Serbian Islamophobia: the Role of “The Mountain Wreath” (“Gorski Vijenac”)

By Spahic Omer

(List of content: The Serbian nationalism and Njegoš; about “The Mountain Wreath”; “The Mountain Wreath” as a genocidal blueprint; elements of Islamophobia in “The Mountain Wreath”; faith versus symbols; Njegoš’s ignorance about Islam; Njegoš’s vulgarities; Islam as “the religion of the sword”; Muslims as an “evil and devious lot”; Islam, women and domestic life; Muslims and kidnapping; the Kosovo myth.)

It is a mistake to say that Islamophobia is a recent phenomenon. Defined as “the excessive and empirically unjustifiable fear, hatred of, or bias against Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilization, which are translated into policies, attitudes, language, literature, and into condoned individual, along with collective, behavioural patterns”, Islamophobia is as old as the emergence of Islam on the world stage in the middle of the 7th century, threatening the then prevalent world order. 

Though it was conceptualized differently and was framed within dissimilar contexts, such as the Judeo-Christian apologetics and polemics against Islam, the fundamental nature of Islamophobia was always there and the same. What is new is the way the same phenomenon is being articulated and applied, dictated by the necessities of the modern age. The evidence for this is found in the anti-Islamic writings of John of Damascus (d. 749), who was a Christian monk, priest and scholar in the Umayyad Syria and Palestine; in the Crusades that lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries and which were based on and guided by centuries-old anti-Islamic sentiments; and in the fact that the first translation of the Qur’an into Latin was in 1143 and, as an inaccurate and unreliable rendition, was meant to facilitate the on-going anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim campaigns.

The Serbs played a prominent role in the development of what could be called the medieval Islamophobia. They did so within the frameworks of their struggles for a national identity in the middle ages, for establishing the doctrine of Serbian statehood, and for sustaining the newly-obtained independence of their Serbian Orthodox Church. Serbian Islamophobia manifested itself in two ways: first, before the arrival of the Osmanlis or Ottomans, in terms of Serbia functioning as a guardian of Europe and a defender of the latter’s Christian identity and values, that is, Serbia serving as a bulwark of the self-proclaimed Christian Europe against Islam; and second, in the wake of the advent of the Osmanlis and Islam as their official faith, in respect of Serbia championing the defiant and revolutionary spirit against the occupying enemy until it could be defeated on all fronts – including the ideological one which in reality served as the incubator of Islamophobia – and could then be expelled from the “pure” European soil.

The origins of the Serbian medieval Islamophobia can be traced back to the thought of Saint Sava or Sveti Sava (d. 1236) – born as Rastko Nemanjić – who is regarded as one of the most important persons in the Serbian history, making him a national hero. He was the founder of the Serbian law and also the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is the patron saint of Serbia and the Serbian people. One of St. Sava’s prominent works was Zakonopravilo or Nomocanon of St. Sava. Zakonopravilo was a collection of (Byzantine) ecclesiastical or church canons and civil laws. The work was intended to organize and sustain the functioning of the newly established Serbian Kingdom (in 1217) and the newly attained independence of the Serbian Orthodox Church (in 1219). Inside Zakonopravilo there are two sections whose contents demonstrate the author’s unmistaken propensity for Islamophobia. In short, St. Sava was a precursor of Serbianism as a nationalist ideology, which not only gave rise to, but also exacerbated his Islamophobic tendencies.

The subsequent plethoras of Serbian Islamophobes, both medieval and modern, were nothing but St. Sava’s followers. They were his ideological children. One of them was Petar II Petrović Njegoš (1813-1851) – commonly known as Njegoš only – who was a poet, prince, and the Bishop of Montenegro. Today Njegoš is revered “as Montenegro’s most illustrious son and the greatest poet in Serbian literature.” One of his works “The Mountain Wreath” (“Gorski Vijenac”), which is a poem and a play, is held as the ultimate achievement in Serbian literature. Its “unsurpassable quality” lies as much in the literary style as in the subject matters presented. The man is the Serbian Shakespeare. 

As a small digression, though a Montenegrin, Njegoš felt he was a Serb all along. He was intoxicated by the euphoria of Serbianism of the 19th century, which was metamorphosing into the idea of pan-Serbism. Accordingly, after the stagnation of the Osmanli rule in the Balkans, coupled with the rising nationalistic bents in Europe, the Serbs of Serbia started to think of the prospect of unifying all Serbs who lived in neighbouring geopolitical entities into one modern Serbian state (Great or Greater Serbia). 

Njegoš was converted to this dogma and was made its propagator. Hence, his works, including the magnum opus “The Mountain Wreath”, were in the service of the idea. Njegoš operated as a pan-Serbism representative on the Montenegrin territory. His “The Mountain Wreath” is replete with references to Serbianism, such as “the Serbian nation”, “Serbian heroes”, “Serbian troubles”, “the Serbian people”, “the entire Serbian tribe”, “the Serbian name”, “the Serbian milk”, “Serbian man and Serbian woman (as archetypes)”, “Serbian kin”, “God, help us Serbs in all our misfortune”, etc. (The Mountain Wreath, translated into English by Vasa D. Mihailovich). 

In passing, whether Montenegrins are Serbs, and to what extent, is an on-going debate. People are generally divided into two camps: those who claim so and those who say otherwise. There are also those who stand in-between somewhat, professing that “historical data indicate that indigenous Montenegrins living in the country today are descendants of Serbs. In the XV century, during the wars with Turkey, they left their settlements and sheltered in the mountains. There the Serbs mingled with representatives of other nationalities and eventually formed a separate ethnic group.” Its representatives are now called Montenegrins ( 

Regardless, both Montenegrins and Serbs share a number of obvious commonalities and are closer to each other than it may seem to a casual observer. They all retained their Christian Orthodox traditions, a range of cultural attributes and the Cyrillic alphabet. Their languages, Serbian and Montenegrin, though separate languages due mainly to some geopolitical considerations, are variants of one language.

