Sufism in the Ottoman Balkans

The Sufis of the Ottoman Balkans significantly strengthened the development of Islam. Sufi influence is still felt in the overall appearance of Balkan Islam.

May 5, 2024By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

sufism ottoman balkans


The most numerous and widespread tariqas (Sufi orders) during Ottoman rule in the Balkans were the Khalwatiyyah and Bektashiyyah orders. The orders of Naqshbandiyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Rifa’iyyah follow immediately afterward in terms of significance, number of followers, and territorial spread. All of these orders are present today and Sufism has quite a lot of adherents. Several other tariqas, such as Mawlawiyyah, Bayramiyyah, Sa’diyyah, Jalwatiyyah, Shadhiliyyah, and Badawiyyah, appeared in different periods during the Ottoman Era and eventually disappeared.


Sufism Before Ottomans

dervish sari salltik statue sufism
Statue of 13th century Dervish Sari Saltik, in Kruje Albania, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As the Ottomans extended Islamic rule to the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries, Sufis and dervishes of various orders followed in their footsteps. These early Balkan Sufis often established zawiyas or traveler’s quarters that served as symbols of Ottoman supremacy and authority in the newly conquered territory and as centers from which Islam spread among the local population.


Two prominent zawiyas were founded in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in 1463. Both were founded by Sheikhs of the Naqshbandi order and were built as endowments for local Ottoman dignitaries. After a certain time, as the imperial administration was strengthened and the Islamic religious establishment further developed, tekkes, Sufi meeting places, were constructed to meet the spiritual needs of the local population.


The Naqshbandi Order: Mainstream Sunni Sufism

The 11 Principles of the Naqshbandiyya Sufis, by Abualsarmad, 2020, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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The first Ottoman Sufis were almost exclusively from the Naqshbandi order, and their destinations between the 15th and 17th centuries included Bosnia and Macedonia. Firmly tied to the Sunni ulama, the Naqshbandi were among the most prominent supporters of “conventional” Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina and urban centers throughout the Balkans.


Iranian Sunni master Sayyid Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari founded the Naqshbandi Order and it spread all over Asia, including the Far East. Its teachings include the “eleven Naqshbandi Principles”: Remembrance, restraint, watchfulness, recollection, awareness while breathing, journeying in one’s homeland, watching one’s step, solitude in the crowd, the temporal pause, the numerical pause, and the heart pause. A visible Eastern/Dharmic influence is noticeable, although Naqshbandi Sufism became a strong supporter of mainstream Sunni Islam.


Three different waves of Naqshbandi implantation in the Balkans during the Ottoman Era have been recorded. Several Sheikhs were prominent direct representatives of the Khalifah Khwajah’ Ubayd Allah Ahrar for the initial phase. The most significant among them were Mullah’ Abdullah Ilahi (d. 1491), who settled in Serez (Greece), and Shaykh Lutfullah, who founded the first Naqshbandi tekke in Skopje. Most likely, the two Naqshbandi “instructors” in Bosnia (Uryan Dede and Shemsi Dede) were in a relationship with the above-mentioned Sheikhs.


In the late 18th century, the Naqshbandi tariqa in Bosnia was rejuvenated by the exceptional work of ‘Abd al-Rahman Sirri Dede (d. 1847). Initiated back in Istanbul in one of the oldest hereditary lines of the Naqshbandi, Sirri Dede, and his followers turned central Bosnia into a Naqshbandi stronghold, and their heirs and descendants still run tekkes in those regions. The third wave of Naqshbandi in the Balkans came shortly after the second. In the late 19th century, the Khalidi branch, founded by Khalid al-Baghdadi, entered the territory of central Bosnia and parts of Kosovo and Macedonia.


The Khalwatiyyah Order: Sufism for the Powerful

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Sufi Tekke in Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, photo by Talha Şamil Çakır, Source: Wikimedia


Firmly rooted in the Ottoman ruling class in Istanbul, during the early 16th century, the Sheikhs of several branches of the Khalwatiyyah order sent their emissaries to various places in the Balkans. The Khalwatiyyah order was a popular and modern order that established literally hundreds of tekkes in almost every part of the peninsula.


