God in Albania
Oliver Jens Schmitt
The religious diversity of the Albanians is the result of a history spanning almost two thousand years, and the empires in which Albanians lived, often playing an important role in the army and administration. Christianity is the oldest of the major religions. At the time of Christ's birth, the present territory of Albania had already been part of the Roman Empire for about one and a half centuries. The south-eastern Adriatic acquired by the Roman Empire was of outstanding strategic importance. The Via Egnatia started from Dyrrachium now Durrës. This military road was the extension of the Via Appia, which connected Rome with the port of Brindisi. From Dyrrachium the road passed through the Balkans to the Bosphorus. In other words, Albania was located on a major traffic artery of the empire. The region was rich in flourishing cities and was one of the core areas of the empire. From the 3rd century AD onwards, the Empire recruited more and more soldiers from its Balkan provinces, and the proportion of men in the Empire's political and military elite from the so-called Illyricum, i.e. the Western Balkans, increased significantly. The territory and its inhabitants were firmly integrated into the empire and its culture. The ancestors of today's Albanians were anything but an isolated mountain people.
This community, known by researchers as Proto-Albanians, lived in that part of the Balkans where Latin was used as the administrative language. The proportion of Latin loan words in Albanian is therefore very high. and it was in the area of the Latin-administered part of the Balkans (today's Northern Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Southern Serbia) that the Proto-Albanians came into contact with Christianity. The Albanian language provides evidence of this: shpirt from spiritus, spirit; shejnt from sanctus, holy; grigj from grex, flock, are examples showing that the ancient Albanians celebrated worship in Latin, and not in Greek, which was the liturgical language in the south-eastern Balkans and generally used in the east of the empire. From the early 4th century Christianity became the dominant faith, and from the late 4th century the emperors raised it to the status of state religion. The Proto-Albanians, as well integrated inhabitants of the empire, followed this change, even though older forms of belief were kept alongside the new state religion, as elsewhere in Europe.
In Roman times the ancient area settled by Albanians was covered by a comprehensive system of dioceses, whose main focus was in the cities. Here the governor, as representative of the emperor, and the local bishop resided side by side. Together they formed the backbone of Roman rule and culture. This system was however severely shaken by the immigration of Slavs. From the middle of the 6th century onwards, these gradually destroyed the Roman settlement system, as can be seen from the ruins of numerous Christian basilicas throughout the south-western Balkans. Whilst in the west of the Roman Empire Germanic warrior groups suppressed Roman rule, the Church survived and gradually assimilated the conquerors and immigrants. By contrast the Slavs in the Balkans destroyed secular rule and the Church. In doing so, they also destroyed the previously highly developed written culture and every structured authority. Only outposts on the coast like Dyrrachium were not conquered by the Slavs. The Proto-Albanian population partially withdrew into the mountains and continued their life there at a highly developed cultural level. They adapted to the climatic conditions often by cattle breeding, as the excavations of the ruined city of Dalmace in the mountains of Central Albania prove. In many places, however, there was a close mingling with the new Slavic settlers. In the south of today's Albania, where Slavs had founded many new villages, whose names are still a reminder of this influx, the Slavs became “Albanianised” over many centuries and have therefore disappeared except for small settlement islands in today's south-east Albania.
Due to the Slavic migration, Christianity had suffered the most serious damage away from the coast. Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, controlled only individual ports until around the middle of the 9th century. But the empire radiated into the hinterland, where its superior material culture found welcoming recipients. Excavations in Lezha, show for example, how different warrior groups have replaced each other as rulers since late antiquity, but also show how the orientation towards the Adriatic Sea has not been interrupted. The cultural and political offensive launched by Byzantium in the second half of the 9th century, which would be of great importance for the Albanian-populated south-western Balkans, was based on these outposts and their areas of influence. In order to integrate the Slavic population of the Balkans, Byzantium had its own new mission language, Church Slavonic, and its own mission alphabet, Glagolitic, developed by the two missionaries Cyril and Method. The Glagolitic alphabet was soon replaced by a simpler script, the Cyrillic alphabet. It was nothing other than the re-christianisation of large parts of the Balkans. In this undertaking, which was not purely religious but also highly political, the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperor collided with the Papacy in Rome.
Tensions had arisen between Rome and Constantinople more than a hundred years earlier. After the end of the Roman Imperial Rule in the West 476AD, it was only the Pope who continued to represent the principles of the Roman Empire. In this power vacuum, the Emperor of Byzantium, Leon III, withdrew Illyricum, i.e. the Western Balkans, from Rome's canonical control in 732AD and placed it under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This meant little in real political terms at the time, as neither Rome nor Constantinople had access to the territories away from the narrow coastal strip. In the long term, however, Byzantium wanted to transfer the whole area that until then had been under the authority of the church of Rome, into its sphere of power and culture. This had drastic consequences for the Albanians because they lived exactly on the dividing line that opened up between the political, ecclesiastical and cultural centres of the Christian West and East. The divergence of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches had little to do with questions of church doctrine - Rome and Constantinople were more interested in bringing the Balkans back into a Mediterranean state of affairs after centuries of pagan Slavic settlement.
The fact that there are Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Albania cannot simply be explained by a general differentiation between the two churches as institutions of power; the land inhabited by the Albanians was rather an epicentre of this world historical development. While the north of present-day Albania, especially the Shkodra region, developed into the southernmost outpost of Adriatic Catholic culture, with numerous dioceses and towns with their own municipal constitution, Orthodoxy prevailed in most of the Albanian-populated Balkans However, this consisted of two separate linguistic cultures. The liturgy was celebrated in the immediate vicinity of Byzantium in Greek. However, it was celebrated in Church Slavonic in the regions which belonged to the Bulgarian Empire, which became Christian in 864-5. Until the beginning of the 11th century, however, the Bulgarian Empire controlled the inner Balkans. In addition, from the late 9th century Ochrid became an important centre of Church Slavic culture. Translations of Greek theological literature were produced in Ochrid. From Ochrid, the Church Slavonic culture was also spread westwards to what is now southern Albania. Along the Via Egnatia, two Orthodox varieties now met, in Greek and Church-Slavonic, while Adriatic-Latin elements were transmitted via the port of Dyrrachium. South of the Via Egnatia, a trinity of written languages (Greek, Church Slavonic, Latin) gradually developed, while Albanian was only used orally.
From the end of the 11th century on, the political contrast between Byzantium and the Italian Adrianarainers, especially the Normans in southern Italy, intensified. Until the middle of the 15th century, the kings of southern Italy, Normans, Staufers, Angevins and Aragonese, tried to gain a foothold in Albania, and from there to conquer the Balkans, with Constantinople as their destination. Indeed Byzantines and Normans fought fierce battles between the First Crusade in 1096 and a Norman invasion in 1185, but these were motivated by power politics and not by religion. The Crusades, some of which also touched Albanian territory, intensified the alienation between the Western and Eastern Churches and between Catholic and Orthodox Europe, which had been deepening since the 8th century. It was when Crusaders conquered Constantinople in 1204 that the lowest point was reached in the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. But anyone who thinks that in this context Albania experienced a "clash of civilizations" is mistaken. Byzantium and, after 1204, the Orthodox Despotate of Epiros, Naples and Venice were in contention for control of the Albanian coast; but this was not in the sense of a religious war. The regional Albanian noble families became used to adjusting to the unstable political situation by adopting the rites of the strongest. Switching back and forth between the Orthodox and Catholic churches cannot therefore be seen as "betrayal", but only as a reaction to competing great power pretensions. In the late Middle Ages, an aristocratic culture developed in Albania, which adopted different creeds. Documents were written in many languages (Latin, Greek, Church Slavonic, Venetian), the transitions between creeds and between written languages were fluid, especially in Central Albania. The north, on the other hand, remained predominantly Catholic, while the south was under the influence of Byzantine church culture in Greek. The switching back and forth between creeds can be clearly seen in the archbishopric of Dyrrachium, where, depending on the balance of power, there was sometimes an Orthodox and sometimes a Catholic archbishop. When the city became part of Venice in 1392, the Catholic option prevailed for about a hundred years, until the Ottomans took the port in 1501.
This coexistence of two large Christian churches thus characterizes Albania and its elites on the verge of the Ottoman conquest. This is illustrated by a historical detail. In the wake of the Ottoman threat, the Orthodox Church formed a union with the Roman Church at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439, recognising the Pope as Head of the Church. As a result, Uniate Churches were established in areas where the population was Orthodox, but the political rule was Catholic. This mainly concerned Venetian provinces on the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. And so, in the mountains west of Lake Scutari (Shkodra) the short-lived unified archbishopric of Krajina came into being, while elsewhere the Orthodox population firmly rejected the church union. A small Albanian community, however, had shown how skilfully the local elite was able to adapt to major changes in power politics.
Although Christianity came to the Albanians in two waves, first in Roman times and then again in the 9th century, each time as the religion of the empires of Rome and Byzantium. It was spread by peaceful mission even before any state policy. Islam, however, would probably not have reached the Albanians without the Ottoman conquest. As in other parts of the world, Islam established itself through military conquest. Here too, Albania offers a special religious-historical feature. Nowhere in the Balkans were the Ottomans met with such resolute resistance and nowhere were the devastations wrought by the conquerors worse than in parts of the areas inhabited by Albanians. But nowhere in the Balkans have more people converted to Islam than in these areas.
Although Albanians in the Balkans are now a multifaith society, the vast majority belong to Islam. This is particularly true for the Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, i.e. Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and southern Serbia. How should we explain this contrast? The Ottomans had already advanced into Albania thirty years after they had first gained a foothold in Europe in 1385. In this the Via Egnatia was of great importance. As early as 1417 the Ottomans had conquered large parts of what is now Albania and organized it as the province of Sancak-i Arvanid. Thirteen years later they had control of almost all Albania apart from the Venetian bases around Durrës, Lezha and Shkodra.
But this rapid success was deceptive, for as soon as the Ottomans began to collect taxes and enforce their legal system, parts of the Albanian nobility revolted, first in 1433-1436, then from 1443 under a charismatic leader, George Kastriota, called Skanderbeg. Under Skanderbeg, parts of Albania became the scene of a bitter struggle with the Ottomans. What was it about? Skanderbeg himself came from a small noble family from Dibra, where the Albanian, Slavic and Vlach (Balkan-Roman) worlds met; his father had donated a watchtower to the Orthodox Serbian monastery of Hilandar, and Skanderbeg's brother was to die as a monk in that monastery. The Kastriota family was thus associated with the Balkan-Slavic Orthodoxy. After the defeat of his father, the young George Kastriota, like many other Balkan aristocratic sons, had to go to the Ottoman court as a hostage. There he converted to Islam, most likely influenced by the Dervishes, Islamic mystics. The Dervishes played a major role in the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, especially in the Ottoman army. As an Ottoman officer, Skanderbeg took part in campaigns in Serbia and Transylvania. However, in 1443 he and other officers rose up against the Sultan when a Crusader army advanced into the inner Balkans in conflict with the Ottomans. In Albania several nobles joined the uprising.
