Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

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.

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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.

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