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The Distinctive Features of the Bosniak Profile

The Islamic tradition of Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a theoretical construction but a real way by which a people that has been troubled by history has lived Islam over the last five centuries, along a series of steps that have influenced its interpretation, its organisation and its practice.

We have recently witnessed the increasingly frequent introduction into public discourse on Islam of terms that associate with this universal religion geographical and cultural connotations such as ‘Indonesian Islam’, ‘Turkish Islam’, ‘European Islam’ or, in the case that interests us in this article, ‘Bosnian Islam’. This is a lexical transfer from the Western religious studies where a distinction is made between an ‘official’ or ‘normative’ religion, which can be accessed in the textual sources and their interpretation, on the one hand, and ‘popular religion’ which denotes the interpretation or practice of a given religion by its followers in a specific area or within a specific group, on the other. The study of popular religion is normally carried out with the methods of disciplines that explore cultural phenomena such as ethnography and cultural anthropology. In the case of Islam, cultural anthropologists are interested, for example, in the processes of socialisation or symbolisation by which Islam is expressed in local contexts. In this case ‘popular religion’ is described with geographical and cultural adjectives added to the name of ‘normative religion’.



Such a terminology is unacceptable for normative religion. On the other hand, a cultural and anthropological approach to a given religion is important because it allows focusing on the interpretation and concrete practice of this religion in a specific time and place, thereby facilitating the understanding of a concrete social reality. We are dealing, therefore, with a terminology that can be useful as an instrument of sociological analysis but one that is not such in expressing the normative religious teaching. This is why, for example, the notion of ‘European Islam’ cannot refer to a particular type of Islam with its own specific sources but only to the ideas and the practice of Islam in Europe. It is the case, however, that some people hope for the birth of a special variant of Islam and it is for this reason that many Muslim scholars nurture reservations about the use of phrases of this kind, preferring to speak about ‘Islam in Europe’. The same observation applies to other cultural and anthropological contexts and other appellations, for example ‘Bosnian Islam’.



A Special Case



The Islamic Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina (IC in BH) has hitherto avoided using geographical and cultural qualifications of Islam in its documents. The term employed in the Constitution of the Islamic Community, its fundamental legal text, is the ‘Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks’ (article 4). This tradition is listed, together with the Qur’an and the Sunna, as being amongst the sources that govern the activities of the agencies and the institutions of the IC in BH. It is followed by the ‘requirements of the time’. The notion of ‘Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks’ has not been the subject of theoretical analysis in the acts of the Islamic Community or in the works of Bosnian theologians, and this despite the importance of the question. In its article 8, comma 2, the Constitution of the Islamic Community lays down that ‘in the interpretation and the practice of the precepts of Islamic worship (‘ibâdât) the Hanafite madhhab is applied within the Islamic Community’. This confirms the historical pre-eminence of the Hanafite juridical school in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its ties with the ‘Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks’.


If interpreted in a strict sense, the abovementioned article would lead one to think that the application of the Hanafite madhhab is limited to worship (‘ibâdât) and that in other areas (furû‘ al-fiqh) connected with the activities of the IC it is possible to refer to other madhhab as well. This procedure, which finds implementation throughout the contemporary Islamic world, is defined takhayyur (literally ‘choice’ of a legal solution in other madhhab) and it is implemented through the decision of bodies responsible for interpreting Islamic norms employing the methodology of the usûl al-fiqh. During the first part of the twentieth century the sharia courts in Bosnia-Herzegovina used this method in relation to questions of family law.


Another element cited in the Constitution of the IC and which can be referred to the ‘Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks’ is the reference to the Islamic institutions of the Ottoman period. In particular, article 2 lays down that ‘the autonomy of the IC in BH is based upon the religious and legal institutions of the Bosnian Muslims of the time of the Ottoman administration’. The institutions take part in the formation of this tradition and can constitute one of its component parts. This is a factor that should be borne in mind when an attempt is made to establish what the Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks really is.


On the basis of the elements cited in the principal normative document of the IC and the studies that are available on Islam in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans, I will now attempt to outline the character of the ‘Islamic tradition of the Bosniaks’ and thereby make a contribution to the public debate about this question.



Dynamism and Integration




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