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.


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:

Guest post

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.


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.


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.


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.


1) Well documented article:

2) Interesting Article:


The German Jew Who Became an Ottoman Pasha

“A multiculturalist’s delight”

I came across this on ‘The Daily Beast’, and found it interesting, so I’m passing it on. In spite of becoming an Ottoman Pasha, the nearest he got to the imperial capital, Istanbul, apparently, was Albania. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a quite protean character.

Mehmed Emin Pasha was born a Jew in Germany, converted to Christianity and then Islam on his way to being named a ruler of an Ottoman province.

48574369.cachedThe story of Mehmed Emin Pasha, born a Jew as Isaak Eduard Schnitzer and Baptized as Eduard Carl Oscar Theodor Schnitzer, is a multiculturalist’s delight. This Jewish doctor who turned Christian, then Muslim, could be the cosmopolitan poster child, proof that we are all one and that distinctions don’t matter. But universalists beware; this pasha was no Zelig, fitting in chameleon-like at colorful historical moments. This shapeshifter adapted smoothly but stood out boldly, proving that the best way to contribute to the world is to root identities in particular cultures and act on core ideals.

Schnitzer was born in Oppeln, Silesia on March 28, 1840, into a German Jewish family that had already broken from the ghetto’s provinciality. Schnitzer’s father was a merchant, a proper German burgher wannabe. He embodied the Enlightenment delusion that we could, as John Lennon would sing, “all live together as one.” But Schnitzer’s father had made the classic Enlightenment deal with the devil. To become emancipated, to prosper, most Jews felt compelled to abandon much of Judaism—even though they would only be accepted marginally as Europeans.

Schnitzer was derailed temporarily when he failed to file his licensing paperwork on time and could not practice medicine. Ever-resilient, he left for Istanbul. Arriving in Antivari in Montenegro along the way, he resumed his medical practice far away from German supervision. One of those annoying Europeans with a genius for language, he mastered Turkish, Albanian, and Greek, along with many of the standard Romance languages.  This poly-lingual environment so suited him, he became the port’s quarantine officer, processing immigrants.

Always climbing, Schnitzer charmed his way into working for northern Albania’s governor, Ismail Hakki Pasha. In perhaps his creepiest move, Schnitzer returned to Germany in 1873, after his boss died, claiming the widow and children as his wife and kids. That arrangement ended abruptly, mysteriously in 1875, leading to Schnitzer’s plunge into the Muslim world.

Arriving in Khartoum in December 1875, he became “Mehmet Emin,” and returned to practicing medicine. He also participated in the nineteenth-century European traveler’s zoology and ornithology mania, sending specimens to museums back where such people believed it counted, the capitals of Europe. The governor of Equatoria—a territory covering modern-day Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan—invited Emin to become chief medical officer. In 1878, Emin was appointed governor, becoming a “Bey.”

The Sudan was roiling, with the messianic, Arab-African Mahdi Revolt of 1881 causing chaos. In 1885, Emin’s popular dispatches to European newspapers described his adventures. The next year the Ottoman Empire made Emin a pasha, confirming his prominence in North Africa and Western Europe.

In 1890, Germany hired Emin Pasha to launch his own expeditionary force around Lake Victoria in East Africa to “make known to the population there that they were placed under German supremacy and protection, and to break or undermine Arab influence as far as possible.” German imperial politics, tensions with the native soldiers, and bouts of disease beleaguered him for two years until the Anglo-German agreement of July 1, 1890 ceded this territory to England.

Ultimately, Emin’s Western idealism did not suit East Africa. In late October 1892, two enraged Arab slave traders murdered him. Read the whole article.

Albania – A European Jewel

First of all, an apology to my Albanian friends – I missed your Independence Day! Yes, I know it was 28 November, and I had the date at the back of my mind, but somehow it slipped past. Well, belatedly, let me congratulate you and wish your beautiful country success and prosperity in the future.
But not so much prosperity that it loses its special character. What impressed me most on my brief visit to the country in 2010 was the spectacular natural beauty, Like New Zealand, Albania’s location a little off the main lines of tourism and modernisation gives it an opportunity to follow a slightly different path – where economic development goes hand in hand with a recognition of the need to protect the natural environment.
I want to share an article I came across recently where the writer is extolling the beauties of that  nature:
Cable car from Tirana to Mt Dajti
“Traveling through Albania is an exercise in reliving the past. Gone are the hordes of English-speaking tour guides and long lines for Lonely Planet-rated monuments. In their place are friendly but confused Albanians who hope visitors speak a little Italian, and unmarked hiking trails.
“The capital’s geographical and cultural center is Skanderbeg Square. It’s a handy place to orient yourself, as most of the city’s sights are nearby. The square itself is ringed with municipal and government buildings. In the middle of the square stands a large statue of national hero George Skanderbeg. An Albanian nobleman trained and commissioned by the Ottoman Empire, he facilitated Albanian independence and remains a key figure for the country’s nationalist movement.

