Hugh Fitzgerald: Riada Akyol Presents the “Tolerant Islam” of Bosnia (Part One)

Riada Akyol wants Europeans not to worry about the ongoing invasion of Muslims — there are now 44 million of them in Europe — but to take heart from the experience of Bosnia, where, she claims, a “liberal European Islam” developed that could serve as a model for Muslims all over Europe.

What is too little noticed, however, is that a tolerant European Islam has already existed for centuries—on the southeastern part of the continent, where Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Turks, and others see themselves as fully Muslim and fully European. A 2013 Pew Research Center study shows that they’re among the most liberal Muslims in the world. For example, only tiny minorities of surveyed Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, think adulterers must be stoned and apostates executed, in contrast with large majorities in favor of both stances among Pakistani and Egyptian Muslims.

The majority of Bosnians gradually accepted Islam after the Ottomans brought it to the region in the 15th century. They ruled until 1878, when they lost Bosnia to a longtime rival: the Austro-Hungarian empire. Many Bosniaks at that point felt uncomfortable under their new rulers, not least because classic texts of Muslim jurisprudence had banned living in territory ruled by non-Muslims. From 1878 to 1918, an estimated 150,000 emigrated to Turkey.

Why did the “majority of Bosnians” under Ottoman rule “accept” — i.e., convert — to Islam? They did so, as so many non-Muslims did elsewhere, in order to be free of the many onerous conditions, including payment of the Jizyah, that were imposed on non-Muslim dhimmis. The author leaves the piquant subject of the dhimmi out of her telling. In the case of the Ottoman Turks, there was an additional demand made on their Infidel subjects. From the fourteenth century on, the Turks established the devshirme system, whereby in the Balkans, Christian boys, from the ages of 8 to 18,  were delivered up to the Turks, who would then convert them and raise them up to be soldiers for the Sultan. This was another inducement for Christians to convert to Islam, so as to avoid having to hand over their sons in this cruel system..

It is likely that the 150,000 Bosnians who emigrated to Turkey after Bosnia became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were mostly the more fervent Believers, those who did not believe Muslims should continue to live in a country ruled by non-Muslims; those who remained in Bosnia were likely less devout, and more willing to compromise with their new, non-Muslim masters, than those who left.

But prominent Muslim intellectuals voiced arguments that helped stem the tide of Bosniak emigration. Among them was Grand Mufti M. T. Azabagić, who argued in the 1880s that a Muslim can in fact live happily under a tolerant non-Islamic state “where he is neither abused nor insulted for his acts of devotion.” In response, Bosniaks accepted Austro-Hungarian rule and began to organize themselves under the secular state.

In 1882, the official “Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina” was established. The organization’s structure continued to evolve in response to shifting historical circumstances, gradually becoming a body that operated with a degree of independence from the state as it sought to govern Islamic affairs such as spiritual education. Eventually, it had an elected leader and its own religious and legislative bodies. It was self-financed, with much of its income coming from membership fees and charitable donations, and was responsible for maintaining mosques, appointing and training imams, drawing up fatwas, and directing theological studies at various schools. (Even today, it is still in place and very much functioning.)

Another pressing issue at the time was the conscription of young Bosniaks into a non-Muslim army. Could Muslims serve in a military led by Christians? The tension was eased when Mustafa Hilmi Hadžiomerović, then mufti of Sarajevo, issued a fatwa in 1881 calling on Bosniaks to obey the draft. He then issued another fatwa declaring that the appointment of judges by a non-Muslim ruler was valid, which led the Bosnian religious leadership to accept the modernization of Sharia courts and their gradual integration into the Hapsburg state judiciary’s jurisdiction. This was, notably, based on mutual concession, as the Hapsburgs were flexible enough to allow Sharia to operate in the realm of civil law under their rule. (The Sharia courts were abolished in 1946 with the arrival of socialist Yugoslavia.)

In all of these examples, the true explanation for this “moderation” by the Muslims was that they had no choice. They were in no position to refuse to live under non-Muslim rulers, even though many Muslims believed that they were forbidden to live under such rule. To their rescue came the Grand Mufti M. T. Azabagić, who argued in the 1880s — just a few years after the Bosnians became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — that a Muslim can in fact live happily in a tolerant non-Islamic state “where he is neither abused nor insulted for his acts of devotion.” And now that Muslims were drafted to serve in the Christian-led military of the Hapsburgs, a way had to be found to justify their serving. The  fatwa of Mufti Hilmi Hadžiomerović provided that justification. He also issued a fatwa supporting the appointment of judges by the non-Muslim rulers, because there was nothing he could have done to prevent the practice.

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