Islam in Albania

Albania is a very interesting nation, and, like Turkey, one that has tended to get a bad press in the media of wealthier countries. I was lucky enough to visit and be shown around by locals in 2010, and I haven’t forgotten the friendly people, the warm hospitality, the spectacular nature and the surprisingly (for me) modern lifestyle in the three cities I had a brief look at.

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Tirana sits on the slopes of Mt Dajtı

I have met two young Albanians in Turkey, both of them impressively multilingual, broad-minded, outward-looking citizens of the world. I asked one of them, Dritan, for his thoughts on the practice of Islam in his homeland – and I’d like to share his response:

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Muslim Albanians have always tended to be more liberal and relaxed in following Islam. Generally speaking, Albanians tend to emphasize more their ethnicity; something they take more seriously than their religion. 

Muslims in Albania are mostly either Sunni (Hanafi) or Sufi (Bektashi). Bektashism is viewed as a different type of Islam – some say a branch of Shia Islam, some say Sufi, some say a unique brand of Albanian Sufism. 

Most Albanian Muslims are quite secular in their outlook. They are not fundamentalist in religion, usually being more nationalist than religious. Albanians are predominantly Muslim (60%) but with a Christian (Catholic and Orthodox) presence as well, although religion was never a dividing factor for Albanians.

Bektashis seem to be more patriarchal and loyal to their Sheikhs. Even in their Tekke (meeting place) drinking alcohol is common, something which is prohibited in Islam.

In short, Islam in Albania is more cultural than religious, although Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia are slightly different. The Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans and occupied it for half a millennium. They managed to convert most Albanians to Islam, though all the other nations in the area remained Christian. The reason for this remains unclear. What is agreed is that the conversion primarily occurred late in the period of Ottoman rule: Catholic Albanians mostly converted in the 17th century, and Orthodox Albanians mostly followed in the following century.

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Mosaic mural in Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

An important characteristic of Albanians is that they are the only nation in the Balkans who managed to have a national identity transcending religion, which means that the term “Albanian” covers all Albanians of Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic faiths.

This is not the case in other countries in the region, and differs from the traditional citizenship system in the Ottoman Empire. Officially in the empire there was not a system based on ethnicity as was the case in almost all of Europe. Instead, religion was the determining factor for identity (ethnic separation is forbidden by Islam) For example, the term “Turkish” was not used. All Muslims of the empire, independent of their ethnicity or native language, were classified according to their religion. The term “Turk” was not commonly used, but even if it was, it was synonymous with Muslim.

The same applied for Christians. All followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, irrespective of whether they were Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Slavic or even Turkish, were classified officially as “Greeks”.

From this tradition, the national identities of modern Balkan states developed in parallel with their religious identities.

Muslim Bulgarians were not called (or accepted as) Bulgarians, but Pomaks. Muslim Slavs were not called Serbians (which only referred to Orthodox Slavs), but only Muslims (and later Bosniacs). Muslim Greeks were not called (or accepted as) Greeks, and these in massive numbers were exported to Turkey after the population exchange between the two states in the 1920s.

During and after the Balkan Wars, all Muslims of the region, irrespective of their ethnic identities, were seen as targets, and most of these were killed or forced to immigrate to Turkey. Out of millions of immigrants to Turkey, a small minority spoke Turkish. The remaining Muslim populations in the Balkans are very small in number.

Albania managed to transfer from a religious identity into a national identity, which no other nation in the region was able to do. Only Tito’s Yugoslavia managed to keep such an identity for some time, by calling people of the same ethnic background Yugoslavians instead of Serbian, Croatian or Bosniac, in accordance with their religions. But this ended with the fall of Yugoslavia and the tragic ethnic disasters that followed.

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Statue of Scanderbeg beside the Albanian flag

The conversion process in Albania lasted for hundreds of years. After the death of Scanderbeg, charismatic leader of Albanian resistance, Albanian lands came totally under Ottoman rule. Probably at first, in some parts of the country, force was used to convert people to Islam.

