Figure #1: Map of Albania provided by NationalGeographic.com
Years of oppression and the outlaw of religion in Albania made it the first officially atheist country in the world in 1967. Although religion, mainly consisting of Islam, was illegal in practice it did not stop Albanian citizens from secretly participating in their rituals. One of these core rituals to the Islamic faith is that of Ramadan, or the ninth month of the year that is spent fasting from dawn until sunset. It was only with the fall of communism in 1990 that Albanians began to publicly practice their rituals of Islam without punishment. Today, Albania is the only European nation whose Muslim citizens compose the majority. After coming through a time of severe religious oppression, Albania now finds identity and tradition in the roots of a practice that cost them so much to keep.
After facing twenty three years of communist rule enforcing religious oppression, Albania has slowly restored their religious traditions since the fall of communism in 1990 (The World Factbook). As the first country in the world to be officially declared as atheist, Albanian law forbid citizens to partake in any religious ceremony, and severe punishments were faced by those who did. Officiators, citizens stowing artifacts, or anyone caught observing religious traditions could be given long prison sentences, exiled, or tortured to death, depending on the status of the person and the crime that had been committed (Hoxha's antireligious campaign). Although Islam was in fact viewed as a reason for punishment, the practice of it was carried out by its followers through continuing rituals such as Ramadan, the obligatory ninth month of fasting for all Muslims. Oppression did not stop religious traditions such as this as the government might have hoped. Instead, Albania has become a nation with a majority Muslim population. Mosques have been restored, practices have been reinstated, and education about religion has been reintroduced into the Albanian culture (Revival of Religion). Through their oppression, Albania has become an Islamic nation with a solid foundation of tradition, despite their history of hardship. Foundations to the Islamic faith, such as Ramadan, did not fade through the turbulent years of Albanian history. Rather, due to their freedom to practice, it has only become stronger.
Albania has a rich history of overcoming oppression. Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in November of 1912, but freedom was not a concept that lasted for more than forty years. From 1967-1990, Albania faced several decades of communist oppression in which no religious practices were permitted. During this time, Albania was the first officially atheist nation. Now, as Albania slowly accepts democracy into their culture and brings the vitality that had been suppressed for the years of communist rule, it stands as the only European nation to have a Muslim majority (The World Factbook).
In spite years of citizens fleeing the country, whether by choice or demand, Albania has a large indigenous population. Ninety-five percent of the population is Albanian, three percent Greek, and two percent other (The World Factbook).
Albania, despite its difficult history and overwhelming poverty, is a beautiful country. Immersed in Southeastern Europe, bordering the Adriatic Sea, Ionian Sea, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, between Greece and Serbia and Montenegro (Fig.1), Albania has as variety of landscapes and views, depending on the section of the country. While mountains and hills are in the majority, some regions, mostly along the coast, have plains as well. Hot, clear, dry summers (high of 28 degrees Celsius) and cool, clear and cloudy winters (low of 5 degrees Celsius) are typical of Albania's climate. Humidity/precipitation and cooler climates are to be expected more moving towards to center of the region (The World Factbook).
Islam, which means "submission" or "under the will and guidance of God (Allaah)", finds its basis in the teachings of all of the prophets of Allaah culminating in Muhammad. Muhammad (570C.E.- 632C.E.) preached ideas of monotheism (worshipping one god) at his place of birth, Mecca. Mecca was a "trading center on the edge of the two great empires of the day, Rome (centered in Byzantium) and Persia" (Ernst 2003c: 85). At the time, Mecca based its commerce in the Ka 'ba, which was a temple dedicated to 360 idols representing a variety of gods and goddesses and practiced polytheism (many gods). Muhammad's ideas of one god not only posed a threat to the economy, but local power structure as well. However, Muhammad's teaching continued with his wife, Khadija, and his cousin, 'Ali, being the first followers (86). As numbers grew, persecution rose in Mecca and caused emigration to Ethiopia on the part of many of his followers, while Muhammad remained in Mecca (87).
Muhammad's followers, as well as he, eventually dispersed to various areas among the continent to spread their religion and faith in Allaah and monotheism. The basis of Islam is greatly founded on the life of Muhammad, whose sayings and deeds are now recorded and followed by Muslims. Individual sayings of Muhammad's are known as Sunnahs, and the collection of Sunnahs as a whole is known as Hadith. Despite this belief in the Hadith, this religion in mainly founded in the Koran (Qur'an) (Islamic Terms). The origins of the Koran (Fig. 4) have been greatly debated due to Muhammad having been believed to be illiterate. Therefore, this final revelation given to him from Allaah is viewed as even more remarkable due to the Prophet's shortcomings in literacy. The Koran, which literally means 'the recital", is composed of 114 chapters, or surahs, and like the Christian Bible is a way of instruction for the life of a Muslim (Ernst 2003c: 96).
Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the lunar calendar of obligatory fasting for all Muslims, has its foundation in the Koran. In 2:183 of the Koran, it states "O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self restraint." This is the verse that is turned to as a matter of explanation for the practice. It is seen as a way to show obedience and submission by regulating a physical desire, hunger. Ramadan is founded in one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting. It celebrates the self control and dedication of Muhammad to Allah and is a time in which followers are to grow spiritually through their own obedience (Ramadan information).
Islam is based on a set of precepts followers are to use as a set of instructions for life. These pillars include the submissive admittance to Allaah: “La ilaha ila Allaah; Muhammadur-rausl Allaah. ‘There is no god but Allaah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah”, an alms tax (Zakat/Zakah depending on the source), prayer (Salah), fasting (Ramadan), and the pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca (Makkah) (Islamic Network). The initial confession to Allaah is one of acceptance of monotheism (that god being Allaah) and of a belief in Muhammad having been sent from Allaah as the Prophet for His people. From the point of this admittance, the life of a practicing Muslim changes drastically.
Prayer, which is the third pillar of Islam, is vital (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). It is believed that Muhammad, after having ascended to be with the prophets of the past, angels and God, came back to let his people know that they were to pray fifty times a day. Moses, with whom he shared this request, declared that it was too great a task to ask the people to complete. From fifty prayers a day, Muhammad sought reductions from God down to a requirement of five prayers a day by the people (Ernst 2003c: 88). Muslims are now required to pray five times a day, every day, with the most important prayer being that of the Friday noon prayer (Jum ‘aah). An Imam, who is chosen by the congregation of a given Mosque and knows the prayers, leads in Arabic. This is seen as the sacred language due to it being that of the original Koran (Islamic Terms). These readings and prayers are from and based in the Koran, pictured in Figure 4.
In order to pray, which is done with ones face pressed to the ground and kneeling (Figure 3), one must be in a state of Wudoo. This is a state of cleanliness and purity before Allaah. Hygiene is greatly enforced within Islamic practices. Each time the bathroom is used; one must rinse him/herself and proceed with a specific hand washing in order to return to a state of Wudoo. Wudoo can also be broken if members of the opposite sex that are not family come into contact. Separation between the sexes is of great importance, as it is seen as a lead into sin. This is the reasoning behind covering the head, face, and at times the eyes with a scarf in an effort to hide ones beauty from on-lookers. If Wudoo is broken for any reason, washing of the face, ears, hands, feet, and running wet hands through the hair must be done to return back to it. Being in a constant state of Wudoo is emphasized due to the fact that a person never knows when they may pass away. It is seen as beneficial to be in this state should a sudden death ever occur (Marina Ristev, personal communications, 2004).
While prayer can be seen as the most dominant of the pillars in the life of a Muslim, an alms tax (Zakat), fasting, and a pilgrimage are also to be accomplished. The alms tax (similar to tithes in Christian religions) consists of giving back an amount of yearly capital to be decided by each individual. While it is typically around 2.5% for each person, this is not required due to each person making a different amount of money each year. This is done in order to share wealth with the poor of the community (Islamic Network). This tax is typically paid during the month of Ramadan during which Muslims are required to give to the local mosque, which is then required to distribute the money accordingly among the poor of the community (Islam-guide). As Ramadan is a time in which Muslims are to recognize the poor and gain sympathy for the hungry, the Zakat or alms tax is a mandate that is to encourage this step in personal growth.