Serbian nationalism and Njegoš

Njegoš lamented the physical and spiritual states of his Serbian people, branding them a nation sleeping a deep and lifeless sleep. He realized that his “wretched Serbian nation” was on the verge of being snuffed out. He felt as though hopeless in the face of danger. The predicament was all his, weighing heavily on his heart. He wondered what he could do, for “the world has now become a hell for me; people have turned into hellish spirits.” 

Njegoš did not want to repeat the same mistakes committed by some of his predecessors, the maiden Serbian leaders. Trying to arouse the spirit of the Serbian nationhood, to liberate his people and lead them towards the realization of Serbian hegemony, Njegoš wished to thread a different and more assuring path. He brought his forebears to task over their trampling over the law, their divisions and infightings, their neglecting of the government and state, their being miserable cowards, and their poisoning “the entire Serbian tribe”, as a result of which the Serbs were unable to defend themselves and their lands against the Osmanlis. Njegoš hoped for dissociating himself from those anomalies, instead focusing on enlightening his people, uniting them and, as such, directing them against the real enemy, that of the Turks (Osmanlis) within and without the Serbian national domains. How determined Njegoš was demonstrate his repetitive curses against the ancient Serbian kings and tsars in their capacity as the culprits: “God’s curse be on their souls”, “may all their trace vanish.” As if Njegoš’s mantra was: “God is angry with the Serbian people; because of their many mortal sins” (all quotes from “The Mountain Wreath” are from the English version translated by Vasa D. Mihailovich).

Similar to the patterns of his many contemporaries and predecessors, Njegoš’s Serbian nationalism consisted of two components: the Orthodox version of Christianity represented by the Serbian Church, and the Serbian nation. Ever since the two were merged into a compact total at the hands of the early Serbian ideologists from the Nemanjić dynasty, including St. Sava and his father Stefan Nemanja (d. 1199) and brother Stefan Nemanjić (d. 1228), the intricate relationship between them was kept in balance. However, as a result of the Osmanli subjugation, following which a number of Serbs decided to abandon their Christian faith in favour of that of Islam, national interests started to preponderate over those of religion. Such a development inevitably led to the creation of a form of radical nationalism which, in turn, triggered a form of religious fanaticism and even chauvinism. Religion became subjected to state, rendering Serbism an ideological creed in its own right. 

Thus, a good Serb was he who was a nationalist first and a religious enthusiast second; who, in other words, was ready to sacrifice himself on the altar of nation above all, and then on the altar of religion. Unlike the latter, the former could not be tampered with, hence the religious associations were tied to, yet dictated by, those of nation, making them practically unalterable as well. For this reason those Serbs who had become Muslims were regarded as national traitors and apostates, whose sins were unforgivable, not as much because they walked out on the religious beliefs of their forefathers, as because they betrayed Serbism and the Serbian ethnocentrism so painstakingly built and cherished by the giants of earlier generations. Indeed, the religious nationalism was a gateway to the Serbian nationalism, and the Serbian Church a tool of Serbism.

Njegoš asked what such Serbian traitors-turned-Muslims will appear with before the Serbian heroes, whose names were set to live “as long as the sun shines”, insinuating that those renegades, on the other hand, were cowards who will be either quickly forgotten or whose infamy will also live as long as the sun shines. The only path to redemption for such people was to accept the faith of their ancestors (revert to Serbism and Christianity) and to guard the honour of their native Serbian land, in that “our land is small and it’s pressed on all sides; not one of us can live here peacefully; what with powers that are jawing for it; for both of us there is simply no room.” 

Putting the finishing touches on his ideologizing concerning the Serbian nationalism, Njegoš continuously labelled the local Muslims as Turks, rather than Muslims, Saracens, Mohammedans, or even Ishmaelites. Not even once did he identify them as anything other than Turks. Which means that those people – having been hasty, foolish and greedy converts to Islam, “may their Serb milk make them all sick with plague”, as Njegoš cursed them in their role as his primary enemy – bartered their Serbism for Turkism, in lieu of bartering just one religion for another, given that religion was nation and nation religion. The converts were furthermore called “Turkish brothers (sarcastically though)”, “domestic Turks”, “the Turks and their mosques”, “some wild kinsmen of ours turning Turkish”, etc. The process of conversion to Islam Njegoš called “illness” which only wretched hearts could accommodate; whereas the courageous hearts of true Serbs, which had been impassioned by wounded honour, could not tolerate such a probability. The two were incompatible. 

The local Muslims were called “poturice”, which entailed two meanings, both pejorative. First, “poturice” meant “those who have been turkicized” and like so, have sold their identities to the adversary and their souls to the devil, and second, “hose who have been grafted, implanted, deceived and foisted”, thus rendering themselves aliens in their own lands and strangers among their own people. They became a growth or a malignancy that necessitated a quick and complete removal, so as not to spread and affect others. “They were delegitimized as a group and dehumanized as individuals” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

Historically, the Serbian Orthodox Church was politicized more than the state was etherealized. The Church was also nationalized against the backdrop of the emerging nationalist proclivities of the Eastern Orthodox Christians. Hence, if there was the Serbian Orthodox Church, there were also, for example, the Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish, etc., Orthodox Churches. National independence essentially spelled the creation and independence of an Orthodox Church branch. Struggles for national independence, it goes without saying, denoted struggles for a church’s creation and independence (autocephaly), one of the recent instances having been the issues surrounding uncanonical Montenegrin Orthodox Church. There were many other uncanonical Orthodox Churches whose chief difficulties revolved around the existence of canonical territories as designated geographical areas under the churches’ jurisdiction. 

