THE SPREAD OF ISLAM AMONG THE CHRISTIAN NATIONS IN EUROPE UNDER THE TURKS.
A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith
T.W. Arnold Ma. C.I.F
Professor Of Arabic, University Of London, University College. Written in 1896, revised in 1913
Rearranged by Dr. A.S. Hashim
In the following pages it is proposed to give a more detailed and particular account of the spread of
Islam among the Christian populations of Albania, Servia, Bosnia and Crete, as the history of each of these countries after its conquest by the Ottomans presents some special
features of interest in the history of the propagation of Islam.
The Albanians, with the exception of some settlements in Greece,
inhabit the mountainous country that stretches along the east shore of the Adriatic from Montenegro to the Gulf of Arta. They form one of the oldest and purest-blooded races in
Europe and are said to belong to the Pelasgic branch of the Aryan stock.
Their country was first invaded by the Turks in 1387, but the Turkish forces soon had to withdraw, and
the authority of the Sultan was recognized for the first time in 1423.
The Albanians under Turkish rule appear always to have maintained a kind of semi-autonomy, and the
several tribes and clans remained as essentially independent as they were before the conquest.
Though vassals of the Sultans, they would not brook the interference of Turkish officials in their
internal administration, and there is reason to believe that the Turkish Government has never been able to appoint or confirm any provincial governor who was not a native of
Albania, and had not already established his influence by his arms, policy or connections.
Their racial pride is intense, and to the present day, the Albanian, if asked what he is, will call himself a Skipetar,
before saying whether he is a Christian or a Muslim—a very remarkable instance of national feeling obliterating the fierce distinction between these two religions that so
forcibly obtrudes itself in the rest of the Ottoman empire.
The Christian and Muslim Albanians alike, just as they speak the same language, so do they cherish the
same traditions, and observe the same manners and customs; and pride in their common nationality has been too strong a bond to allow differences of religious belief to split the
nation into separate communities on this basis.
Side by side they served in the irregular troops, which soon after the Turkish conquest became the main
dependence of the government in all its internal administration, and both classes found the same ready employment in the service of the local pashas, being accounted the bravest
soldiers in the empire.
Christian Albanians served in the Ottoman army in the Crimean War,
and though they have perhaps been a little more quiet and agricultural than their Muslim fellow-countrymen, still the difference has been small: they have always retained their
arms and military habits, have always displayed the same fierce, proud, un-tameable spirit, and been animated with the same intense national feeling as their brethren who had
embraced the creed of the Prophet.
The consideration of these facts is of importance in tracing the spread of
Islam in Albania, for it appears to have been propagated very gradually by the people of the country themselves, and not under pressure of foreign influences.
The details that we possess of this movement are very meager, as the history of Albania from the close of
the fifteenth century to the rise of Ali Pasha three hundred years later, is almost a blank; what knowledge we have, therefore, of the slow but continuous accession of converts
to Islam during this period, is derived from the ecclesiastical chronicles of the various dioceses,
and the reports sent in from time to time to the Pope and the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.
But it goes without saying that the very nature of these sources gives the information derived from them
the stamp of imperfection—especially in the matter of the motives assigned for conversion. For an ecclesiastic of those times to have even entertained the possibility of a
conversion to Islam from genuine conviction —much less have openly expressed such an opinion in writing to his superiors—is well-nigh inconceivable.
During the sixteenth century, Islam appears to have made but little progress, though the tide of
conversion had already set in. In 1610 the Christian population exceeded the Muslim in the proportion of ten to one,
and as most of the villages were inhabited by Christians, with a very small admixture of Muslims,
the conversions appear to have been more frequent in the large towns.
In Antivari, for example, while many Christians elected to emigrate into the neighboring Christian
countries, the majority of those who remained, both high-born and low, went over gradually to the Muslim faith, so that the Christian population grew less and less day by day.
As the number of accessions to Islam increased, churches were converted into mosques— a measure which,
though contrary to the terms of the capitulation, seems justified by the change in the religion of the people.
