Exploring Historical Rumelia: Balkans Five Country Tour
Exploring Historical Rumelia
Balkans Five Country Tour
(Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania)
26th July to 1st October 2021
Dr. Mufti Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera
While there has been much focus on Albania in the last several decades for relief and education work, and recently of Bosnia, not much is known about Montenegro or its Muslims. Similar is the case with the Muslim communities of Serbia, as many do not even think Muslims reside there. A student of mine from Sweden and originally from Montenegro—Samir Muric—contacted me this July (2021) about an interesting opportunity. The head of the Muslim community in Montenegro (referred to as the “Reis”) was looking to collaborate with the scholars and educational institutions of the UK. Since our academic year at Whitethread Institute was coming to a close, I immediately replied that an initial visit to Montenegro would help us learn more about the country and its Muslims to provide something of value on our end. The organisations in Montenegro did not have funding to pay for our tickets, which I reassured we could cover ourselves. He was very happy to assist with logistics and meetings once we arrived, so I started looking for tickets and companions to travel with. The tickets ended up not being expensive (about £180, and for indirect flights about £70), so I hoped to attain greater blessing and reward from Allah by spending from our own funding even though later on the host organization may have offered to cover it.
Most of the Balkan countries were in the “amber zone” according to the UK COVID management system, meaning that anyone who had gotten both COVID vaccines would no longer have to quarantine in a special hotel on their return or at home. All that was required was a test on day 2 upon return. I initially asked our Ifta’ Program students and some other friends if they wanted to come, but none of them had yet been vaccinated and did not want to risk the hassle at borders with PCR testing for COVID. Ultimately, I confirmed Mufti Asmar Akram (fondly known as Dr. Asmar) from Bolton, Maulana Abdullah Patel from Gloucester, and my brother Maulana Shoeb Mangera. All three were chosen for the benefit they could provide on the trip, by taking relevant notes, and then letting others know of the needs of the places we would visit. We were told that we are the first group of scholars to undertake a detailed visit of the country. We prayed that it would be beneficial.
I had previously met the Reis (Mufti) of Montenegro, whose name is Rifat Fejzić, in March 2017 at a conference in Sanliurfa in Turkey, where the heads of other Muslim organisations such as the Muftis of Lithuania and Siberia were also in attendance. I was able to have some good discussions with the latter two but not with the Reis of Montenegro. He did not speak Arabic or English, and I did not speak Bosnian, Turkish or Albanian. Who knew at the time that I would later be visiting Montenegro at his invitation? He remembered me from the conference and was looking forward to us coming. Alhamdulillah, the whole tour in Montenegro was facilitated by taking his name, even at the borders, as they know him as the Reis. Being the head of the Muslim community, which is about 20% of the country’s population, he holds an official position and also carries a diplomatic passport.
Montenegro, which literally means “Black Mountain,” is a Balkan country in South-eastern Europe, located on the Adriatic Sea and sharing borders with Serbia to the northeast, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the north and west, Kosovo to the east, Albania to the southeast, and the Adriatic Sea and Croatia to the southwest.
By the 15th century the Ottoman Empire had conquered much of Montenegro’s territory and introduced Islam there. The Montenegrin ruler of the time was Ivan Crnojević (1465–1490), and his third son Staniša Crnojević was the first prominent Montenegrin of the Muslim faith. Staniša took up the name Skenderbeg Crnojević and ruled from his capital at Cetinje. He is well known as one of the most prominent Muslim administrators in the northern reaches of the Ottoman Empire of Slavic origins during the reign of Sultan Selim I. Montenegro was lost by the Ottomans after the Montenegrin–Ottoman War of 1876–1878 and was internationally recognized in 1878 by the Treaty of Berlin as an independent nation. After World War I (1914-1918), it became part of Yugoslavia. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the republics of Serbia and Montenegro together formed a federation. Then, following an independence referendum held in May 2006, Montenegro declared its independence and the confederation was peacefully dissolved.
Islam is the second largest religion in the country after Christianity, with 130,000 Muslims comprising 20.3% of the total population. Montenegro has the sixth-highest proportion of Muslims in Europe, after Kosovo (96%), Turkey (90%), Albania (60%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51%), and North Macedonia (34%). In 2012 a protocol passed that recognizes Islam as an official religion in Montenegro, ensuring that halal food will be served at military facilities, hospitals, dormitories and all social facilities, that Muslim women will be permitted to wear headscarves in schools and at public institutions, as well as ensuring that Muslims have the right to take Fridays off work for the Jumu‘ah (Friday) prayer.
Historically speaking, Islam had been violently suppressed in Albania and a communist ideology was imposed on the masses during the mid-1900s. However, the majority of the Balkans did not fare the same direct and brutal eradication of their faith. Under Yugoslavia there were legal rights to the freedom of religion after an initial phase of repression. However, there were massive and relentless campaigns of secularisation, where expressions of the Islamic faith like the hijab were made to appear backwards. Dhikr gatherings and spiritual retreats were tolerated, but anything more than that was not viewed favourably by the authorities. These campaigns were carried out many a time by Muslim activists who had studied in Western universities during that period and returned with reformist ideals. The detrimental impact of this can still be witnessed today. These are just some of the causes for the state of Islam today in the Balkans. Of course, there are many other complex discussions surrounding this and not every area in the Balkans underwent the exact same challenges. However, on the bright side, one can see the local imams and scholars working hard to enliven the faith in Muslims; may Allah assist them.
The Islamic Community of Montenegro is divided into thirteen councils: Podgorica, Tuzi, Dinoša, Bar, Ostros, Ulcinj, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Berane, Petnjica, Rožaje, Plav, and Gusinje. The Muslims of Montenegro are mostly Bosniaks and Albanians by ethnicity, but some are also declared as ethnic Muslim Montenegrins. Areas closer to Albania have Muslims of mostly Albanian ethnicity, and areas closer to Bosnia have Muslims of mostly Bosnian ethnicity. There are many who speak both ethnic languages despite their stark differences. However, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian are very close to Bosnian with slight variations, and Kosovo is predominantly ethnically Albanian.
The Muslims of the Balkan countries were one community in Yugoslavia and had a united Muslim body. After the division of Yugoslavia, the Muslims were also divided and split up, and the Muslims of each country formed their own organisations. The national Muslim organisations are referred to as mashihas (in Arabic, mashikha, office of the elders). The head of these organisations is generally called the Grand Mufti. This is an organisational position, rather than an academic one, and is very different from the ifta’ system of the Subcontinent. In the latter, scholars study the ifta’ course, and after graduating are given the title of mufti; they are then expected to respond to people’s juridical questions. It is not an official position but rather a qualification.
The division of the Muslim community of the Balkans has been discussed in depth. The fracture of their community has weakened them considerably. For instance, the Sandžak (pronounced Sanjak) area was divided between Montenegro and Serbia, even though the people are ethnically one and many are even related by blood. Indeed, “Sanjak” identity is preserved, claimed and celebrated by many of the Muslims in this area, even though they may now fall under separate countries due to various wars and treaties. In Arabic, they have coined the term balkana (Balkanisation), that is, “to divide,” similar to ‘awlama (globalisation), or amraka (Americanisation).
The Imams and Community Leaders
Many of the Imams in Montenegro and surrounding countries that we met had studied for about three to four years in either Sarajevo, Kosovo, Albania, or Turkey. Some of them knew a bit of Arabic, while others only spoke Albanian, Bosnian and Turkish. There are also occasionally those who had studied to a more advanced level in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, or Lebanon and then others who had studied in Saudi. They could speak Arabic.
To be an Imam in these countries, it appears sufficient to have studied for a few years, know how to lead daily prayers and deliver a Friday khutba (sermon), and deal with community issues. There is no requirement to have advanced knowledge of the various sciences of Islam. For instance, when asked if there was anyone in Montenegro who had studied the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the Imams in Rozaje said he did not know of any such person. However, some of the scholars we met in Shkodra, Albania, and Novi Pazar, Serbia had studied to higher levels.
Muslims of the Subcontinent may be surprised to find that many of the older Imams in the Balkans do not have a beard at all. It appears to be a cultural and generational issue, as we observed that many of the younger ones had at least small beards. We heard that President Erdogan advised one of the older Imams to keep at least a small beard. Similarly, the Imams outside the masjid would just look like any other individual in their everyday attire. However, when leading the prayer, they put on a ready-made turban and a jubba over their clothing out of respect for the position. There may be other such issues that many from other parts of the Muslim world would find strange, but the Balkans has gone through many tests in the last century, and the fact that they have held on to their faith—regardless of the level of their practice and outer appearance—is a miracle on its own and must be appreciated.
Monday 26th July
Our British Airways 2680 flight was to depart at 6.15 am from Heathrow Terminal 5. These early morning flights are always challenging, as one does not normally get a full night’s sleep and must fit in time for morning prayers, but we opted for a direct flight in order to make the most of our time. A taxi picked up my brother Maulana Shoeb first at 3.30 am and then myself, and we reached Heathrow in good time at about 4.45 am. Check-in did not take much time, as there were few people at the airport. We also met Maulana Abdullah Patel from Gloucester there who was joining us on the trip.
A few hours later, our flight landed at Dubrovnik airport in South-West Croatia ten minutes ahead of schedule. Immigration was straightforward, and as we had one check-in bag, we retrieved this from the luggage belt and promptly exited into the arrivals hall. Our Montenegrin host, Brother Samir Muric, had been delayed a little at the border and was scheduled to arrive in another forty-five minutes. We waited in the cool air-conditioned hall until he arrived due to the extensive heat outside.
Monday Afternoon in Dubrovnik
Samir arrived and we were very happy to see him. He proudly welcomed us to his part of the world and we departed in his Audi Q7 for the Dubrovnik Old Town. We found parking at the Hilton Hotel that was a little pricey at £30 for four hours. We entered the old town admiring the large ornate stone buildings and narrow streets in between the larger thoroughfares, full of tourists.
The Dubrovnik Old Town is regarded as one of the world’s finest and most perfectly preserved medieval cities. For centuries, it rivalled Venice as a trading port with its huge sturdy stone walls built between the 11th and 17th centuries, affording protection to this former city-state. It is well preserved with its Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces, and Renaissance fountains and facades, all intertwined with gleaming wide marble-paved squares, steep cobbled streets and houses, all unchanged for centuries. Our friend Dr Asmar had not joined us at this stage, but later remarked that after having visited and stayed in the same area in Dubrovnik six years ago, he vividly recalled the eeriness surrounding the area and its polytheistic statues and medieval aura. He did not feel it was a very comfortable place to stay for Muslims. Also, there are many steep steps in between the buildings leading up to the top of the surrounding hills. It was meticulously reconstructed after the earthquake of 1667 and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, all new building work is strictly controlled, right down to the shade of green used on the shutters of the buildings in the main street. Many other great towns around the world, especially in our Muslim countries, could benefit from this type of care and control.
