Bosniak history

Bosniak history

This article is about the history of the Bosniak people.

Early history

The Pre-Slavic roots of the Bosniaks can be traced back to the earliest well known inhabitants of the area now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Illyrians. This ancient people presumably arrived in the west Balkans around 2000 BC, overrunning the various old European cultures who lived there before them (such as the Butmir Culture in the vicinity of modern Sarajevo). Despite the arrival of the Celts in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, the Illyrians remained the dominant group in the west Balkans until the arrival of the Romans.

Rome conquered Illyria after a series of wars, the final being the crushing of a rebellion by certain tribes in what is now central Bosnia around 9 CE. Latin-speaking settlers from all over the empire settled among the Illyrians at this time. The Roman province of Dalmatia included Herzegovina and most of Bosnia, and a strip of northern Bosnia, south of the Sava River, was part of the province of Pannonia. The Vlachs, a historically nomadic people who live throughout the Balkans, speak a language derived from Latin, and are the descendants of Roman settlers and Romanized indigenous peoples. No longer present in a large number, they were absorbed into Bosnia's three main ethnic groups based on religion during the Ottoman period.

It should be noted that Bosniaks, unlike other people whose land is named after an ancient ethnic name, derive their name from Bosnia. The most commonly accepted theory regarding the origins of the name Bosnia is that it comes from the river Bosna, which has had a similar name since ancient times. That word itself is of either Latin or Illyrian origin.

The Goths conquered Roman Dalmatia in the fifth century, and later the Alans, who spoke an Iranian language, and the Turkic Huns and Avars passed through what is now Bosnia. These invaders left few linguistic traces, and whatever remnant populations were left behind were absorbed by the Slavic wave that was to follow.

Medieval Bosnia

Slavs settled in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the surrounding lands, which were then part of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the seventh century. The Slavic Serbs and Croats settled sometime after the first wave of Slavs. The Croats established a kingdom in what is northwestern Croatia. The Serbs settled in what is now southcentral Serbia, and later expanding into the upper Drina valley of eastern Bosnia and into Eastern Herzegovina, known in the later Middle Ages as Zahumlje. The Croats to the west came under the influence of the Germanic Carolingian Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and Croatia was closely tied to Hungary and later Austria until the twentieth century. The Serbs to the east came under periodic Byzantine rule, converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and absorbed Byzantine cultural influences. After some centuries of rule by Croatia, Serb principalities, and the Byzantine Empire, an independent Bosnian kingdom flourished in central Bosnia between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries.

The subject of ethnicity in medieval Bosnia has been one of great debate ever since it was brought up in its current context by historians during the second half of the 19th century. All three ethnic groups in Bosnia have a different view on the matter, and this complex and sensitive subject has been further obscured by nationalism and propaganda through the ages. Proving their people as the true heirs of the medieval Bosnian state is important to many nationalists because they consider this indigenousness to have important implications in modern social, political, and interethnic issues.

The Bosnian Kingdom blended cultural influences from east and west; although nominally Roman Catholic, the Bosnian kings embraced elements of Byzantine culture and court ceremonial, and formed alliances and dynastic marriages with the neighboring rulers of both Croatian-Dalmatian and Serb states. Because of Bosnia's mountainous and inaccessible terrain and its remote location on the borderland between the Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, control by church authorities was weak. The religious situation was also peculiar because of the presence of an indigenous Bosnian Church (its adherents were known as "krstjani", "Christians"). The krštjani were considered heretics by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Modern historians have debated whether the Krštjani were a branch of the Bogomils, a Manichean sect which originated in Bulgaria, or whether they were members of the Catholic Church who had acquired some heretical beliefs and influences from Eastern Orthodoxy and fell into Schism.

