Bosnia, Featured, History

Ottoman Bosnia


The Ottoman Sultanate which later became the seat of the Caliphate in 1517 was by no means perfect. A decline in Islamic thought, weakness in the Arabic language and closing the doors of ijtihad all had an impact on the implementation of Islam across the state. Yet despite this, the Ottoman State remained an Islamic State, and its concepts, criteria and convictions were Islamic. Legislation and administrative laws (kanun) were based on sharia, even if this was a tenuous link in some cases due to the decline in ijtihad, such as the devshirme, hereditary bay’a and tanzimat reforms.

RELATED ARTICLE: Was the Ottoman Empire a Caliphate?

When researching historical events, one must be aware that the written history contained in many books is unreliable because it contains the bias of the author or the period in which it was written. Many authors for example claim the Ottomans forced Muslims in Bosnia to convert to Islam or paint 600 years of Ottoman rule as cruel and repressive, which is simply untrue. Mladic stated his reason for the Srebrenica massacre was revenge against “Turks” who ruled the region when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

RELATED ARTICLE: Terrorist Mladic guilty of genocide

A reliable source for giving a true glimpse in to historical life are the indisputable antiquities that exist in a country. This is especially true in Bosnia where many old Ottoman manuscripts and books housed in the Sarajevo Library were destroyed by Serbs in 1992 trying to erase Muslim history from the region. To this day there is an active campaign to promote the Kingdom of Bosnia which existed prior to the Ottomans, with one newspaper marking the anniversary of Stjepan Tvrtko I Kotromanic referring to him as ‘The greatest King of Bosnia’!

sarajevo library

The Ottoman antiquities left over from their rule in Bosnia give a very clear picture of how life was like under Ottoman rule, and show that Islam was implemented upon the people. I have attempted to use these as the main source of history in this article.

Ottoman Foreign policy

What motivated the Ottomans who were Turkic nomads from Central Asia to expand westwards in to Eastern Europe was Islam and Islam alone. The distinction between the Ottoman conquests and those of the Mongols cannot be clearer. When the Mongols ransacked Baghdad, they murdered the Abbasid Caliph and it is said, that ‘so many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs.’

The Ottoman conquests were in sharp contrast to this. Opening new lands to Islam follows a strict method enshrined within sharia that attempts to minimise bloodshed and forbids oppressing the conquered peoples, to the extent that the Christians of Syria said to the Muslims, ‘Your rule and justice are dearer to us than the oppression that we used to suffer.’

RELATED ARTICLE: Christians of Homs under the Caliphate: ‘Your rule and justice are dearer to us than the oppression that we used to suffer.’

Muslim traders of the past played a huge role in spreading the message of Islam internationally. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country today yet it accepted Islam through the actions of Muslim traders who were daw’ah carriers first and traders second showing their high Islamic values in their trade deals. Similarly, the Balkans had contacts with Muslims over many centuries prior to the Ottomans.

The Illyro-Albanians had established trade relations with the Arab and Turkish nations, and not only the port-cities of the Adriatic Sea, but the rural parts of the Balkan Peninsula inhabited by them as well. Such strong trade relations were established since the ancient times, and went on into the pre-Ottoman and Ottoman periods.

The Arab gold and silver coins excavated in Potoci, near Mostar of the present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, date back to the time of Marwan II (744-750) which tells of the extensive trade relations the Muslims had with the Balkan nations, first the Albanians and later the Slavs.


Islam’s entry in to the Balkans starts with Sultan Murad I who defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, a day which Serbs mark to this day as St Vitus Day. Bosnia was opened later in 1463 by Sultan Murad’s great-great grandson Muhammad al-Fatih who 10 years prior had conquered Constantinople fulfilling the famous Islamic prophecy where the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” (al-Hakim)

This hadith shows that Muhammad al-Fatih was motivated by Islam in his conquests and not by prestige, power and material wealth. He could have stopped at Constantinople lavishing in its wealth, but instead he went on to expand the Islamic state further westwards in to Bosnia bringing Islam to its people.

Non-Muslims of Bosnia

The Ahdnama

The Islamic values of Muhammad al-Fatih are exemplified by the Ahdnama treaty which he signed with the Christian Catholics and which is kept to this day at the Franciscan Monastery in Fojnica.

