Thursday

9th Jul 2020

The influence of Sufi Islam in the Balkans

  • The ceremony hall of the Rifaiya brotherhood in Prizren, Kosovo. (Photo: Dan Alexe)

When Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, newspapers carried headlines such as "The birth of the first Islamic state in Europe" and "Muslim fundamentalist mafia obtain a state in Kosovo".

In fact, Islam did not play a role in the Albanian march to independence, either in Kosovo or in Albania when it became independent from the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Contrary to some claims, Islam was not involved in the Kosovar pursuit of liberty because the branch of the religion in Kosovo, as in most of the Balkan region, belongs historically to the tolerant, mystical branch called Sufism. Sufism is still the main form of Islam practised in many parts of the Balkans, especially in Kosovo and Macedonia.

The majority of Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia are Muslim, but a sizeable number of practising believers belong to Sufi brotherhoods. This is a contemplative brand of Islam based on collectives in which the members, called dervishes, practice mystical exercises through which they reach a communal trance.

Even today, in most of Macedonia and the western half of Kosovo, towards the mountainous border with Albania, nearly every village has at least one Sufi brotherhood. Young people are initiated early into the brotherhoods, each of which has its own specific trance ritual.

Sufism also offers a social substitute for the region's Roma population. The majority of Roma in Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and southern Serbia are Muslims and most belong to Sufi brotherhoods. In Macedonia, the brotherhoods are organised in a centralised structure, the Islamic Dervish Religious Community, created immediately after the independence of the country in 1992.

The techniques for attaining a trance differ from one brotherhood to another. Some groups use dance, music or rhythmic movements. All practice an elaborate mechanism of breath control. Each brotherhood is led by a sheik, who usually comes from a long line of sheiks; the role is often hereditary.

Some sheiks still live in a traditional convent or lodge, called a 'teqe' in Albanian (teke in all the other Balkan languages), which is a holy place of pilgrimage where the most important members of the brotherhood are buried. Little towns that observe old traditions, such as Prizren, Gjakova si Peja, have up to five or six tekes.

The brotherhood with the most impressive ritual is undoubtedly the Rifaiya. This is the oldest of all Muslim brotherhoods, having been founded in the 12th century in what is now Iraq. The Rifaiya brotherhood is impressive because of its apparently violent ritual. When reaching a trance, at the peak of the ceremony, dervishes pierce their limbs, body and face with spikes, knives and nails. Amazingly, there is no blood.

The ceremony is very different from Shia bloody flagellations, which can be seen in modern-day Iran and Iraq. Far from presenting a sad and even morbid tinge, as in the case of the Shia, the Rifaiya ceremony is rather exuberant and tends to show the power that dervishes have achieved over their own body. The technique for reaching a state of trance could be described as Muslim yoga.

Sufists are certainly not Islamic fanatics. Albanians in the mountainous 'Sufi belt' of Kosovo, for example, have chased away many of their Roma or Muslim Serb (Gorani) neighbours during the last decade, even though they often belonged to the same Sufi brotherhoods; Muslim solidarity did not play a role here.

Dervishes, who often drink openly, do not go to the mosque and do not say their regular prayers, are actually shunned by the official government-supported Islam. Far from being fundamentalist in the western sense of the word, dervishes are a guarantee against the outside pressure of militant Islam of the Wahhabi type.

Column

The opportunistic peace

This will be the most selfish act in recent economic history. It will burden future generations and by no means make the weakest member states better off.

EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants

The European Commission says it may create a new system to monitor push backs by EU states. The announcement follows weeks of dithering by the commission, which has refrained from condemning abuse by Greek and Croat authorities, despite mounting evidence.

EU forecasts deeper recession, amid recovery funds row

The economies of France, Italy and Spain will contract more then 10-percent this year, according to the latest forecast by the EU executive, as it urges member state governments to strike a deal on the budget and recovery package.

Opinion

Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy

As with the German government – which presented its own hydrogen strategy last month – the European Commission and other EU institutions appear to be similarly intoxicated by the false promises of the gas industry.

Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recorded a video in support of Croatia's ruling party, which the EU executive said was in her "personal capacity" - and admits it was a "mistake" that this was not made clear.

News in Brief

  1. France and Germany warn Israel on annexation 'consequences'
  2. Shipping firms to face EU carbon regime
  3. EU to mediate between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey
  4. EU to unveil arms-trafficking and drug proposals
  5. EU to discuss people-smuggling with African states
  6. 'Torture chamber' found in Dutch sea containers
  7. Commissioner backs under-attack Hungarian news site
  8. New French government tilts to right

Column

The opportunistic peace

This will be the most selfish act in recent economic history. It will burden future generations and by no means make the weakest member states better off.

Opinion

On toppling statues

The internationally-acclaimed author of King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild, writes on Belgium's problems with statues, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. Merkel urges EU unity to hold off economic fallout and populism
  2. The opportunistic peace
  3. EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants
  4. EU forecasts deeper recession, amid recovery funds row
  5. Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy
  6. Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video
  7. Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss
  8. Belarus: Inside Lukashenko’s crackdown on independent voices

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us