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Islam in Europe is on the Rise

Western Europe

Eastern Europe

Islam is the second largest religion in Europe today. In spite of periodic persecution and discrimination, Islam seems to be not only surviving but steadily growing in numbers of converts and influence. With the Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Muslim country, interest by people is growing in learning about Islam and Muslims.

This article is a review and history of the general situation of the Muslims of Europe today.


The Muslims in Western Europe are those who emigrated from Africa, the Middle East and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent after the Second World War.

Due to manpower shortages and industrial growth in Western Europe after the Second World War, substantial numbers of Muslims migrated to Western Europe. These Muslims kept their cultural, religious and ethnic links with their mother countries.

Today these Muslims and their descendants, along with a growing number of native people who are accepting Islam have made the Muslim population the second largest in many parts of Europe.

Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany have large Muslim populations which are growing everyday. The Muslim community of these countries need separate articles to cover their growing social, cultural, and economic role in Western Europe.


Reliable figures on the Muslim population in Western Europe are not available. However, it is believed that an estimated 10 million Muslims live in Western Europe today. France, Germany, and Britain have the largest Muslim populations. Muslim sources estimate that both France and Germany have about three million Muslims each, while Britain is said to have about two million. As in Britain, Islam has been the second largest religion in France since the 1970's. By the year 2,000, Muslims are expected to make up more than 10 percent of the French population.

By the mid 1980's, there was no Western European government that had not instituted some legal measures to stop further immigration of Muslim people from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.

Large numbers of Europeans have converted to Islam in the last two decades. Their actual number remains unknown. The majority of these conversions have been made through the efforts of different ways or Islamic Sufi brotherhood and the Darqawiyahs which claim a link with the Arab-Moroccan city of Fez. Most of the Darqawi converts are drawn from the solid professional middle class and seek a return to the early traditions of Islam. European converts to Islam have included a number of prominent figures, especially in the academic life. This group includes Baron Omar Ehrenfels, the Austrian anthropologist (d. 1930); Vincent Morteil, the specialist on African and Islamic affairs, Michel Chodkiewicz, director of the French publishing house Editions du Seuil; and Roger Garudy, the French philosopher and former communist party member.

Several countries in Western Europe have recognized the Muslim feasts and holidays. Broadcast time has also been allowed to Muslims in France and some other countries. But problems remain. Muslims and Islam are still treated unfairly in the media. Any attempt by a Muslim society to make Islam as its foundation of life is seen as a challenge to western civilization and is immediately labeled as fundamentalist or terrorist.

Today, from Greece to Spain a new awakening is taking shape in forms of new institutions and projects. The establishment of the Muslim parliament of Britain is an indication of a new generation of Muslims confident and mature, resolute and strong.


Let us look at the history of the Muslims in Sicily. The Muslims arrived in the early 9th century - the Muslims left their imprint in the 250 year rule of the Island of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean. By the 10th Century they had made Sicily the 'Bride of the Mediterranean'. All around the land was dotted with place names of Arab origin. Several hundred hamlets and towns have names derived from Arabic. For example, Baida is the Arabic bayda (white); Alcamo, al-Kamuk (a fort named after an Arab leader); Bagheria, babariya (place by the sea); and Marsala, marsa Allah (the harbor of God). The Gateway to Palace of the Normans in Palermo, was first built by the Muslims in the 9th Century.

Besides place names, a good number of Sicilian words have Arabic origins as bbazzariari (to sell cheaply) from the Arabic bazar, giubba (jacket) from the Arabic jubba and zecca, sikka (mint).

In the Muslim era, agriculture flourished as it never had before. Countless new plants were introduced and less than a century after the conquest of Sicily became known as 'The Garden Island of Southern Europe'.

The Arabs introduced citrus fruits and cultivated them on a large scale. Lemon (Italian limuni from the Arabic limun) and orange (aranciu from naranja) orchards were to be found in all parts of the Island. Today they are still widespread, their flowers carrying an Arabic name, zagara, originally zahr, their aromas hovering over every path and road.

From the repertoire of plants found in their homelands, the Muslims also brought with them buckwheat, brush palm, carob, cotton, gutun, jasmine, spinach, sugar, saffron, sumac, tarragon and raisins. The manufacture of silk and the refining of sugar became thriving industries and these later spread to the remainder of Italy and beyond.