The motives were complex. As in 1433, most nobles fought against the centralisation of power by the sultans, they refused to lose control of their country and their followers. Skanderbeg also had a personal motive to avenge his father, who had been killed by the sultan. Religious reasons hardly seem to have played a role for Skanderbeg personally - an envoy of Skanderbeg even explained to the Pope, in 1454, one year after the fall of Constantinople, that his master was fighting "not for faith, but for revenge". Religion, however, formed an essential separation between the insurgents and the Ottomans. Only Christians fought on Skanderbeg’s side. Their symbol was the Byzantine imperial eagle, which today adorns the Albanian state flag. They were opposed by Muslims, but also by Orthodox Christians, who served in the Ottoman army. For the Catholic Church it was primarily a religious war against the advance of Islam.
The insurrection soon lost support when Skanderbeg wanted to increase his power at the expense of other nobles. He was therefore forced to seek help from outside. The most stable supporter proved to be the Catholic Church in Albania, above all the Archbishop of Durrës, but also the Popes in Rome. The Humanist Pope Pius II planned to crown Skanderbeg as king of a newly established Catholic kingdom of Albania. This meant that Skanderbeg had entered the world of political Catholicism. The reasons are obvious: The Orthodox Church did not support his rebellion, and the Byzantine part of Albania remained quiet. After all, in 1453 the Patriarchate of Constantinople had sought a conciliation with Sultan Mehmed II. There were no strong Christian neighbouring states to provide assistance. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, was the institution that permanently opposed the Ottomans. For centuries the Papacy supported armed resistance against the Sultans. Skanderbeg knew the Ottoman system of power from within and therefore, unlike many orthodox Balkan princes, rejected the sultan's offer to rule his own principality as a vassal. Unlike the Serbian despots (which was the title of the Serbian princes), he opted for unconditional resistance.
Between 1466 and 1479 the conflict between Catholic Albania and the Ottoman Empire led to the almost complete devastation by the Ottomans of the areas that resisted them. In Dibra and Mati the majority of the population was killed or taken into slavery. The defenders of Drisht, the heart of Catholic culture in northern Albania, famous for its Latin school and highly educated priests, were massacred by the Ottomans outside the walls of Shkodra. When Shkodra, capital of Venetian-controlled Albania, was forced to open its gates in 1479 on the orders of Venice, which had made peace with the Ottomans, the Sultan gave the survivors of the siege a choice: to leave freely or to remain, accepting the new rule. The Shkodrans, who had fought for years for the Republic of St Mark, emigrated en bloc to Venice, from where the sons of the survivors in the Venetian army and the Venetian fleet continued the fight against the Ottomans. But Shkodra was repopulated by Muslims. A real population exchange had taken place, accompanied by a radical cultural-religious change. The capital of the Adriatic-Catholic culture of Albania had become a Muslim city, from which the new Ottoman rule controlled the mountains.
To what extent did the Ottoman conquest of the Albanian area mean a disruption? Indeed, the regional differences were considerable, and these differences determined Albanian history for centuries to come. It was precisely those regions that had resisted the Ottomans most fiercely, namely central Albania (Mati, Dibra) and parts of northern Albania, that became most heavily Islamised, while the predominantly orthodox south was less affected by the extensive devastation - the Ottoman conquest had ended here earlier.
With the exception of Shkodra, the conquest did not result in mass Islamisation, so there was no major change immediately following the conquest. The majority of Albanians remained Christian until the 17th century, with most Christians being Orthodox, according to the Greek rite in southern Albania, and Slavic (Serbian) in the north-east (Kosovo and adjacent areas). The conquest did not change the ethnic structure either, because unlike Thrace or Bulgaria, no Turkish settlers and nomads from Anatolia entered the country.
The Ottomans in Albania were generally Albanians themselves who had converted to Islam. Therefore, one cannot identify a Turkish invasion although this may have been the case towards the end of the 14th century when ethnic Turks played an important role in the Ottoman army. In the age of Skanderbeg, however, Muslim Albanians and their regional Orthodox auxiliary troops fought against the Christian Albanians belonging to Skanderbeg. Many of Skanderbeg’s most important and dangerous opponents were not ethnic Turks but Albanians who had defected to the Ottomans and adopted Islam. Balaban Bey, who almost defeated Skanderbeg, was even a former farmer of Skanderbeg's father. This suggests that there were also social reasons for the conversion to Islam.
The Ottoman conquest, however, changed the settlement structure of Albania. The southern Italian Arbëresh cultivated a consciously Christian identity, and Skanderbeg's fight against the Ottomans formed a true founding myth of the community. The Albanians of Venice also associated themselves with the defensive war against the Ottomans, as the relief on the Scuola degli Albanesi, the seat of the Albanian Community, shows. Important, mostly Catholic cities in the Shkodra region were destroyed or seriously affected. Many people, especially in Northern Albania, withdrew to the mountains and formed tribes there. The cities on the plains, in particular, were subject to radical change: old centres such as Durrës disappeared or declined to villages, in their place, new Islamic-influenced cities emerged, above all the Elbasan founded by Mehmed II. These were alongside previously insignificant places such as Kavaja or Tirana. In the south, on the other hand, there was no such demographic change, neither decay nor the founding of new cities, nor mass exodus abroad or into the mountains.