At its largest extent, under King Tvrtko Kotromanic, the Bosnian Kingdom included most of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the exception of north-western Bosnia, as well as parts of Dalmatia and western Serbia. Discord among his heirs weakened the kingdom after his death, and Bosnia and the Serb principalities to the east were unable to prevent Ottoman Turkish incursions into the western Balkans. The final Turkish conquest in 1463 marked the end of an independent Bosnia and the beginning of the influence of a third civilization, Islam.

Ottoman rule

Historians have long debated how and why the Bosnians converted in such large numbers to Islam. There is no simple answer to this question, and the underlying reasons are complex and numerous. The Ottoman Empire at the time was centered on militaristic expansion independent of religion, and the primary split was not between Muslims and nonbelievers but between the military-administrative class (the Ottomans) and the serfs ("raya"), neither of which was exclusive to any particular faith. Though the state eventually acquired a more Islamic focus, by this time, Muslims already made up a large majority of Bosnia's population.

The Ottoman conquest of Bosnia was notable because, unlike all other European regions that came under Ottoman control, Bosnia retained its status as a distinct entity from the very beginning (first as a sanjak, then as a province [eyalet] ). The Ottomans imported their feudal system to Bosnia shortly after the take-over, and estates were granted to men called "sipahis", in return for military service in times of war. At the beginning of the Ottoman period, these estates were usually, but not exclusively, granted to Muslims, and later only to Muslims. In Bosnia, these land grants gradually became hereditary, and by the end of the Ottoman period, a majority of the landowners in Bosnia were Muslims, and most Christians were peasants or serfs.

Probably the biggest reason behind the spread of Islam in the region was the very weak presence of the Church in Bosnia at the time. The old competition between the Catholic and Bosnian churches (along with the Orthodox Church in certain areas) contributed to a very weak and disorganized religious structure in much of Bosnia. To many Bosnians religion was a combination of traditions and superstitions. Compared to the well-funded and organized religious institutions of their neighbors, it was relatively easy for Bosnians to switch from their folk-Christianity to Islam. It is significant that the only other European region under Ottoman control where a large segment of the population adopted Islam was Albania; also home to competing Christian sects.

Also important was the growth of urban centers, the vast majority of which were Muslim. Cities that were founded at the time, such as Sarajevo and Mostar, grew rapidly with a specifically Islamic character and advanced living standards. It is understandable that many Christians in the outlying rural regions would convert to Islam to be part of the superior conditions in such places. Further, slaves who converted to Islam could petition for their freedom, and many of the Christians enslaved during the wars with Habsburg Austria, Hungary, and the Republic of Venice converted to Islam in order to secure their release. Many of these newly-freed converts settled in the growing cities, further contributing to their growth and development.

It is thought that the greater rights afforded to Muslims in the Ottoman Empire motivated Christians to convert to Islam. However, the extent to which Muslims were privileged is often overestimated. The primary discrimination faced by non-Muslims was of a legal nature, as Christians and Jews were not allowed to file lawsuits or testify against Muslims in court. There were also rules of conduct imposed upon them, but there were many to whom these rules did not apply. Though much has been made of the fact that Christian and Jewish subjects of the sultan paid a poll tax from which Muslims were exempt, Muslims were also faced with the religious zakat tax, whereas Catholics made donations to their church only on a voluntary basis.

Some Christians became Muslims through the devsirme system, whereby boys were gathered from the Ottoman lands and were sent to Istanbul to convert to Islam and be trained as Janissary troops, servants of the Sultan or Ottoman officials. One observer in the 16th century even mentioned that the Sultan believed Bosniaks were "the best, most pious and most loyal people" and "much bigger, more handsome, and more able" than other Muslim peoples. Though the devsirme system probably didn't influence the demographics of Bosnia significantly, it did firmly establish the Slavic element and language in Istanbul's administration and provided Bosnia with local Bosniak governors from 1488 onward.

