Archive Sections: letters | music | index | features | photos | arts/lit | satire Find Iranian singles today!


Unwilling warriors
Bosnian Muslims

By Omer Hadziselimovic
November 19, 2003
The Iranian

When in the spring of 1991 the quarrels of Yugoslav nationalists "switched from words to deeds," to use the Communist jargon, and when the first armed conflicts in the country truly became a preview of coming attractions, Bosnian Muslims were as obscure a nation as any smallish people tucked away in an out-of-the-way corner of the world. Until then they had been for the outside world largely hidden by a broad and complex Yugoslav national nomenclature.

If you said to a Westerner, for example, that you were a Bosnian or Yugoslav Muslim, you often got a baffled smile or an unconvincing nod in return. But when in the fall of 1991 talk began of an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, and when that independence became effective--although costly in blood and lives--in 1992, the Bosnian Muslims, perhaps for the first time truly, became a nation for the rest of the world. Perhaps for themselves, too.

Who are the Bosnian Muslims? What is their identity and how do they differ from other Balkan nations? How Muslim or Islamic are they? Are they connected to Arabs or Iranians? Are they, because of the recent Balkan war, on the way to becoming militants or terrorists?

Bosnian Muslims are a South Slavic people who go back to the Middle Ages for their national, religious and cultural roots. And they, like the Serbs and the Croats, may very well be connected with the Iranians: according to quite a few historians, these nations came to the Balkans from somewhere north of the Caucasus, where they had lived under the rule of Iranian nomadic tribes or had themselves been Iranians who had conquered and assimilated Slavic populations before moving westward.

The medieval Bosnian situation, with Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Bogumil heresy (or "Bosnian Church"), all contending for primacy in a relatively small area of the Balkan hinterland, created the conditions for the conversion of many Bosnians to Islam. The conversion was a direct consequence of the Turkish invasion of Bosnia in 1463 (Turkey was to rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina for the next four hundred years) and it was largely non-violent.

Most people who embraced Islam did so voluntarily and for a variety of reasons, of which the psychological and the economic were the most prevalent. It seems that the Bogumil heretics, who had been especially severely persecuted by the Catholic-oriented King Stjepan Tomas just before the Turkish invasion, were the most numerous converts to Islam. Economic privileges granted the new converts by the Turkish conquerors were frequently quite substantial, in the form of land, offices, and titles.

Thus Islam has been part of Bosnia and Herzegovina's historical and cultural landscape for over five hundred years. In this time of close and intensive coexistence with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam in Bosnia and Bosnian Muslims have acquired a separate, unique identity. "I do not understand [Bosnian] Islam," says a character in a Bosnian historical novel. "Here [Islam] is both religion and law, but more than anything else it is an attitude toward life. ... Bosnian Islam is more hard and inflexible, without the Eastern mysticism and poetry, with less imagination but with more discipline; it is more severe than [Turkish Islam] for the believer but more tolerant of the non-coreligionist."

And yet, Islam in Bosnia is closest to its Turkish variant, from which it is originally derived. It was the Turkish administrators, religious leaders and writers who influenced the Bosnian Muslim cultural elite. If they wanted to go to Arabic or Iranian sources or authorities, Bosnians regularly used Turks as cultural mediators. And although Bosnian Muslims have always spoken Bosnian (or Serbo-Croatian, as it used to be called in much of the former Yugoslavia) and very rarely Turkish, the language of the centuries-long rulers of Bosnia left a strong imprint on the Bosnian vocabulary.

Some of the "Turcisms" have become part of the Bosnian language, and even today do not have a native, Slavic substitute--words for "color" (boja), "kidney" (bubreg), "cotton" (pamuk), "steel" (selik), "bed-sheet" (sarsaf) etc. Bosnian Muslim first names, having come via Turkey and Turkish, often differ, however slightly, from Arabic, Iranian or Indian Muslim names. It is "Omer," not "Omar," "Ahmed" (or "Ahmet"), not "Ahmad," "Serif," not "Sharif," "Besir," not "Bashir," and so on. Also, Bosnians love shortened or hypocoristic names, so "Mustafa" is usually "Mujo," "Abdulah"--"Avdo," "Muhamed"--"Hamo," "Sulejman"--"Suljo," "Mehmed"--"Meho," "Husein"--"Huso."

As a rule, the first name among the early converts to Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries was "Abdullah," which means "God's slave," but the surname frequently remained the same as before, i.e., Christian. The Christian family name has in numerous cases been retained until it has lost its value as a clear national or religious marker, like the surname "Filipovish," which can be Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim in Bosnia or former Yugoslavia today. (Muhamed Filipovish is, for example, the name of a Bosnian philosopher and politician.)

