Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

VIII. The Albanians

4. Religion. Reasons for Conversion to Islam,  The Bektashis
 

The parallel between Kurds and Albanians is indeed so obvious that it has led to a general impression that the Albanians are a race of fanatical savages, who exterminate


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and harry their Christian neighbours in obedience to religious hatred. It would hardly be true to say this even of the Kurds. Most of them are very lax Mohamedans, like all the races of Indo-European stock who have embraced Islam, and many are absolutely heretical. But certainly they have become the tools of a movement of fanaticism, and done their utmost to deserve the name of zealots. But the truth about the Albanians is that throughout their history they have resisted every alien culture, Islam among the rest. Two-thirds of them are Moslems, while the Christians are Orthodox in the South and Catholic in the North. But the Mohamedanism of the renegades is as nominal as the Christianity of the faithful remnant. It would be fairer to reproach the Moslems with indifference than with fanaticism. The ease with which they allowed themselves to be converted suggests that their original Christianity must have sat very lightly upon them. It came to them in a Greek dress. Their priests were ignorant and illiterate, and, unlike the Slavs, they had no Church bound up with their sense of nationality. No Saint Cyril had ever come among them to bring them letters and a gospel in their own tongue. The man who exchanged a Greek revelation for an Arabic Koran remained no less an Arnaut and a Skipetar than before, and he probably understood about as much of the new book as of the old. On the whole, that must be the main reason why the Albanians succumbed to Islam so much more readily than the Slavs or the Greeks. They lost neither their nationality nor their civilisation in the process. For certainly they had less excuse and less temptation. A Slav village on the plain often succumbed to overwhelming force when it renounced its Christianity. But an Albanian clan, well armed, and free of its mountain, became Moslem not so much from fear as from the hope of gain. In the North, where Turkish rule is only a name, and even the Christians bear arms, conversion seems a gratuitous act of infidelity. In the South, perhaps, where Turkish authority is more real and where at the present day the possession of arms is rarely permitted even to an Albanian Christian, unfaithfulness is much more explicable.


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Among the Tosks in recent times villages have often become Mohamedan to avoid being made into tchifliks (estates) for Moslem beys. Sheer oppression, exercised apparently by the gendarmerie, explained the conversion to Islam some eight years ago of the large village of Godalesh, near Elbasan. But in general the motive of conversion was either the hope of gain or the fear of loss.

The structure of Albanian society doubtless had the result of multiplying one hundredfold the effects of individual conversions among the Albanian chieftains. The advantages of becoming a Mohamedan were so obvious, and the risk of remaining a Christian so great, that throughout European Turkey the upper classes of the native gentry had really no alternative between conversion and flight. A landowner who wished to retain his lands could hardly hesitate. If he became a convert he might hope to increase his estates at the expense of his faithful neighbours, and perhaps to obtain some official rank as well. If he remained a Christian he had sooner or later to leave the country. The Servian aristocracy, for example, either took refuge in Montenegro or accepted Islam. But the Slav peasants, much less bound to their chiefs than the Albanians, and grouped with more independence in village communities which owned their own lands, were not committed to the fate of the gentry. On pain of accepting a Moslem bey and submitting to unnumbered exactions, they were usually able to retain their faith. With the Albanians, on the other hand, the feudal tie was stronger, and if the hope of worldly advantage tempted an aristocrat to become a convert, the chances were that his people followed his example. He was not merely their landlord. He was their chief, and, however reluctantly, his retainers yielded him obedience. [1] This explanation is, I confess, no more than a guess, but it seems the more plausible if we compare the case of the Vlachs with that of the Slavs and the Albanians. A vast majority of the Slavs remained Christians. The

1. The best elements of the Albanian people doubtless followed John Castriot when he emigrated to the kingdom of Naples.   The Albanians of Sicily still retain the Eastern rite.


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majority of the Albanians became Moslem. But it is said that no single case has ever occurred of the conversion of a Vlach village to Islam. Now, the Vlachs form the only race in the Balkans which is absolutely free in its social structure. It has no aristocracy as the Albanians have. And since it is nomadic and pastoral rather than agricultural, it is not at the mercy of landowners, as are so many of the Slavs. Every Vlach community is practically autonomous, and the individual Vlach separates himself without hesitation from his village. When circumstances become too difficult they simply emigrate as the people of Moschopolis did. The Slavs, once settled round a church and a monastery, remain rooted to the soil. The Albanians follow the fortunes of their chiefs. But the Vlachs are at home wherever there is a mountain-top.

