There has never been an Eastern Europe without Islam. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints.
Once, this plurality would have been obvious. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. Some examples of “Lithuanian” mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross.
If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. That is a grave mistake. Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the “East” as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition.
It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love. [Continue reading…]