‘Muslims have been Europeans for almost 14 centuries – longer than white people have been Americans, and still if I mention “Muslim Europe”, people remain sceptical’
August 19, 2022 7:00 am(Updated August 20, 2022 9:01 am)
Just over a year ago I published my first book, Minarets in the Mountains; a Journey into Muslim Europe. I didn’t know it at the time, but in doing so I would begin a year of convincing people that there is a “Muslim Europe”. Not a Europe where Muslims now happen to live, but a Europe where Muslims have always lived.
Nominated for both the UK’s most prestigious non-fiction and travel book awards, clearly those that read the book agreed. And yet I find myself still regularly having to explain what I mean by “Muslim Europe”.
One of the great ironies of this is that the very cause of this modern Muslim Europe – the Ottoman Empire – which ruled over the area I cover in my book, the Western Balkans, for almost six centuries, came to an end exactly a century ago.
And what makes this all the more frustrating is that Muslims were in Europe long before that – since the 7th century actually – the same century Islam was announced as a faith.
That’s almost 14 centuries that Muslims have been Europeans –longer than white people have been Americans, and still if I mention “Muslim Europe”, people remain sceptical.
Take the Balkans, which recently emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. For so long all travel writers wanted to talk about when covering countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo was communism, with almost nothing said of the fact that these three countries are in effect European Muslim countries (based on their Muslim-majority populations). And along with the other Western Balkan nations, they sit in a region that is home to the largest concentration of indigenous European Muslims on the continent.
This unhealthy obsession with the Balkans’ history of communism has meant its six centuries of fascinating Muslim heritage has barely had a look in. This has resulted in a huge underappreciation of its spectacular Ottoman-era mosques and monuments.
It has meant Muslim cultures like those that birthed mystical lodges such as the Arabati Baba Tekke in Tetovo, North Macedonia, and the Blagaj Tekke in Bosnia have been completely overlooked; and fairytale-like historic towns including Albania’s Berat and Gjirokastër are virtually unknown.
Even those European Muslim monuments that do – such as Granada’s Alhambra palace-city or the continent’s very first mosque, now the Mezquita-Catedral in Cordoba, both in southern Spain, a country that was largely Muslim from the 8th to the 15th centuries – are often misrepresented or de-Islamised.
One of the ways this is done is by using words like “Moorish”, “Saracenic” or even “Turkish” instead of “Muslim” and “Islam” when discussing the culture that created these marvels – terms that were historically interchangeable with Muslim or Islam, but now only serve to distance a place or its culture from its Muslim roots.
The effect of this is that not only are we denied an entire mesmeric facet of European culture and heritage, but we are also denied our continent’s story in its entirety. This is why even a Muslim visitor to Malta does not question why every other road name begins with “Tariq” (“road” in Arabic) or realise that when the locals speak, what they can hear is the continent’s only “Arabic” language.
Tharik Hussain is an author, travel writer and journalist specialising in Muslim heritage and culture.