Milena B. Methodieva, Between Empire and Nation: Muslim Reform in the Balkans (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Milena B. Methodieva (MM): Between Empire and Nation: Muslim Reform in the Balkans tells the story of the transformation of the Muslim community in Bulgaria in the period between 1878 and 1908.  It explores how these former Ottoman subjects, now a minority under Bulgarian rule, navigated between empire and nation-state, and sought to claim a place in the larger modern world. At the same time the book traces the history of Bulgaria in its formative decades as a modern state, but from the perspective of its Muslim minority population. Finally, it looks at the Ottoman Empire at a time when territorial losses, foreign encroachments, and the influx of migrants contributed to a shift in ideological and political orientation. At another level, with this book I wanted to challenge the historiographical boundaries between the post-Ottoman Balkans and the Middle East. The experiences of communities, such as Bulgaria’s Muslims, during this period transcend such historiographical limits.

My work on the topic began as I questioned the accepted narratives about this Balkan Muslim minority in the aftermath of Ottoman rule that portrayed it as a conservative, inert, and isolated entity. I was aware of landmark studies that demonstrated the vibrant intellectual, political, and cultural activities among other Muslim societies during this period. I also had glimpses of the life of Bulgaria’s Muslims in those years through the few popular history style publications authored by members of the community. As I delved into the primary sources, Ottoman and Bulgarian archival documentation, but above all sources produced by the Muslims themselves, a strikingly new picture began to emerge. These sources revealed a community gripped by a sense of crisis and anxiety. But at the same time, they showed that many local Muslims actively sought to find a way out of their predicament. To them crisis became a catalyst for action. Such figures argued that if the Muslims were to stand up successfully to the challenges, they needed to thoroughly reform their society and institutions. Muslim reformist activism found various expressions. The local Muslim press reflected the lively debates within the community. Muslims struggled to reform their schools and education organization. They founded reading societies, organized theater performances, attempted to reorganize the vakıfs (waqf). They also made efforts to participate in Bulgarian parliamentary politics. At the same time, many local Muslims were drawn into the realm of Ottoman politics as supporters of the Young Turk opposition movement. Just as importantly, they showed remarkable interest in the world around them. Through the press they engaged with audiences beyond Bulgaria, with contributions from the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Ottoman political émigré groups in Europe. The debates among them reverberated among other Muslim communities around the world. This is a far cry from the picture of a conservative and isolated community.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

MM: The book revolves around the question of reform and modernity. At the same time, it looks more broadly at the experiences of a minority in an emerging nation-state. I wanted to strike a balance between these themes. Similar to other post-Ottoman nation-states, Bulgarian national ideology and nation-building endeavors developed in explicit juxtaposition to the Ottoman past and the Ottoman Empire. The Muslims, a living legacy of Ottoman rule in the country, found themselves in a particular position compared to other minorities as they encountered the Bulgarian national project. I discuss these developments in some detail as they are important to understand the sense of crisis among the local Muslims. Exploring the question of Bulgarian nationalism and the Muslims in this period would be enough to make a book by itself. But to me, this was just the beginning of the story.

What I really wanted to emphasize was the activism among the Muslims, as well as their agency, stories that had remained neglected and underappreciated. Consequently, the book brings the focus on how the Muslims sought to negotiate a place in the modern world. This was the question over which they agonized and struggled, and which emerges so vividly from the sources produced by the community.

Studying Bulgaria’s Muslims within the framework of such questions opens possibilities for exploring aspects of the history of this community that minority studies style works cannot adequately address. At the same time, I stress that the subject of Muslim engagement with modernity is enriched by examining the experiences of minority populations. So far, attention has been concentrated on Muslim-majority societies. However, the experiences of Muslim minorities in this period are a very important part of the larger story.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MM: This is my first book. It was inspired by my studies of Ottoman and Balkan history. It also reflects my interest in demonstrating that these are overlapping and interconnected fields.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MM: I hope that this book will be read by a wide range of scholars and students of Middle Eastern, European and East European, and Islamic history. This book seeks to bridge and engage with all these fields. Above all, I hope that this book will generate discussions and dialogue among scholars across these areas. I hope to encourage scholars to think beyond the traditional regional and historiographical boundaries. Certain subjects, like the one addressed in my book, defy strict classifications. At the same time, I hope that when scholars discuss topics such as modernity, reform, or politics with regards to Muslim societies they also include such minority communities. They deserve to be part of common discussions on these topics rather than being treated as peripheral populations.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MM: One of my current research projects deals with migration and mobility. I am looking at Muslim migration from the Balkans to the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish republic. This project is partly inspired by my book. As I was working on it, I came upon some very interesting figures. I wondered what happened to these people after 1908. When I began piecing together their life stories, I realized that their trajectories often transcended Bulgaria and the Balkans. Many moved to the Ottoman Empire and later the early Turkish republic, even though they had previously agitated against emigration. Some had very eventful lives—they were active in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. I plan to trace their experiences and activities in the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, and through them explore the history of the region in this turbulent period. In such a way, I would like to provide a different perspective to the history of the Ottoman Empire, its successors in the Balkans, and Turkey, which goes beyond the narratives focusing on state actions and diplomatic dealings. 

J: What would you want to highlight to scholars and students interested in minority populations and transnational connections?

MM: Over the past few years, scholarship of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East has dramatically expanded to explore history within a variety of new framework, such as gender, the environment, disease and epidemics. Such works have produced important and fascinating insights and opened new directions in research. In a somewhat similar vein, I would be interested in reading more works that look at history as experienced and made by minorities and marginalized groups. My curiosity, of course, very much resonates with our current preoccupations and sensitivities. Also, quite frequently, such groups were simultaneously part of different worlds—social, political, and intellectual.  Their experiences can provide us with insights into different histories, which we cannot gain through narratives that focus exclusively on majorities or state actions. Finally, I want to stress that even small minorities can have a disproportionate imprint on their times. Of course, studying such groups, and their transnational connections, requires mastery of a few languages and knowledge of a very broad range of historical material. So, this is a lot of work—but what one learns in the end makes the effort worthwhile!


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 7: Homeland, Nation, and Community, pp. 211-213, 218-221).

During the period under consideration, the Muslims of Bulgaria developed new notions of identity and community. Many came to see themselves not simply as a minority but part of a larger entity – the nation, or millet. The Bulgarian context where expressions of nationalism were rife, the sense of vulnerability – of the local Muslims and of the Ottoman Empire, and the various mobilization endeavors contributed to changing ideas about the boundaries of community. At the same time, with the expansion of communications and travel, Bulgaria’s Muslims increasingly became part of a larger interconnected world in which they found new notions of solidarity with Muslim communities elsewhere but also related to the experiences of various people.

Homeland, Nation, and Identity

“What is the thing that everyone must love most of all,” asked one clue in a crossword in the entertainment section of Uhuvvet. The following issue published the key with the answer: the homeland (vatan). Love for the homeland and patriotism were among the most exalted feelings, reformers often asserted, as they tried to impart their convictions in every possible way – from didactic pieces to theater performances. And one had to be conscious of it even when engaged in leisure activities, such as solving crosswords. The frequently repeated hadith “Love for the homeland is part of the faith” added further legitimacy to their arguments. The greatest and most admirable deeds in human history were the result of selfless patriotism and zeal, they asserted. Reformers themselves argued that their endeavors were led by patriotic sentiments and often referred to those working for the common good as patriots.

In Ottoman Turkish, vatan originally meant one’s native place, a particular city or region. The term, however, assumed a different meaning in the 1860s in the ideology of the Young Ottomans, particularly in Namık Kemal’s writings, for whom it came to signify the homeland. Bulgaria’s Muslims continued to use the concept in its traditional meaning, but more often they came to utilize it in its sense of homeland. The common good of the nation and the homeland were the ideals guiding them in their struggles.

But what was the homeland for Bulgaria’s Muslims? Their writings reveal that while it commanded utmost devotion, the homeland was imagined in different ways. The homeland could be Bulgaria, the Ottoman empire, or both of them. The Muslims were conscious as well that the Bulgarian lands used to be part of the Ottoman empire. At times the homeland was real and palpable; at others – an idealized abstract notion. Such complex loyalties were not an exception at the time or particular to the Muslims. As one study has skillfully demonstrated, the Greeks of Bulgaria similarly espoused and debated varying notions of belonging.

Bulgaria, where the Muslims felt they had their roots and continued living, was one of their homelands. They did not explicitly elaborate on their attachment, yet such sentiments are evident from numerous discussions, as well as their actions. The fact that Muslims worked to reform their institutions and sought to claim a place in Bulgarian political and public life is the most compelling evidence that they regarded the country as their homeland. In line with such convictions reformers harshly condemned emigration to the Ottoman Empire. The solution to the Muslims’ problems was not leaving their native places for lands that they hardly knew, but attaining the necessary qualifications to stand up for their own rights. Some Muslims mistakenly believed that going to the Ottoman empire was akin to a hijra, a reference to the act of joining a community of people of the Muslim faith, but they were wrong, reformers argued. Bulgaria was their country and the country of their ancestors. Leaving it was equal to obliteration. In a similar vein, they underscored the significance of learning Bulgarian if one was to live as a full member of Bulgarian society.