Another major reason for conversion to Islam was a way of saving their ethnicity, since they were surrounded by Slavs. Many orthodox Albanians in present-day Macedonia, Greece or Serbia lost their ethnic identity while Albanian Muslims didn’t. Nowadays there are many cases of people identifying themselves as Albanians even though they don’t speak their mother tongue.

Another reason for conversion was the advantages offered to Muslims under Ottoman rule, such as: tax exemptions, and better opportunities for a military or political career. According to historic sources there were about 48 Albanian Grand Viziers during the years of the Empire.

Before the arrival of the Turks, a tiny percentage of Albanians did embrace Islam through traders bringing in the religion. There are a few mosques that exist in Albanian lands that have a plaque on them declaring that they are NOT Ottoman-era mosques but rather from an era that preceded them. Furthermore, it is true the Turks singled out Albanians more than other nationalities because of their ruggedness and warrior-like culture and honour as well as the loyalty that is heavily ingrained in their culture. 

However, those are not the only reasons for their becoming Muslim. Many little boys kidnapped by the Ottomans were forced to become Muslim after they were stolen from their families. They were raised to become soldiers then sent back to fight their own people, or sent out to conquer other countries as well. Although the exact reason is not known for the majority becoming Muslim, we can guess at a few perhaps. The main one may have to do with being in harmony with the powers-that-be and adopting their way of life so that they might prosper with land, titles of nobility, and be accepted.

By the late 18th century, the Balkans were at a crossroads. The menacing Slavs, of course, were in ascendancy, first under Austria-Hungary, and much later, under “Yugoslavia”. The Albanians were reluctant to join them, a wise decision, given late 20th century struggles between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats.

To the south lay the Orthodox Greeks who would free themselves from the Turks at the beginning of the 19th century, with whom the “Albanians” could not make common cause. (The Greeks were pushing north, threatening to encroach on Albanian territory). Given the 18th century rise of both Russia and Austria-Hungary, even the Slavs that remained under Turkish rule (e.g. Bulgarians) could look forward to eventual “liberation.”

The Albanians decided that their best bet was to remain with the Ottoman Empire. Having come to this conclusion as a group, it made sense for many of them to convert to Islam to reduce their taxes, and to enjoy other privileges available to practitioners of the dominant faith.

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Boundaries of “Ethnic” Albania. Q: What do Albanians call “Albania”?

This paid off in the 1870’s when the Albanians formed the Albanian Defense League (this is a translation) against its Christian neighbours, with the initial approval of the Turks. Early in the 20th century, the Turks withdrew this approval, but by 1912, the Albanians were ready to declare independence, given the impending collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This met with the support and approval of the Great Powers, who wanted to keep the coastal country away from the expansionist but land-locked Serbia.

Albanians are predominantly Muslim (85%). In Kosovo and Macedonia, Albanians practice Islam more than Muslims in Albania mainly because of the bloody history against Orthodox enemy (Serbia). They were stating their religion proudly against the enemy. In Albania, there are many Muslims that they truly don’t know anything about Islam. Some of them have an identity problem: “Why we are Muslim’’?

Albanian Catholics seem to be not religious at all – but the most common thing they share with Muslims is nationalism. Muslims and Catholics are nationalist more than religious, and neither of them curses the other.

Orthodox Albanians are different story. They are quietly religious, not nationalist at all. Since they share the same religion with enemy neighbours, sometimes there are prejudices against them. Mostly the attitude of the Autochephalic Church of Albania against Serbs and Greeks makes them out of nationalism. So, in the whole Albanian community, Orthodox Albanians seem to be little pressured and are sometimes called Greeks.

Albania was strictly atheist under the Stalinist regime that was in place during the second half of the 20th century. When communism collapsed, overseas Islamic charities came, largely from the Arab peninsula and north-eastern Africa, to assist the Muslim community.

These foreign Islamic groups were the main financial backers for the resurgent MCA, the official organisation that runs Islamic affairs in the country. Albania’s Islamic community had been starved of funds and was poorly organised, as public worship had been outlawed under communism.

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1) Well documented article:

http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/albanian-muslims-grapple-with-religious-identity

2) Interesting Article:

https://www.equaltimes.org/is-albania-the-last-beacon-of?lang=en#.WifBxVWnF6t

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