In Arabic, khalwa is a method of withdrawal or isolation from the world for mystical purposes. The order is named after a mystic from Herat (Khorasan, today in Afghanistan), Umar al-Khalwati, but his disciple Yahya Shirvani founded the order. It is known for individual asceticism (zuhd) and retreat (khalwa), rare features among tariqas. Other practices, like collective dhikr (repetitive prayer and invocation of Allah’s name), are similar to other Sufi branches. Still, the order found many followers, particularly in the Ottoman Empire.


A new wave of expansion of the Khalwatiyyah order occurred when the new sub-orders Jarrahiyyah, Karabaşiyyah, and Hayatiyyah entered the scene in the 17th century. Those three sub-orders replaced the older branches and became the head of the Khalwatiyyah presence in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the Jarrahiyyah order performed important tasks in re-establishing Muslim life in Morea and later in Bulgaria. The reformist Khalwatiyyah sub-order, Sha’baniyyah, spread in Bosnia and Bulgaria during the 19th century and experienced significant, albeit short-lived, success.


Khalwatiyyah were defenders and protectors of conventional orthodoxy. Many of the most prominent Islamic scholars in the Balkans from the 16th to the 18th century were in some way connected with this tariqa. A notable example was the prominent Balkan Muslim theologian in Sofia Sofyali Bali Efendi (d. 1553), who, together with other Khalwatiyyah Sheikhs, played an active role in the fight against the spread of nonconformist beliefs and practices, which took root among the Muslim and neo-Muslim population.


The Bektashi Order: Shi’a Sufism in the Balkans

bektashi tekke in vlore albania
Bektashi tekke in Vlore, Albania, by Eruci, 2005, Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bektashiyyah or Bektashi order, which had long been closely associated with the Ottoman military establishment, had minimal influence among the Muslim population in this region. The first genuine attempt by the Bektashi to break through to the Balkans came about with the tekkes in Kizil Dela and Thrace. From here, Balim Sultan (d. 1516), usually regarded as the reorganizer of the order, sent his disciples all over to the Balkans.


Even though the details of the activities of the early Bektashi Babas (literally, Dads — a title for Bektashi Sheikhs) are largely unknown. Several cemeteries have been preserved to this day in Macedonia (Sersem Ali Baba in Tetovo), Bulgaria (Demir Baba near Razgrad), and Albania (in and around Kruja). Until the 17th century, the Bektashi did not have any significant success in their attempt to penetrate the Balkans, mainly due to the efforts of the Ottoman authorities to destroy every trace of the tariqa.


The Bektashi’s beliefs are unique in the Balkans. They follow Twelve Imams, just like Shi’a Muslims do, but also the Fourteen Innocents, who died with Imam Hussain. In addition to five daily prayers, Bektashi Muslims have another two specific prayers. Otherwise, they have similar aspects to other Sufi orders, apart from being devout Shi’a followers, practicing the commemoration of Ashura and the celebration of Nowruz. Their mystical interpretation of Islam is somewhat syncretistic, as they include ritual meals and the yearly confession of sins to a spiritual leader, which are not a part of Islamic tradition.


The temple of Bektashi in the center of Tirana, Albania, by Dovoli, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Bektashi order formed the “left-wing” of the Sufi spectrum in the Balkans. A persistent pro-Shia attitude and usually very hostile attitude towards the authority of their Sheikhs (babas) helped them to gain influence in rural and suburban areas throughout Greece, southern Albania, and Macedonia. Broad-mindedness and the ability to absorb local customs are two qualities that enabled the Bektashi dervishes to draw in the rustic elements of the population with whom they easily connected. Like them, the Bulgarian Kizilbash (descendants of heterodox Shiite Turkmen clans who fled from Anatolia and settled in Bulgaria) quickly incorporated many Bektashi holy men into their holy auspices.


The Bektashi order found little interest in other parts of the Balkans, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and large urban centers. Their activities in these areas were significantly reduced by the supremacy of the parent streams of the religious authorities and were mostly limited to the Janissary barracks. The tekkes, established because of the Ottoman presence began to disappear after the “beginning of the end,” just after 1683. Several prominent tekkes existed in Budapest (home to the tomb of their founder Gül Baba, which is still standing and open for visits), Eger (also in Hungary, whose buildings still remind us of their former glory), Belgrade, and Banja Luka.