To increase the yields of their fields and gardens, the Muslims extended the ancient irrigation works they had found on the island and built a vast number of reservoirs and water towers, many of which survive to this day.

In the field of Sicilian culinary art the Muslims had a profound effect. They influenced the island's cuisine with an unmistakable Arab touch. Although Sicilian dishes, beginning from about 1000 BC, borrowed much from the conquering Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, it was only in the 9th century AD that they took on today's character. The rich foods of the Middle East, candied fruits and stuffed vegetables, new methods of preserving food, the drying of fruits and vegetables and the art of distillation, were some of the contributions made by the Arabs to the Sicilian kitchen.

Today the island's dishes are more adventurous than those found in the remainder of Italy. They are more spicy and sweeter than those of mainland - even pasta is made piquant. A number of writers who have studied the island's culinary art have concluded that almost everything in Sicilian cooking which differs from the mainland is inherited from the Muslims.

Dessert-making is, perhaps, the most important contribution made to the Sicilian cuisine by the Arabs. When the Muslims introduced sugar to the island they made possible a whole series of desserts. Sweets made from almonds, and the making of ice cream and sherbet were introduced into Sicily and spread to the remainder of Italy and so on to the whole of Europe. Undeniably, Arabic sweets based on honey are found all over Sicily.

Muslim population as a whole in Italy is nearly 30,000. For years Rome's community has been forced to pray in an annex of the Islamic Center in the residential Parioli of the city. Now two decades after the idea was first proposed by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Rome's Muslims have started praying in their own mosque - a magnificent, 17 domed structure, whose prayer hall alone will accommodate 2000 people at a time.


'History tells us little about Tarif ibn Malik, the Berber officer who landed in Spain in the early months of AD 710, heading a reconnaissance mission of 100 cavalry and 400 foot soldiers. But the place where he landed is named Tarifa in his honor, and Ibn Malik, as the first Muslim to enter Spain, takes pride of place in the long list of names - verbal historical markers - that testify to 800 years of Muslim civilization in al-Andalus.

Hard on Tarif's heels came that remarkable horseman Tariq ibn Ziyad, who stepped ashore in Algeciras Bay, a name derived from the Arabic al-Jazirah al-Khadra' - Green Island - which is probably how those desert warriors viewed fertile Spain. Tariq, at the head of his light cavalry, swept right up through the Iberian Peninsula to the Bay of Biscay. His name is perpetuated where his campaign began, at Gibraltar, Jabal Tariq, or Tariq's Mountain.

The Muslims, left 6,500 words - during their domination and the spread of Arabic place names across the peninsula tells us a lot about the ebb and flow of Arab conquest and settlement in what is today Spain and Portugal, and provides a tantalizing insight into the minds of the soldiers, geographers, poets and simple folk who came, made Spain their home and - in creating a unique culture - gave the land so much in return. Like the blue ceramic disks that mark historic buildings in London, or the cast - aluminum plaques that identify battlefields in Texas, the names on the land in Spain remind us of those past events that made the present. Arabic place names are most common around Valencia (called Balansiyah in Arabic) and in the vicinity of Malaga (Malaqah), Granada (Gharnatah) and Seville (Ishbiliyah), despite the many changes imposed by Ferdinand and Isabella after the reconquista. There's little trace of the Arab presence, however, in Galicia, Asturias and parts of Navarre, Aragon and Catalunya, which are mountainous, inhospitable and were more easily defended against invaders. Besides, we know historically how the Muslim advance was checked in Cantabria around 718 and in Aragon about the same time. This helps explain why only 30 percent of Spain's Arabic place names are found north of the Tagus River, while over 65 percent occur south of that line. We can only guess at the identity of the geographers, chieftains, soldiers or settlers who named the various places and natural features they discovered as they moved across the land. But they faithfully recorded the imagery that their minds conjured up, and it's clear that the incidence of streams, rivers and high land struck them most. The syllable guad-, from wadi, meaning river or valley, is found frequently: Consider Guadalquivir (al-Wadi al-Kabir, great river), Guadalcazar (Wadi al-Qasr, river of the palace), Guadalhorra (Wadi al-Ghar, cave river), Guadarranque (Wadi al-Ramakah, mare river), Guadalquitton (Wadi al-Qitt, cat river), Guadalajara (Wadi al-Hijarah, stony river), Guadalbacar (Wadi al-Baqar, cattle river), Guarroman (Wadi al-Rumman, pomegranate river), Guadalaviar (al-Wadi al-Abyad, white river) and Guadalimar (al-Wadi al-Ahmar, red river). Some rivers have Arabic- sounding names whose derivations are nonetheless uncertain - for example, Guadalertin, believed by some scholars to derive from Wadi al-Tin, meaning mud or fig river, or Guadalbanar, which comes, just perhaps, from Wadi al Harb, river of war, or from Wadi al-Fanar, river of the lighthouse. Other place names give us visual images as well: Alhambra (al-Hamra', the red [fortress]), Arrecife (al-Rasif, the paved road), Almazara (al-Ma'sarah, the oil press), Aldea (al-Dai'ah, the small village), Alqueria (al-Qariyah, the village), Alcantara (al-Qantarah, the bridge) and Trafalgar, derived from the name of the cape, Taraf al-Ghar, meaning Cave Point.