Another "interdenominational" surname is "Karadzic"; the Sarajevo prewar phone book lists ten Karadzices, most of whom were Muslims, one a Croat, and two or three Serbs--including Radovan Karadzic, the indicted war criminal now sought by the Hague. (One would think that a person with such an "impure" name--and Turkish-derived at that--would find it quite frustrating to embark on the career of a leading nationalist! But, as a Serbian humorist once said, referring to someone else and ridiculing paranoid Communist propaganda, "He is a nationalist of all hues.")

Unlike the family name, for centuries the Bosnian Muslims’ first name was not a matter of compromise; it was always traditional and recognizably Islamic--Ibrahim, D_emal, Esma, Emina. But in this century, and especially during the last two generations coinciding with general secularization and Communist rule, many Muslims started giving their children "neutral," cross-national, sometimes newly invented names, usually based on or derived from words for trees, mountains, natural phenomena: Jasenko ("aspen"), Jadranko ("Adriatic"), Zlatan ("gold"), Planinka ("mountain"), Ognjenka ("fire"). These names were particularly popular in mixed marriages, in which the naming children most often required a compromise, usually a natural and benign one.

In material culture and customs Bosnian Muslims took over much from the Turks, so that mosques in Bosnia look mostly like those in Turkey and are unlike those in the Arab world, or in India, for instance. (Today, many of these mosques, including several time-honored landmarks from the sixteenth century, no longer exist; they were destroyed in the recent war.) Traditionally, houses often had the characteristic second-story overhang and latticed windows, so women could look out on the courtyard or the street but could not be seen from outside.

In interior furnishings, cushions and carpets were emphasized rather than tables and chairs, which were a nineteenth-century "European" arrival. A typical--and usually the only--seating piece that looked like Western-style furniture was the sesija, a long box-like sofa covered with mattresses and cushions used as a back-rest. It ran the whole length of a wall (sometimes two walls) and was aligned with the windows. The mattresses and cushions, which were filled with wool, cotton or straw and often placed on the floor to provide additional seating, reflect the Bosnian Muslims' love of physical comfort, while the sesija's fixed place by the windows testifies to the high regard the Bosnians had for a view from their houses.

In the past, Bosnian Muslims wore Turkish-style clothes, which included the unavoidable baggy trousers, turbans or fezzes and veils for women. Nowadays, most tradition-oriented Muslim men in Bosnia are recognized by what is for the outsiders a quite subtle sign--a black beret. Muslims ordinarily take off their shoes on entering the house (as they do on entering the mosque), and when indoors feel most comfortable in stocking feet. This custom is often shared by Bosnian Serbs and Croats too.

So, when the contemporary Bosnian Muslim author Nedzad Ibrihimovic writes, with deliberate pathos, during the current war and out of the besieged Sarajevo, "Take off your shoes when you enter Bosnia," he creates an appropriate image of his war-ravaged country, one easily understood by Bosnians. The image and the metaphorical reverberations point to the violation and rape of Bosnia and its unique culture, a culture which Serb and Croat nationalists now deny. This denial is the more absurd since the nationalists, by destroying the common store of Bosnian culture, are undercutting part of their own cultural heritage as well. For just as a Catholic or an Orthodox church or shrine is frequently a centuries-old landmark in a predominantly Muslim town in Bosnia, so is a mosque or a Turkish clock-tower often an inevitable element in the landscape of a mostly Serb or Croat community there.

Bosnian Muslims traditionally observe the taboo of not eating pork. This dietary interdiction began to break down for many Muslims a few decades ago, although a majority still shun pork. There are people who never buy pork and never prepare it at home, but who would not mind having it at another person's home or at a restaurant. This modern looseness is reminiscent of the anecdote about a Bosnian village which, in early times, decided one fall that it would embrace Islam, but not till the following spring, after it had eaten its already prepared store of pork meat!

Another Islamic prohibition--has never been much observed by Bosnian Muslims, especially among men, and Sljivovica, or plum brandy, has been so popular that it has been honored with the status of the "Muslim national drink." Interestingly, wine has never quite caught on and is avoided more scrupulously. Wine has all along been considered a more outlandish drink and associated with other Balkan regions, particularly Dalmatia.

Bosnian Muslims, a small nation of about two million surrounded by larger nations, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond it, have felt acutely all the vicissitudes of Balkan history. Never an absolute majority, and for most of their history not even a relative majority in Bosnia, they sought, especially in the 20th century, a political modus vivendi with their neighbors. This often involved a quest for their fuller identity as well; being ethnic and linguistic first cousins of Serbs and Croats, speaking the same language and looking the same, they often had trouble seeing who they really were and how different they felt.

