The spread of Islam in the Balkan
The religious nature of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire was a religious state based mainly on Islamic religious law (Sheriat). The sultan, as of the empire, was considered Allah's representative on Earth, and had the task to defend and spread Islam. The military and administration, which held the highest state and religious functions, consisted exclusively of Muslims.
The establishment of Ottoman governance on the conquered territories cause political, economic and social changes as a result, mostly, of the Islamic religious laws. Based on these laws the Muslim population enjoyed various privileges (paid lower taxes, could work in all state institutions, could serve in the army) as compared to the non-Muslim population, who had limited rights (could not testify in court, were not allowed to bear arms, could not ride on a horse in the presence of a Muslim, could not wear certain types of clothes etc.).
After the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire attempted to create a Muslim population who would be ideologically connected with the Ottoman state. This could be achieved only through the spread of Islam amongst the local Christian population.
The spread of Islam amongst the Albanians
The Ottoman government succeeded in spreading Islam amongst the Albanian population in the Balkans due to two reasons. The Albanians were divided between the two Christian churches and, in addition to this, Christianity did not have very deep roots in the Albanian population. Unlike the other Balkan people, the Albanians did not have a single church. On the territory that the Albanians inhabited there was an intersection of the interests of the Roman Catholic Church, with its seat in the Vatican, and the interests of the Orthodox Church, with its seat in Constantinople (Istanbul). Neither church managed to impose its authority on the general population.
After the Ottoman government was established, the rivalry between these two churches grew – each wanted to increase the number of their followers at the expense of the rival church. The conflict and tension in the relation between the two churches significantly weakened the position of Christian Albanians, easing the spread of Islam.
Islam was first accepted by most of the Albanian feudal lords in order to retain their riches and privileges, some even becoming vassals of the sultan. Ordinary people, who would not accept Islam voluntarily, were pressured by the Ottoman government through elevated taxes, thereby indirectly forcing them convert to Islam. Through the Islamisation of the Albanian population, the Ottomans were creating a base for the recruitment of soldiers and were opening the possibility for the support of their rule in these areas.
The spread of Islam was more difficult in the mountainous regions north of the river Shkumbin, where the population was organised in clans and did not succumb to the pressures of the Ottoman Empire. The inaccessible mountain terrain and the resistance of the local Albanian population prevented the Ottoman government from collecting taxes and, thus, spreading Islam through the population. In order to establish a certain measure of control over this territory, the High Porte recognized Baryaks as distinct administrative units consisting of several clans headed by Bayraktars (chiefs). The Baryaks were, silently, allowed to continue living according to their traditional and customary law (Canon of Lek Dukagjini) and did not have to follow the laws of the Ottoman state. The recognition of these patriarchal laws gave the Baryaktars various powers, including those of conducting marriage ceremonies, mediating in conflict and determining punishments.
The Albanians who lived in the areas south of the river Shkumbin kept their independence and often avoided paying taxes to the empire. The Ottoman government found it much easier to control the Albanian population inhabiting lowland areas and spread Islam amongst them, as well as to assign estates (timars) under the control of the more respected Albanian families in exchange for military service. As early as in the XVIII century, many of the governors of the timars had become large landowners, heading economically and politically powerful families that became richer on the hard work of the Christian and Muslim villagers. The Beys, similarly to the Baryaktars, became practically independent rulers of their areas, with armies of their own, occasionally used in clashes with other Beys in order to increase their land and power.
A separate phenomenon is that the more eminent Albanian families who converted to Islam were ethnically assimilated with time – they lost their identity and accepted the Turkish language as their own. This enabled them to gain privileges and build careers in the Ottoman Empire outside the territory inhabited by Albanians. For example, they made up a large part of the Ottoman army and most of the Janissaries entrusted with the security of the sultan and people close to him. It is thought that approximately thirty Grand Vezirs (chief ministers) of the Ottoman Empire were of Albanian descent. In the second half of the XVII century, one family gave four Grand Vezirs, who fought corruption in the empire and helped the sultan in his fight against the greedy Beys. One of the most famous Vezirs was Mohammed Ali Pasha, who formed Egypt as an independent state in the XIX century.
The Bektashis order
In the Albanian territories Islam did not spread only as Sunni Islam (the type official in the Ottoman Empire), but also in the form of various sects or Tarikas, such as Bektashis, Halveti, Rufai and others. The Bektashis appeared as a dervish order in the Asian part of the Ottoman Empire, more specifically in Anatolia. Hajji Bektash, born in the middle of the XIII century, is considered the founder of this sect. The teachings of this dervish order were different to the dogmatism of Sunni Islam from the very beginning as they preached love, unity and equality of all people. Women, uncovered, participated in Bektashis ceremonies as equals and the ceremonies used wine, despite the Koran's ban on alcohol.
The unconventional nature of the Bektashis can be seen in the jokes kept in the memory of the Balkan people. For example, one very popular joke goes: “A Bektashi was asked why the world is filled with hills, rocks and mountains. Why is it not flat and smooth everywhere? Oh come on, replied the Bektashi, what do you expect of a world created in only six days?”
The Bektashis order spread through the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Besides Anatolia and Istanbul – the seat of the empire - dervish Tarikas were founded in many parts of the Balkans, contributing to the spread of Islam on the territories of Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Sari Saltik, one of the best known personalities of the Bektashis order, was active in the Balkans at the beginning of the XIV century. The Bektashis order appeared and was most active in Skopje, Tetovo, Prizren, Kruja and other cities.
As early as the XVIII century there was a significant increase in the members of the Bektashis order in southern Albania. After the dissolution of the Janissaries by the sultan in the first half of the XIX century the Bektashis dervish order was banned, the Bektashis tekke were closed and their dervishes exiled to distant parts of the Ottoman Empire. This contributed to the rise of the Bektashis as the largest religious sect in southern Albania. In the late XIX century the Bektashis leaders had a key role in the Albanian national movement, and are generally considered responsible for the traditional Albanian tolerance of religious differences.
“Dual faith” (Crypto-Christianity)
Forcibly spreading Islam was easiest in the lowland areas of the river Shkumbin where, due to the accessibility of the terrain, it was easy to apply various types of pressure on the local population. To escape high taxes and the risk of being forcibly moved, many Albanians were forced to accept the Muslim faith. Thus, it could happen that one part of a family converted to Islam while another remained Christian which usually meant that the family would celebrate all the religious holidays together.
Very often the converted Albanians would practice both religions at the same time. Christianity continued to be nurtured within the family, while in public places the converts presented themselves as Muslims. Publicly they celebrated Muslim religious holidays, went to mosques and called each other by their Muslim names, while they would secretly continue to use their Christian names and keep their Christian customs (baptisms, family patron saint celebrations etc.). This Crypto-Christianity was present in both the Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
The uprising of Skanderbeg
Certain Albanian feudal lords resisted government pressure to convert to Islam. The most famous was Gjergj Kastrioti – Skanderbeg. Gjergj Kastrioti was taken as a child as part of the blood tax (devshirme, as the Ottomans called it) and renamed into Iskender. He was schooled as a Muslim in the palace school in Edirne, where only the children of famous feudal lords were taught. In 1438 the sultan appointed him the Ottoman governor of Kruja, since when he earned the title Bey and came to be known under the name Skanderbeg.
Several years later, when he went to fight the Hungarians as part of the Ottoman army, Skanderbeg left the battle along with his army and headed back to the fortress in Kruja. On the 27th of November 1443 he used trickery to penetrate the fortress and the very next day he raised the flag of the Kastriotis, which marked the beginning of the famous uprising of Skanderbeg against the Ottomans.
This resistance, which lasted 25 years, made Skanderbeg, as its leader, a national hero for the Albanians and symbolises all the fights of the Albanians against the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the fact that Skanderbeg renounced Islam and returned to the Christian faith also gives the uprising a Christian nature, presenting Skanderbeg as a protector of Christianity in the Balkans.
THE MILLET SYSTEM
The formation of the millets
After the establishment of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the Ottomans recognized Muslims as fully fledged citizens and non-Muslims as citizens with limited rights. The non-Muslims (Zimmis) living in the Ottoman Empire who believed in one god and had their own holy books enjoyed the protection of the empire, a protection stemming from Sheriat (Islamic religious law). Besides this protection, non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed other rights and privileges within the so called millet system, a system typical for the Ottoman Empire.
