Finding ‘ilm’ in Bosnia

Bosnians, who survived war, genocide, mass rape & betrayal, pontificating about ‘civilisation’ is a triumph...

Akbar Ahmed July 02, 2015
The writer is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and is the author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam. He is currently working on a film and book project called Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire

Today many societies in Europe are concerned about their Muslim communities. Muslims are widely, and inaccurately, seen as either supporting or sympathetic to terrorism. Yet every Muslim act of violence in the news feeds into the stereotype. It reflects a larger problem with the image of Islam on a global scale. I believe not only Europe, but the world has much to learn from tiny Bosnia, which is to be found in a remote part of the continent.

There are parallel narratives about Islam in Europe today. Europeans feel under siege from Muslims. Wherever they look they are confronted with appalling stories of violence and moral turpitude associated with Muslims — the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris followed by the attacks in Copenhagen; Muslims assaulting members of the Jewish community in schools, museums and even markets markets; and Muslims in the UK are condemned for both ‘grooming’, that is, exploiting young girls for sex by getting them addicted to drugs and drinks and ‘Trojan Horse’ strategies designed to take over schools and impose an Islamic agenda.

In turn, Muslims also feel under siege. Right-wing parties have grown dramatically with a negative focus on Muslims and contest most Muslim-related issues , including, for example, that of rescuing immigrants at sea, which they depict as opening the floodgates to "millions" of potential terrorists . Huge processions numbering up to 25,000 have been organised by Pegida in Germanyagainst muslims. (To the credit of Mrs Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, she spoke at an anti-Pegida rally organised by Muslims in Berlin). Mosques and women in hijabs, both seen as symbols of Islam, have been frequently attacked. Three mosques were targeted in targeted in rapid succession even in traditionally peaceful Sweden. As a consequence of the negative reports about them, Muslims tend to see the media as one-sided and biased.

In the midst of this ugly confrontation, what can tiny Bosnia teach us? To discover the answer, I visited Bosnia with my research team on my new project Journey into Europe, in which I traveled across the continent to study Islam in Europe. We found that Bosnia has shown us how to survive hatred and even genocide. Bosnians had done so by absorbing the spirit of ilm.

At the core of my proposition is the Islamic notion of ilm or knowledge. It is a concept that is broad and inclusive and can be translated as living by and in the spirit of knowledge. Ilm by definition promotes intellectual curiosity about the world around us and compassion for and understanding of the Other. In Bosnia ilm is highly valued. It is the inclusive spirit and practice of ilm in its broadest sense that Europe and the world can learn from Bosnia.

What characterises the Bosnians is the fine balance between tradition and modernity, between spiritual confidence and intellectual humility, between the Islamic past and contemporary European thought. It is not an easy exercise for any community, but for the Bosnians, who have survived the ravages of war, genocide, mass rape and the betrayal by neighbours, pontificating about ‘civilisation’ is a testimony to and triumph of the spirit of ilm.

That spirit burns in Bosnians like a steady candle in the night radiating hope, learning and faith. I will always remember the pain on the face of Khadijah Mehmedovic, the mother in Srebrenica who pointed to the graves in Srebrenica of her husband and two sons in the summer of 2014 and spoke, while fighting back tears, not of revenge but of justice.

Dr Amineh Hoti, a member of the research team, expressed so well the feelings of the entire team about the Bosnians:

“The Bosnians are one of the most dignified people I have met — they are intelligent, smart, noble, gentle and forgiving — people who value knowledge (ilm), respect for the Other (adab) and humanity (insaaniat). It is widely stated that there has not been one single act of revenge since the war of aggression on them. The Bosnians are exemplary Muslims (scholarly and many have memorised the Holy Quran so are hafiz-e-Quran) and also exemplary Europeans (living up to the standard of its higher values like human rights, democracy, and an intellectual tradition in the modern age). At the risk of romanticising them, the Bosnians are a model for the rest of the Muslims, the world and for humanity."

I will always treasure the memories of my meetings with people like Dr Haris Silajdzic, the former president and prime minister of Bosnia, who steered his people to nationhood but never lost his intellectual curiosity and humanity, which I discovered in the hours spent with him discussing poetry, history, philosophy, art and culture over cups of coffee in a small cafe in Sarajevo; Dr Mustafa Ceric, the former Grand Mufti of the nation and a spiritual leader who successfully balanced his faith with interfaith understanding; Dr Mustafa Jahic, the director of the historic five centuries-old Gazi Husrev-Bey library, who preserved his precious books during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, like a mother protects her children, knowing that any minute may be his last and not caring for his life as much as for his books; and Mirnes Kovac, the dynamic editor of  Preporod, the major Islamic news magazine in the Balkans, who translated my book Islam Under Siege into Bosnian and was then editing his  forthcoming book The Siege of Islam, a major collection of world scholars on Islam.

A highlight for me was the meeting with Professor Zulejha Ridjanovic who, at the height of the war two decades ago, in the mid-1990s, was asked by Dr Silajdzic to translate my book Living Islam into Bosnian. Retired and now living with her memories, the professor came to see us in our hotel in Sarajevo with her daughter Leila Ridjanovic who works for the UN in Geneva. Together they recounted the story of the translation which I heard with awe, once again illustrating the true spirit of ilm in the Bosnians.

It is important to place the story in the context of the siege of Sarajevo. The hills that surround the city appear so close and back then their peaks had been occupied by enemy tanks and heavy artillery that shot incessantly and indiscriminately into the city, killing Muslim and non-Muslim. The daughter, so proud of her mother, recounted how her mother would not leave the pages that she was translating behind in their flat when she left for the office. Clutching the pages, she would say, “What if a shell landed on my flat when I am away and destroyed them? I would therefore prefer to have the translation with me and safe.” Mother and daughter slept in the corridor where they felt safer from the shelling. Leila described coming home to the cold flat without water and electricity and the windows blown out and finding her mother working on a particular sentence by candlelight and then reading it to her with pride: “Do you think I have got it right?” she would ask. “Have I captured the spirit of the author?”

She was working on the translation at the height of the attempt by the Serbs to break the spirit of the Bosnians and capture Sarajevo. They had boasted that it was only a matter of days before Sarajevo fell. But they had not taken into account the resolve of the Bosnians whose dogged resistance made this the longest siege in modern history.

It was in those days that Professor Ridjanovic wrote to me. I received the letter at Cambridge and will always treasure it. It was typed on an ancient typewriter and the paper was rough. But even now, reading the letter and the context and how and when it was written takes my breath away because it reflects a deep story behind an already dramatic one: the indomitable will of the individual to preserve ilm at all costs.

After introducing herself, she wrote:

“I must say that it was a tremendous pleasure translating your book. It is so close to the heart of every Muslim, that I considered myself privileged to have the opportunity to do the translation. Both the book, and the series were ready just before the month of Ramadan, and were received with great satisfaction and admiration by the public. I was translating the book in the days of heavy shelling, knowing somehow, that I shall live to see it completed and published. And I did thank Allah, the Merciful.”

The translation was a triumph. The book was widely used by scholars, diplomats, army officers and the ulema or religious leadership. The Bosnian ambassador in Islamabad told me he was then a general in the army fighting in the trenches for the life of his nation and the book gave him hope and faith. He said that was also true of his fellow officers. The current Grand Mufti, Dr Husein Kavazovic, said that it influenced the thinking of the ulema and Dr Jahic showed copies of it to me proudly in his library. Hisam Hafizovic, the young and charismatic imam I met in Mostar, was excited to know that the author of a book that inspired him had just walked into his mosque and he spent the day showing us around.

Now, here I was two decades later in Sarajevo, drinking tea with the translator of Living Islam. My entire team was fascinated by the almost Hollywood- style quality of the story. Leila mentioned the role of Dr Silajdzic as the patron of the project with some awe. Not only had he commissioned the translation of the book but also had the entire six-part BBC TV series which accompanied the book shown on local TV. While Leila was talking, I received an email from Dr Silajdzic, asking if I was free to meet for a cup of tea. I suggested he join us and within a few minutes he arrived, much to the delight of the Ridjanovics. Serendipity indeed: As we laughed and talked, it seemed that time stood still, the past and the present, different cultures and continents conflated and humanity became one.

The same spirit was present in non-Muslim spiritual leaders I met in Bosnia, too. Ambassador Jakob Finci, a Sephardic Jew and head of his community, founded the organisation La Benevolencia to provide medical aid, soup and charity to the needy, including Muslims, during the war years. Father Nikica Vujica, a young Franciscan monk in Fojnica, was barely able to contain his excitement when he showed us the prize of his monastery displayed in a glass case — the Ahdnama or royal order and robe of Sultan Mehmet the Second, the Ottoman ruler. The Ahdnama guaranteed complete freedom of worship and safety for Christians under the Ottomans and the robe, which was taken off his own shoulders by the Sultan and placed on the priest, was a symbol of royal protection. Both Jew and Christian spoke of the good relations their communities enjoyed with their Muslim neighbours — more evidence of interfaith activity.

These are examples to illustrate that Bosnia’s centuries-long interfaith and intercultural legacy remains alive today. The fact that Bosnian Muslims, despite the genocide against them, sought justice instead of revenge and were able to cope and retain their pluralist and open attitude by relying on compassion, knowledge and inclusion should serve as an example for both Europe and the Muslim world. 

Perhaps some will say my attitude to the Bosnians is too romanticised and sentimental. I admit I have always held them in special esteem ever since I first visited their lands at the height of the wars in the 1990s, but my entire team travelling with me felt the same. They all said the Bosnians were special. Although people everywhere had been so hospitable to us, we all —Muslim and non-Muslim alike — felt we had met a people who embodied the spirit of ilm in spite of having passed through horrendous times.

This was the biggest lesson for us in our time; the lesson of holding up the notion of ilm and following it where it took you. The prejudices and hatreds today can only be overcome with compassion, learning and understanding.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd,  2015.

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observer | 7 years ago | Reply To tell you the truth, A. Bosnia has a TOTAL of 6 madrasas. B. Alcohol consumption is 12 litres per person. Now you know why Bosnia has more Ilm than Pakistan.
Maria | 7 years ago | Reply @lulu: You can go to Bosnia the way most Muslims go to Europe. That is hide in some boat or vehicle and smuggle yourself in order to claim asylum on the basis of persecution. That's how most of the Muslims you see got to Germany, Holland or the Scandanavian countries. It is not unusual to see ghettos full of Afghans, Somalis, Arabs and other Muslims all over Europe. The author forgets that people from the Balkans, Bosnians included are considered to have brought many social problems when they migrate to more developed European countries like Sweden. In fact the Bosnians along with other fellow races like the Serbs and Croatians are seen are abusing disability and welfare.
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