Until around 1600 most Albanians belonged to one of the two Christian churches. The Catholic community was severely shaken by the consequences of the war and its bishops had to move from the cities to the countryside. Because the Catholic Church appeared to the Ottomans to be a politically threatening organization, the secular and religious clergy came under considerable pressure. As in Bosnia, the monasteries, especially the Franciscans, held their ground, while the isolated village priests had a hard time. From 1622 the Congregatio de propaganda fide in Rome was in charge of the Albanian Catholics. The numerous reports of spiritual inspectors to the Propaganda represent one of the most important sources of Albanian history in that period. They tell of a thinned-out network of priests, the decline in the education of the clergy and the precarious situation of Catholics in relation to the regional Muslim rulers.
Nevertheless, Catholic clergy occupied an outstanding position in the cultivation of the Albanian language and culture even though the Ottoman conquest had put an end to Catholic-Adriatic humanism. Skanderbeg's biographer, the Shkodran priest Marinus Barletius, renowned throughout Europe, had his works published in Italy. Catholic Albanians continued to attend educational institutions in Italy and were therefore closely attached to Catholic Europe. In the Balkans there were particularly close ties with the Bosnian Catholics, not least through the Franciscan order which was strong in both Bosnia and Albania.
It was in the Catholic environment that a sentence was first written down in Albanian (a baptismal formula from 1462), and by the 17th century Albanian flourished as a written language, cultivated by Catholic clergy. The 1555 printed missal by Gjon Buzuku is the first comprehensive text in the Albanian language. This emerging North Albanian written language (Gheg) was developed in the 17th century by other Catholic priests, Pjetër Budi or Pjetër Bogdani. It is no coincidence that both were also politically active and supported uprisings against the Ottomans. These men stood up for Arbëria, the Christian Albania of the Middle Ages, for the promotion of the Albanian language in the Catholic environment and for the armed struggle against the Ottomans. Ottomans who, for them, were simply Islamised Albanians, in 1689 the future for this movement collapsed when the Ottomans crushed the great Christian uprising, led by archbishop Bogdani in Kosovo. The Catholic Church did not recover from this heavy Ottoman repression for a long time.
Catholics were concentrated in the mountains of central and northern Albania, in the territories of Catholic groups and associations such as the Mirdita - in the centre of which, in Orosh, there was an important Franciscan abbey, whose church was also symbolic of the survival of the Catholic culture of the Arbëria, once predominant in the north. The abbey was destroyed by the communists in 1967, but the church was rebuilt after the fall of the communist regime.
The Orthodox Albanians belonged, as shown, to two different Orthodox liturgical areas. In the north-east, the Orthodox Church had its centre in the Patriarchate of Peć / Peja, re-established in 1557. The autocephalous (autonomous) archbishopric in Ochrid was responsible for the Albanians in the south and southeast (in today's northern Macedonia), whose clergy in the Ottoman period was strongly Greek influenced. While Albanians and Slavs/Serbs belonged to the Orthodox area in the east, the Orthodox community in the south was more ethnically diverse. In addition to Albanians, the Orthodox community there also included Greeks, Vlachs/Aromuns and Macedo-Bulgarians, these particularly in today's northern Macedonia.
Until the 19th century linguistic contrasts hardly played a role. On the contrary, Orthodoxy offered a broad roof under which the Orthodox Albanians moved in close cultural and social interaction with the other Orthodox Christians of the region. As a consequence, within the religious community, language was hardly considered when choosing a spouse, but religion was an important factor, notably in the Albanian south. The transitions between the languages were therefore fluid. Between the 16th and the early 19th century, Orthodox culture flourished especially in the south: Churches and monasteries were built. In the area of Gjirokastër, the art of icons and frescoes was cultivated, and around the middle of the 18th century in the Aromanian merchant town of Voskopoja/Moschopolis there even existed for a short time a printing house producing books in the regional languages of Orthodoxy.
Whereas the Catholic world was linked to Italy and the Catholics of Dalmatia and Bosnia, the Albanian Orthodox Christians migrated eastwards and founded new villages in what is now Bulgaria. Then, at the end of the 18th century, Orthodox Albanians migrated to what is now southern Ukraine, which had just been conquered by Russia. Within the Ottoman Empire Orthodox Albanians also settled in the ports of Asia Minor and especially in Egypt. Whilst the Catholics had to bear the consequences of Ottoman defeats by Venice and the Habsburg Empire, the pressure of the Ottomans on the Orthodox Church increased with each Russian victory. Since the beginning of the 18th century the Russians had advanced gradually, and with increasing success, against the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 18th century, Orthodox itinerant preachers such as Kosmas Aitolos tried to separate the Orthodox Christians especially from Catholics and Jews. At the end of the 18th century a distinctly anti-Western attitude in Orthodoxy perceived pernicious Western influences originating from both Rome and the French Revolution. Kosmas also propagated Greek as the language of Orthodoxy - in his view Albanian was the language of the Muslims.
The solidarity of the Orthodox Church was proved when an Orthodox uprising broke out against the Ottomans in southern Greece in 1821, a war that ended in 1830 with the foundation of the modern Greek state. Albanians fought on all sides. Orthodox Albanians, so-called Arvanites, fought in the front line against the Ottomans - but these were usually Muslim Albanians, supported by Catholic warriors from Central Albania who served in the Ottoman army. Religion rather than language determined loyalty, and Muslim shqiptar were in conflict with Orthodox Arvanites, who spoke Albanian but considered themselves politically Greek and culturally Orthodox.
