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The Islamisation of the Albanians

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Important factors facilitating the dissemination and adaptation of Islam among the Albanians were the local religious specifics and the peculiarities in the religious identity of the native inhabitants. Prior to the Ottoman conquest, the southern Albanians (Tosks) were Orthodox Christians under the authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The northern Albanians – Gegs, were Catholics under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Holy See. The Albanian language was also divided into two large dialect groups – northern and southern. The northern, Geg language bordered predominantly on Slavic languages; the southern, Tosk, on the modern Greek. The boundary between the two dialects was marked by the river of Shkumbin. Here, along the contact line between the two dialect groups was formed the relatively newer and intermediate Elbasan dialect. The ethnographic and linguistic differences between the North and the South have served as an argument for many scholars studying Albania, who base their research on the specific political and cultural-historical features, to speak of a certain autonomy of the two regions – Gegëria and Toskëria.

The tribal and clan-related cultural-historical differences between the southern and northern Albanians were reinforced by the disunion resulting from the active Catholic propaganda. The rivalry between the two churches left deep traces in the spiritual identity of the Albanians. The Albanians’ subordination now to the Holy See, now to the Patriarchate, the incessant strife for domination between the two churches drove Albanians to ideological doubts and even to religious indifference, which was an impediment to the formation of an integral Christian outlook.

Islam, reinforced by the influence of the attractive practices of the Muslim sects, as well as by a great number of social and economic factors, gained ground among the Albanian population conspicuous for its feeble religious commitment.
The specific religious indifference is also manifested in the Albanians who converted to Islam. Scholars unanimously reject whatever presence of religious fanaticism among them. This is in contrast with the religious devotion of the Islamised population in other Balkan provinces – in Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Rhodopes. It could be, judging by Skanderbeg’s testament, that reservation to religion was of a political character, since many times in the course of their struggle for independence the Albanians had been misled or deceived by the Catholic West, while they had never relied on the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The lack of deep religiousness in the Albanians has been pre-determined in large measure by the significance of the fis, by the overwhelmingly clan character of their traditions and customs. Foreign travellers and observers in the Albanian territories have perceived as curiosity the circumstance that the patron’s days – for example, St. George’s and St. Nicholas’ feast days were celebrated together by Catholics, Orthodox believers and Muslims. The difference in the ritual was insignificant: the Catholics lit candles as they did on all other holidays, while the Muslims used to throw in the fire a piece of wax of the size sufficient to make a candle. The role of the church in the worship of saints was minor, church feast days were much humbler than these of the family and clan. It was of basic significance that each fis, regardless of its religious commitment, had its own patron saint. For example, the Berisha fis worshipped Virgin Mary whom they called Lady Berisha and celebrated the clan festival on the day of the Assumption (15 August). The Merturi clan called the Holy Virgin Lady Merturi and observed the fis patron’s day on 8 September, the day of the Nativity of Mary. The Thaçi clan venerated St. John on 27 December, and the Krasniqe revered St. Sebastian on 20 January, etc. It is perfectly clear that this practice was very far from the religious worship of saints as prescribed by the cannons of the Catholic and Orthodox religious doctrines, and that it was laden with entirely different tribal-patriarchal and social-ritual meaning.

The significance of kinship, clan, brotherhood had grown into a serious, rich and branched, ideological system which rested upon the Kanun of Lek, and the Code of Skanderbeg, ousting any attempt at domination by some other ideology in the Albanians’ value system. The fis, or the brotherhood, tolerated no influences, no intrusion by alien elements. They even had their own graveyards where no member of another brotherhood or clan could be buried.

Especially typical of the tribal system is collective liability. In a trial, which, in conformity with customary law, requires the defendant’s “vow of negation” – “I have not committed this”, the jury are selected from among the vllaznija or vëllasëri (brotherhood) of the accused, because customary law did not recognise the individual as a legal entity, such was, in its perception, the collective of relatives holding equal responsibility for the wrong-doing of one of its members.  Obviously, the legal system effective among the Albanians in the period of the Ottoman rule, was far from the dogmas of Sheriat law.

