There are two proverbs that describe very precisely the conditionality of religiosity among Albanians: “Religion of Albanians is Albanianism” and “Religion follows the sword“.
The national hero of the Albanians, Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeg, was born an Orthodox Christian, then converted to Islam and finally to Catholicism. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, heterodox Islam played a decisive role in the national liberation movement among the Albanians and in the formation of their national identity. Why was Albania the first country where religion was officially banned (1967, during Enver Hoxha’s regime)? Today we can observe modern Albanian families in which one partner is Muslim, the other is Orthodox Christian, and the children are Catholic.
These examples point out the paradox of Albanian religious conditionality.
Who are Albanians actually?
In a historical reference from 1910, “Who are today’s Albanians and their language”, the Albanian translator, publicist, and public figure who lived in Bulgaria, Lazar Jakob Siljani, wrote the following: “Little is known about the Albanians, about their past and present. They never existed as a people with the name Albanians.”, “…in 1444 AD, the famous Albanian hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, (Skender Bey) united them in one national body, under the name shqiptar (falconers, falconers) and fought with the troops of Sultan Murad V and his son Sultan Mehmed, victoriously for 24 years“.
Historians define Albanians as an ethnic group native to the Balkan Peninsula who share a common Albanian ancestry, culture, history, and language. The term “Albanoi” (Αλβανοί) is first encountered twice in the works of Byzantine historian Attaliates. Little is known about the Albanian people prior to the 11th century. Many different spiritual traditions, religious faiths, and beliefs have been practiced by the Albanian people – starting with paganism and going through Christianization and later to partial Islamization of the population.
In 1967 Albania was declared the world’s first atheist state.
According to the 2011 census, 56.7% of Albanians declared themselves to be Sunni Muslims, making Islam the largest religion in the country. Approximately 20% of Muslims in Albania identify themselves as having some connection to Bektashism. Christianity was declared by 16.99% of the population. The remaining portion of the population is either irreligious or belongs to other religious groups. 2015 study on the Albanian youth aged 16–27 found that a total of 80 percent of young people in Albania are not religious practitioners and practice their religion only during the main religious holidays and festivities. Specifically, 23 percent of the respondents never practiced their religion, while 61 percent practiced it only on religious holidays. Of the rest, 11 percent practiced it 1–2 times a week, while 5 percent practiced it every day.
During an interview in 2021 the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama said: “Europe is a religion, and nobody can betray this religion in Albania”. These words very much confirm the abovementioned proverb that religion follows the “sword” – or the interests, metaphorically.
In his essay, written at the beginning of the 20th century, on the faith of the Albanians, one of the most important political and intellectual figures in Albania, Faik Konica makes a thorough analysis of the specifics of Albanian religiosity. According to him “Albania is not a Muslim country. It is a country with three faiths and precisely for this reason there is no state faith. Under Ottoman rule, the Muslim Albanians held positions of power, alongside the Turks, and were looked upon favourably, while the Christian part was left out and its voice was not heard anywhere. From these, the impression that Albania is an Islamic country has been created.” Further in the text, Konica cites Finlay and Byron: “Relations between Muslim and Christian Albanians have been much more friendly than relations between Muslim Albanians and Turks. At this point, Albanians differ from Greeks, because they (Albanians) feel the ties of nationality more than the ties of religion.” (Finley), “The Greeks do not look upon them as Christians, and the Turks do not look upon them as Muslims; and indeed, they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither.” (Byron). I believe that Konica wanted the international community to understand that the Albanian state is not a religious state, but a secular one where the most important characteristic of the citizens is their ethnicity – Albanians. It is interesting to mention that Ismail Kadare in his essay on Konica says: “Faik Konica was a Muslim, catholic, orthodox Christian and in the end, he became an atheist.”
The role of Islam and Christianity in the creation and preservation of the Albanian individuality of culture and language cannot be denied.
Christianity has been a cultivator for developing the Albanian language and literature and contributed to enriching Albanian traditions and culture. It played an important role for Albanians during the rule of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, and the influx of Nomadic and Slavic peoples. Just as the role of Islamic culture in preserving the Albanian collective being from Slavic, Greek and Turkic identities should not be underestimated. Bektashism (heterodox Islam) played a crucial role in cultural and historical terms, as well as in the formation of Albanian national identity. So, the traditional religious affiliation among Albanians should be considered as a civilizational, cultural, and national value that advances nobility, generosity, spiritual, moral, and cultural elevation for man as a person, as part of the family and the society. Albanian Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants are proud of their religious affiliation. But, at the same time, being Albanian is primary, while other characteristics, such as faith and birthplace are personal issues.
“It’s true that we have Bajram and Easter, but we have Albania in common” (Gjergj Fishta)
Important Albanian figures as Pashko Vasa, Jani Vreto, Ismail Qemali, Konstandin Kristoforidhi, Hoxha Tasini, Naim and Sami Frasheri, Jeronim De Rada, Asdreni, Pandeli Sotiri, Naum Vekilharxhi, and many, many others, who were the designers, founders, and custodians of the Albanian national identity, had different beliefs but the same goal of protecting and liberating their homeland. Muslim Albanians were the ones who fought against the Ottomans in order to liberate the country, and so were the Orthodox Albanians against the Greeks or the Catholics against the Venetians. So, throughout history, Albanians have fought against peoples of the same faith, but of other nationalities, thus nationality and nation’s interests have been primary and defining for Albanians.
Interreligious “coexistence” among Albanians is often a source of surprise for foreign researchers in whose countries interreligious conflicts or civil wars occur. Religious harmony remains one of the historical, cultural, and civilizational values of which Albanians are proud. The religious tolerance of the Albanian people is rooted in national self-awareness since Albanians have different religious affiliations, but share the same blood, speak the same language, and have common origin and traditions. This greatly affected national cohesion in a wider framework and mobilized the Albanian people to resist assimilation. Interreligious tolerance is a historical necessity, a means, and a factor for ensuring the national unity and existence of the Albanian people. Centuries-old tolerance becomes an important factor for the psycho-cultural modeling of Albanians. The role of religion among Albanians can be seen as positive historically. The religious leaders, who did not allow the misinterpretation of religious principles, have special merit and, sometimes, they became the leaders of the people, taking the fate of the nation into their hands.
The religious coexistence among Albanians, verified over the centuries, is exemplary and a pillar of Albanian civilization. Multiconfessionality is a completed historical process for Albanians and their religious tolerance represents a blessing of spiritual heritage. I would say that the conditionality of their religious views only “spices up” the Albanian national characteristics.
This article was originally published in Balkans in-site on July 31, 2022.
- Siljani L., “Кои съ днешнитѣ албанци и тѣхния език?”, Pavlov, 1910