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The identity of the Balkans is dominated by its geographical position; historically the area was known as a crossroads of various cultures. It has been a juncture between the Latin and Greek bodies of the Roman Empire, the destination of a massive influx of pagan Slavs, an area where Orthodox and Catholic Christianity met, as well as the meeting point between Islam and Christianity.


Unfortunately, a lot of historic facts concerning Islam and how it arrived to the Balkan Peninsula [1] have been 'forgotten' or even distorted. The reason for this occurring has a great deal to do with centuries of pressure from Serb and European historians and their political establishments, it is to be noted that almost every book written on the history of Islam will somehow underline this point. An example of this may be found in the writings of R. Doçi, he typically refers to the Christianization of the Albanians during the Medieval Period as prosperous, and pays little attention to the destruction and barbarisms that many invaders inflicted for centuries. The emergence of Islam, which he ties to the Ottoman invasion, is referred to so negatively to the extent that it is called the Albanians' doomsday. 


Looking at the relevant literature, we may conclude that the two ways that enabled the spread of Islam were: (1) the military expeditions sent to extend the borders of the state of Islam, and (2) the persuasive powers of the Islamic teachings themselves made people ultimately embrace it.  Insofar as the nations of the Balkan Peninsula are concerned, the overwhelming historic evidence points out that the military expeditions were of very little importance to the spread of Islam. Thus, the teachings of Islam themselves were crucial in wining people over. The Qur'an itself declares that "there is compulsion in religion," this gave people the feeling of freedom for the first time in centuries. The famous Albanian writer, S. Frashëri [2], observes: "Apart from the usage of military might to spread Islam, there does exist another way without turning to invasion or the force of arms, a way that is often not mentioned by the historians."


Looking back in history, it is easy to understand which way was the most influential in spreading Islam, the force of arms or its teachings. In most of the times, the Muslim armies only opened the "door" for the Islamic civilization to present itself, and ultimately the people would see the difference. 


Islamic civilization entered the Balkan Peninsula mainly from the West through the contacts with Andalusia in Spain, from South through the Mediterranean Sea and Sicily, and from North-East through Hungary. The purpose of this study, however, is not to answer the question of where Islam came from, but rather how it came.  There were three main ways through which the Islamic civilization gained a foothold in the Balkan Peninsula; trade relations, military and political reasons and migrations. A further elaboration of them shall follow. 


The development of Islamic civilization conditioned the expansion of trade. The goods produced were mainly traded with neighboring nations, however, the traders often ventured to far and unknown places. Hence, trade relations between Europe and Middle East through the Mediterranean Sea since the 9th century were booming. In these trade relations, the most daring Europeans were those from Florence, Venice, Pizza, Genoa, followed by the French, and Catalonians. The European merchants through Egypt and Syria ventured far away to the Far East. 


The Illyro-Albanians had established trade relations with the Arab and Turkish nations, and not only the port-cities of the Adriatic Sea, but the rural parts of the Balkan Peninsula inhabited by them as well. Such strong trade relations were established since the ancient times, and went on into the pre-Ottoman and Ottoman periods.  Arab gold and silver coins excavated in Potoci, near Mostar [3] of the present-day Bosnia-Hercegovina, date back to the time of Marwan II [4] which tells of the extensive trade relations the Muslims had with the Balkan nations, first the Albanians and later the Slavs. 


Port-cities along the Adriatic Sea like Dubrovnik, Tivari, Ulqini, Durazzo, Valona, Himara, etc., and other Greek and Southern Italian cities were centers of trade. During the 12th century, the well known Muslim historians and travelers, Al-Idris [5] and Ibn Hawkali, tell in fine details the social and political situation of those places. They also describe the road going through the Balkan Peninsula, from the Aegean Sea along the valley of the Vardar River to the coasts of Adriatic Sea. 


Usually the Italian merchants traveled by sea, whereas the Muslims mostly traveled overland. The merchants from Venice and Florence used to trade regularly and exchanged their goods mostly in Istanbul and Gallata. Well known are also the caravans from Dubrovnik [6] to Istanbul, and vice versa. 


Such strong trade relations have had a great impact on the Balkan nations. Apart from buying and selling, which was the primary intention, the merchants brought a lot of new ideas and changes. This was intensified further when the Muslim merchants started to establish themselves in some fortified and secured coastal cities. The first Muslim colonies appeared. Though they were very small in the beginning, they became larger, and even stronger. 


The quick development of the Muslim community (ummah) resulted in its expansion in all directions. By 634, the Muslims had started to attack the borders of the Byzantine Empire, and made the first attempt to conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul).


In 717-718, the Muslim army under the command of Maslama bin Abdul-Malik [7] surrounded Constantinople. They were, however, unsuccessful in conquering it. In this expedition, the Muslim army penetrated as far as Adrianople (now Edirne) and Salonika, this is regarded as Balkan nations' first contact with the Muslim armies. They also built a mosque near Gallata, known as the Arab Mosque. This led the Arabs (i.e. Muslims) to establish their first colonies in Constantinople and Salonika.


Apart from the Muslim colonies, the Slavs built their own small colonies inside the Byzantine Empire. In the battle of Sevastopol in 664, a group of 2000 Slav soldiers fought together with the Muslim army against the Byzantine Empire. 