In 1610 two collegiate churches only remained in the hands of the Latin Christians,
but these appear to have sufficed for the needs of the community;
what this amounted to can only roughly be guessed from the words of Marco Bizzi: " There are about 600 houses inhabited indiscriminately by Muslims and Christians—both Latin and
Schismatics (i.e. of the Orthodox Greek Church) : the number of the Muslims is a little in excess of the Christians, and that of the Latins in excess of the Schismatics."
In the accounts we have of the social relations between the Christians and the Muslims, and
in the absence of any sharp line of demarcation between the two communities, we find some clue to the manner in which Muslim influences gradually gained converts from among the
Christian population in proportion as the vigour and the spiritual life of the Church declined.
It had become very common for Christian parents to give their daughters in
marriage to Muslims, and for Christian women to make no objection to such unions.
The male children born of these mixed marriages were brought up as Muslims, but the girls were allowed to follow the religion of their mother.
Such permission was rendered practically ineffective by the action of the Christian ecclesiastics, who ordered the mothers to be excluded from the churches and from
participation in the sacraments;
and consequently (though the parish priests often disregarded the commands of their superiors) many of these women embraced the faith of their husbands. But even then they kept
up a superstitious observance of the rite of baptism, which was supposed to be a sovereign specific against leprosy, witches and wolves,
and Christian priests were found ready to pander to this superstition for any Muslim woman who wished to have her children baptized.
This good feeling between the members of the two religions
is similarly illustrated by the attendance of Muslims at the festivals of Christian saints. Even to the present day we are told that Albanian Muslims revere the Virgin Mary and
the Christian saints, and make pilgrimages to their shrines, while Christians on the other hand resort to the tombs of Muslim saints for the cure of ailments or in fulfillment
Conversions are frequently ascribed to the pressure of the burden of taxation imposed upon the
Christians, and whole villages are said to have apostatized to avoid payment of the tribute. As no details are given, it is impossible to judge whether there was really
sufficient ground for the complaint, or whether this was not the apology for their conduct alleged by the renegades in order to make some kind of excuse to their former
co-religionists— or indeed an exaggeration on the part of ecclesiastics to whom a genuine conversion to Islam on rational grounds seemed an absolute impossibility.
A century later (in 1703) the capitation-tax was six reals a head for each male and this (with the
exception of a tax, termed sciataraccio, of three reals a year) was the only burden imposed on the Christians exclusively.
Men must have had very little attachment to their religion to abandon it merely in order to be quit of so slight a penalty, and with no other motive; and the very existence of
so large a body of Christians in Albania at the present time shows that the burden could not have been so heavy as to force them into apostasy without any other alternative.
If only we had something more than vague general complaints against the "Turkish tyranny," we should be
better able to determine how far this could have had such a preponderating influence as is ascribed to it: but the evidence alleged seems hardly to warrant such a conclusion.
The vicious practice followed by the Ottoman Court of selling posts in the provinces to the highest bidder and the uncertainty of the tenure of such posts, often resulted in the
occupants trying to amass as large a fortune as possible by extortions of every kind. But such burdens are said to have weighed as heavily on Muslims as Christians.
However this may have been, there can be little doubt of the influence exerted by
the zealous activity and vigorous life of Islam in the face of the apathetic and ignorant Christian clergy.
If Islam in Albania had many such exponents as the Mulla, whose sincerity, courtesy
and friendliness are praised by Marco Bizzi, with whom he used to discuss religious questions, it may well have made its way.
The majority of the Christian clergy appear to have been wholly unlettered: most of
them, though they could read a little, did not know how to write, and were so ignorant of the duties of their sacred calling that they could not even repeat the formula of
absolution by heart.
Though they had to recite the mass and other services in Latin, there were very few
who could understand any of it, as they were ignorant of any language but their mother tongue, and they had only a vague, traditionary knowledge of the truths of their religion.
