Since 1992 there has been a growing need for imams and teachers of Islamic religion in the Balkans and with its training centres. And now these institutions aspire to become a point of reference also for the Muslim communities in Western Europe
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:47
After 1992, the need for imams and persons qualified to teach Islam increased in the countries created by the breakup of Yugoslavia. Various centres of higher education were established to meet this need but, right from the moment of their foundation, they have had to reckon with the difficult reality of the war. Some of these institutions are now aiming to become a point of reference for Muslim communities in Western Europe as well.
Institutions of higher education training Islamic religion teachers and imams in the Balkan countries have an importance that reaches beyond this region’s confines. Indeed, the Balkans have been fully involved in Europe’s religious history and it is impossible to understand how their Muslim communities have evolved without examining the trends that developed more generally over the rest of the continent. Furthermore, many of those working today in central or Western Europe as imams or religion teachers were trained in educational institutions operating in the Balkans. This article seeks to reflect on these facts and will concentrate on Bosnia-Herzegovina, in particular. This without ignoring the situation in neighbouring states, however.
Islamic Training in Bosnia-Herzegovina
When speaking about Islamic higher education in the context of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one cannot but begin with the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo (known as the Faculty of Islamic Theology from 1977 to 1992[i]). To date, this is the Islamic community’s highest-level educational institution in the country.[ii]
However, the experience of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo and, in many respects, of all the Faculties of Islamic Studies (or Faculties of Islamic Pedagogy) existing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans is, in turn, rooted in the educational practice and tradition of the institutions preceding it. These include the Gazi Husrev-Beg madrasa in Sarajevo, which was founded in 1531 and long constituted the most important Islamic teaching centre in the Western Balkans;[iii] the College for Sharia Judges which opened in Sarajevo in 1887 under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy;[iv] the Dar al-Muallimin or school for Islamic religion teachers, which opened in Sarajevo in 1892 and closed after the First World War; the Sarajevo district madrasa, which was inaugurated in 1916–17 and closed after a few years of “experimental” work; the Alijja madrasa, which opened in the academic year 1930–31 as a higher education institution annexed to the Gazi Husrev-Beg madrasa but had a short life and, lastly, the famous Higher Islamic School of Sharia and Theology (or VIŠT), which opened in Sarajevo in the academic year 1935–36 and closed in 1946. That same year, the VIŠT[v] building was nationalised and then long used as a Sarajevo-city museum.
What unites these experiences of higher Islamic education is the care taken to constantly adapt study plans and syllabuses to the needs of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans, interpreting religious discourse in the light of the changes occurring in the region and the establishment of secular state systems and the advance of secularization, in particular.
After the Second World War, for thirty years there was no Islamic institution of higher education in Bosnia-Herzegovina (or, indeed, anywhere in the Balkans, with the exception of the European part of the Republic of Turkey). The situation changed in 1977, with the creation of the Faculty of Islamic Theology in Sarajevo, to which were added, in 1993, the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica and the one in Bihać.
Officially inaugurated on 29 September 1977, in accordance with the decrees issued by the authorities of the Islamic Community in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Faculty of Islamic Theology welcomed its first students in the academic year 1977–1978. Up to 1992, this institution attracted a growing number of Bosniac, Albanian and Macedonian students from the republics and regions of the then Yugoslavia and it continued to work even during the Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the period 1992–1995, albeit with fewer students and special lecture programmes.
During the first phase (from 1977 to the academic year 1991–1992), the Faculty concentrated on teaching the basic Islamic subjects (the Qur’an, exegesis, the hadīth, creed, jurisprudence and the history of Islam) and some of the so-called profane subjects (philosophy, sociology, the state and law, ethics etc.), which were considered additional subjects for the most part. The Faculty of Islamic Theology’s task during this period was to train “Islamic theologians with a general orientation” and future imams, preachers, teachers, professors for the madrasas and administrative functionaries to work in the Islamic community. During the academic year 1992–1993, the Faculty created a Pedagogy department, which introduced several additional subjects whilst reducing the so-called theological ones. The then dean of the Faculty, Omer Nakičević, explained the department’s creation was due to the need to increase the number of teachers and professors of religious education,[vi] a subject that had been introduced into the schools in the independent Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. Furthermore, the great influx of Muslim refugees from the Balkans had increased the need for imams and Islamic religion teachers in various European countries.
In the light of these developments, the Faculty of Islamic Studies introduced post-graduate studies during the academic year 1994–1995. Complying with the Bologna Process (ratified in 1999) during the academic year 2001–2002, the Faculty of Islamic Studies launched and then intensified its work of revising the study plans and training programmes. A committee set up to this end by the Academic Council and headed by Professor Fikret Karčić did a huge amount of work and the ambitious implementation of this reform began during the academic year 2002–2003. Semesters and the credit system were introduced and new professorial chairs were created, whilst the teaching was made more dynamic. Furthermore, the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo was affiliated with the University of Sarajevo on 29 September 2004.
During the academic year 2006–2007, the Faculty of Islamic Studies founded a third department for imams, preachers and teachers. This decision was influenced by the decree issued by the Islamic Community’s Rijaset (presidency, Ed.), according to which all imams were to hold a certificate of higher education, whilst the imams in the more distant regions (Bihać, Tuzla and Travnik) were to be helped to complete their education through courses opened in branch institutes. Unlike the courses taught by the departments of Theology and Pedagogy, which are structured around eight semesters, the courses taught by the Department for the training of Imams are organized around six.
Over the last twenty years, the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo has constituted one of the main Islamic educational institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. From 1996 onwards, it has also established itself at an international level, beginning to collaborate in various ways with foreign academic institutions in the organization of seminars, conferences and congresses and signing various co-operation agreements with faculties and universities in both East and West, as well as with other institutes of higher Islamic education in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans. Furthermore, the professors from the Faculty of Islamic Studies have often been involved in conferences and academic projects at home and abroad.
For more than ten years, the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo has also been offering a three-month programme called “Diploma in Islamic Studies”. This is taught both in English and in Bosnian and many lay Bosnians and Herzegovinians—including Muslim and non-Muslim lawyers, journalists, political scientists, psychologists, social workers and theologians from other religions—have enrolled on it. Similarly, many Western diplomats, politicians and businessmen (Americans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Germans, Frenchmen and Slovenians…) have attended the course in English. Many have looked on this experience as an interesting one, seeing it as the nucleus for a future Department (or Faculty) operating in English. This would allow students coming from Europe and abroad to follow the course in Islamic Studies in English and it would meet the growing demands coming from Western Europe. Analogously, thinking about a similar programme in Arabic would be an important step forward.
The Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica
The Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica is the result of an evolution of the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy (AIP), which was founded in the same city in August 1993. The AIP’s creation was approved by the Assembly of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Islamic Community[vii] and can be considered a response not only to the need for religious education teachers but also to the state of siege in which Sarajevo found itself during the period 1992-1995. Indeed, it was because of the isolation to which the Faculty of Islamic Studies in the Bosnian capital was subjected that the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica began to train religion teachers. It is thus the second higher Islamic education institution to be founded in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Pursuant to the measure by which the Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina approved the Academy’s creation, the latter is authorised to “train students who, at the end of the two academic years, will acquire the professional qualification of ‘teacher of Islamic religious education.’”[viii] This institution’s purpose and the educational journey it offers follow in the footsteps of Dar al-Muallimin, the School for Islamic religion teachers founded in 1892.
Like the other Islamic higher education institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the western Balkans, the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica, too, has undertaken (and then continued, as the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy) a dynamic process of changing and adapting its study plans to the uncertain times of the post-war period. In this, it has had to mediate between the requirements of the Islamic community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, those of Zenica University and the needs of the students who are claiming their place in society. Following the trends at a local and regional level, the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica became an associate member of Zenica University in 2004, profoundly altering its training programme in order to then turn into the University’s Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy during the academic year of 2005–2006. The Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihać has also undergone a similar evolution.
Nowadays, the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica has three departments: the Department of Islamic Religious Education, the Department of Social Pedagogy and the Department of Children’s Education.[ix] The lectures that are given there are, in their turn, linked to four chairs: the chair of Religious Sciences, the chair of Social Pedagogy, the one of Islamic Civilization and Thought and the one of Oriental Languages and Literature.[x]
The study plans in this Faculty reveal the effort to harmonize the classical Islamic disciplines with the modern pedagogical sciences. Furthermore, unlike its counterparts in Bihać and Novi Pazar, the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica has paid particular attention to the local and regional needs to train new religion teachers and the efforts it has made in this context can be considered innovative.[xi] The data on the number of students enrolled in this Faculty give one to think that this training institution is capable of growing significantly and achieving excellent results.
The Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihać
In 1992, religious education was introduced in primary and secondary schools in the area that roughly corresponds to today’s Una-Sana Canton. In this part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, education suffered greatly from problems and impediments linked to the war and the lack of religion teachers was particularly felt.
For this reason, the religious representatives of this area asked the Rijaset of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina if they could found an Academy of Islamic Pedagogy here as well. The Rijaset gave its assent during its sitting on 25 December 1995[xii] and the first students enrolled during the academic year 1996–1997, following lectures on the renovated premises of the city’s Muftijstvo.