A millet (Arabian word for: people, community or nation) in the Ottoman Empire was a religious community recognized by the state. The millet was headed by a religious leader, called millet basha (or ethnarch), who cared for religious issues and the morals of the members of the millet. Each millet realised its rights through its own institutions such as religious courts, religious schools etc.
After the fall of Byzantium, the Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) first recognised the Rum millet (the religious community of Orthodox Christians), which was headed by the Constantinople patriarch. The Rum millet included all Orthodox Christians, such as Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians, Vlachs and others. This millet was the largest and most important to the Orthodox Christians. The patriarch (the millet basha) lived in a part of Istanbul called Phanar which was the seat of the governing organs of the Patriarchy. Within the Constantinople patriarchy there was also the Ohrid Archiepiscopy and the Patriarchy of Pec, whose religious leaders were responsible for the Orthodox population in the eparchies, but who were subjects of the Constantinople patriarch.
Soon after the Rum millet, the Armenian millet was also recognized. The Armenians had lived in Byzantium from the middle ages: Mehmed II called them to come to Istanbul and live in the parts of the city called Samatijas and Sulu Monastery. The settled Armenians were mainly crafters and merchants. Mehmed II called the mitropolit of Bursa and appointed him the Armenian patriarch, with a seat in Sulu Monastery. The Armenian patriarch became the Armenian millet basha and he governed the Monophysits from Syria and Egypt, as well as the Bogomils in Bosnia.
Besides these two Orthodox, the Jewish (Yehud) millet was recognised as well. The Jews in Istanbul and the provincial towns had organised communities and each community had its rabbi.
The role of the millet system
The millet system had jurisdiction over religious and civic matters, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and other issues relevant to non-Muslims. The leader of each millet was responsible for the collection of taxes and their handover to the Empire's treasury. He was also responsible for the good behaviour and loyalty of members of his millet to the state.
Every millet had the right to use their own language, follow their own faith, develop their own culture and form their own religious educational institutions. In this way, the millet system played an important role in preserving the religious and linguistic identity of the Balkan people.
The millet system and the birth of the nations
Due to the established millet system, the life of each community in the Ottoman Empire was organised more by their own traditions and customs than by state laws. However, the meaning of the millet system began to change as western ideas of nations began to spread through Ottoman society in the XIX century.
The Constantinople patriarchy, which up to that time was a unifying institution of the Orthodox millet, began to turn into a political institutions and to identify with the Greek people, taking the role of a Greek national church. This motivated the other people in the Balkans belonging to the Rum millet to begin their fight for national independence.
In this way, on one hand, the Ottoman millet system played a positive role in the preservation of the religious and linguistic identity of the non-Muslim population. On the other hand, the millet system in the XIX century played a negative role for the Ottoman Empire itself, contributing to its downfall. By enabling the division of Ottoman society along religious lines, and later along ethnic lines as well, the millet system was a serious obstacle to the attempts of the state to integrate all its subjects in a common society.
THE POSITION AND THE ROLE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
The Christian Albanians under Ottoman rule
The spread of Ottoman rule through the Balkans caught the Albanian people divided between the two universal churches of the time: the Roman Catholic Church, with its seat in the Vatican, and the Orthodox Church, with its seat in Constantinople (Istanbul). The line Drach-Elbasan-Debar-Skopje was generally the line of division between the Catholic Albanians and the Orthodox Albanians – south of this line was the Orthodox population, and north was a mixture of Catholic and Orthodox population. Thus, the Albanians from the southern part of what is today Albania and Macedonia (Tetovo, Bitola, Reka, Debar, Ohrid) belonged mainly to the Orthodox church under the control of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy, and the Albanians of the northern part of what is today Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo were divided into an Orthodox population under the control of the Patriarchy of Pec and a Catholic population under the jurisdiction of the Skopje-Prizren diocese.
The two main churches were constant rivals, always attempting to increase their sphere of influence and the number of their believers at the expense of the other church. The presence of tensions and conflict in the relationship between the institutions of the two main orders (Catholicism and Orthodoxy) largely contributed to the weakened position of Christianity with the Albanians, easing the spread of Islam amongst them.