Secondly, fasting is a pillar in the life of a Muslim. This is especially prominent during Ramadan, or the ninth month of the calendar year. Islam follows the lunar calendar rather than the solar, and the first day of Ramadan is determined by the start in Mecca (Islamqa). Men and women, excluding the old, insane, and those that are traveling on a journey, are to fast from sunrise to sunset from food, water, and sex. Women who are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing are excluded from the fasts; pregnant women determine individually whether they can or should fast, depending on the possible health risks for them and their unborn child. However, all missed fasts must be made up at a later date. This is seen as beneficial to the faster as well, due to it being a time of complete forgiveness from Allaah (Marina Ristev, personal communications, 2004). Eating a pre-dawn meal is recommended as a source of blessing and nourishment (Islam-guide) and the fast is broken by eating dates. A feast day commemorates the end of Ramadan, Eid Al Adha, and is a time of celebration for the personal growth and forgiveness from Allaah that one has experienced throughout the month. Ramadan is a time in which a Muslim desires to grow in their spiritual life through abstaining from physical desires. If one can control hunger, it is thought that all other physical desires can therefore be controlled.
Lastly, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is seen as the culmination of all of these pillars. At the end of this pilgrimage, a celebration called ‘Id al-Adha takes place to commemorate the journey to Islam's Holy City and Muhammad's birth place (Islamic Terms).
Beyond the pillars, Muslim men and women also have standards for the way that they dress and eat. As explained in brief, modesty is of great importance. When in the company of the opposite sex, men are to be covered from the ankles to belly button at all times and women are to be covered from the neck to wrists (some allow ¾ length shirts) to ankles. Some women will cover their breasts, hair, neck, face, and/or eyes with an additional shawl to hide beauty that may attract men (Marina Ristev, personal communications, 2004).
Fig. #4: A Muslim man spends time alone reading the Koran.
Islam is increasing in popularity around the world. While the West has a view of Islam being a religion of Arab nations, there are in fact an estimated 5 million American Muslims and 10 million European Muslims. Albania being the only European nation having a Muslim majority contributes greatly to the estimation of Muslims in Europe. However, the point is made that there has not been a separate “Muslim world” for over 200 years. This is evident in the estimations of American Muslims, as well as the visible ties between Muslim countries and America and Europe. These ties, which can be seen in politics, economics, military, and culture itself, have made great contributions to the spread of this religion (Ernst 2003c: 4). Today, Islamic practices such as Ramadan are becoming more of a mainstream part of Western culture and not simply an unheard of ritual. Albania, after overcoming the outlaw of religion, continues to publicly practice Islam and has made the transition from an atheist nation to one of mainly Muslim citizens. Ramadan and other religious practices are no longer practiced in hiding, but rather, they are shaping the culture of Albania into the Islamic nation that it clearly has become. I believe that due to oppression not being enough to stop Islam in Albania, and the freedoms that are now granted to its citizens concerning their beliefs and the practices of them, that Islam, including Ramadan, will continue to expand in Albania and around the world.
Albania , after overcoming years of religious oppression, now exists as the only European nation to have a Muslim majority. Islam is a celebration based in the life of Muhammad and the teachings of Allah, through the Koran, that is carried out through their five precepts. Religious practices, such as Ramadan, are essential to the life of a Muslim. Through a self-imposed hunger, Muslims in Albania and around the world are determined to grow in their spiritual lives. It is this practice, which is now carried out freely, that demonstrates the perseverance that Islamic citizens of Albania display not only in their history of coming through religious oppression, but in their personal everyday lives. While Islam spreads through globalization, the practice of it continues to increase in Albania after the fall of communism and religious freedom being able to be expressed.
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