The Academy was annexed to Bihać University on 30 June 1997. On 11 December of the same year, the Saudi High Commission for aid in Bosnia-Herzegovina signed a contract for the construction of the building that was to permanently house the AIP. The first graduation ceremony took place on 17 May 2000, when thirty-three students received their Religion Teacher’s Diploma. The Academy then moved to the new building at the beginning of September 2002.[xiii]
Like the AIP in Zenica, the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihać, too, was transformed into a University Faculty by virtue of the above-mentioned decree issued by the Assembly of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina on 30 April 2005. According to the data published in the yearbooks of the Glasnik Rijaseta Islamske zajednice of Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are fewer students enrolled in the Bihać Faculty than in the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo or the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica; a statistic that must be interpreted in light of the fact that the Faculty in Bihać, more than the other Islamic Faculties, is geared to local needs.
It is widely believed that these three Islamic Faculties today have the task of meeting the local and regional need for religious personnel and therefore imams, preachers, religion teachers and graduates to be employed in the administrative structures of the Islamic Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It should nevertheless not be forgotten that several graduates from these Faculties have found employment in the Islamic communities resulting from the Bosnian diaspora in Europe, where they work as imams or religion teachers. Some of them have obtained a master’s degree (or are about to obtain a PhD) at European universities.
If one considers the high number of students graduating from these three Faculties in a relatively short span of time, then a surplus of theological and religious-pedagogical personnel—of imams, religion teachers and preachers—is to be expected. This trend has been evident for some years and the competent institutions within the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina—and the Rijaset, first and foremost—ought to focus on it as a matter of urgency.
If, as we have seen, these three instances of Islamic Higher Education have unitary trends in common, each one also presents distinctive features. Štefan Machaček, for example, has highlighted how the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo has opted for a “Bosnian intellectual Islam”, whilst the Faculties of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica and Bihać offer a “universal, moderate neo-Salafi Islam.”[xiv] The same author also states, with great optimism, that the experiences of the Islamic communities in the Balkans could serve as an example for the European Union’s institutions when tackling the problems relating to the religious education of Muslim minorities in western Europe.[xv]
The Islamic Faculties in Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia
The founding of Islamic Faculties was not limited to Bosnia-Herzegovina, however. It has also involved Serbia (in Novi Pazar and Sandžak), Kosovo (in Pristina) and Macedonia (in Skopje). Efforts have also been made to create an Islamic Faculty in Zagreb, in the Republic of Croatia.
The Islamic Community in Serbia (to be distinguished from the Islamic Community of Serbia, with which Sarajevo’s Rijaset has no official relations) runs various educational institutions in Novi Pazar. These include the Isa-bey madrasa and the Faculty of Islamic Studies, in particular (the latter, like the other institutions referred to, has undergone various metamorphoses, not only in its name but also in its study plans, its academic staff etc.).
The Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Novi Pazar was founded by way of a decree issued by the Assembly of the Islamic Community in Sanjak on 12 May 2001.[xvi] Initially, it was an institute of higher education offering two-year courses. As early as 2003, the Academy was turned into an institute of higher education called an “Islamic Academy”, which offered three-year courses. In 2005, this institution became the “Academy of Islamic Studies”, at which students could follow a four-year course, in accordance with the decree issued by the local Mešihat. The Academy was then further renamed “Faculty of Islamic Studies” by way of the decree promulgated on 6 May 2006 by the Assembly of the Islamic Community in Sanjak. This faculty has two departments: the Department of Islamic Studies, which puts the emphasis on a modern approach to the traditional Islamic subjects, and the Department of Pedagogy, which concentrates on the disciplines that are necessary for Religious Education teachers. Graduates from this Faculty (which is struggling to maintain its position in an area where the competition between educational institutions is high) tend to seek work primarily in Sanjak.
