Islam’s first contacts with the Balkan nations
Historical and social conditions of the Balkan nations
Factors that made Islam a reality in the Balkans
Cultural and intellectual factor
Political and economic factor
How Islamic civilization made ways into the Balkan Peninsula
Military and political relations
Missionaries and migrations
About the author
Islamic civilization is the dominant force over a great number of nations, from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Indochina in the East, and from the West and North Africa in the South to the Central Asia in the North, encompassing the Balkan Peninsula in the South-Eastern Europe. It has faced and absorbed various "small" civilizations of the many different nations around the world and presented them with new moral and spiritual alternatives.
It is very difficult to exactly point out the nation that has done the most in forming, developing, and spreading this civilization around the world. However, the Arabs have the honor to be the first in spreading the God’s revelation—the Koran—but, they were not alone. The Persians, Berbers, Mongols, and the Ottomans have given great contribution to this end.
Insofar as the people of the Balkan Peninsula are concerned, the Ottomans were crucial in spreading Islam. However, it would be a great error to qualify the Islamic civilization in the Balkan Peninsula as "Turkish," because the whole material and cultural development was achieved through Islam—the complete way of life—together with the other Balkan nations, especially the Albanians and Bosnians.
It is very important to note here that the Balkan nations had extensive trade, political, and military relations with their Muslim counterparts. Exchanging officials and migrations of individuals, or groups of people, are other important features of their strong relations.
But, the relations of the Balkan nations with the Ottomans were much longer and more intensive compare to those with other Muslims, and lasted from the end of the 15th century to the Balkan Wars in 1912.
The relations between the Balkan nations (especially the Albanians) and Arabs have existed for a very long time (even before the Christian Era), and the Arab world was of great importance for the emergence of the Albanian and Bosnian phenomenon (read the quick acceptance of Islam). However, in spite of these facts, this point was never made the subject of a thorough research from any institution or individual.
The problem is very complex in nature because its sociological, ethnic and cultural, political, ideological, and religious aspects are very much intervened. Political prejudices and mistaken assumptions were considered as "true historic facts" and became part of the official stance towards Islam.
Thus, a new study was needed to shed light on the truth. A new historic approach, free of any prejudice in dealing with the religious, political, economic, and cultural aspects of the pre-Islamic feudal life of the Balkan nations, especially of the Albanians, had to be undertaken.
Historians and Muslim scholars who have seriously approached and studied the pre-Ottoman period are very few in number. Among the Albanians are M. Tërnava, S. Rizaj, M. Mufaku, H. Kaleshi, E. Çabej, etc., and among the Bosnians we have M. Hand?i?, M. Had?ijahi?, etc. But, it is a pity that some very important literature of the oriental history has yet to be considered by our scholars simply because it is mainly written in Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. A translation of those works has to be urgently done.
In this "small" book, which is an elaborated version of an article of mine in Takvin some ten years ago, I have presented some recently published new facts from the history of the Balkan nations (especially of the Albanians) taken from various writings and put them together in a constructive and objective manner. I do not pretend to have included everything, thus the research remains open. I have not been able to consult some very important literature and crucial to this book that I had collected between 1987 and 1992 because they were confiscated by the Serb police and never returned.
However, I only look at this book as the first sparkle that is going to give a strong impetus to future and much more thorough works. The existence of Islam and Muslims in the Balkan Peninsula for not less than thirteen centuries must be understood justly and without any prejudice.
1. Historical and social conditions
of the Balkan nations
The time period studied in this book spans from the beginning of the Christianization of the people living in the Balkan Peninsula until the Ottomans conquered it at the end of the 14th century. The events that took place during this period were very important and would subsequently influence the developments during the 14th and 15th centuries, and later, that is, the quick acceptance of Islam by the Albanians and later by other nations. Thus, in order to better understand such a quick acceptance of Islam by the Balkan nations, it is very important to give an exposé of the historical, social, and religious conditions of the people living in the Balkan Peninsula, firstly the Illyrians and later the Slav tribes.
The Illyrians, who were settled in between the Danube River and Adriatic Sea, were polytheists, however, Christianity was gaining ground slowly. In 313, by virtue of the Edict of Milan, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion and the people of the Balkan Peninsula were under strong pressure to give in.
The Romans entered Illyria mainly through Salonika in the South, the coasts of the Adriatic Sea in the West, and through Dalmatia in the North-West. It was during this time that the first Christian communites appeared among the Illyrians.
