Between Empire and Nation
Muslim Reform in the Balkans
Milena B. Methodieva



IN 1907 THE MEMBERS of the newly founded Muslim Teachers’ Association of Bulgaria sent out an impassioned appeal that was simultaneously published in several local Muslim newspapers. In the appeal its authors drew in stark Darwinian terms the predicament of Bulgaria’s Muslims, pointing to the source of their troubles.

Today in the civilized human societies to guarantee one’s livelihood, to be able to earn a living every person must be capable of fighting in the field of life. To guarantee its lasting existence every society, every nation must be capable of fighting. It is in the sense of this Muslim truth that sociologists have said: for man to live means to fight, to struggle.

To score victory on this battlefield one must possess the perfect weapon and must have the power to use this weapon. . . . If in this struggle for life the most accomplished weapon is scientific knowledge, the power to use it in a beneficial way is intellectual discipline. . . .

Let us take a look at the social organization of the Turks in our homeland. We see that according to the law they have broad rights and privileges and, although, after the Bulgarians they are in the largest number, they can neither take advantage of these rights and privileges nor of their numbers. Why? Because to be able to take advantage of those rights and privileges, science and knowledge are necessary, intellectual discipline is necessary. But among us they do not exist.

In short, we Turks, who have had a glorious past and illustrious history, are nowadays condemned to live poor, humbled, and abused in our homeland among our other compatriots; in this poverty and degradation we cannot assert our rights and honor before anyone. Even though we are the children of this homeland, we are in the condition of being a foreign element. We live as strangers in our own homeland. Why is that? It’s all because of ignorance, because we are intellectually ill-equipped.1

This proclamation is not a singular document expressing the views of a small group of idealistic people eager to publicize their enterprise but a vivid reflection of the sentiments among Bulgarian Muslims. Many of them were actively engaged in efforts to reform their institutions. The story of these endeavors has been overshadowed by preoccupation with issues such as nation- and state-building, imperial disintegration, and interest in the turbulent twentieth century. The current study is an attempt to reconstruct this obscured story; it seeks to pose new questions and to place the history of the Muslims of Bulgaria in a different framework.

This book is about the activities of a movement for cultural reform and political mobilization among Bulgaria’s Muslims. More broadly, it tells the story of how Bulgaria’s Muslims navigated between empire and nation-state and sought to be a part of an increasingly wider modern world. The initial goal of the movement was to reform education and encourage the pursuit of modern knowledge, as demonstrated by the quote above. But ultimately, its activists aimed to bring about a thorough transformation of Muslim society, reform Muslim institutions, and encourage effective political participation guided by patriotic ideals. Elsewhere in the world Muslims similarly grappled with the challenges of modernity and produced varying responses, ranging from complete rejection, through efforts for institutional reforms, to the formulation of new theologies. In Bulgaria reformist endeavors did not seek to produce reformist Islamic theology. The goal was not to reform religion, although there were discussions of how it could serve the Muslims in new ways; instead, efforts focused on reform of institutions, culture, and society.

A living legacy of Ottoman rule in the region, the Muslims were Bulgaria’s largest and politically most significant minority. At the beginning of the twentieth century they numbered six hundred thousand, making up one-fifth of the population. Most of them were Turks followed by smaller numbers of Slavic-speaking Muslims (Pomaks), Roma, and Tatars. The majority were Sunnis, but there were also representatives of unorthodox Muslim groups and Sufi orders. In spite of ethnic differences, during the period under consideration Muslims referred to themselves in religious terms, similar to those in the Ottoman Empire, although they occasionally also used ethnic names.

Reform activities in Bulgaria were spearheaded by a younger generation of Muslims, mostly teachers and journalists, but they involved many Muslims from other backgrounds. Although the reform movement did not become a mass one, it produced a considerable impact as it steered the Muslims into a more cohesive communal life. Just as importantly, it contributed to the spread of new ideas about knowledge, culture, and community. Reformist Muslims and their endeavors were also the targets of criticism. Because of their links with the Young Turks, they were treated with suspicion and sometimes open resentment by other local Muslims who were loyal supporters of the sultan.