To Njegoš, therefore, the main crime, hence loss, of the local Serbs who had abandoned Christianity and accepted Islam instead, was the forsaking of Serbism. Their becoming Turks and embracing everything Turkish – rather than merely becoming Muslims – signified their downgrading, humiliation and, in the end, punishment. They likewise alienated themselves from things Serbian, ranging from the nation, land and religion, to the traditions, festivals and everyday habits. The converts stood for a scourge of which Serbism, Serbian lands and their peoples had to be cleansed. 

However, in Njegoš’s eyes the Christian religion was not that pristine Biblical version that revolves around such magnanimous teachings and principles as universal love, forgiveness, forbearance, virtue and benevolence, but largely a Serbianized version that concentrated on the symbolism of the Serbian national identity and struggle. From among the signs of being a Serbian Christian was to accept the faith of Serbian forefathers, to swear by the faith of Serbian saints, to lay the Serbian Christmas-log on the fire, to brandish the Cross, to cross oneself with three fingers, and to observe slava which is a Serbian holiday celebrated on the days of certain Serbian saints. One then might ask how much Jesus himself will be able to recognize this religious style and whether he would be happy about it. Indeed, nobody was more aware of and was more against this kind of Christian pretence and falseness than Martin Luther (d. 1546), the pivotal figure of the Protestant Reformation.

It is then hardly surprising why in the long list of the saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church there are many canonized persons who were Serbian kings, rulers, noblemen, knights, martyrs and even some ordinary men, besides those who excelled in the field of religion. Which is to say that being in the service of nation and religion was of equal importance. In fact, it was one and the same thing. In their book titled “Lives of the Serbian Saints” Voyeslav Yanich and Patrick Hankey wrote that among the saints there were the men who made of the Serbians an independent people, ensured them freedom and built up a Serbian nationhood. “Of some of them that is about all that can be said. But to the Serbian whose freedom was his life – whose liberty was threatened from the north or the south for decade after decade – that was enough. And later generations, living under the Turk, looked with love and reverence on the men who had once made their people free.” (Voyeslav Yanich and Patrick Hankey, Lives of the Serbian Saints).

If as far as Martin Luther was concerned the Osmanlis were for Christians a bane and an instrument of divine retribution, hence, to fight against them would be tantamount to resisting God and His will, emphasizing that “none but a poor Christian would fail to recognize in these the lash and rod of God”, for Njegoš, on the other hand – about three centuries later when the Osmanli power was fading, particularly in Europe – though the Osmanlis were a thorn in the flesh, the local Turks were posing a bigger threat, who in consequence had brought upon themselves “the lash and rod of God” to be effected by the remaining faithful Serbs-cum-Christians. If nothing, the converts presented an immediate and rapidly growing danger that had to be dealt with in the first place. They threatened to divide the Serbian homeland, confuse and corrupt the Serbian mind, and deconsecrate, plus disgrace, the sanctities of the Serbian faith. 

Standing strong in the face of danger was a heavenly mandate. Fighting for Serbdom to be free from the impurities of Turks and their domestic converts was an honour and destiny. It was a holy war. Njegoš almost felt he had been sanctioned by a heavenly decree to do so, and to thus become an instrument of the divine providence. He certainly wished to be “the lash and rod of God”, calling out – yet beseeching the heavens – in the first two lines of his “The Mountain Wreath”: “Let this century of ours be the pride of all the centuries; It shall be a fateful era striking awe for generations.” 

No wonder that Njegoš dedicated his literary “masterpiece” to the “ashes of the father of Serbia”, George (Đorđe) Petrović (d. 1817) or better known by his nickname Karageorge (Karađorđe), a Serbian revolutionary and the leader of the first Serbian rebellion against the Osmanlis (1804-1813). Karađorđe was an inspiration and a point of reference, not only for Njegoš, but as well for the whole Serbdom, in matters relating to the boosting of the national awakening and the revolution itself, including such as pertained to the persecution of the Muslim (Turkish) population. 

Njegoš coveted to be bracketed with the rest of the legendary characters and ideological fathers of Serbia and its nationalistic agenda, such as Miloš Obilić, a mythical Serbian knight who during the battle of Kosovo in 1389 is reported to have assassinated Sultan Murad and thus, sacrificed himself and immortalized his legacy as “a terrific thunder that shatters crowns; the greatness of your noble knightly soul; surpasses the immortal, valiant deeds; of great Sparta and of powerful Rome”; Stefan Dušan the Mighty (d. 1355) as the most prominent Serbian ruler (Tsar or Emperor) in the Middle Ages, “the invincible one”; and the first members of the Nemanjić dynasty, comprising St. Sava, who formulated the Serbian national doctrines, fought heresies and constructed numerous Orthodox monasteries including the one called Hilandar in Mount Athos in Greece, which Njegoš duly brought up. 

Njegoš eulogised his role model, “the great, immortal Karađorđe”, thus: “He roused people, christened the land, and broke the barbarous fetters; summoned the Serbs back from the dead, and breathed life into their souls; he is the Immortal’s secret: he gave the Serbs the chests of steel; and awakened the lion’s heart in those who had lost their courage…The life-giving flame of your torch will shine for the Serb forever; and it will grow more luminous and miraculous for ages”.

That Njegoš succeeded in his endeavour testifies his own legacy, centring on the fame, acceptance and “implementation” of “The Mountain Wreath” in all spheres of the Serbian national and cultural realities. Njegoš also made things good, perhaps expectedly, by becoming himself a saint in 2013. Amfilohije, a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the metropolitan bishop of Montenegro and the Littoral from 1990 till his death in 2020, while presiding over the proceeding of declaring Njegoš a saint said that Njegoš was a witness of the Christ’s resurrection. His servitude to God and to his people as a matter of fact was in the service of the Christ’s Cross, crucifixion and resurrection. As a holy man, he was on a par with the rest of the Serbian saints, including St. Sava. Amfilohije pointed up that “earlier metropolitans and people throughout history have spoken about him (Njegoš) with awe as a holy man… His poems captured the essence of the fates of all worlds, of all earthly nations, but especially the destiny of his own people…He (furthermore) empathized with human tragedy and suffering, and with perennial wars between good and evil, God and Satan, the truth and falsehood, and between light and darkness.”  

