Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe by Tharik Hussain
Bradt Travel Guides (travel literature)
Review by Nasim Ahmed
The story of Europe’s encounter with Islam is in desperate need of retelling. Plagued by an identity crisis, fuelled in part by refugees fleeing Muslim majority countries, and the rise of far-right political parties threatening to undermine its multiracial foundation, the continent is once again at a cultural and political inflection point which will not only determine the future of its 44 million Muslim citizens, but also the direction and role that Europe will take in the 21st century.
More than ever, the continent is crying out for a people’s history; a history that serves the higher purpose of telling stories, as the glue that can bind our multi-ethnic communities together and illuminate our present course in addressing the shared problems we face as a culture and civilisation. The past needs to be viewed through fresh eyes in search of a new history of Europe’s encounter with Islam.
Whether intended or not, author Tharik Hussain’s fascinating book Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe, serves this higher purpose. Nominated for the most prestigious award in non-fiction literature, The Baillie Gifford Prize, the magical volume offers a portrait of the continent that may be unfamiliar to most as the home of so many rich, colourful and vibrant indigenous Muslim communities.
How many of us are aware of the many centuries of co-existence between Europe’s Muslims and its other faith communities? I suspect not many. Far fewer are likely to be able to count Europe’s Muslims who have weathered war and persecution to plant roots in Europe that run as deep as any other community’s.
The author’s search for a “living indigenous Muslim Europe” began after a trip to Bulgaria in 2014. After discovering ancient Muslim villages co-existing miraculously without any sign of tension, Hussain set off with his wife and young daughters across the western Balkans two years later to discover what can best be described as Europe’s lost Muslims. Over the course of several weeks, he visited towns and villages, and met many wonderful people, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. Each of the countries is home to a sizeable Muslim community established centuries ago during the Ottoman era.
Hussain dispels the popular image of Eastern Europe as a secular, harsh, grey place ravaged by decades of communist rule and ethnic wars. Like so many second-generation Muslims, his impression of the region was shaped by the horrors of the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Knowledge of the region’s culture was superficial at best, with footballing icons like Hristo Stoichkov being seen as the greatest export. This image completely ignored the region’s six centuries of Muslim history and its huge native Muslim population.
Accompanying Hussain and his family as they journey through the Balkans-that’s exactly how the author makes the reader feel with his vivid and colourful prose-he guides us through “the fairy tale” house in Bosnia, a Sufi lodge perched beautifully beside a waterfall, and many magical places that literally takes one’s breath away. He visits historic mosques, ancient bridges and Ottoman hammams, while weaving-in tales of sultans and imperial architects seamlessly.
Who knew Serbia’s “dirty little secret”? Who knew that despite the country’s bloody past there existed a “Muslim Serbia” which was once the heartland of the medieval Serbian state of Raška? Today it is the cultural centre of southern Serbia’s Sandzak region with a majority Muslim population. In this idyllic place, lanky minarets are as common as some of the most sacred Orthodox sights, a UNESCO-listed monastery and the oldest church in the country.
With a style that mixes travel writing with history and storytelling, Minarets in the Mountains… weaves the past with the present to great effect. The author’s literary companion is the famous Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, who also wrote his own travel diary while visiting the Balkans in the 17th century. Çelebi is a major character in the book. Examples of his travel writing are presented masterfully and contrasted with Hussain’s portrait of the Balkans.
Çelebi isn’t the only historical figure whose appearance enriches the book. Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman architect and civil engineer for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, also features heavily. Described as the “Turkish Michelangelo” Sinan’s legacy spans the Balkans and he is credited with being a figure so important that his genius and fame transcended European hostility against Muslims.
That’s not to say that the modern-day characters who Hussain encounters in his journey through the Balkans are any less interesting. On one wonderful occasion in Serbia, the author met a character embodying to perfection Prophet Muhammed’s instructions on generosity (peace be upon him). In this particularly moving episode, a vendor refused to take money for his daughter’s candy floss, an act of kindness which triggered a wave of emotion and an overwhelming sense of hope for humanity.
Tharik Hussain comes upon a Europe that would be unrecognisable to most of us who call the continent home. He found towns where “everything was halal” and the sound of the Muslim call to prayer is as normal as the ringing of church bells. This was not the constructed Europe found in books on politics and philosophy that tries to make the case for co-existence. The Europe he discovered is “organic” and “natural”; not just existing, but also flourishing with the confidence of that which is anchored deeply and proud.
Besides being educating and entertaining, Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe presents the story of European Muslims in an invaluable way, helping to heal the wounds of the “war on terror”, the legacy of which is the demonisation of Muslims and their faith, Islam. The author has kick-started a new conversation about Islam’s indigeneity to Europe, which may go some way towards making the case for us to refer to the continent’s Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage rather than the more usual and surely less accurate “Judeo-Christian”. We can but hope.
Nasim Ahmed is a political analyst, writer and commentator on the Middle East and political Islam.