We went searching for the mosque, which is in the old city itself. It was marked as number thirty-eight on the local tourist map. There we met the Imam who speaks only the local language and Bosnian, so Samir translated for us. The Imam, whose name is Salkan ef. Heric, studied at Sarajevo Islamic University and has since been serving the Dubrovnik community for thirty-five years. Here are the main points from our discussion:
- Many of these Balkan countries have a post for Grand Mufti, who is legally regarded as the official head of the Muslim community. The grand Mufti of Croatia is Dr. Aziz ef. Hasanovic, who resides in the capital of Zagreb several hours away from Dubrovnik.
- Masjids in Croatia are autonomous from the government.
- The masjids are financed through donations, monthly membership fees, and to some extent zakat funds.
- The Dubrovnik Muslim community has been settled here since around the 1930s, with mainly Muslim migrants from Bosnia.
- In 1929, the first adhan was permitted to be called.
- The current mosque building was purchased in the 1940s, and is located in a large stone building that has been standing since the 16th century.
- Previously, they sufficed with a small prayer place and had no established masjid.
- There are approximately 1,000 Muslim families in Dubrovnik, made up mostly of Bosnians, Albanians and Montenegrins now.
- Unfortunately, halal meat is rare to find here. There is the Taj Mahal Restaurant, serving Turkish food, which is supposed to be halal. It is located close to the Masjid but serves alcohol.
- Many Muslims will just eat the locally available meat as long as it is not pork. They consider this halal.
- Most Muslims in Croatia are Hanafis. The Imam said the Salafi movement has caused some confusion within the community.
- All are welcome to pray and visit the mosque, but he does not allow anyone to preach without permission.
- Islam is taught as part of Religious Studies in state schools, with Muslim teachers selected for the teaching. Additionally, the masjid runs a small maktab.
- The local Muslim children are hardworking and have performed very well in secular studies compared to their counterparts. Many of them go abroad to continue their studies; Turkey and Bosnia are the most popular choices for both Islamic and secular studies.
- A beautiful grand mosque has been planned, estimated to cost €3 million.
The Imam showed us some old manuscripts of religious books he possessed including a 400-year-old copy of the Qur’an. We then took leave and departed from the mosque. We also decided against eating at the local restaurant and managed with the remainder of the food we had packed from home.
From the old city, the shortest route to our first stop in Montenegro—Herceg Novi—went through Bosnia rather than through the southern connected border with Montenegro. We proceeded in that direction and exited through the Croatian border post, but were later turned back from the Bosnian side. Samir’s car had sustained some damage to the front grill a few days earlier and he had not thought anything of it, and so had not filed a police report. We were refused entry into Bosnia due to not having an accident report. Since the traffic coming back into Croatia was so heavy, it took us approximately two hours to get back into the country that we had just departed several minutes earlier.
Alhamdulillah, we made it to the Montenegro border and we were permitted to enter without any issues. We finally made it to Herceg Novi about an hour before Maghrib; unfortunately, we had kept the local Imam waiting for several hours.
Monday Evening in Herceg Novi (Montenegro)
Herceg Novi is a coastal town in Montenegro located at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor and at the foot of Mount Orjen. Herceg Novi was known as Castelnuovo (“New castle” in Italian) between 1482 and 1797, when it was part of Ottoman Empire. The town was apparently built as a direct competition to Dubrovnik. Both cities have similar architecture, but the designs in Dubrovnik were grander. The town once had twenty-nine masjids, but is now left with just one after Muslims had fled to Bosnia. Some ruins were still visible from the Ottoman period; however, according to the Imam we met, these have also since been wiped out
We had a meeting in a café with the Head Imam of the town, Imam Husein Hodzic, as the mosque was currently under construction. The Imam, seventy years of age, waited approximately five hours for us. Imam Husain has worked as an Imam and Khatib for fifty years across multiple countries and communities. He served as Imam in a Croatian Refugee camp (for Iraqis, Syrians, etc), and in Germany for about two years prior to 1992. After 1998 he was Imam in Trebinje, a town and municipality located in the Serbian sector of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He discovered that twenty-nine mosques in the area had been destroyed; he managed to rebuild all of them. He likes to do the work required in a particular area and move on, and he constantly referred to himself as an “Imam without a minbar (pulpit) or mihrab (prayer niche).” The Reis of Montenegro had invited him over to head the community in Herceg Novi, where he has been for the last six years. After decades of no mosque in the town, they now have permission to build an Islamic centre. It is currently under construction and will cater for the 4,000 Muslims of the town. He told us that when they purchased the property, the seller soon realized what it was for and cancelled the sale. Thankfully, he later lost his case in court. Imam Husain has experience in building Islamic centres and mosques from his time in Bosnia. He took us to the site where the shell of the structure had already been erected. We prayed ‘Asr there and made a collective du‘a’ for the ease in completing the mosque’s construction – which still requires fundraising – and for the prosperity of the community. Imam Husain said that some Gulf Arab entities have invested a lot in the local infrastructure and businesses but not in the mosque.
The Imam is very smart and has a way of working in harmony with non-Muslims too. There is now a healthy mutual understanding among the local faith communities, even though the current national government is dominated by heavy pro-Serbian sentiments. The former government had poor relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the church with the largest following in the country, regularly accusing it of promoting Serbian nationalism and undermining Montenegrin statehood. There were protests across the country, demanding withdrawal of the disputed Freedom of Religion Law, which they said allowed for the confiscation of their Church assets and assimilating them into a national Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Imam Husain lent his voice in support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, despite advice against doing so by other Imams. He explained that there were two benefits gained from his move; one was that it would have been more disadvantageous to Muslims if only one consolidated church was formed in the country, and second was that by lending his support to the Church, he would earn their support for him in his efforts for the new Islamic Centre; as a result, they consequently backed him.
After requesting leave from Imam Husain, we departed for the next town on the coast called Bar. This included a ferry trip, and we reached the Grand Mosque of Bar just after 11 pm. The Imam was still at the mosque and we had a brief chat with him. We had ordered food from the restaurant located within the Mosque complex. As it was about to close, we had our food packed for us and took it to our lodging place for the night. This was a large house with decent clean rooms run by an old seventy-year-old couple. We sat down to eat the food and then retired after a very long and eventful first day in these Balkan lands.
Tuesday 27th July
Tuesday Morning in Bar
By the grace of Allah, we awoke to a nice sunny morning and prepared to leave. Many of the houses here have wired canopies built over their driveways, on which they grow various fruits such as grapes and kiwis. It looks very beautiful and the health benefits of this must also be numerous. A recent study shows the benefit of living close to trees.
Bar is a coastal tourist town and seaport in southern Montenegro. From 1443 to 1571, the region was ruled by the Republic of Venice who called it Antivari. In 1571, the Ottomans captured Antivari and held the town until 1878 when they ceded it to Montenegro at the Treaty of Berlin, after losing the Russo-Turkish War. Montenegro renamed the town Bar, although virtually everyone else continued to name it Antivari. Many of the Muslim inhabitants either left or were expelled from the town.
We reached the Islamic Centre of Bar at about 10 am. The Reis had informed the Imam of our arrival and we had a breakfast meeting with him. The breakfast consisted of burek (börek) pastry, an eggplant dish, local bread, sujuk sausages, tomatoes, cheese, coffee and locally made pomegranate juice. There are fourteen mosques in this town with ten Imams, and nine of the mosques hold Jumu’a prayers. The largest Islamic Centre, called the Islamski Kulturni Centar, which we had reached and were admiring in the bright morning sun, is inspired by Turkish and Andalusian architecture. It was built in 2003 on a site donated by an elderly gentleman, and funds collected from locals living abroad in America and some assistance from Turkey. Many Muslims and non-Muslims come here to take photos of the beautiful architecture and to enjoy the environment.
A restaurant has been incorporated within the complex next to the Mosque, the same place we had ordered food from the night before. Apparently, the food and settings are a major local attraction and lots of people of all faiths come here to eat. While we were at breakfast, one of the main officers (a non-Muslim) in charge of the nearby border had arrived for a meal.
Imam Muidin (Muhyiddin) Milaimi, who is originally from Kosovo, did his bachelors in Pristina at the Islamic College, and then went on to Sarajevo to complete his masters, serving the Bar community ever since for twenty-five years. He is a very pleasant and charismatic individual and has a lot of experience in dealing with the local community. He spent some time explaining the history of the area and of the Muslim community. He is the director of the masjid and the Imam for all the prayers seven days a week; he has a deputy for when he needs to go out of town. He said he is at the Centre most of the day, especially on Fridays when he stays from 8 am till after Jumu‘a prayer to help address people’s personal issues. Even non-Muslims consult with him about faith related issues especially when they are not convinced about their own faiths.
When Imam Muidin had arrived in Bar twenty-five years ago, he said it was difficult to even greet the local Muslims with salam, as they were so frightened to reveal their faith. After this masjid was built, Muslims felt much more confident and secure about declaring their faith; the mosques are full on Fridays. Imam Muidin said he delivers a twenty minutes lecture before the Friday sermon, then starts the khutbah. He told us the khutbah is partly delivered in Arabic with the rest in Montenegrin and Albanian. Imam Muidin has two wives. Here are some of the things we discussed:
- Unfortunately, few Montenegrins have gone to study Islam and become scholars to serve the local community over the last century.
- Most of the serving Imams are either from Bosnia, the Sandžak region, or Albania.
- There are only five people who have memorised the whole Qur’an in Montenegro. However, a new Qur’an memorisation school has been established in the capital Podgorica and so they expect many more to memorise the Qur’an.
- While they usually have twenty rak’as of Tarawih in Ramadan, the last Ramadan they only had eight rak’as due to the COVID pandemic.
- Apparently, in recent times there has not been a Qur’an completion in Tarawih in Ramadan anywhere in Montenegro.
- There have been about thirty-eight conversions to Islam locally in the past years.
- Those who are Muslim don’t generally leave their faith, even if they do not fully practice or face difficulties in their practice.
- The local Muslim Waqf (Endowment) Board possesses much land and, as in other areas, they are reclaiming more and more of their original lands from Ottoman times.
- The Waqf Board owns 3,400 olive trees and produces and packs their own olive oil.
- Each town with Muslims can have two members in the National Imams Shura Committee, or Islamic Consultative Body of Imams, which comprises thirty-one members. The Reis (Grand Mufti) of the National Committee holds the highest Muslim position in the country.
- Imam Muidin is the head of the local majlis and also head of the National Shura Committee, under the Reis.
Two non-Muslims, one Montenegrin and the other Serbian, who are currently students in Chicago, came to greet us, and we had a little chat. The Imam then invited us to his office and gifted us all with a bottle of locally pressed olive oil from their own produce. We gave him a gift of some Al Haramain perfumes and three White Thread Press books: Fiqh al-Imam, Handbook of a Healthy Muslim Marriage and A Thinking Person’s Guide to Islam.
Bar has mainly gravel and pebble beaches and hence we did not make an effort to visit them, but made our way to the next coastal town, which has a majority Muslim population.
Tuesday Afternoon in Ulcinj
Ulcinj is just about 12.4 miles (20 km) from Bar, and is a major destination for tourists on the southern coast of Montenegro. The majority of its population is Albanian Muslims and it is the centre of the Albanian community in Montenegro. It was founded in 5th century BC and is one of the oldest settlements in the Adriatic coast. After being under the South Slavs and the Republic of Venice, in 1571 it became part of the Ottoman Empire. However, it ceded to the Principality of Montenegro in 1878.
