A Survey of Sufism in the Balkans

Sufism: a Channel of Islamic Dissemination in the Ottoman Age

In the Balkans (as is the case in other Muslim lands) the past role of the Sufi tariqats (lineage fraternities) in the safeguarding and promulgation of Islam cannot go without notice. It can be said with all impartiality that the infusing of an Islamic social order in this part of Europe could not have been possible without the efforts of Sufi shaykhs (both past and present) and the fraternities that were formed around them.  The Sufis of the Ottoman Balkans greatly enhance both to the development of an Islam of the intellectual arena as well as a ‘folk’ Islam of the village and countryside. Despite the fact that it has now been reduced to a mere shadow of a once immeasurable expression, the impact of Sufism can still be felt throughout Balkan Islam. The extent of this impression and its function in Muslim society can be seen through the number of tariqats that have operated in the region over the centuries.


The largest and most prevalent of these tariqats during the Ottoman period were the Khalwatiyyah and the Bektashiyyah.  Though unexceptionally represented at present, these two tariqats once dominated the Ottoman Balkans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Naqshbandiyyah, Qadiriyyah and Rifa’iyyah followed them in significance in terms of supporters and dispersal.  Surprisingly all three of these managed to endure to this day with considerable popularity. Several other tariqats, such as the Mawlawiyyah, Bayramiyyah, Malamiyyah, Sa’diyyah, Jalwatiyyah, Shadhiliyyah and Badawiyyah, emerged during a number of stages in the Ottoman era but have died off.


Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Sufis in the Balkans were connected with Ottoman rule, one of the first Sufis to have come into the region was the pre-Ottoman Bektashi holy man Sarı Saltik.  Most of the details of his life are clouded by legend, this 14th century Sufi journeyed throughout the peninsula decades well in advance of Ottoman armed forces. 


Today his maqams (shrines) can be found in any number of places, including Bosnia (Blagaj), Romania (Babadag), Macedonia (near Ohrid), and Albania (Kruja), where the most renowned location is to be found. As the Ottoman armies extended Muslim rule in the Balkans during the 15th and 16th centuries, dervishes of a range of tariqats trailed in their wake.  These early Balkan Sufis frequently set up zawiyahs or hospices that served not only as symbols of Ottoman supremacy over a newly conquered area but as centres for the dissemination of Islam among the local population as well. Two of these distinguished zawiyahs were founded in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo immediately after the conquests of 1463.  Both of these zawiyahs established by shaykhs of the Naqshbandi tariqat and were constructed by means of endowments made by local Ottoman notables.  After a while, as the imperial administration became notably more entrenched and the Islamic religious establishment further developed, tekkes were built to cater to the spiritual needs of the local population.


The first Ottoman Sufis were primarily among the Naqshbandi lineage, and their identified hubs during the 15th-17th centuries were in Bosnia and Macedonia.  Firmly tied to the Sunni ‘ulama, the Naqshbandiyyah were in the forefront in guaranteeing “conventional” Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina and in urban centres throughout the Balkans. There were, furthermore, three distinctive waves of Naqshbandi implantation in the Balkans during the Ottoman period. The initial phase was made owing to several shaykhs who were direct representatives (khalifahs) of Khwajah ‘Ubayd Allah Ahrar.  The noteworthy among them included Mullah ‘Abdullah Ilahi (d.1491), who settled in Serez (Greece), and Shaykh Lutfullah, who established an early Naqshbandi tekke in Skopje.  It is extremely plausible that the earliest Naqshbandi instructors in Bosnia (Uyran Dede and Shemsi Dede to be precise) had some form of connection with the two previously mentioned shaykhs.


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