Despite the retreat from Hungary and Slavonia, the Bektashi order strengthened its foundations in Albania and Greece after the janissary corps’s abolition and the outlawing of the tariqas in 1826. Many Bektashi nuns and dervishes fled to the border and sheltered in areas of the Balkans, far from Ottoman rule. During that period (especially after the decree abolishing all Bektashi activities in 1860), the tariqa established itself mainly in southern Albania. By the end of Ottoman rule in 1912, there were about a hundred Bektashi tekkes in the central and western Balkans, predominantly Albanian areas.


Qadiriyya and Mawlawiyyah Orders: Sufism focused on Knowledge and Literature

whirling dervishes sufism
Whirling Dervishes at a Sema ceremony, photo by Schorle, 2010, Source: Wikimedia Commons


At the beginning of the 17th century, two more tariqas, the Qadiriyya and the Mawlawiyyah, arrived in the Balkans, and both would play a vital role in the spiritual life of the region. The Qadiriyah order began its activities from its “base” in Istanbul at the initiative of Shaykh Isma’ilIsma’il Rumi (d. 1631). Until 1660, it was possible to find Qadiri in Prizren (the tekke of Kuril, Sheikh Hassan Khorasani), in Berat (the tekke of Sheikh Ahmed), in Skopje (the tekke of Aldi Sultan), in Sarajevo (the tekke of Haji Sinan), in Gasoutna (the tekke of Delikli Baba) and other large urban centers.


The Qadiriyya order took deep root in Bosnia thanks to the work of Sheikh Hasan Qa’imi Baba (d. 1691). This prolific writer and man of distinguished wit and intellect was the head of at least two Qadiri tekke in Sarajevo before his open involvement in local political issues, which led to his expulsion from the city. The Qadiriyya order continued its function throughout the entire Ottoman Sultanate, and it experienced an additional boost to its activity at the end of the 19th century.


At that time, two prominent and notable Sheikhs, Mehmed Sezai and Haji Kadri (both Albanians and highly educated scholars), revitalized the order in Kosovo, Bosnia, and to a lesser extent, Macedonia. After their return from studying Shari’ah in Istanbul, Haji Kadri (b. 1936), who received his ijazah (authority) in the Qadiriyah tariqa from the famous Turkish Sheikh Mehmed Emin Tarsusi, established a very well-connected network of his proxies throughout the entire area from Travnik in Bosnia to Peshkopi in eastern Albania.


dancing dervishes painting
Dancing Dervishes, from a Divan of Hafiz, painted by Bihzad, 1480, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Qadiriyyah Order is famous in Northern and Western Africa, but no central authority exists. Every regional Quadiriyyah order is free to interpret traditions and practices. They follow certain spiritual chains, but these are also primarily individual. Thus, Qadiriyyah in the Balkans may look quite different from the historical experiences of Qadiriyyah tekkes elsewhere in the Muslim world.


Brotherhoods following the teachings of the great mystic Jalaluddin Rumi also arrived at the same time. In only fifty years, the Mawlawiyyah order established noteworthy tekkes in Plovdiv, Serres, Thessaloniki, Elbasan, Skopje, Belgrade, Pécs, and Sarajevo. Thanks to this tariqa’s highly sophisticated external manifestations, their appeal remained limited mainly to urban areas and the cultural elite.


World famous for its whirling dervishes, this tariqa is dedicated to the study of the Qur’an and the poet Rumi’s works, as well as unification with God, initiation conversations led by a Sheikh, the whirling ceremony (sema), dhikr, and the development of courtesy and mindfulness.


During the Ottoman era, numerous Balkan Mawlawi dervishes and Sheikhs were among the finest literati of the Sultanate. Personalities like Habib Deda (b. 1643), Fevzi Mostarac (b. 1707), and Fazil Pasha Šerifović (b. 1882) left a lasting mark on Ottoman religious literature. In addition to all that, due to the limited appeal of the order, the Mawlawiyyah disappeared from the Balkans soon after the Ottomans left the area. The few remaining Mawlawiyyah were under attack after Atatürk ordered the closure of their center in Konya. The last functioning Mevlevi establishment in the Balkans was located in the city of Skopje, Macedonia. It was destroyed in 1950 after its previous Sheikh, Hakkı Dede, left for Turkey.