The majority of Albanians converted to Islam between the 15th and the beginning of the 20th century. The mere fact that this process lasted more than 400 years shows that one should be wary of any generalisations about the process and motives. Islamisation can only be understood if one differentiates between regions, epochs and social groups. In a first phase (15th-16th century), members of the elite and parts of the urban population converted to Islam. In this way they tried to secure their possessions and adapt to a new imperial system. Indeed, many of the Islamised Albanians soon rose to high positions in the army and administration. Islamised Albanians fought on all fronts of the expanding world empire, from the Hungarian border to the steppes of Ukraine, in the Caucasus and in the Arab regions. Dozens of Albanians served as grand viziers, even more as generals. In the Ottoman Balkans, “Arnaut” was synonymous with “soldier” or “policeman”. In the Balkans, Muslim Albanians formed the backbone of Ottoman rule alongside the Islamised Bosnians and ensured that the Christian majority of the population was kept in check. In this Muslim environment there was close contact between Slavs and Albanians, which is reflected for example in Kreshnik songs. The cohesiveness of the Bosnian-Albanian community under the Islamic umbrella may be compared to similar ties between Albanian, Dalmatian and Bosnian Catholics.
In the cities, the guilds (esnaf) played a significant role in the process of Islamisation. A driving force behind this was rural immigrants who wanted to be integrated into the new setting. The regional differences, however, were great. In the east (today's Kosovo and Northern Macedonia) Islamisation progressed more rapidly than in the Orthodox south, where, even in the late 16th century, hardly any Muslims lived in important cities. In rural areas, Islam hardly penetrated where established churches existed.
The coexistence of a small, mainly urban stratum of Muslims in the middle of a Christian majority changed in the 17th century. At that time, the pressures of taxation on Christian farmers grew massively. In addition to an already increased tax burden for Christians, they now had to bear numerous special taxes. The Ottomans had raised these because of their expensive wars against Christian states which involved heavy losses. Coupled with the effects of the so-called Little Ice Age, these taxes threatened the existence of Christian farmers - but conversion to Islam immediately alleviated this problem, as Muslims were fiscally privileged. Becoming Muslim simply meant switching to a more favourable tax category, i.e. paying less tax. The legal discrimination against Christians in courts dominated by Muslims also motivated many people to change their faith. In courts the adoption of Islam improved one’s chances of success against a Muslim, but even more so against Christian opponents.
This structural discrimination against Christians in the Ottoman Empire was a driver of Islamisation. But the tax crisis of the 17th century also coincided with increasing influence of a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam, the so-called Kadızadeli, which had been strong since the end of the 16th century and whose rigorous approach took action not only against Christians, but also against Islamic dervish orders. They also propagated religious war against Christian states. Islamic fundamentalism and fiscal pressure induced many Christians to change their faith. The failed uprising of 1689 and Muslim reaction to Russian victories against the Ottomans in the 18th century reinforced the trend to Islamisation. After a defeat, Muslims often took revenge on the local Christian population. Nevertheless, in the Gjirokastër region, for example, it appears that a Muslim majority only emerged at the beginning of the 19th century.
By the middle of the 19th century, a religious landscape had developed in which clear Muslim majorities existed in an area of central Albania (Mati, Dibra, Skanderbeg's former core area) and in the north-eastern part of Gegëria (Kosovo, present-day southern Serbia, northern Macedonia). In the north, a Sunni-Catholic mixed zone had developed, while in the south the situation was even more complex as Orthodox, Sunnis and members of the dervish order of the Bektashi lived side by side. Around 1700, the increasing Islamisation of the Albanians also had far-reaching consequences for the self-image of the Albanians, because only since then has “shqiptar” appeared as a proper name, and Shqipëria replaced the old Christian Arbëria. Shqipëria inhabited by shqiptar was the face of the new Muslim majority world. Meanwhile the concept and also the idea of Christian Arbëria slowly disappeared even in the Christian communities. Only the Orthodox and Uniate Albanians in Greece and Italy retained the old self-designation (as Arbëresh or Arvanites). Such a change in the self-designation of a large language group is a highly unusual phenomenon in modern times when compared to other European countries and shows how deeply Islamisation had changed Albanian society.
Sources repeatedly point to pressure to change faith in times of Ottoman weakness. As a whole, Islamisation only came to an end with the collapse of Ottoman rule. The Empire and its Sunni supporting elites had lost their self-confidence. In regions such as Kosovo, Christians were still forced to accept Islam by force of arms even in the 19th century. Numerous reports prove what a French diplomat put in a nutshell: “In the Ottoman Empire, Islam was the religion of the masters, Christianity was that of the slaves.”
This balance of power also gave rise to the phenomenon of crypto-Christians, i.e. people who publicly appeared as Muslims and claimed their privileges, but secretly remained Christians. There were such clandestine Christians in southern Albania, and also in the Black Mountains of Skopje (on the border between Kosovo and northern Macedonia). The Catholic Church urged them to publicly profess Christianity, which would be a suicidal act in a society where converting from Islam to Christianity was punishable by death. As late as the 1840s, crypto-Christians from Kosovo who had professed their Christian faith were deported to Anatolia. In retrospect, the number and significance of crypto-Christians has often been overestimated, including their uniqueness, crypto-Christians also existed among the Greeks on the Turkish Black Sea coast.
Islam, however, was not a unified block in the Albanian Balkans. It had been brought into the region in the late Middle Ages mainly by Dervishes, who played a key role in the Ottoman army. Several orders of Islamic mystics spread throughout the Balkans. While older research wanted to distinguish between an Islam of the mosque (Sunni, loyal to the sultan) and that of the teqe (community house of dervishes, tending to be heterodox), today it is assumed that the vast majority of dervish orders were part of Sunni Islam. However, this does not apply to the Dervish Order, which established one of its most important centres in the Albanian region. The Bektashi, whose origins lie in 13th century Anatolia. In their case Shiite influences are clearly visible: Allah, Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali are worshipped as a kind of trinity. The Bektashi also differ from Sunni practices in their rites (tolerance of alcohol and pork, tolerance of unveiled women, little attention to fasting and the prayers prescribed for Sunnis). Some of their customs are Christian-influenced such as making the sign of the cross as a gesture of worship. There is also a form of confession with absolution. The Bektashi were closely associated with the Janissaries, originally an elite force of the army, later a military caste interwoven with merchants and craftsmen. In 1826 the Ottoman Empire dissolved the Janissaries by force and also took action against the Bektashi, as they were seen as being in religious and political opposition to a sultan who, as caliph, also considered himself the head of all Sunni Muslims.
