Albanians and Islam: An Introduction

By Jetim

The iterations and contexts in which Islam is found around the world are countless. One such iteration that has not often captured the hegemonic eye is Islam in the Balkan Peninsula. Though this changed for a time in the wars emanating from the breakup of Yugoslavia, this region has usually remained under-represented and misunderstood. When studied, it is often fetishized and used as to advance nefarious geopolitical power plays or narratives. Even within the Balkans, Bosnia often garners more widespread knowledge than its Muslim cousins in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and even less than the minorities in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and others. As I am personally and academically focused on Islam among Albanians, I will provide a brief contextualization below, so as to scratch the surface of this deep and complicated history.

Orthodox Church in the capital of Kosovo. Unfinished. Unused. Built in the war of 1998.

Often, we search for starting points. When did Islam come to Albania? It depends who you ask. It even depends how you define Islam, rather Islam: submission to the One Creator. If defined this way, Islam is something that has been around since the first human, Adam. Despite this, any answer as to its start in (what became) Albania, is necessarily political. The general agreement is that with the arrival of the Ottomans, as far back as the 14th century, Muslim missions made their way into the region, garnering small groups of followers. However, the majority of people embraced Islam over the centuries of Ottoman rule. The Sufi Tariqas (pathways) were one very important way in which Islam was spread in the region. (for more information on the way this accorded, see Conversion to islam in the Balkans by Anton Minkov, 2004).

View of Prizren, Kosovo from Prizren Castle. 

The question of “how” Albanians converted has in its background many negative connotations. Chief among these is the understanding that Islam is foreign, and that it is puzzling as to why one would willingly accept such a regression. Theories are abound as to whether Albanians ever really converted: perhaps they kept their Christianity and paganism, and only accepted Islam to escape the Ottoman religious tax. Perhaps they were forced at sword-point. Perhaps they themselves were Turkish invaders to Europe. The connotation is clear: One can be either European, or Muslim. One cannot be both.

View of Sinan Pasha mosque and the stone bridge in Prizren, Kosovo.

And yet, they remain ostensibly in Europe, and marginally Muslim, but not without paying a steep price. Aside from the internal turmoil and incessant drive to prove their European-ness, the dark history of communism and its fall loom as ghosts, always around the corner. Albania proper, whose capital is Tirana, borders the Adriatic Ocean. It was at no point part of Yugoslavia. Its independence day is celebrated on November 28 (1912), when it declared its freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Left outside of its borders were the other half of the ethnic Albanian populations. Many were killed, or transferred to Anatolia. Those that remained in the region were mostly split between Kosovo and Macedonia. Those is Montenegro did not fare well, and in fact, a significant portion of the immigrant community of Albanians in New York City is comprised of Muslims and Christians from what is now Montenegro. Many Albanians also remained in Southern Serbia. These groups constituted the Albanian minority of Yugoslavia. Lastly, the Albanians of the Cham region in Southern Albania, which was taken over by Greece, were sadly massacred. However, understanding the dynamics of this tragedy deserve their own treatment in a future piece.

These groups fared differently in terms of religion. The Albanians of Orthodox faith are concentrated especially the Southern half of Albania, and those with Catholic tradition in northern Albania, as well as a small minority in Kosovo. The Albanians of Macedonia are concentrated in the Western half of that country, and are known for their strong Muslim tradition. The Kosovar Albanians today are about 95% Muslim. The Albania of today is reported to be 70% Muslim, but this is largely disputed. A better estimate would be about 50%, although it is notoriously difficult to gauge religious identification and religiosity. Communism in both countries (Albania and Yugoslavia) discouraged religion, but Albania proper took it one step further. It became the first officially atheist country in the world in 1967, outright banning any and all religious activity, although it was harsher on Islam. There was an assumption on the part of the regime that religion, particularly Islam, was incompatible with modernity, oppressive, and something to be removed from society. This had, and still has a devastating effect on religion in Albania, alongside the terrible human toll of this regime on the people. This leaves people ill-informed about religion and particularly susceptible to foreign actors of all kinds, seeking to spread their own interpretations and worldview.

This discouragement and abolishment of religion was done to strengthen the Nation (whether Albania or Yugoslavia), and to prove their modernity. It is necessarily a part of the legacy of Western European violent ideology and encroachment into the region. It is perhaps one attempt at solving the modern impossibility of being both European and Muslim. Finally, it helps legitimize discourse among other Muslims that Albanians are not “really” Muslim, thereby sanctioning their erasure or their “fixing” by those that know “better.” It remains a precarious situation in light of a painful history, which is only further muddled by the powerplay of various interested parties.