The invasion of the Germanic tribes that occurred from the 4th until the 6th century (the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, etc.) brought the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. The end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century saw the Bulgars and many Slav tribes attacking and plundering the borders of the Byzantine Empire. The invasion of the Slav tribes that lasted from the end of the 6th until the 7th century resulted in them settling permanently in the territories between the Danube River and Aegean Sea.
According to some research done by E. Petrovi?, the autochthonous population (the Illyrians) found by the Slav tribes in the present-day Eastern Serbia were not Romanized (read Christianized), and he gives the names of places and peoples as an evidence.
This period was characterized by the institutionalization of the Christian religion and its emerging strong connections with the ruling feudals. The difficult social and economic conditions that followed brought about strong resurgences.
During this time in Illyria, as well as in many other places, the difficult economic situation and the spiritual discontention paved the way for many new doctrines to emerge, and some of them went against the institutionalized Christian religion. Small sects, such as Manichaeism, Arianism, etc., were to be found everywhere, something that was not to the liking of the Church and they took stern action against them. Even the later periods were characterized by the same conditions.
In the 9th century, the Byzantine Empire took some interest in the Balkan Peninsula and it was able to again control most of the present-day Albania. However, the invasion of Slav tribes, especially the Serbs, proved to be a big problem for the empire.
S. Hill notes that, in the end of the 9th century, the Bulgars had gained controll over the Eastern Albania and they were very near to the port-city of Durazzo, whereas S. Demiraj says that the Bulgars ruled much of the present-day Albania between 815 and 1018. The Bulgars had their "golden period" when Simeon was reigning (893-927), when even Kosova was ruled by them. Thus, in the beginning of the 11th century, Albania was the battlefield for the Byzantine Empire fighting against the Bulgars. In 1018, the Bulgars were defeated in the battle near Berati and the Byzantine Empire, then ruled by the feared Vasil II, again took control of Albania. But, throughout the 11th century there were numerous resurgences, those of 1040, 1043, 1070, 1078, 1080, etc.
In 1054, because of inter-Christian skirmishes, Kosova was divided into two parts: the Eastern Kosova fell under the influence of the Orthodox Christians, and the Western Kosova under the influence of the Catholic Christians.
Such chaotic situation lasted until 1347 when the Serbs under Stefan Dushan invaded the whole of Albania and drove out the Roman and Byzantine Empires. However, Kosova had been under the Serb rule earlier than that. All the historians agree that the Serbs settled in Kosova from the 12th until the 14th century when they invaded Zveçani, Gjakova, Peja, Drenica, Llapi, etc., but there had been no sings of them prior to that time.
The different invadors, religious contradictions between the Christians and others, religious contradictions between the Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians, etc., enormously aggravated the situation of the Illyro-Albanians.
When Stefan Dushan died, the Serb kingdom was doomed and the feudals founded small independent principalities. The Albanian feudals sized the opportunity and formed three independent principalities: the Principality of Arta in Southern Albania, Principality of Durazzo in Central Albania, and the Principality of Shkodra in Northern Albania which was the largest.
On the other hand, when it came to strongly rejecting the institutionalized Christian religion, the Bogumils (the predecessors of the present-day Bosnians) stood out. They migrated towards the Balkan Peninsula around the 10th century and settled in the eastern parts of it (Rumelia, the present-day Romania). Their religious beliefs were strongly influenced by Hebrew and Manichaeism. This was the very reason that, when they were ruled by the Serbs from the 12th until the 14th century, the Bogumils were persecuted and, in the 13th century, forced to move to the Western parts of the peninsula (in what today is Bosnia). They were labeled as heretics by both the Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians.
2. Factors that made Islam a reality
in the balkans
The first traces of the Islamic civilization in the Balkan Peninsula go back as far as before the Medieval Period. The first Muslims among the Balkan nations date back to the time of the first invasions by the Slav tribes who were not Christians (they had their own Slavic beliefs). The Bosnian scholar M. Had?ijahi? says: "This is true because there are facts to back it and subsequently the first appearance of Christianity among the Balkan nations might have coincided with that of Islam."
The strategic geographic position of the Balkan Peninsula has made its people (especially the Albanians) to venture and establish contacts with many other nations, especially those in the Aegean Sea and Near East. The historians and archeologists have concluded that the Balkan people conducted extensive trade relations with others. The Balkan nations had access to the Silk Road that connected Europe with China and Persia. Apart from travelling overland, they also used to travel by sea, and established mutual political, economic, and military relations.
