In this article, we explore 5 important questions about Muslims in Bulgaria. From how Islam reached Bulgaria to the Muslim population living there, significant mosques, influential figures, and the challenges faced by Muslims in the country. Enjoy the read!
How many Muslims live in Bulgaria?
The Muslim community in Bulgaria consists of Turks, Pomaks, and Roma people. During the Ottoman era, Turks were settled in the regions of Ege, Western Black Sea, and Central Anatolia, which now belong to Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and Kosovo. These places were Islamized, Turkified, and considered as their homeland. After the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Turks and other Muslims in Bulgaria experienced massacres and were forced to emigrate. This emigration continued until the 2000s. According to the last census conducted in 2021, the total population in Bulgaria is around 6.5 million. The number of Muslims has not been officially declared yet. However, based on our research over the years, the Muslim population is estimated to be around 15% of the general population, which would be around 975,000. However, it should be noted that official authorities tend to underestimate the number, claiming it to be around 8% or 9%.
When and how did Islam reach Bulgaria?
Islam entered Bulgarian territories before the Ottoman period, through figures like Sarı Saltuk. It is a historical fact that Turks, led by Keykavus and Sarı Saltuk from the Seljuk Dynasty, settled in the Dobruca region through the Black Sea route. There are even records of a mosque in the village of Umur Fakih dating back to the year 1299. However, the significant and permanent influx of Islam occurred when Murad I Hüdavendigar attempted to conquer the Balkans, and the settlement policy was pursued. According to Ottoman history researchers, about 20% of the local population in the cities converted to Islam. There was also a group from the local population who converted to Islam and helped the Ottoman armies, and they were called “Pomaks,” which means “helpers.”
What are the significant mosques and Islamic centers in Bulgaria?
During the Ottoman era, two major roads passed through Bulgarian territories. One was called the Right Road (Sağ Kol), and the other was the “Middle Road” (Orta Kol), which is now the most important highway to Europe. Important mosques, madrasahs, soup kitchens (imarets), public baths (hamams), bridges, and caravanserais were built along these roads. On the right side, after Kırklareli, we encounter the Bayezid-i Veli Mosque and the city of Aydos. Following that, we come to the city of Shumen, which is considered the center of education and culture for Bulgarian Turks. The Sherif Halil Pasha Complex, built in the mid-18th century, and the Medresetü’n-Nüvvab, founded in 1922, are located here. On the middle road, two hours away by car from Edirne, is the important center of Filibe. There, you can find the Friday Mosque, which is similar to the Bursa Grand Mosque, and the İmaret Mosque. Two hours away from Filibe is the capital, Sofia. The only mosque from the Ottoman period that is open for worship in Sofia is known as the Banyabaşı Mosque. Sofia’s Grand Mosque, which was the main mosque of the city, still stands but was unfortunately seized after the fall of Sofia and is currently used as an Archaeological Museum. Another mosque from the Ottoman period, the Kara Cami, was converted into a church in the early 1900s. In the Knyajevo neighborhood of Sofia, the Halvetî Bali Efendi Tomb is still standing as a place of pilgrimage. Additionally, there are the tombs of Bektashi leaders, such as Otman Baba in Hasköy, Akyazılı Sultan’s Healing Room in Dobruca, and Demir Baba in Deliorman.
Who are the individuals and organizations working for Islam in Bulgaria?
When Bulgaria gained full independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908, the rights of the Muslims living there were guaranteed by treaties between the two countries. In terms of religion, the position of the Chief Mufti was established, and all Muslims were made subject to this institution in terms of religious, civil, and educational matters. The Chief Mufti’s office is responsible for regional mufti offices, district mufti offices, and mosque councils. This system continues to this day. There are 1,200 mosques, 400 masjids, 50 tombs, 3 Imam-Hatip high schools, a Higher Islamic Institute, a Quran memorization course, and 2 imam training courses under the Chief Mufti’s jurisdiction. Additionally, 600 summer Quran courses are organized in various places during the summer, and elective Islamic religion classes are taught in 50 state schools. The Chief Mufti’s office operates with 20 regional mufti offices. The financing of schools is provided by the Turkish Diyanet Foundation. From time to time, NGOs from Turkey and Islamic countries carry out joint projects with the Chief Mufti’s office.
What are the problems faced by Muslims in Bulgaria, and what is being done to solve them?
One of the most significant problems is the secularization of the Muslim minority due to the influence of communism. The communist regime that ruled between 1944 and 1989 was opposed to all religious beliefs, so Muslims were also forbidden from learning and practicing their religion. This was carried out in the most ruthless manner. Mosque doors were locked, reading and teaching the Quran were prohibited, and religious practices such as fasting, sacrifice, circumcision of male children, and holding religious events (mevlit) were banned. In 1984, even Turkish Muslims were forcibly given Bulgarian names. After such forced assimilation, it is challenging for the Muslim minority to return to their original identity and values.
There is a shortage of imams. Unfortunately, not every mosque can find an imam, and in some regions, one imam serves several villages. However, this service mainly involves conducting funeral services for other villages, which means that these villages do not have an imam to perform religious guidance. They are completely deprived of religious guidance.
Another significant issue for Islam in Bulgaria is that the waqfs inherited from the Ottoman period are not completely returned to the Muslim community by the state. Especially, significant mosques such as the İbrahim Pasha Mosque in Razgrad, the Kurşunlu Mosque in Karlovo, the Fatih Mehmet Mosque in Kyustendil, and the Eski Mosque in Stara Zagora are still in the hands of the state and are in ruins, not given to the Chief Mufti’s office. Moreover, the construction permit for the Islamic Cultural Center, which has been planned and has a designated area in Sofia for 30 years, has not been granted. The reason for this is the planned construction of another mosque in the city. Today, especially during Friday prayers, the Sofia congregation prays on the sidewalks in the cold in winter and in the heat in summer. This situation leads to incidents of attack from extreme nationalist parties and organizations against the congregation.