Christian Bosnia

During the sixth and seventh centuries CE, Slavic peoples had been populating the mountainous country in the western Balkans which, as early as 753, was being referred to as Bosnia. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, after having endured several hundred years of domination by Croatia, Serb principalities, and the Byzantine Empire, an independent state emerged and flourished in central Bosnia. Kulin, the second ban (so the Bosnians called their rulers), issued the first written Bosnian document written in Cyrillic in 1189.

Pre-Islamic Bosnia reached its territorial peak under Ban Tvrtko I who, in 1377, was crowned King of Serbs and Bosnia and the (Adriatic) Coast and the Western Lands in a Franciscan monastery near Sarajevo. At the height of his political power, Tvrtko’s Bosnia included Hum (Hercegovina), Usora, Soli, Dalmatia, Donji Kraji, and parts of present-day Serbia and Croatia. After his death, the power of the Bosnian state slowly waned until it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1463 whilst under the rule of King Stjepan Tomašević. Hercegovina fell two decades later in 1482, while the westernmost parts of Bosnia were only subdued a full century later.

During this early period, many Bosnians (or Bosanski) professed both Catholicism, especially the bans and nobles, and Orthodoxy. But it was the indigenous Bosnian Church, the Krstjani, founded on the prescripts and practices of the heretical Christian Bogomil sect, with which most ordinary Bosnians identified themselves. Bogomilsm had much in common with Islam and it is therefore believed to have been a major factor in the Bosnians’ later adoption of the latter faith. For example, the Bogomils rejected the worship of the Virgin Mary, the institution of Baptism and priesthood and the sybolisation of the cross. They held it idolatrous to bow before icons and images of saints. Their places of prayer were simple and unadorned, in stark contrast to the extravagance of Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They prayed five times a day and night, repeating the Lord’s Prayer with frequent kneelings. They disliked church bells, refrained from alcohol, and held that Christ was not crucified but that someone was crucified in his stead. The general austerity of their mode of life and seriousness of their outward demeanour no doubt further aided their transition to Islam.

Small numbers of Croats living on the Dalmatian coast had been converting to Islam due to contact with Arab seafarers from the 9th century onwards, long before the Ottoman State was born. The local Muslim population of Hungary likewise predated the Muslims of Bosnia. Here, the adoption of Islam by a small group of Magyars was also the result of contact with the Arab (merchants) long before any Ottoman soldier occupied the Balkans. As a result of the wars between the Ottomans and their Catholic neighbours, many Muslim refugees from Hungary, Slavonia and Dalmatia resettled in Bosnia where they were absorbed by and strengthened the local Muslim population. Hence, the only substantial inter-breeding the Bosnians did was with other native Balkan peoples – especially Serbs and Croats.

The Ottoman Period

June 27, 1389, marks the date of the Battle of Kosovo Polje. Prince Lazar of Serbia had marshalled together a united Balkan army of some 100,000 Serbs, Bosnians, Hungarians, Albanians, Moldavians, Wallachians, and even a contingent of Saxon mercenaries. Opposing the Christian coalition was the Imperial Ottoman army of Sultan Murad I, which also included volunteers from Anatolia and Rumelia.

In military terms, the battle was a draw with both sides eventually retiring after suffering heavy casulaties, including the loss of their repective leaders. Lazar was captured and executed by the Ottomans while Murad was killed by the poisoned dagger of a Serb posing as a defector. Murad was immeditaely succeded by his brilliant son, Bayazid I, who as Sultan would earn the title “Lightening” and gain fame as the victor of the Battle of Nicopolis. The Serb losses were, however, irreplacable. Their entire nobility including most of their knights had been wiped out.

Curiously, the right wing of the Balkan Christian army was the only one to survive largely intact. This was the Bosnian wing, commanded by the fierce Bosnian duke, Vlatko Vuković, one of the few Christian commanders to survive the battle of Kosovo. Only the previous year, in 1388, Vlatko defeated a Turkish raiding party invading Hercegovina. The Bosnian steadfastness against the Turks then repeated itself in Kosovo. In fact, the Bosnians had performed so well in the combat that they believed the Christian side victorious. The Bosnians’ military prowess no doubt made a strong impression upon the Ottomans for whom they would soon assume the role of military cast par excellence.

The Ottomans ruled Bosnia under great autonomy from 1463 until 1878 and it was during the first century of this period that the native population underwent mass conversions to Islam. Most Bosnians had been merchants or land owners but they also made for very able administrators. Between 1544 and 1611, no less than nine sons of Bosnia held the post of Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire, making these Bosnians the most powerful men in all of Europe and the Near East, second only to the Sultan himself.