The reform movement in Bulgaria also assumed some distinctive political characteristics. This was partly because of the specifics of the Bulgarian context. As the Muslims found themselves in the position of a minority, they became particularly conscious of their place in Bulgarian political strategies. They became a part of parliamentary and electoral politics from the very beginning. Even more importantly, Muslims began appealing to ideas such as rights, equality, and freedom and called for upholding the guarantees set by the constitution. By engaging in such discourses, Bulgaria’s Muslims sought to renegotiate their relationship with the state by seeking to be effectively accepted as full citizens.2

Bulgaria’s Muslims were not preoccupied only with local concerns. They took active interest in the developments in the Ottoman Empire. In fact, from their vantage point they could clearly see the predicaments it was facing, and their own experiences were a stark warning of what would happen to its Muslim inhabitants if imperial disintegration continued. Consequently, many were drawn into the realm of Ottoman politics. While some found a common cause with the Young Turks, others were staunch supporters of the regime of sultan Abdülhamid II, which they saw as the only possible advocate for their rights. Furthermore, as a result of the expansion of print, communication technologies, and travel, they began imagining themselves as part of a larger world in which many of their coreligionists shared a fate similar to theirs. Such awareness paved the way to expanding the boundaries of community and created a sense of new solidarities.

There is a considerable body of scholarship on the Muslims and Turks of Bulgaria in various languages, but its scope is uneven. Most of the literature on the subject provides a longer view, spanning a hundred-year period with a focus on twentieth-century history, and particularly the “revival process,” the forced name-changing assimilationist campaign of the 1980s.3 Scholarship was also influenced by the political circumstances in Bulgaria. There were more possibilities to write about the history of the Muslims and other minority communities after the end of the Communist regime.4 From the 1990s onwards there appeared numerous works in Bulgarian and other languages on questions related to the history of the Muslims and Turks in Bulgaria. While many offered little more than general observations, there were also a number of solid scholarly endeavors. Among them are works on the Ottoman period that considerably advanced our knowledge of the history of Ottoman rule and Muslim culture in Bulgaria and the Balkans.5 Scholars also turned to the period after the establishment of modern Bulgaria. Some explored the actions of the Bulgarian state, while others sought to reexamine the Bulgarian national imagination concerning the Muslims.6 However, most studies provided only limited understanding of Muslim perspectives and agency, though this trend is changing.7

The experiences of the Muslims in the first decades after the end of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria have remained understudied,8 while the reform endeavors among the Muslims have been almost completely neglected. There are two lasting narratives about the community during this period. The first is what can be called the “death and exile” narrative, to borrow the title of one well-known study.9 Such works have focused on the killing and expulsion of Muslims during major conflicts over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78 and the Balkan Wars (1912–13), as well as subsequent Muslim emigration to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Undeniably, this narrative reflects true events. The Russo-Ottoman War alone led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. In its aftermath the number of Muslims on the territory of what would become Bulgaria dropped by at least 370,000, or about a third of the prewar Muslim population. Thousands of Muslims emigrated over the course of the next three decades, and the Balkan Wars (1912–13) produced another exodus from former Ottoman territories captured by the armies of the Balkan nation-states.

The other commonly reiterated narrative concerns those Muslims who remained in Bulgaria. According to it, during the war and following the establishment of Bulgaria the members of the higher Ottoman military, administrative, and intellectual elites left the country. Those who stayed were mostly the uneducated masses. Deprived of competent leadership and the guidance of an enlightened state, the remaining Muslims succumbed further to ignorance, conservatism, and discord, which the Bulgarians readily exploited. Muslims made only sporadic efforts to reorganize their communal life with the initiative coming from somewhere else. The Ottoman state was deemed to be their natural leader, and certain authors have even suggested that coordinated reform initiatives emerged as a result of Bulgarian Muslims’ contacts with the Tatar jadid movement in the Russian Empire.10 It was only in the 1920s, with the establishment of the Turkish republic, that sparkles of enlightenment emanating from the Kemalist reforms, another state-led reform project, enlivened Bulgaria’s Muslims.11 Although this historical narrative refers to some real events—Muslim education, for example, was in a dire condition—its main argument is largely inaccurate.

