material advantages. In 1967 a Muslim Nation was recognized as one of the country’s constituent peoples, although this recognition extended only to Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina. This privileged status rapidly deteriorated, however, as ethnic and religious tensions grew following the sharp downturn in the Yugoslav economy and the collapse of the Communist regime. Recent events in the former Yugoslavia have affected the three main Muslim groups in different ways.

In Macedonia local Muslims are seeking to build stronger ties with their non-Muslim neighbors. Above all, they seek to free themselves from the grip of Albanian Muslims from Kosovo, who continue to migrate to western and southern Macedonia in large numbers.

In Kosovo the situation is explosive owing to the longstanding enmity between the Serbs and the Albanians, which was raised to a fever pitch during the Communist era. It is virtually impossible to say anything precise about the current religious situation of the Albanian community because the assertion of Albanian nationalism monopolizes public discourse, making it difficult to analyze the actual influence of both the mosque and the mystical brotherhoods.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has seen Islam politicized by the Democratic Action Party of Alija Izetbegovic, whose theories are clearly presented in two books, The Islamic Declaration (1970) and Islam between East and West (1980; English translation, 1984). Izetbegovic has pushed the various Bosnian Muslim communities toward a “holy union,” even though many of them had previously shown little enthusiasm for any sort of religious activism. The country’s Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats have similarly retreated into hard-line nationalism, bolstered by their respective churches. Exploited by leaders who are all former members of the Titoist political elite, this communal division has led to the gruesome combat that began in the spring of 1992.

[See also Albania.]


Clayer, Nathalie. L’Albanie, pays des derviches: Les ordres mystiques musulmans en Albanie a l’epoque post-ottomane, 1912-x967. Berlin and Wiesbaden, 1990.

Kalionski, A. “The Pomak Dilemma.” In La transmission du savoir dans le monde musulman periphenque, Lettre d’information, no. 13, pp. 122-130. Paris, 1993.

Lederer, G. “Islam in Hungary.” Central Asian Survey 11.1 (1992): 1-23.

Popovic, Alexandre. L’Islam balkanique: Les musulmans du sud-est europeen dams la periode post-ottomane. Berlin and Wiesbaden, 1986. Provides an overall view of the Muslim communities of Southeast Europe, with an extensive annotated bibliography arranged by country and period.

Popovic, Alexandre. Les musulmans yougoslaves, 1945-1989: Mediateurs et metaphores. Lausanne, 1990.


Translated from French by Harry M. Matthews, Jr.

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/balkan-states/

  • writerPosted On: October 15, 2012
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