A Survey of Sufism in the Balkans

by Huseyin Abiva



The nearly six centuries of Ottoman rule over south-eastern Europe provided considerable occasion for the spread of Islam in that part of the world.  Undeniably, among the nations that now comprise the Balkan Peninsula (Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) the Muslim component of their populations is quite discernible and apparent. Two of these nations, Albania and Bosnia-Hercegovina, are comprised of Muslim majority populations.  Huge Muslim minorities can be found among the inhabitants of Macedonia and Serbia (which also includes the province of Kosova).  In Croatia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece the percentages of Muslims is much smaller, but in some cases the numbers can be quite impressive, as with the more than 1 million in Bulgaria!


The largest Muslim ethnic group present in the Balkans is the Albanians, who now number over 5 million. They are concentrated in the central and southern regions of the peninsula and form the overwhelming majority of the population in Albania, the Serbian occupied province of Kosova, and western Macedonia. There are small groups of Albanians living in Bosnia, Montenegro, and Croatia who are primarily émigrés from the Tito era. In regards to religion, Albanians have never found in it a force for ethnic unity, though they are, for the most part, followers of Islam (or the non-practicing descendants of Muslims). Sizeable segments of the Albanian people still adhere to either Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, and among the Muslim population there was (and is) further division between Sunnis and the followers of the Shi’i Bektashis.


The next ethnic element of the Muslim population of the Balkan Peninsula is that of the Slavs. They number some 3.5 million and are the descendants those portions of the populace that embraced Islam during the centuries of Ottoman rule. Culturally and linguistically they are a varied group whose language, racial origin and religious faith form for the only common feature.  Muslim Slavs form a plurality of the population of Bosnia-Hercegovina (where they are known as Bošnjaks), a majority of the Serbian-controlled region of Sandzak, and a significant minority in Macedonia (where they are known as Torbesi) and Bulgaria (where they identify themselves as Pomaks).  Small pockets of Slav-speaking Muslims can also be found in northern Greece (Pomaks) and in Kosova (Goranis).


The Turkish element in the Balkan Muslim population is but a mere shadow of what it once was even a century ago.  In the past, Turkish-speaking Muslims made up substantial portions of the populations of Macedonia, Thessaly, Morea and Bulgaria.  At the present time, there are nearly one million Turks who continue to live in Bulgaria.  In Macedonia and Greece there are some 200,000 Muslims who still classify themselves as Turks.  There are also less significant communities of ethnic Turks who live in the urban centres Kosova and the Sandžak.


The Roma (Gypsy) are a smaller yet significant Balkan Muslim ethnic group.  They are highly scattered throughout the region and tend to follow the prevailing religion where they reside. Consequently in the heavily Islamized regions of Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia they usually profess Islam whereas in parts of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece they are Orthodox Christian. In Macedonia, the Roma are a highly visible minority, especially around the capitol city of Skopje. Historically, the Roma have suffered (and continue to do so) from racial discrimination by their non-Roma neighbours, both Muslim and Christian. In recent decades the Roma have counteracted their exclusion from the official Islamic by becoming heavily involved in various  Sufi Orders.


In times past there were other ethnic groups that have since disappeared due to “ethnic cleansing”, annihilation, expulsion or assimilation into one of the more dominant Muslim groups.  For example there once existed large numbers of Greek-speaking Muslims in Macedonia, Crete and in the various regions of Greece up until the beginning of the 20th century.  Several of the Slav tribes of Montenegro embraced Islam in the early 18th century only to be exterminated decades later in an event commemorated in the famous Serbian epic The Mountain Wreath. One can also find the descendants of Circassian and Tatar refugees from Russia still living in Kosova and Bulgaria, though they have been assimilated to a large degree into the Albanian or Turkish populations amongst whom they live.


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