Land of Albania! where Iskander rose,
Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,
And he his name-sake, whose oft-battled foes
Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize:
Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes
On thee, though rugged nurse of savage men!
The cross descends, thy minarets arise,
And the pale crescent sparkles in the glen,
Through many a cypress grove within each city’s ken.
(From Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
Albanians (Shqiptarë) are a homogenous group native to Albania (Shqiperia), Kosovo (Kosova) and western Macedonia. In the 13th century B.C., the Albanians’ ancestral country, Illyria, also included the former Yugoslavia and parts of Greece. The Albanian language (Shqip) is one of nine original Indo-European languages and is spoken by two main tribal groups: Ghegs in the north and Tosks in the south. The Latin name, Albania, is taken from the Albanoi tribe of the ancient Illyrians and not from the ancient state of Caucasian Albania. The descendants of the Caucasian Albanians, the Aluans, can still be found today and are totally unrelated in language or race to modern-day Albanians. The similarity between the Latin terms for these two very different and distant parts of Muslim Europe is entirely co-incidental and due to the Romans’ lack of imagination (or laziness) when it came to naming their colonial possessions. Georgia, for example, was referred to in early Latin sources as “Iberia” before the Romans transferred the name to the Spanish-Portugese Penninsula we know today. In the third century B.C., Illyria was conquered by the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
With their territory situated squarely between the two greats seats of Christendom, Rome and Constantinople, the Albanians were destined to leave their mark on the development of Christianty. Justinian I (born Flavius Anicius Justinianus), the Byzantine emperor who reigned from 527–565 C.E., was an ethnic Albanian. Justinian has been called “The Last Roman Emperor” and is credited for having reconquered the former western Roman territories in Africa, Spain and Italy, including Rome itself, from the Germanic Ostrogoths. His efforts did not go unrecognised by the clergy: he was canonised as a saint of the Orthodox Church. Besides his great military campaigns – part of his vision for a united Christian empire with Constantinople as its political, religious and economic centre – Justinian is also remembered for his reform of the legal code through the commission of Tribonian, and for his marriage with Empress Theodora.
Centuries later, another Albanian would come to head the Roman Christian world: Giovanni Francesco Albani, who, from 1700 till his death in 1721, was better known as Pope Clement XI. The Moldavian Prince or Voivode, Vasile Lupu (1595-1661), was also an Albanian. In 1646, he introduced the first codified, written law in Moldavia: the Carte românească de învăţătură (“Romanian book of learning”) or Pravila lui Vasile Lupu (“Vasile Lupu’s code”). The most famous Albanian Christian hero of modern times is the Roman Catholic nun and missionary, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Born Agnesa Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II in October 2003.
Other famous non-Muslim Albanians include Enver Hoxha, the paranoid Stalinist dictator of Albania from the end of WWII until his death in 1985, Hollywood acting siblings John and James Belushi, whose parents left Albania for the USA after WWII, and the American actress, Eliza Dushku, also born of an Albanian father.
The historical region of Illyria was finally rested to Ottoman control in the first quarter fo the 15th century. Amongst the most notable Ottoman-period Albanian Muslims who left their mark in history was the prime minister of the Ottoman Empire, Ferhat Pasha, and the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. In more recent times, an American physician and pharmacologist of Albanian ethnicity, Ferid Murad, won a Nobel prize in 1998. However, one individual from Albania stands out as having left a legacy that continues to outshine all other achievements of his countrymen: Shaykh Muhammad Nasir-ud-Deen Albani.
Shaykh Nasir was a scholar of the hadith (recorded narrations of the Prophet Muhammad detailing his sayings, actions, tacit approvals and physical description) and a hafith (one who has memorised at least one hundred thousand hadith, complete with the chains of transmission). He is regarded by Orthodox Muslims as this century’s scholar of hadith par excellence (Arabic: muhaddith al-asr) and by many of his contemporaries as the prophesied reformer (Arabic: mujaddid) whose emergence at the head of every century was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad.