Progress in social and technological fields brought about positive developments in the mentality of Macedonia’s Muslims, and thus helped to organize religious life.
By Suleyman Recebi, President of Islamic Union of Macedonia Association
Muslim life in the Balkans and especially in the Republic of Macedonia started with the arrival of the Ottomans in this region. It has been observed that after the Ottomans seized power over the Balkans, a constant increase started to take place in the adoption of Islam by the indigenous population. The Ottomans attributed great importance to the organization of religious life and never hesitated to build mosques, madrasas and similar religious structures in order to meet religious needs of the Muslims.
After the withdrawal of the Ottomans from these lands, the Muslims were left defenseless in a military sense, and one can imagine that they went through severe difficulties and unfair treatment and were exposed to human rights violations in all walks of life, including political, social, economical and educational aspects. It is worth emphasizing that the collapse of communism, which is regarded as a regime of suppression, and its replacement by democracy seemed to be a happy development for the Muslims.
However, the happiness of the Muslims who were longing for democracy did not last very long. Unfortunately, during this period, which is called both the “intermediary period” and the “transition period”, the Muslims have been struggling under extremely challenging conditions to re-obtain their basic rights, which have been violated in many fields, such as education, employment, citizenship, and to regain their properties.
The Islamic Union of Macedonia, the only religious authority dedicated to organizing the religious life of Macedonian Muslims, has been making great efforts to organize the lives of the Muslims both under the former single party system and in the newly emerging dynamic conditions during this period following transition to democratic processes.
A Short History of the Religious Life of Macedonian Muslims
The religious lives of the Muslims in these territories during the Ottoman rule were directly regulated by the authority of the chief religious official in Istanbul. Nevertheless, after the Balkan wars, and especially after World War 1, the religious life of Muslims in these territories began to be organized by the religious administration whose headquarters were located in Sarajevo. The Islamic Union of Macedonia was responsible for activities both during the administration of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, as a department of the Islamic Union in Sarajevo.
The former Yugoslavian administration during the era of the single party system was putting obstacles in the way of the flourishing and practicing of Islam by intervening in the religious life of the Muslims, and by different forms of blackmail, segregation, as well as politically unjust and clandestine transactions. Unfortunately, during the period of communism, it was largely the Muslims who were profoundly affected by the ruthless war waged against religion in general. Behind the attitude of “hostility against religion”, it was only the Muslims who were chosen as the target enemy and persecuted with discriminatory policies. At that time, the Republic of Macedonia, which was an integral part of the former Yugoslavia, was chosen as the place where these kinds of anti-democratic laws, projects and political hoaxes were used with the aim of making the lives of Muslims more difficult.
As a result of these inhumane and uncivil conditions and practices, many of the values of Macedonian Muslims were destroyed; the properties of the religious foundations were looted with the support of the state; the mosques and similar religious structures were razed to the ground under various nonsensical pretexts. In addition to that, different projects were drawn up in order to prevent an increase of the Muslim birth rate; the surrounding walls of the Muslim houses were destroyed; no permission was given to construct new mosques or religious structures in order to meet basic religious needs; the setting-up of Quran courses in the small schools of mosques was hindered, and pressure was put on the pupils and their parents via the teachers who opposed these courses; the Islamic call to prayer (adhan) via the loudspeakers from minarets was not permitted; religious officials were interrogated for no reason and this was used as a means of pressure; education in the native language was prevented.
Despite all these kinds of systematic pressures on the religious lives of Muslims, the Islamic Union of Macedonia made extraordinary efforts to spread and develop the Muslims’ dedication to their religion, and to enable them sustain their religious lives with all their institutions and corporations, even the imposition of under improper conditions and practices.
The only solution to sustaining successful religious activities under extremely negative circumstances was considered to be the bringing up of religious cadres. On the other hand, in Macedonia, since there was no school delivering religious education equal to that of high school, the religious cadres were receiving education in the madrasas in Pristina, Sarajevo and abroad. The Islamic Union of Macedonia started an initiative to open Isa Bey Madrasa (Imam-Hatip High School) in 1979 for the purpose of bringing up religious cadres in Macedonia itself. After a long and challenging struggle, a school building was constructed in Kondova village of Skopje, and this educational institution started to operate in the academic year of 1984-85. This madrasa, which provides dormitories for male students, has been giving education free of charge.
