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BOOK REVIEW: Islamic thought in 20th century Bosnia and Herzegovina

26th Sep 2014

Bosnia  USE
Contributions to Twentieth Century Islamic Thought in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Volume 1. By Enes Karic, Sarajevo: El-Kalem, pp510, HB, 2011.

This is the first volume of Professor Enes Karic’s unique attempt to survey twentieth century Islamic thought and contributions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The author is a Professor of Qur’anic Studies at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in the University of Sarajevo, a former Education Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a prolific writer. Fluent in Arabic, Turkish, English and Bosnian, Dr Karic is an internationally recognised scholar and writer. His notable publications include two volume translation and commentary of the Qur’an into Bosnian language and Essays (on behalf) of Bosnia (2000). I am grateful to the author for sending me this important book.

Consisting of an Introduction, 18 chapters, bibliography and an index of names, in this book the author seeks to highlight the lives, thoughts and contributions of selected Bosnian scholars, thinkers and reformers for the benefit of his people. According to Dr Karic, he was motivated to write this book to preserve information and data for the benefit of present and future generations.

In his own words, ‘Twentieth century Bosnia and Herzegovina was a country that endured bitter wars. Not one of the former Yugoslav republics suffered such destruction, bloodshed and forced population movements during the Second World War as did Bosnia and Herzegovina. During that war hundreds of Muslim villages and settlements of Eastern and Western Bosnia went up in flames, and with them dozens of libraries, both private and public. The source materials on the Bosnian Muslims and their most important thinkers are increasingly disappearing without trace, even the most recent, merely some hundred years old…I had therefore wanted for many years to write a short history of Islamic thought in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to make my modest contribution to ensuring that at least a small part of our heritage be rescued from oblivion and disappearance.’ (pp6-7)

First six chapters of the book focuses on the history, heritage and contributions of Gazi Husrev Bey Madrasa and Khanaqa, a remarkable Islamic institution established in 1537 by Gazi Husrev Bey (1480-1547), a notable Ottoman governor and one of the most important benefactors of Bosnia. In these chapters, the author covers the history of this institution during the Ottoman period (1537-1878), Austro-Hungarian period (1878-1918), the time between two World Wars (1918-1941), and the Socialist period (1945-1990).

According to Dr Karic, ‘There is no doubt that the Madrasa has for four and a half centuries been the greatest guarantor of our religious survival. It stands on the borders of the past and the present, and was required to adapt itself to changes through which Bosnia passed…there are academic disciplines that form a permanent part of the Madrasa curriculum, based on the sound and unalterable past and tradition, but also new ones that are imposed by the needs of the future towards which one must remain open…The Gazi Husrev Bey Madrasa also stands on the boundaries between two worlds, the East and the West. From its very origins it was not possible to speak of one without the other, and this is especially true today.’ (p93)

Of the remaining 12 chapters, three are devoted to reform and renewal in 20th century Bosnia and Herzegovina (chapter 9), the role of El-Hidaje periodical in raising awareness of Islam (chapter 12) and a historical survey of translation of the Qur’an into Bosnian (chapter 13), while the remaining chapters of the book provide critical overview of the lives and contributions of prominent scholars, thinkers and reformers like Mehmed Dzemaludin Causevic, Mehmed Handzic, Husein Dozo, Adil Bey Zulfikarpasic, Nerkez Smailagic and Muhamed Filipovic.

However, the contribution of scholars like Alija Izetbegovic and Smail Balic are not covered in this volume. No doubt, these and other scholars will be covered in the next volume.

In reconstructing the past, the author had to be mindful of the links between the past, present and the future so as to provide a holistic interpretation of the passage of time. In his own words, ‘I was faced…with the issue of that inescapable distance. But distance is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it does indeed allow us, with the passage of time, to be more objective, unbiased…But on the other hand, distance often also becomes a barrier between us and the events we describe. Distance often makes the past seem uninteresting, dull, forcing us to regard the entire wealth of the past reductively, as a mere mass of history, subsequently ‘objectivized’ and reconstructed. With distance, then, one both gains and loses. One gains objectivity towards the past, but…strict distance often renders the past and its personalities and content insipid, deprives it, in short, of its subjectivity.’ (pp5-6)
Striking a balance between objectivity and subjectivity in relation to the past is never an easy task, but, in this book, Dr Karic has shown that it is possible to reconcile the past with present for the benefit of the future. He deserves much applaud for such an important and invaluable contribution. Highly recommended reading for scholars and students of modern European Islamic thought, culture and history.

Muhammad Khan, Acclaimed author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).

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