The Head Imam of Ulcinj is Ali Bardi. We had a meeting with him in a cafe in the mall. He studied in Istanbul and has a Masters degree in Ottoman history. He used to work in Shkodra, Albania and then Podgorica, but since 2012 has been in Ulcinj. With him was Sabahuttin Gorana, who is the local head of the Shura Committee and volunteer at the Muslim Waqf Board. They explained the history of the area and the current situation with the local Muslims. Samir translated for us, as they did not speak much Arabic or English. Here are some things we learned:
- There are at least seven masjids in town now, and four were destroyed under Communist rule. One of them was turned into a church and is now a museum.
- The general population of the town is 22,000, ninety percent of whom are Muslims. The Muslim Albanians now have positions in the government and have also insisted in speaking Albanian when attending Parliament.
- The Muslims have managed to reclaim land that had been taken from them during past wars, with some more valuable land in the centre of town and on the coast.
- We are told that there are excellent opportunities for outside investors to help them build halal holiday resorts here.
- The local Waqf Board also owns about 2,000 olive trees.
- They run a maktab with about 400 students, which works with the school.
- They are trying to build a larger madrasa but lack the funding to do so.
- They run a kindergarten that caters for about 150 children.
- Kuwait has funded many Islamic projects here and tend not to have any strings attached to these investments.
After our meeting over coffee, they took us around town to show us the main Islamic landmarks. On the beachfront resides the famous Lighthouse Masjid, originally built in the 15th century by the Venetians even before the Ottomans arrived in the area. It was destroyed eighty years ago but was beautifully restored in 2012. The beach next to the masjid is full of nudity, especially during the two hot summer months. There was no place to go to enjoy the beach at this location. The Imams told us that it was not unusual for some of the beachgoers, most of whom tend to be Muslim, to quickly cover up with a towel and come to pray in the masjid. Up the hill from the masjid is the Al-Maghrib Hotel, run by a practicing Albanian brother, with a “no alcohol” and “no bikinis” signs outside, and which also serves halal food.
We continued to the top of the hill where they showed us their newest masjid. It is nearly complete and provides a spectacular view of the surrounding hillsides down to the sea, and of the Muslim cemetery. We performed our Zuhr prayer there and met the young Arabic-speaking Imam, a graduate of Madina University.
Tuesday Late Afternoon at the Beach
As we really wanted to visit the beach but at a secluded location, Samir took us to where there were not many people; unfortunately, it was rocky and no fun at all. We then decided to go out of town to find a location with more comfortable terrain. We stopped by a roadside fruit vendor, a young man who said he prayed all his salats. We bought some watermelon from him and visited his fruit patch behind his stall. He advised us that we should wait till about 5.30 pm to let the crowds subside. We eventually found Euphoria Kite Surf Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach about 12.4 miles (20 km) south of Ulcinj town and can be visited after 5.30 pm or before 11 am in the mornings when there are fewer people. One of the attractive aspects of this beach is that one can walk out about 100 to 150 meters into the water with the water only remaining chest-high. We performed our ‘Asr prayer at the water edge with the water crashing at our feet.
Tuesday Evening to Podgorica
After finishing at the beach, we made our way back north past Ulcinj towards Bar to take the road from there to the capital Podgorica. This was less than 62 miles (100 km) away, but took us about two and half hours due to the traffic created by all those returning from the beaches along the coastal route.
We finally reached Mehmet Fatih Madrasa in Podgorica close to midnight. Our fifth companion Dr Asmar Akram, a Glaswegian dentist now residing in Bolton, had arrived during the afternoon to Podgorica Airport and had made his way to the Madrasa and was waiting to join us on the tour. We were looking forward to him joining us too. I had travelled with him to Uzbekistan a few years earlier to join a tour of the country with Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, when our twelve-hour journey had turned into a forty-eight hour one with overnight stays at airports in two countries. In the end we thought it was worth it. We picked him up from the Madrasa and went to a local halal restaurant called Kitchen mEAT. It was there that I realized the connection between the names Samir and Asmar; both are derived from the same Arabic root s-m-r. I told Samir that Dr Asmar is now his elder brother. I think they took it to heart and did get on like brothers. We returned to the Madrasa and were shown to the guest rooms on the fourth floor of the male dormitories. We slept after praying ‘Isha’.
Wednesday 28th July
Wednesday Morning at Mehmet Fatih Madrasa in Podgorica
We awoke around 9.30 am and got ready for a tour of the madrasa. Medresa Mehmed Fatih is the only madrasa (http://www.monteislam.com) in the country and is located in the Tuzi suburb of the capital. This is what we learned from the director’s discussion with us:
- The Madrasa was founded in 2008; it was the first madrasa in Montenegro in 100 years.
- It is a boarding school comprised of six buildings, including a grand masjid.
- They have a four-year course in which students are taught the basics of religion along with secular subjects. It is what may be seen as an ‘Islamic high school’ in many other countries.
- About 100 male students and 200 female students study here; there have always been more females students.
- There are completely separate boarding facilities for the male and females, and the female side has more female teachers.
- The diploma achieved at the Madrasa is recognised by the state and can be used at all universities.
- Many graduates move on to Sarajevo or cities in Turkey or Syria for further studies.
- Interestingly, the first cohort of students graduated in 2012, which marked a resurgence after nearly a century of no madrasas in the country. The last known of the old madrasas to close was in 1918 in the northern municipality of Pljevlja, a city close to the Serbian border.
- The Madrasa is integrated with the civic authorities.
- It was opened by the Reis, and the ceremony was attended by the PM of the country along with other civic personnel.
- 454 students have graduated from the four-year course so far.
- There are students from several other countries here, including Kosovo, Turkey, Ghana, Jordan, Egypt, Bosnia, and Albania.
- They receive some government support, and manage the rest through zakat and sadaqa contributions.
- Muslim businesses provide scholarships for some children.
- The Madrasa also appoints some of its graduates to masjids as Imams and to teach children.
- They run their own radio station that airs 24/7 and reaches most of Montenegro.
We are told that many students don’t know much about Islam when they enrol, but after studying here, they return home and change their entire families for the better. It was not term time, so unfortunately we did not meet any of the students.
Islamic boarding secondary schools combining both the Islamic and secular subjects for both males and females is a huge priority for the various Balkan communities, with many of the larger communities having such schools and other aspiring for them. Indeed, it almost seems like some Islamic subjects are inserted into a full curriculum of secular studies, but the benefit being that it is all taught in an Islamic environment. Accreditation is also very important for them. Nearly all the organisations we met asked us about whether our madrasas were accredited. Our secular education for GCSE and Advanced levels in our madrasas is accredited; while the advanced levels of our Islamic ‘alimiyya education is not accredited, many universities are now accepting the ‘alimiyya certificate for entry into Masters programs, such as Warwick University and University of Central Lancashire (with bridging courses), Markfield Islamic Institute and, more recently, SOAS in London.
We were given a short tour of the library and their other facilities after which we departed for the main city centre. Podgorica usually has a very hot climate in summer, and the day we visited, it was maybe the hottest day of the year at about 42 degrees centigrade. It felt like we were coming out into an oven as the hot air just surrounds you as soon you exit the air-conditioned building. However, it was not very humid and therefore different to what one may experience in Dubai or Bombay. Nevertheless, this was a good reminder of the heat of hellfire—may Allah Most High protect us all.
Podgorica (“area below the little hill”) is the capital and largest city of Montenegro and is home to almost a quarter (24.35%) of the country’s population. The Ottoman Empire captured Podgorica in 1474 and built a large fortress there. The character of the town changed extensively. They fortified the city, building towers, gates, and defensive ramparts that give Podgorica the appearance of an Ottoman military city. Most of today’s Montenegro and Podgorica fell under the rule of the Albanian Bushati Family of Shkodra between 1760 and 1831, which ruled independently from the Imperial authority of the Ottoman Sultan. The end of the Montenegrin-Ottoman War in 1878 resulted in the Congress of Berlin recognizing vast territories, including that of Podgorica, as part of the newly recognized Kingdom of Montenegro. At that time there were about 1,500 houses in Podgorica, with more than 8,000 people of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim faiths flourishing together. Podgorica has some examples of Ottoman architecture. The oldest parts of the city, Stara Varoš (Old town) and Drač, exemplify this with two mosques, a Turkish clock tower and narrow, winding streets.
We reached the headquarters of the Islamic Community of Montenegro, which is located close to the main city centre. This is an independent religious organization established as Muftiate of Montenegro in 1878. The current leader, referred to as the Reis among both Muslims and non-Muslim Montenegrins, is Rifat Fejzić, who had invited us and been the impetus for our Balkans tour.
The headquarters are housed in a new building, which also serves as a Muslim youth centre, and a restaurant is being planned here too. While cafes and restaurants are part of some Islamic Centres in the UK, such as in London and Edinburgh, it is not generally the norm to include them. The main university of Montenegro is in the capital, so the centre holds many seminars and workshops for the Muslim students, of whom about 250 attend. Podgorica has about 20,000 Muslims. We were originally scheduled to have a meeting with the Reis here, but he could not be present as he had to travel to his hometown of Rozaje, where he was hoping to meet us instead. The director of the madrasa had an informative session with us. Here are some of the notes we took from the meeting:
- He emphasised the importance of their madrasa saying it is the key to their survival and women’s education.
- Recently, a Montenegrin Muslim young woman married a Catholic. She had enrolled at the madrasa four years ago and attended for two weeks. Her parents then forced her to leave and enrolled her in a normal school. She entered into a relationship with a Catholic boy and ended up marrying him. The director explained that such marriages are very rare and frowned upon. Hence, the madrasa has been a source of preservation of the Muslim identity.
- Many kindergartens were opening in many towns. The maktab is the key to the survival of children. They encourage children by giving them Eid gifts.
- The guidance for the maktab system currently comes from Sarajevo, who specify the books and curricula.
- Unfortunately, Corona has heavily impacted the education and nurturing system of the children.
- For adults, they have regular lectures and circles delivered by the Imams. Last winter they ran a whole series of lectures nationwide.
- There are a number of Moroccan refugees in the country, but some of them get involved in the wrong sorts of activities.
- In the capital, masjids are generally locked between salat times to prevent abuse by local people, as there are tensions with pro-Serb groups.
I explained how Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband had also started with a humble beginning, with just one teacher and one student under a pomegranate tree, in the setting of British colonial persecution of Muslim scholars and shutting down the madrasas. I tried to give them some encouragement and inspiration for the work they were doing. It dawned on me how it can take decades to get a community back to its Islamic piety and practice after it has been suppressed and secularised for decades.
Tabligh Jamat could have been helpful, but are unfortunately not perceived very positively by the few Imams we spoke to due to misconceptions. Some of them said the Tabligh Jamat just come and want to stay in the masjids. Some locals may bring them snacks like burek to eat, and they just preach to the people who are already coming to the masjid. Another person told us that they look a bit alien because of the clothing they wear. I tried to explain that the Tabligh Jamat had done a wonderful job throughout the world in many countries, including in neighbouring Albania and Macedonia, and they generally travel and eat with their own expenses. It was possible that the locals may have just come across a few members of the group who were not as scrupulous. There is no doubt that the Tabligh work could prove very helpful to the Muslims of Montenegro; as it is essentially a replicable system that is very effective in bringing wholescale religious change on a community level. However, it will require some tact and divine enablement to get the work started and accepted there.
