Religious conversion, cultural identity and national belonging: The world of Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks).


It is always interesting to immerse in the mysterious past and to discover how the sense of national identity is created and transformed over the years. Throughout olden times and until now, cultural margins have shrunk or expanded, established nations and minorities within these have interacted with and influenced each other, religious and cultural conversions have frequently taken place and in the melting pot of history new distinctive uniqueness has begun to exist. This is particularly valid when the case of Bulgarian Muslims is discussed.

Moreover, it is important to recognise here that the world of Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks has been a subject of endless speculations and ethnic and political claims over the years and it is still very much unknown to the Western European ethnological and historical research literature. Much of the translated work that refers to the Pomaks is from Greek, Serbian, Turkish or Macedonian origin. Therefore it is, fair to say that the story of this Muslim enclave that inhibits mostly Bulgarian territories and speaks Bulgarian language, must be considered from a Bulgarian point of view and this is the main aim here.

Consequently, this essay will examine the world of Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks, their religious conversion from Christianity to Islam and the formation and transformation of their cultural identity and sense of national belonging. To accomplish all this, the essay will firstly discuss the religious conversion of the Pomaks, its background, character, mode and outcomes and how it has laid the foundations of Bulgarian Muslims’ cultural identity. In addition, this paper will comment on the transformation of the cultural identity and sense of national belonging of Bulgarian Muslims. Finally, it will conclude with thoughts on self-perception, perception of others and future hopes.

Definition of the term Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks

Before elaborating further on all abovementioned points, there is a need to establish and define the term Bulgarian Muslims and describe it in Bulgarian context. In order to achieve this, two reliable sources will be cited.

Commenting on the issue of cultural belonging and religious identity of Muslims in Bulgaria, Kemal Karpat, a Turkish historian and researcher, states that:

The Muslim identity of these populations consisted outwardly of certain objective symbols and acts such as names and rituals...and at their place of origin they tended to identify themselves with Islam in terms of social behaviour, rather than in terms of a political system...and possessed a passive communal Muslim identity (1990, pp. 131-132).

In his The hijra from Russia and the Balkans: the process of self-definition in the late Ottoman state, he argues that the largest population group “in the area that is now Bulgaria”, was the Muslim population group. In terms of spoken language, he endorses that “they spoke Slavic” (1990, pp.132-134).

In his Turkish brutality in Bulgaria and in the Balkan Peninsula (2007, pp. 41-62), the well-known Bulgarian historian, researcher and writer Hristo Krasin, presents a different point of view to that of Kemal Karpat. He argues that all modern Bulgarian population has a strong Bulgarian ethnic origin and comprises of four groups. The first group consists of Bulgarians, who speak Bulgarian language and are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The second one consists of Bulgarians, who recognise themselves as Bulgarian speaking Muslims with Bulgarian or Turkish national identity.

The third one consists of Bulgarian speaking Muslims, who recognise themselves as ethnic Turks because their Bulgarian national identity was partially erased over the centuries due to the aggressive assimilation politic of the Turkish Empire. The last group consists of Bulgarian individuals, who speak Bulgarian and Turkish languages. They recognise themselves as ethnic Turks, whose religions are Christianity and Islam and whose Bulgarian national identity was fully erased under centuries of Turkish Islamic brutality in Bulgaria.

This classification of ethnic and religious groups only appears to be straightforward. In the context of the tricky ethic and religious relationships in Bulgaria and in the Balkans, nothing is ever simple. Hence, the purpose of this essay is not to involve the reader in a discussion of the suggested categorisation or its validity or reliability but to establish some clarity into the complicated issue of ethnicity and identity of the Bulgarian-speaking Muslims and their ethnic, cultural and national identity and self-perception. Subsequently, this paper will confine itself to the Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, further referred to as Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks.

Religious conversion: Pomaks until 1878

As it already beginning to emerge, the case of the Pomaks is complicated and a number of debates around it, display very strong positions and conflicting opinions. In order to appreciate all points of view and in search for the truth, it is imperative to consider the historical background of the issue.

The existence of closed Muslim societies in Bulgaria is the direct inheritance of five centuries long Turkish rule over the Balkan Peninsula (Todorova, 1998, p.3). Even though there is no reliable data or figures to inform of population characteristics or major population shifts, some research has been done and there are number of existing theories that explain the size and grouping of Muslim population on the Peninsula. In his Turkish brutality in Bulgaria and in the Balkan Peninsula (2007, p. 23), Hristo Krasin has attempted to assess the character and the effects of these movements. He claims that there were not any significant population transfers from Anatolia to the Balkans between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and that the military formation send to take the Peninsula over, comprised only of soldiers and there no women travelling with the army.

In her Identity (Trans) Formation among Bulgarian Muslims, Maria Todorova, a researcher from The University of California (1998, p.4) argues that the “chief historiographical controversy centres on the explanations for the sizeable Muslim population in the Balkans: Colonisation versus Conversion theory”. Furthermore, she suggests that “by the sixteenth century the settler colonisation process had stopped and yet the percentage of Muslims in the region continued to grow. Thus, the hypothesis offered is that “there were a great number of personal conversions to Islam among the non-Muslim population of the Balkans, respectively Bulgaria” (Todorova, 1998, p.6).

In addition, a whole range of reliable academic research and publications from Bulgarian and Turkish authors, such as Omer Barkan from Istanbul University, Elena Grozdanova from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Albanian historian Sami Pulaha (all cited in Todorova, 1998, pp. 2-5), refer to data to evidence rapid Muslim population growth in Bulgaria between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries due either colonisation or conversion.

In an attempt to join this debate and in discussion of the concrete but complex case of the Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks, it must be suggested here that although there is evidence to support both theories, the majority of all available sources, also supported by official documents and survived the time registers of the Ottoman empire, shape the idea that religious conversion on a massive scale took place in Bulgaria and respectively in the Balkans (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1982, vol. 3-7). The question is how the conversion from Christianity to Islam was carried out and the answer to this question is directly connected with Pomaks’ self-identification as Muslims and consequently gives some light into their actions and behavioural characteristics as citizens of the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century and independent Bulgaria after that.

To discuss the mode of the religious conversion of the Pomaks and emphasise its importance for the formation of their cultural identity and national belonging, it must be made clear here that “conversion may occur in one or more of three ways: through voluntary association, by pressure, and by assimilation. Syncretism and strong cultural resistance can also complicate the conversion process” (The Applied History Research group, 2000, pp.1-3).

There is another raging debate in Bulgarian and Balkan historiographical research literature about the mode of Pomaks’ conversion to Islam and the co-existence of Bulgarian Christians and Bulgarian Muslims.

On the one hand, there are these, who argue that the conversion was forced upon the Christian population of Bulgaria and over the centuries, and especially the seventeen century, there was a mass conversion to Islam in across the country and especially in the mountain Rodopi region. There is a huge amount of literature, both academic and journalistic, supported with reliable and substantial evidence that the alleged obligatory conversion took place. In his Genocide and Holocaust against Bulgarians (2006, p.63), Bulgarian academic historian and writer Georgi Voinov claims that the systematic and focused compulsory conversion to Islam was one of the favourite methods of control and ruling in the Ottoman Empire, well known for its strong assimilation aspirations in order to promote pan-Turkism.

To sustain his assertions, Voinov cites numerous sources, based on authentic literature, written by survivors or witnesses from fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. He also claims that there are official registers of the Ottoman Empire that had also captured those events and give objective information and statistics of all the atrocities that took place in the name of Islam and in order to erase Bulgarian national identity among the Bulgarian population (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1982, vol. 3-7).

All abovementioned sources affirm that Islam in Bulgaria was not accepted voluntary but under duress. In the History Reader: The Rodopi mountain through the centuries (1966, p. 78), Bulgarian historian Peter Petrov cites a source from the sixteenth century that talks of 325 thousand young Bulgarian youths forcefully converted to Islam and taken to Anatolia to commence military service in the Turkish army. Only the boy’s number was known, for the girls, no-one has ever known. It is claimed, that conversion took place in 1515 and under the command of Selim Pasha. There are also endless lists from administrative Ottoman registers reporting evidence that Islam was not accepted on voluntary basis. Mass conversions took place in 1620, 1633, 1669, 1705, 1720, 1803, all of those through fire and sword, drowning in blood any resistance from the local Christian population (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1982, vol. 3-7).

On the other hand, there are those academic writers and journalists, who for one reason or another and in an attempt to politicise the issue of Bulgarian Muslims, are nowadays trying to reassess historical events. Special attention is given to the religious and cultural conversion in Bulgaria. In the recently published second edition of his book The Mohammedan Bulgarians (2007, pp. 5-12), Bulgarian researcher and writer Stojan Raichevski asserts that change to Islam was forced upon the Christian Bulgarians by the power of the sword to a minimal degree but there were many other, more important reasons and economic factors, that played a key role, such as preferential taxation and trading agreements for Muslims in the Empire, the greed of the Greek Orthodox clergy, the conflict between the Bogomils and the Orthodox Church, etc.

In addition, Kemal Karpat comments that at the time when their land was conquered, the Slavic speaking Muslims were under the authority of their local feudal lords and accepted Islam as the new faith as it supposedly was close to their native faith of Bogomilism, a mixture of Christianity, paganism and Manichaeism. In doing so, they hoped to preserve their land holdings and ethnic identity.

Furthermore, according to the Applied History Research group of the University of Calgary (2000, p.1), “although conversion by pressure cannot be termed voluntary, the degree of force and coercion varies greatly. Indeed, military conquest was typically followed by the application of subtler pressures, such as commercial or judicial sanctions, to enforce the requirement of the new rulers”. Economic pressure was just as effective as an unrestrained military subjugation.

Thinking objectively and considering all points of view and available data, one does not doubt here that many factors acted as an incentive to mass Islamic conversions in Bulgaria. What is interesting to communicate through this piece of work is that the combination of the different modes of conversion: by voluntary association, by pressure, and by assimilation, was accompanied with syncretism that determined some degree of cultural adaptation. It did, in turn, also provoke fierce cultural resistance and martyrdom from a large part of the Christian population.

Hence, here was the historical picture in Bulgaria. On the one hand, those Bulgarians, who surrendered their religion for one reason or another, became Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks. They continued speaking Bulgarian language and the local area dialect, build their houses in Bulgarian architectural traditions, saved some elements of their old dress code, continued to recognise themselves as Bulgarians but built mosques, celebrated Eid and enjoyed preferential treatment from the Ottoman rulers.

However, over the centuries they were exposed to the influences of their adopted Islamic religion and the aggressive pan-Turkism promoted in the Ottoman Empire and through blending of various aspects of different cultural customs and religious rituals or syncretism, somewhat new cultural arrangements took place. Bulgarian Muslims adapted culturally to the life in the Empire and although preserving their Slavic language and some sense of Bulgarian national identity, their levels of cultural adaptation reached much greater heights than those among the Christian Bulgarian population. Due to this fact and over the centuries, the Pomaks have tried to self-define themselves in terms of national conciseness and have become vulnerable to influences and an object of hatred or even political struggle.

On the other hand, while Bulgarian Muslims were going through the process of cultural assimilation, the larger part of the Bulgarian population withstood the pressure, continued to observe their faith and traditions, regularly rebelled against the Turkish rulers and took part in more than fifty military conquests against the Turks, led by different European rulers.