As a different, but equally important, religious activity, the Islamic Union of Macedonia has attributed great importance to the printing of religious literature, and to making it available to a wide audience. Religious literature has also been printed in Sarajevo and has been sent to the other regions of Macedonia and Yugoslavia. In addition, courses of Quran study and the giving of religious education were paid great attention. Although not only the related institutions of the state, but also the so-called ‘enlightened’ men of the Muslim communities put great hurdles in their way, remarkable success was gained in these activities as well.
The Religious Life of Muslims in the Multi-Party System
After the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the establishment of an independent Macedonia which followed, the Islamic Union also went through changes. It left the Yugoslavia Union of Islam and formed the Islamic Union of Macedonia. The Islamic Union of Macedonia has continued operating as an independent religious institution, with its constitution being recently approved in 1994.
As stated in its constitution, it was approved that the Islamic Union of Macedonia was a continuation of other Islamic religious unions. This means that the Islamic Union of Macedonia is the inheritor of the financial assets and real estates belonging to other Islamic religious unions which had carried out activities here during the course of history.
Macedonian Muslims with different ethnic roots are being organized under the umbrella of the Islamic Union of Macedonia, which is their only religious institution, and continue to maintain their religious lives. On the other hand, the Islamic Union of Macedonia expends extraordinary efforts in organizing the religious life of all Muslims across the country and in a perfect way in order to preserve Islamic values and to protect the Muslims against all the negative factors that will harm their spiritual or worldly values. Taking into account the fact that the Muslims in Macedonia are members of different ethnic communities, such as Albanian, Turkish, Torbesh (Pomak), Bosnians, Roman communities, we can safely say that the Islamic Union of Macedonia has a multi-national structure.
After Macedonia’s gaining its independence, the Islamic Union of Macedonia started to carry out activities as an independent religious institution, particularly thanks to its new constitution, which was accepted in the year of 1994. As an independent institution, the Islamic Union of Macedonia has made clear its duties and authorities in its constitution. At the same time, this independently established institution has been entitled to inherit the properties belonging to the former Islamic religious unions, which carried out activities in the past. This right is unequivocally and clearly stated in the constitution of the Union of Islam. In parallel to this, the Islamic Union of Macedonia is responsible for regulating the religious life of the Muslims inside as well as outside the country, and in the places where they settle temporarily, regardless of their ethnic origins, and also for protecting their interests in line with the sacred Quran and Sunnah (the sayings and doings of Prophet Mohammed).
The Organizational Style of the Islamic Union of Macedonia
The Islamic Union of Macedonia has its bodies as follows: the offices of the Mufti, the Presidency, the Raeesu’l Ulema (Chief of the Islamic Scholars) and the Assembly.
- The offices of the Mufti are the main body of the union. There are three muftis in the whole of Macedonia.
- The Presidency of the Islamic Union is the body that has the authority to make decisions about Islamic issues.
- The Chief of Islamic Scholars is the head and the president of the union. He represents the religious integrity of Macedonian Muslims.
- The Assembly is the highest legal and financial body of the union. The Assembly, consisting of the representatives of the offices of the Mufti and the executives of the union, is made up of twenty-seven members in total.
a) Skopje Isa Bey Madrasa IHL: This educational institution started operating in the academic year 1985-1986. In the academic year 1988-1989, the first graduates completed their education. This educational institution has successfully fulfilled a huge task in the religious life of the Muslims living in these lands, and has contributed greatly to the education of the younger generations. The cadres graduating from there are providing religious services in various mosques across the country as imams, preachers, and madrasa teachers.
The Islamic Union of Macedonia has opened a branch of Skopje Isa Bey Madrasa IHL, for male students only, during the academic year 2005-2006 in the town of Stip, with the purpose of educating the necessary religious cadres to organize the religious lives of the Muslims and provide them with religious services. This religious school, which was built and whose expenditures are met thanks to the financial contributions of a non-government organization, functions with all modern facilities.
Being conscious of the importance of educating females in the religious life of the Muslims and of the society, the union has opened a branch of Isa Bey Madrasa IHL for female students in Tetovo, Skopje and Gostivar. The opening of these branches, in fact, coincides with starting of mandatory high school education in Macedonia. In this respect, that the union has started such an initiative can be regarded as truly pioneering.
b) The Skopje Union of Islam: This institution of higher education was put into operation in the academic year of 1997-1998. Indeed, such an education had been a necessity for a long time since the graduation of the first generation students from Isa Bey Madrasa. After many years of challenging struggles, the foundations of the building were laid in January 1995, after obtaining permission for the building of the faculty.