Marco Bizzi considered the inadequate episcopate of the country responsible for these evils, as for the
small numbers of the clergy, and their ignorance of their sacred calling, and for the large number of Christians who grew old and even died without being confirmed, and
apostatized almost everywhere;
and unless this were remedied he prophesied a rapid decay of Christianity in the country.
Several priests were also accused of keeping concubines, and of drunkenness.
On the contrary, the Albanians cherished a national feeling that was quite apart from religious belief,
and with regard to the Turks, considered, in true feudal spirit, that as they were the masters of the country they ought to be obeyed whatever commands they gave.
Through the negligence and apathy of the Christian clergy many abuses and irregularities had been allowed
to creep into the Christian society; in one of which, namely the practice of contracting marriages without the sanction of the Church or any religious ceremony, we find an
approximation to the Muslim law, which makes marriage a civil contract. In order to remedy this evil, the husband and wife were to be excluded from the Church, until they had
conformed to the ecclesiastical law and gone through the service in the regular manner.
In the course of the seventeenth century, the social conditions and other factors,
indicated above, bore fruit abundantly, and the numbers of the Christian population began rapidly to decline.
In the brief space of thirty years, between 1620 and 1650, about 300,000 Albanians
are said to have gone over to Islam.
In 1624 there were only 2000 Catholics in the whole diocese of Antivari, and in the
city itself only one church; at the close of the century, even this church was no longer used for Christian worship, as there were only two families of Roman Catholics left.
In the whole country generally, the majority of the Christian community in 1651 was
composed of women, as the male population had apostatized in such large numbers to Islam.
Matters were still worse at the close of the century, the Catholics being then
fewer in number than the Muslims, the proportions being about 1 to 1 1/3,
whereas less than a hundred years before, they had outnumbered the Muslims in the proportion of 10 to 1;
in the Archbishopric of Durazzo the Christian population had decreased by about half in twenty years,
in another town (in the diocese of Kroia) the entire population passed from Christianity to Islam in the course of thirty years.
The Reformed Franciscans and the Observants who had been sent to minister to
the spiritual wants of the people did nothing but quarrel and go to law with one another; much to the scandal of the laity and the neglect of the mission.
In the middle of the seventeenth century five out of the twelve Albanian sees were vacant; the diocese of
Pullati had not been visited by a bishop for thirty years, and there were only two priests to 6348 souls.
In some parishes in the interior of the country, there had been no priests for more than forty years; and this was in no way due to the oppression of the "Turks," for when at
last four Franciscan missionaries were sent, they reported that they could go through the country and exercise their sacred office without any hindrance whatever.
The bishop of Sappa, to the great prejudice of his diocese, had been long resident in Venice, where he is
said to have lived a vicious life, and had appointed as his vicar an ignorant priest who was a notorious evil-liver: this man had 12,400 souls under his charge, and, says the
ecclesiastical visitor, "through the absence of the bishop there is danger of his losing his own soul and compassing the destruction of the souls under him and of the property
of the Church."
The bishop of Scutari was looked upon as a tyrant by his clergy and people, and only succeeded in keeping
his post through the aid of the Turks;
and Zmaievich complains of the bishops generally that they burdened the parishes in their diocese with forced contributions.
It appears that Christian ecclesiastics were authorized by the Sultan to levy contributions on their
flocks. Thus the Archbishop of Antivari (1599-1607) was allowed to "exact and receive" two aspers from each Christian family, twelve for every first marriage (and double the
amount for a second, and quadruple for a third marriage), and one gold piece from each parish annually, and it seems to have been possible to obtain the assistance of the
Turkish authorities in levying these contributions.
Throughout the whole of Albania there was not a single Christian school,
and the priests were profoundly ignorant: some were sent to study in Italy, but Marco Crisio condemns this practice, as such priests were in danger of finding life in Italy so
pleasant that they refused to return to their native country.
With a priesthood so ignorant and so careless of their sacred duties, it is not
surprising to learn that the common people had no knowledge even of the rudiments of their faith,
and that numerous abuses and corruptions sprang up among them, which "wrought the
utmost desolation to this vineyard of the Lord."