At any rate, no one doubted that in Njegoš’s epoch the project of Greater Serbian hegemony was on and its impediments in thought and practical life had to be eliminated by any means necessary, on top of which stood the accumulation of Serbian converts or renegades. The non-Christian population was considered alien and non-national, due to which it had to be either expelled or exterminated. A string of the ensuing initiatives seems to have been a combination of both. The stage thus was set for some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity to be committed in the course of subsequent eras, the last episode being the 1992-1995 aggression against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during which an unprecedented genocide against the Bosniaks was committed. Those historical events were akin to a perpetual and systematic ethnic cleansing. 

For that reason when in his book “The Aggression against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina” Ismail Čekić talked about the planning phase of the aggression he did not talk about the creation of the Greater Serbia project as the aggression’s ideological basis, but about its revival and intensification. The maxim “all Serbs in one state”, a state that will be pure from rivalling non-Serbian elements, was and remains the dream of each and every Serbian nationalist. As a consequence, genuine democracy, inclusiveness, pluralism, diversity and coexistence are incongruous with Serbism. They are abnormalities in the mind of a nationalist Serb.

About “The Mountain Wreath”

“The Mountain Wreath” – a historical drama in verse – was a benchmark for the development of Serbian literature. The artistic heights and ideological ramifications of the work were the main reasons for its universal acceptance and reverence. The timing was crucial too. In his introduction to the translation of “The Mountain Wreath”, Vasa D. Mihailovich wrote that the year in which Njegoš published his poem qua play, i.e. 1847, was “the banner year in Serbian literature.” “In the same year Vuk Karadzic published his own translation of the New Testament into a language that every Serb could understand, and Branko Radicevic published his Poems, the first collection of Serbian lyric poetry in the language of the people.” 

However, the work transcended the parameters of time and space, memorializing in addition to its purpose and mission, its author as well. Hence, the work is perceived, in equal measure, as historical and modern, locally Montenegrin and universally Serbian, and as a work of literature and one of the author’s philosophical points of view. This mattered because Njegoš was at once his country’s political and spiritual leader. Just as his disposition was a synthesis, so was his “The Mountain Wreath”. He personally was a wreath, so to speak. A reader of this epic witnesses Njegoš emerging at times as a statesman and at other times an ecclesiastical institution. The two dimensions are subtly interwoven with the man’s profound metaphysical expositions, so much so that the different sides of Njegoš are hardly recognizable. They are unified in one whole that could simply be called “the uniqueness of Njegoš”. To the Serbs, as one would expect, such denotes the “greatness and genius of Njegoš”.

However, “The Mountain Wreath” was more than just a play or a poem. It was a guidebook to the Serbs on how to resurrect, together with elevate, their racial awareness and how to embark on accomplishing the notion of Serbism. In that sense, moreover, the work was yet a sacred scripture. 

The opus is about the annihilation of the local Muslim population (Turkish converts) for changing their racial, first and foremost, and religious, secondarily, identity. The annihilation process is preceded by tense assemblies of Montenegrin Serb leaders and noblemen in which the worrying condition of the Serbs and their fatherland is discussed. The assemblies are presided over by Metropolitan or Bishop Danilo (I Petrović-Njegoš) (d. 1735), who was one of the ancestors of Njegoš. Many issues are raised, such as the implications of the long Turkish occupation, (dis)unity of the Serbs and a number of other mortal sins of theirs, the way the current Serbs were coping with the challenges at hand while attempting to remain devoted to their national and religious interests, and personal as well as collective reflections on what the future would hold for the Serbs and their homeland. 

Nevertheless, regardless of how the problems were approached, one thing remained clear: the most worrisome concern were the local renegades who betrayed their racial and religious identities and embraced those of the occupiers. Nothing could be solved, nor hoped for in the future, with such people in the Serbian midst. They could be neither trusted nor tolerated, for their ultimate plan – the Serbs claimed – was to take possession of everything and to dominate. Any form of peaceful coexistence was ruled out on account of the paradox of “both wolves and sheep living in the same fold”, and on account of the impossibility of entertaining “the devil in the Serbian Christian land” and of “feeding a snake in the Serbian bosom.” The Muslims’ mere existence was their major crime, so, no future-building was conceivable with that kind of substance. The only solution therefore was to terminate the evil completely and to obliterate everything associated with it in a way that its reappearance will never be likely. The Serbian land was too small for both the Serbs and Turks, for good and evil, and for the lions (the Serbs who remained faithful to Christianity) and the cowardly and covetous turned into Turks (Michael Sells, Religion, History and Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina).

The ethnic cleansing of the Muslims proved at once unavoidable and desirable. The sentiment is expressed by several of Njegoš’s characters. According to one of them: “Our struggle won’t come to an end until; we or the Turks are exterminated.” The chief Bishop Danilo himself declared, as part of his call to arms, and slaughter: “Let those who bear the honour-studded arms; and those who hear the heart beat in their chest; strike for the Cross and for heroic name!; We should baptize with water or with blood; those blasphemers of the Christ’s glorious name.; Let’s drive the plague out of our sheep-houses!; Let songs ring forth, songs of all these horrors.; On blood-stained stones let the true altar rise.” 

The above-mentioned assemblies were understood as festive, yet historic, occasions on which the Montenegrins had been gathered “to cleanse our land of loathsome infidels” and the high mountains that were reeking with heathens (non-Christians). Perhaps the following is the most graphic reference to the massacre that was awaiting the local Muslims, as much relating to the massacre’s scale as nature: “Now the ravens are croaking and fighting; soon there will be cheap meat in abundance.” 