In the 19th century the balance of power between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans increasingly changed. In 1815 and 1830 Christian states were founded in Serbia and Greece. In 1878 the Ottoman rule in Bosnia collapsed and Serbia, Montenegro and Romania became sovereign national states. Bulgaria became autonomous. The Albanian populated regions in the Balkans thus were adjacent to expanding Orthodox national states. Albanian Christians were deeply impressed by this change in the balance of power, while Albanian Muslims were very unsettled. It is no coincidence that groups who distanced themselves from the Ottoman Empire and its Sunni elite were among the first to develop the idea of a modern Albanian nation. It is not that the Sunnis lacked an Albanian identity - their understanding of themselves was based on Albanian customary law, self-government, the Albanian language, Sunni Islam and all the privileges of Muslims vis-à-vis the Christian population. All these were evident in everyday life. Sunni Albanians remained loyal to the Sultan as long as the Sultan did not interfere in their regional interests. Nevertheless, they fiercely resisted the Ottoman reform policies of the Tanzimat period (1839-1876), obstructing those reforms that sought to improve the position of Christians in order to stabilize Ottoman rule in the Balkans. The Albanian national movement that emerged in the 19th century was primarily supported by Christians and Bektashi. They faced a host of questions: How to convince the privileged Sunnis that a nation based on a common language was more important than the Umma, the Sunni community of believers? How could Sunnis be persuaded to accept Christians as equal simply because they spoke the same language? How were Christians to be persuaded to abandon their distrust of the dominant Sunnis? Why should Orthodox Christians give up their strong ties with Greece in favour of an Albanian nation based on language and an identity, which would be predominantly Muslim? When Pashko Vasa, a Catholic Christian in the Ottoman administrative service, proclaimed around 1880 that the religion of the Albanian was Albanianism, this corresponded to a political wish, but hardly to reality. It was not until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans during the Balkan Wars (1912) and the threatened division of the Albanian territory between Greece, Serbia and Montenegro that Albanian Muslims and Christians were brought together in a political community to determine their destiny.
It was the responsibility of the Albanian state, founded in 1912, to answer the questions outlined above. Albania was the only majority Muslim state in Europe. The old Sunni imperial context of the Ottoman Empire no longer existed. As a successor state under Kemal Atatürk, Turkey chose the path of Westernisation and secularisation. In Ankara, the new Turkish capital, conservative Albanian Muslims no longer had the support they once possessed at the Caliph's seat in Istanbul. The sultan caliph no longer existed. From a privileged imperial majority, Albania's Sunnis had become a group that without the solidarity of Christian Albanians would have come under serious threat .
The achievements of the 20th century in Albania were quite unique in the Islamic world. As early as 1908, a congress of national activists had decided to use the Latin alphabet for the Albanian language. They achieved this in the face of bitter resistance from conservative Sunnis and the Ottoman administration. The Albanians were the first majority Muslim people to abandon the Arabic alphabet in favour of the Latin. They did this several years before the Turks. Much more significant was the fact that the Albanian state, before 1945, had already succeeded in gradually dismantling mistrust and interreligious prejudices. Under Head of State and later King, Ahmed Zogu (1924-1939), the state gradually brought religious communities under its control. Islam was carefully reformed, for example by building concrete mosques and unveiling women, which, unlike in Turkey, was done without pressure. After the abolition of the Dervish orders in Kemalist Turkey, Albania became the world centre of the Bektashi.
But Sunnis, especially large landowners, dominated the new state, and Catholics and Orthodox Christians only gradually gave up their distrust of this elite; whilst at the same time the Orthodox Church loosened its ties with Greece. The creation of an autocephalous Orthodox Church recognized after some hesitation, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1937, marked the end of the national and institutional independence of Albanian Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, before the Italian invasion (1939), the construction of a nation based on language and culture in a country with four religious communities was still under way.
In 1944, communist partisans came to power after a civil war in Albania. They had their main focus in the south, and their ranks included many from the Orthodox community, including Aromanians and Macedonians. The Communists largely owed their victory to the support of Yugoslav partisan leader Josip Broz Tito. Like Tito, Albania's new strong man, Enver Hoxha, was a convinced Stalinist. In order to secure his power, he used great violence against the Catholic Church as early as 1945. Just like the sultans, Stalin knew that Catholicism as a world religion was a threat to his own power. Catholic clerics were persecuted, often brutally tortured, imprisoned in camps or executed. The Catholic culture flourishing in the north of Albania, which, had for centuries decisively promoted Albanian culture, was badly hit. Amongst many, it is worth mentioning At Zef Pllumi, who spent thirty years in communist labour camps and continued his work as an intellectual after his release in 1989 with the fall of communism. But today he is not even mentioned in the official Albanian National Encyclopaedia. The damnatio memoriae, which militant communists imposed on everything Catholic, continues in part in modern Albania.