In front of the headquarters is a very old mosque called Osmanagic Mosque. We prayed Zuhr there and then ate lunch at a local restaurant just down the road from it. We then eagerly set off for Rozaje, the mainly Muslim Sandžak region of Montenegro. Samir had continuously told us how practicing the Muslim community was there and how we would really enjoy it.
Wednesday Afternoon from Podgorica to Plav
Our first stop was going to be the town of Plav. The scenes were stunning on our way there from Podgorica. They would compare with some of the most beatific and scenic places I had been fortunate enough to visit around the world, such as the Garden Route between Knysna and George in the Western Cape, South Africa, the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Big Sur Drive in California, and the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands. We crossed beneath the very high newly constructed highway bridge that has been built over the Moraca River Canyon by the Chinese. Montenegro does not have the money to pay for it, and we are told the Chinese want the town of Bar from them.
Samir tells us that the towns from Moracha all the way down to Albania were fully inhabited by Muslims, but that little trace of it remains following the ethnic cleansing. For instance, Mojkovac has only one Muslim family remaining, who conceal their faith. Kolachin had a Muslim majority and a minority of Catholics. Today the story is very different. Samir’s great grandmother had been from there and converted to Islam. We stopped in the town and made some du‘a’ for the area. We continued our journey and passed by the Tara River, in which it is said the blood of Muslims flowed after the massacres there. Mojkovac was next, which is also no longer a Muslim town, and then we reached Bijelo Polge, which has a population of seventy thousand people, half of whom are Muslim. We stopped by a cafe there called Arabian House, which some Emiratis have invested in. They serve karak chai too for those looking for milky Indian tea. The café has an airy balcony with great panoramic views of the river running beneath, the adjacent rain forest and the mountains.
Samir informed us that fifteen years ago, halal meat could not be found in this area; the Muslims would just eat anything that was not pork. But now the situation has improved, and nearly all the Muslim homes have at least one person who prays.
We prayed ‘Asr in the Central Mosque of town; a very well decorated building with a small cemetery next to it, containing graves from Ottoman times. The weather here is much more pleasant at around 32 degrees with a nice fresh air from the surrounding mountains. You get the feeling here of being in a calm village, away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
We continued on our journey and passed Berana, which Samir tells us was over ninety percent Muslim at one time, with very few now remaining. The Muslim inhabitants moved away from the area because of the political pressure and oppression they endured, which in many cases included being killed. On a hill at the entrance of the town we saw a prominently displayed cross, which was apparently a reminder of the murder that Muslims endured. We ascended all the way up the mountain side to pray at a small masjid there. The one local brother who attended the prayer turned out to be a distant relative of Samir; Samir is from the one of the largest families of the area, so he discovered many relatives on this journey. Many of the younger people of the area have migrated to other counties he tells us, and he is also the only member of his family who remains in the area. Attending the prayer were also two other Montenegrins who now live in Luxembourg with many other Montenegrins. They had stopped here just to pray and spoke decent English.
All the local Muslim Waqf lands and caravanserais (traveller lodges) were usurped from them after the Second World War. Of the two original masjids in the area, only this one survives. The Imam is quite old now and is frequently unwell. We were unable to meet him because he had gone out to another area for a family wedding. From this area to Plav, Samir said the Muslims inhabitants have suffered about fifteen genocides.
We finally reached the beautiful town of Plav that is nestled between mountains with a large lake in the centre. Since it was getting late, we decided against stopping there and intended to come back later. We finally reached Rozaje in the Sandžak area. Sandžak is the name of a geographical region in the central Balkans whose territory is divided between Serbia and Montenegro. Its name derives from the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, an administrative district of the Ottoman Empire that existed until the Balkan Wars of 1912. We had just reached the Montenegro section of it and were really looking forward to also visiting the Serbian section.
Samir was very excited and his face lit up. We had finally arrived in the area his father is from. He was very proud that this was the strongest Muslim area of the country (the 2011 Census recorded 95% of the inhabitants to be Muslim). Alhamdulillah, the guest house on the top floor of the Islamic Association’s headquarters was newly furnished, and proved to be the nicest residence we stayed in during our journey.
We prayers ‘Isha in the Grand Central Mosque next door. There were at least two rows of worshippers for prayer, a reassuring sight. The Imam, Ramiz Luboder, who is the administrator of the local Islamic establishment, took us to a restaurant for dinner. Many people made salam to us as we walked by them. We had a good conversation with Imam Ramiz who speaks decent Arabic. He was very impressed by the number of huffaz and madrasas we are fortunate to have in the UK.
Thursday 29th July
Thursday Morning to Novi Pazar, Serbia
Our meetings in Rozaje were on Friday so we decided to visit Novi Pazar first, which was over the border in Serbia. We got up early and departed for Novi Pazar at 7.30 am to avoid the road blocks. There was a lot of work taking place on the main road, as it is a mountainous region and they are working to widen it, so they closed the road at certain times of the day. The other route is a much longer and difficult one through the mountains. We avoided the road block and made it to the Montenegro exit border quite quickly and passed through without any issue. Samir gave the border officer two packets of Heavenly Delights jelly sweets, which Maulana Shoeb had brought along with him. They were grateful.
We were a bit apprehensive about the Serbian border and unsure of how it would play out, given that Serbs had committed so much aggression against the Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere in just recent memory. We had been surprised when Samir told us that there are so many Muslims still in Serbia. I was particularly looking forward to visiting the country and meeting the Muslims there. I enjoy adventures and going to places others have not been or do not usually go. On the way to the border through the small section of no man’s land we started to send blessings on the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and to pray for ease. Alhamdulillah, the Serbian border was actually very pleasant and they gave us no problems at all as we passed through. We were finally in Serbia. The terrain was very similar to the Montenegrin area we had just passed through.
The town of Novi Pazar has a population of about 130,000, of which 80% are Muslims. Despite this, many in the local police force and other officials tend to be Christians. We first went to the main offices of the Mashiha of the Islamic Community in Serbia. We had a meeting with the Head Mufti Dr. Mevlud ef. Dudic, along with Dr. Resad Plojovic, the director of the Islamic University. Dr Dudic first exchanged some greeting with us in English, and then switched to his local language as Almir Pramencovic (an Islamic Studies teacher and whose wife is the first hijabi MP in the Serbian parliament) translated into English for us. He explained the state of Muslims in the country. Here are some of the points of our discussion.
- Serbia has about half a million Muslims, with more than half them living in the Sandžak area.
- The headquarters of the Muslim community is based here too and not in Belgrade.
- The Mashiha organisation controls about 200 mosques with about 200 Imams who serve the community.
- There are about 150 Mosques in the Novi Pazar area.
- The second largest Muslim population of mostly Albanians is in the Preševo Valley, about 120 miles (200 km) away close to the border of Macedonia and Kosovo. It once was part of Kosovo but now belongs to Serbia. They have about seventy mosques.
- The third largest group of Muslims are the Roma who live around Belgrade; about 70,000 of them are Muslims.
- There are a number of Islamic kindergartens (1–7 yrs) in Sandžak with more than 1,000 children attending.
- Before World War II, about forty huffaz were in Novi Pazar, with none remaining after the war.
- The Islamic studies teacher Almir Pramencovic is the first hafiz since and there are now twenty-four huffaz in this area (both male and female).
- Some masjids have also had full Qur’an recitation in tarawih. Their aim is to have at least one hafiz in each city, and at least one person per family who should be able to recite Qur’an.
- Islamic secondary schools in the area go back to 16th Century, but were banned by the communists in 1946 until 1998.
- They opened one in 1998 and have produced local Imams and khatibs and graduates in other fields.
- Currently more than 500 students attend and their certificates are widely recognized.
- They have seen the impact of their schools in the community and have branches of the school in other areas.
- Until 2001, graduates had to go abroad for further studies but now have a post-graduate Islamic studies program in Novi Pazar (students can study up to PhD level).
- These projects are all funded by the local community living here and abroad. Many Sandžak Muslims live in other European countries.
- There is a local charity that operates soup kitchens and supports about 150 orphans.
- They also have a media centre that runs a newspaper called the Voice of Islam, an Islamic radio station and a TV station called Sandžak.
- It is not easy in Serbia but Muslims are getting by.
- Sandžak Muslims have it better than Muslims in other Serbian cities.
- Their biggest challenge is double standards from the state. Islam is legally meant to be equal to other religions, but that is not the way it plays out in reality.
- The government serves the church very well and have even granted them land for free, but they will not return the lands seized from the Muslims.
- There were over 200 mosques in Belgrade during Ottoman times. Now there is only one left with a minaret and two others without.
- There are currently four MPs from the Serbian Muslim community in parliament, including a hijab-wearing woman. This was a major surprise for us, given how this would not be possible in places like France.
- The president of the Muslim political party is the ex-Grand Mufti.
- Alhamdulillah, Muslims no longer have too many safety issues when travelling within Serbia, except when there are big football games or political strife in specific areas.
- Major business investments by Turkey and other Gulf countries has helped to calm some of the negativity towards Muslims. Many of the resulting factories are in non-Muslim areas and employ Christians, which is having a positive impact on the perception of Islam.
- The Muslims consider themselves citizens of Serbia but are ethnically Bosnians; they say: “We are proud to be Sandžaki Muslims.”
- In another town called Bor, there are fifteen musallas (semi-masjids), mostly attended by Roma people, some of whom originated from Egypt/North Africa.
- Most of the Muslim Roma people suffer from poverty.
- The church tries to convert them, so Imams have been trained to protect them.
- The financial maintenance of the Imams is not easy; they are paid about $200 per month only.
- There is no active effort to convert the local population to Islam, as it is quite a sensitive issue. It is said that Muslims want to first preserve Islam there before trying to bring in more converts.
- Inter-religious marriages are rare.
- More Muslims are working in well-reputed and influential positions.
After our meeting we went for breakfast to the Gazia Restaurant, which was just beneath the Islamic Centre. Our conversation continued with two other scholars who had also joined us from their organisation. The food was good with the usual local selections of kebabs and some young buffalo cheese, a speciality of the area that was quite tasteful.
After breakfast, we visited the Islamic University. They had a copy of Shaykh Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri’s commentary on Sunan Abi Dawud, Badhl al-Majhud in the Library among many other books. A delegation from different countries were present in the lecture theatre for a conference that was due to start in the evening.
Thursday Afternoon with the Second Mashiha Organisation
The weather was very hot again today at about 36 degrees. We had to reach a specific masjid for Zuhr, as we had a meeting with the second Muslim association of Novi Pazar. There we met with Shaykhs Bayazid Nicevic and Muhammad Demirovic along with two other scholars who had studied in Egypt and Syria. We had been informed prior to our visit that there had been some conflict in the Mashiha organisation and they had split into two. There were now two Head Muftis in the area controlling two separate organisations and masjids. We had decided to visit both as they were all our Muslims brothers. The first organisation is officially called Al-Jama‘ah al-Islamiyyah fi Serbiyah (The Islamic Association in Serbia), while the second is called Al-Jama‘ah al-Islamiyyah al-Serbiyyah (The Serbian Islamic Association) with an emphasis on Serbian to show their indigenous roots.