Before going deeper and analyzing how the Islamic civilization entered the Balkan Peninsula, it is necessary to take a look at the factors that made it possible for the Balkan nations to embrace it. Those factors are different in nature, however, each had its own influence.
2.1. Religious factor
In the history of Albanians, and in that of other Balkan nations as well, this factor has been generally overlooked when it came to analyzing how Islam penetrated the Balkan Peninsula. But, in spite of the difficulties, it is necessary to see what Islam offered in the face of Christianity, Manichaeism, or polytheism that made the Illyro-Albanians embrace it very early.
Islam made people to clearly understand what God is all about and what was the humankind’s mission on Earth. Islam, apart from the spiritual aspect, regulates the daily life of the people as well—every single action of ours must be in accordance with the God’s laws of harmony.
Islam, through the Koran, offered new spiritual and material alternatives. Islam offered monotheism and the timeless law (shariah), and its main objectives were helping and enriching humankind as the God’s vicegerent on Earth.
A European historian, Stavrianos, observes that "the religion itself was the main factor for the quick and large acceptance of Islam." Christianity presents only some restricted spiritual dogma, whereas Islam is a complete way of life incorporating spirituality to many other rules of the daily life.
Islam strongly preaches monotheism through its many prophets. However, in the course of time, the monotheistic concepts had degraded. Islam sought to reverse this process by propagating the oneness of God through the many injunctions in the Koran referring to this point.
A controversial element of the Christian religion that has made people think is the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is a historic fact that the divinity of Christ is a "product" of later periods. The notion of Christ as "God-human" was included in the Christian dogma in 451, however, some Christian sects still refuse to accept it.
The example of Prophet Mohammed was of great importance in influencing people. Those who long to be the perfect son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother, or long to be the perfect rulers, should follow his example. The Koran itself takes Prophet Mohammed to be the best model. And this was in contrast to the personality of Christ who, during his short life, was unable to provide people with the needed path to follow.
Many other aspects of the Christian dogma, the likes of original sin, celibacy, etc., go against the human nature. These aspects, together with the incompetent and ignorant Christian clerics, made people to behave indifferently towards Christianity and subsequently embrace Islam.
2.2. Moral factor
Moral values play an important role in the development of a society, and Islam puts great emphasis on them. Moral values of a Muslim are founded in the loyalty towards God, and they are expressed in all daily actions.
The altruistic motto of Muslims—care for your brother first and then yourself—gave a whole new meaning to human relations. Everything was based on love, harmony, justice, etc. The Koran totally refutes barriers of race, color, or language.
Islam puts into reality the timeless rule of "encouraging the good and prohibiting the evil." The Koran and Prophet Mohammed provide many injunctions in this aspect. This new element made the life of Muslims more complete, creative, and meaningful. Every action a Muslim does is part of the Islamic framework and God does not only encourage belief through prayers, but belief through actions as well. The stories of the great Muslim traveler, Ibn Batuta, are an example. In 1333, he visited the Asia Minor, and has only praise for the hospitality of the Muslims living there.
On the other hand, the Christian dogma was restricted only to the personal spiritual aspects of life—Christianity never preached moral rules applying to the society as a whole. This made the Christian religion loose ground to the emerging Islam.
2.3. Cultural and intellectual factor
Islam is a religion that does not recognize mythology and superstitions. Indeed, it is a very simple and rational religion that gives great emphasis on knowledge and learning. God has made learning the foremost obligation of the humankind, and because of this fundamental principle, the Islamic civilization has seen fourteen centuries of successful development.
The Muslims never destroyed like the Mongols did in Baghdad, or the Christians in Spain, or the crusaders in the Middle East, or the Romans in Illyria and Greece, but they absorbed and defended whatever positive the previous civilizations had.
M. Asad, a well known Muslim scholar, said that Islam was "a new refined civilization full of life, using the cultural heritage Europe had forgotten."
Never in the history of Islam there were episodes like those of G. Bruno, N. Copernicus, G. Galilei, etc. Astronomy, chemistry, medicine, physics, etc., were not labeled as evil knowledge, but as a treasure to be enriched every day. Islam has never recognized the division of knowledge into religious and non-religious disciplines. Prophet Mohammed himself has encouraged people to do the utmost in seeking knowledge.
This great affinity between Islam and knowledge made people to take a positive stand and eventually embrace it.
2.4. Political and economic factor
Many people have tried to represent Islam as a religion without any political and economic principles of its own. This was done to somehow put Islam in the same footing with Christianity, or other religions for that matter.
However, Islam preaches a whole new concept of human relations with no place for nationalism, class divisions, clergy, etc. The sole aim of Islam is founding of theocracy concerning humankind’s relations with God, and founding democracy concerning relations among humans themselves.
In the basis of the political system of Islam is the concept of vicegerency—the supreme power rests with God. Equality before the law is another strong principle of the political system of Islam and even the state’s highest official, the caliph, cannot dodge this obligation.
Another principle of the political system of Islam are the guidelines adopted to carry out state affairs, i.e., the God’s timeless law—shariah. Everything must go accordingly to the God’s law and some practices of Prophet Mohammed. Furthermore, the principle of democracy is crucial. All the state affairs are to be carried out through consultation (shura).
All the human rights (the right of expression, right of movement, right to elect and be elected, right to education, etc.) have their roots at those above principles.
On the other hand, the political repression exercised by the Byzantine Empire over the Balkan nations, something that was elaborated in the first chapter, was important for the emergence of Islam. The victories the Muslims achieved against the Byzantine and Persian Empires were of great psychological influence and helped in the spread of Islam.
But, apart from the political aspect, Islam gives great emphasis to the economic aspect of life—the just ways to make a profit, the ways to the just possession, and moderate spending. In the economic framework of Islam, everybody must earn his living through honest means.
The concept of vicegerency applies to the economic life of Muslims as well. Everything that exists on Earth belongs to God, and the humankind constitutes only the "user." Islam strives for equality among the people, and this does not mean equal possession, but equal opportunity.
In order to achieve this, Islam has prescribed some mechanisms: zakat, obligatory and voluntary sadaqah, inheritance laws, institution of waqf, jizya, etc. All these mechanisms have an important role in the consolidation of the economic system of Islam.
Many injunctions from the Koran that prohibit exploitation, monopolization, interests on loans, etc., and some traditions (hadith) of Prophet Mohammed form the basis of the economic system of Islam that has appealed to many people.
2.5. Social factor
When establishing contacts with the Balkan nations, Christians or polytheists, the Muslims saw them living in very difficult social conditions. The many different rulers—the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarians, and the Serbs—had created some kind of social chaos. It was the Muslims who brought a completely new approach to the social life of the Balkan nations.
God created the humankind from a single couple (one man and one woman), and this is the foundation of the Islamic approach to the society as a whole.
In contrast to other religious and philosophical principles, Islam is not based on a particular birthplace, or nationality, or language. Islam recognizes these diversities and tries to establish itself as the uniting force above them all. Prophet Mohammed himself, in his address he made during his last pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), advised people to establish just social relations without any prejudice.
Islam refutes unjust artificial criterions, and through the obligatory pillars of belief, i.e., proclaiming the oneness of God, the five daily prayers, fasting, zakat, etc., establishes a new feeling of social equality.
In order to further elaborate the social aspect of Islam, and illustrate it as well, the role of women is a good example. It is well accepted that women play a crucial part in the institution of family.
Woman, whether she is a daughter, a wife, or a mother, is given a prominent role and considered equal in every aspect to her male counterpart. In the family, she is the first to instill love, kindness, sincerity, and educate the young generation. There are many injunctions from the Koran, and many traditions (hadith) from Prophet Mohammed as well, concerning this point.
But, the treatment given to women by other beliefs, Christianity for that matter, leaves much to be desired. They treat women as the devil’s instruments to ruin people.
Slavery was another aspect that the new social order of Islam tried to regulate, and possibly totally vanish. Neither Christianity, which actually had blessed slavery, nor other philosophical doctrines have spoken against it. But, Islam sanctions better conditions for the slaves, and even encourages the prohibition of slavery. The Koran has many injunctions, and Prophet Mohammed has many traditions (hadith) as well, concerning the possible prohibition of slavery.
Taking in consideration all these factors, i.e., the religious, moral, cultural and intellectual, political and economic, and social factors, and most importantly the changes that Islam had brought about, it was simple to understand the easiness with which Islam was accepted by the Balkan nations.
3. HOW ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION MADE WAYS INTO
THE BALKAN PENINSULA
How the Islamic civilization emerged in the Balkan Peninsula is one of the most complex problems and requires a multi-dimensional research. Unfortunately, a lot of historic facts concerning Islam and the Balkan Peninsula have been "forgotten," or even distorted. This has been because of centuries of pressure from the Serb and European historians and their political establishments. Almost every book written on the history of Islam will somehow underline this point. One good example would be an article of R. Doçi where he calls the Christianization of the Albanians during the Medieval Period as "prosperity," forgetting the destruction and barbarisms that the many invaders inflicted for centuries. On the other hand, the emergence of Islam, which he ties to the Ottoman invasion, is called the "doom’s day" of the Albanians.
There is place for subjectivism among the Muslim scholars, too. They often see the emergence of Islam from a very narrow "Islamic" angle. This has made the scholarship to be divided into two opposite poles: those who blacken everything Islamic, and those who idealize everything Islamic. That is why an objective study, free of any national sympathies, and free of any religious fundamentalism, is crucial so that we can learn the true history, and not the history we would like it to have been.
Looking at the relevant literature, we would conclude that the two ways that enabled the spread of Islam were: (1) the military expeditions sent to extend the borders of the state of Islam, and (2) the persuasive powers of the Islamic teachings themselves made people ultimately embrace it.
Insofar as the nations of the Balkan Peninsula are concerned, the overwhelming historic evidence points out that the military expeditions were of very little importance to the spread of Islam. Thus, the teachings of Islam themselves were crucial in wining people over. The Koran itself declares that "there is compulsion in religion," and this gave people the feeling of freedom for the first time in centuries. The very famous Albanian writer, S. Frashëri, observes: "Apart from the usage of military might to spread Islam, there does exist another way without turning to invasion or the force of arms, a way that is often not mentioned by the historians." T. Arnold considers this a major point and mentions it in his book, too.
Looking back in history, it is easy to understand which way was the most influential in spreading Islam, the force of arms or its teachings. In most of the times, the Muslim armies only opened the "door" for the Islamic civilization to present itself, and ultimately the people would see the difference.
Islamic civilization entered the Balkan Peninsula mainly from the West through the contacts with Andalusia in Spain, from South through Mediterranean Sea and Sicily, and from North-East through Hungary. However, this book does not tend to answer the question of where Islam came from, but it is more concerned with the question of how did it come.
Even though the evidence is short, after a serious analysis, the answer to the above question—how did Islam come to the Balkan Peninsula—would be finally achieved.
After all the research, three are the ways through which the Islamic civilization gained its foothold in the Balkan Peninsula, and a further elaboration of them will follow.
3.1. Trade relations
The development of Islamic civilization and of the Muslims themselves conditioned the expansion of trade. The goods produced were mainly traded with the neighbor nations, however, the traders often ventured even further to far and unknown places. This is why that since the 9th century the trade relations between Europe and Middle East through the Mediterranean Sea were booming. In these trade relations, the most daring Europeans were those from Florence, Venice, Pizza, Genoa, followed by the French, and Catalonians. The European merchants through Egypt and Syria ventured far away to the Far East.
The Illyro-Albanians had established trade relations with the Arab and Turkish nations, and not only the port-cities of the Adriatic Sea, but the rural parts of the Balkan Peninsula inhabited by them as well. Such strong trade relations were established since the ancient times, and went on into the pre-Ottoman and Ottoman periods.
The Arab gold and silver coins excavated in Potoci, near Mostar of the present-day Bosnia-Hercegovina, date back to the time of Marwan II (744-750) which tells of the extensive trade relations the Muslims had with the Balkan nations, first the Albanians and later the Slavs.
Port-cities along the Adriatic Sea like Dubrovnik, Tivari, Ulqini, Durazzo, Valona, Himara, etc., and other Greek and Southern Italian cities were centers of trade. During the 12th century, the well known Muslim historians and travelers, Al-Idris and Ibn Hawkali, tell in fine details the social and political situation of those places. They also describe the road going through the Balkan Peninsula, from the Aegean Sea along the valley of the Vardar River to the coasts of Adriatic Sea.
Usually the Italian merchants traveled by sea, whereas the Muslims mostly traveled overland. The merchants from Venice and Florence used to trade regularly and exchanged their goods mostly in Istanbul and Gallata. Well known are also the caravans from Dubrovnik to Istanbul, and vice versa.
Such strong trade relations have had a great impact on the Balkan nations. Apart from buying and selling, which was the primary intention, the merchants brought a lot of new ideas and changes. This was intensified further when the Muslim merchants started to establish themselves in some fortified and secured coastal cities. The first Muslim colonies appeared. Though they were very small in the beginning, they became larger, and even stronger.
3.2. Military and political relations
The quick development of the Muslim community (ummah) resulted in its expansion in all directions. By 634, the Muslims had started to attack the borders of the Byzantine Empire, and made the first attempt to conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul). Some years later, in 717-718, the Muslim army under the command of Maslama surrounded Constantinople, however, they could not conquer it. In this expedition, the Muslim army penetrated as far as Adrianople (now Edirne) and Salonika, and this is known as the first contact of the Balkan nations with the Muslim armies. They also built a mosque near Gallata, known as the Arab Mosque. This led the Arabs (read Muslims) to establish their first colonies in Constantinople and Salonika.
Apart from the Muslim colonies, the Slavs built their own small colonies inside the Byzantine Empire. In the battle of Sevastopol in 664, a group of 2000 Slav soldiers were fighting together with the Muslim army against the Byzantine Empire.
In 717-741, a very bloody conflict was going on between two Orthodox Christian sects: those who were against worshiping the paintings, frescos, sculptures, etc., and those who were for them. Often those who were against worshiping paintings, frescos, and sculptures asked the assistance of Muslims, thus, they were well aware that Islamic teachings were against worshiping idols.
In the 9th century, the Arabs were more direct in their intentions towards the Balkan Peninsula. This was simple to understand because they conquered Crete in 823, Sicily in 827, and some parts of the Southern Italy as well, and the Balkan Peninsula was next in the line.
During 840-841, the Muslims conquered Taranto, Italy, and undertook incursions into the Balkan Peninsula invading Budva, Kotor, Rosi, and Rijeka. They even surrounded Dubrovnik for fifteen years, but without any success. This was the time when the Illyro-Albanians had their first contacts with the Muslim armies. They kept attacking the Balkan Peninsula until 1023 when they lost control of the Southern Italy.
The traces of this new civilization are to be found everywhere. Nearby the cathedral of Trogir there is a relief of an Arab man wearing turban which is a sign of well established relationships. There also are the tombs of two Arabs, which is a fact that they must have been living there for some time.
By the beginning of the 14th century, the Arabs ceased intervening directly into the Balkan Peninsula, however, other Muslim tribes from the Asia Minor were keen on the peninsula. In 1307, those Turkish-originated tribes under the leadership of Malik and Halil entered the peninsula as part of a Catalonian division and went as far as Sveta Gora.
The invasion of the Peceneg tribes had a great impact. There are contradicting views as to when they first appeared: some say they came in the 8th century, and some others say they came in the 9th and 10th centuries. It seems that the former view is more accurate because they appeared at the same time when the independent feudal states did so, i.e., the 8th century. T. Arnold observes that the Peceneg tribes migrated from the coasts of the Ural River and settled in the present-day Macedonia.
But, the most important point is that the Peceneg tribes were Muslims, and were also known as "Ismailites." However, many authors observe that the Peceneg tribes were real "barbarians" who attacked and looted all over the peninsula. But, this should not let us oversee the fact that they were Muslims.
On the other hand, Spain’s invasion by the Muslims opened a new chapter in their relations with the Balkan nations. Some of the Slav tribes, especially the Slovenians and Croats, had good relations with the Muslim Spain. In the royal court of Hakemi I (791-822) there were 2000 guards of Croatian origin. Such a big number of guards indicates of extensive relations between them.
This variety of military relations was extended to the politics, too. The Muslim countries had cordial relationship with their Balkan counterparts. In 856, the Serb king, Mikhail III, sent his envoy to the caliph Mutawakil b. Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty to arrange a form of debate on the religious matters.
In 922, the Bulgarian king sent an envoy to caliph Al-Muktadir of the Abbasid dynasty to convey his family’s decision to embrace Islam.
In this point, well known are the contacts that caliph Harun Al-Rashid had established with the European rulers. He had sent his envoy to the Serb king, Carl the Great, in order to establish cordial and reciprocal relations.
