Foto: P.E.N. Centre Bosnia

Prof. Dr. Enes Karić on Islam in Bosnia

Bosnia: Islam has a centuries-old tradition. This also makes the country one of the Muslim centres of our continent.

Prof. Dr. Enes Karić was born in Travnik in 1958. He is Professor of Qur’anic Studies and History of Qur’anic Interpretation at the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo. Previously, he was Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1994 to 1996.

Prof. Dr. Karić has written numerous books on the Qur’an and Islamic studies in English and Bosnian and has lectured worldwide. He has won literary prizes for his novels, which have been translated into many languages.

We spoke with him about the history of Islam and Muslims in Bosnia, their traditions, influential figures and their significance for European Muslims.

Photo: Alan Ajan, Adobe

Bosnia: on the importance of its Muslims

Question: Dear Prof. Dr. Karic, Bosnia is one of the oldest Muslim areas in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. What is the significance of Bosnian Islam, of Bosnian Muslims, for Islam in Europe and worldwide?

KARIĆ: Islam came to the Balkans and Bosnia with traders and Sufis before the arrival of the Ottoman Empire. The relevant historical works speak about colonies of Muslims throughout the Western Balkans. Let us not forget that Bosnia is oriented towards the Adriatic, which means that the influences of Sicily and Muslim Spain were possible.

Moreover, with the presence of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans for almost 600 years, and with Bosnia (and Herzegovina) being a part of the Empire for more than 450 years, one can speak about Bosnia as one of the regions in the Eastern and South-Eastern Europe where Muslim presence has been very strong, together with the presence of Christians, both Catholics and Orthodox.

Of course, in Eastern Europe there are regions and countries where Islam came before Christianity, and in that respect, the research of Prof. Stefan Schreiner from University in Tübingen is very valuable. When it comes to Bosnian Islam and Bosnian Muslims, as you say, their relevance is extremely important historically, as well as in a contemporary perspective. Historically, Islam in Bosnia spread for more than 170 years (from the first decades of the 15th century to the second half of the 17th century).

Also, defters or Ottoman tax documents show that Islam was accepted by all in Bosnia, by members of the Bosnian Church, as well as by the Catholics and the Orthodox. A very strong religious activity was happening in Bosnia at the same time when Martin Luther was trying to win over local rulers in German lands.

It is important to keep one fact in mind. Bosnia was never a land of only one religion. It remained religiously and culturally a mixed land, and in the medieval times it was populated by Slavic polytheists, then Catholics, Orthodox, members of the Bosnian Church. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, there is a very slow, but firm process of the spread of Islam, since some Catholics, Orthodox and members of the Bosnian Church decide to accept Islam.

With Muslims, Jews also appear in Bosnia. Namely, after the fall of Granada in 1492, many Sephardic Jews come to Bosnia. The Sephards populate Sarajevo where they had a large quarter right next to the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque and the Orthodox Church. In some ways, the sights of Bosnian cities from the 15th century onwards resemble Jerusalem: mosques, churches, synagogues are very visible.

For Europe, both medieval and modern, and for the world in general, Bosnia is a good example of convivencia, the life together. Imagine a table where the Bible and the Qurʼan stand together. Historically, the Qurʼan reached out to the Bible and “took“ the strongest monotheistic impulses from it. Bosnia is an example where Islam realized itself in the Biblical-Qurʼanic togetherness, but also tensions and debates. We should strive towards the unity in our differences intensely.

Question: What characteristics would you use to describe Islam in your homeland and the Bosniak Muslims? What distinguishes them?

KARIĆ: It is important to emphasize that Islam spread in Bosnia as an urban religion and culture, but it also spread in the rural areas, where it showed strong local characteristics. The British historian Noel Malcolm is not the only one who claims that Islam spread freely in Bosnia, which is also the case with other religions in the Balkans. Namely, the faith is the matter of freedom, and nobody can force our soul to believe in God or to believe in Him in this or the other way!

The urban character of Islam in Bosnia meant building of madrasas, tekkes and hanikahs, as well as scriptoriums for copying the manuscripts. Apart from that, from the 15th century onwards there is a strong economic development of the cities in Western Balkans. The markets were open for everyone.

If we return to Bosnian Muslims, one should keep in mind that the standards through which they met Islam were worldly and imperial. If I may say, and if this comparison is valid, in a cultural and economic way the Ottoman Empire was what is today the EU. It was a space suitable for living. Many people travelled, received their education.

For example, Bosnian Franciscans had their representative body in Istanbul, and they cooperated with the Ottoman Empire. Also, Orthodox churches in the Balkans today often hide the fact that the Ottoman sultans were their rulers in the church sense – they appointed the priests and those in the highest positions. The sultans were the protectors of the Orthodox churches throughout the empire, as well as the protectors of the church property.