As for Kosovo, following the break-up of the Islamic Community in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the supreme Islamic Senate (based in Sarajevo until 1993), the country’s Muslims created the Islamic Community of Kosovo (Bashkësia Islame e Kosovës), with headquarters in Pristina. In addition to the Alaudin madrasa, which already existed (and, together with the Gazi Husrev-Beg madrasa, was for a long time the only school offering Islamic higher education in socialist Yugoslavia[xvii]), the Faculty of Islamic Studies came into existence in Pristina in 1992. This is Kosovo’s highest-level Islamic educational institution and its students are, for the most part, Albanians coming from Kosovo, Albania, the Preševo valley (in Serbia) and Montenegro. Lectures are given in Albanian and the Faculty has the status of a private educational institution (it is not part of Pristina University). This Faculty trains imams and religion teachers. Its programme is structured around eight semesters and the study plans follow the model used by the other Islamic educational institutions in the Balkans, including the Islamic Faculty in Sarajevo, first and foremost. The Faculty has only one department, the Department of Islamic Theology. Unlike the European university practice by which, as we know, it is the modern approaches that prevail, the Pristina Faculty favours the traditional Islamic disciplines.[xviii]
The Faculty of Islamic Studies in Skopje was founded in 1997 by the Islamic Community in the Republic of Macedonia.[xix] Logistically linked to the Isa Bey madrasa, this Faculty was authorized by a decree issued by the Republic of Macedonia’s Parliament in 2008 to operate as a private and public higher educational institution (on a not-for-profit basis).
Several years ago, the Mešihat of the Islamic Community in Zagreb made inquiries and conducted preliminary interviews with a view to creating an Islamic Faculty that should have been called the Faculty of Islamic and Social Studies. For the time being, however, the idea has not been followed through. In all probability, the hyper-production of personnel specializing in Islamic theological and religious teaching in the Balkans has temporarily “cooled” Zagreb’s citizens, as they have abandoned the idea of an institute of higher Islamic education.
Contemporary Challenges and Needs
As emerges from the process presented hitherto, the first challenge that the institutes of higher Islamic education had to reckon with was the post-war situation. The atrocities committed during the war lasting in the Western Balkans from 1991 to 1998 can be compared to the catastrophe caused by the Second World War in this zone, if they were not actually even worse. According to the statistics and analyses available, the Muslims were the religious group that suffered the most during the assault on Bosnia-Herzegovina. These facts must be taken into account every time one talks about Higher Islamic teaching in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans from 1990 onwards. Indeed, in this area, during the post-war period, the institutes of higher Islamic education had to carry out their tasks in conditions that did not favour developments in science, culture or education. They were hindered by the loss of thousands of human lives (through genocide and genocidal acts), the destruction of cultural and religious heritage (culturecide and urbicide) and the changes that had occurred within a distinctive Islamic tradition that had preserved its value systems even during the socialist era, when it had been marginalised and considered a residual private matter.
One should then consider the fact that many students during this period were refugees or orphans or belonged to other needy groups. It can therefore be said that from 1992 onwards, the madrasas and Islamic Faculties in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans also acted as humanitarian social institutions. Many students enrolled in the madrasas and Islamic Faculties because they found a cheaper (or, even, free) education there; something that prevents the Islamic Faculties from selecting the best students (and guaranteeing scholarships and the chance to work).
A further problem can be found in the Islamic Faculties’ atomization. Although there is formally an extremely strong collaboration between the teachers and professors in the various Faculties (for example, the professors in Sarajevo teach at Novi Pazar, the professors in Bihać or Zenica teach at Sarajevo and vice versa), the relationship is, in reality, a superficial one: it does not touch on the fundamental issues of educational processes such as the standardization of teaching levels or the Islamic community’s real needs regarding imams and religion teachers. Although many collaboration agreements have been signed, in actual fact these Islamic Faculties act independently and have been reduced to a sort of “cantonization” within the local life.
In order to fight this atomization, the idea of creating an Islamic University of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been promoted in recent years. It is a proposal that the former Reis-ul-ulema, Mustafa Cerić, has mentioned on more than one occasion. In his Draft Proposal for the Gazi Husrevbey University,[xx] Cerić imagined that the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo and the Gazi Husrev-Beg library could constitute the foundations for a future international Islamic university. Štepan Machaček sees the Faculty of Islamic Studies and the tradition developed in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the context of Islamic education as offering an opportunity to create a European al-Azhar in Sarajevo.[xxi]
The creation of this sort of university would allow the spiritual identity of the Islamic Faculties in Bosnia-Herzegovina to be put to greater profit. This by establishing distinctive standards for the process of adapting Islam’s interpretation to present-day demands and the future European context.
Lastly, there remain some practical problems. Indeed, the Islamic Faculties still have to resolve various issues relating to the condition of students (dormitories, scholarships, post-graduate work opportunities…) In addition, there is no co-ordination between the Islamic Faculties and the organs of the Islamic community (Muftijstva and Rijasat) in the general planning regarding future professional openings for graduates in Islamic Studies. There is the risk that, in the Balkans, Islamic Faculties and madrasas act in isolation in a reality that they barely know and for which they are not preparing their graduates: a localistic and voluntaristic perspective that leads to the problem of a lack of univocal criteria in training and in the study of the university disciplines and also when assessing which classical forms of Islamic knowledge are really needed in today’s European context.