The official Sunni Islam in the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire was maintained prevailingly by the upper classes, the administrative and religious functionaries. In the adoption of Islam by the Balkan Christians, a much more essential part was played by the Muslim sects whose rituals and rite system were closer to folk beliefs. Even the period of the Seljuk Sultanate in Anatolia, saw an expansion of Islam in consequence of the spread and influence of mysticism, Sufism, and the dervish orders from the mid-13th century, a process that intensified even further in the 14th century. Although the Sufi orders differed from one another, they shared the quality of approaching religious life emotionally rather than in a legal-dogmatic way. The followers of Sufism believe it is possible to achieve immediate communion of man with God with the help of contemplation, one’s personal qualities and individual experience. As a matter of fact, by its simplicity this view makes Sufism attractive to broad social strata. The philosophy of Sufism built into the fundaments of Islam a new conceptual layer, more distant from dogmas and more open to man. Sufi adherents performed primarily mystic rituals that appealed to both the lower and the more educated social classes.

The Sufi-dervish orders were the most persistent agents of the worship of saints. In this way they met a basic need of the broad lower strata of society for protection and support against the injustices of earthly ways and rulers. The dervish brotherhoods established their tekkes and zavyes usually near the tomb of some righteous person (or fighter for the faith and justice), who was very soon declared holy. At the same time, the Muslim sects were religiously tolerant in celebrating some Christian saints who were close to their own martyrs by moral qualities, exploits and “miracles”.  This attracted the people from the neighbourhood to the tekkes, while the ?eyhs and dervishes suggested to them that religions and rituals were not differing greatly or at least that the invisible meaning of values and philosophy were very close to one another, no matter whether they were Judaic, Christian or Muslim in origin. All endeavours by theologians and by the authorities to put an end to the sanctification of new saints in popular Islam, failed. Their efforts to end the overgrowing of Islamic rituals with local customs and traditions were of no avail either, and controversies in the sphere of dogmas, as usual, wound up in compromise.

The religious ideas taught by dervish missionaries, actively assimilated the local traditions. Islamic and Christian beliefs and practices were mutually adapted to each other and thus the formal conversion of the Balkan population from Christianity to the new faith was made easier. In folk religious practices both in Anatolia and the Balkans the Christian and Muslim saints belonged to the same category of religious phenomena. That is why it was a common occurrence in the Balkans for Christians to visit the holy places worshipped by the Muslims, and very often the latter sought spiritual satisfaction in the ancient Christian sanctuaries. Equally frequently were attended by the two religious groups the shared places of worship.

The Muslim sects were built on a common foundation, although there were some differences in rituality and attire, as well as in their interior organisation and rules of behaviour. Most of them had adopted certain features of the pre-Islamic religions and beliefs – shamanism, Christianity, Judaism, while some were influenced by the heresies spread in Asia Minor and the Balkans assimilating elements from their doctrines and rites – for example, from Manicheanism. Mysticism is at the root of the Bektashi and other Sufi orders, which actually represented the foundation of Islam in Albania, Macedonia, and some parts of Bulgaria. Mysticism arose on Islamic ground, although in it there are traces of various influences, including Zoroastrianism and some Indian beliefs, and Judaism. Hellenistic doctrines,especially pantheism and Neo-Platonism had a strong impact in the shaping of Sufi philosophy. The establishment of Muslim mysticism as a manifold and complex syncretic ideological structure which, at the same time, is not alien to democracy and dedicated opposition to the official ideologies, respectively, authority, was a prerequisite for the wide spread of some sects in the Balkans. Furthermore, religious propaganda of the dervish brotherhoods was successful with the native people, because Sufism expressed an eternal striving for social justice, human dignity and spiritual perfection. Of course, a factor for the popularity of these orders was the extremely strong tie between the brotherhoods which covered the Balkans like a web, built up their hierarchy, determined the major network centres, contributed to the natural rise of secondary networks in the rural areas, etc. As a matter of fact, this organisation, which has not always been recorded in documents, has been functioning to this day disregarding international borders and the conventions of contemporary geopolitics.