“The best sight in Tirana, in fact, lies outside the city. Mount Dajti National Park is an easy cable car ride away. Dajti Expres operates the cars throughout the day and a round-trip ticket costs 700 lek. The escape from the city begins as soon as we board the cable car. Aside from the welcome blast of fresh air, the views of Tirana and the approaching mountain range are stunning. Climbing up the side of the mountain, it is surprising to see very little development. The mountain has a smattering of hotels and restaurants, but the majority of Dajti’s surface remains clear of the development that marks almost all of İstanbul. It’s unusual to see something so close to a major city remain so untouched. Read more . . .

Albanian Independence Day

You may have missed it – I very nearly did myself – but Wednesday 28 November marked the 100th Anniversary of the emergence of Albania as an independent nation. OK, Albania may not be a country that makes a loud beep on your international radar. Its population, hovering on either side of three million, depending on which source you look at, undoubtedly ranks it among the minnows of Europe. If you have any mental image of the country at all, chances are it’s not awfully positive. Perhaps you’ve seen the “Taken” movies, where ex-CIA agent Liam Neeson single-handedly dispatches an extended family of spectacularly incompetent Albanian bad guys intent on killing him along with his lissom wife and daughter.
Well, I admit it – I do empathise with small countries struggling to make a splash in the ocean of world opinion. Coming as I do from a nation whose population is creeping towards the five million mark, I know what it’s like. ‘Oh, you come from Auckland – California, right?’ or more commonly, when someone picks the accent, ‘So, what part of Australia are you from?’Perhaps that’s another reason I have a soft spot for Turkey. Not that we can compare in terms of land area (about one-third) or population (one-sixteenth), but no one knows much about either of us.
Love Albania 🙂
By chance I have a young Albanian colleague at work who proudly informed me of Wednesday’s importance in the Albanian national consciousness. I use that phrase because Miranda herself comes from Kosovo, and there is a significant Albanian diaspora in many European and major US cities, who have, apparently, been celebrating somewhat noisily in the past week. Miranda is the second ethnic Albanian I have come to know quite well while living in Istanbul. The other, Dritan, hosted me for a few days on a work-related visit to the Albanian capital Tirana a couple of years ago. I can’t say how typical these two are of their race, but I can say they are two of the most intelligent, talented, hard-working, sincere and honest young people you could hope to meet. Unlike us New Zealanders, born with the God-given gift of English as our native language, Albanians struggle with the harsh truth that no one much wants to learn their tongue. Perhaps that’s why these two seem to have a gift for learning others – French, Italian, English, Serbian, Turkish, Russian . . .
Anyway, as I said, I had the opportunity to visit their beautiful country in January 2010. It’s always better to see a new country with a local guide, especially when you don’t know the language. Albanian at least belongs to the Indo-European family, which perhaps makes it easier for us than Turkish – but I didn’t pick up much in my three days there, apart from learning that ‘Albania’ bears no resemblance whatsoever to the word the natives use for their own country: Shqiperie! Still, the Germans have to put up with us calling them ‘Germans’, so they’re in good company I guess. But not to digress, Dritan and his family made me wonderfully welcome, and I had the opportunity to see three cities, Tirana itself, Shkodra and Vlore.
Dip into travel books and websites about Albania; you’ll find they all mention the scenic beauty, the mountains, beaches . . . and the flora and fauna, which apparently represent one of the last remnants of primeval Europe, its extensive forests providing habitats for wolves, bears, the almost extinct European lynx, and the golden eagle, Albania’s national symbol. Well, I’m proud of our kiwi, of course, but an eagle is something else, isn’t it! Still, that’s another thing we New Zealanders have in common with Albania – a small population and minimal industrial development have some advantages in terms of preserving nature. Two of my enduring memories of the country, apart from the marvellous hospitality of the people, are of the majestic mountains. My first sight of them was as my plane approached Tirana from the Adriatic coast. And later, dining with my hosts at a restaurant beside Lake Shkodra as a full moon rose behind snow-capped peaks on the far shore, turning the still waters to a sea of silver.