RELATED ARTICLE: Treaty of 1463 between the Ottoman Sultan and the Christians of Bosnia

The treaty states, ‘Let nobody bother or disturb those who are mentioned, not their churches. Let them dwell in peace in my empire. and let those who have become refugees be and safe. Let them return and let them settle down their monasteries without fear in all the countries of my empire.’

ahdnama_sultan_mehmed_fatihaThe Ahdnama

The Ahdnama is based on the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ : “He who harms a person under covenant, or charged him more than he can, I will argue against him on the Day of Judgement.” (Narrated by Yahya b. Adam in the book of Al-Kharaaj)

Regarding the claim that Christians in Bosnia were forced to convert to Islam this myth can be debunked in a number of ways. Firstly, the Ahdnama discussed above, Secondly, the Ottoman census records for the period which shows Christians were the majority until around 1600. Thirdly, the antiquities that exist to this day in Bosnia such as churches and monasteries. The Ottomans had the authority to wipe out Christianity from the Balkans if they so wished. Yet no Srebrenica style massacres were committed by them.

Christian and Jewish Places of worship have existed in Bosnia since Ottoman times. There was no mass destruction of churches unlike what happened in the Ottoman built city of Banja Luka where Serbs destroyed all of the city’s 16 mosques.

Orthodox Church

16th century Sarajevo Church of the Holy Archangels

Catholic Church

Gospa OlovskaThe church of Gospa Olovska or Mother of God Church which dates from the 4th century CE in Olovo.


Sijavuš-pašina daira
The Sephardi synagogue was first built in 1581 in Sarajevo. It is now a museum.

Establishing Mosques

The mosque plays a pivotal role in the Islamic society. It’s not just a place of prayer but a central part of the community. The Caliphate is also known as the Imamate and the Caliph is also the Imam managing the religious affairs of all Muslims within the state. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Whoever builds a mosque for the sake of Allah, like a sparrow’s nest or even smaller, Allah will build for him a house in Paradise.” (Ibn Maajah 738)

Building mosques is a duty of the state and under the rule of Umar bin Al-Khattab, the second rightly guided Caliph, there were 12000 mosques in which jumah (Friday) prayers were offered.

The Ottomans took on this responsibility and established mosques throughout their state. In Bosnia they established what is known as the Kulliye Mosque. Kulliye is an Ottomanized Arabic word that means comprehensive, complete, or all-inclusive.

The Kulliye Mosque

The Kulliye Mosque of the Ottomans was a group of social and municipal service buildings that acted as a community centre as well as the focal point of jumah prayers. The founder would establish a public kitchen (Imaret), to feed the needy or the traveller, a college (medresa), a hospital (darusifa), a public fountain (cesma), a guest house for travellers (musafirhana or konak-han) and a tomb (turbe).

gazi mosqueGazi Husrev-Beg Mosque in Sarajevo with its famous clock tower is an example of a Kulliye Mosque.

The Careva Mosque on the river Miljacka in Sarajevo is the oldest mosque in the city. It was built by Isa-Beg Isaković, the first governor of Bosnia who established Sarajevo back in the 15th century.

carevaCareva Mosque

Hygiene and Cleanliness

Public Baths (hamam)

Bathing and cleanliness are central to Islam and a Muslims daily life. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Purity is half of iman (faith).” (Sahih Muslim)

The Caliphate provided bathing facilities for its citizens to bath and purify themselves throughout the lands it ruled. Even some non-Muslim countries adopted the Turkish Bath (Hamam). In 1856, the first modern Turkish bath was opened in Ireland.

hamamBosnian hamam

Contrast these high Islamic values to the rest of Europe. In Britain, bathing was bitterly opposed for many centuries by the early Christians and it is a fact that until the passing of the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act in 1846, the poor people in England neither had, nor wanted a bath for months and sometimes years on end. Then in 1844, the “Association for Promoting Cleanliness Among the Poor” was formed to provide bathing and washing facilities for the working classes and a bath house and laundry was built in London. The experiment was so successful that in 1846 the Public Baths and Wash-houses Act was passed. For various reasons there was little response until about 50 years later when over 100 towns decided to build baths.