The adaptation of Islam in Albania was furthered by the Bektashi sect, which, with its relative democracy and openness, came close to the religious beliefs of Albanian Christians. Its centre became Elbasan. Bektashism was one of the popular forms of Islam in Northeastern Bulgaria and Macedonia, too. Its spiritual centre in Macedonia was Tetovo. In this place, according to D. Gadzhanov’s studies, were also found other orders – such as the Kadiriyye, Rifa’iyye, Halvetiyye, Nakshibendiyye, etc. It may be asserted that all of Macedonia was sectarian, its western parts being home chiefly to the tekkes and centres of the Bektashi and Hayati (a subsection of the Halvetiyye).

In Kosovo, like in Albania, Islam was disseminated through the order of Haci Bektash, while in Bosnia the Sunnis predominated, the Mevlevi order being held in highest esteem. In fact, today the centre of administration of the Bektashi order in the Balkans is situated in Tirana, and some of the richest, in spirit and tradition, Bektashitekkes are to be found in Tetovo and Djakovica. (During the war in Kosovo in the late spring of 1999, the tekke in Djakovica was set on fire by the Serb police or by a paramilitary unit, and part of the library was destroyed.)

In Albania the campaigns of forcible dissemination of Islam were only exceptions, since these clearly did not have the anticipated effect. The Ottoman campaigns during the conquest of Albania usually ended in land desolation, abduction into slavery, and imposition of Islam. The campaigns of 1464 and 1465 brought devastation to the Albanians. These campaigns were undertaken in the summer, in the harvest season, and finished off by burning down the fields and bringing ruin, by driving away the cattle, and taking the captured people into slavery. Particularly difficult was 1466, when the Albanian lands were invaded by sultan Mehmed II followed by his entire army. Turkish chronicler Kemal Pashadze mentions that “because of the heavy losses inflicted on them by the Albanians, the Ottomans showed appalling ferocity here and even left no vegetation on the ground”.   During these campaigns seeking to subjugate Albania, in spite of the outrages, Islam was being spread among the native population only incidentally, occasionally. During that period, Islam was adopted mainly by the feudal clans trying to preserve their lands and consolidate their privileged positions.

Under Sultan Mehmed II Fatih (the Conqueror) the non-Muslim religious communities were allowed. At that time the situation of people professing different religions was better within the boundaries of the Empire than in some countries in Western Europe.  When in the beginning of the 16th century Sultan Selim I decided to impose Islam on all Christians by force, his plan failed, because the patriarch of Constantinople referred to the code of Sultan Mehmed II, which guaranteed certain autonomy to non-Muslim communities. Helpful were also protests by the members of the high Muslim religious circles, as well as by the janissaries.

Typical is the case of the large-scale Islamisation in the unruly region of Reka, lying to the north of Debar. Here the Sublime Porte resorted to the spread of Islam as a method of pacification. Reka fell under Ottoman power in 1460. According to the first timar registers for this territory from 1467, its sparse population was Christian only. It comprised motley groups of Albanians, Slavs, and Wallachians. In the beginning and the middle of the 16th century several consecutive uprisings broke out. In 1573 the kadi of Elbasan sent a report to the sultan on the need to draw the local population to the true faith in order to appease them at long last. The results of the measures applied became apparent in the next register of the region from 1582. As many as 170 Muslim households, of which 160 newly converted to Islam, were listed in it.

