Islamic Resurgence in Albania

By Luxner, Larry | The Middle East, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Islamic Resurgence in Albania


Luxner, Larry, The Middle East


Albania is the only country in Europe with a Muslim majority, yet for 47 years all religious practice was discouraged and eventually outlawed. Now, since liberalisation, Albania's Muslims are re-asserting themselves. Larry Luxner writes from Tirana.

After enduring half a century of persecution by Communists, Albania's Bektashi Muslims are again asserting themselves as a legitimate religious minority in the very nation which once served as the sect's world headquarters. At least six other obscure Islamic orders are flourishing in the newly democratic nation, which earlier this year chose 48-year-old Sali Berisha, a cardiologist of Muslim background, as the first freely elected president in Albanian history.

The Bektashis constitute a liberal offshoot of Shi'a Islam; they follow the teachings of Sheikh Haji Bektash, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Sulejman Dashi, a Tirana architect specialising in the restoration of medieval structures, says Albania's oldest mosque was built in 1380 in the town of Berat, around the time the Ottoman Empire began setting its sights on Albania.

"My father was a Sunni Muslim, and my mother was a Bektashi," the architect said. "When I was a child, we went to the mosque. My grandfather was a devout Muslim and taught us the Koran."

According to Dashi, there are some 800 mosques scattered around Albania, as well as 360 Bektashi holy places or teqes, as they are known locally.

Albania is Europe's only country with a Muslim majority, but for the past 47 years, all religious practice was discouraged and eventually outlawed. In an official census taken in 1945 -- the year after the Communists came to power -- 72% of Albanians said they professed Islam, 17% Orthodox Christianity and 10% Catholicism.

Through the long years under Ottoman rule, prior to World War II and the Communists' victory, many Albanians came to practice the religion of their occupiers, Islam, though others were won over by the Orthodox Church of neighbouring Greece, and still others -- influenced by the Vatican -- chose Roman Catholicism.

Italian historian Renzo Falaschi, in his biography Ismail Kemal: Bey of Vlora, observed: "With their indomitable and adamantine character, the Albanians imposed even more adaptations to Islam than vice-versa," he wrote. "It could be said they (the Albanians) have accepted Bahaism spiritually, Illuminism philosophically and practically, the European nationalism of the 19th century. On the whole, they have created an Islam that has the meditation of the East and the dynamism of the West."

That unusual combination of meditation and dynamism persisted into the early 20th century, when Albania unexpectedly became the world headquarters of the Bektashi order.

"At one time, there were more than 15m Bektashis in the world, mainly in Turkey, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Iraq and Bulgaria," said Baba Reshat Bardhi, whose flowing beard and tasi, or traditional head covering, distinguishes him as leader of the world's Bektashis.

"Our main centre was in Ankara, and our chief was an Albanian from Kolonia, Salih Dedei," said Bardhi. "In 1928, when Kemal Ataturk started his reforms and didn't want us to wear beards or tasi, Salih left Turkey and came to Albania. That's why Tirana became the Bektashi centre of the world."

In fact, until the Communist takeover in 1944, Albania was noted for its religious tolerance. During the Fascist and Nazi occupation of World War II, Albania refused to turn over its 300-member Jewish community to the Germans. Because of the shelter provided by their Muslim and Christian neighbours, only five Albanian Jews perished.

Yet following the Communist victory over the Nazis and the declaration of an Albanian People's Socialist Republic, former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha warned Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic clergymen alike not to preach against his hard-line government, Bektashi leader, Baba Bajram Mahmetaj, confirmed. …

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