Balkan and Bulgerian Islam and syncretism

Balkan Islam is in many instances a form of Pagan-Christian-Islamic syncretism. Here are some of the more interesting practices:

Baptism by Anatolian Muslims, and later by their Balkan counterparts, was performed not to satisfy any sacramental necessity, but from the popular folk belief that immersion in Christian holy water would armed infants against disease and protected them from mental illness. [...]

The Pomacks of Bulgaria practised a particularly lovely and egregious form of syncretistic Islam where many, if not all, of the old Bulgaro-Christian patterns that had developed for a millenium continued to be practised without anyone missing a step. [...] They believed that taking Easter eggs from Christians assured one of good health and they believed that bringing sick children to church on Good Friday would gaurantee a cure. They sought out the blessings of priests on feast days, and they took holy water from the same priests for the benefit of family members and even livestock. The Pomacks also continued to make offerings to Orthodox Church icons; they even covertly kept church books and icons in their homes. [...] they continued the old Slavic custom of animal sacrifice and families often remembered the day of their patron saints and continued to celebrate them privately...

Religious Syncretism by Eric Maroney, p. 63
London: SCM Press, 2006


FrGregACCA said…
Reminds me of certain neo-pagans who, when faced with deep do-do, invoke Jesus and sprinkle holy water.
Rob said…
It doesn't surprise me. The lines are never as clearly drawn as they are on blogs and in our minds.

It might surprise people to know that the Crusaders that settled Palestine often included mini-mosques in their churches (so that the local Muslims could worship) and vice versa.

Not everybody is Osama Bin Laden or Jerry Falwell or Bishop Fulton Sheen. Some of us are just trying to get by!
Fr Michael Conway said…
Interesting posts on syncretism. Thought you might enjoy this article

An excerpt…

Baptism brings together Muslims and Christians in Drenka celebrations

By Essam Fadle
First Published 9/1/2008
ASSIUT: Last month, 49-year-old Om Khaled was on her way to the Virgin Mary Monastery in Drenka, Assiut to baptize her three-month-old son. The Muslim woman, following an age-old tradition in her hometown, was fulfilling a vow to God (nadr) to baptize her son according to Christian rituals if she were to ever get pregnant.

During the monastery celebrations, held every year from Aug. 7 to 21, Muslims making similar vows flock to the monastery, where the Holy Family is believed to have taken refuge during their visit to Egypt. According to Father Yacoub Suleiman, spokesman of the Virgin Mary Monastery, about 40 Muslims seeking to baptize their newborns arrive every day. The number reaches 100 during the last three days of celebrations.

This has led the monastery to build another room dedicated solely to baptizing Muslims, next to the one dedicated to Copts.
Anonymous said…
Dear Abu Daoud,

Thank you for reading my book and posting excerpts. Please feel free to post more.

In line with Rob’s comments, the entire thesis of my book is that the lines between the Abrahamic religions are not as clearly delineated as in some popular, academic or ecclesiastical thinking about religion.

Islam in the Balkans was largely promulgated by Sufi orders, who expounded a mystical doctrine of Islam which was heavily inflected by Turkic shamanist elements and Greek orthodox Christianity. Turkic religions relied on shamans as holy men, seers, prophets, and healers. When Turkic tribes embraced Islam, the Sufi master was able to take on many of these roles, and pour them into an Islamic mold. So when Turks began to invade Anatolia and then the Balkans, they were predisposed to accepting elements of the religious cultures around them. Many local practices could be absorbed into the Islamic Sufi Holy Man model. Their Islam was a kind of folk-Islam. This led to the pronounced syncretism of Balkan Islam; it retained many elements of the Christian milieu it entered, along with a host of “pagan” practices and rituals which had survived and even flourished when some Balkan groups converted to Christianity. The result was a very broad religion able to reconcile a great many religious elements.

In a very broad sense, my book shows how religious expression can have curious counter-currents, often from unexpected directions (usually from folk religion, saint veneration, and mystical religious movements).

A quick example from the book: One of the prime tenants of Judaism is the oneness of God. Rabbinical Judaism considers God’s unity as a prime doctrine of the faith. But many adherents of the Kabala, the mystical movement in Judaism, especially the variety expounded by Isaac Luria, “broke” God apart into different attributes. In time, these attributes became de-facto god and goddesses, separate from God, often acting like the squabbling deities of Greek mythology. The outward expression of God’s oneness was maintained by Jews who studied Kabala, but the deep need to humanize God, to make this ineffable deity approachable, more human, somewhat more “pagan” was satisfied through Kabalistic speculation.

FrGregACCA said…

Interesting, Fr. Michael. I wonder if this is one explanation for the visions that some converts from Islam have had, either of Christ or of his Blessed Mother, to which they credit their conversions. Perhaps the Lord is simply showing up to claim His own.
Abu Daoud said…
Great stuff. I guess my overall question that I am dealing with nowadays is how exactly do we differentiate (if it is possible at all) between heterodox religion and syncretism.

I mean, Muslims taking their kids to be baptized is a heterodox practice, but I am guessing that otherwise these folks are doctrinally and ritually orthodox Muslims. I doubt they believe in the crucifixion, resurrection, atonement, Trinity questions, which are so significant.

Thanks to Eric for dropping by the site and I do plan on posting more quotes from his book in the coming weeks as I have found it to be quite interesting and easy to read at that.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for plugging my book.

I think you are correct, it is a complex question: what is heterodox religion or practice and what is syncretism? I think from my studies it is probably a continuum. Muslims baptizing their children may not have one specific motivation or source. For some Muslim communities, it is because their ancestors were once Christians, and it has become a community tradition. Do they bring to baptism the associations practicing Christians do? Hard to say. Probably not in its entirety. I think religious practices can become divorced from their contexts and take on different meanings. Muslim baptism is a folk expression, by and large, of a need to protect babies. The practice has become invested with a special, almost magical meaning. But I think overall it is a complex event, with different meanings and sources in different places. In Egypt, for instance, you may be able to find the source in infant baptism in some pre-Christian, pre-Muslim practice, handed down to both groups. But this is speculation.
Rob said…
I certainly didn't mean to express approval of syncretism, if I was read that way. I only meant that most people don't, and never will, worry about this stuff very much. Only us fools on the internet!
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Rob,

You are quite right. Religion is its more anthropological form (which I am liking more and more these days) is much more...generous and versatile--let us say--than religion its more doctrinal form. Both aspects are important, but more so for different groups of people.

Which is to say, I don't think you have said anything strange or inappropriate.

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