Many Christians lived in open concubinage for years, still, however, being admitted
to the sacraments,
while others had a plurality of wives.
In this latter practice we notice an assimilation between the habits of the two
communities—the Christian and the Muslim—which is further illustrated by the admission of Muslims as sponsors at the baptism of Christian children, while the old superstitious
custom of baptizing Muslim children was still sanctioned by the priests.
Such being the state of the Christian Church in Albania in the latter half of the seventeenth century,
some very trifling incentive would have been enough to bring about a widespread conversion to Islam;
and the punishment inflicted on the rebellious Catholics in the latter half of the century was a
determining factor more than sufficient to consummate the tendencies that had been drawing them towards Islam and to cause large numbers of them to fall away from the
There is very little doubt that the widespread conversion to Islam
time was the result of a long series of influences similar to those mentioned in the preceding pages, and that the deliverance from the payment of the tribute was the last link
in the chain.
What active efforts Muslims themselves were making to gain over the Christians to Islam, we can hardly
expect to learn from the report of an ecclesiastical visitor. But we find mention of a district, the inhabitants of which, from their intercourse with the Turks, had "converted
to Islam," and one of the chief causes of their falling away from the Christian faith was their contracting marriages with Turkish women.
There were no doubt strong Muslim influences at work here, as also in the two parishes of Biscascia and
Basia, whose joint population of nearly a thousand souls was "exposed to the obvious risk of converting to Islam through lack of any pastor," and were "much tempted in their
faith, and needed to be strengthened in it by wise and zealous pastors."
This indeed is another indication of the fact that the Muslims did not ill-treat the Christians, merely
as such, but only when they showed themselves to be politically disaffected.
Zmaievich, who was himself an Albanian, and took up his residence in his diocese instead of in Venetian
territory, (as many of the Archbishops of Antivari seem to have done),
was received with "extraordinary honors" and with "marvelous courtesy," not only by the Turkish officials generally, but also by the Supreme Pasha of Albania himself, who gave
him the place of honor in his Divan, always accompanying him to the door on his departure and receiving him there on his arrival.
If any of the Christian clergy were roughly treated by the Turks, it seems generally to have been due to
the suspicion of treason in correspondence with the enemies of the Turks; ecclesiastical visits to Italy seem also to have excited—and in many cases, justly—such suspicions.
Otherwise the Christian clergy seem to have had no reason to complain of the treatment they received from the Muslims; Zmaievich even speaks of one parish priest being "much
beloved by the principal Turks,"
and doubtless there were parallels in Albania to the case of a priest in the diocese of Trebinje in Herzegovina, who in the early part of the eighteenth century was suspected,
on account of his familiar intercourse with Muslims, of having formed an intention to embrace Islam, and was accordingly sent by his bishop to Rome under safe custody.
No subsequent period of Albanian history appears to have witnessed such widespread conversion to Islam as
the seventeenth century, but there have been occasional accessions to Islam up to more recent times.
At the present day the Muslims in Albania are said to number about 1,000,000 and the Christians 480,000,
but the accuracy of these figures is not certain. The Mirdites are entirely Christian; they submitted to the Sultan on condition that no Muslim would be allowed to settle in
their territory, but adherents of both the rival creeds are found in almost all the other tribes. Central Albania is said to be almost entirely Muslim, and the followers of
Islam form about sixty per cent. of the population of Northern Albania; the Christian population attains its largest proportion in Southern Albania, especially in the districts
bordering upon Greece.
For a list of these, see Finlay, vol. vi. pp. 28-9.
The name by which the Albanians always call themselves, lit. rock-dwellers.
Clark, pp. 175-7. The Mirdites, who are very fanatical Roman Catholics (in the diocese of Alessio), will not suffer a Muhammadan to live in their mountains, and
no member of their tribe has ever abjured his faith; were any Mirdite to attempt to do so, he would certainly be put to death, unless he succeeded in making good his
escape from Albania. (Hecquard: Histoire de la Haute Albanie, p. 224.)