Although the other religious communities were put under pressure after 1945, they seemed far less dangerous to the communist regime. This changed in 1967, when a violent campaign against all religions began and shortly afterwards Albania declared itself the first (and only) officially atheist state in the world. The authorities took radical action against religion and worship, desecrating and secularizing places of worship, harassing clergy and imprisoning them in camps. The extreme surveillance state tried to eradicate religious traditions even within families. Marxism-Leninism, and above all a pronounced xenophobic nationalism, was supposed to serve as a civil religion. The reasons for this atheist policy are manifold. On the one hand, Bolshevik hostility to religion was significant, on the other hand, the aim was to build a homogeneous nation. The previously often cited influence of the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China is, however, considered by modern research to be minor. Dictator Enver Hoxha kept the reins and steered the atheism campaign from above.
The masterminds of the national movement had called for the overcoming of religious dividing lines to create a nation based on language and culture and this should now be implemented with absolute consistency and with the full use of state force. This enforcement was also evident in new first names: here, new creations (after Illyrian rulers of antiquity, rivers, mountains, communist new creations such as Proletar or Marenglen, from Marx-Engels-Lenin) were to lead to the disappearance of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox naming traditions. At present we know very little whether, and to what extent people were secretly preserving religious traditions despite all the surveillance. This radical assault on religion nevertheless strengthened an Albanian national identity, which now came much closer to what Pashko Vasa once wanted.
When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, the world looked at Albania wondering what would become of the officially atheist state? No sooner had the ban on religion been lifted than a religious life emerged again, it blossomed wildly. The large religious communities returned and started to compete with each other, as evidenced by the construction of numerous mosques and churches, most of which were financed from abroad. In the capital Tirana, Catholics, Orthodox and, more recently, Sunnis have built large houses of worship in order to make their claim to power architecturally visible. The large mosque under construction in Tirana, for example, is one of the prestige projects of the Neo-Ottoman foreign policy of the current authoritarian regime in Turkey. Greece and Greek donors have long supported the construction of Orthodox churches. The Vatican has supported the Catholic Church in Albania with great vigour. Foreign donor states and organizations have assisted numerous Albanians with scholarships and apprenticeships. Among the Muslim states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran competed with each other. Thirty years after the end of atheism, there is a new clerical elite among the traditional religions in Albania, with experience, and often funding, from abroad.
Official Albania, which defines itself in the constitution as secular, tries to maintain relations with both East and West. When Albania joined the Conference on Islamic Cooperation in 1992, it attracted considerable attention. Looking to the West, the official Albania, however, likes to refer to Skanderbeg and the tradition of a multi-religious society. After 1991 the opening up of Albania brought new trends into the country. On the one hand neo-Protestant groups, which proselytized in many countries of the former Eastern Bloc but were a novelty in Albania; on the other hand, there were radical Islamists who had been educated in the Islamic world and questioned national symbolic figures such as Skanderbeg and Mother Theresa.
After long hesitation, the state included religious affiliation in a statistical referendum, but this was boycotted by parts of the population. Traditionally there were 70% Muslims - 20% Orthodox - 10% Catholics. In 2011 58.79% declared themselves as Muslims (of which 2.09% as Bektashi), 16.99% as Christians (of which 10.03% Catholics, but only 6.75% as Orthodox); 2.5% declared themselves as atheists, 13.79% as agnostic, and 5.49% as “believers” without further classification. These figures are difficult to interpret but one result of communist religious policy is evident, as are the effects of close contact with the strongly secular Western Europe into which many Albanians emigrated after 1991. For many people religion is not a primary reference point in their lives. Albania, treated for a long time as a special case, is approaching the European average here. When politicians use religion for identity politics or to gain foreign policy advantages, this has only limited relevance to social realities. The result is a wide spectrum spread between deeply religious people and religious officials (for whom religion is partly a business) on the one hand and religiously indifferent people plus a small atheistic group on the other. A spectrum that is certainly not specific to Albania. Nation building involving the overcoming of religious differences succeeded in the 20th century and is still supported by the majority of Albanians today, even if Islamic and Islamist factors, especially those financed from abroad, are challenging this consensus.
Looking back, the 20th century does indeed represent what the historian Eric Hobsbawm described as an “age of extremes” for the history of religions. Out of a religious diversity, dominated by Islam, a multi-religious national state developed, which in the period between the wars carefully tried to put religions and their members on an equal legal footing and to level the strong symbolic power differences between Muslims and Christians. The state established institutional control over the religious communities and claimed primacy, but now in ensuring equal rights for all religions. Under communism, a radical atheist policy promoted the building of an Albanian nation in which religion was not only subordinate to the nation but had to disappear altogether. After the end of communism, a new diversity has emerged. On the one hand, Albanian society has in parts become much more secular than in the inter-war period and thus does not differ greatly from other European societies, but religion and religiosity have also revived.
This touches on another theme. What does religion mean for the self-perception of Albanians?