The 17th century brought major defeats and military setbacks on the Ottoman Empire's western frontier. With major wars occurring every few decades, Bosnia was economically and militarily exhausted. For Bosnia and Bosniaks, the most critical conflict of all was the Great Turkish War. At its very start in the mid 1680s, the Habsburgs conquered nearly all of Ottoman Hungary, sending tens of thousands of Muslim refugees flooding into Bosnia. A similar process occurred with the Habsburg conquest of Lika and Slavonia. Thousands of Muslims from these parts fled eastward into the Bosnian pashaluk, while those who remained were forcibly converted to Catholicism. In total, it is estimated that more than 100,000 Muslims were expelled from the frontier regions and settled in Bosnia during this time. Many brought with them a new sense of hostility towards Christianity.

Ottoman military disasters continued into the next decade. In 1697, Habsburg Prince Eugene of Savoy conducted an extremely successful border raid which culminated in Sarajevo being put to the torch. The Great Turkish War was finally ended by the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. However, in the late 1710s yet another war between the Ottomans and the Habsburg-Venetian alliance ensued. It was ended by the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, but not before sending another wave of Muslim refugees fleeing to Bosnia proper.

These events created great unrest among Bosniaks. The sentiment of discontent was further magnified by war and an increased tax burden. As a result, Bosniak revolts sprang up in Herzegovina in 1727, 1728, 1729, and 1732. A large plague that resulted in the death of thousands during the early 1730s contributed to the general chaos. In 1736, seeking to exploit these conditions, The Habsburgs broke the Treaty of Passarowitz and crossed the Sava river boundary. In one of the most significant events in Bosniak history, local Bosniak nobility organized a defense and counterattack completely independent of the ineffective imperial authorities. On August 4, at the Battle of Banja Luka, the outnumbered Bosniak forces routed the Habsburg army and sent them fleeing back to Slavonia.

Traditionally, the Ottoman authorities classed subjects of the Empire not by nationality, but by religion. During the nineteenth century, modern national consciousness began to increase among the south Slavs; some historians now believe that it was in this period that Catholic Bosnians increasingly began to think of themselves as Croats, and Orthodox Bosnians as Serbs. The beginnings of a Muslim Bosnian national consciousness is also first attested in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as these early Bosniak nationalists began to assert a national identity distinct from both their Orthodox and Catholic neighbors, and from the other Muslim inhabitants of the empire. Most Serb and Croat nationalists tend to deny a separate Bosniak national identity, claiming that Bosniaks were either Serb or Croat in origin, but of Islamic religion. This debate, whether Bosnia and the Bosniaks are "really" Croats, Serbs, or a separate Bosniak Bosnian nation, has energized debates among nationalists until the present day. Anthropologists find the nationalist statements on Serbian or Croatian origin rather irrational and ultimately undignified attention, since, with a few notable exceptions, the ethnicity and history of the dominated in communist and monarchy Yugoslavia has been prescribed by the dominators and by the general demographics of a region.

Like national identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina in general, Bosniak national identity is chiefly based on religion and communal feeling, as opposed to linguistic and/or physical differences from their neighbors. In that sense, the earliest foundation of modern Bosniak national development can be found as early as the beginning of the 18th century, as native Bosnian Muslims found themselves often fighting against the empire's enemies by their own (i.e. the Battle of Banja Luka, where the city's garrison was composed entirely of Bosniaks). On top of present cultural uniqueness, by the first half of the 19th century upper class Bosniaks and intellectuals were already propagating what can be considered early Bosniak nationalism, by way of writing and politics, all of which would later lead to the Bosniak rebirth at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.


Bosnia and Herzegovina was occupied and administered by Austria-Hungary in 1878, and a number of Bosniaks left Bosnia and Herzegovina. Official Austro-Hungarian records show that 56,000 people mostly Bosniaks emigrated between 1883 and 1920, but the number of Bosniak emigrants is probably much larger, as the official record doesn't reflect emigration before 1883, nor include those who left without permits. Most of the emigrants probably fled in fear of retribution after the intercommunal violence of the 1875-1878 uprising. Many Serbs from Herzegovina left for America during the same period. One geographer estimates that there are 350,000 Bosniaks in Turkey today, although that figure includes the descendants of Muslim South Slavs who emigrated from the Sandžak region during the First Balkan War and later. Another wave of Bosniak emigration occurred after the end of the First World War, when Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, known after 1929 as Yugoslavia.