Whereas the indictment of the domestic Muslims or Turks (“swinish traitors or renegades”) is summed up as follows through a response of a Serb to a local Muslim: “How can a traitor be better than a knight?; What is this talk of ‘sword’ and ‘Kosovo’?; Weren’t we both on the Field of Kosovo?; I fought then and I am still fighting now; you were traitor then and you are one now.; You’ve dishonoured yourself before the world,; blasphemed the faith of your own ancestors.; You have enslaved yourself to foreigners!”

Finally, at the end of “The Mountain Wreath” repetitive atrocities are carried out in different geographical locations of Montenegro against the local Muslim population. Exterminations were total and merciless, showing no mercy whatsoever neither to children nor the elderly. The Muslim infrastructure and myriads of Islamic symbols, especially the mosques and other religious institutions, were all razed. No seed was to be left, lest it should sprout and bear fruit. Yet the seeds within mothers had to be extinguished. 

How horrifying the Muslims’ fate was bears witness an account of a Serbian military leader who reported his share in the bloodbaths operation to Bishop Danilo in this manner: “As wide and long that Cetinje Plain is (Cetinje was the royal capital of Montenegro); not one witness was able to escape; to tell his tale about what happened there.; We put under our sharp sabres all those; who did not want to be baptized by us.; But all those who bowed to the Holy Child; and crossed themselves with the sign of Christian Cross,; we accepted and hailed as our brothers.; We set on fire all the Turkish houses,; that there might be not a single trace left; of our faithless domestic enemy.; From Cetinje we set out for Ceklic (a tribe near Cetinje); But the Turks of Ceklic all ran away,; so we cut down only a few of them,; but we also set their houses ablaze.; Out of their mosque and of a small building; we made a pile of accursed rubble there,; as a warning of shame to all people.”

These were the first instances of butchery. Thus, Bishop Danilo became exuberant, hailing the executors “falcons” and their acts “heroic liberty”. The feats in addition were greeted as the beginning of a Serbian resurrection, implying thus a cosmic nuance to the scheme. The extermination signified a form of historical exoneration, laying also the foundation for a future benediction. A new consecrated history was budding, hence nobody wanted to be left behind. An example is Bishop Danilo who, because he is expected to set a good example, is portrayed as dismounting from his horse, hugging and kissing the heroes who had “started the struggle with the Turks” and who had delivered him the glad tidings. There were five to six hundred “heroes”. On top of being a spiritual and temporal leader, Bishop Danilo likewise wanted to participate as little as emblematically in the proceedings, taking the historically-accumulated load off his chest. After that, the blessed “heroes” are seen going down the field, singing and firing their guns merrily.

As yet another instance of a gruesome bloodbath, a messenger reported about the happenings in Crmnica, a region in southern Montenegro: “When we heard what took place at Cetinje,; a bloody fight was begun with our Turks.; The grim slaughter lasted one day and night.; All Crmnica was teeming then with Turks,; tithe-collectors, agas, and plunderers.; Since few people came to our assistance,; many of ours met a horrible death; a half of us perished in the struggle.; There was no more room in the church graveyard.; We had to place six bodies in each grave!; But we did kill all Turks in Crmnica; and Besac fort we levelled to the ground.; There is no trace of even one single Turk; if you did search our entire district now,; save for headless corpses or a ruin.” These events too were greeted with joy and elation.

“The Mountain Wreath” as a genocidal blueprint

It is not hard to glean from the above that “The Mountain Wreath” is nothing but a genocidal blueprint. It ideologizes, justifies and propagates a genocide paradigm against any Muslim community that may stand in the way of the realization of the unholy vision of a Great(er) Serbia. The work moreover sets the standards for the viciousness and inhumanity of the envisioned designs. It points the way forward by effecting a cycle of utter slaughters of several Muslim populations in Montenegro, obliterating the traces of Islam’s and Muslims’ presence in the affected areas. 

Surely, it would be an understatement to say that “The Mountain Wreath” was an incitement to genocide. Instead, it was a conceptual framework, plan and manual, not just for a single genocide or a succession of genocides confined to a time and a space, but rather for a genocide philosophy and culture. All the talk about the literary quality of “The Mountain Wreath” and the scholarly brilliance of Njegoš was but a strategy to cover up the true intentions and aims. It was a distraction. 

To partake in ethnic cleansings, apropos of idea or deed, was at once a national duty and religious obligation. For that very reason were the annihilations of Muslims in “The Mountain Wreath” committed on the Christmas Eve and the next day on the Christmas Day itself, thereby sanctifying a national agenda and enriching a religious experience. Both altars, that of Serbism and that of Serbianized Orthodox Christianity, were canonized by dint of soaking them with the blood of those who had resorted to race betrayal, and who by converting to Islam allowed themselves to be converted to the Turkish race. That way the order was restored at least symbolically by baptizing the converts in their blood and death.

Historically, the Serbian Orthodox clergy took the initiatives of Muslim massacres out of the category of blood vengeance. Instead, they presented it “as an act sacred in itself, with the implication of baptism by blood. Here, however, there is a twist. In the Christian doctrine of baptism by blood, it is the martyr whose sins are washed away by the baptism. In the extermination of the (domestic) Turks the killers who are baptizing the Turks in blood are rendered worthy of communion and receive a full forgiveness for all their sins. Killing Turks becomes not only worthy, but sacred, raised to the same level of sacrality as baptism or confession” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).  