All of this influenced that Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina obtains a kind of universality and worldliness. There is not enough space here to talk about the manuscript collections and documents in the libraries and archives in Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Belgrade, Zagreb… The Balkans was open back then, religiously and culturally, as well as economically. These are some of the characteristics that affect Bosnian Muslims. With universality and worldliness of Islam, Bosnian Muslims overcame their local constrictions and became a nation recognizable in Europe and beyond.

Question: Thanks to rescued archives and manuscripts of Muslim scholarship – in languages such as Arabic, Ottoman or Persian – there was a long tradition of knowledge in Bosnia. How can this be placed in relation to Muslim scholarship as a whole?

KARIĆ: This is an important question. In Gazi Husrev-bey Library only, one can find thousands of Arabic, Ottoman and Persian manuscripts. Those manuscripts are extremely valuable from a scientific, cultural and civilizational aspects. For example, the most important Qurʼanic commentaries in manuscripts, like those from Ibn ʻArabī (d. 1240) or az-Zamaḫšarī (d. 1144), are present in Bosnia and Herzegovina in dozens of copies.

The same goes for the works of Ğalāluddīn Rūmī (d. 1273) or Omar al-Ḫayyām (d. 1131). Abū Hamid al-Gazali (d. 1111) was widely read and celebrated in Bosnia, just like many other theologians, mystics, scholars. Apart from that, there are hundreds copies of manuscripts from the fields of maths, astronomy, medicine, geography, occult, etc.

What does this tell us? First it tells us that the reception of the Islamic message was not one dimensional. From the very beginnings there was a conviction to study Islam in its multiple contexts and relations. Secondly, these manuscripts tell us indirectly that God is not a distant God, but God who can be studied, if I may say, from scholarly, mystical, religious perspectives. For Bosniaks this Islamic tradition is extremely relevant, because it allowed us to be included in the interpretations of Islam, and the world.

Even in the later times, in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1878-1918), and in times of different state frameworks of Yugoslavia in the 20th century, our scholars, theologians, and writers were a part of the global transmission of knowledge, whether in Cairo or London, Baghdad or Sorbonne, Chicago or Vienna. Unfortunately, our contributions to Islam are still widely unfamiliar whether in traditional lands of Islam or in the Western hemisphere.

Photo: Roibo, Shutterstock

Leading figures of Bosniak Islam

Question: Who would be the leading Muslim personalities and scholars in the Bosniak history?

KARIĆ: The philosopher and theologian Hasan Kafi Pruščak (1544-1615) is one of the most important from the Ottoman period. He wrote treatises and books in philosophy, logic, theology, Arabic philology. His works have been translated into German, Hungarian, French, English. Perhaps the most important commentator of Ibn ʻArabīʼs works in the Ottoman times is the mystic Abdullah al-Bosnawī (1584- 1644) known under the name ʻAbdī Afandī al-Busnawī. The translations and editions of his works are still being published. The Institut Français dʼarchéologie orientale in Cairo has recently published one of his works on the parents of the Prophet Muhammad. I should also mention the famous Ahmad Sudi al-Bosnawī (d. 1592), a great commentator of works in Persian literature. The list goes on and on.

I have recently published the extensive study Traditional Bosnia (with the help of John Templeton Foundation, Al-Kalam&Media Research and the Center For Advanced Studies), where I referenced and cited more than a hundred Bosniak names (and more than 150 of their works). They were all famous Sufis, poets, philosophers, scholars. Those are people whose works were mostly written in this part of southeastern Europe. The works are generally of a universal character, very readable and inspired, interwoven by what Franz Rosenthal (1914-2003) named as Knowledge Triumphant.

Question: There were periods in Ottoman history when Bosniak politicians and officials were very influential throughout the Ottoman Caliphate. And today, for example, descendants of Bosniak immigrants live in Turkey. What traces of Bosnian influence can be found today beyond the borders of your country?

KARIĆ: In his voluminous book Geschichte des Osmanischen Reiches Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), the world-renowned Austro-Hungarian historian, mentions dozens of Bosniaks who participated in the administrative and military structures of the Ottoman Empire. One should not approach this period in an Ottomanophile or Turkophile way, but one should analyse it realistically. Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall speaks in a way about the openness of the Ottoman Empire. I like to say the following: none of religions or millets in the Ottoman Empire was not brought to the brink of existence. Everyone in the Balkans survived both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. I am not saying it was always easy, but they survived and did not disappear. And in the 20th century, Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albanians in Kosovo almost disappeared. NATO helped a bit in their survival, perhaps late, but still.

To return to your question. The Bosniak diaspora is very numerous today in Turkey, Germany, Austria, also USA. This diaspora is organized around different Islamic communities, but there are also other clubs and organizations. Although there is a growing number of public figures among them, their voice is still far from being influential on the mainstream opinion in Europe. Their voice is heard perhaps in July, during the commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica, but it is not heard throughout the rest of the year.

It is important today to approach Bosniak scholarly figures in a studious manner. It is important to revive what is grand from our tradition. The grand vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović (1505-1579) was grand because he built his father a mosque, and his Christian mother a church. That should be noted.

Question: Since the 19th century, Bosniak Muslims have lived under different foreign political authorities. That means they also had to develop ways to protect their religion and identity. What methods and structures have emerged in this process?

KARIĆ: Your question addresses periods in three centuries (19th, 20th, 21st). In our historiography this period is labelled as the new time. That was the time when Bosnian Muslims faced different challenges such as modernization and secularization, and in short all of that presented a kind of Europeization. To protect their cultural and religious identity, and to affirm it, Bosnian Muslims established many institutions. For example, in 1882, Rijaset or the centralised Islamic community with the seat in Sarajevo was established. At the very beginning of the 20th century, Bosniaks started establishing cultural organizations, secular in nature but open towards Islam as religion, focusing on Islamic culture, civilization, literature. Soon enough political parties were established too. What did it all mean? The Bosniak elite felt that they should have forms of social organizing present in contemporary Europe. Also, at the end of the 19th century in 1887, the Shariʻa Judges School opened in Sarajevo where apart from other “modern subjects,” German was also taught.

Bosnian Muslims translated many books into Bosnian throughout the 20th century. For example, Nerkez Smailagić (1927-1985) translated the book The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, Sulejman Bosto (born in 1950) translated many books from German from Max Scheler, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, Hans Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas and so on. Dozens of Bosniak intellectuals translated a high number of leading books in philosophy, art and literature from English, French, German. All that shows that Bosniaks are very much aware of the major trends in European intellectual history.

Bosnia Sarajevo

Photo: Ammar Asfour

Are Bosnia’s Muslims sufficiently represented?

Question: Do you feel that Bosniak Muslims are sufficiently represented among Muslims in Europe?

 KARIĆ: As far as I know, we Muslims in Europe, or Muslim Europeans, still have not organized in a universally recognizable way. In this state of things, Bosnian Muslims are more or less invisible in Muslim context of modern Europe. Of course, throughout Europe there are many micro-Islamic communities gathered around traditions from their countries of origin or gathered around linguistic belonging. Of course, I am aware of many difficulties related to the expression of Islamic belonging together with conceptualizing and expressing oneʼs own Muslim Europeanness. In essence, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all come from Asia – and since Asia is for everyone, Jews and Christians and Muslims and Budhists, likewise Europe belongs to everyone. I refuse to think that Jews and Muslims are foreign to Europe!

Of course, I am not propagating that Muslims establish their separate political parties to represent themselves, but I do support the idea of religious and cultural institutions that are specifically theirs, together with those established jointly with other European citizens.

In the 21st century, religion remains to be an important social fact, and it should be practiced in peace and prosperity. I am stating this affected by fear of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, where people are dying also because they belong to a different religion.

Question: In the debate about “Islam in Europe,” topics such as integration and migration dominate. What accents can the Muslim community in Bosnia and its prominent heads set?

KARIĆ: I will openly say that I think that the project of Europe which was developed after 1945 is in essence a good idea, aiming for a Europe without fascism and totalitarianism. The EU is one such product. If I return to the syntagm of “Islam in Europe,” I want to say that the numbers of Muslims are rising but they are still a minority. Of course, it is not a good thing to talk about Muslims in Europe as a statistical fact, even less to talk about them from a security point of view. The aggression on Ukraine has showed that the EU should better pay attention to other things than to focus on Muslims as a security threat.

The second thing I want to point out is the question of integration and a positive affirmation of Muslim belonging to Europe as a collective of civil societies. It is not beneficial to make integration into an ideology or forced proving that one – a Muslim – is for Europe. Whenever people can live freely and earn their living freely, the integration will naturally occur, without anyone losing their identity. Live and let live should be a principle.

As far as I know as a member, the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is very aware of these debates. We are also worried about the rise of the right-wing parties and trends in Europe and the world. We can always point to the example of Bosnia. Despite horrible wars in its past, I think the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina can help when it comes to the question of integration and migration. If you were to travel through Bosnia today, you will not see police protecting churches, mosques or synagogues. When there is peace, then the good in people has more chance to bring prosperity.

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