The Arabic word madinah, or city, is found occasionally in Spanish place names - for example, Medinaceli (Madinat Salim, the city of Salim), Medina-Sidonia and Medina del Campo - while the descriptive qal'ah, meaning fortress or castle, is found in Aragon at Calatayud, or Ayyub's Castle, referring to one of the key leaders during the early years of al-Andalus, as well as in old Castile at Calahorra (from Qal'at al-Hajar, stone castle, or perhaps al-Qal'ah al-Hurrah, free castle) and in new Castile at Calatrava (Qal'at al-Rabah's castle). All in all, the word qal'ah is found imbedded in at least another half-dozen place names.

We get a glimpse, too, of some of the first Muslim families settling in Spain from use of the prefix ben- or beni-, from the Arabic ibn, son of, or bani, sons of, in the names of towns and other settlements. Witness such localities as Benevites, Beniajar, Benanata, Benicalaf, Bentarique and Benadid.

Natural features and manmade structures also figure prominently among place names with Arabic origins: Alborg (al-Burj, the tower), Albufera (al-Buhayrah, the lake), Almeida (al-Ma'idah, the dining table), Alpujarras (probably from al-Bajra, the highland), Almeria (al-Mirayah, the mirror), Alqezar (al-Qasr, the palace), Almansil (al-Manzil, the stopping place or house), Almenara (al-Manarah, the lighthouse or mosque tower, whence, via Turkish, comes our English word minaret) and Almaden (al-Maydan, the field).

Although various 19th- and early 20th- century writers among them Gayangos, Weston, Taylor, Pihan, Perceval and de Sousa - have recorded these derivations, an exhaustive study of Arabic-origin names in Spain has yet to be done. The same is true of lands beyond Spain's borders: In France, not far from Pau- on what must have been an important route across the Pyrenees - there is a fountain still called La Houn, from Arabic al-'Ain, the well or spring. And it may be worthwhile searching for Arabic names in mainland Italy, where Arab columns probed during the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, in Sicily, and even in Switzerland, where legends of lost Arab warriors settling in remote valleys persist to this day. There, as well as across southern Spain, the names on the land record history.



The majority of the Muslims of Europe today live in the eastern part of Europe. The area, which has a substantial Muslim population, is known as the Balkans. It is situated in southeastern Europe, consisting of present day Greece, Albania, former Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and the European part of Turkey. This area was once part of the Roman Empire (B.C.), and then came under the Byzantine Empire (5 A.D.) and finally under the Muslim Ottoman Empire during 15th to 20th centuries. All Balkan states except Greece and Turkey became communist after the Second World War.

East European Muslims are predominantly indigenous people of their countries. They became Muslims centuries ago and have practiced Islam enthusiastically until coming under communist domination and oppression. They became part of the cultural fabric of their native European societies over a long period of time.

There are two countries at present which qualify to be called Muslim countries.


The Muslims of Albania are just now enjoying religious freedom after 45 years of communist oppression. The communists have done everything in their power to eliminate Islam from the society. Albania was the only communist state which banned religion. Today Albania is facing severe economic problems in the wake of the failure and collapse of communism. Albania is now slowly asserting its Islamic identity. It has made powerful friends in both Washington and in the Muslim world. It has helped transformed itself from Europe's poorest country to one with fastest growing economy in Europe. Albania has joined the Organization of Islamic Development Bank (IDB). IDB has set up a $100 million holding company for development protects in Albania.

