Islam, Besa, and Pashtunwali: A Seamless Integration

Muslim-Albanian Brothers, Ramadan and Isa Nuza, Saved Two Jewish Families During the Holocaust Photo: Norman Gershman

Last week, I wrote about how majority-Muslim Albania saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Recently, I was lucky enough to speak with Norman Gershman, the renowned American photographer of Jewish descent who traveled over a five-year period documenting the stories of Jews, and the Muslim-Albanian families who saved them. You can listen to my conversation with Gershman below.

Click on the player to hear my interview with Norman Gershman: [audio:http://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/NormanGershman_InsideIslam.mp3]

I was struck by the similarities between Gershman’s description of besa and pashtunwali, the code of honor among pashtuns— the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan and the largest minority in Pakistan. Nearly 100% Muslim, pathans (also known as pukhtuns), like Muslim-Albanians, view the Qur’an and pashtunwali as foundational to their beliefs and cultural practices, perfectly complementing one another.

During my travels to Albania and Pakistan throughout the 2000s, I experienced besa and pashtunwali firsthand. The degree of hospitality and safety that I felt while traveling around the more rugged parts of both countries was unmatched by any other place I have seen or heard of. While backpacking in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, even non-pathan families influenced by pashtunwali offered me their homes to stay in and filled my hungry belly with home-cooked food. Albania, with terrain like Pakistan’s, offered a similar experience, with food, shelter, and protection provided to me by complete strangers off the street.

My cousin and I stayed with a local Muslim-Albanian family while traveling through Macedonia in 2004.

So when I consider my own experiences and reflect upon Gershman’s photographs of Muslim-Albanians and the deeds that they carried out to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, I’m anything but surprised. If I was taken care of as a wealthy, healthy tourist throughout my tours of Albania, there is little reason why Jews, or anyone in danger, would not be sheltered and cared for under besa. My travels in Pakistan only reaffirm the reinforcing relationship between Islam and cultural codes of honor, whether in Europe, Asia, or any other place. Gershman’s photography serves as a reminder of the acts of kindness that were exhibited in the past and continue on today.

My portraits of these people, and their stories, are meant to reflect their humanity, their dignity, their religious and moral convictions, and their quiet courage.

Have you ever experienced besa, pashtunwali, or a similar cultural code of honor that is supported by Islam or other faith traditions? Why are the Islamic complements of besa and pashtunwali rarely, if ever discussed in the media? Can culture be separated from faith in either of these situations?

7 thoughts on “Islam, Besa, and Pashtunwali: A Seamless Integration

  1. This is a great article and the author should be praised for his writing.
    May God bless you

  2. Besa..what a wonderful code of honor that would benefit all peoples and serve to foster a more peace loving world!

    Let’s spread the concept.

  3. Besa is not an Islamic code. Sorry but that is a misinformation. Besa is a very ancient (pagan) code which was formulated by the catholic Prince of North Albania, Leke Dukagjini. Painting Albanians as muslims is a misperception because Islam and other religions never were embraced seriously by the Albanians(known for their pagan spirit)

  4. @Addy, you’re correct in that Besa is not an “Islamic code,” however, the article never stated that. Besa is cultural, not religious. Further, I think that 80% of Albanians who self-identify as Muslims would disagree with your characterization. Most Albanian Muslims may not actively practice Islam, but their Muslim identity is a component of who they are and has influenced many of what have become known as their “cultural” practices. Just as an example, using separate sandals in the restroom comes from an Islamic context, and this practice is carried out by ALL Albanians, whether Muslim, Christian, or other.

  5. @Colin
    In Albania during the communism the religion was banned for almost 50 years and the outcome is that, we have today a agnostic society. Like every country in Balkans we have been under ottoman occupation for 5centuries and before that were the Romans. Every empire left their traces.The religion had minimal importance on our culture that why today we have one of the most tolerant sects of Islam (Bektashism). Bektashism is called as a heresy in many Muslim countries, but because the strong pagan elements this sect was embraced by Albanians in older times. I am a Albanian and i have traveled a lot and the element of slippers or sandals i find it unfounded..In UK,Sweden,Italy they use different slippers in the house..Nobody walk with the dirty shoes inside the house that is kinda logic. Understanding the religion in Albania you have to live there for many years and those elements are ancient..Before the Ottomans putted their feet on the Balkans 5 centuries ago.

  6. @Addy

    the Albanian code of Lek Dukagjini that you mention, was practiced ONLY in the mountains of North, while Jews were not hiding there. This whole Besa business is being highlighted only to give a certain look of exoticism to the whole affair. One has to look in the neighboring countries around Albania and find that the extermination of Jews goes in the same proportion with the percentage of Christianity. When you believe that Jews are responsible for killing the Son of God, you can easily send them to the butcher. Muslims in Albania did not have such beliefs, not Jewish exceptionalism there, and remember that the State of Israel was not yet created to fuel any anti-Jewish hype.

    And Besa or the Kanun (a Turkish word for the Canon) was not codified by Lek Dukagjini: that is a folk etymology. Is rather the Lex (Law) of Dukagjin.

  7. Besa isnt a islam code of honor it is a cathlioc albanian honor.AGIM the kanun i leke dukagjini is in kosova used by muslim albanians also the kosova albanians who are muslim were once cathliocs,tribes of krasniqi aka KRAQ KEQI were cathlioc not so long ago i thnik they changed to isalm in early 1800s.and the albanians of rugova they were once cathlioc who turned muslim same time,,the canun is not a turkish law.my family follow the canun,,for anyone who wants to think the kanun is a islam law or has any contact with islam is isane,it was the law to stop turks and other albanians who helpped turks it stopped albanians who did otherwise they would be killed..