Fountains (cesma)

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Among the actions and good deeds for which a believer will continue to receive reward, after his death, are knowledge which he taught and spread, a good son whom he left behind, or a copy of the Qur’an which he left as a legacy, or a mosque which he erected, or a house which he built for the traveller, or a stream which he caused to flow, or a Sadaqah (charity) which he gave from his property when he was alive and well, for which he will continue to receive reward after his death”. (ibn Majah)


A famous Sarajevan poet wrote, “There it seems to man that he can live for a long time, for in a thousand places in Sarajevo flows water from the well of longevity”.

The fountains provided clean, fresh water for drinking and washing. Many fountains were built by wealthy Muslims as sadaqah jariyah which they would continue to get reward for even after their deaths.

plava-vodaThe famous Plava Voda (Blue Water) spring in Travnik is directed through the streets passing by the Coloured Mosque providing clean, fresh water to the people.


The College (Madrassa)

Allah (Most High) says,

يَرفَعِ اللَّهُ الَّذينَ آمَنوا مِنكُم وَالَّذينَ أوتُوا العِلمَ دَرَجاتٍ

“Allah will raise in rank those of you who have iman and those who have been given knowledge.” (Al-Mujaadila, 58:11)

Gazi Husrev Beg, the Ottoman Governor of Bosnia established a madrassa in 1537 located in Sarajevo. This madrassa continues educating people to this day. This madrassa is in line with the Islamic social system, and has separate buildings for male and female students.

madrassaGazi Husrev-Beg Madrassa


The library in Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate is well-known but other libraries also existed across the Muslim world. Islamic text books on astronomy and medicine were used by non-Muslims across Europe. Recently a treasure trove of Islamic manuscripts has been unearthed in Mali showing the level of education and knowledge prevalent at that time in Islamic Africa.

Gazi Husrev-Beg, in addition to building a madrassa, also established a library which was destroyed in 1992 but has now been rebuilt.


Public Kitchen (‘Imerat)

A Public Kitchen was established to feed the poor in the courtyard of Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque.

gazi mosque2Courtyard of Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque

Guest House (musafirhan)

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “He who believes in Allah and the hereafter should show respect to the guest even with utmost kindness and courtesy.” They said: “Messenger of Allah, what is this utmost kindness and courtesy?” He replied: “It is for a day and a night. Hospitality extends for three days, and what is beyond that is a Sadaqa for him; and he who believes in Allah and the Hereafter should say something good or keep quiet.” (Sahih Muslim)

Many musafirhan were established to house the travellers after their long journey to Sarajevo.

guest houseThis musafirhan of Gazi Husrev-Beg has been restored and turned in to a traditional Bosnian coffee shop.

Hospital (Darusifa)

The original hospital built by Gazi Husrev-Beg has long been destroyed, but an Ottoman hospital of the same period (below) still exists in Edirne, Turkey.


The Islamic State was renowned for its advances in medicine. The earliest surgical book was written by Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu in 1465 which still exists in the Fatih National Library, Istanbul.

Economy and Trade

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the Prophets, the truthful, and the martyrs.” (At-Tirmidhi)

Market (carsija)

The market (casija) and domed market building (bezistan) as well as more than 300 stores were built by Gazi Husrev-Beg. Crafts and trade were bases of the economic prosperity of Sarajevo, with craftsmen and traders being organised in to more than 30 institutions of guilds (esnaf).

carsijaSarajevo Casija

Sarajevo Domed Indoor Market (bezistan)


Mostar Bridge (Stari Most)

The Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin to build the bridge over the River Neretva. This connected the Christian Croats west of the Neretva to the Muslims on the east.

stari most

It was completed in 1566 after nine years of building and the surrounding town became a thriving trading centre. The bridge was 29 metres in length and stood at a height of 20 metres, a classic example of a single span, stone arch bridge and was an example of advanced technology in its time.

Clock Tower (sahat kula)

Only the wealthy could afford to have personal clocks and watches in the Middle Ages. The building of Clock Towers allowed all people to keep the time.

clock towerGazi Husrev-Beg Clock Tower in Sarajevo

Town Planning

The Neighbourhood (Mahala)

The Ottomans followed the well-established Islamic rule that a mahala consists of 40 houses based on the hadith: “The rights of neighbours apply to forty houses like this and like this and like this”. (Note: some muhaditheen class this hadith as da’if.)

