Minarets In The Mountains: A Journey Into Muslim Europe
Despite living in Europe for hundreds of years as a dominant civilization in the Iberian Peninsula, as significant minorities in the Western Balkans and for more than half a century as settled modern European citizens, Muslims are largely seen as a recent immigrant presence.
This ambiguous perception is rooted in various historical, philosophical, political and cultural anxieties about the post-war Muslim presence. This negative hypervisibility can be contextualised within the bitter current debates about immigration, terrorism, secularism and the perceived threat to (post-) Christian European identity that vindicates those who believe in the incommensurability of cultures.
Against all of these issues, the travel writer Tharik Hussain has made a valuable contribution to increasing religious and cultural literacy through his account of travelling through the Western Balkans to learn about its Muslim history. To do this, he relies on the routes provided by the famous Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi (1611–1682), who is known for his celebrated ten-volume travelogue Seyāḥatnāme.
"Minarets in the Mountains is helpful starting point for anyone wanting to increase their understanding of long established Muslim European communities – offering an antidote to those who would dismiss them as immigrants, refugees and the ‘Other’ knocking on the doors of Fortress Europe"
The background to Hussain’s own journey starts with family holidays that attempt to trace the journeys found in the sixth volume of the famed Turkish traveller’s work. This leads him to take several road trips through modern-day Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.
Unlike standard travel guides, the book makes no claim to objectivity and is richly layered with personal observations, anecdotes and encounters. The author was keen to see how his faith has a longer historical presence in Europe than his own specific South Asian British Muslim experience.
Growing up in 1980s London, Hussain grew up being told he was unwanted in the place he called ‘home.’ He states that he felt a powerful sense of identification with Europe’s Muslims as ‘Europe's indigenous Muslims have always been made to feel like the 'Other' by the Western and historically Christian half of the continent.’ His tour of these Muslim territories was both an exploration and education.
For him ‘meeting these Muslims, seeing them in their own lands, encountering their culture, was empowering for us and made a mockery of the popular and worryingly widely accepted claims that Islam and Muslims are foreign, new or alien to Europe or the idea of Europe.’ This insight is all the more pressing given the current violent rise in Islamophobic sentiment across the continent and the relatively recent genocidal attempts to erase the Muslim population of Bosnia in the 1990s.
Hussain notes that ‘this ancient Muslim heritage across the Balkans is also my heritage. It is the heritage of every European Muslim and non-Muslim and there is much we can learn from it.’ Criss-crossing the region, the author as the title indicates, finds mosques in the mountains, marvels at spectacular landscapes, visits Sufi lodges, bathes in Ottoman hammams, samples local cuisine and is amazed by the generosity of strangers.
The Balkans possess a longstanding, distinct indigenous European Muslim culture, and has its own artistic traditions, food, literary and cultural achievements that are surviving and thriving today, due to a vibrant younger generation rediscovering its Islamic roots.
The book is packed with fascinating historical insights and remarkable facts such as the finding that many non-Muslim Serbs were known to have fought in the Ottoman army and provided security across their territories, and the town of Sjenica in southwestern Serbia has a population that is nearly 80 percent Muslim and home to six mosques.
"There is no need to learn how to be a “European Muslim” or a “Western Muslim,” We have been living as Muslims in Europe for centuries"
The author’s travels are an eye-opening celebration of European Muslim history in the Balkans but also reveal deliberate attempts to de-Islamise Muslim civilisational achievements. This can be seen clearly in the attempts to deny the Muslim origins of stunning architecture such as the 16th-Century Ottoman Mostar Bridge.
Orientalists such as English archaeologist Arthur Evans in his 1897 book Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina, claimed that the bridge was built by the Roman Emperor Trajan, while others such as 19th Century painter Chalotter de Lazen, refused to accept its Turkish Muslim provenance and instead attributed it to Latin civilisation.
Disassociating cultural accomplishments from their indigenous Muslim heritage is intended to erase the right of Muslim Europeans to exist today and a well-known tactic of Islamophobes and fascists that continues to this day. During the war, Croat paramilitary forces literally blew up the Mostar of the bridge in November 1993, yet this did not prevent it from being rebuilt in 2004 by a team of people passionate about maintaining Ottoman monuments with the support of UNESCO, European Bank and others.
Repairing the social fracture in our times is a more difficult challenge that requires rediscovery and reconciliation of our shared past and rethinking an expansive definition of what it means to be European in the 21st Century.
Muslims and Islam are part of Europe’s collective historic and cultural landscape, its present and future. Minarets in the Mountains is a helpful starting point for anyone wanting to increase their understanding of long-established Muslim European communities – offering an antidote to those who would dismiss them as immigrants, refugees and the ‘Other’ knocking on the doors of Fortress Europe.
As one of person Hussain spoke with said; ‘It makes me laugh when I hear people asking “what does it mean to be European and Muslim?” There is no need to learn how to be a “European Muslim” or a “Western Muslim,” We have been living as Muslims in Europe for centuries.’ This text is a welcome addition to the growing genre of modern Muslim travel literature and is worth reading for anyone planning to visit the region.
Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.
Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid