By Inga Strautiņa
Small whitewashed mosques dotting mountainous scenery; chalk white Muslim graveyards scattered along the road, elderly Muslim women and men on the way to their prayers in peaceful villages – this is the image so typical of Muslim territories in the Western Balkans and the image I pictured, when crossing the Albanian border. However, despite my extensive travelling in this region, I was not sure what to expect, as Albania had so far been an ‘unknown territory’ for me.
As I was driving closer and closer to Tirana, I had a persistent nagging feeling, a certain discomfort. When I entered Tirana centre, I realized the cause, and it grew to an outright shock—there were hardly any mosques here and hardly any women in Hijab. Aren’t Albanians supposed to be Muslims? Was the famous Albanian poet Pashko Vasa right, when he wrote: “Churches and mosques you shall not heed, the religion of Albanians is Albanism”?
Islam in Albania has been shaped mostly by two historically significant events. The Ottoman Empire introduced the religion of Allah (swt) to this remote part of Europe. Then, during the 500 years of the Turkish rule, the majority of the population converted. A 1930 consensus declared 70% of the Albanian population to be Muslim, though Islam was experiencing turbulent times. In 1923, Albania’s Muslim congress decided to break off from the Caliphate and establish independent practices of prayer as well as banned polygamy and the obligation of Hijab.
The 20th century totalitarian regime of Albania had the most devastating impact on Islam and any religion in general. Mosques were closed and turned into secular culture centres, all religious practices were forbidden, Imams were imprisoned and forced to renounce their faith. Yet, it was not until 1967 that this communist country officially became the first atheist state in the world. Children were not taught religion due to safety reasons. A possession of a copy of the Quran or any other Holy Book could land one in prison.
Now Albania is a democratic state, but the legacy of its communist past still looms over the minds and lives of the Albanian people. There is religious freedom, but people seemed confused as to what religion can offer. 70% call themselves non-religious, and many others are seduced by foreign missionaries of various sects, who have grasped the opportunity to entangle unsuspecting minds. However, Islam is recovering. And as it often happens, the positive change comes from younger minds.
On the second day of my very short stay in the capital of this otherwise amazing and inspiring country, I decided to find some other mosques apart from the pretty Et’hem Bey in the central square. Until the Zuhr Adhan, I was wandering through busy alleys, contemplating the invisibility of Islamic culture in this city. It led me straight to a small mosque in a narrow side street. And suddenly I saw young Muslim brothers gathering for the prayer. I saw young Muslim sisters in Hijabs. “Alhamdulillah!” I thought.
That day I was graced with an experience of true Muslim sisterhood. These young women showered me, a complete stranger, with unbelievable warmth and attention. They told me about their way of returning to Islam and obstacles they occasionally encountered as Muslims. Throughout these stories I felt the enormous strength of their Iman. These young Albanian Muslims are knowledgeable, energetic and devoted. They are unwavering. They know the light and peace of Islam. May Allah Almighty (swt) bless the sisters and brothers of this beautiful country and strengthen them in spreading the message of the truth, Ameen!