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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Enes Karić
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (usually referred to as Bosnia or Bosnia-Herzegovina) lies in the midst of the western Balkans, between the Sava River to the north, the Una River to the northwest, the Dalmatian region to the south, and the Drina River to the east. Today Bosnia covers an area of just over 51,000 square kilometers. No census has been taken in Bosnia since 1991, when over 44 percent of the country's population were Muslims. Many Bosnians now live in Western Europe and the United States, having emigrated primarily because of the effects of war. Muslims in Bosnia today, as in the past, are Sunnī and follow the Ḥanafī legal school.

Historical Background.

The earliest mention of the country as “the land of Bosnia” was in 958 CE in a treatise written by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, referring to the area between the towns of Sarajevo and Zenica in central Bosnia. This area constitutes the historical nucleus of Bosnia as a country and a state. According to Porphyrogenitus, this Bosnia bordered Serbia on the east, Dalmatia on the south, west, and northwest, and Slavonia to the north; Dalmatia and Slavonia are part of present-day Croatia.

It is from this historical nucleus that the medieval Bosnian state began its territorial expansion, especially during reigns of Kulin (r. 1180–1204), Stjepana Kotromanić (r. 1322–1353), and Tvrtko I (r. 1353–1391). After Tvrtko I, local feudal lords began fighting for power, and by the time of Stjepan Tomaš (r. 1443–1461) and Stjepan Tomaševi (r. 1461–1463), medieval Bosnia had lost its independence. In 1463, Bosnia was conquered by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, known as Fatih (the Conqueror).

Despite conquest, Bosnia largely retained its territorial integrity, and, as a province within the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia actually expanded. Beginning in 1453, it had the status of a frontier sanjak (a first-level subdivision of Ottoman administration, with military personnel under the leadership of a sanjak-beg, appointed by the sultan). In the early sixteenth century, Bosnia-Herzegovina became an eyalet (an intermediate administrative level) that included present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. After 1580, Bosnia became a pashalık (a sanjak ruled by a pasha, appointed by the sultan).

During the Austro-Hungarian period (1878–1918), Bosniaʾs territorial integrity was recognized and was treated as a special area (Corpus Separatum). Bosnia largely kept its integrity also under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941). Within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1990), Bosnia was one of the six republics with equal federal status. In the modern era as under Austro-Hungarian rule, Bosnian Muslims played a prominent role in the political and legal struggle for preserving Bosnia's territorial integrity.

Islam and Muslims in Bosnia.

Islam spread slowly in Bosnia from the mid-fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. Many historians, led by Noel Malcolm and Mustafa Imamović, take the view that the spread of Islam was neither rapid nor forcible, and that Ottoman authorities did not use administrative powers to enforce conversion. In this view, the mass acceptance of Islam can instead be explained in terms of specific local factors and internal historical developments in Bosnia. Before the Ottoman conquest, the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox, and the no longer extant Bosnian Church (independent of both the Roman and the Orthodox churches) competed for adherents. Islam spread among adherents of all of these traditions. The common denominator for the converted population was that it was Slavic and Bosnian.

A common earlier theory about the conversion of Bosnians identifies the Bosnian Church with an early Balkan Manichaean sect called the Bogomils. The theory argues that the Bogomils rapidly converted en masse to Islam as a protection against historical Catholic and Orthodox pressures. Some historians still defend this theory, but most contemporary scholarship confirms the explanation of a more broadly based and gradual conversion process.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia developed dynamically. The Ottomans developed and improved many towns and cities, such as Sarajevo, Mostar, Travnik, Višegrad, Foča, and Banja Luka. It provided roads and bridges, the most magnificent of which include the Mehmed Pasha Sokolović bridge in Višegrad, the Mostar Bridge, and the Goatʾs Bridge near Sarajevo, all built in the sixteenth century. As well, numerous schools and Ṣūfī centers were built in Sarajevo, Mostar, Travnik, Foča, Banja Luka, Tuzla, and elsewhere. The most famous of them is the Gazi Husrevbegova madrasah in Sarajevo which still exists and has about five hundred students. Throughout the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian periods the skyline of Bosnian towns and cities was graced with mosques and churches. During this period Bosnia's urban centers developed strong commercial centers (bedestans) and trade links with other parts of the Empire and beyond. This development may have attracted converts to Islam. In addition, the Ṣūfī orders preached actively in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Mevlevi, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, and Halveti orders retain a presence in the country even today.

The Ottoman devşirme system, under which newly conquered provinces were required to present a certain number of boys (aged 12–16) to the central government for military and administrative training in the capital, may also have affected conversion rates. Those who went through the system went on to join the Empire's administrative or military personnel; some stayed in touch with their Bosnian homeland as they grew older. The majority came from Christian families, although Muslims were included as well. (The youths were not forced to accept Islam, but their descendants were to be brought up as Muslims.) Through this system, many Bosnian Muslims became grand viziers, military commanders, writers, teachers, commentators on classical works, and poets. Notable examples are Mehmed Pasha Sokolović, Hasan Kafi Aqhisari, Mustafa Ejubović, Ahmad Sudi, Abdullah Bosnawi, and Darwish Pasha Bajezidagić.Today, Bosniaʾs Islamic Community, founded in 1882, is headed by the Rijaset or Supreme Council. The community is divided into nine muftiluks, eight madrasahs or Islamic high schools, and four Faculties of Islamic Studies. The main Islamic Community Centers are in Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, Zenica, Travnik, Goražde, and Bihać. Sarajevo is also the home of the Faculty of Islamic Studies and has the largest number of Islamic scholars in the country.

Recent History.

Since 1992 Bosnia has been a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations. Following its declaration of independence in 1992 a war broke out in which the remnant Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro and dominated by Serbs, attacked Bosnia with the support of rebel Bosnian Serbs. On several occasions the international community accused Serbia of aggression against Bosnia. In 1995 NATO intervened and brought the conflict to an end. The bloody and horrific war ended with the signing of the U.S.-sponsored Dayton Peace Accord, as a result of which Bosnia remained a sovereign country comprising two entities, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation and the Serb Republic.

During the war, ethnic cleansing was carried out mainly against Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks, although a significant number of Croats and Serbs also became victims. The number of war casualties is still being investigated: the figure ranges between 120,000 and 200,000 killed and missing. The Institute for the Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law in Sarajevo cites the figure of up to 200,000, whereas the Research and Documentation Centre gives the most conservative figure of nearly 100,000 dead and missing. Because 70 percent of the victims were Bosnian Muslims, however, the government of Bosnia charged Serbia with complicity in genocide in Bosnia and Herzogovina. In February 2007 the International Court of Justice ruled that neither the army nor the police of the Serb Republic had perpetrated genocide or conspired to do so in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it found that Serbia had failed to prevent genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, which was its obligation under the Genocide Convention.

The effects of war in Bosnia are still visible even though destroyed mosques, schools, and Ṣūfī centers are being rebuilt and Islamic learning is undergoing a revival. Modernist interpretations of Islam are most influential among Bosnian religious scholars, although traditional Bosnian interpretations are also popular. Ṣūfī orders also are undergoing revival, and Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts written by Bosnians are being rediscovered and studied. Modern works about Islam from the West are being translated into Bosnian.



  • Filipović, Nedim. Islamizacija u Bosni i Hercegovini (Islamization in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Tešanj, 2005.
  • Imamović, Mustafa, Bošnjaci u emigraciji (The Bosniacs in Emigration): Monografija Bosanskih pogleda 1955–1967.
  • Izetbegović, Alija. Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes. Leicester, 2003.
  • Jezernik, Boźidar. Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers. London, 2004.
  • Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: A Short History. London, 1994.
  • Pinson, Mark, ed.The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.
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