Discussants in Sarajevo. Reis-ul-ulema is the third from the left sideJune 2014. Interview with Husein Kavazović*, during the two-day meeting of Oasis Scientific Committee in Sarajevo
What are the most important characteristics of Bosnian Islam?
Islam spread in Bosnia through the Ottoman Turks and the institutions that they established. It was not the itinerant preachers who spread Islam, as it happened in other parts of the world, nor was it the merchants, who nonetheless played an important role elsewhere (coming from Venice, this is something you know well!). Our Islam, therefore, from the outset was an institutional Islam, centred around the ulema and the religious schools. Even after the end of Ottoman control, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Muslims were involved in the creation of a central institution, the mashîkha islâmiyya, whilst projects for the reform of the religious schools and the Islamic Faculties were set in motion and led to the adoption of a mixed programme where, side by side with the traditional disciplines, modern sciences were also taught. At the same time Sufism has been fundamental, having been practised by many ulema. Islam in Bosnia-Herzegovina, therefore, has always had its roots in the books of the ulema and its centre in the mosques and mystic brotherhoods.
What is the contribution of Muslims, understood as practising Muslims, to the life of civil society today?
Muslims and Christians today have an important role in our society. Many believers, however, are ordinary people and do not belong to the educated classes and they can be easily influenced. It should also be said that the influence of practising Muslims is limited, even though it is growing. The secular strand has an important impact on Muslims. Take the laws passed by parliament: they have no religious impress. The laws of personal status are totally secular, for example, even as regards weddings.
And yet you wish for a more important role for religions?
Certainly. We are of the idea that, for example, on questions relating to the family, as Muslims or Christians we have something to say.
Would what you have to say also lead to the implementation of the sharî‘a as regards the code of personal status?
Look, the sharî‘a was applied in Bosnia to personal status until 1946; the Christians also had their specific rules in this field. If we really want freedom, in our view it would be good to introduce some religious elements into the laws that regulate the family.
How many practising Muslims are there, roughly, amongst the ‘cultural’ Muslims? And how would you define a practising Muslim? For example, a person who prays five times a day?
As men of religion we say that a Muslim is one who testifies that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His messenger. But if we talk about engaged believers, who pray, who fast, who go on pilgrimages, etc. it is difficult to establish their number. To judge from attendance at prayer on Fridays, I would estimate that practising Muslims in the full sense are about 20%-25%. But naturally there are all those Muslims who belong to the wider ‘circle’ of Islam, even though they do not practise their religion regularly.
The library of the mosque of Gazi Husrev Beg which reopened to the public last January is a wonder. The money to restore it came from Qatar and this is not the only case where Gulf States have financed activities in Sarajevo. Are you not afraid that they may also interfere in domestic questions, in the local Islamic community?
The library of Gazi Huserv Beg is fundamental; it has important texts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and local languages, Bosnian, Serbian and Croat. It was burnt during the aggression, together with the Institute of Eastern Studies of Sarajevo where valuable books and documents are kept. This library is by now the only thing that remains in terms of our historical memory from the past and we are very happy that we were able to rebuild it. Qatar has helped us a great deal, actually we had also asked for help from certain European States but they did not answer. In our opinion the project of that library is a project of international importance, and not limited to Muslims alone, as is demonstrated by the nationality of researchers. And then it should be said that in Bosnia Catholic States help the Catholics, Orthodox States help the Orthodox and it seems to me logical that Muslim States help the Muslims. To our brothers of the Islamic States of the East we always say that we have our culture, that we are very different from the Turks, the Arabs or the Indonesians. This is very important. We will reject all attempts to put pressure on us.
Before being the Reis-ul-ulema of Bosnia-Herzegovina you were the Mufti in Tuzla. Did you live there through years of war as well and what did you learn from that?
Yes, during the war I was in Tuzla, I was also in a prison camp for six months. Despite that, I say that all of us, Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox, suffered because of the war, the destruction and the massacres. In the cities, in Sarajevo and Tuzla, Muslims and Christians helped each other. And then there were certainly those who did not respect humanity and violated divine law. This happened in every community. But I believe that the wicked are a minority and the majority is made up of good people. I have trust in people.
*Husein Kavazović was born in 1964 in Gradačac and has been the leader of the Islamic community of Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2012. After studying Islamic law at the Al-Azhar University of Cairo, he lived in Tuzla where he led, as Mufti the local community. He is characterised more by attending to the inner life of the Islamic community rather than by being in the political limelight.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal