‘The error is to tie a religion to a specific culture’
King Fahd Mosque, Sarajevo. Photograph by BiHVolim
Islam is in many ways more European than a conventional notion of ‘European heritage’ suggests. From 1362 to 1924, the Ottoman sultan bore the title of Caliph. The leader of the righteous, the formal ruler over the entire Muslim world, the deputy of the Prophet of God, lived and ruled in Europe – first in Edirne (the ancient Adrianople), then in Istanbul (the ancient Constantinople). Like the British empire, the Ottoman Empire was a European empire; the ruling elite came from Europe, even if the bulk of its territory lay outside of Europe. The Balkans were conquered by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. Since then, large parts of the population in Bosnia, Macedonia and Albania have been Muslim.
Muslims have lived in Europe longer than that, however, even beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Islam arrived in the twelfth century to what is present-day Bulgaria, and in the fifteenth century the territory became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Tatars, who lived along the Volga, are said to have converted to Islam in the tenth century, and in the fourteenth century they came to the Baltic region, mainly Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. Some of the European countries with traditional Muslim populations include Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Austria, Germany and Finland (and thus also Sweden, since Finland was part of Sweden until 1809). The Polish constitution of 1791, a document informed by the European Enlightenment that has an important place in the narrative of modern Europe, stipulates representation in parliament for the local Tatar Muslims.
Ibn Fadlan, who travelled up the Volga in the early tenth century, met 5,000 members of the Baranjar family who had converted to Islam. He wrote that they had built a wooden mosque, but that he had taught them how to pray. Some have claimed that these Baranjar were Norsemen, while others claim they were Bulgarians. What we do know is that there was frequent contact between Scandinavia and Muslim lands through and along the Volga during this period. Evidence of this is the fact that Sweden holds one of the world’s largest collections of coins from the Muslim world: over 85,000 silver dirhams. Until the end of the tenth century, coins from the Muslim world were the most common type of silver in Scandinavia. A few other objects with Islamic inscriptions from this period have also been found in Sweden – for example, a ring with a stone inscribed with the name of Allah, found in a woman’s grave in the city of Birka. How close were these contacts? This is hard to tell. In any case, they belong to a Muslim cultural heritage in Sweden.
Intellectual influences from the Muslim world have also been recognized as part of the European narrative, even if Muslim society is mainly seen as having ‘brought home’ Greek heritage to Europe. Still, without those figures who in Latin were called Alkendis, Alfarabius, Algazel, Avveroes, Algoritmi, Alfraganus, Geber, Rhazes, Avicenna, and Alhazen, as well as a long line of other Muslim philosophers and scientists, there would have been no Scholasticism, no Renaissance, nor a scientific revolution, and thus no Modern Europe. Even though it is impossible to confirm counterfactual statements, this can still be asserted.
Strangely, however, none of this is considered to be part of European heritage. Europe is a term without clear objective content.