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Balkan States

Linguistically, the word “Balkan” means “forest-clad mountains” in Turkish, referring to the Balkan mountain known in Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian as Stara planina (the Old Mountain) in Bulgaria, its flanks sloping down towards Romania.

Geopolitically, “Balkans” is the name used since the early eighteenth century in the social sciences and history to denote an extensive area in southeastern Europe. The term was used even when the area was still part of the Ottoman Empire or under its sovereignty.

The influence of geopolitical theories led to the Balkans being widely defined geographically as consisting of the present-day states of Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and the European part of the Republic of Turkey. There are other views, too: for instance, that the Balkans lie to the south of the Sava and Danube rivers. In modern European geopolitical discourse, the lands and regions of the western Balkans consist of Serbia, Kosovo, the Novi Pazar Sandžak, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia—though some would exclude Slovenia. The eastern Balkans, in this view, consist of Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and the European part of the Republic of Turkey. There is even the notion that, geopolitically speaking, the Balkans extend from Vienna to Istanbul; some say, jokingly, that the Balkans begin in Vienna in the restaurants filled with the aroma of good ćevapčići, kebabs, and šavirma. There is no strict definition of the Balkans in the European social sciences and history as developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nor of how its borders should be defined.

The Balkans are often pejoratively described in the European social sciences as “wild Europe,” a region that is not quite Europe, a “powder keg,” a land in which everything is topsy-turvy. This has helped create the negative reputation that is still associated with the Balkans in much of the European social sciences and historical studies. Mariia TodorovaʾsImagining the Balkans is a fine study of the European and local Balkan theories that have generated this false impression of the Balkans.

There is also a well-founded suspicion that, as a result of the long centuries during which the Balkans were ruled by the Ottoman Empire, ostensibly a backward, stagnating empire, the Balkans are regarded as an amputated limb of the European continent. It is still possible to come across European social scientists who regard the Islamic factor as a foreign, alien element in Europe, a factor of discontinuity. Such people forget, perhaps deliberately, that Christianity did not originate in Europe either; like Islam and Judaism, it reached Europe from the Middle East, from the Semitic triangle formed by Mecca, the Red Sea, and Jerusalem.

Historical facts indicate that Islam was present in the Balkan lands even before the Ottoman period, by means of trading contacts or via Slav mercenaries and slaves in the courts of Muslim Spain and Sicily. However, Islam became one of the Balkan regionʾs principal religions as a result of the Ottoman conquest.

A Brief Overview of the Historical Context.

The medieval Balkan states now known as Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and parts of Croatia came under Ottoman rule between 1371 (the battle of Marica) and 1463, when medieval Bosnia fell. Serbia finally came under Ottoman rule in 1453 with the fall of Smederevo. Slavonia (now a district in eastern Croatia) fell to the Otto-man Empire in the late sixteenth century, and remained under Ottoman rule for almost two hundred years.

Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Following the end of Ottoman rule and the withdrawal of its military garrisons from Inner Serbia in 1867, and the 1878 Berlin Congress, when the European powers agreed that Austria-Hungary should occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Muslims of the Balkans experienced a civilizational shock. For centuries they had lived in the Ottoman Empire, where Islam was the state religion, but now they had to define their religious status within nation-states with a Christian majority. This need became particularly acute after the 1912–1913 Balkan wars, when the Ottoman Empire lost most of its territories in the Balkans.

After 1878 in particular, the European powers called upon the newly-formed Christian states in the Balkans to recognize Islam as a religion and to grant the Muslims a certain legal status. The recognition in public law of Islam in the Balkan countries following the departure of the Ottoman Empire meant that, in a given country, Islam acquired the status of a legally recognized religion. This included the right to profess the teachings of Islam, to manifest it in worship and practice, and to assemble with other believers in a religious community.


In 1868, Mihailo Obrenović issued a decree permitting the Muslims to use the Bajrakli mosque in Belgrade. State funds were allocated for the maintenance of the mosque and to pay the salaries of the imam and a number of his officials. Not long after this, Serbia enlarged its territory to the south by means of war, particularly in clashes with the Ottoman Empire in 1876–1878, when Serbian forces seized many areas with a large indigenous Muslim population. Some were forcibly transferred to the east, especially to regions now forming the Republic of Turkey, while others tried to remain within expanding Serbia. In 1878 an interim law was promulgated in Niš, granting protection to “the Serbian citizen of the [Orthodox] Christian faith and the Serbian citizen of the Muslim faith.” The Serbian authorities enacted an almost identical law in Belgrade in 1913, following the conquest by Serbian forces of the Novi Pazar Sandžak, Kosovo, and Metohija.


In Montenegro, the question of recognizing Islam became relevant following the 1876–1878 wars, when five Turkish kadiluks—regions under the jurisdiction of a qāḍī [kazi] or judge—became part of the state of Montenegro. At first there was no legislation in Montenegro governing the rights and freedoms of Muslims to profess Islam, apart from the statements and documents issued by Prince Nikola, which amounted to the recognition in public law of Islam in the state. A few years after 1878, Prince Nikola appointed a muftī of Montenegro as the “religious elder of the Muslims of Montenegro,” granting him the authority to judge the Muslims under sharīʿah law “in the same way as in the Turkish period.” The 1888 General Property Code for the Principality of Montenegro recognized mosques as the common property of the Muslims.