Islam came to Albania at the end of the 15th century.

Albanians have always been staunch followers of Islam. With the collapse of communism, which banned religion, Albanians are coming out of isolation and the practice of Islam is on the rise. In the last festival of Eid-al-Fitr more than 10,000 Muslims gathered in a public park in Tirana to hear Mufti Sabri Koci, who delivered the khutba. The feverish expression of Islam was out of the question during the communist era.

Bosnia Herzegovina

The former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia Herzegovina became independent on April 6, 1992. According to Muslim sources, Muslims form at least 50 percent of the population. The Serbian population of Bosnia, estimated to be about 30 percent of the total population, supported a union with neighboring Serbia. Soon after the referendum in which the overwhelming majority of Bosnian, both Muslims and Croats, who form about 18 percent of the population, voted for independence, the Serbians revealed their designs and plans for creating a greater Serbia.

Today even after the destruction of over 1,000 mosques the killing of 300,000 people the rape of 55,000 sisters, Islam is rising out of the ashes of war, strong and confident.


The former Yugoslav province of Macedonia declared its independence after the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Muslims, who form about 45 percent of the population, suffered cruel repression during the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and also during World War I and II. The new nation has a far greater problem than a squabble with Greece over a name: that is its growing and restive Muslim population. Macedonian Muslims, who are of Albanian descent, are said to be growing more conscious of their Islamic identity. In the western parts of Macedonia, they are believed to be 70 percent of the population.

Muslims believe that the Macedonian elections had not always been fair to time. As a result, out of a 120-member parliament, Muslims number only 23. But this might change with fair elections.


Sandzak is a province of Serbia which lies between Kosovo and Bosnia. Serbian leaders have put the area under military control. They have threatened to wipe out the Muslims in Sandzak. Muslims form about 60 percent of the population. Due to military rule, hardly any news is filtered out of the province, but stones of repression, torture and killings are reported by human rights organizations and Muslim sources.


Kosovo requires a separate article, due to its importance and the gravity of the situation there. However, we will briefly touch upon its ordeal here.

Kosovo is an autonomous region of former Yugoslavia. It borders Albania. About 95 percent of the Kosovans are Muslims of Albanian descent. In 1988 extreme nationalism and fascism raised their head in Yugoslavia and Kosovo came under constant pressure to end its autonomous status. The Yugoslav army was sent to the region and Muslims were removed from all positions of authority. Thousands were dismissed from their jobs. The idea was to force them out of the area and to carry out ethnic cleansing. Numerous cases of atrocities are reported by human rights organizations. The entire region of Kosovo is under martial law. The situation is very explosive. It is widely believed that Kosovo will be the second target of the Serbs in their drive to create a greater Serbia.


In the late nineteenth century, Muslims made up 57 percent of the population of what is now the territory called Bulgaria. After the invasion of 1877-78, a widespread massacre of Muslims was carried out. An estimated 350,000 Muslims were killed and 750,000 were driven out of their homes. In 1878 Bulgaria was detached from the Ottoman Empire. Ever since the establishment of the Bulgarian state, Muslims have suffered a planned and organized persecution. Despite this, today Muslims form 19 percent of the population.

Albania, with a Muslim population of 2.5 million and Bosnia Herzegovina with a population of 2.1 million Muslims; the other large Muslim concentration is in the autonomous region of Kosovo, where the Muslim population is estimated to be 1.2 million. Macedonia, a former republic of Yugoslavia, now an independent country, has 850,000 Muslims.

Bulgaria has a large Muslim population, which is estimated to be 1,007,237. Muslims sources believe that the actual Muslim population of Eastern Europe is higher than recorded in the official statistics of those countries. Current population figures of Muslims in Croatia are not available. However, substantial numbers of Muslims live in larger cities like Zaghreb in Croatia. A small Muslim community of about 155,000 in Greece face persecution and adversity. Over all about 7.8 million Muslims live in Eastern Europe (excluding Turkey) forming about 25 percent of the total population of the Balkan states, according to conservative Muslim estimates.


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

December 1994
Rajab 1415
The Wisdom in Islam
Letters to the Editor
Islam in Europe is
on the Rise
Do You Knock
on Wood?
Benefits of Honey
Women in Islam
Why I Embraced Islam
The Kid's Corner
The Miracles of
the Quran
Stories of the Sahabah
Qur'anic Science