by Antonina Zhelyazkova

The Islamisation of the Albanians and its impact on the Albanian religious identity.

Important factors facilitating the dissemination and adaptation of Islam among the Albanians were the local religious specifics and the peculiarities in the religious identity of the native inhabitants. Prior to the Ottoman conquest, the southern Albanians (Tosks) were Orthodox Christians under the authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The northern Albanians - Gegs, were Catholics under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Holy See. The Albanian language was also divided into two large dialect groups - northern and southern. The northern, Geg language bordered predominantly on Slavic languages; the southern, Tosk, on the modern Greek. The boundary between the two dialects was marked by the river of Shkumbin. Here, along the contact line between the two dialect groups was formed the relatively newer and intermediate Elbasan dialect. The ethnographic and linguistic differences between the North and the South have served as an argument for many scholars studying Albania, who base their research on the specific political and cultural-historical features, to speak of a certain autonomy of the two regions - Gegëria and Toskëria.50

The tribal and clan-related cultural-historical differences between the southern and northern Albanians were reinforced by the disunion resulting from the active Catholic propaganda. The rivalry between the two churches left deep traces in the spiritual identity of the Albanians. The Albanians' subordination now to the Holy See, now to the Patriarchate, the incessant strife for domination between the two churches drove Albanians to ideological doubts and even to religious indifference, which was an impediment to the formation of an integral Christian outlook. 

Islam, reinforced by the influence of the attractive practices of the Muslim sects, as well as by a great number of social and economic factors, gained ground among the Albanian population conspicuous for its feeble religious commitment. 

The specific religious indifference is also manifested in the Albanians who converted to Islam. Scholars unanimously reject whatever presence of religious fanaticism among them. This is in contrast with the religious devotion of the Islamised population in other Balkan provinces - in Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Rhodopes.  It could be, judging by Skanderbeg's testament, that reservation to religion was of a political character, since many times in the course of their struggle for independence the Albanians had been misled or deceived by the Catholic West, while they had never relied on the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The lack of deep religiousness in the Albanians has been pre-determined in large measure by the significance of the fis, by the overwhelmingly clan character of their traditions and customs. Foreign travellers and observers in the Albanian territories have perceived as curiosity the circumstance that the patron's days - for example, St. George's and St. Nicholas' feast days were celebrated together by Catholics, Orthodox believers and Muslims. The difference in the ritual was insignificant: the Catholics lit candles as they did on all other holidays, while the Muslims used to throw in the fire a piece of wax of the size sufficient to make a candle. The role of the church in the worship of saints was minor, church feast days were much humbler than these of the family and clan. It was of basic significance that each fis, regardless of its religious commitment, had its own patron saint. For example, the Berisha fis worshipped Virgin Mary whom they called Lady Berisha and celebrated the clan festival on the day of the Assumption (15 August). The Merturi clan called the Holy Virgin Lady Merturi and observed the fis patron's day on 8 September, the day of the Nativity of Mary. The Thaçi clan venerated St. John on 27 December, and the Krasniqe revered St. Sebastian on 20 January, etc. It is perfectly clear that this practice was very far from the religious worship of saints as prescribed by the cannons of the Catholic and Orthodox religious doctrines, and that it was laden with entirely different tribal-patriarchal and social-ritual meaning.51

50 Daniel, O. Regards sur l'Albanie: reconstruction et réintégration spatiale. - In: Historiens&Geographes, Septembre 1992, Revue de l'Association des Professeurs d'Histoire et de Geographie, pp. 125-130; see also: Hall, D. Albania and the Albanians. St.Martin's Press, London, New York, 1994, pp. 26-28.