Bosnia’s ‘Euro-Islam’ on show during Ramadan

9 08 2013

People walk in downtown Sarajevo main square after a sundown prayer. ©AFP

By Rusmir Smajilhodzic

In Bosnia, which prides itself as the home ground of “European Islam”, religious fervor and relaxed joie de vivre live easily side by side, even during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, AFP reports.

While many Sarajevans strictly observe the Ramadan fast, the cafes in the cobbled streets of the Bosnian capital’s Ottoman old town still abound with tourists and locals alike.

Young veiled women walk by, crossing others with hair blowing wildly in the wind, as Bosnians’ beloved beer flows freely — and not just for visitors.

“Bosnian Muslims have lived in a European context, politically and legally, for a century and a half,” since what is modern day Bosnia became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the 19th century, said Dzevad Hodzic, a professor of ethics and philosophy at the Sarajevo Faculty of Islamic Studies.

Apart from a radical fringe, which emerged during the Balkans wars of the 1990s, Bosnian Muslims tend to keep religion a private matter, in line with what has become known as “European Islam” or “Euro-Islam”, he said.

The term, which emerged during the 1990s and is still the subject of debate, generally refers to an Islam where religious duties are held as compatible with so-called “European” values including human rights, rule of law and gender equality.

Some even call it a “made in Europe” Islam that fully embraces separation of church and state, unlike some North African, Middle Eastern or predominantly Muslim countries where Islam is the state religion.

The faith of Bosnian Muslims was forged by “a lay outlook on the world, one that is not opposed to religion but makes a distinction between religion as part of the moral, private, spiritual and family domain, and the state, which is separate from one’s faith,” explained Hodzic.

Islam was repressed here with all other religions during the 1945-1990 communist period. It was given a new impulse, however, during the devastating inter-ethnic war of 1992-95 that pitted Bosnia’s Muslims, majority Orthodox Christian Serbs and traditionally Roman Catholic Croats against each other.


But even during the bloodletting, a cynical joke going around illustrated the relaxed attitude that underlies Bosnians’ approach towards religion.

“How do you recognise a Muslim?” it asked. “He’s the one who does not go to the mosque. Then how do you recognise a Serb? Well, he’s the one who doesn’t go to church”.

The end of communism and the horrors of war did see a “clear re-Islamisation” in Bosnia, noted a French Balkans specialist Xavier Bougarel.

The vast majority of Sarajevo’s residents, 80 percent according to various estimates, are today Muslim, a number far higher than before the 1992-95 conflict — and its demographic consequences — when the city was famously more mixed.

Overall, Muslims represent some 40 percent of the estimated 3.8 million inhabitants of Bosnia. They are mainly Sunnite and usually adhere to the kind of moderate Islam introduced by the Ottomans.

“The tradition of Islam in Bosnia is also strongly influenced by the Sufi brotherhoods, a mystical tradition in Islam known for its tolerance. Sufism holds that religion is a deeply personal experience for everyone,” Hodzic said.

While many Bosnian Muslims flocked to the nearest mosque in the morning for the first of prayer of the day during the fasting month, an equally large number stayed home to pray with their family.

On a typical morning during the holy month, believers gathered in the courtyard of the old Sumbulusa mosque on a hill overlooking Sarajevo.

Before taking off their shoes to enter the building as tradition requires, some turned towards the cemetery where former neighbourhood imams lie buried to recite a quick prayer for the dead, hands turned to the skies.

“This special month triggers wonderful emotions in the faithful, we say here that you should enjoy every Ramadan like it will be the last,” young imam Edin Spahic said.

Far from the contemplation at the Sumbulusa mosque, it was business as usual back at the outdoor cafes and restaurants in downtown Sarajevo.

Many Bosnian Muslims, even if they are not particularly religious, do abstain from drinking alcohol during Ramadan in line with religious precepts. But beer-loving Bosnians tend to catch up both on the Eid al-Fitr feast that marks the end of the fasting month … and the rest of the year.

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