Bulgarian Muslims

Bulgarian Muslims
A mosque in Madan in the Rhodopes, a region largely populated by Muslim Bulgarians

The Bulgarian Muslims or Muslim Bulgarians (Bulgarian: българи-мохамедани, as of recently also българи-мюсюлмани; locally called pomak, ahryan, poganets, marvak, poturnak) are Bulgarians of the Islamic faith.[1] They are generally thought to be the descendents of Slavs who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule.[2] Most scholars have agreed that the Muslim Bulgarians are a religious group of Slav Bulgarians who speak Bulgarian as their mother tongue and do not understand Turkish, but whose religion and customs are Islamic.[3][4][5] Muslim Bulgarians live mostly in the Rhodopes – Smolyan Province, the southern part of the Pazardzhik and Kardzhali Provinces and the eastern part of the Blagoevgrad Province in Southern Bulgaria. They also live in a group of villages in the Lovech Province in Northern Bulgaria. The name Pomak is pejorative in Bulgarian and is resented by most members of the community, especially by non-practising Muslims. The name adopted and used instead is Bulgarian Muslims.[6]

Muslim Bulgarians do not represent a homogenous community and have a multitude of ethnic and religious identities. A clear majority of them (131,531[7] according to the latest census in 2001) declare themselves to be ethnic Bulgarians of Muslim faith. However, a significant percentage, in particular in the Central and Eastern Rhodopes (the Smolyan and Kardzhali Province), are not religious or choose to disassociate themselves from Islam. Thus, the Smolyan Province, which is largely populated by Muslim Bulgarians (approx. 117,000 or 71% of the population according to the Ministry of Interior in 1989[8]), has the highest number of people who did not declare any religion in the 2001 Census - 39,003 or 27.8% of the population of the province[9] - compared to a national average of only 3.6%. Considering the insignificant change in the number of Christian Bulgarians (from approx. 47,000 in 1989[8] to 41,792[9] in 2001), the total number of ethnic Bulgarians in the province (122,806 or 87.7%[10]) and that only 58,758 people or 41.9% of the population of the province declared to profess Islam in 2001, the vast majority of the undeclared must be of Muslim Bulgarian extraction.

A similar phenomenon is observed in the Kardzhali Province (approx. 30,000 Muslim Bulgarians in 1989) and the Lovech Province (approx. 8,000 Muslim Bulgarians in 1989), where the percentage of the undeclared is also well above the national average: 13,430 or 8.2% for Kardzhali and 10,739 or 6.3% for Lovech, respectively. In both provinces, the number of ethnic Bulgarians is higher (for Kardzhali, significantly higher) than the number of Orthodox Christians - 55,930 Bulgarians vs. 35,551 Orthodox Christians for Kardzhali and 152,194 Bulgarians vs. 148,023 Orthodox Christians for Lovech.[9][10]

An additional, though smaller, number of Muslim Bulgarians, also from the Central and Eastern Rhodopes, have converted into Orthodox Christianity or have adopted a Christian identity since 1990. The process of conversion has affected mostly Muslim Bulgarians living among or next to ethnic Turks, i.e. the regions of Nedelino, Kirkovo, Zlatograd and Krumovgrad.[11][12][13][14] In some cases, the conversion has affected whole villages, which have adopted a Christian Bulgarian identity, as in the case of Zabardo in the Chepelare Municipality[15] or the younger generations in a village, as in the case with the village of Pripek in the Dzhebel Municipality.[16] Bulgarian and Christian names are common, even among those who do not espouse a Christian identity, in particular, in the Eastern Rhodopes. For example, only one-third of the Muslim Bulgarian population of the region of Kirkovo, mostly people over 60 year, have Muslim names.[12] Another tendency in the last years is for younger people to restore their Bulgarian names for the purpose of working abroad or studying in the country, as in the village of Varbina in the Municipality of Madan where 475 out of 1160 residents have recently changed their names to Bulgarian and Christian ones.[17]

Unlike the Muslim Bulgarians in the Central and Eastern Rhodopes, who usually have a Bulgarian identity and are mostly secular Muslims, non-religious or have even adopted Christianity, the ones living on the western fringes of the Rhodopes (in the provinces of Pazardzhik and Blagoevgrad) are strongly religious and have preserved the Muslim name system, customs and clothing. A significant part of them, may be a majority, have a non-Bulgarian ethnic consciousness, mostly Turkish but also Pomak or Muslim. For example, out of 62,431 self-declared Muslims in the Blagoevgrad Province in 2001,[9] 31,857[10] (more than half) have opted for Turkish ethnicity although the self-declared speakers of Turkish as a mother tongue are only 19,819.[18] Considering that mother tongue in the Bulgarian census is counted on the basis of a declaration of the respondent and not on actual proof of what language this person speaks at home and that an inquiry of the Ministry of the Interior in 1989 gave only 3,689 ethnic Turks and 56,191 Pomaks for the Blagoevgrad Province, it is highly likely that the vast majority of the Turks in the province are actually Pomaks with Turkish self-consciousness. A similar phenomenon exists in the Pazardzhik Province where there may be between 10,000 and 15,000 Pomaks with Turkish self-consciousness.