In 1905, speaking at the Montenegrin Assembly held on Nikoljdan, the Montenegrin leader noted that the Muslims, “who conduct themselves well, work, and are obedient to their Christian fellow citizens,” were equal in rights and freedoms with their baptized brothers in the state, and were not even prevented from maintaining spiritual relations with the Caliph in the imperial city of Istanbul. The Judicial Procedure Law, enacted in Montenegro in 1905, extended the powers of the sharīʿah courts, and the 1905 Constitution of Montenegro confirmed all previous legislative provisions pertaining to the Muslims. It should be recalled that in both Serbia and Montenegro, between the time they gained independence from the Ottoman Empire and 1918, Orthodox Christianity was the state religion, while Islam was a state-recognized religion.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941).

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed in 1918, later to become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The 1921 Constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, known as the Vidovdan (St. Vitusʾ Day) Constitution, proclaimed the principle of equality of religious confession. In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, too, between 1918 and 1941, sharīʿah law was recognized in regard to Muslim family and inheritance law and in matters of Islamic pious endowments (vakuf, from the Arabic waqf). There were sharīʿah courts, financed by the state, specifically for Muslims, with jurisdiction solely over family and inheritance law and matters concerning Islamic pious endowments.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia also sought to locate the headquarters of the supreme Islamic leader or Reisu l-Ulema in Belgrade, and for a time he was based there. Relocating the Reisu l-Ulema from Sarajevo to Belgrade ran counter to the feelings of the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and indeed of those of Albania, who regarded Sarajevo as the Muslim and Islamic centre of the Balkans.

During the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Muslims launched a number of newspapers and periodicals, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between the two World Wars, these included Novi Behar (New Blossom), published in Sarajevo, Hikjmet (Wisdom) in Tuzla, and El-Hidaje (Instructions) in Sarajevo. The official organ of the Islamic Religious Community, Glasnik (The Herald), was launched in Belgrade in 1933, and is still published, but now in Sarajevo.

Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A number of important laws dealing with Islam and the Muslims were enacted during the Austro-Hungarian period in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1878–1918). The Convention Governing the Occupation of BiH, adopted in 1879, set out the obligation to respect the Islamic faith. By Imperial Decree of 1882, the Islamic religious hierarchy was established, headed by the Reisu l-Ulema. This Decree, issued in Vienna, introduced the Ulema Medžlis (Council of Scholars) in Sarajevo, appointing the Reisu l-Ulema and another four members to the council, following the model of the Synod of the Orthodox Church. The 1882 Decree was intended by the authorities in Vienna to detach the Bosnian Muslims from the Caliph in Istanbul and win their loyalty to the Dual monarch. It was also an attempt to Europeanize the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans. In 1910 Austria-Hungary promulgated a Provincial Constitution for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which proclaimed a “system of recognized religious communities.”

In 1902 the Austro-Hungarian authorities also enacted a law that required the word “Muslims” to be used to denote the followers of Islam and “the Islamic faith” to denote Islam itself. This was designed to replace the use of the words Mohammedan and Mohammedanism, which were in common use in Bosnia in official circles, even though they were offensive to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1916, Austria-Hungary enacted a Law on the Recognition of the Islamic Faith, guaranteeing freedom of religion and state protection for the Muslims. Under the terms of this law, polygamy was not permitted in the Dual Monarchy, but was allowed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Islam was recognized by the Croatian Parliament in 1916, a few weeks after its recognition by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In 1919 an Imamʾs Office was established in Zagreb, and in 1922 a Muftiʾs Office was established there, but was abolished in 1923 by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the grounds that there were no more than two thousand Muslims in Croatia, whereas the law required a much larger number for the existence of a Muftiʾs Office.

Islam and Muslims in the Balkans, 1945–1992.

In socialist Yugoslavia (1945–1992), religion and religious communities were marginalized, particularly in the early decades. After 1945, the socialist states not only of Yugoslavia, but also of Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, systematically introduced an atheist system in their schools and universities, as well as in the workplace. At first, too, cultural national societies were banned.

Between 1945 and 1955 many imams, hojjas, priests, and friars were imprisoned. The practice of incarcerating religious figures, as well as other ideological enemies of socialism and communism, continued even after this.

There was no specific law governing the status of Islam and the Muslims or that of vakufs in the early years of socialist Yugoslavia: all faiths came within the ambit of the general Law on Religious Communities. There were, however, two instances of laws in which the Bosnian Muslims and those of Albania were singled out. The first was the 1946 Law on the Abolition of Sharīʿah Courts in the Peopleʾs Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the second was the 1950 Law Prohibiting the Wearing of the Veil, both specifically targeting Islamic believers.

