Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Russia

Eastern Europe/The Balkans

With strong ties to the historical Turkish-Ottoman Empire, the Balkan countries of Southeastern Europe contain several Muslim-majority states. Islam is the dominant religion in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Other Balkan countries with significant Muslim minority populations include Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Religious worship was generally prohibited in these countries until the collapse of the Soviet government in the 1990’s. Religion and ethnicity remain closely linked in these countries and discrimination and tensions continue to be reported.


1. “Muslims in Europe: Country guide” – BBC News

Tespihe in Albania

From Tirana to Tetova, they can be seen in public and in private, hanging from the rear view mirrors of taxis, and lying atop intricate prayer rugs. For some, tespihe (“prayer beads” in Albanian) are used as religious, intentional acts of worship and remembrance of God–zikr. For most Albanians however, sliding the 33 circularly attached beads through one’s fingers has been stripped of its religious significance. Now, tespihe represent a tradition or habit Albanian men saw their father’s fathers pass time with while sipping small cups of thick, muddy-colored coffee in the town square.

For almost 50 years, Albania’s communist rulers officially banned formal, public acts of religious worship. Albania was the world’s first atheist state, but spiritual habits and remnants of Islam brought through Ottoman rule in the 15th century remained. Interestingly, tespihe–first used in Hindu practices, and subsequently by Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Bahais, and other religious groups– originated early in Islamic history as a way for Muslims to remember the 99 names or attributes of God (often with 33 beads rotated through three times). In modern day Albania, tespihe are used by both Muslim and Christian men, most of whom are older.

Today, Albania is experiencing a small, but noticeable religious resurgence, with both Muslim and Christian congregations increasing in size. New churches and mosques are being built, and old spaces of worship are being restored. However, although 70% of Albania’s population identifies as Muslim, the majority of people neither actively practice nor care to learn about Islam. Panayot Papadam, a native of Albania and student of its history, suggests that the slight Islamic revival in Albania may even be linked to improved relations with the Turks, a counterbalance to Greeks who are seen as colonizers by many Albanians.

In a recent interview with Inside Islam, Papadam spoke of tespihe and its relationship to the dynamics of present-day Albania.

“When religion was banned, tespihe were not, so their popularity spread to all people, [and tespihe were] reinvented as something to pass the time. Very few young people, even religious ones, use them for the purpose of aiding them in their daily prayers. This may be a result of the disassociation that the ban on religion caused between the object and its religious significance. Religion of all denominations has a very curious flavor in Albania. It’s difficult for Albanians to associate with rituals that other nationalities consider essential to practicing their religion, and in this respect, communism fostered a very critical and ‘scientific’ examination of these superstitions.”

The use of tespihe in Albania is illustrative of the dynamic nature of ritual. In Islam, or any other faith tradition, habitual actions related to a spiritual tradition can be ambiguous. Without the historical background and understanding of a particular context, an act of habit and/or culture can easily be misinterpreted as an act of faith.

Central Asia and the Caucasus

The Islamic countries of Central Asia include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Like the Russian experience, Islam
in Central Asia was persecuted and suppressed under the Soviet regime, but
has enjoyed a renaissance since the 1990’s. There are now more than
2,000 mosques in Uzbekistan alone. Unfortunately, in some of these states,
Islam has also been perceived as a threat to state-control, and has provoked
several radical movements to emerge in response; the Islamic Movement of
Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) are two examples. Islamic radicalism
has now become a serious problem in some parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus,
especially the Russian North Caucasus and the Ferghana Valley shared by
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.


1. “Islam in Central Asia” – Economist
2. “Islam in Central Asia” – New York Times
3. “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU” – Silk Road Studies


Russia is home to 23 million indigenous Muslims, as well as an estimated
3 to 4 million Muslim migrants from former Soviet states – approximately
two million Azeris, one million Kazakhs, and several hundred thousand Uzbeks,
Tajiks, and Kyrgyz. This constitutes 10 to 16 percent of Russia’s
total population. The Russian Muslim community is extremely diverse – from
Volga Tatars and Bashkirs to the ethnic mosaic of the North Caucasus. In
contrast to Muslim minorities in Western Europe, however, most Russian Muslims
represent native people of what is now the Russian Federation and have inhabited
this land for over a millennium. The Muslim population is spread across
the country, but coalesced in several Muslim-majority republics.

Historically, Islam was under strict state-control in the Soviet Union,
with only 500 mosques in existence. Since 1991, however, Islam has enjoyed
a renaissance. Thousands of mosques and madrasas have been rebuilt and reopened.
At present, there are around 5,000 mosques in Russia alone. Islam is officially
recognized as one of Russia’s four principal religions, along with Orthodox
Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. Russia has also applied to join the
Organization of Islamic States.


1. “The rise of Russian Muslims worries Orthodox Church” – Times Online
2. “Growth of Islam in Russia Brings Soviet Response” – New York Times
3. “Russian Islam goes its own way” – BBC News