The conversion of the Albanians to Islam has been of enormous consequence politically, but its effects on their habits of thought and even on their social life have been of the slightest. The adoption of the harem system has been partial and perfunctory. They are nearly all heretics, and they pay scant regard to the prohibition of alcohol. They have never forgotten that their ancestors were Christians. Some villages have made a compromise with both worlds. Above ground they have their mosque for all the world to see, while they still keep their candles burning before their eikons in a subterranean chapel. Elsewhere it is usual to provide for the uncertain chances of the Last Day by baptizing children as well as circumcising them. Every lad bears a Moslem name, which appears in the official register of the village, while at home he is known as John or George. The Virgin is a name to swear by even in districts which became Moslem very shortly after the Conquest. So little fanaticism is there, that Moslem Albanians will often frequent a Christian church, light a candle to the eikons, and, in short, do everything but cross themselves. The women, as is usual in the Balkans, are the conservative force. At Godalesh, for example, they still observe Saints' days, and doubtless they instil into their children an unqualified reverence for the older faith, leaving it to the men to


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explain the temporal advantages that spring from conformity to the religion of the Turks. This vacillation is probably commoner in the villages than it is in the towns, but even in Prizrend there is a class which habitually fluctuates between Islam and Christianity. [2] In the same family it often happens that the father is, for official purposes, a Catholic while the sons are Moslems. But if anywhere there is a trace of fanaticism among the Albanians it is in the towns, and especially in those where the local Christians are not Albanians. In Ochrida and Monastir, for example, where there is a Turkish leaven among the  Moslem Albanian population, and the Christians are all either Vlachs or Bulgarians, the racial antipathy of Slav and Albanian does, I think, acquire more than a tinge of religious hatred, and a massacre is always a possibility. But in these towns there are Turkish priests at work, whose business it is to educate the Albanians into fanaticism. In the country the priests are few and, for the most part, quite illiterate, and as often as not the mosques are allowed to crumble into decay.
 

The Bektashis
But there is a religious influence at work among the Moslem Albanians more salutary than their natural indifferentism, and more potent than their vague traditions of a Christian past. Islam is never a satisfying creed to a people of European race, and within it there have grown up a variety of sects which expand and refine its teaching and introduce into its harsh and positive doctrine an element of mysticism. In Albania, as in Crete, the most important of these sects is that of the Bektashis. They are a monastic order whose priests are known as dervishes. Unlike the regular Mohamedan clergy, they are often celibates, devoted to a religious life. It is a little difficult to define their relation to orthodox Mohamedanism. They are certainly heretical, but there has been no outward schism. They exist within the Church as a pious brotherhood vowed to charity and good works, which never adopts a formal

2. Up till 1703 most of the Ghegs were secret Christians who received the sacrament by stealth. In that year a Catholic council forbade this practice.


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antagonism to the State religion. But none the less a profound distrust and hostility divides the dervishes from the orthodox Mohamedan clergy, and their order is, or was, prohibited in Constantinople, no doubt because of its Janissary associations. Their influence is, however, much wider than the clerical ranks of their order. Grouped around every monastery with its sheikh (abbot) and its dervishes are thousands of lay brethren, who are initiated in its rites and its doctrines and devoted to its interests. It is not perhaps too much to say that nearly every Albanian at all events in the South who has any interest in religion at all, is a member of the Bektashi sect. Its general acceptance seems to date from Ali Pasha, who sought by propagating a heresy among his Moslem subjects to divide them the more effectually from the Turks. It is difficult to avoid the use of the word heresy and undoubtedly the teaching of the Bektashis is profoundly heretical but their place in Islam is perhaps most nearly analogous to that of Freemasonry in Christianity at a time when it was a real religious influence as Tolstoy, for example, describes it in "War and Peace." [3] It imposes on its votaries duties of charity and benevolence, it rallies them round its monasteries, it gives them a more interesting and speculative creed than orthodox Islam, and it links them together by an obligation of mutual helpfulness.

The Bektashi doctrine is a secret discipline which is only fully revealed to the initiated, but I have been able to glean something of its teaching from Bektashis whom I have met in Crete and in Albania.

The sect owes its origin to a certain Hadji (Saint) Bektash, a holy-man who became the chaplain and in a sense the spiritual patron of the Janissaries, and Bektashism was largely propagated through their influence. [4] One can understand that these youths, sprung from European races,

3. The Bektashis themselves like to imagine that the Freemasons are kindred spirits.

4. The distinguishing dress of the Janissaries, who were really an order of military monks, was a tall white felt cap. This the Bektashi shiekhs (abbots) retain. The little white felt cap which is the ordinary Albanian headdress may owe its origin to this badge.