The goal of this book is to bring to light another story: that of Muslim experiences of modernity. It emphasizes the Muslims’ agency and seeks to shift the focus toward the Muslims and away from the prevailing state-centered approaches, although at times discussion of state actions is inevitable. Understanding the transformations that took place in this formative period is important for tracing the subsequent history of Bulgaria’s Muslims, their relationship with the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, and Bulgarian nationalism.

This book also seeks to contribute to the scholarship of Islam, Muslims, reform, and modernity. There is a considerable body of literature on modernist Muslim movements. Yet, most such works have focused primarily on Muslim-majority societies, including the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire, and more sizable Muslim populations, such as those in South Asia.12 The original scholarship of Adeeb Khalid has shown how debates on culture and reform of society animated the Muslims in Central Asia under Russian imperial rule.13 In comparison, such questions have seldom been explored in relation to Muslim communities in the Balkans in the post-Ottoman period, particularly those that came to be in the position of minorities. Most works dealing with reform of communal institutions have focused on Bosnia, an area with a historically substantial Muslim population. Recently, there have been efforts to revisit these phenomena within a new theoretical framework.14

This book looks at the experiences of a minority community; however, it should not be read simply as the history of this community or interpreted within the narrow frame of “minority studies.” Parallel to this, it tells a history of Bulgaria during its formative period as a modern nation-state from the vantage point of a minority population. At the same time this book looks at the Ottoman Empire at a particularly challenging time, when external pressures and territorial losses raised fears about its future.

The first decades of Bulgaria’s existence were a crucial period during which it embarked upon nation- and state-building initiatives. While all Ottoman Balkan successor states came to incorporate Muslims as part of their populations, Bulgaria’s case was somewhat different because its Muslim population was especially numerous. In 1879 the Principality of Bulgaria, which at the time comprised roughly the territories north of the Balkan mountains, was inhabited by 580,000 Muslims, who made up more than a quarter of its population. In Eastern Rumelia, which remained an autonomous Ottoman province until 1885, there were 190,000 Muslims, comprising a fifth of its residents. Although the number of Muslims decreased to 600,000 by the beginning of the twentieth century, they still represented a considerable part of Bulgaria’s inhabitants.

Previously founded Balkan nation-states had had to deal with miniscule Muslim communities in the first years following their inception. In 1828 in newly independent Greece there were 11,000 Muslims, or less than 2 percent of its population. In 1833 in newly founded Serbia there were 4,500 Muslims, or less than 1 percent of all inhabitants. In terms of the size of its Muslim population, Bulgaria was comparable to Bosnia. The former Ottoman province, which came under Austro-Hungarian occupation in accordance with the Berlin Treaty, had 450,000 Muslim inhabitants in 1879. Over time the number of Muslims increased, and by the first decade of the twentieth century its Muslim population was comparable to Bulgaria’s Muslim community.15

In facing the task of administering a large Muslim-minority population implicitly linked to the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria encountered a situation with which other Ottoman Balkan successor nation-states did not have to deal. And whereas the Austro-Hungarian authorities could count on their experience of administering a multiethnic and multireligious empire, Bulgaria had to forge its own path in these endeavors while also elaborating its own national project. Eventually what determined Bulgarian endeavors were not just nationalist aspirations but also calculated strategic considerations. The Muslims in Bulgaria and the Christian Slavic populations in Ottoman Macedonia and Thrace, claimed by many Bulgarians as their fellow-nationals, came to be regarded as counterparts in a particular “hostage populations” strategy pursued by both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. This awareness prevented the pursuit of more aggressive Bulgarian nationalist assimilationist actions at the time; such projects appeared later.