In 717-741, a very bloody conflict was going on between two Orthodox Christian sects: those who were against worshiping the paintings, frescos, sculptures, etc., and those who were for them. Often those who were against worshiping paintings, frescos, and sculptures asked the assistance of Muslims, thus, they were well aware that Islamic teachings were against worshiping idols. 


In the 9th century, having already conquered Crete, the Arabs were more direct in their intentions towards the Balkan Peninsula and some parts of Southern Italy. During 840-841, the Muslims conquered Taranto, Italy, and undertook incursions into the Balkan Peninsula invading Budva, Kotor, Rosi, and Rijeka. They even surrounded Dubrovnik for fifteen years, but without any success. This was the time when the Illyro-Albanians had their first contacts with the Muslim armies. They kept attacking the Balkan Peninsula until 1023 when they lost control of the Southern Italy. 


By the beginning of the 14th century, the Arabs ceased intervening directly into the Balkan Peninsula. Other Muslims from Asia Minor, however, were keen on the peninsula. In 1307, Turkish-originated tribes under the leadership of Malik and Halil entered the peninsula as part of a Catalonian division and went as far as Sveta Gora. 


The invasion of the Peceneg tribes [8] had a great impact. There are contradicting views as to when they first appeared: some say they came in the 8th century, whilst others say they came in the 9th and 10th centuries. It seems that the former view is more accurate because they appeared at the same time when the independent feudal states did so, i.e., the 8th century. 


On the other hand, Spain’s invasion by the Muslims opened a new chapter in their relations with the Balkan nations. Some of the Slav tribes, especially the Slovenians and Croats, had good relations with the Muslim Spain. In the royal court of Hakemi I (791-822) there were 2000 guards of Croatian origin. Such a big number of guards is evidence of extensive relations.


This variety of military relations was extended to the politics also Muslim countries had cordial relationship with their Balkan counterparts. In 856, the Serb king, Mikhail III, sent his envoy to the caliph Mutawakil bin Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty to arrange a form of debate on the religious matters.  In 922, the Bulgarian king sent an envoy to caliph Al-Muktadir of the Abbasid dynasty to convey his family’s decision to embrace Islam. 


Harun Al-Rashid [9] had established many well-known contacts with the European rulers. He had sent his envoy to the Serb king, Carl the Great, in order to establish cordial and reciprocal relations.  The Croat ruler, prince Tomislav, had good relations with caliph Abdurahman III and used to even exchange gifts. Abdurahman III had sent envoys to all the Slav kingdoms to discuss and charter their future relations. 


The Europeans, the Balkan nations included, kept continuous contacts with the Muslims—the Fatimids (969-1171), the Eyubids (1171-1250) and the Mamelukes (1250-1517)—because of various interests, trade being one of them. 


In general, we see the Slavs as allied to the Muslims against the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Their relations with the Illyro-Albanians defined the future military and political actors of the Balkan Peninsula. At the beginning, those relations were cordial, but changed rapidly. 



End Notes


[1] The Balkans is the historical name of a geographic region of southeastern Europe. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains, which run through the centre of Bulgaria into eastern Serbia. The region has a combined area of 550,000 km2 (212,000 sq mi) and a population of about 55 million people.




[2]Sami bey Frashëri (1850-1904), known in Turkish as Semseddin Sami, was a writer, publisher and ideologist of the Albanian nationalist movement. He is the author of about fifty publications, as well as numerous newspaper articles. Sami Frashëri's interests were on the whole more scholarly than literary. Between 1882 and 1902, he published six teaching manuals in Turkish and Arabic. His publications in Turkish are indeed of greater universal significance than his Albanian-language works.


[3] A city in S Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the Neretva River: former capital of Herzegovina. 63,500.


[4] Marwan ibn Muhammad ibn Marwan or Marwan II (688-750) (Arabic:) was an Umayyad caliph who ruled from 744 until 750 when he was killed. He was the last Umayyad ruler to rule from Damascus.


[5] A 12th-century Arab geographer and scientist, ash-Sharif Al-Idrisi wrote one of the great medieval works of descriptive geography. Al-Idrisi was born in 1100 in Sabtah (now Ceuta). He spent much of his early life traveling in North Africa and Spain. In 1145 he entered the service of Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, and began a lifetime of work as a mapmaker and geographer.


[6] A city on the Adriatic Sea coast in the extreme south of Croatia, positioned at the terminal end of the Isthmus of Dubrovnik. It is one of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, a seaport and the centre of Dubrovnik-Neretva county. Its population was 43,770 in 2001 down from 49,728 in 1991. In the 2001 census, 88.39% of its citizens declared themselves as Croats.


[7] Maslama bin Abdul-Malik (685–738) was a famous Muslim military commander of the Arabs heralding from the Umayyad Dynasty. He was born around 685 A.D. in Damascus to Abd al-Malik Ibn Marawan the Umayyad Caliph.


[8] Although, many authors observe that the Peceneg tribes were "barbarians" who attacked and looted the peninsula, it should not let us oversee the fact that they were Muslims. 


[9] Caliph of Baghdad (786-809) noted for his participation in the Muslim holy war against the Byzantines and for the splendour of his court.






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