The Shaykhs drove us to their headquarters and we had a long, pleasant discussion with them. Since many of them had studied in Damascus, we caught up on some of the teachers and scholars we had studied with there. They explained the split from the other group, which had something to do with the original group becoming more politically-focused and allowing Salafis to take up key positions in some masjids and other parts of the organisation. We were not there to decide who was more correct and who was blameworthy. Instead, I pray that Allah Most High allows them to resolve their conflicts and they can both “hold on to the rope of Allah” and become united.
We then went to lunch with them at a restaurant called Dragulj. As usual, they ordered a mixed grill of the local kebabs, which were very tasty (probably due to the quality of meat in these areas). Unfortunately, there have not been many vegetarian options during our trip, as it is said they are a meat-consuming people and that they feel it is dishonourable to serve guests anything but meat.
Meeting One of My Students in Serbia
I was informed by one of the scholars that I had a student in Novi Pazar. I could not recall any such student from Serbia, so though they may have confused me with someone else. However, when we met her husband Shaykh Mahdi, a Lithuanian Muslim convert who speaks Arabic, he informed me that his wife, who is a Russian convert, had studied the Mastering Menstruation course with me online and that she speaks English. He invited us to his house, where they served us watermelon and apricots. I did recall that there was a Russian student on the course, but I did not know that she lived in Serbia. It was a humbling feeling to discover that our small efforts can reach different corners of the earth and places where we though Islam did not even exist. And all praise is to Allah, He is the Enabler.
Shaykh Bayazid Nicevic is a murid of Shaykh Mahmud Effendi of Fatih, Istanbul (he even looks Turkish), and runs a small madrasa and sufi retreat in Novi Pazar called the Ebu Hanife Education Centre, where they also have weekly dhikr gatherings. It was a very tastefully designed place with a dark green theme that felt very welcoming and serene. We also found a creche style room there to keep the children occupied whilst their parents attended the Majlis.
After the many beneficial meetings in Novi Pazar, our last stop was the famous bazaar of the area that we had briefly visited earlier in the day, now returning to purchase some gifts. By now, most of the shops had closed. When we had come earlier, one of the shopkeepers had ordered a bottle of cold lemon drink for us as it had been very hot outside. As with the Muslims of other areas in the Balkans, they have love for the faith.
Thursday Evening in Tutin, Serbia
We finally left the town for Montenegro, but we had to stop on the way for one last meeting in the mainly Muslim town of Tutin. There we visited the Islamic Girls Secondary School and Madrasa run by Shaykh Sami Dzeko and his father in-law. Shaykh Sami has studied in Damascus speaks Arabic. We were very impressed with their tarbiya program. They don’t charge any fees from the students, and they seemed to have the most holistic education system we had thus far observed on our trip. We sat with them in their library where we were shown a Bosnian translation of my book Fiqh al-Imam, titled Kljucni Dokazi Hanefijskog Fikha (Sarajevo, 2014). Here are some details about their work:
- They have about sixty female students between the ages of 15–18.
- They have run a kindergarten and charity for the past nine years.
- This is the first Islamic boarding school and madrasa in Tutin.
- They have a modest dress code, where students must wear hijab outside madrasa walls too, dress in loose clothes, and so on
- Girls come from as far as 19 miles (30 km) away to attend.
- This is one of the only schools in the area that is completely free.
- Local donors provide some financial assistance but the hosts said it was a miracle that they could keep running it for free.
It was now past 10 pm. They insisted on taking us for a walk through the bustling town centre and its night life. No alcohol is allowed here except in one Serbian pub, so people come here for other drinks and shisha. The hosts wanted to take us through the area to allow people to see Muslim scholars, as they get to see very few. We were all dressed with our normal Islamic garb and I also had on a turban. Here as in other places, a number of people came and greeted us with salams with some requesting to take pictures. I generally do not like to pose for photographs and see it as a vain act. However, it was explained to us that this association with Muslim scholars could prove beneficial for them. We are nothing and everything we have been given is from Allah. For Him is all praise. We only pray that Allah Most High benefit us first through what He has given us and allow us to be of benefit to others.
Even though it was so late, our hosts insisted on accompanying us all the way through the Serbian border to the Montenegro one, to make sure we did not run into any complications. We were to use a very small border because the larger main border would be shut for road works. We gathered the passports together and handed them in at the Serbian border. One of our companions forgot to hand his in. The passports were stamped and we were about to cross the border when he suddenly remembered his passport was still in his bag. He now handed it in and it was also processed. While we may have been able to pass through without doing this, it could have caused him complications if he ever visited Serbia again. Therefore, it is important to have the exit processed and the passport stamped as well if possible, and not ignores the oversight of the border guards.
The majority of this route was over an unpaved dirt road and took about forty minutes, but our hosts accompanied us right up to the Montenegro border. From the border it took us nearly another hour to reach Rozaje well after midnight.
Friday July 30th 2021
Morning in Rozaje and Jumu‘a Prayer
This was the first morning on our trip when we could sleep in a bit, as our first program of the day was the Jumu‘a prayer. So we woke up a bit later than usual. Two local Imams who had studied in Syria, Shaykh Rejhan (pronounced, Rayhan) Hot and his brother Dzihan (pronounced, Jihan) Hot, came to give us a short tour of the local area. These two scholars were very humble and appeared well grounded in their Islamic teachings. In a discussion regarding suitable tafsirs (Qur’anic exegesis) for the public, they were already well-versed with the works of the Usmani Family and nodded in appreciation when the Ma‘ariful Qur’an of Mufti Shafi’ Usmani was mentioned. In fact, one of the brothers had formally studied Takmilah Fath al-Mulhim of Shaykh al-Islam Mufti Taqi Usmani.
They also insisted that we walk through the bustling café area. They did this for the same purpose as our hosts in Tutin the night before: to allow the locals to see or interact with the visiting Muslim scholars. Also, just as the night before, a person came to ask to take a picture with us. In fact, just as we arrived at the gates of the masjid, an old lady with a niqab approached and pleaded that she be allowed to take a picture of me. It was difficult to say no. We then entered the masjid for Jumu‘a. I was to give a short talk in English before the sermon and Samir would translate. Shaykh Rejhan introduced me as the Mufti of England for some reason. I spoke about the following:
- Montenegro is not too far from the UK but we did not know much about it.
- We were unaware that there are so many Muslims here.
- After having first met the Reis in Turkey many years ago, we are grateful to him for inviting us.
- I have heard a lot about the good work that had taken place around the country from Herceg Novi, Bar, and Ulcinj to this area.
- The sacrifices of your elders from the last few centuries have been praiseworthy despite the oppression they endured; this is why you still have faith now.
- People see us and greet us with salam, even though we may look a bit strange to them with our hats, turbans, and sunna inspired clothing.
- People are happy to see us, and this is a sign of their faith.
- Allah says, ذلك ومن يعظم شعائر الله (those who honour the symbols of Allah, show the piety of their hearts (Qur’an, 22:32).
- The people here should contribute to the local Islamic and social work.
- Plan and pray that you can have at least one of your children memorise the Qur’an.
- We have learned that the Muslims are now a lot more practicing than they were twenty years ago; keep trying and you will do well and succeed.
- I would recommend that you read 100 istighfar, 100 prophetic salawat, and at least some Qur’an each day. This will help you maintain your iman (faith).
I ended the talk with the words “Allah vas nagradio”, which means, “May Allah accept you all”, and got an appreciative chuckle from the congregation.
Our companion Mawlana Abdullah called the first adhan. Shaykh Rejhan then delivered the first khutbah, which was in the local Bosnian language and about twenty-five minutes long, and the second khutbah in Arabic, which comprised of a few du‘as and was relatively very short. I then led the salat. People met us after the congregation and we were told that Samir had done a great translation.
Friday Afternoon with the Reis
Our meeting with the main host, the Reis, which had been postponed from Podgorica, was now scheduled for after the prayer at the Islamic school. He arrived and we went into the meeting room. He first thanked us for coming along and accepting his invitation and apologised for not being able to meet us earlier. He said he was suffering from some stomach issues over the last few days. I asked one of my companions to go to my room and bring some Saccharomyces Boulardii capsules I had in my bag. Saccharomyces Boulardii is a type of yeast sourced from the skin of such plants such as lychee and mangosteen and is thought to aid in the treatment of a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. It is a probiotic, which is a class of beneficial bacteria found to stimulate the immune system and protect digestive health. I have found it to be very useful for upset stomachs. I offered the Reis one and said to him that it could help his stomach, if he trusted me with his health. He accepted it and took the pill saying he trusted his brother. The following were some of the points covered in our meeting:
- There are about 140 masjids in Montenegro, which is less than the number of masjids in the city of London alone; however, London’s population of 1 million Muslims is much larger than the population of Montenegro as a whole.
- Muslims are concentrated in certain areas of Montenegro.
- The National Muslim Association (Mashiha) has many agreements with the state, allowing Muslims to practice, wear hijab, and take time off for Eid and Jumu’a.
- Jumu‘a is allowed to be performed in prison, and halal food is to be served in all areas of public service.
- The Reis has been trying to push for a link with British madrasas etc, and is also connected to the British ambassador.
- He said he has a huge respect for the ‘ulama’ of the Subcontinent for their efforts.
- The vision of their madrasas is not to just produce Imams. They want students of their madrasas to be involved in other fields and to help change the perceptions about Muslims in the country.
- We informed him of the madrasa, maktab and advanced Dar al-‘Ulum system in the UK, as well as the other adult courses that are run.
- There is very strong cooperation among the Balkan countries, and they have a good connection with Turkey.
- There are only state schools for 6–15-year-olds as no private schools are allowed for this level. The 15+ schools can be private and are recognised by the state.
- When asked who has been one of the greatest role models for the Reis, he replied that it was the late Necmattin Erbakan of Turkey.
- Regarding our question of how we can help, he said by starting summer schools and reciprocal school visits between Muslim schools of the UK and Montenegro.
Before departing we presented the Reis with several gifts, which he appreciated.
Shaykh Rejhan and Dzihan along with Imam Ernad Ramovic, the former head of Rozaje Imams, took us for lunch to an interesting restaurant located out of town at the edge of a forest of spruce trees. Ognjiste Restaurant, which also turned out to be owned by a relative of Samir, has seating outside in large green grassed area, and there is a mini zoo and stream too. The food was the same as in Novi Pazar; mixed grill and a selection of cheese and peppers. The food was lovely but again it was mainly meat.
Friday Late Afternoon to Plav
After eating, we thanked our hosts and departed for Plav, which is the hometown of Samir’s wife and is about 1.5 hours away. On the way we stopped at the springs of Ali Pasa, which has very cold fresh water springs descending from the surrounding mountains and is said to be therapeutic. Because we wanted to reach Lake Plav before Maghrib, we had no time to take a refreshing dip.