For the Ottoman state this was a challenging period. In 1878 the empire lost vast territories, most of them in Europe, undermining its standing in an area where it had a strong historic presence. Bulgaria was founded on what had been core Ottoman lands in relative proximity to Istanbul, where the far-ranging Tanzimat reforms had scored major success. The Danube, whose symbolism as the Ottomans’ “spring of life” was celebrated in the patriotic works of Namık Kemal, was lost for good. The new political settlement came on the heels of a turbulent three-year period marked by rebellion, international outcry, and a devastating war with Russia, when Russian armies reached the outskirts of the Ottoman capital. The war also precipitated the flight of thousands of Muslims, leading to a major humanitarian crisis.

The fate of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians featured prominently in these critical events. The suppression of the 1876 Bulgarian uprising led to outpourings of sympathy, calls for action, and anti-Ottoman rhetoric in Europe; Gladstone’s pamphlet “The Bulgarian Horrors” was the most notable example. The Russo-Ottoman War was similarly waged in the name of bringing justice to the Bulgarian cause. These events galvanized leading Ottoman figures and public opinion that pointed instead to Bulgarian and Russian assaults against the Muslims. Such arguments continued even after the dust settled, turning into a lasting counter-rhetoric underscoring European and Bulgarian duplicity. They were motifs in the discourses of the Hamidian regime and the Young Turks, but they were also echoed among Muslims elsewhere in the world.

The separation of sizable Muslim populations who were also former Ottoman subjects presented dilemmas about maintaining relations and providing protection. The Ottoman state had lived through similar crises before with the establishment of Serbia and Greece, while the influx of Tatars and Circassians from the Russian Empire in the 1860s put considerable pressures on it. Yet, in 1878 the situation was different. The number of former Ottoman Muslim subjects remaining beyond Ottoman control was much larger than in the case of the previously established Balkan nation-states. As the Ottoman authorities grappled with such questions, for the Young Turks the experiences of the Muslims in Bulgaria were crucial in strengthening nascent Turkish nationalist ideas. Furthermore, what went on in these years in the Balkans was important for the part the region assumed in the Ottoman imagination.16

Finally, I have made special efforts to reconstruct the lives and activities of many of Bulgaria’s Muslims involved in the events under discussion. In this way I have tried to bring out “faces” and reconstruct real historical figures from what has so far remained an impersonal mass of people. This book is as much about their ideas and endeavors as it is about them.

Note on Structure, Scope, and Sources

Chapter 1 sets the background for the events discussed in this book, including the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78 and the subsequent Berlin settlement. Chapter 2 examines how Bulgaria imagined, organized, and governed its Muslim subjects within the complex backdrop of Ottoman-Bulgarian relations. Chapter 3 follows Bulgarian efforts to do away with the vestiges of the Ottoman imperial legacy in the cities and the countryside, as well as the impact on the Muslims. Chapter 4 looks at the intellectual and social origins of the Muslim reform movement. The chapter also introduces some of the main figures who played a crucial role in the events under consideration. Chapter 5 examines in detail the initiatives undertaken to reform the community. Chapter 6 deals with Muslim efforts to navigate Bulgarian parliamentary politics along with the struggles over the leadership of the Muslim community. The final chapter turns to questions of identity and community. The nation, with its various characteristics and forms, stood at the center of such discussions. But at a time of a growing globalization, Bulgaria’s Muslims also began to imagine themselves and seek connections with the wider world. The book closes with the tense standstill of Muslim life following Bulgaria’s declaration of independence and evaluates this crucial period against subsequent events.

The focus of this book is the Muslim reform movement, so by necessity certain topics have received limited attention. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78, a formative experience for Bulgaria’s Muslims and the Ottoman Empire, the period of the Russian provisional administration, the Muslim refugee crisis, and Muslim emigration merit more extensive consideration. Finally, while the book looks at the attitudes of Ottoman representatives and the sentiments of members of the Young Turk opposition organization towards Bulgaria’s Muslims, it does not present a comprehensive discussion of the views of a broader spectrum of Ottoman society.

