In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam in the Balkans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Travel Literature
  • Albania
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Kosovo
  • Sufism
  • Arts, Literature, Culture

Islamic Studies Islam in the Balkans
Amila Buturovic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 February 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 February 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0012


In addition to being a region in southeastern Europe, the Balkans is a geopolitical entity that owes its existence to a turbulent relationship between Europe and the Ottoman Empire over several centuries, especially in the latter part of the Ottoman rule in the region. Derived from the Turkish word balkan, which means “mountain chain,” the term “Balkans” began to connote a troubled space of instability, intolerance, and impenetrability, and more particularly of perpetual wars and killings, brutal expulsions, and political machinations. In this process, Islam, as a distinctly Ottoman reality that was introduced and sustained through Ottoman administrative and religious institutions, culture, and social interaction, became an inextricable dimension of such representations. The Balkan people, in turn, represented everything that Europe was determined to march away from in the name of progress and colonial expansion. The Balkans is thus a product of broader historical and political developments that have less to do with the region and more to do with international and ideological currents, including an increasingly demeaning view of the Ottoman Empire as the “Sick Man of Europe.” As the Ottoman Empire retreated from the Balkans through the advent of the Austro-Hungarian colonizing mission and the wars of succession in the age of nationalism, Islam was perceived as a foreign and regressive force that had to be either eliminated or sufficiently contained to allow the newly formed nation-states to experience full Europeanization and modernization.

General Overviews

Since the late 19th century, writings on the Balkans and its Muslim populations have proliferated in various circles, particularly among scholars, journalists, travel writers, and analysts for whom the religious and ethnic diversity of the Balkans has at times been an exotic and inspirational tapestry of cultures, religions, and peoples, and at other times a chronic open sore at Europe’s southern borders. The term thus became impregnated with assumptions, and since the early years of the 21st century there has been an initiative within and outside of the Balkans to eliminate the term altogether from political discourse and replace it with the more neutral “Southeast Europe.” Furthermore, a new orientation in scholarship aims to situate such representations within a broader critical theory reflecting on this Balkanist discourse. Beginning roughly with Maria Todorova (Todorova 1997), these scholars have opened up space for a better evaluation of the discourse of representation that by and large posits Islam and the Muslims as Europe’s “Other.”

  • Goldsworthy, Vesna. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

    Goldsworthy argues that while the Balkan Peninsula has commonly been seen as too similar to Europe to be considered the true Orient and “Other,” it has nevertheless continued to be seen as too polluted by this “otherness” to be considered fully European.

  • Hupchick, Dennis P., and Harold E. Cox. The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of the Balkans. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    A useful historical atlas that maps out the different political formations in the Balkans, as well as in those regions from which the Balkans were invaded throughout history.

  • Mazower, Mark. The Balkans: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

    Mazower reassesses the region’s history after the rise of nation-states. He examines the image of the Balkans as the tinderbox of Europe and puts the roots of the past and current conflicts into a sharper historical framework. His insights into the incompatibilities of Western-style nationalism with the region’s demographic complexity evoke a deeper and more complex understanding of the contemporary Balkans.

  • Norris, David A. In the Wake of the Balkan Myth: Questions of Identity and Modernity. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    Explores literary counternarratives to the myth of backwardness and darkness that preoccupies the Western imagination about the Balkans.

  • Sloane, William M. The Balkans: A Laboratory of History. New York: Eaton and Mains, 1914.

    An early work analyzing the emerging discourse and history of the Balkans as a place of concern for international politics. Reflects the divergent attitudes—political, racial, ideological—that formed the nascent Balkanist discourse.

  • Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Departing from Edward Said’s Orientalism, which she also challenges, the author discusses various lenses through which the Balkans has been perceived. She argues that Balkanist discourse presents the region as a distorted mirror image of Europe in a much more concrete, defined, and damaging way than the Orientalist discourse did.

  • Wolf, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

    Focuses on Eastern Europe in general, not only the Balkans, with the aim of analyzing European geopolitics during the Enlightenment. Wolf examines 18th-century literature, folklore, and other writings, including those of Rousseau and Voltaire, to shed light on the creation of the concepts of Western and Eastern Europe.

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