Accordingly, Njegoš was a genocidal ideologue, irrespective of how much some researchers tried to abstractify “The Mountain Wreath” as a pure work of literature that poeticized history, or to dissociate the vicissitudes of the circumstances of one era from those of another (Srdja Pavlovic, The Mountain Wreath: Poetry or a Blueprint for the Final Solution?). Recurring historical realities and the Serbian overall ethos are witnesses. To make things worse, the historical events Njegoš depicted in his drama were most probably real, partly or even completely. The translator of the piece into English, Vasa D. Mihailovich, believes that it “is based on historical facts, thus it can be called a historical play. It epitomizes the spirit of the Serbian people kept alive for centuries.” History therefore needs to be preserved, learned from and set as a guide for the future. “The Mountain Wreath” was not exclusively a Serbian mythology-making atelier, but as well a Serbian history-preservation tool. It was similarly a normative, as well as prescriptive, existential charter. 

To others, however, the scale and dating of “The Mountain Wreath” – set in the 18th century Montenegro and dealing with the attempts of Njegoš’s ancestor, Bishop Danilo, to regulate relations among the region’s warring tribes, which induced him to take upon himself the mass execution of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam – remained a controversial matter. Some yet believe that the alleged events were real, albeit at first moderate in intensity and confined to a small area, but later came to serve as an antecedent to a systematic process and a full-fledged campaign that in due course led to the complete disappearance of the converts. Srdja Pavlovic wrote, quoting “History of Montenegro” (Litera, Belgrade): “At the dawn of the eighteenth century, in 1707, an event occurred in Montenegro, known as the liquidation of the converts to Islam (Islamicized Christians). Its initiator was Bishop Danilo Scepcevic (later Petrovic). The event itself was highly localized in character (it happened in the clan of the Ceklici) but, from the historical point of view, it marked the beginning of a process, which would continue throughout the eighteenth century and end with the disappearance of converts.”

Indeed, Njegoš and his “The Mountain Wreath” never ceased to function as an inspiration to the Serbs. Naturally though, the more was one inclined to the ideology of the Serbian nationalism the more such was the case. Nevertheless, everyone felt as though belonging to Njegoš, just as Njegoš belonged to everyone. 

For illustrative purposes, Njegoš and his thought had an enormous influence on the Serbian national movement in the decades following the publication of “The Mountain Wreath” in 1847. Gavrilo Princip, who in 1914 assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and set off World War I, is said to have memorized the “The Mountain Wreath”. He was stirred by the prospects of destroying tyranny, liberating the land of all foreign control, and reuniting all Serbs in one strong state. Ivo Andrić, Yugoslavia’s Nobel laureate in literature and a leading Islamophobe of the 20th century, also approved of Njegoš’s “brilliance”, saying that the latter could “always be counted on for the truest expression of the people’s mode of thinking and apprehending” (Thomas Emmert, The Kosovo Legacy; Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia). 

Moreover, as part of the preparations for the six-hundredth anniversary of the Kosovo battle in 1989, there was an additional escalation of interest in Njegoš, owing to which the verses of his “The Mountain Wreath” were memorized by many Serbs, and his pictures and inscriptions of selected verses were carried by people at gatherings throughout Serbia and Montenegro. In general, “there is no other literary work with which the Serbs identify more.” It is a must read for every Serb regardless of age and vocation. For the young it is a form of stimulus and enlightenment, and for the old a form of equanimity and authentication (Michael Sells, Religion, History and Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Vasa D. Mihailovich, Introduction to “The Mountain Wreath”).

And finally, during the trial of Radovan Karadžić (the Butcher of Bosnia) – the previous leader of the Serbs in Bosnia whom the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1992-1995 aggression against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the subject of Njegoš and his “The Mountain Wreath” has been raised. Radovan Karadžić was reported to have often cited Njegoš to his subordinates, repeating the line: “A timid chief has no business ruling.” Also, in July 1992, at the 17th Assembly Session, Radovan Karadžić apparently said: “Last night at the caucus meeting we talked about Njegoš a lot, and we feel that every verse by Njegoš reflects the situation that we are now in.” 

To Radovan Karadžić, Njegoš was a freedom-loving author and was widely quoted within the community of the Serbs: “There are many verses that just ordinary people use or paraphrase, perhaps they don’t know the exact lines of the poem. But Njegoš is frequently quoted in all areas, particularly by those who are familiar with the written word. Njegoš is considered to be a freedom-loving author, writer…He was a spiritual and temporal leader in that period.  He embodied both of those personalities.  He was somebody to whom the tribal leaders looked up to” (excerpts from the transcript of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the session of Wednesday, 12 February 2014).

Elements of Islamophobia in “The Mountain Wreath”

“The Mountain Wreath”, it goes without saying, is an outline for Islamophobia, and its author, Njegoš, a staunch Islamophobe. The literary work oozes the quintessence and contains the hallmarks of any recognizable Islamophobic undertaking, literary or otherwise. It is on a par with the Islamophobic legacies of the top Western Islamophobes, including the likes of Riccoldo da Monte di Croce (d. 1320) from Italy, Dante Alighieri (d. 1321) from Italy, Voltaire (d. 1778) from France, and Washington Irving (d. 1859) from the US. 

According to Vasa D. Mihailovich, the depth of Njegoš’s views and thoughts resembles that of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” with which Njegoš was familiar. The latter might yet have had some impact on the thinking patterns of Njegoš. As a small excursion, in Dante’s poem “Divine Comedy” Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) is depicted as the greatest falsifier and a Christian schismatic, “a sower of scandal and schism”. His punishment – as presented in the poem – literally embodies the sin of discord by having his body torn apart from chin to buttocks. The Prophet is not only doomed to Hell, but also placed near its very bottom where Satan himself resides. There are as well references to Ali b. Abi Talib – “cleft in the face from forelock unto chin” – Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, as inhabitants of Hell. Indeed, Dante’s work is an evidence of how strongly articulated the representations of the Orient (Islam and Muslims) were, how inordinately careful their schematization was, and how dramatically effective their placing in Western imaginative geography was (Edward Said, Orientalism).