One of the early forms of nonforcible conversion to Islam and substitution of the cultural identity was the gradual incorporation of the local aristocracy into the Ottoman military-feudal class. This naturally required some kind of compromise with certain dogmas of the Muslim doctrine with a view to the expansionist objectives of the empire. One way or another, typical of the early period of the consolidation of the power in the Balkans is the motley character of the military detachments recruited into the Ottoman army. Once fallen under partial dependence on the sultan, the Balkan nobility, in their striving to prevail over their rivals, as well as to preserve or expand their estates, gradually turned into Ottoman feudal tenants. Data on feudal lords who supported the foreign power are found in the correspondence between the patriarch of Constantinople and the archbishop of Ohrid dating back to the beginning of 15th century. In his commentary to this evidence Prof. H. Geltzer writes: “…What a strong power of attraction has the young, full of energy Turkish state exerted, especially on the Slav and Albanian notables in the Balkan Peninsula… One has to remember that this was the time when Bulgarian, Serbian and Albanian notables abandoned Christianity in droves and adopted Islam.”
One finds records of the local feudal lords converted to Islam even in the earliest Albanian timar registers. In the defter of the sancak of Arvanid of 1432, over 50 per cent of the recorded spahis were Islamised Albanian aristocrats, sultan’s and bey’s slaves.  In the sancak of Shkodra among the dozens of feud-holders in 1485 there was one convert to Islam, Zaim Ayas Bey, son of Kuke. In the same year, out of 107 timar-holders in this sancak, eight were Muslims of Albanian origin – H?z?r Jovan, Hasan Arnaut, Mustafa Hrac, Hasan Marin, etc  . In 1467, the local lords converted to Islam accounted for eight per cent of the timar-holders in the sancak of Debar.  Even in the fortress of Dergoz at least half of the garrison offices in the regular Ottoman occupation troops were filled by local people who had adopted Islam.  In the vilâyet of Akçahisar (modern Krujë, Kruja), along with the five Christian spahis who shared the holding of two timars, in 1467 there were two new Muslims – Ilyas and Dogan.

The Albanians were greatly valued as soldiers by the Ottoman military system and provided recruits for some of the elite corps of the Ottoman army. Levends (sailors) were generally recruited from among the Turkish youths and were given special training. Ottoman records, however, reveal that the Albanians were subject to regular enlistment in the levend forces. Correspondence from 1693 evidences of the directions issued by the central authorities requiring the mobilisation of 1000 Arnauts in the mentioned year from the sancaks of Avlona and Delvin (today’s Delvina) as recruits for the levend troops. In compensation, there came an order that the households of the conscripts should be exempted from the avariz and nüzul taxes. Enclosed were the lists of the locations and number of households obligated to provide the levend enrolment. For example, 54 households in the town of Avlona had to send 27 recruits, while 333 households in the town of Delvin were levied with providing 166 men, etc.

The sultan’s guards, too, were predominantly recruited from among the Albanians. Though isolated from their compatriots, the Albanians never lost awareness of their ethnic and clan identity. They were referred to by the administration and entered in the official records as Arnauts, which was a mark of their origin. This was largely due to the fact that no matter how loyal champions of the Ottoman state they were, they never became fanatic Muslims, and in their value system the sense of affiliation to the Albanian North or South, or to a particular family, as well as the soldier’s duties stood higher than religious beliefs. In this sense, the description given by Lady Mary Montagu in the first years of the 18th century is illustrative and accurate: “But of all the religions I have seen, the Arnaut seems to me the most particular. They are natives of Arnaoutlich, the ancient Macedonia, and still retain something of the courage and hardiness, though they have lost the name, of Macedonians, being the best militia in the Turkish empire, and they only check upon the janissaries. They are foot soldiers; we had a guard of them, relieved in every considerable town we passed: they are all clothed and armed at their own expense, generally lusty young fellows, dressed in clean white coarse cloth, carrying guns of a prodigious length, which they run with on their shoulders as if they did not feel the weight of them, the leader singing a sort of rude tune, not unpleasant, and the rest making up the chorus. These people, living between Christians and Mahometans, and not being skilled in controversy, declare that they are utterly unable to judge which religion is best; but, to be certain of not entirely rejecting the truth, they very prudently follow both and go to the mosques on Fridays and the church on Sundays, saying for their excuse, that at the day of judgement they are sure of protection from the true prophet; but which that is, they are not able to determine in this world. I believe there is no other race of mankind have so modest an opinion of their own capacity. These are the remarks I have made on the diversity of religions I have seen…”

Islam began to spread first in the urban centres. The more complex nature of urban life spurred town-dwellers to adopt the rulers’ religion. The influence of Islam was felt there first. On the one hand, the cities were the first centres of the conquerors’ administration and target of colonisation. On the other hand, they were places of concentration of Christians and Jews owning large moneyed capital. Their basic ambition in the new social and political setting within the framework of the dominant Muslim state system was to further retain their leading positions.
In the early period following the conquest of the Balkan towns, up to the middle of the 16th century, when the Ottomans believed it was their right and duty first of all to consolidate their power in the new territories and their participation in the later campaigns of conquest, the propertied urban groups managed to keep their predominance in the most important activities – tax farming, trading, crafts, etc.