Urban Bosniaks were particularly proud of their cosmopolitan culture, especially in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, which was, until World War II, home to thriving Bosniak, Serb, Croat, and Jewish communities. After 1945, Sarajevo became one of the most ethnically mixed cities in the former Yugoslavia.

Members of the 19th century Illyrian movement, most notably Ivan Frano Jukić, emphasized Bosniaks ("Bošnjaci") alongside Serbs and Croats as one of the "tribes" that constitutes the "Illyrian nation".

With the dawn of Illyrian movement, Bosniak intelligentsia gathered around magazine "Bosnia" in the 1860s promoted the idea of a Bosniak nation. A member of this group was father of Safvet-beg Bašagić, a famous Bosnian poet. The Bosniak group would remain active for several decades, with the continuity of ideas and the use of the archaic Bosniak name. From 1891 until 1910 they published a magazine titled "Bosniak". By the turn of centuries, however, this group has all but died out,due to its most prominent members either dying, or deciding for Croat identity.

The administration of Benjamin Kallay, the Austria-Hungarian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, enforced the idea of a unitary "Bosnian nation" ("Bosanci") that would include the Catholic and Orthodox Bosnians as well as Muslims. The idea was fiercely opposed by Croats and Serbs, but also by a number of Muslims. This policy further clouded the Bosnian ethnical issue and made the Bosniak group seem as pro-regime. After Kallays death in 1903, the official policy slowly drifted towards accepting the three-ethnical reality of Bosnia.

Muslim National Organization (MNO), a political party founded in 1906, was a major opponent of the regime and promoted the idea of Muslims as a separate entity from Serbs and Croats. A group of dissidents that, among else, subscribed with the Croat Muslim identity formed a party named Muslim Proggressive Party (MNS), however it received little popular support and faded away in the next few years.

The first constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1910 explicitly mentioned Serbs, Croats and Muslims as the "native peoples". This was reflected in the elections held soon thereafter, when the electoral was divided into a Serb, Croat and Muslim ballot. MNO, Serb National Organization (SNO) and Croat National Community (HNZ) received almost unanimous support in their respective ballots, and their members formed the parliament, albeit this parliament had little power in the Austria-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All translations of the Constitution into native languages used lower-case M for Muslims as followers of Islam (This is because the proper nouns such as Muslim and Christian were and still are written in lowercase letters in Bosnian (Serbo-Croatian) language).

20th century

After the World War I, Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which later transformed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Serb monarchy, being one of the victors of the World War, sought Croat and Slovene political parties as their partners when forming the country. MNO, reformed into the Yugoslav Muslim Organization (JMO), dropped the pursuit of Muslim national identity and focused on protecting the religious and existential issues of Muslims through coalescing with other parties, sometimes even with the Serbian parties such as Nikola Pašić's People's Radical Party and Milan Stojadinović's Serbian Radical Party.

In the 1921 census, only Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were recognized as native nations or "tribes", and these were the only available options for ethnicity. The result was that a large number of Bosniaks simply left the field for ethnicity blank. This phenomenon, labeled "nonethnical element" ("nenarodni element"), was a topic of heated debate amongst scholars and politicians for years to follow. Some of them argued that the nonethnical element were descendants of the Turkish occupier and as such should be expelled. Nevertheless, thanks to the helpful influence of JMO, there were only isolated incidents of oppression against Bosniaks.

This political void was quickly filled with a number of opposition parties which recognized Muslims as a separate nation. Among them was the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, as a document from the 1930s reveals. It's no coincidence that a large number of Bosnian Muslims joined the Communist Party, and later the partisans, many of them becoming prominent political leaders and commandants.