The following are the main aspects of the Islamophobic disposition of “The Mountain Wreath”. The epic’s numerous characters acted as Njegoš’s mouthpieces on his Islamophobic worldview. The plot and subplots, involving an array of characters, were apt for Njegoš to express himself completely.

First: Faith versus symbols

Njegoš castigated and degraded Islam not insofar as its belief system, practices and morality were concerned, but rather with regard to its symbolic manifestations and corresponding emblems. Njegoš had problems with mosques, pointed minarets which he called – derogatively – hollow trees, stone towers, the crescent, the Islamic call to public prayer (adhan) which the author, again deprecatingly, called imam’s “cooing on the top of that hollow tree; perched like an owl on a rotten beech-tree!”, the Turkish fez, bayram or eid as the greatest Islamic holiday, hair-cutting as part of the ‘aqiqah ritual, and the Muslim wedding rituals. 

In short, Njegoš could accept neither the ideological nor biological presence of Muslims, with the latter apparently troubling him the most. For Njegoš, his own religion was a form of Serbianized Orthodox Christianity, framed within the parameters of a quest for pan-Serbism. That connoted ethno-nationalism and chauvinism at their best, by reason of which Njegoš harboured extreme fear, contempt and dislike of anything designated as foreign. He was blinded by the Serbian nationalistic tendencies. However, as Islam and Muslims with their customs, institutions and culture were the foremost unconventional “others”, they were targeted regardless of how good or otherwise followers of Islam Muslims might have been. Their wrongdoing was a distressing presence inside the chauvinistic vistas of Njegoš whose visions needed to be clear and uninterrupted. The issue was as much about Muslims themselves as about anything that could remind of their existence. 

The dead wood, therefore, had to go. The existential, alongside demonstrative, homogeneity inside Serbdom had to be ensured and at any costs sustained. That said, the inner, quiet and inexpressive “otherness” of a person or a group in principle could still be tolerated, however since the fanatical nationalists-cum-dogmatists are at the same time paranoids nothing was to be left to chance. Nobody knew when the symptoms of the “disorder of otherness” should start raising its ugly head, in which case the most workable solution would be to get rid of the trouble once and for all and at all levels of its conceptual and material existence. 

The tag of the new contest was a Serbianized religion and a religionized Serbism within whose mould neither being a Muslim nor a Turk could fit. Hardly surprising then that the architects and some executors of the mentioned Muslim genocide, which was of paramount importance to the Serbian nationalistic agenda, swore an oath in a church to fight the local Turks, and to do so together. Once completed, the genocide was celebrated, and the doers honoured, again in the church. A monument to the bravery of all involved was Montenegro and its proud liberty.

Njegoš encapsulated this attitude in the following words: “For both of us there is simply no room!…Bayram cannot be observed with Christmas!; Is that not so, Montenegrin brothers?; It is so, and no other way!…There can be no kumstvo without baptism; even if it is done four times over” – which is to say, “one who does a child’s first hair-cutting is a hair-cutting kum, but he is never the same as the baptismal kum – godfather” (The Mountain Wreath, translated into English by Vasa D. Mihailovich). 

Second: Njegoš’s ignorance about Islam 

Like the rest of Islamophobes inside Serbdom and beyond, Njegoš was ignorant about Islam and Islamic civilization. All that he could harness were thoughtless hyperboles, falsehoods and misconceptions. These were expectedly taken from the global mainstream of Islamophobia, which nonetheless from the second half of the 19th century were turning into clichés. They were denoting ever less a (false) sign of one’s proficiency and intellectualism, even in the most Islamophobic circles, pointing instead towards one’s bigotry and outright animosity. They were furthermore an indication of how nationalistic programs were conceived, built and rendered effective. 

Those problematic viewpoints served both as a means and an end. Provided the sensible truth was the aim – which unfortunately was not the case – the same viewpoints could easily be crosschecked and whenever necessary altered. Attending to the interests of the truth, in lieu of some narrow personal or shared considerations, people should have elevated themselves to higher vantage points. 

In any case, Njegoš was his thoughts and his words, and those, in turn, were Njegoš. He wrote what he thought, and incited his people to do what he both thought and wrote, i.e., what he was. There is no ambiguity of any kind in this chemistry. “The Mountain Wreath” was a portal into the author’s inner universe. Which means that the extermination of the Montenegrin Muslims (converts or poturice), in addition to being an exploit, was also a doctrine, taught philosophy and an elaborate strategy. 

Thus, in a paper titled “The Mountain Wreath: Poetry or a Blueprint for the Final Solution?” the author Srdja Pavlovic’s argument for Njegoš’s innocence sounds unfounded and senseless. It is a paradox. The author wrote: “In Njegoš’s work we cannot find an instance that would indicate his personal hatred towards any group of people or towards any religion. Njegos did not hate the Turks as a nation or the religion of Islam, and he did not hate individuals in Montenegro who converted to Islam. On the contrary, he managed to find rather sophisticated ways of euphemizing the fact of the conversion to Islam: attributing it to the difficult historical circumstances and harsh living conditions in Montenegro.”

Third: Njegoš’s vulgarities

While executing his Islamophobic plan, Njegoš resorted to a number of vulgarities, which is not surprising considering the habitual modi operandi of the entire Islamophobia school. Knowing that his judgements will not appeal to reason, the best way therefore was to try to appeal to emotions and to satisfy the expectations of the masses. Along these lines, it could be said that Njegoš harboured a form of political populism and that his “The Mountain Wreath” was a populist literary “masterpiece”. 