Published in Farlati's Illyricum Sacrum.
Comuleo, 1593. Bizzi, 1610. Marco Crisio, 1651. Fra Bonaventura di S. Antonio, 1652. Zmaievich, 1703.
Farlati, vol. vii pp. 104, 107.
It is also complained that the Archbishop's palace was appropriated by the Muhammadans, but it had been left unoccupied for eight years, as Archbishop Ambrosius
(flor. 1579-1598) had found it prudent to go into exile, having attacked Islam " with more fervour than caution, inveighing against Muḥammad and damning his Satanic
doctrines." (Farlati, vol. vii. p. 107.)
Bizzi, fol. 9. where he says. " E comunicai quella mattina quasi tutta la Christianità latina." From a comparison with statistics given by
Zmaievich (fol. 227) I would hazard the conjecture that the Latin Christian community at this time amounted to rather over a thousand souls.
Bizzi, fol. 27, b; 38, b.
Veniero, fol. 34. This was also the custom in some villages of Albania as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century; see W. M. Leake: Travels in Northern
Greece, vol. i. p. 49. (London, 1835): "In some villages, Mahometans are married to Greek women, the sons are educated as Turks, and the daughters as Christians; and pork
and mutton are eaten at the same table."
Bizzi, fol. 38, b. Farlati, tom. vii. p. 158.
Bizzi, fol. 10, b. Veniero, fol. 34.
Shortly after Marco Bizzi's arrival at Antivari a Muhammadan lady of high rank wished to have her child baptised by the Archbishop himself, who tells us that she
complained bitterly to one of the leading Christians of the city that " io non mi fossi degnato di far a lei questo piacere, il qual quotidianamente vien fatto dai miei
preti a richiesta di qualsivoglia plebeo" (fol. 10, b).
For modern instances of the harmonious relations subsisting between the followers of the two faiths living together in the same village, see Hyacinthe Hecquard:
Histoire et description de la Haute Albanie (pp. 153, 162, 200). (Paris, 1858.)
Bizzi, fol. 38, b; 61,a; 37, a; 33, b.
Zmaievich, fol. 5. The Venetian real in the eighteenth century was equal to a Turkish piastre. (Businello, p. 94.)
Bizzi, fol. 12-13. Zmaievich, fol. 5.
Id. fol. 33, b. " Qui deriva il puoco numero de Sacerdoti in quelle parti e la puoca loro intelligenza in quel mestiero; il gran numero de'
Christiani, che invecchiano, et anco morono senza il sacramento della Confermatione et apostatano della fede quasi per tutto."
" Se 1'Albania non riceverà qualche maggior agiuto in meno di anni anderà a male quasi tutta quella Christianità per il puoco numero dei Vescovi e
dei Sacerdoti di qualche intelligenza." (Id. fol. 61, a.)
Id. fol. 36, a. Id. fol. 64, b.
Finlay, vol. v. pp. 153-4. Clark, p. 290.
“E quei miseri hanno fermata la conscientia in creder di non peccar per simil coniuntioni (i.e. the giving of Christian girls in marriage to Muhammadans) per esser
i turchi signori del paese, e che però non si possa, nè devea far altro che obbedirli quando comandano qualsivoglia cosa." (Bizzi, fol. 38, b.)
Bizzi, fol. 38, b; 63, a.
Farlati, tom. vii. pp. 124, 141.
Bizzi, fol. 38. b. Farlati, vol. vii. p. 158.
Informatione circa la missione d'Albania, fol. 196.
Fra Bonaventura, fol. 201.
Marco Crisio, fol. 202, 205.
Farlati, tom. vii. p. 109. Bizzi, fol. 19, b.
Zmaievich, fol. 11. Farlati, vol. vii. p. 151.
Farlati, vol. vii. pp. 126-32. Zmaievich, fol. 4-5, fol. 20.
Farlati, tom. vii. p. 141.
Farlati, vol. vi. p. 317.