The Croat ruler, prince Tomislav, had good relations with caliph Abdurahman III and used to even exchange gifts. Abdurahman III had sent envoys to all the Slav kingdoms to discuss and charter their future relations.
The Europeans, the Balkan nations included, kept continuous contacts with the Muslims—the Fatimids (969-1171), the Eyubids (1171-1250) and the Mamelukes (1250-1517)—because of various interests, trade being one of them.
In general, we see the Slavs as allied to the Muslims against the Roman and Byzantine Empires. However, their relations with the Illyro-Albanians will define the future military and political actors of the Balkan Peninsula. At the beginning, those relations were cordial, but changed rapidly.
It looks like there was no military and political contacts between Illyro-Albanians and the Muslims, but that is not true. There were various contacts between them, however, the fact that Illyro-Albanians were ruled by the foreigners—the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the Serbs, etc.—means that they were almost never identified as an independent political entity.
3.3. Missionaries and migrations
Maybe the most important factor that influenced the rapid spread of Islam among the Illyro-Albanians were the missionaries and migrations of different groups of people. There are indications that travelers and theologists visited almost every part of the peninsula centuries before the Ottomans appeared and played an important role in preaching Islam. This was in some way assisted by the fact that the Muslims controlled many territories around the Balkan Peninsula (Southern Italy, some Greek islands, the Asia Minor, etc.), and by the incursions of the Muslim armies as well.
Maybe the most important among the migrations was a group of Turkish Muslims who settled in Southern Hungary (near the border with the Byzantine Empire) and somewhere near the Ohrid Lake as well (almost in the center of the peninsula). This is the time when the first concentrated Muslim dwellings are seen in the peninsula.
These Turkish tribes who migrated to the Balkan Peninsula were adhering to a breakaway sect of Islam known as dervish. They were persecuted by the mainstream Islamic sect, the sunnis, and thus forced to live. They came prior to the Ottoman invasions and their leader was Sari Sallteku.
The well known historian, H. Inalcik, says that after much hardship, forty dervish Turkish families migrated to the Balkan Peninsula in 1261.
However, they were alone. In 1291, a Muslim family from the Haleb of Syria migrated and settled in Mlik, a village in Kosova. They were known as the Al-Aga family and had a mosque built. This mosque is maybe the oldest in Kosova and still has the inscription of who built it and when.
The Russian Czar Theofil, while fighting in the Asia Minor, forced many Muslims to migrate. They settled in the Balkan Peninsula in the valley of the Vardar River. They came to be known the "Turks of Vardar."
But, the presence of the Muslims in the Balkan Peninsula was so great that the Christian kingdoms could no longer tolerate them. Thus, the many crusades directed for the Middle East passed through the peninsula and literally exterminated the Muslims living there. This happened in 13th century, and the Bulgarians and Serbs took great "pride" in defending Christianity. Hence, the great hate of the Slav against Muslims, and vice versa.
This book is still short of a full-concluded research. However, it does shed some light into the truth. The Muslims have been living in the Balkan Peninsula long before than it was previously believed. Their first traces are to be found as far back as the 8th century.
Their superior religious beliefs made the locals (the Balkan nations) embrace them openly. However, the short sighted and pragmatic politics of the European Christian kingdoms, feeling that they were loosing ground, fought back—the foundation of the future European politics was laid down. We will never have such good and cordial relations between the Muslims and the European countries anymore.
The persecution that the Muslims suffered in the hand of the Christians during the 13th and 14th centuries made a great impact on the Balkan nations. This is the reason why we have such a rapid spreading of Islam in the peninsula once the Ottoman armies conquered it in the 14th century.
Hopefully this will be a kind of challenge for further and better research in the future.
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ABOU THE AUTHOR
Nexhat Ibrahimi was born in June 10, 1959, at Opojë of Prizren, Kosova. He is from a family with strong Islamic heritage. After finishing his primary studies in his birthplace, he went to complete his secondary studies in the "Alaudin" Medresa during the 1974-1979. He graduated from the Faculty of Islamic Theology, University of Sarajevo, in 1984.
He was assigned to work at the Prizren regional office of the Kosova Muslim Community. Nexhat Ibrahimi has written a number a articles and books. His great intellectual activity was rewarded when his collegues elected him as the Chairman of the Society of the Kosovar Muslim Scholars. All these activities have made the Serb government take action.
He has been arrested several times, and presently is serving a prison sentence. He is married and is the father of two children.