The beginning of Ottoman rule in the Balkans was characterised by a moderate policy towards the Christian population, which even hinted towards a tendency to decrease the intensity of the spread of Islam. After the establishment of Ottoman rule there were even sipahis – Christians with their own timars (land which they controlled) with the right for their sons to inherit the timar, regardless whether they had converted to Islam or remained Christian.
The Ottoman census defters testify to the presence of Christian Albanians. Thus, in the defter for the Tetovo region from the XV century there is mention of 60 villages inhabited by Albanians, while the census defter from the XVI century mentions Christian Albanians also in the regions of Kichevo and Debar. Even though the Ottoman defters did not record the ethnicity of the population, the presence of Albanians can be concluded indirectly, by Albanian names (such as Gjerg, Gon, Gin etc.) or the added surnames – Albanians were marked as "Arbanas", which indicated non-Muslims that spoke a language different to others (in that region, different to the language spoken by the Slavic population).
In the XVI century the living conditions of the population deteriorated. This was particularly so for the Christian population, and was felt most of all by Christians in high positions in public life. In 1573 an order was given out in the Ottoman Empire whereby every village with at least one Muslim had to have a mosque for religious ceremonies, and the organs of power had to attend prayers along with the reaya (non-Muslims). This aggressive Islamisation further threatened the position of the two Christian churches and forced them to take action to retain the Christian faith amongst the Albanian population. In order to resist the spread of Islam, churches used religious studies and opened schools for the education of local priests. However, with time, the number of Christian priests declined along with the number of Christian believers.
The role of the Catholic Church
The anti-Ottoman military campaigns led by the western European countries, incited by the Holy See in Vatican, reflected negatively on the positions of the Catholic Church in the Balkans. Even though the organisation of the Catholic church on the territories inhabited by Albanians remained the same, its area of influence grew smaller. The Ottoman government converted cathedrals to mosques (as is the case of the cathedral St. Prenas in Skopje) and banished the priests, which resulted in a decrease of the Catholic population.
Several bishops who acted during the Ottoman rule in the Balkans were particularly responsible for the preservation of the national identity of the Albanian population. First among them was Andrea Bogdani, who was appointed bishop of the Skopje-Prizren diocese by the Pope in the middle of the XVII century. He was followed by his nephew Petar Bogdani, who is the author of the famous work Cuneus Prophetarum (The Band of the Prophets). The Skopje bishop Michael Summa also played an important role in the resistance against the Ottomans in the first half of the XVIII century, as he promoted cooperation between Balkan people regardless of their religion.
The role of the Orthodox Church
When the Ottomans came to the Balkans, the Orthodox population was divided under the rule of three autocephalous churches: the Constantinople patriarchy, the Ohrid Archiepiscopy and the Patriarchy of Pec. The frequent disagreements amongst the high Orthodox priests from the three churches resulted in a loss of believers from the Albanian population.
A positive consequence of the activities of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy in the XVIII century was the development of Moscopole (Voskopoja) as a centre of the future cultural and educational revival of Orthodox Albanians. The first printing shop was opened in Moscopole and the first educational academy on the territory of what is today Albania was founded, which largely contributed to the cultural and educational elevation of the population. After the abolishment of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy and the Patriarchy of Pec in the second half of the XVIII century, the Constantinople patriarchy took control of the Orthodox population in the Balkans. It began to send notable Orthodox priests, who travelled to all the major cities, with the task to open schools in Greek and perform church ceremonies in Greek, thereby starting the spread of Greek influence amongst the Albanian Orthodox population. This was the way in which the Constantinople patriarchy fought against the rise of national awareness among Albanians.
Particularly interesting is the situation of the Albanian population in Reka, who lived in some of the mountain villages between Mavrovo and Debar. Part of the Orthodox and Muslim population from the Reka area united in order to oppose the assimilation and keep its traditions. The writings of Peter Elezi about the traditional dress of women from Golobrdo, are examples of this resistance. Even though the women belonged to different religions, their dress was identical.
 According to data from the archbishop of Tivat the number of Catholic Christians in the Skopje-Prizren diocese in 1637 was: 600 around Skopje – 54 permanent residents and 40 that had come to learn trade or a craft; 540 in Prizren and 230 in Kratovo.