In times of peace--in the last decades of the Yugoslav federation, for instance--they felt quite comfortable striking a balance between Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and the wider Balkan area; at times of conflict and war, their position was precarious, as their identity was more radically questioned by others and even by themselves. For nationalistic Serbs, they were "Islamicized Serbs"; for nationalistic Croats, they were "Muslim Croats." In addition, a number of Muslim intellectuals within the last hundred years or so identified themselves as Serbs or Croats. This self-questioning was perhaps best expressed by the Bosnian Muslim author Mesa Selimovic (1910-1982) in his novel The Dervish and Death, published in 1966. Here is what he says about Bosnian Muslims, stressing their struggle with the question of their common ancestry with Serbs and Croats:

The most complicated people on earth. History never played such a joke at anybody's expense as it did at ours. Until yesterday we were that which today we want to forget. But we have not become something else either. We have stopped half-way, astonished. We can no longer go anywhere. We have been torn off from one body but have not been accepted by any other. Like a backwater which a torrent has separated from the mainstream, with no longer a course or a mouth, too small to be a lake, too big for the earth to absorb. With a vague feeling of shame because of our origin, and guilt because of our apostasy, we do not want to look backward though we have nowhere to look forward to; so we are stopping the flow of time in fear of any solution. We are despised by our brothers and by newcomers, and we shield ourselves with pride and with hatred.

This kind of national soul-searching led Mesa Selimovic to declare himself a Serb author toward the end of his life, one writing in the Serbian vein and within the Serbian literary tradition. Ironically, all his best work is immersed in Bosnia, its history and traditions, particularly that of the Muslim community. Equally ironically, and equally strangely, The Dervish and Death does not include any Serb or Croat characters, only Muslim.

In trying to articulate their national and political identity, Bosnian Muslims have also searched for a proper national name, particularly in the last hundred years or so. Historically, during the entire Turkish rule, they called themselves "Bosnjaci" or "Turci"--Turks, because they identified with the ruling power and its (and their) "Turkish" faith, as they called it. The real Turks they called either "Osmanlije" (Osmanlis) or "Turkuse," terms with little tenderness in them, as there was among Bosnian Muslims an undercurrent of chronic suspicion and animosity towards the Turkish administrators and their main and most visible exponent--the land's governor.

The term "Bosnjak" (Bosniak) was replaced during Austro-Hungarian rule by the word "Muhamedanac" ("Mohammedan"), but that was not accepted by the people. After 1900, the name "Muslim" became prevalent and was used more or less consistently in the twentieth century. It became the official term for census and other purposes after the Muslims were recognized as a separate nation in the late 1960s, following decades of existing in a state of limbo. Before that, they could state that they were nationally "undeclared" or "undetermined" or could, if they so wished, identify themselves as Croats or Serbs, as some did. In the 1971 census the Muslims appeared for the first time as a legitimate nation in Bosnia, or Yugoslavia, equal in name and status with Serbs and Croats. In the 1991 Bosnian/Herzegovinian census, Muslims stood for 43% of the country's population, Serbs for 31%, and Croats for 17%. The rest were "Yugoslavs" and others.

But this does not end the story of the Bosnian Muslims' name. Before the collapse of Communism, a movement was started to change the nation's name from what many perceived as an inadequate, religion-based term, to one that would reflect better the nation's link with the country. And so Muslim intellectuals came up with the old, historical name of "Bosnjaci." The name was semi-officially installed as the new appellation for Muslims by Bosnian Muslim intellectuals and political and religious leaders in Sarajevo in the fall of 1993. But the name sounds like a linguistic anachronism, especially to the younger generation, who will probably take some time accepting it.

"Bosnjaci" also clashes with the more modern "Bosanci" (Bosnians), a term which has for decades denoted all the inhabitants of Bosnia, regardless of their national membership. Furthermore, if "Bosnjaci," containing the name of the country, comes to mean only Muslims, that excludes other Bosnian nations, or parts of them, which also consider Bosnia their homeland. Many Bosnian Croats (and also the representatives of the Catholic Church in Bosnia), have thus expressed their dissatisfaction with the name "Bosnjaci" referring only to the Muslims. "We are Bosniaks, too," they rightly say, although most of them after the recent war probably prefer the name "Croat."

It should be emphasized that "nation-naming" and national identification in the Balkans is a relatively new phenomenon; until well into the nineteenth century, even the "older" nations like Serbs and Croats thought of themselves primarily as Orthodox or Catholics rather than as Serbs and Croats. The name of a nation is not important, and as long as there is no need for a more precise name (that need usually coincides with a new, consolidated national awareness), the old name serves its purpose well. Americans, for instance, were quite comfortable with the name of "Englishmen" until the 1760s.