All Bulgarian uprisings against the Ottoman Sultans, fourteen in total in Bulgaria itself (Voinov, 2006, p.26), were drowned in blood. What needs clarification here is one, not very well popularised fact: Bulgarian Muslims took active part in the suppression and crushing of many of the rebellions. This, in turn, raises many questions, with one most imperative. What were the reasons that in the same ethnic population group, some of its members took the way of conversion and cultural adaptation but the others chose cultural resistance, martyrdom and self-martyrdom? How could these two groups live in relative peace under Ottoman rule but when an uprising against the Turks took place, Bulgarian Muslims ferociously and viciously attacked their Christian neighbours and fought on the side of the Turks, committing acts of unheard of cruelty and brutality? Their participation in the crushing of the April uprising of 1876 is notorious and it was described by the American writer and journalist Janarius Aloysius McGahan, who was one of the greatest war correspondents in the nineteenth century. In his American witness (2002, 3rd Ed.), Bulgarian historian Teodor Dimitrov has published McGahan’s notes about the atrocities in Batak, Bulgaria, and they read:

“We spoke with many women, who had been through all stages of torture without the last one, death. The procedure, as it seemed, was the following: the Turks would take a woman, undress her, putting aside her valuables, gang-rape her and the last one, who had her, would kill her or let her go, depending on his mood”.

What McGahan does not note here is that the Turks were not alone in the slaughter of the rebels. They are aided by their helpers’, the local Pomak population, Greeks and other small ethnic groups. Thus, Christian Bulgarians fought for freedom, while Muslim Bulgarians took part in the massacre of their uprising.

What could have possibly provoked someone to behave in such a way? According to Doinov et al. (2001, p.112), “the shown cruelty was an outburst of the deep national and religious hatred against the oppressed nationalities in the Ottoman Empire, that has been groomed and encouraged for centuries by the ruling powers”.

However, something else was at work there too. Kemal Karpat (1990, p.136) explains that Balkan Muslims, although living in a hostile Christian European world, remained largely apolitical. However, their “passive cultural-religious consciousness was easily converted to a dynamic Muslim identity when the circumstances required”.

Perhaps when Bulgarian Muslims were faced with an unconditional act of resistance in the “most dramatic form: suicide and self-martyrdom” (2000, p.3), those acted as catalyst and the Pomaks replied with repression and brutality. Ekaterina Peychinova, Director of the Museum of History in Batak describes what drove the oppressors mad:

For three days and three nights the people inside the church held together, and the shooting outside did not stop for a minute. At the end of the third day they gave in and opened the gates of the church. But then they had only two options: either become Muslims or die. Every single one of them chose death. (cited in Ivanova, 2008, p.1)

The horrific power of those events and the depth of feelings and emotions are overwhelming. Keeping in mind that Bulgarian Christians and Bulgarian Muslims are from the same ethnic origin and the same blood flows in their veins, have religious and cultural conversion, syncretism and assimilation have changed the latter so much that they could commit such acts and have identity switch over, allowing for full degradation of human values?

This essay does not have the ambitious goal to answer all those questions. History gives the answers and it will do the same here too. Many years have gone since those ghastly days and Pomaks’ sense of cultural identity and national belonging has evolved and changed again as Bulgarian Muslims themselves were at the receiving end of numerous assimilation governmental campaigns and strategies from 1878 until now.

Cultural identity and national belonging of Bulgarian Pomaks

Due to the fact that the Bulgarian speaking Muslims took an active part in the suppressing the April uprising of 1876, they did not enjoy friendly treatment from their Christian neighbours. With the advancement of the Russian armies in 1878, retaliation began and a substantial part of the Pomaks immigrated to the Ottoman empire, refusing to live under the rule of the “giaurs” or infidels. Many others took part in the Rodopi mutiny and lived in the so-called Pomak republic for about eight years until 1886, when the participating villages were included in the Ottoman Empire but only until the Balkan wars (Todorva, 1998, p.9).

Furthermore, in the Ottoman Population: 1830-1914 (1985, p.78), Kemal Karpat cites Ottoman statistics, indicating that the total population of the Empire rose by about 40% in the period 1860-1878 due to coercive measures by Russia and Bulgaria. He mentions that among the Balkan migrants there were large groups of Slavic-speaking Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Montenegrins and Pomaks with a negative sense of ethnic identity, as they considered themselves as Muslims but not Osmanlis (Turks).

