Sunday

24th Oct 2021

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

Become an expert on Europe

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.

EU states want more Belarus sanctions

EU heads of state and government on Friday, at a summit in Brussels, demanded more sanctions against Belarus "as a matter of urgency" and want the European Commission to tweak rules governing borders to tackle "state-sponsored smuggling".

Gas price spike exposes rift at EU summit

The first topic leaders discussed at the EU summit were the continent's soaring gas prices, which have lead to a spike in household energy bills - amid widespread disagreement on how to solve the issue.

Poland vows not to give into EU 'blackmail' at summit

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte suggested Poland's Covid-19 recovery money should not be approved until Warsaw respects the rulings of the European Court of Justice and dispels doubts about the independence of its judiciary.

EU vows to uphold Paris climate ambition amid scientists' fears

EU leaders called for an "ambitious global response to climate change" to keep the 1.5 degrees global warming limit within reach - after scientists concluded that the projected global increase in fossil-fuel production for 2030 is inconsistent with this target.

Analysis

Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'

Last October, the European Commission gave an optimistic outlook on the adoption of its migration and asylum pact. EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas said its pact on migration was lowering the landing gear - suggesting agreement was possible.

Opinion

Europe can't ignore Chinese encroachment in Ukraine

China's growing economic footprint in Ukraine may already be producing geopolitical consequences that put the country at odds with core European priorities. Volodymyr Zelensky decided earlier this year to withdraw Ukraine's condemnation of Chinese government crimes against the Uighurs.

News in Brief

  1. Russia's anti-vax campaign backfired, EU says
  2. China angered as MEPs call for Taiwan talks
  3. Emissions from La Palma volcano reach Brussels
  4. Body of eighth victim of Belarus border-crisis found in river
  5. Report: Syrian bank fiddling currency to evade EU sanctions
  6. Nato adopts plan to counter new Russian threats
  7. Alleged killer of British MP 'felt affiliated' to IS
  8. Coronavirus: Belgium returns to 'red' zone

Analysis

Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'

Last October, the European Commission gave an optimistic outlook on the adoption of its migration and asylum pact. EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas said its pact on migration was lowering the landing gear - suggesting agreement was possible.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. EU states want more Belarus sanctions
  2. Gas price spike exposes rift at EU summit
  3. Poland vows not to give into EU 'blackmail' at summit
  4. EU vows to uphold Paris climate ambition amid scientists' fears
  5. Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'
  6. Europe can't ignore Chinese encroachment in Ukraine
  7. Lithuania - where 'biodiversity funding' is cutting down trees
  8. Dutch lawyers take Frontex to EU court over pushbacks

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us