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and snatched from Christian mothers at an age when they must already have learned a little about Christianity, would prefer a liberal and heretical form of Islam. And Bektashism has imbibed elements from all the faiths of the East, while preserving a certain spirit of its own. Its theology is pantheistic. It replaces the Allah of Islam, who stands to his votaries in the relation of an omnipotent tyrant to his slaves, by some conception of a universal spiritual substance into which the human soul may merge and enter. It hates all barriers which divide souls from one another and from God. It finds the way to union with God in a universal love, a general tolerance. It cares nothing for race or creed, and I have heard a Bektashi say that a man might be a Christian and also a member of the order, though in practice he could not tell me of any Christian who had ever made use of the open door; but then the Eastern Christian values tolerance chiefly as a quality useful in Turks. On its mystical side Bektashism teaches that the saint should endeavour even in this life to overcome the barriers of individuality and merge himself in ecstasy with God. In practice I am afraid this is held to excuse a liberal use of opium and alcohol, and the Albanians attempt to realise Hegel's phrase about the God-intoxicated philosopher somewhat too literally. This teaching about a common spiritual substance is somehow reconciled with a belief in the transmigration of souls. The human soul presumably wanders through animal bodies before it attains union with the Divine. Here the suggestion of Buddhist influence seems irresistible. For Bektashism draws the happy inference that no life should be wantonly taken. A really devout Bektashi of the old school wears bells upon his shoes, that he may warn the little creatures of the grass to avoid his footsteps. One might search all the records of Eastern Christianity in vain for a refinement of faith so pleasing and gentle as this. As for its relation to Islam, I believe that Bektashism is not only heretical, but actually rebellious. In secret it denies that Mahomet was a prophet of unique or authoritative rank. I have even been assured by an educated Albanian, who, though not himself a Bektashi, was born


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of Bektashi parents, and bred in a devout Bektashi household, that the sect preaches an active contempt for Mahomet. But obviously, if this be so, it is a secret which it would be dangerous for an initiated Bektashi to divulge. Historically Bektashism ranges itself with all the other Moslem heresies, notably with that of the Shiahs of Persia and India, who hold the Caliph Ali and his murdered children Hassan and Hussein [5] in especial reverence. Ali they place above Mahomet; I have been told that they believe in a Trinity, of which Ali is a member, but this seems hardly consistent with Pantheism, though the word may have pleased the Janissary lads who had once been Christians.

On the moral side, it has been said that the Bektashis are antinomians who teach that no moral precepts are binding on the elect. I feel convinced that this is a misunderstanding, or perhaps a calumny invented by the Turks. Indeed, the Turks profess to think that they are Atheists. The ethics of the Bektashis is rather a spiritual creed which attempts to supersede an external morality of precepts and commandments by substituting for them some more universal principle of love and charity. It is possible that they sweep aside the Mohamedan version of the Decalogue, just as they disregard the prohibition of wine and of portraiture. As Pantheists they are naturally intolerant of all formalism. Moreover, it is one of their axioms that a man should follow the inward light, indifferent to public opinion. But their teaching on morals was defined to a friend of mine by the sheikh (abbot) of their teké (monastery) near Calcandelen in the following quaint but admirable summary. "All evil," said the sheikh, "consists in the use of these four phrases :

" ' I eat; you are hungry.'
" ' I am good ; you are evil.' "

5. They believe that the soul of Hussein's murderer has gone into a hare, and for that reason no Albanian will touch or eat hares, though they do not object to shooting them. The sacredness of the hare is a very widespread superstition found, e.g., in Siberia. Perhaps this legend really rests on some older belief.


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And certainly from that text [6] one might construct an excellent system of morality. It would hardly serve as a pillar for the sacred institution of private property, and it would make a swift end of a dogmatic State religion. But for a creed of charity, brotherhood, and tolerance it would make an excellent foundation. I can fancy that Tolstoy and this Bektashi sheikh would find much in common. A teaching so spiritual and so humane is doubtless somewhat above the moral level of the Albanians. But at least it keeps their minds open to better influences, and saves them from becoming like the Kurds the tools of a fanatical Sultan. Of all its tenets at least they have learned tolerance. It has never been my good fortune to see Bektashism at work under happy political conditions. The Bektashi community in Crete were forced to take sides in the general feud between Christian and Moslem. But they deplored it while they joined in it, as men who approve of better things while constraint hurries them into worse. Amid the angry life of that unhappy island they had contrived to lay the foundations of a quiet and progressive existence. They had their little library of French and Turkish books; they loved in a spirit of broad toleration to debate theology with strangers, with Christians, and among themselves; and their Bektashism seemed to save them from the arid negations of the average "Young Turk," who is too often a freethinker only because his mind is too indolent or too crude to care for speculative things. But to me the type of the good Bektashi is the sheikh of the Teke in Prizrend. Gentle, dignified, and courteous, he spends an innocent old age in a retired garden of red roses and old-fashioned stocks. To visit him was to step into an atmosphere of simplicity and peace. An active life lay behind him. He had spent long years wandering over the Moslem world. He had sojourned in India and studied in Bokhara, listening wherever some noted doctor had a thought to give or an influence to bestow. At the end of his pilgrimage, laden with the wisdom of the East, he even made his way to

6. I.e., it is evil to be full when other men are empty. It is evil to boast one's own righteousness and to deny the good in others.


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Rome, anxious to prove his tolerance by paying his respects to the Pope. He waited some months for an audience, and came away grieved at the rebuff with which his simple impulse of charity had been met. When his tale was finished he turned to us with an earnest look in his thoughtful eyes, and tried through the unsympathetic medium of our Greek interpreter to convey his kindly mysticism to us. Something we caught about the community of souls, before the time came for us to leave him laden with his roses that seemed to carry with them the rarer fragrance of his gentleness and piety.
 

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