We made it to Lake Plav just before sunset; it was in a stunning picturesque setting with mountains surrounding it on all sides and small houses dotting the hillside. It was nothing like any lake I had seen before. Dr Asmar described it as the Scottish Highlands but with Muslims and masjids. The water was clear and about four meters deep. An older local man, who said he lives in the UK, was getting ready to enter the water. He shook my hands and said the formula of faith(la ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah) five times, making me repeat it after him. He said he was brought up as a communist. His father had been a Muslim scholar but was forced to bring his children up as communists. After a lot of coaxing, he convinced me to take a dip in the water. I was the only one who had shorts on under my upper tunic and he reassured me that he would save me if there were any problems in the water. He said there would be many health benefits in taking a dip in the cold water. Thus, I got in. It was a bit cold but not absolutely freezing. I had to come out quickly as it was nearly Maghrib time. We hoped we could come back again. Many people in this area spoke with us in English as many of the locals live abroad, and they were visiting for the summer holidays.
We finally reached Samir’s wife’s house. It is located high up on one of the surrounding hillsides. It was quite dark by the time we reached, so we could not benefit from the beautiful scenery that our vantage point could have afforded us, although an element of its beauty could be gauged from a really nice photo that Mawlana Shoeb took with his advanced phone camera. Samir’s wife had cooked for us a local rice and meat dish and we were glad to finally eat some home cooked food. Everyone enjoyed it. Samir’s four children are really adorable and were an absolute delight. Samir wanted me to make du‘a’ for his family. I did so and also had our companions supplicate too.
We finally departed Plav and returned to Rozaje at about 1 am. After reaching our destination, we decided that we would pack up and depart once and for all in the morning for Kosovo. Then, instead of returning through Rozaje for Ulcnj, it would be shorter to go through Albania. We would be staying in Ulcinj for the final night of the tour.
Saturday 31st July 2021
Saturday Morning to Kosovo
We set off about 7.40 am for the Kosovo border. The border patrol stamped our passports and sent us to purchase insurance, as Samir’s insurance did not cover Kosovo. The person at the insurance counter provided the insurance for free after he heard we had come for Islamic purposes.
Samir had never been to Kosovo and had suggested that we miss it out to spend some more time in Montenegro. However, I had met many Kosovans in the UK and was interested in learning more about the area, its troubled past and current challenges.
Kosovo is a partially recognised state. It lies at the centre of the Balkans, with a population of c. 1.8 million; and is bordered by Serbia to the north and east, North Macedonia to the southeast, Albania to the southwest, and Montenegro to the west. Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008, and has since gained diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state by 97 member states of the United Nations. Its capital and largest city is Pristina. Ottoman expansion in the Balkans in the late 14th and 15th century led to the decline and fall of the Serbian Empire there; the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 is considered to be one of the defining moments in Serbian medieval history. The Ottoman Empire ruled the area until the early 20th century. Following the Balkan Wars, the Ottomans ceded Kosovo to Serbia and Montenegro. Both countries joined Yugoslavia after World War I. Tensions between Kosovo’s Albanian and Serb communities simmered through the 20th century and occasionally erupted into major violence, culminating in the Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army, the establishment of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the declaration of independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state and continues to claim it as its constituent autonomous province.
Our first stop in Kosovo was at Peja, which is close to the border. It is the fourth most populous city of Kosovo and is situated in the region of Rugova on the eastern section of the Accursed Mountains. Under Ottoman rule the city, then commonly known under the Turkish name İpek, it became a district capital with mosques and civil architecture. From the end of the nineteenth century until today, the city has been the site of nationalist aspirations and claims for both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, often resulting in tense inter-ethnic relations and conflict. Relations between Serbs and Albanians, who were the majority population, were often tense during the 20th century. They led to the Kosovo War of 1999, during which more than eighty percent of the total 5,280 houses in the city were heavily damaged or destroyed.
In Peja, we met a young Kosovan who spoke American English fluently. It turned out that he was from New York, having fled Kosovo as a young man and now returning temporarily to see his city completely rebuilt. It was surreal listening to his experience of the Peja evacuation, and how many people overlooked the advice given at the time to leave while being caught up in the war. As with any hometown, he exhibited a strong sense of pride and connection and wished for his young family to be connected to Kosovo, even though he himself had clearly adjusted to life in the Bronx. We invited him to accompany us but he politely refused, saying he had just returned from the gym and had to shower and run other errands.
Peja is also near the Rugova Canyon or Gorge and a region of the Accursed Mountains. In 2013 this became a National Park and is known for its natural environment and access to the mountain. We went through the town to the beautiful mountain range and canyon. Dr Asmar’s photo caught this beautifully. There is a river running alongside the road. We went past a small camp area where there were numerous US flags. We were told that Kosovo is one of the most ardent supporters of America because of the belief that America saved them from the Yugoslav president and Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s aggression in 1999. After taking a small stop here and drinking some of the cool fresh mountain water, we continued our journey to Prizren.
On the way, we stopped shortly at Djakovica, also known as Gjakova or Djakovitza. It is the seventh most populous city of Kosovo located about halfway to Prizren. During the Ottoman period, Djakovica served as a trading centre on the route between Shkodra and Constantinople. It was also one of the most developed trade centres at that time in the Balkans. The city is also situated at the entrance to the Erenik Valley, where the river Krena flows from the north to the Erenik mountain stream. After a few kilometres, it flows into the White Drin, the longest river in Kosovo. The city was badly affected by the Kosovo War, suffering great physical destruction and large-scale human losses and human rights abuses. According to international human rights organisations, about 75% of the population was expelled by Serbian police and paramilitaries as well as Yugoslav forces, while many civilians were killed in the process. Large areas of the city were destroyed. Most of the Albanian population returned following the end of the war and thousands of new stores were rebuilt.
There are a number of historical monuments in town. The Old or Grand Bazaar is the oldest bazaar in Kosovo, and it served as an Ottoman trading centre. It suffered damage during the Kosovo War but has since been renovated. The Hadum Mosque, located in the Old Bazaar, built in 1594 by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and financed by Hadum Aga, lies by the bazaar. The great Tekke (Teqja e Madhe), built by the end of 16th century by Shejh Suleyman Axhiza Baba (a Sufi mystic from Shkodra), belongs to the Saadi sufi order. We ended up at this lodge coincidently and went in for a visit. There are many plaques and posters on the wall related to the family of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and made us wonder if they were a Shi’ite order. The shaykh of the lodge was not present but another official confirmed that they were Sunnis. One of the rooms in the lodge were full of tombs. We later learned that it is a tradition in Kosovo to incorporate tombs of their shaykhs within a room in the building itself. We were told that there are many such zawiyas in town but we could not stay for long to visit them.
Saturday Afternoon in Prizren
We finally reached our main destination in Kosovo. Prizren is designated as the historical capital of Kosovo even though Pristina is currently the political capital. We did not visit Pristina because of lack of time and we were told it does not have much historical significance. Prizren is not a place to regret visiting. It is one of the oldest settlements in Kosovo and the western Balkans. It was the cultural and intellectual centre of Ottoman Kosovo. It was dominated by its Muslim population, who composed over 70% of its population in 1857. The town of Prizren did not suffer much during the Kosovo War but its surrounding municipality was badly affected. Prizren has a Turkish community that is socially prominent and influential, and the Turkish language is widely spoken even by non-ethnic Turks here. One of the prominent features of the town is the several beautiful Ottoman era mosques, many over 300 years old, with a distinct Kosovan character.
The Head Imam of Prizren, Lutfi Bellak, was waiting for us outside one of the old mosques and helped us find parking in the congested market area outside. Unfortunately, we would not be meeting with the Mufti of Kosovo, Naim Tarnava, as he had travelled to Egypt the same morning. They had requested that we come a day in advance, but due to our appointment with the Reis of Montenegro the day before, we were unable to. Imam Lutfi was meeting with us in his place. He had studied in town and in Ankara, Turkey, and had been the Head of the Islamic Community of Prizren from 2008-2016.
We prayed Zuhr and then sat down in the masjid with him. He gave us some history of the area and the current situation as follows:
- Kosovo has a population of about two million of which ninety-eight percent is Muslim. Among them ninety-two percent is Albanian, the rest being a mixture of Turks, Bosniacs, Serbs, and Catholics.
- There are many masjids in Prizren and at least twelve sufi orders, with the main ones being the Khalwalatis, Naqshbandis, Qadiris, and Rifa‘is.
- Kosovo had 480 masjids before the war. 280 of them were destroyed by the Serbs in the year long war. However, they have now doubled the original number to 820 masjids.
- There are six madrasas in the country: two in Pristina, two in Prizren, and two in Gjilan.
- Prizren has forty mosques in town and about sixty in the wider area.
- You cannot take a single step in Prizren where the adhan cannot be heard at prayer time.
- They have tried to build masjids wherever there are Muslims in town. No other city is like that in Kosovo.
- The Muslim Waqf owns about fifty stores from which they earn income and run the masjids.
- Imams earn about 450 to 500 euros a month, while doctors make about 800.
- The Head of the Muslim community (Mufti) is based in the capital Pristina, but all the other areas have their local Imams and Heads of the National Shura.
- The Mufti and the Imams are totally independent of the government.
- The manufacture of jewellery and weapons were the main occupation.
- There are lots of restrictions in the country because of the EU (we were unable to understand the reasoning for this).
- Kosovans can only travel to four countries without visa, as it is not recognised by everyone due to their issue with Serbia.
- In Prizren, all the meat can be considered halal as they are more particular here. However, the same cannot be said for other areas in Kosovo, so one needs to be careful there.
- The Americans have a huge base in the country and wield a lot of influence due to how they assisted in ending the war.
- Ten thousand Serbs left from the town after the war. Only a handful of their old folk remain.
Imam Lutfi is an extremely warm, welcoming and open-hearted person who has a lot of experience working with people. He first took us to the Islamic secondary school called the Alauddin Madrasa where we met the director, Almedin Ejupi. He was very happy with our visit and said we are the first group of scholars from the UK to visit the School. Madrasa Alauddin was founded in 1951 and it is one of the oldest Islamic religious schools in the country. Its main campus is in Pristina and it has two separate subsidiaries in Prizren and Gjilan. It has around 600 students, both male and female. Students who graduate from this school have the right to pursue studies at home and abroad, and the head campus in Pristina ranks second (behind the well-known Sarajevo-based Gazi Husrevbeg Madrasa in the Balkans) in the training of Albanian-speaking Imams and religious teachers.
The director studied at Madina University and is known to be an expert in the laws of inheritance. After our meeting, he presented me with a gift of an engraved metal frame of the Prizren hillside with its skyline of mosques and other monuments, and a copy of his book.
We then went for lunch with Imam Lutfi. This time I insisted that we order a measured amount of food. Alhamdulillah, it proved to be enough and no wastage took place. On some occasions during our trip we had wastage due to over ordering food.