Finally, there are those Muslim Bulgarans who have chosen not to declare their ethnicity in the 2001 Census. The percentage of undeclared in the Smolyan Province (9,696 or 6.9%), the Kardzhali Province (4,565 or 2.8%) and the Blagoevgrad Province (4,242 or 1.2%) is well above the national average of 0.8%.[10] These are most likely to be Muslim Bulgarians who would have opted for another ethnicity, for example "Pomak" or "Muslim", if these were allowed as answers at the census or are unclear themselves about their own ethnic identity.

Due to the multitude of different ethnic and religious identities of the Muslim Bulgarians, it is extremely difficult to calculate the exact number of the members of the community in Bulgaria. An inquiry conducted by the Bulgaran Ministry of the Interior in 1989 estimated their number at 269,000.[8] A summation of the different groups with different religious and ethnic identities (approx. 130,000 Muslim Bulgarians, approx. 55,000-65,000 non-religious Bulgarians, up to 50,000 Muslim Turks, 15,000 to 20,000 undeclared and an unclear number, probably at least several thousands, of Christian Bulgarians) yields approximately the same number. Despite the multitude of different ethnic and religious affiliations, the predominant ethnic identity would be Bulgarian (approx. 200,000 or three-quarters of the total population) and the predominant religious identity would be Muslim (again approx. 200,000 or three-quarters of the total population). However, if only self-consciousness and self-declaration are taken into consideration, the number of Muslim Bulgarians would be only 131,531, i.e., the ones who have declared as such at the 2001 census.

Muslim Bulgarians in the Rhodopes speak a variety of archaic Bulgarian dialects. Under the influence of mass media and school education, the dialects have been almost completely unified with standard Bulgarian among Muslim Bulgarians living in Bulgaria.

See also


  1. ^ Бакалов, Георги; Милен Куманов (2003). "Помохамеданчване на българи" (in Bulgarian). Електронно издание "История на България". София: Труд, Сирма. ISBN 9844830679. 
  2. ^ Kristen Ghodsee, "Religious freedoms and Islamic revivalism: some contradiction of American foreign policy in Southeast Europe", East European Studies News (May–June 2007), 5.
  3. ^ Apostolov Mario, Institute on East Central Europe, Columbia University (1996). "The Pomaks: a religious minority in the Balkans," Nationalities Papers, 24 (4):727.742.
  4. ^ Histories and Identities: Nation-state and Minority Discourses. The Case of the Bulgarian Pomaks. Ulf Brunnbauer, University of Graz
  5. ^ The Balkans, Minorities and States in Conflict (1993), Minority Rights Publication, by Hugh Poulton, p. 111.
  6. ^ Бакалов, Георги; Милен Куманов (2003). "Българи-мохамедани" (in Bulgarian). Електронно издание "История на България". София: Труд, Сирма. ISBN 9844830679. 
  7. ^ Structure of the Population by Religion - 01.03.2001 National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria.
  8. ^ a b c Малцинствената политика в България. Политиката на БКП към евреи, роми, помаци и турци (1944-1989). Улрих Бюксеншютц, p. 129
  9. ^ a b c d Population by districts and religion group - 01.03.2001 National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria.
  10. ^ a b c d Population by districts and ethnic group - 01.03.2001 National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria.
  11. ^ Отец Боян Саръев: Църквата трябва да се върне при хората. Нов живот, 26.10.2010
  12. ^ a b Скандал около погребение разбуни духовете в Завоя. Демокрация, 13.02.2002
  13. ^ Масово покръстване в Кърджали. 25.05.2000
  14. ^ Над 50 българи-мохамедани кръсти отец Саръев. 13.04.1999
  15. ^ Религия и политика: проблемът с българо-мюсюлманските идентичности . 13.04.1999
  16. ^ Великден в родопското село Припек, Bulgarian National Television, 18.04.2009
  17. ^ В маданско село се прекръщават с български имена. Труд, 13.04.2009
  18. ^ Population by districts and mother tongue -01.03.2001 National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria.


  1. Raichevsky, Stoyan; Maya Pencheva (translator) (2004). The Mohammedan Bulgarians (Pomaks). Sofia, Bulgaria: Bulgarian Bestseller — National Museum of Bulgarian Books and Polygraphy. ISBN 9549308413. 
  2. Ghodsee, Kristen (2009). Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13955-5. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9068.html. 

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