Furthermore, there is no local research at a Bosnian or Balkan level that can allow an objective understanding of how graduates from our Islamic faculties operate in the rest of Europe (Austria, Germany and Switzerland). And this despite the great attention that our Islamic faculties pay to such a context.
There would, moreover, be a very important need to introduce the teaching of subjects relating to the European Union’s legal and legislative theory and practice. To date, these topics have been neglected but I consider that they could help future imams and religion teachers to interpret correctly both Islam in Europe and the idea of Europe that spreads amongst Muslim citizens on the Continent.
These are the great issues that will have to be reckoned with in the future when the work of our Faculties during this difficult post-war period will have to be assessed.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
[i] Officially and formally known as the Faculty of Islamic Theology (and informally called ITEF— Islamski teološki fakultet), this institution changed its name to the Faculty of Islamic Studies (FIN—Fakultet islamskih nauka) in 1991. Indeed, the majority of the members of its teaching staff considered the title with which the Faculty had been founded and opened on 29 September 1977 to be inappropriate since theology, as such, is foreign to Islam and there exists no clergy in Islam.
[ii] For a detailed overview of the history of the Faculty of Islamic Theology (or Faculty of Islamic Studies) in Sarajevo, see Omer Nakičević, Historijski razvoj Fakulteta islamskih nauka (1887-1998.). Sarajevo: Fakultet islamskih nauka, 1998.
[iii] See Behija Zlatar, Gazi Husrev-beg. Sarajevo: Orijentalni institut, 2010.
[iv] See Enes Durmišević, Šerijatska sudačka škola (The School of Islamic Law) in Enes Durmišević, Šerijatsko pravo i nauka šerijatskog prava u Bosni i Hercegovini u prvoj polovini XX stoljeća, Sarajevo: Pravni fakultet Univerziteta u Sarajevu, 2008, p. 106 and ss.
[v] This is the building in which the Faculty of Islamic Studies has its premises today and it is a real architectural jewel. Donated to the Islamic community by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it has housed the School of Islamic Law since 1887.
[vi] For a closer examination of the subject, see Omer Nakićević, Historijski razvoj Fakulteta islamskih nauka (1887-1998).
[vii] According to the website for the Academy of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica (today’s Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy), this institution’s correct date of birth must be placed at the end of August 1993: “The Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica was founded on 28 August 1993 by Decree no. 6/93 of the Assembly of the Islamic Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” (https://bit.ly/2ZdCWl8)
[viii] According to the website for the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Zenica, https://bit.ly/2ZdCWl8
[ix] See https://bit.ly/2vdwFIx
[x] See https://bit.ly/2GlEzVs
[xi] See Ahmet Alibašić, Islamic Higher Education in the Balkans (A Survey) in Jorgen Nielsen et al. (eds.), The Yearbook of Muslims in Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2010, p. 634.
[xii] These data have been taken in part from the site https://bit.ly/2DnLCMv
[xiii] In the second session (taking place on 10 July 2003), fifty-one students graduated, whilst in the third (held on 9 July 2005), thirty-six students received their diploma.
[xiv] Štepan Machaček, Islamic Educational System in Bosnia and its Prospective Contribution to the Place of Islam in European Schools, Akademie der Diozese Rottenburg-Stuttgart, 2009, p. 4, https://bit.ly/2IvlSls
[xv] Ibid, p. 1.
[xvi] These data have been partly extrapolated from the website of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Novi Pazar: https://bit.ly/2PgenQ6
[xvii] The Isa Bey madrasa in Skopje (in the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia) was re-opened in 1984.
[xviii] These data are based on the text by Xhabir Hamiti, Religious education in Kosovo, https://bit.ly/2IPaC31. See, also, Idem, Islamic education in Kosovo in Ednan Aslan (ed.), Islamic Education in Europe, Vienna: Bohlau Verlag, 2009.
[xix] See www.fshi.edu.mk
[xx] See Mustafa Cerić, A Draft Proposal for the Gazi Husrevbey University, edited by Willem B. Drees and Pieter Sjord van Koningsveld, Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2008, pp. 326-332.
[xxi] See Štepan Machaček, “‘Europena Islam’ and Islamic Education in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Südost Europa, vol. 4, (2007), p. 420.
To cite this article
Enes Karić, “Islamic faculties in the Balkans: a model for Europe?”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 77-88.
Enes Karić, “Islamic faculties in the Balkans: a model for Europe?”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/islamic-faculties-in-the-balkans-a-model-for-europe