Thus, judging by the actions of the Pomaks, the question that must be asked here is: did the Pomaks have a Turkish or Bulgarian cultural and national identity at the end of the nineteen and beginning of twentieth century and is it possible to differentiate between religious and ethnic belonging?

The Pomaks, who immigrated to the Ottoman Empire, had their cultural identity politicised and defined as Muslim and Turkish under the influence of the local political and ethnic culture (Karpat, 1990, p.137).

Unfortunately, the Pomaks, who stayed in Bulgaria, did not have the opportunity to decide for themselves freely because during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they were subjected to a number of keen campaigns to accept and recognise them as part of the Bulgarian nation or “narod”, starting from 1920-s and continuing until the mid-80-s. In 1942, the first ever mass attempt to change the names of the Bulgarian Muslims to Bulgarian names took place. It was a result of the work of the Pomaks’ own organisation, called “Rodina” or Motherland. Consisting mainly of teachers, “Rodina” strove to improve the position of the Pomaks in Bulgarian society and to save them from the growing resentment and marginalisation.

In the context of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom (1878 – 1944) and its nationalistic ambitions and assimilative tendencies, it is important to acknowledge here that Motherlands’ actions were justified in terms of seeking a national, cultural and linguistic unity of the Bulgarian society and the difficulties that the Pomaks could have faced, if tried to fit in that society. What is questionable here is the Pomaks desire to fit in. Although the Pomaks have, at that point, lost the very close contact with their original cultural authority, the Ottoman Empire, they were still in favour of their religious affiliation and were not willing to adapt to the fresh, language-based identity actively promoted by the modern Bulgarian state at that time (Todorova, 1998, p. 11).

Another problem here is the attitude of the Christian Bulgarians, whose national consciousness was determined by religious and linguistic boundaries. Were they ready to forget the Ottoman rule and April 1876 and to accept the Pomaks as part of the Bulgarian nation and allow assimilation? Could adaptation and adoption take place and the complex issue of national identity, belonging and unity be resolved peacefully and once and for all? What is better: common national identity and national unity or multi-cultural society? During communist rule in the 1960-s, 1970-s and 1980-s, various Bulgarian governments tried to resolve the issue through numerous heavy-handed assimilation campaigns, when all Muslim names were changed to Bulgarian names, an attempt was made to form a united Bulgarian nation in order to neutralise nationalistic ambitions and claims from neighbouring Turkey.

After the democratic reforms from 1989, all ethnic and religious groups in Bulgaria gained the freedom to self-identify themselves and promote their national and religious distinctiveness. All Muslim names were restored and seemingly the great effort to create a united Bulgarian national identity had ended.

Hence, the national identity and cultural belonging of the Pomaks are somewhat fluid and non-defined, and the coming generations will have the chance to accomplish the process of integration or affiliation as they choose. It is, however, ultimate to accept the lessons of history and to abolish all attempts to forcefully create a single identity with identical religious or national characteristics. Cultural conversion through co-operation and co-existence is frequently welcome by small or big population groups, whilst conversion by pressure, conflict and aggressive assimilation is rejected and leads to confusion, hatred and frequently violent resistance.


In conclusion, it must be recognised here that the case of Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks is of complex nature and the issue of defining their national identity and cultural belonging is still unresolved. There are many more questions to ask and answer and many more avenues to explore in order to establish which one of the national identity constituents is the most influential and possess the ultimate formative power.

Consequently, it is the greatest regret of this work that it is impossible to analyse or develop fully all themes, ideas and debates in connection with the cultural identity, national belonging and self-perception of the Pomaks, when the number of words is restricted and there is lack of the research available. However, one humbly hopes to have offered here, merely an attempt of discussion on the important issues of cultural and religious identity and how they shape the very centre of the human concept of self. Finally, it must be emphasised here that the writing of this essay has been a vast learning experience for the author, an opportunity to study, investigate and explore the world of Bulgarian Muslims and be taught lessons that put historical and contemporary events into perspective.


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