Religious diversity was seen by the masterminds of the national movement as an obstacle on the way to a modern nation and was therefore fought against. In order to prove that the Albanian nation was based on language and culture, a tendency emerged that sought to oust religion from Albanian history. This is how the idea evolved, still popular today, that Albanians are particularly tolerant of, or indifferent to, religion. A thesis that they only superficially adopted Christianity and Islam and that these religions were no more than the artificial varnish of foreign rule. The idea of special tolerance at least allows Albanians to feel religious feelings, but these are interpreted in terms of national harmony based on ethnicity. In both cases they are part of a national strategy for homogenisation. These ideas are not just a figment of the imagination. Albanians, because of their language, felt a proud separateness from their foreign-speaking neighbours. This did not mean that they had developed any particular loyalty to each other or that they felt a shared political destiny before the 20th century. It is easy to quote numerous examples of violence between members of different religious groups from historical sources - but the important point is that religion itself was rarely the motive. Rather, as has been shown, in the Ottoman Empire discrimination against Christians in favour of Muslims, created conflicts in which religious affiliation gave people structural advantages or disadvantages. There was little evidence of mixed religious marriages in Albania in the 20th century, and even today they are rarely found in the Sunni areas, especially in rural parts of Kosovo and northern Macedonia. The idea of tolerance, even if it is not really supported historically, has undoubtedly played a stabilizing role for the state and society in Albania in the 20th century. In a world-historical comparison one thing must not be forgotten: It is predominantly only the Albanian Sunnis, who have been willing to regard Christians who speak the same language as equal nationals. Arab nationalism, which like Albanian nationalism was strongly supported by Christians hoping for emancipation through secularisation, did not succeed, and the few Christians in the Middle East who have not yet been expelled are second-class citizens in almost all states. In the Albanian case, the geographical location of the country had a decisive influence on the behaviour of the Sunnis. Albania was surrounded by Christian-influenced states, a linkage with Sunni countries was simply not possible, especially in the inter-war period.
However, the secular, national ideas of tolerance and indifference are counterbalanced by interpretations which attempt to reconcile a national view with the respective religious opinions. The Catholic view is that the Albanians are primarily a Catholic nation, referencing the contribution of Catholic clerics to Albanian national culture. This emphasis on Catholicism also implies that Albanians belong to Western Europe as opposed to a double Orient, both Orthodox and Islamic. Secular intellectuals with a Muslim background share this view, but regard Catholicism more as a cultural symbol of the West than as a religion. This was particularly clear in Kosovo during the Serbian repression of the 1980s and 1990s: The Orthodox Serbs claimed that as Christians they were superior to the Sunni Albanians. However, when the Albanians emphasized their Catholic roots, they presented themselves not only as Christians, but also, with regard to the USA and Western Europe, as more Western in contrast to the more Orthodox and thus more oriental Serbs. At times, at the height of Serbian repression, there were even rumours that the Kosovars wanted to convert collectively to the Catholic faith in order symbolically to leave the Orient, to which they belonged in the eyes of the outside world because of their Muslim faith. Central figures in the Catholic cultural picture were Skanderbeg, the Albanian clerical authors (Buzuku, Budi, Bogdani) and in modern times Mother Theresa.
In the mid-1970s the influential Kosovar Orientalist Hasan Kaleshi opposed the devaluation of Islam as simply the religion of Asian oppressors. Contrary to the thesis of a national catastrophe caused by the Ottoman conquest, he claimed that by conquest and Islamisation the Ottomans had saved the Albanians from an inevitable Slavicisation and Grecisisation by the Orthodox Church. Kaleshi simply turned the tables; conquest became redemption. With this thesis Kaleshi frontally attacked the then prevailing secular interpretation of national identity.
After the end of communism, interpretations which regarded Sunni Islam as the national religion of the Albanians gained strength. In Kosovo, and more generally among Albanians in former Yugoslavia, this was indeed the case. There is only a very small Catholic community in Kosovo, and in northern Macedonia Orthodox Albanians have been largely Slavicised through intermarriage with Macedonians. The Bektashi also claim a special position, a special connection between their faith and the nation as their religious convictions are a synthesis of Islamic and Christian beliefs. Moreover, their focus was in Albania, while Sunnis as well as Christians belonged to larger religious organizations and communities, with centres outside Albania. Only the Orthodox Church has avoided the concept in which its creed is placed in a special relationship with the Albanian nation.
As a predominantly Muslim nation, after the fall of communism, the Albanians raised the question of whether and how far they wanted and should belong to which world. To the Christian-influenced, but in fact highly secularized West, or to an Islamic Orient in which radical religious influences have become prevalent in recent decades? About 15 years ago, camps of Western secular, nationalist and partly authoritarian intellectuals (around the writer Ismail Kadare) and conservative Sunni but nationalist masterminds (around the Kosovar intellectual Rexhep Qosja) emerged. They engaged in a fierce exchange of arguments. The fact that the self-image of a secular country with religiously indifferent and tolerant people did not always correspond to social reality became clear to the whole world when a some years ago a few hundred Albanians from the Balkans went to Syria in the so-called Jihad. Admittedly, one has to keep this in proportion. If Albanians emigrate, they do so primarily as peaceful, migrant labour, and go predominantly to Christian-oriented European countries. Jihadists though conspicuous and worrying, form only a tiny group that is clearly rejected by the overwhelming majority of Albanians. There is also a clear distinction to be made between the different Albanian communities in the Balkans. There is a world of difference between the decidedly Sunni-conservative world of the Albanians of northern Macedonia and that of the secular population of Tirana.
As the photographs in this book show, Albania is religiously diverse, and its people and their options and decisions regarding religion are also varied. However, this diversity must not be allowed to lead to the exoticisation of Albania. Stereotypes of all kinds should be met with some scepticism, and similarly, in the present day, the statements of religious officials, who like to exaggerate their importance. Albania lies at crossroads of influences on its citizens from both very secular and religiously radicalized societies around the Mediterranean. Albanians are a trans-territorial ethnic group. Many live in European and American countries, but few live in Islamic countries. When Albanians vote with their feet, the roads lead to Rome, to Athens, to Munich, to Zurich, but much less to Istanbul, Riyadh or other capitals of Islamic states. It is also true that old, textbook certainties about Albanian religion and religiosity no longer apply. But then why shouldn't the Albanians in this world of radical transformation also change?
Translation: Eva Maria Volpe & Anthony E. Young