As the power of the Ottomans waned, the boldness of the Christian powers grew. In 1697, Prince Eugene of Savoy conducted a daring raid into Bosnia and torched its beautiful capital, Sarajevo. With the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, then the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, waves of Muslim refugees fled into the Bosnian heartland from the Ottomans’ shrinking European periphery.

Being on the frontline, the Bosnians bore the worst of Ottoman defeats. The thinning of the male population as a result of these wars, an increased tax burden, and a general mallaise resulting from Ottoman decay led to revolts in Herzegovina in 1727, 1728, 1729, and 1732. A large plague that decimated many thousands of Bosnians during the early 1730s further contributed to the general chaos. In 1736, seeking to exploit these conditions, Austria broke the Treat of Passarowitz and crossed the Sava river boundary. In one of the most significant events in Bosnian history, local Bosnian nobility organized a defense and counterattack completely independent of the ineffective imperial authorities. On August 4, at the Battle of Banja Luka, the outnumbered Bosnian forces routed the Austrian army and sent them fleeing back to Slavonia. It would take the Austrians a further century and a half before they could capture Bosnia.

Austro-Hungarian Rule

In 1878, Bosnia became a colony of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The new imperial authorities maintained a good relationship with the local Muslim landlords and even courted them to the disfavour of the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. In 1908, the empire formally annexed Bosnia and the King of Hungary suddenly gained several hundred thousand Muslim subjects, many of whom were later enrolled in the Dual Monarchy’s army. The King would have had several hundred thousand more Muslim subjects but for the majority of Bosnians opting to emigrate to Ottoman-held Eastern Thrace and Anatolia, rather than remain under non-Muslim rule. As a result of the Muslim exodus out of Bosnia, the country underwent a major demograpic change, going from an absolute Muslim majority to an overall Muslim majority. A reality which has remained true to this day.

In 1916, Islam was declared a “recognised religion”, a truly remarkable legislative event considering just how relatively small the number of Muslims in the Kingdom of Hungary actually was. Plans for the building of a mosque in Budapest were seriously undertaken by both the city’s municipality as well as by some Hungarian entrepreneurs several years prior.

Hungarian patrons like Stephen Bárczy (d. 1943), who was Mayor of Budapest at the turn of the century, were sympathetic towards Islam and helped the small community of Bosniak veterans living in Hungary proper integrate into Magyar society. Unfortunately however, the community was never officially recognised due to hostile Christian Church press and Turkish envy.

Following World War I, Hungary lost three-fifths of its pre-war population and two-thirds of its historic territory. Besides the gifting of northern Hungary to Slovakia and the historic eastern Magyar homeland of Erdély to Romania, much of south Hungary (Vajdaság) went to Yugoslavia where the area became the Serb-administered province of Vojvodina.

During the same period, the Bosniaks of the Sanjak (Sandžak) saw their territory split in two between Serbia and Montenegro. With the onset of the Second World War, the London-based Serb Chetnik leader, Draza Mhajlović, who was minister of the army and navy in the Royal Government of Yugoslavia in exile from 1941-1945, gave his units the order to “clean” (i.e. exterminate) the Sanjak province of its majority Bosniak Muslim population. Subequently, an estimated 300,000 Slav civilians – women, children and old men – were murderd in cold blood simply for being Muslims. The Bosnians had long known the cruel envy of their bitter Serb neighbours but, without their own sovereignty, they had little chance of resisting the full might of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army.

Post-War Yugoslavia: The Bosnian Genocide

When War broke out in 1992, following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Serbs, many of whom had migrated to Bosnia over the centuries to work as serfs on Muslim-owned lands, pursued a policy of genocide against the Bosnians, ethnically cleansing, raping and murdering Muslims out of their country in pursuit of a Greater Serbia. Bosnia itself had over half of its country annexed by the ultranationalist project: Republika Serpska.

Despite Serbian nationalist propaganda’s suggesting otherwise, there was never any significant Turkic input in the Bosnian gene. [Forgetting for a moment that this claim contradicts another discredited argument propounded by Serbian nationalist discourse: that Bosnians are descended from Serbs forcibly converted to Islam.] The Turks never settled in Bosnia and left the country’s Muslims to largely run their own affairs and develop their own culture. In fact, there was justification to leave a much larger Turkic military and administrative presence in Serbia than in Bosnia as the former nation was considered more hostile and therefore more prone to rebellion. Even in those parts of Europe were Turks did settle (e.g. Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, etc.) they did not generally marry into or assimilate with the surrounding communities. Hence the Balkan Turkish communities to this day remain ethnically distinct and separate from the wider non-Turkish populous amongst whom they live – including from communities of other Balkan Muslims. While today, there is no noteworthy non-diplomatic Turkish presence in Bosnia to speak of, the opposite does not bear true as there are an estimated 2.5 million Turkish citizens of Bosnian ancestry.