I have used Bulgarian and Ottoman sources, both archival and published, in addition to other primary source materials. But above all, I have sought to utilize sources produced by the Muslim community. The local Muslim press of the time, which was published almost exclusively in Ottoman Turkish, is a particularly important source, and one that has remained largely undervalued. However, it is only by looking at the press that one can grasp the full range of lively debates, struggles, and aspirations of the local Muslims. Ottoman and Bulgarian archival records provide valuable information about Ottoman and Bulgarian aspirations, as well as insights into the context that engendered the rise of reform initiatives. Yet, taken by themselves they do not reveal much about the Muslims’ activities. Bulgarian sources repeat a narrative of Muslim ignorance and apathy. A similar story emerges when one looks only at sources produced by the Ottoman authorities, except that it is enhanced with laments about communal discord and vitriol against the spread of Young Turk sedition. Muslim periodicals are important in other ways. Certain publications, above all the main reformist organ Muvazene, actively solicited and published readers’ letters. These contributions, whose veracity is undisputed, give a voice to many ordinary Muslims and attest to the spread of reform ideas. Periodicals are supplemented by documentation from the archival collections of mufti offices and regional Muslim boards, petitions Muslims sent to the Ottoman and Bulgarian authorities, and pamphlets. The few published memoirs have proved particularly valuable. Poetry was the only kind of literary work produced by Bulgaria’s Muslims during this period. The poems that made appearance on the pages of the Muslim press in many cases give a sense of the intense emotions with which members of the community responded to the world around them.

The records of sharia courts, sicills, have traditionally been an important source for the study of the social, economic, and legal history of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim societies. In Bulgaria sharia courts continued to function after 1878, but they resolved only matters of family law, such as marriage, divorce, and in some cases inheritance. Consequently, the information their records provide is limited to such matters.

Reconstructing the experiences of certain groups during this period is difficult because of the scarcity of original documentation relating to them. There are no sources reflecting the perspectives of unorthodox Muslims, such as Alevi, Bektashi, and Kızılbaş; other documentation provides only scant insights, so it is difficult to draw even a partial picture of their life in those years. The Roma, Muslim and non-Muslim, remained a marginalized group. Although there is more information about them in Bulgarian and Ottoman sources, invariably reflecting the perceptions and prejudices of those who produced them, it is still largely insufficient to provide a more detailed account of their experiences. With limited information on certain subjects, sometimes conjecture is inevitable.


1. “Beyanname—2,” Balkan 202 (23 June 1907), 1–2.

2. On substantive or full citizenship, see Rogers Brubaker, “Migration, Membership, and the Modern Nation-State: Internal and External Dimensions of the Politics of Belonging,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41:1 (2010), 61–78.

3. Ali Eminov, Turkish and Other Muslim Minorities in Bulgaria (London, 1997); Valeri Stoyanov, Turskoto naselenie v Bǔlgaria mezhdu polyusite na etnicheskata politika (Sofia, 1998); İbrahim Yalǔmov, Istoria na myusyulmanskata obshtnost v Bulgaria (Sofia, 2002); Bilal Şimşir, The Turks of Bulgaria 1878–1985 (London, 1988); Ali Dayıoğlu, Toplama Kampından Meclise: Bulgaristan’da Türk Müslüman Azınlığı (İstanbul, 2005); Kemal Karpat, ed., The Turks of Bulgaria: The History and Political Fate of a Minority (Istanbul, 1990).

4. For earlier scholarship on the post-Ottoman period, see Alexandre Popovic, ed., L’Islam balkanique: Les musulmans du sud-est européen dans la période post-ottomanne (Wiesbaden, 1986).