As my grandmother used to tell us kids, every cloud is lined with silver, and its natural beauties must be the silver lining for a country that has had more than its share of cloud cover over the years. Albania achieved independent statehood in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire was entering its last years, but if its people had thought they would be left alone to determine their own destiny, they were to be sorely disappointed. Like their neighbour Greece eighty years previously, they were thoughtfully provided with a king from the extensive aristocracy of Germany – William of Vied. During the First World War they were invaded by Greece and later by Italy, regaining independence for another spell in the 20s and 30s, when a gentleman by the name of Ahmet Bey Zogu seems to have played a pivotal part.  This multi-faceted character apparently got himself elected to office once or twice, participated in a couple of military coups on the winning, then the losing side, ending up in a royal role as King Zog the First (to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a Zog the Second), before being finally sent packing when Mussolini’s Italians mussoled in in 1939. After the Italians surrendered, the Germans moved in till the end of hostilities in 1945. Perhaps these experiences help to explain why Albanians chose a singularly isolationist road of their own in the chaos that enveloped Eastern Europe when peace finally broke out.
Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with the iron hand of ultra pure communism for forty years until his death in 1985. So pure was his dogma that, in his eyes, post-Stalinist Soviet Russia lacked doctrinal credibility, and he threw in his lot with Red China. The country that, after 1990, emerged blinking into the brave new world of capitalism triumphant, was, as one might imagine, somewhat behind the developed world in the trappings of material modernity. Average per capita income is still among the lowest in Europe[1], the urban architecture of Tirana itself has an Eastern bloc austerity, and the beaches are mostly free of five-star hotels and holiday villages – which could, of course, be seen by some as an advantage.
For the present, Albania’s independence looks fairly secure. Capitalist development, for better and worse, is under way, and one of the things that struck me in Tirana (apart from the ubiquity of Mercedes Benz motor cars) was the vibrant café scene – a sure sign of post-modern urban sophistication. Other things that caught my attention were the frequency of Turkish Muslim names among the people, and the large mosque occupying a strategic spot in Tirana’s main square – reminders that Albania was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly five centuries, from 1431 until the Conference of London brought formal recognition of independence in 1913.
The initial conquest was apparently a protracted process, drawn out by the pugnacious determination of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Albania’s very own Alexander the Great, who organised resistance to Ottoman military power for thirty-five years, before the end came in 1478. Even then, he might have been successful if the promised assistance from Papal Europe had shown up.  Albanian relations with the rest of Europe, it seems, have long been problematic.
Nevertheless, having finally come under Ottoman suzerainty, Albanians seem have taken to their new situation with a will. It is said that more than two dozen Grand Viziers of the Empire were of Albanian extraction, including several members of the Köprülü family, who served with distinction during the glory days of Ottoman power. The majority of their countrymen apparently converted to Islam at this time, which accounts for those names I found familiar on my visit.
But how to account for the name ‘Albania’? Even allowing for our English tendency to mangle unfamiliar words from other languages, it’s hard to see how the local name could have been mutilated to that extent. Admittedly, even with a modicum of good will, it’s not easy to make an Anglo-Saxon tongue do ‘Shqiperie’. My researches showed that ‘Albania’ owes its origins to Medieval Latin, and seems to have been applied fairly indiscriminately to remote places of minimal geopolitical significance. Scotland, the land of my fathers (and mothers) picked up that label at one time in its history – probably around the time when medieval monks had a monopoly on Western education, and were instructing their students that ‘here be dragons’, and traveling too far in any direction would likely result in your falling off the edge of the world. Anyway, maybe that’s another reason I feel empathy for Albanians. If the monks had known about New Zealand in those days, they’d probably have called it Albania too.
Well, I’m sorry I missed the centennial celebrations. If I’d heard in advance, I’d have been tempted to head off to Tirana with a bottle of duty-free whisky and spend the evening with Dritan’s family. I’ll bet it would have been a good night!