During the World War II, the authorities of the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia tried to ally with the Bosniaks whom they considered to be "Muslim Croats" against the Serbs and other "undesirables". As a token, the Artists Gallery museum (by Ivan Mestrovic) in Zagreb was furnished with minarets and ceded to be used as a mosque.

The Declaration of the State Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ZAVNOBiH), issued on November 25 of 1943 by the partisan government, is widely considered to be the constitutional basis of the modern Bosnia and Herzegovina. This document uses essentially the same wording as the 1910 Constitution. Furthermore, the Resolution of ZAVNOBiH states: "Today, the nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, through their only political representative - the ZAVNOBiH, desire that their country, which is neither Serb, nor Croat nor Muslim, but Serb as well as Croat and Muslim, should be the free and united Bosnia and Herzegovina in which the full equality, legal and otherwise, of Serbs, Muslims and Croats will be guaranteed".

Unfortunately, this declaration was broken as soon as World War II was over, as the Constitution of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia (later Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) mentioned Serbs and Croats, but not Muslims, as the native nations ("narodi"). In the Yugoslav census of 1948, 90% of Muslims in Yugoslavia declared themselves as "nationally undetermined". Furthermore, many who registered as Serbs or Croats did so largely out of societal and economic pressure. When the "Yugoslav, nationally undeclared" option became available in 1953, 900,000 people registered as such.

With a weakening of Serb dominance in Bosnian communist leadership, the door opened up for a new national identification. Finally in the 1961 Yugoslav census, the "Muslims in the ethnic sense" option first appeared. By 1963 Muslims were listed in the Bosnian constitution alongside Serbs and Croats. Finally, in 1968, "Muslims" with a capital M was adopted as the term for a member of a nation rather than "Muslims" as adherents to Islam. (This summons forth the old discussions about whether a Jew is a member of a tribe or of a religion; the dilemmas were parallel).

The decision wasn't greeted without debate among communist leadership, but Bosniaks had made themselves clear. "Practice has shown the harm of different forms of pressure," read a communique issued by the Bosnian Central Committee, "from the earlier period when Muslims were designated as Serbs or Croats from the national viewpoint. It has been shown, and present socialist practice confirms, that the Muslims are a distinct nation".

From then until the Yugoslav wars, Bosniak national identity continued to develop with two different philosophies forming. These breakthroughs in the 60s were not carried out by religious Muslims (in fact, they were headed chiefly by secular Muslim communists) but in the following decades two separate schools of thought emerged. The first, was a secular "Muslim Nationalism"(as supported by people such as Hamdija Pozderac), and the second was a separate revival of Islamic religious belief (a reaction to communist sponsored secularism and advocated by people such as Alija Izetbegović). The effects of these two separate ideas on what exactly Bosnian Muslims are that have also occasionally clashed can be seen to this day.

In September 1993, the Congress of Bosnian Muslim Intellectuals re-introduced the historical ethnic name "Bosniaks" instead of the previously used Muslim by nationality. Other ethnic groups (Serbs and Croats) objected to the name as a ploy to monopolize the history of Bosnia and make them seem to be foreign invaders (see History of Bosnia and Herzegovina). The term in itself means "Bosnians" and is an archaic term that was once used for all inhabitants of Bosnia regardless of faith. Bosniaks counter by pointing out that "Bosniak" is the historical term for their nation, and that had they truly wanted to "monopolize" Bosnian history it would have been far easier to use the "newer" version "Bosanci" which, however, has a somewhat different meaning.

Since the 1990s, the name has been adopted outside of Bosnia itself, onto the Slavic Muslim population of other former Yugoslav republics such as Serbia and Macedonia. It allows a Bosniak/Bosnian distinction to match the Serb/Serbian and Croat/Croatian distinctions between ethnicity and residence.


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