Smaller Orders: The Sufism That Once Was

portrait of a sufi
Portrait of a Sufi, 17th century, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


During the Ottoman Era, several smaller tariqas established their organizations, but certainly on a much smaller scale. The brotherhood of Haji-Bayram Veli (d. 1430) built its tekkes throughout the Balkans in places like Skopje, Sofia, and Shkodra. Like them, two offshoots of the Bayramiyyah, Jalwatiyyah, and Malamiyyah orders achieved almost the same success. In the late 19th century, Malamiyyah achieved some success in Kosovo and Macedonia, thanks to the efforts and charisma of the Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Nur ul-‘Arabi (d. 1897).


Much earlier than the mentioned offshoots, the Bayramiyyah order was founded by the Bosnian Sheikh Hamza Bali (d. 1573). Through his advocacy of what appears to have been a highly nonconformist interpretation of Islam, and under the strong influence of Hurufi doctrines, he gained broad support in the entire area of eastern Bosnia along the Drina River valley. This movement caused understandable alarm among conventional religious authorities and the Ottoman administration.


As a result, the Balkan “ulama” began to show undisguised hostility towards the Hamzawiyyah. Finally, Hamza Bali’s open criticism of the Ottoman government increased the disquiet of the regime. Based on the instructions of the fatwa issued for this movement, Hamza Bali was arrested, taken to Istanbul for trial, and sentenced to death. His followers were forced into some form of illegal activity, while the remaining Sheikhs and leading men were executed or exiled to remote parts of the Sultanate.


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Map of the Ottoman capital Istanbul, by Matrakçı Nasuh, 1537, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Sa’diyyah tariqa, founded by Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Jibawi (d. 1330), first appeared in the Balkans in the second half of the 17th century, primary thanks to the efforts of Sheikh Ajizi Baba, who was originally an Albanian from northern Albania. He built the central tekke in Prizren, where the Sa’diyyah spread throughout Albania. The Sa’diyyah are still active in this part of the Balkan Peninsula. However, their apparent manifestations in the modern era are reminiscent of, and indeed have been taken over from, the more numerous and influential Bektashi and their rites and customs.


Rifa’iyyah, Shadhiliyyah, and Badawiyya: Sufism with Arabic Origins

al rifa mosque and tomb sufism
The Mosque and tomb of Ahmad al-Rifāʽī, Iraq, by Raghib Rzeeg Source: Wikimedia Commons


Another tariqa of Arab origin, Rifa’iyyah, arrived in the Balkans in two separate waves. The first, in the late 1700s, was limited only to the territory of Macedonia and Bulgaria and was the result of the efforts of numerous Arab Sheikhs. The second wave arrived in the second half of the 19th century. Only then was this tariqa established on solid foundations as an order with an essential spiritual influence in the Balkans.


Founded by Ahmed ar-Rifa’i in southern Iraq, this tariqa includes some unusual practices, such as the penetration of the face with needles. Their dhikr includes playing with fire, and some include live snakes in their ceremonies.


This appearance of the Rifa’iyyah resulted from the activities of Sheikh Musa Muslih al-Din from Kosovo (d. 1917). During his life, a strong network of followers and tekkes were established, both in his native Kosovo and in northern Albania. Like the Qadiri Sheikh Haji Kadri, Sheikh Musa maintained close contacts and ties with the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time when it was under the Austro-Hungarian occupation and even managed to establish a small Rifa’i community in Sarajevo.


The other two Arab tariqas, Shadhiliyyah (famous for its diverse spiritual chains deriving from Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons Hassan and Hussain) and Badawiyyah (stemming from Egypt), remained attached to one tekke each in Kosovo and Bulgaria and have almost completely disappeared from this area, although one Badawi tekke branch is still active today in Sarajevo under the leadership of Sheikh Zakir Bektić, who acquired his expertise while living in North Africa.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.