Skopje Faculty of Islamic Sciences also provided further education for female students who have completed their high school education. The union continues to make contributions to the bringing up of conscious and educated generations with its educational staff, work program and schedule. The position and the status of the Islamic Sciences Institution are particularly enhanced by the laws enacted on the issue of higher institutions for religious education. According to the law, the Faculty of Islamic Sciences has been officially accredited and has signed a cooperation protocol with the State University of Tetovo, which has enabled the educational cadres to gain more experience and strength. The Faculty of Islamic Sciences has also signed cooperation protocols with some of the universities abroad and managed to expand its horizons in this way.
Today, there are many people who have graduated from the Faculty of Islamic Sciences. Most of these graduates provide services as imams, madrasa teachers and chief madrasa teachers and contribute to the religious life of the Muslims.
The Faculty of Islamic Sciences is also home to the Isa Bey Library.
The Religious Structures of the Union
Without a doubt, mosques take pride of place as religious buildings at the center of the religious life of Muslims, in which ritual prayers are performed. Taking this into consideration, the Islamic Union of Macedonia has struggled to build mosques even in the remotest places in which Muslims live, and in order to recover the loss when the mosques were destroyed by non-Muslim administrators, to a large extent after the withdrawal of the Ottomans from these lands.
Today, throughout Macedonia, there are more than six hundred mosques actively functioning and these are open to the public for religious services. In addition to these, there are twenty Islamic mausoleums and twenty tekkes in Macedonia. Of these religious buildings, more than forty are considered to be historical works of art and they are under legal protection. Most of these were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which can be considered as the golden age of Islamic architecture and culture.
In almost all the mosques, there are schools in which children and younger generations are taught Quran and receive religious education.
The Foundation Properties of the Union
Unfortunately, the greater part of the nationalized foundation properties that would constitute an important financial resource enabling the Islamic Union of Macedonia to carry out its activities, have not been returned yet, in spite of all efforts made. For an investigation into the return of these foundation properties, a private team has been founded within the body of the Union, which is in constant contact with state and government authorities.
The Religious Life of Muslims in the Future
Significant progress in social and technological fields has caused people to search for ways to adapt the religious way of life and it becomes inevitable to keep up with them.
We believe that the points stated below will be highly crucial in the future in terms of organizing the religious life in Macedonia:
- Inclusion of the religious courses in the curriculum of public schools. These courses, as of this school year, have started to be taught in the fifth year of primary education. The Islamic Union of Macedonia has offered the Ministry of Education a list of about one hundred theology teachers who are able to teach these courses.
- Education of the younger generations; adoption of associations of religious education affiliated with Islam in accordance with the principles of the contemporary education system.
- Return of the nationalized foundation assets.
- Cooperating with other religious unions of Macedonia in order to realize dialogue between different religions.
- Establishment of the institutions for broadcasting and printing within the body of the Union and provision of electronic media and communication centers. Printing of religious literature and making it accessible to a wide range of society.
- Ensuring the necessary conditions in order for Muslims to practice their religious duties in certain locations such as in barracks, hospitals and prisons.
- Providing job opportunities for the younger generation who go abroad to work due to lack of financial means in their own countries. The majority of the Muslim youth immigrated to the European countries because of bad economic conditions.
- Encouraging people to have more children to increase the birth rate of the Muslim population.
The religious life in Macedonia is organized in an almost perfect manner and it follows a path showing a constantly increasing index. The fact that the oppression and the negative propaganda directed at religion in the former communist system have been eliminated, has paved the way for the emergence of positive developments in the mentality of today’s Muslims. Thus, by taking advantage of democratic conditions, we have the opportunity to prove that Islam is the solution to the impasse in which the human being of the modern world finds him or herself, a world which decays and becomes more immoral day by day. Furthermore, the dangers inherent in the modern world, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, prostitution and human trafficking and homosexuality are some of the main factors leading the world towards a global catastrophe. For this reason, as Muslims, we have a responsibility to use our opportunities in the most efficient way we can.
*This article was submitted in International Balkans Conference organized by IHH (Human Rights and Freedoms).