In the second half of the 16th century, parallel with the spread of Islam, the holders of money capital who professed Islam gained strong positions in the cities. The role of the Christians began to decline and they were forced to give up their place in the key economic activities to their Muslim fellow-citizens. In order to keep their positions, the most powerful Christian urban classes strove for proximity with the Muslim ruling crust by way of Islamisation.

In the villages, unlike the towns, the spread of Islam began much later and followed its intrinsic rules, forms and motives. The delayed diffusion of Islam in the rural areas was mainly due to objective factors. The colonisation, especially in the Albanian highlands, did not affect so directly the rural population as it did the urban one. Wherever Ottoman settlers moved in, they aimed to establish separate colonies and live in relative isolation from the local population. The rural structures were characterised by isolation, which was quite pronounced in some places (especially in the highland areas), and which was hardly susceptible to outside influence. Very strong in the rural communities was the tradition of strict abiding by the customary law, of observance of the clan or mundane religious rites, of preserving their inherited, generation-old moral value system. The more or less homogeneous social structure of the rural population was also a factor making the cases of conversion to the dominant religion by personal and social motives, so characteristic of the urban areas, isolated and untypical in the countryside.

The Ottoman authority did not aim to impose Islam among the rural populace forcibly and on a mass scale, since such an act would have harmed seriously the military and economic interests of the state. Bosnia made an exception, on political and military-strategic grounds, although the amount of the cizye, and some other taxes collected in this province, were valued high as revenues to the treasury, and no violent measures were applied. Ottoman centralism rarely resorted to campaigns for the spread of Islam. In Albania and Kosovo, where colonisation was scarce, and at places it was limited to the settlement of representatives of the Ottoman administration and the establishment of garrisons, Islamisation began latest in time. As evidenced by the reports of the Vatican Catholic inspectors, by the first decade of the 17th century only 10 per cent of the population in the Albanian North were Muslims.

A large-scale and comparatively rapid change in the religious identity of the Albanians, especially in the mountain rural communities, was in progress in the mid- and late 17th century and, with varying intensity, during the 18th century. In a sense, the abandonment of Catholicism and the Orthodox faith by the Albanians was formal and employed as a conscious strategic move aiming at their survival and admittance to the hierarchy of the local Ottoman administration. Furthermore, this explains the presence of dual religious identity among the Gegs, but also among the Tosks in the South. Crypto-Christian behaviour was characteristic of the Albanian territories in the period from the 17th up to the late 19th century. In order to evade interference by the Ottoman administration in their home affairs, in their austere clan traditions of hierarchy and communal self-government, many Albanian clans, especially among the mountaineers in the North, adopted Islam formally and lived as dual-faith believers, just as in the description given by Lady Montagu. Along with the new religion they continued to celebrate the old Christian festivals and saints, baptised their children, took Holy Communion, married Christian women, practices strictly forbidden by the Sheriat prescriptions. Bishop Zmajevic established that “there is a vicious and disdainful custom to give Holy Communion to those who, in order to evade taxation, publicly profess Mohammedanism, and secretly – the Christian faith, infecting others by their example…” It is difficult to determine the role of the Catholic and Orthodox priests as shepherds of their flock, when the latter adopted Islam or sank into practising dual faith. According to M. Drinov’s remarks, based on correspondence of Catholic envoys from their Albanian missions, the level of performance of the Catholic priests was extremely inadequate and they were often the first to adopt Islam and lead their flocks into conversion. Catholic priest Stefan Gaspari toured the Albanian eparchies in 1671-1672 and wrote that “the unworthy Catholic priests had not only been unable to maintain the faith in their flock, but also had utterly exterminated it by their foul life.” In the eparchy of Dras [modern Durrës] he met many Crypto-Christians, designated in the original by the Latin term of christiani occulti, who “overtly professed the Mohammedan faith, and secretly attended church to pray, confess their sins and take Holy Communion”.  Other scholars, like A. Zhelyazkova, to a degree P. Bartl and St. Skendi, hold the thesis that the local Catholic priests were closely linked with or were part of the family and clan ties in the highland communities and made efforts to be of service to their congregation. When, towards the middle of the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV demanded in a special bull that the renegades, observing in secret the faith of their ancestors, should renounce Islam in public and profess Christianity openly, the population offered violent resistance to it, fully supported by their clerics.

As for the Orthodox priests, they were not only notorious for their ignorance, but also for the abuse of church tax collection. Besides, both the Catholic and the Orthodox population were levied with special taxes and duties. Since the time of Sultan Mehmed II, with the integration of the Orthodox Church in the system of the central Ottoman power, the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople exacted a heavy fiscal regime on all Christians. Part of the church taxes were collected with a view of paying out what was known as peshkesh – a sum contributed by the Greek patriarchs to the state treasury in return for their right to be assigned to their position with an official document (berat). Along with these sums, the size of which was constantly growing, the Orthodox population gave also ecclesiastical miri rüsüm, comprising taxes and duties received by the metropolitans from the eparchies under their jurisdiction. There were a great number of other taxes collected on a voluntary or compulsory basis. Their collectors acted with the assistance and under the protection of the local Ottoman administrative bodies, usually bribed to turn a blind eye to malpractice.

St. Skendi, who has studied Crypto-Christianity, considers that fear of persecution was by no means a reason for the conversion of Albanians to Islam and the emergence of dual faith. They were rather led by their wish to evade paying per capita tax and benefit from proselytism, namely – to be given a post in the military administrative hierarchy of the Ottoman state.73 Indeed, from the middle of the 17th century the Sublime Porte found out the only measure by which to punish the insurgent Albanians – through a drastic increase in taxes. If the tax levied on the Christians in the Albanian communities in the 16th century amounted to about 45 akçes, in the middle of the 17th century it ran up to 780 akçes a year. In order to save the clans from hunger and ruin, the Albanian elders advised the people in the villages to adopt Islam. Nevertheless, the willingness of the Gegs to support the campaigns of the Catholic West against the Empire, did not abate. In his report to Cardinal Gozzadino, the Albanian bishop and writer Pjetër Budi informed in 1621 that scores of men in Albania, Christians, but also Muslims, were ready to take arms, given the smallest help from the Catholic West.

In this context, the motives for the complex dual religious identity of the Albanians become clear. Emblematic is the case of the Crypto-Christians inhabiting the inaccessible geographical areas around Berat, Shpat and Gnjilane (Alb. Gjilan). Undisturbed by the Ottoman authorities, the people from Shpat and four villages near Gnjilane maintained for a long time their religiously dualised existence. The central power came to know about them only in 1846, and by chance, when two recruits from these parts declared they were actually Christians, hence could not serve in the Ottoman army. The Sublime Porte conducted an inquiry and then, forced by circumstances, the local people, guided by their priest Antonio Markovic, openly declared themselves to be Christians. Those who survived the ensuing repression were exiled to Asia Minor. As for the Crypto-Christians from Shpat, some five thousand people, they were able to revert to the Orthodox faith, without risking their lives, only in 1897.

A fairly accurate picture of religious self-awareness in Albania is presented by the general consul of Belgium in Thessaloniki in 1888. According to his statistics, the proportion of religious believers in Albania was the following: Geg Muslims (Northern Albania) – 370,000 people, Tosk Muslims (Southern Albania) – 250,000, Catholics – 253,000, and Orthodox Christians – 150,000.75 In fact, there probably are some incorrect data in this statistics, because in the beginning of the 20th century the Muslims constituted 70 per cent, the Orthodox Albanians – around 20 per cent, and the Catholics – 10 per cent of the total population. According to the latest census held in April 1989, the population of Albania is 3 182, 417 persons, the same proportions of Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics being revealed. With reference to Albanians’ religious indifference, E. Biberaj points out that Albanians favour their ethnic-national identification, rather than their religious one. The modern Albanian is often heard saying: “The religion of the Albanians is Albanian-ness.”

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