In the early decades of socialist Yugoslavia, the Islamic community was known as the Islamic Religious Community, headed by the Reisu l-Ulema, who chaired a body known as the Supreme Islamic Leadership. At the time it was a centralized institution, interpreting Islam in the manner then regarded as socially acceptable: Islam interpreted progressively, Islam backing the workers and peasants, Islam for the honest intelligentsia, and so forth. There were only two active madrasahs in socialist Yugoslavia, the Gazi Husrev bey madrasah in Sarajevo and the Alauddin madrasah in Priština (Kosovo).

A special police campaign was conducted in Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria in the late 1960s and during the 1970s to have the Muslims settle in Turkey. In Bulgaria, Muslim names were changed by law into Bulgarian ones. In Yugoslavia, Titoʾs authorities put a stop to the campaign, and Tito dismissed Aleksandar Rankovič, the Minister of Police. During this period, Kosovo gained a large measure of autonomy, effectively giving it equal status with the six Yugoslav republics.

Recent history.

In the later years of Yugoslav socialism, particularly at the time when Titoʾs Yugoslavia was one of the leading members of the Non-Aligned movement, there was a marked renaissance among the Muslims and their institutions in the Balkans, particularly in the western Balkan countries. Numerous mosques were built in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Novi Pazar Sandžak, Kosovo, and Macedonia. In 1987, a mosque was inaugurated in Zagreb, in affirmation of the Muslims of Croatia. During the 1970s and 1980s the Gazi Husrev bey madrasah, founded in 1537, flourished, and in 1977 the Faculty of Islamic Theology was established (renamed the Faculty of Islamic Studies in 1992). The students were mainly Bosnians, but there was a not inconsiderable number of Albanian students from Kosovo and western Macedonia as well. The Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo now has six hundred to seven hundred students at three course levels.

On the whole, there was a tendency to interpret Islam in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia along reformist and modernist lines, combined with a concern to preserve the traditional, local patterns of Islam. As the power of the socialist and communist authorities declined, Ṣūfī orders also began to re-emerge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the official journal of the Islamic community, Glasnik, continued publication, and new periodicals were launched: the markedly reformist Preporod (Renaissance), which is still published, and Islamska misao (Islamic Thought).

After the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia, which began in 1990, war broke out, first in Slovenia, then in Croatia and, in 1992, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All three republics were recognized as independent, sovereign states, first by the European Union and the United States and then, in 1992, by the United Nations. Serbian politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and official Belgrade were opposed to this, and the ensuing wars, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995) and Kosovo (1999), caused appalling damage. Estimates of the numbers of deaths vary from 110,000 to 250,000. The numbers of displaced persons and refugees were far higher. More than 70 percent of the victims in the wars of 1992–1995 and 1999 were Bosnian Muslims and Albanians. More than a thousand mosques, tekkes (Ṣūfī lodges) and maktabs (Islamic schools) were destroyed, along with about two hundred churches, mainly Catholic.

The war was ended in Bosnia in 1995 by NATO strikes, and at the end of the year the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. Bosnia was divided administratively into the Federation and Republika Srpska, with a weak central government in Sarajevo. In Kosovo, NATO strikes in 1999 put a stop to the persecution and the forced expulsion of the Albanian population by the Serbian army and police.

For the Balkan Muslims, the years between 1995 and 2005 were marked by recovery from the war and a revival of the economy and of cultural and educational institutions. The European Union and the United States have invested considerable financial, police, and military efforts to restore the western Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Since 1995, the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become more active. Since 1992, five madrasahs or Islamic high schools have been opened, along with another two faculties of Islamic studies. Under the auspices of the Islamic Community of Bosnia, madrasahs have also been opened in Novi Pazar (Serbia) and Zagreb (Croatia).

The Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has several muftīsʾ offices (Sarajevo, Bihać, Mostar, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Travnik, Zenica, Goražde), headed by the Reisu l-Ulema as Grand Muftī, headquartered in Sarajevo. There is also a Bosnian muftī in Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Novi Pazar, and Belgrade. The Reisu l-Ulema heads the executive body of the Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the Rijaset. The supreme governing body of the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the Sabor (Assembly), which issues decrees and regulations binding only by virtue of the moral will and conscience of the Muslims, since in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as indeed throughout the Balkans, sharīʿah law is no longer applied. In Kosovo, a Faculty of Islamic Studies has recently been opened, and the Islamic community there is headed by a muftī. In Montenegro, the Islamic community is headed by a Reis in Podgorica.

The headquarters of the Islamic community in Macedonia is in Skopje, also headed by a Reisu l-Ulema. In Albania, the headquarters of the Islamic community is in Tirana, under a muftī.

Most Muslims or Islamic communities in the Balkan states, from Bulgaria to Croatia and Slovenia, are keen for their countries to join the European Union, in which they see their security. Within these Balkan Muslim communities, Islam is seen as a religion and a moral system. There is no view of Islam in the Balkans today as the basis for the creation of a state or imperial polity. The presence of so-called Wahhābī groups worries the general public from time to time, but the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam cannot expect to gain widespread support in the Balkans.



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  • İnalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300—1600. London: Phoenix, 2001.
  • Jezernik, Božidar. Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers. London: Saqi in association with The Bosnian Institute, 2004.
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