The Ottoman Empire was another homeland. Bulgaria’s Muslims also explicitly identified as being part of the Ottoman nation. “It is known that we, the people along the Danube, … [who] belong to an exalted religion are Ottomans, Muslims,” wrote one Muslim from Russe. The fact that Muslims migrated to the Ottoman state was an example of such sentiments but their loyalties were demonstrated in various other ways. Local Muslims marked Ottoman state holidays, such as the sultan’s birthday and the anniversaries of his accession to the throne. On these occasions delegations of muftis, Muslim members of parliament, and other dignitaries visited the Ottoman Commissioner in Sofia, the Second Secretary in Plovdiv or the offices of the Ottoman trade representations in Bulgaria to present their congratulations. After Abdülhamid II survived an assassination attempt in 1905, scores of Muslims visited the Ottoman representations or the mufti offices to offer prayers for his survival. Muslims from Bulgaria also showed solidarity with their co-religionists in the empire in difficult times. After a destructive earthquake hit Istanbul in 1894, they sent donations to help people affected by the catastrophe. […]

Muslims critical of the Hamidian regime showed their commitment to the Ottoman homeland through their involvement in Young Turk activities whose ultimate purpose was the salvation of the Ottoman Empire. Dozens of Muslims, for example, sent congratulatory cards and telegrams to the Young Turk daily Ahali on the occasion of Muslim holidays, in which they expressed wishes to each other to see the homeland, clearly envisioning the Ottoman state, liberated from tyranny.


Global Communities

At the same time that Bulgaria’s Muslims were elaborating ideas of national community and identity locally, they increasingly turned their attention outside as they began to imagine their place in a larger, globalizing world. In “the age of steam and print,” the world drew closer, allowing new kinds of interactions that had not been possible before. Bulgaria’s Muslims avidly followed international political developments. News and discussions of topics, such as European alliances, imperialist rivalries over Africa and Central Asia, conflict in the Far East, Japan’s achievements, and the rising wave of revolutionary upheaval filled the pages of local Muslim journals. Their implications for the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans were fervently discussed. Among Bulgaria’s Muslims these developments contributed to a sense of living in a larger, interconnected world and a new age which was full of possibilities but was also charged with crisis. They approached this world through the lens of their own experiences.

Religion, shared fate, and struggles became major sources of solidarity with other Muslim communities. The period from the 1880s until the outbreak of the First World War saw a peak of the idea of a Muslim world, a notion held by Europeans and Muslims themselves. This phenomenon, as a recent major study has eloquently argued, was the product of a combination of factors such as the racialization of Muslims in European discourses, imperial globalization, and the advance of communication technologies. It was also at this time that the juxtaposition of the notions of a Muslim world and a Christian West took place.

Bulgaria’s Muslims were also part of this trend. Print was one of the means that allowed them to imagine themselves as being part of this Muslim world and to establish connections with others. They became increasingly aware and compared their experiences to the fate of their co-religionists elsewhere. Their own vulnerability, problems, and disunity seemed to be mirrored among the Muslims in other parts of the world. Just like them Muslims elsewhere, from North Africa to Bosnia to Central Asia and India, suffered under the rule of their Christian colonial masters, wallowed in misery, and struggled for improvement. The Ottoman Empire, the target of Great Power ambitions, too was also part of this trend. Bulgaria’s Muslims responded with intensity and visceral understanding partly because of their own experiences. Such awareness elicited ideas about common Muslim action. Yet arguments about joint action and transnational Muslim solidarity remained mainly ideas rather than becoming realities.

Many Bulgarian Muslims argued that unity based on common religious bonds and experiences was the solution to overcoming their precarious existence. In such endeavors the Ottoman Empire and the Ottomans were deemed natural leaders. Such views were shared by the sympathizers of the Hamidian regime, as well as its Young Turk critics. The difference was that the latter made no mention of Abdülhamid II as the leading authority. Gayret and Rıza Pasha were among the boldest advocates of the idea which garnered them considerable popularity among other like-minded Muslims in Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire. According to Gayret, Islamic unity was possible even between the Ottoman Empire and Iran, although the former was predominantly Sunni and the latter Shi‘a. In such a way the Muslims could claim what rightfully belonged to them. Eventually such efforts would lead to the establishment of “United Muslim States” spreading to India and Central Asia, the journal dreamfully mused. In this endeavor the leadership of the Turks or the Ottomans, who were deemed more advanced than the other Muslim nations, was only natural.


Arguments about Muslim solidarity were likewise shared by Young Turk sympathizers. Ali Fehmi dismissed the Hamidian regime’s talk of Islamic unity as empty posturing but he underscored its benefits. All three hundred million Muslims around the world were repressed in some way, he contended, but if they united, they would be able to end domination. When a Bulgarian newspaper mockingly suggested that Abdülhamid II should marry the widowed Chinese empress so that the two greatest tyrannies on earth could unite, Ali Fehmi saw the idea of dynastic marriage useful. If Ottoman sultans concluded well-negotiated dynastic marriages with members of the Iranian, Egyptian, and Afghan royal houses, they would establish valuable strategic alliances beneficial to all Muslims. In this spirit Muvazene’s radical successor Ahali portrayed Pan Islam as a spontaneous defensive response to European imperial encroachments. Abdülhamid II though was seen as the culprit for preventing the Muslims from coming together, rather than as the legitimate leader in such endeavors.