5. It is impossible to recount here even a partial list of such works, but it is worth noting several titles by scholars from Bulgaria: Evgeni Radushev, Pomatsite—hristianstvo i isliam v Zapadnite Rodopi s dolinata na r. Mesta, 15–30–te godini na 18 vek, part 1 (Sofia, 2008); Anton Minkov, Conversion to Islam in the Balkans: Kisve Bahasi Petitions and Ottoman Social Life, 1670–1730 (Leiden, 2004); see also the collection of works by Rossitsa Gradeva, Rumeli under the Ottomans, 15–18th Centuries: Institutions and Communities (Istanbul, 2004); Rossitsa Gradeva and Svetlana Ivanova, eds., Istoria na myusyulmanskata kultura po bǔlgarskite zemi: Izsledvania, 2 (Sofia, 1998); Orlin Sǔbev, Knigata i neiniat hram: istoria na osmanskite biblioteki v Bǔlgaria (Sofia, 2017).

6. For some representative examples, see Mary Neuburger, The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Modern Bulgaria (Ithaca, 2004); Zhorzheta Nazǔrska, Bǔlgarskata dǔrzhava i neinite maltsinstva, 1879–1885 (Sofia, 1999); and Stoyanov, Turskoto naselenie.

7. These include Anna Mirkova, Muslim Land, Christian Labor: Transforming Ottoman Imperial Subjects into Bulgarian National Citizens, 1878–1939 (Budapest, 2017); and a work focusing on the post-Communist period, Kristen Ghodsee, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton, 2010).

8. Mirkova, Muslim Land, Christian Labor represents one notable exception. For general insights about Muslim life during this this period, though much in need of critical analysis, see Ömer Turan, The Turkish Minority in Bulgaria, 1878–1908 (Ankara, 1998). Bernard Lory, Le sort de l’héritage ottoman en Bulgarie: L’exemple des villes bulgares, 1878–1900 (Istanbul, 1985) also provides some insightful observations on Bulgarian Muslim life in this period.

9. Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: the Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821–1922 (Princeton, 1995); Hakan Yavuz and Isa Blumi, eds., War and Nationalism: The Balkan Wars, 1912–13, and Their Sociopolitical Implications (Salt Lake City, 2013); Kemal Karpat, “Introduction,” in Karpat, The Turks of Bulgaria.

10. Ömer Turan and Kyle T. Evered, “Jadidism in Southeastern Europe: The Influence of Ismail Bey Gaspirali among Bulgarian Turks,” Middle Eastern Studies 41:4 (2005), 481–502.

11. Turan, Turkish Minority; Stoyanov, Turskoto naselenie.

12. Examples include Şerif Mardin, The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study of the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas (Princeton, 1962); Malcolm Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley, 1966); M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, The Young Turks in Opposition (New York, 1995); Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton, 2002).

13. Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley, 1998).

14. For an excellent reevaluation, see Leyla Amzi-Erdoğdular, “Alternative Muslim Modernities: Muslim Intellectuals in the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59:4 (2017), 912–43; other prominent works include Robert Donia, Islam under the Double Eagle: The Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1878–1914 (New York, 1981); Nusret Šehić, Autonomni pokret Muslimana za vrjeme Austrougarske uprave u Bosni i Hercegovini (Sarajevo, 1980); and an article by one of the participants in these struggles, Osman Nuri Hadžić, “Borba Muslimana za versku i vakufsko-mearifsku autonomiju,” in Vladislav Skarić, ed., Bosna i Hercegovina pod Austro-ugraskom upravom (Belgrade, 1938), 56–101. For a particularly insightful recent work on Albania, see Nathalie Clayer, “Transnational Connections and the Building of Albanian and European Islam in the Interwar Period,” in Nathalie Clayer and Eric Germain, eds., Islam in Inter-War Europe (London, 2008), 45–66.

15. On respective population statistics, see Robert Donia and John Fine, Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Tradition Betrayed (New York, 1994), 87; Nikolay Todorov, The Balkan City (Seattle, 1983), 328, 332.

16. For an excellent discussion of the image of the Balkans in the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic, see Ebru Boyar, Ottomans, Turks and the Balkans: Empire Lost, Relations Altered (London, 2007).