Parallel with the change of the Bosnian Muslim’s national name, the name of the language in Bosnia is being transformed from "Serbo-Croatian" to "Bosnian." This is another political decision, which has elements of a forced move, because in a situation when all Croats call the common language Croatian, and Serbs Serbian, the Muslims felt that the only natural thing would be to call it at least Bosnian. That also happens to be the traditional, historical name for the language in Bosnia among Muslims. (Serb and Croat nationalists have virtually banished the word "Bosnia" or "Bosnian" from their vocabulary.)

Muslim nationalism, which lived its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a relatively mild affair compared to its western and eastern counterparts, those of Serbia and Croatia. It has never acquired the expansionist dimensions so characteristic of its neighbors. It concentrated on Bosnia and Herzegovina: Muslims never thought they had resort in another, "reserve" homeland, as their Bosnian Croat and Serb neighbors did. Although charged with Islamic fundamentalism by the chauvinists among their neighbors, they recently chose, and insisted upon, not the crescent but a medieval (and Christian) fleur-de-lis emblem for the Bosnian flag. (After the Dayton Accord, the country’s flag was changed into a nation-neutral, history-neutral flag, echoing European-Union iconography.)

No worse and no better than their Serb and Croat neighbors, except in the recent war, where they were "better" victims, Bosnian Muslims sometimes commit the error of thinking they are the only true Bosnians, the only representatives and defenders of the elusive yet enduring "Bosnianness" of the country they share with others. But a more prevalent sentiment among them, especially in times of conflict, is probably that of unrequited love, love which they expect but do not get from their neighbors.

Also, in peacetime, politically and physically positioned between Serbs and Croats, they always longed for their neighbors to agree and live in harmony, suffering because of their disputes, like children covering their ears when their parents are quarrelling. By virtue of this position, and with a deep sense of tradition of cultural interaction with others, even among the uneducated classes, Muslims have preferred a civic to an ethnic state. Small wonder then that at the beginning of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1990/91 Bosnian Muslim leaders insisted on a federation, or confederation, that would include both Croatia and Serbia and would not side with either.

The position of Muslims in Bosnia can be illustrated by the case of wartime Sarajevo, where a psychological gradation was visible among the city's different nations. The Serb extremists' leaders knew full well that if you encircled a city and let it soak in its own juice long enough, you were likely to produce internal discord. Serbs, Muslims, Croats, Jews and others, though feeling equally victimized by Serb shelling, must surely have begun thinking differently about the whole situation under such trying conditions.

Differently from before the war, that is, when most thought of Sarajevo-Bosnia-Yugoslavia as their own city-republic-country. While other groups could now think (of course, some never did) that "this is not our war--this is a Serb-Muslim conflict," "I do not belong here," "I am, after all, not one of them," and so on, Muslims by and large did not have a choice but to think of Bosnia as their country and Sarajevo as its capital, which before the war was 49% Muslim, 29% Serb and 7% Croat. Muslims could not easily, though many did so, seek a psychological and physical way out, a separation. They did not have a place or a country to flee to, like a Belgrade or a Zagreb, a Serbia or a Croatia.

But in spite of isolated incidents, Sarajevo's wartime conditions never produced the intra-national hatred the besiegers longed for. Sarajevans, like Bosnians generally, have, to quote the novelist Miroslav Karaulac, "acquired the fatal habit of living together, a quality which the various armies now fighting one another are ... attempting to correct."

As elsewhere in Bosnia, Muslims could not, even if they wanted to, play the "role model" assigned to them by their nationalistic enemies--that of mujahedin and Islamic fundamentalists. To reach that, they would have to travel a long way, shedding their Western and secular orientation. But nothing is impossible, in the long run, and if the newly fabricated nationalisms and intolerance continue, Muslim culture in Bosnia probably can be bent into something it was not before.


Omer Hadziselimovic, formerly Professor of English at the University of Sarajevo (1972-1994), is now an independent scholar living in the U.S.; he is currently teaching at Lake Forest College and Loyola University Chicago. Hadziselimovic is author of several dozen articles, reviews, and translations in the fields of American Studies, English literature, and travel writing. His books include Messages and Responses: The American Social Novel in the Criticism in the Serbo-Croatian Language from 1918 to 1941), Sarajevo, 1980; and (editor) At the Gates of the East: British Travel Writers on Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, Boulder, Colorado/New York, 2001.

* Send this page to your friends

For letters section
To Omer Hadziselimovic

* Advertising
* Support
* Reproduction
* Write for
* Editorial policy



Book of the day

Novel set in ancient Persia & Greece
By Gore Vidal

Copyright 1995-2013, Iranian LLC.   |    User Agreement and Privacy Policy   |    Rights and Permissions