He then took us to visit several of the old masjids and insisted over and over again that we stay with him the whole day. We had originally intended to stay in town for about two hours so we could stay a bit longer in Shkodra, Albania in the evening, but we ended up staying for much longer in Prizren due to love and warmth of the Imam winning us over. We would now have less time in Shkodra, but Albania was never the main objective of our trip anyway. Albania is big enough to warrant a separate trip as there is so much more going on there according to what we had learned.
Imam Lutfi started the tour with the many old mosques in the city. The first was the Sinan Pasha Mosque, an Ottoman Mosque that was built in 1615 by Sofi Sinan Pasha (not to be confused with Mimar Sinan in Turkey). The mosque overlooks the main street of Prizren and is a dominant feature in the town’s skyline. It has a very high dome and reminds one of the Aya Sofia Mosque in Istanbul. There is another smaller building in its courtyard that houses many old copies of Islamic books and manuscripts. Unfortunately, it did not look very cared for. The Sinan Pasha Mosque was declared a Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1990 by the Republic of Serbia.
We then visited the Emin Pasha Mosque that was built in 1247/1831 and restored in 2015 by the Turkish organisation Tika, and is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Kosovo characterized by the many drawings it has on its walls. After the ‘Asr prayer, the Imam met us and asked where my scarf was from. I told him it was Egyptian and he could take it if he wanted, or I could give him a newer one that I had in the car. He said he would accept the new one and gave me one of his white coloured scarves.
Imam Lutfi then took us to a beautiful and serene Khalwati zawiya (spiritual lodge). It had both an indoor and a covered outdoor seating area along with a bubbling fountain in the courtyard, and a small channel of natural mountain water running through it. We observed in many places around town that they have taps with cool water running through them throughout the day. This is from the mountains that surround the town. We were served Turkish coffee at the zawiya.
Imam Lutfi then took us for ice cream in the town centre. He would be disappointed if we refused so we accepted his hospitality. It is a virtue to bring happiness to someone’s heart. The Imam is well respected in town and has the discretion to drive around, even in car free areas. This made our travel a bit quicker and convenient. He took us to the shopping area of Prizren so we could purchase some gifts for home. I waited in the car with him. He showed me pictures of his meetings with the late Erbakan, President Erdoğan of Turkey, the former head of Turkey’s Diyanet Muhammad Gormuz, and many others.
Saturday Night to Shkodra Albania
We finally left the enjoyable company of Imam Lutfi and departed for Shkodra. From Prizren to Shkodra, and then on to the border with Montenegro are the best and most developed roads we had seen so far throughout our Balkans trip. Also, the borders of both countries with Albania (Kosovo and Montenegro) are integrated with their offices being next to one another. The officials of the country of departure take your passport, check them, and pass them onto the officials of the country of arrival. They process your entry and hand you back your passport. This took very little time, and as it was nearing Maghrib time, we stopped by a small masjid on the side of the highway as soon we entered Albania. For some reason there happened to be more children than adults for the prayer. It is stated that the number of children in a masjid is a good measure of the health of the Muslim community. The Muslims of Albania had probably gone through the worst form of suppression among the Balkan countries, so this was a very reassuring site. I could not help but Tweet this straight after the prayer. We also found a copy of the Fada’il A‘mal in the masjid.
We reached Shkodra at about 10.30 pm. Shkodër or Shkodra is the fifth most populous city of the Republic of Albania and one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans. Its location has been of strategic importance throughout its history. In 1479 the city fell to the Ottomans and the city became a seat of a newly established Ottoman sanjak, the Sanjak of Scutari. It became the economic centre of northern Albania with its craftsmen producing fabric, silk, arms, and silver artifacts. It retained its importance up until the end of the empire’s rule in the Balkans in the early 20th century. The city was an important meeting place of diverse cultures from other parts of the Empire, as well as influences coming westwards, by Italian merchants. It was a centre of Islam in the region, producing many ‘ulama,’ poets and administrators, particularly from the Bushati family. Ulcinj (which we visited in Montenegro) served as a port for Shkodër. During the Balkan Wars, Shkodër went from one occupation to another after the Kingdom of Montenegro took it from the Ottomans. However, Montenegro was compelled to leave the city to the new country of Albania in May 1913, in accordance with the London Conference of Ambassadors.
Shaykh Muhammad Sytari, the Head Mufti of the town, was waiting for us. He studied in Syria, and was a senior student of the great Albanian scholar in Sham, Shaykh Wahbi Ghawji. Shaykh Sytari is known to be a good scholar and sports a nice beard, too. He took us to a large restaurant on the side of Lake Skadar for some tea.
Lake Skadar, also called Lake Scutari, Lake Shkodër and Lake Shkodra, lies on the border of Albania and Montenegro, and is the largest lake in Southern Europe. It is named after the town of Shkodra and the Montenegrin section of the lake and surrounding land has been designated as a national park, which we visited the next day on our way to the airport in Podgorica. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a good view of the lake in Shkodra as it was dark.
A Hamawi scholar who now lives in Saudi was visiting the Shaykh. We had a short discussion with them and apologised for not being able to spend more time in town. I gave Shaykh Sytari a copy of my Fiqh al-Imam, and he immediately asked me to write a note in it granting them permission to translate it into Albanian; they have had problems with detractors of the four schools of thought. I signed the note, but upon my return to the UK, I was sent information on social media that an Albanian translation has already been produced and published by the Logos A publishing house in Macedonia as Provate Kyce te Fikhut Hanefi. And for Allah is all praise.
We departed from Shkodra at 11.20 am and reached Ulcinj at about 12.30 am with easy passage through the integrated border with Montenegro. We had already booked two large rooms in an apartment in Ulcinj two days earlier. We arrived there and settled for the night.
Samir is also trained in cupping (hijama), so we finally managed to find an opportunity for him to perform the cupping on me. May Allah reward him abundantly.
Sunday 1st August 2021 (Final Day)
Sunday Morning at Ulcinj Beach Again
The best time to visit the beach was before 11 am, as that is when the crowds arrive. We went to the same beach we had visited before at around 9.30 am. There were just a few people around, so we were able to enjoy the water without having to avert our gaze too much. In the UK, it is not easy to enjoy the beach since there are only a few hot days to enjoy them and they easily get overcrowded. When given the opportunity to enjoy the waters it is good to take it, and then to thank Allah for the bounty. We then returned to the apartments, packed up and proceeded to Podgorica for the airport. We stopped on the way to buy some burek for the onward journey and also stopped for a short while on the Montenegro side of Lake Skadar.
The Podgorica airport is very small and does not have a designated prayer area. We prayed ‘Asr in a corner in the check-in hall, and then Maghrib in the departures hall just before we boarded. Alhamdulillah, there was no feeling of being frowned upon from anyone around. Our return flight was on RyanAir FR 7962 directly to Stanstead Airport. It was not a full flight, possibly due to the covid restrictions.
On the return flight I praised Allah for the very smooth and fulfilling journey. We were informed that we were probably the first group of Scholars to visit Montenegro and Novi Pazar through such a detailed tour. Allah Most High had made it very easy for us, and aside from being turned back from the Bosnian border on our first day due to the absence of an accident report, we had no other hiccups on the way. I pray that Allah accepts this journey, allows its purpose to be fulfilled, and makes it the means of greater collaboration with the Balkan Muslims and improvement for Muslims globally. May Allah reward Samir abundantly for the journey could not have been the same without him. He was the host, the coordinator, the guide, the translator, the driver, and our historian. He really lived up to the Prophetic hadith: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should honour his guest” (Bukhari, Muslim). May Allah reward also my companions Maulana Shoeb, Maulana Abdullah, and Dr Asmar. A journey cannot be complete without good companions. May Allah also reward all those along the way who hosted us, assisted us, guided us, and who wished us well.
Additional Travel Notes
Halal Food: Halal meat is not easy to come by and one needs to be careful with the meat options, as many of the local Muslims consider anything other than pork to be halal. There are some towns like Ulcinj and Rozaje, and Novi Pazar in Serbia where we were informed that ritually slaughtered halal meat exists easily. Wherever we were in doubt our host Samir would advise us to eat just the vegetarian burek with cheese, spinach or potato, and to avoid meat.
Roaming: Vodafone allowed for full roaming in Croatia as it is one of their Roam-free destinations, but not in any of the other countries we visited. They were all in the roam-further category, which allows calls and texts to be received for free, but has a charge of £6.00 a day for making calls or using data. A local MTel or Telenor sim in Montenegro can be purchased for between €5 and €10 for up to 50GB. This allowed us roaming throughout all the Balkan countries we visited. The latter option is therefore recommended.
Shopping: Food, coffee, fruit, and general groceries are less expensive than in the UK. However, those who enjoy good tea will struggle to find a good cuppa. Only once was I served English breakfast tea, another time Earl Gray. It was mostly a herbal tree of some sort, so I would just make due with a coffee. It would be a good idea to take your own tea bags.
Masjids: Nearly all masjids, new and old, have for women a mezzanine floor overlooking the main hall. However, for Jumu‘a prayers, it is used exclusively for men due to the limitation of space.
Lodging: There are many hotels and bed and breakfast places available. We only rented rooms in large houses for two of our seven nights. The remaining nights we stayed in the guest rooms run by the Islamic organisations. The one in Rozaje is particularly very well furnished.
Toilets: Most places have the normal Western style raised toilets; however, many masjids and some cafes have the healthier low pan Eastern toilets.
Borders: All the staff at the borders were pleasant and, notwithstanding the problem at the Bosnia border, did not give us any hassle. They spoke to us pleasantly and were quite casual in their approach (unlike what one may experience at a UK or Western European border), even though all of us (bar the driver) were dressed in overtly Islamic dress. They only asked to see everyone in the car to match them with the passports once or twice and overall seemed to be satisfied with our covid vaccine and test certificates. This should not be taken for granted as Samir recalled some bad experiences he has had before, especially at the Serbian Borders.
Language: A few of the younger folk speak some English, especially in tourist areas. However, having a local translator is very convenient; it made the travel and getting by so much easier for us.
Car Accident: If your car has sustained any damage, then ensure you have filed a police report and you keep a copy with you. Without one you could be turned away from a border.
Registration: If you stay for more than twenty-four hours in Montenegro, you have to register at a Police Station. This does not seem to be a very widely followed procedure, as we were not advised by anyone to do so, and were asked only once at a border about it. They let us through after hearing that we were guests of the Reis.
Here are some of Dr. Asmar’s reflections about his travel to Montenegro:
“New places bring new people, who often bring new lessons. Having had the honour of travelling to various countries previously with many scholars, one always returns with experiences and memories that shape an individual, improve one’s outlook on life, and re-ignite a zeal to serve Islam. As such, it was a blessing to receive an invitation from our dear friend and senior Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera to join him on another Balkans tour, having previously been in the region a few years ago with Shaykh Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, I arrived two-days later, as I was accompanying our beloved teacher, Mufti Sufi Tahir of Darul Uloom Bury, on a short tour of Scotland. Perhaps that journey, like many others, is a travelogue for another day.
Being the bargain-hunter that I never once was, I managed to book a £5 Ryanair flight from Stanstead (London) to Vienna (Austria), and then after a 3-hour layover flew onwards to Podgorica (Montenegro) with Wizz Air for £45. With add-ons, the total cost of the journey came to £95. Being a dental implantologist by trade, our teachers, including Mufti Shabbir Ahmad Saheb, whom many of us including Mufti Abdur-Rahman have had the honour of studying under, scolded me gently upon occasions that one must not lose focus of one’s expenditure regardless of how much wealth one may have. Having asked my elders to pray for our journey prior to our departure, my travel into Montenegro was hassle-free, Alhamdulillah. This was in stark contrast to our two-day ordeal reaching Uzbekistan with Mufti Abdur-Rahman in 2019.
After landing on Tuesday afternoon, I promptly made my way via a 15 Euro taxi ride to Mehmet Fatih Madrasa, the rendezvous point with the rest of the group. Upon reaching the Madrasa I quickly realised that language would be a barrier. In any new country, it is interesting to see what people’s reactions are towards you, especially when dressed in overtly Islamic garb. Apart from the security guard that showed me to my room, nobody would interact with me. Not that there is anything worth approaching me for, but many will be able to relate to the awkwardness of being in a new environment. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the locals felt somewhat threated by a newcomer. For me, this meant that a heart-winning strategy was in order. I observed the locals at the masjid during the day, paying careful attention to how they interacted with each other, what they smiled at, what they got upset at and inevitably, where perhaps I could help them or at least join them. Post-‘Asr presented my opportunity with – as is common in many ex-Ottoman state—a gathering of dhikr and du‘a’. My participation was somewhat an ice-breaker, perhaps proving in their eyes that I am not the right-wing Salafi that the locals may be averse to. Then the land was half-conquered by Maghrib, with an invitation extended to me to give the adhan on the masjid loudspeaker. I promptly obliged; why would one decline? Indeed, the famous Khalifah ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz would often say that if he wasn’t the leader of the faithful, he would retire to become a mu’adhdhin. After ‘Isha’, darkness had descended with a unique warmth that we aren’t accustomed to in the UK. I waited for the others to arrive, battling hunger with a secret pleasure. Finally, our companions arrived around midnight, and we gathered for a long awaited-meal.
Here is another reflection of Dr Asmar in relation to our host Sami Dzeko in Tutin, Serbia:
“Travelling resembles life in so far as it brings in your path many people, but few stand out and even fewer you remember. It is the same for Islamic scholars. In a world of titles and accolades, it can often be difficult to find the “real deal.” What was intended to be a flying visit through Tutin, Serbia, resulted in many hours with Sidi Sami Djeko, a local scholar who had studied in Syria during his youth. It wasn’t necessarily the quality of his institution that stood out, or even his exemplary character of accompanying us through two borders in the dead of the night (when many of us even fail to fulfil the Sunnah of seeing off guests at our doorstep), but something deeper, even spiritual, within him. As we left Tutin, I sought permission and opted instead to sit in Sidi Sami’s car on the way to the first border. Much like Sidi Sami, his car was small, used, old and dusty but exuded sincerity and sacrifice. As is well known by anyone who studies the lives of pious predecessors, great people build up a new generation of great people. I asked Sidi Sami about his inspiration and indeed why he is where he is in life. As a pleasant surprise, he told me of his special bond with his teacher in Syria during his youth, Shaykh Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, the “Shaykh of the Levant.” Knowledge aside, he spoke of serving his teacher. While many students today consider serving one’s teacher a “burden,” the bond between the two was such that Sidi Sami would continue to see Shaykh Bouti in his dreams after his demise. In fact, when Sidi Sami later returned to his homeland, he described a unique dream whilst he was selecting the topic for his Masters dissertation. Shaykh Bouti appeared in Sidi Sami’s dream wearing a dirty kafan (burial shroud) requesting Sidi Samir to change it for him. Based on his interpretation of the dream, Sidi Sami altered his topic choice and instead opted to work on the writings of Sidi Buti, refuting incorrect allegations made against him. May Allah Most High also give us a special bond with our teachers and enable us to work with genuine sincerity and sacrifice.
Biographies of Some Balkan Scholar
By Dr Asmar Akram
The Beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) of Allah Most High stated:
مَنْ قَالَ بِهِ صَدَقَ وَمَنْ عَمِلَ بِهِ أُجِرَ وَمَنْ حَكَمَ بِهِ عَدَلَ وَمَنْ دَعَا إِلَيْهِ هُدِيَ إِلَى صِرَاطٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ (رواه الترمذي)
“Whoever speaks according to it (The Qur’an) then he has said the truth, and whoever acts according to it he is rewarded, and whoever judges by it he has judged justly, and whoever invites to it then he guides to the straight path.”
During our travel, we were keen to learn of recent notable ‘ulama’ (scholars) who had contributed to the preservation of Islam in the area. We came across a book entitled العناية بالقران الكريم في البوسنة منذ فتحها الي الآن (“Care and Attention for the Noble Qur’an in Bosnia from its Independence to Date”).
This Arabic text authored by Dr Izzat Tarzitshi was originally submitted as part of a PhD thesis for Ez-Zitouna University (Tunisia) and focuses on the efforts made in the Bosnian region for the preservation of the Qur’an. Whilst this remained its primary focus, as indicated by the hadith above taken from the book’s introduction, the book does expand into other areas such as making mention of scholars whose work was recognised in other Islamic Sciences too. The writer laments the lack of literature available in Arabic describing the sacrifices in the region during and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, we were fortunate to obtain a few scanned pages of this text and therefore deemed it appropriate to make mention of some of those luminaries below:
- Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Mostari
He lived at the end of the 17th and into the 18th Century CE. He authored Tanwir al-Qulub Min Zulmat al-Qulub, Dhikr Istilahat Ashab al-Hadith and Talkhis al-Bayan: Alamat Mahdi Akhar al-Zaman.
- Muhammad al-Bosnawi
His birth date is not recorded but he passed away in 980AH/1572CE. He was known for compiling Forty Hadith (Al-Araba‘in) from the eminent Companion Hadrat Ali (May Allah ﷻ be pleased with Him), translating the Arabic into Turkish poetry.
- Ahmad Wali
He was born in Novi Pazar (modern-day Serbia, where we were fortunate to visit). He was from the great scholars and poets of his era and also was appointed a judge in the same city. He also had a Forty Hadith collection in Turkish.
- Darvish Ali ibn Mustafa al-Bosnawi al-Hanafi al-Khalwati
He was from amongst the famous scholars of Sarajevo and the Shaykh of the Ghazi Khusrfabak spiritual lodge. He authored a book Fada’il al-Jihad, in which he presented a poetic translation of 120 hadiths split evenly between three chapters.
- Sulayman al-Bosnawi
He learned from the great scholars of Istanbul and became a teacher at Dar al-Hadith Jeeni Zadah (also in Istanbul) around 1091AH/1680CE. He passed away whilst being an appointed judge and was known by the title “Qadi of Makka.”
- Muhammad ibn Muhammad Handzic
This scholar was an amazing example of serving Islam in times of adversity. Whereas most of the scholars listed above served during the time of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Shaykh Muhammad served after this period when Bosnia had been annexed into non-Muslim Austria following the bloody Austria-Hungry War. As we read his achievements below, bear in mind that he only lived until the tender age of 38. It is no wonder that others scholars have referred to him as the Mujaddid (Reviver) of the Bosnian region.
He was born in Sarajevo in 1324AH/1906CE. He graduated from the famous Ghamnazyawm Shari’ee Madrasah obtaining distinctions at every stage of his education. He was a master of the Arabic language including poetry. He then left his homeland to study in the world renowned Jami‘ah Al-Azhar of Cairo (Egypt) in the year 1345AH/1926CE. During his time there, he did not confine himself just to the institution but frequented the private gatherings of multiple scholars around the city. Following this he travelled for Hajj with his father in 1350AH/1931CE, benefitting from the scholars of Hijaz. Upon returning to Bosnia, he was appointed a teacher at Madrassah Ghazi Khasrfabak Sarajevo in 1356AH/1937CE where he was also responsible for its famous library housing many manuscripts. He later also taught at Al-Ma‘had Al-A‘la li ’l-Shari‘ah in Sarajevo. He remained in service there until he passed away in 1363AH/1944CE.
He was nothing short of a polymath based on his literary service, authoring over 300 books, articles and discourses. There was no Islamic science that his pen did not honour, although the majority of his writing was in the field of Hadith. We mention herein some of his books:
- Izhar al-Bahja bi Sharh Sunan Ibn Maja
(This is present in manuscript form No. 6963 in the Ghazi Khasrfabak Library)
- Al-Sunnah (a collection of forty-one hadiths and commentary)
- Sharh Kitab Taysir al-Wusul ila Jami’ al-Usul min Ahadith al-Rasul li ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Ali al-Shaybani (d. 944AH/1537CE)
- Muqaddimat al-Hadith
This book includes various aspects in relation to the science of Hadith. It became widely accepted such that it was taught in most institutions in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
- Kitab fi Usul al-Fiqh
This book contains a collection of discussions in relation to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.
- Ara’ al-‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin allazina A‘arazu al-Nikah al-Mukhtalit
This discourse expounds on the dislike of Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women
- Salami Zada
Not much is known about this Scholar. He was born in Sarajevo and penned Risala fi ’l-Tahara in 997AH/1588CE. This Arabic text was written in response to a scholar who alleged that Sarajevo does not have a scholar who can teach the people about purity.
- Ibrahim al-Akhisari
His title indicates that he was from a city known for its scholars (Akhisar). He has a book of fatawa entitled Fatawa Akhisari in which he has collated various juridical opinions. This can be located in the National Library in Vienna, Austria.
- Ibrahim ibn Iskandar Muniri al-Balghradi
He was born in Bosnia where he studied at an elementary level. He then travelled to Istanbul for higher studies. He was then appointed as a lecturer and Mufti in Belgrade. He remained there as a judge issuing legal rulings until he passed away in 1026AH/1617CE. Some of his numerous works include the likes of Al-Sab‘iyyat (a classic text on Geography), Nisab al-Intisab wa Adab al-Iktisab (a text on business manners and morals), and Silsilat al-Muqaribin wa Manaqib al-Muttaqin (a book discussing pious sufis).
- Dr Ahmad Ismailovic
The heritage of scholars in this region extended right until the 20th Century and beyond. Dr Ahmad was born in 1356AH/1937CE in Srebrenica – the town that later in 1995 would witness one the largest genocides to take place against Muslims in Europe. After his elementary education, he travelled to Jami‘a Al-Azhar in Cairo where he completed his doctorate. After his return to Bosnia, he held the most senior position of Islamic scholarship and lectured in many areas including ‘aqida. His influence had a great impact on the public, particularly in correcting their beliefs at large. His writings are many, spread within multiple volumes of scholarship. He passed away under peculiar circumstances in 1407AH/1987CE, which led many to suspect his death was caused by Shiahs.
In conclusion, there are numerous scholars whose sacrifices have resulted in the preservation of Islam within Central Europe. We selected a mere sample from the many mentioned in the book above, and we ask Allah Most High that He accepts each and every one. This goes for all scholars whether they were known or unknown, preserved by their writings or not. May Allah Most High allow us also to follow in their footsteps in leaving a legacy that will also serve mankind. Amin.