Most of the mosques of Sarajevo were single-roomed wooden buildings meant to serve a local neighbourhood or mahala. Like the Kulliye mosque, neighbourhood mosques (mesdzids) were also built as vakuf (charity) by local notables, and placed in sparsely inhabited areas with the intention of establishing a mahala of about forty households around it.


In this way, the city grew not as a series of concentric circles around a central business district, but as a cluster of independent mahalas, each with its own group of services such as a bath, a Koran school, a green grocer, a bakery, and a public fountain; and of course, the mosque with its own fountain for ritual washing (sebilj) and a cemetery.

In Ottoman towns the mahalas were not random affairs but socially and architecturally cohesive units that were spatially and administratively separate from each other. Until the close of the Ottoman period in Bosnia, the mahalas were organisational units with strict codes of responsibility; for example, the neighbours were responsible for each other and would be called to court to testify in each other’s favour—or not.

The men of the mahala, or certainly the prayer leader at the mesdzid – the Hodza, were required to know if the Amir was at prayers that day, for example, so that they could stand up for him in court.

The Street (Sokak)

Responsibility for building and maintaining roads lies with the state. From the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ the Islamic state has managed the roads.

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “When you disagree over the road, then make it seven forearm lengths.” (Tirmidhi)

The streets of the mahala were narrow, a main street was wide enough for two pack animals to pass each other, or about 19 feet; a side street was the width of one pack animal, or about 8 feet.


Streets were named for topographical features, such as Strmac, or for the people who lived there, perhaps a very respected person or someone who had bequeathed a fountain or a tomb. Mahalas were named for their local mesdzid, which in turn were named for their donors; or, in the early years, many mahalas represented small villages that had been incorporated into the town, such as Bistrik, and so retained this name.

One of the oldest streets in Sarajevo was one that connected four mahalas. Its original name was Logavin Sokak, and it got the name from the locally famous 16th century Logavija family whose sons and grandsons were religious sheikhs and other educated people.

Since the interest of the Caliphate in the mahala was purely administrative, it felt no need to make its presence felt symbolically, so streets were never named for the Sultan or his representatives. In fact the first entrance of the Ottoman State into the Mahalas of Sarajevo was in 1853, during the period of the reforms (tanzimat) when address numbers were added to buildings as an aid in identifying taxpayers and movable property.

The House (Kuca)

The Ottoman house in line with Islamic social values was the private refuge of the family. The door to the house was inside a protected courtyard that was behind high walls that must first be entered by a gate to the street. The front of the house faced the courtyard, which was used for outdoor tasks, sometimes cooking, and for socialising, and for a garden.

bosnian-house.jpgTraditional Sarajevo House (Svrzina Kuca- dvoriste)

The finest room would be one of those with a street view, and would be for the man of the house when he was entertaining. However, during hot or mild months, the most preferred area of the house was a long verandah, the divhana, that was on the courtyard side of the house, often with raised areas at each end (kamerija) with built in seating.

islamic-windows.jpgThe latticed windows gave privacy to the occupants of the house, whilst still allowing someone to see out. These are common across the Muslim world.

In some of the grander houses, the male area (selamluk, which means greeting area) was on a different floor or in a different building to the women’s area (Haremluk, which means private area), and each had a private courtyard and their own guest room for entertaining.

But of course when there were no visitors, the house was used differently, and the entire family would eat their meals together on the verandah or in whichever room they chose.


The Ottoman State was an Islamic State and a Caliphate which implemented Islam in the territories it ruled over. Whilst far from perfect, the Ottomans implemented Islam according to their understanding of the Islamic texts.

A future Islamic State will bring back the high Islamic values to the Balkans, and rid it of the ethnic conflicts and economic misery which has plagued the region in recent times.

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “Indeed Allah gathered up the earth for me so that I saw its eastern and western parts, and indeed the dominion of my Ummah will reach what was gathered up for me from it.” (Saheeh Muslim)

A K Newell
Editor of