While thinking about countries with Muslim majorities in the Balkans, though our first thought would definitely be Bosnia Herzegovina, let us not forget about another small nation, whose modern history might be just as tough for our Muslim brothers and sisters as of Bosnia.
According to the 2011 census, 70% of Albania’s 3.2 million inhabitants adhere to Islam. They are considered to be Sunnis, however 20% of them belong to the Bektashi Shi’a Mystics’ minority, which is considered to be heretical by most mainstream Muslims. But the story gets even more complicated: even among those who declare a religion, the majority of the population has a more secular interpretation of religion compared to other countries – due to nearly 50 years of a suppressing communist regime in the country. According to Pew Research Center, Albania has the lowest percentage in the world amongst countries with significant Muslim populations, and Gallup Global Reports claims that it is the thirteenth least religious country in the world.To truly understand the situation of today’s Albanian Muslims, we need to go back to the 14th century when – unlike Slovenia – the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire until 1912.
With the invasion of the Ottomans, Islam entered the then Christian-majority Albania and was largely adopted in the centre and south of the country. Shortly after, the Albanian Muslim class started to play an increasingly important role in the Empire’s political and economic life, thereby attracting other Albanians to convert to Islam with the hope of taking similar positions. Besides followers of the Sunni path, another Muslim group appeared in the country through the Albanian elite infantry (janissaries) of the Ottoman army who mixed pagan rites with Islam. They belonged to the Bektashi sect which later moved their headquarters to Tirana, the capital city of Albania, after being expelled from Turkey by Atatürk in 1925.
Not long after the country won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, began the systematic dereligionisation of the nation under the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha. Thus, Islam and all other faiths in the country underwent radical changes.
The sanctions to demolish religions in the country and then establish the world’s first ever atheist state started in 1946, when the government nationalised most property of religious institutions.They also tortured and executed clergies and believers as well. Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with education; nearly 2169 churches, mosques, tekkes (Bektashi lodges), monasteries and other religious institutions were either closed down or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, or workshops.
“The State recognises no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in the people” – stated an article in the Albanian Constitution of 1976 which also imposed prison sentences of three to 10 years for “religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature.” The new constitution went even further, obliging Albanians with Islamic and religiously-tinged first names to change them. Towns and villages with religious names had to be renamed as well. Individuals caught with religious objects faced long prison sentences and sometimes officials tried to entrap practising Muslims and Christians by distributing forbidden foods in school or at work; even religious weddings were prohibited. However, even though our Albanian brothers and sisters suffered a great deal and were exposed to numerous dangers, many of them kept practising their religion in secret.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of Hoxha, the ban on religious observance was officially lifted in 1990. However, 50 years of such immense oppression did have a negative impact on the community, along with the tragic economic situation and huge lack of basic food supplies which followed the collapse of communism.
With the help of Islamic organisations, coming largely from the Arab peninsula, the young generation has begun to discover religion for the first time – via schools and mosques established by foreign charities. The phenomenon has been criticised by fellow Muslims who see these “imported” Islamic thoughts, which they call “Salafism” and “Wahabism”, as culturally alien; therefore tension has been created between the so-called young ‘Arab’ Albanians and their elder ‘Turkish’ Albanians. Making further steps towards solving this issue in 2011, Bedër University, Albania’s first Islamic university was opened in Tirana “to put an end to the import-export of theological students with the Arab countries.”
PLACES TO SEE:
1. Et’hem Bey Mosque in Tirana (Xhamia e Et’hem Beut)
Of the approximately 800 mosques found in Albania, if you’d need to choose only one to visit, Et’hem Bey Mosque should be the one. When visiting Tirana, you cannot even miss this pretty mosque as it is located right on the capital city’s main square. The construction started in 1794 and was finished in 1821 by Et’hem Bey. It was closed under communist rule, but reopened as a house of worship in 1991 without permission from the authorities. The event was actually a milestone in the country’s rebirth of religious freedom with 10,000 courageous attendants and remarkably the police did not interfere.
2. King Mosque (Xhamia Mbret)
Being Albania’s oldest mosque, King Mosque was built in 1380 in the town of Berat by Bayezid II Sultanat at the time the Ottoman Empire began setting its sights on Albania. In 1948, it gained the title of Cultural Monument, recognised by the government of Albania and the ministry of culture.
3. Tanners’ Bridge (Ura e tabakëve)
This Ottoman stone footbridge served once as the main connection between Tirana and the highlands to the east across the Lana River. When the river was rerouted in the 1930s, the bridge was eventually neglected, but has been restored to its former glory and is used by pedestrians again.
Timea Aya Csányi is a reverted sister from Hungary living in Egypt with her husband. She works at Onislam.net as counseling editor of the family section; she is a freelance writer & art journalist in Hungarian and English and an active blogger. You can contact her through her blog: magyarlanykairoban.wordpress.com