Njegoš, for instance, articulated that a Muslim husband and wife live like animals together; that Muslims were swinish renegades; that Muslims were filthy breed of dogs so drunken with evil and injustice; that Serbian markets and mountains reeked of Muslims; that the entire Serbdom reeked of – i.e., was contaminated with and smelled bad because of – Prophet Muhammad; that Muslims were asked to spit at the Qur’an as a sign of returning to their Serbian and Christian origins; that those Serbs who did not hesitate to deal with Muslims were “shameless, brazen, and stinking-dirty whores” who licked the Turks’ plates “like whelping dogs”; that Alija – a personification of the Islamic heroism and virtue – was “bastard son of a whore”; that the Qur’an is an “accursed litter”; that with Prophet Muhammad nothing save nonsense came to Muslims’ heads; that the Osmanli sultan is the devil; and that the souls of Muslims and everything Islamic be accursed forever.

Fourth: Islam as “the religion of the sword”

Njegoš participated in systematically stereotyping Islam as the religion of the sword and Muslims as the people of the sword (violence and oppression). Accordingly, in Islam the sword was the instrument of faith. While propagating Islam to non-Muslims there was to be no argument or discussion.  All who refused to accept Islam and follow its teachings were to be slayed. 

Thus, in “The Mountain Wreath” Muslims are depicted as bloodthirsty fanatics and the destroyers of every terrestrial good. The Osmanli conquests are described in terms of a sultan (the devil) wearing seven scarlet cloaks with two swords, two crowns on his head, and with the Qur’an. Behind the sultan are the hordes of that Qur’an as an accursed litter, marching to lay waste to the whole planet earth, just as locusts devastate the green fields. 

Moreover, the Osmanlis are labelled as evil guests in Europe. They are painted as monsters whose nest was hidden in Asia. They were the devil’s tribe that gobbled up the nations – one every day, as an owl gulps a bird. “World is too small for the devil’s large maw; to eat his full, let alone overeat!” 

In the same vein, a person named Hamza, the Captain of an imperial town, is pictured in “The Mountain Wreath” as a horse rider carrying a sharp sword and bragging that his grandfather had won the town he was ruling by his own sword. Hamza perhaps was the standard image of a Muslim warrior-turned-official. Even in connection with the Osmanli Sultan Bayezid I (d. 1403) Njegoš wrote that he rode throughout the lands in the east and the west in order to quench the thirst of his damascene sword. Integral to his victories was the slaughtering of all who had not converted to Islam (had not become Turks), sparing only the common, poor people, “to do our will and wail before the Cross.” By and large, the undesirable presence of the Osmanlis, and everything that went with it, in the Serbian lands was equated with the “Turkish sword”. They were repeatedly cursed “for deluging the land in its own blood.”

A response to the above point 

Needless to say – as a considerable detour – that these portrayals are baseless accusations that cannot hold out against the simplest scientific inquiry. History is replete with evidences and testimonials to the contrary. Muslims did not fan out from the Arabian Peninsula to conquer, subjugate, colonize, exploit and control the world, irrespective of how things seemed outwardly and how some people (mis)interpreted the isolated historical episodes where certain Muslims did not live up to the stipulations of their lofty heavenly standards – the latter nevertheless standing for exceptions and failing to invalidate the rules. Rather, as the custodians of the final revelation of Almighty God to mankind, Muslims were duty-bound to deliver it to the world. The object was to create milieus where people, free, cognizant and uncompelled, will have a choice to say “yes” or “no” to the final and universal message of Islam. Once established, those milieus were to be maintained by whatever necessary and right means. The lack, or maltreatment, of those milieus is what the Qur’an calls fitnah (systematic tumult, confusion, oppression, persecution and the hegemony of untruth). Hence, fitnah is greater and worse than fighting – the Qur’an declares (al-Baqarah, 191, 217).

Such a thing was of people’s fundamental rights and all obstacles to the message conveyance and freedom had to be addressed. Fighting was conditional, limited and strictly regulated. It was the last option to be resorted to and was to be conducted in furtherance of a set of sublime spiritual ideals, as opposed to fighting for fighting’s sake or for the sake of any dismal worldly concerns. The enemies of Islam and Muslims were not people per se and their geographical as well as intrinsic socio-cultural contexts, but injustice, oppression and falsehood, combined with whoever exemplified them. 

People had to be liberated from the forms of servitude to and worship of other human beings, and be duly acquainted with the prospect of submitting themselves to and worshipping their Creator and Lord. After that, the choice was theirs, as were the consequences of the choices made. Once established, freedom and justice, under whichever politically and administratively-agreed-upon formula, needed to be defended whatever the cost. Indeed, there are times when fighting becomes compulsory and even coveted, when it becomes a form of mercy and blessing, too. Since evil never sleeps, the guardians of the truth should not sleep either.

Making the truth of Islam known within auspicious environments was the supreme goal; everything else was negotiable and open-ended. While this was an unyielding Islamic mission, resorting to force, dishonesty, brainwashing, baseless propaganda and abuse, were not tolerated. In Islam, those are serious crimes. Islam is too authentic and too consequential to be associated with any of such degeneracies. Otherwise, one may wonder what would be the point of eliminating certain wrongdoings and substituting them with another ones. The Qur’an proclaims thus: “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong” (al-Baqarah, 256). Also: “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills, let him believe; and whoever wills, let him disbelieve’” (al-Kahf, 29). 

Obviously, the freedom of religion is inextricably linked to – yet contingent on – the freedoms of thought and life. And this is the type of freedom Islam – in whose universe righteousness with its manifold dimensions is all that is ever wanted – propagates. This furthermore is the ultimate mode of freedom that determines as much worldly as otherworldly destinies. Letting people not know what Islam – the final testament – actually is indicates the worst type of discrimination and tyranny. It connotes denying people their basic human rights and divesting them of their greatest asset: genuine and intrinsically-sought freedom. 

At the same time, as a counterpoint, Islam goes all out for discovering, knowing and debating with others as regards the permutations of the existential, plus ideological, diversities. In its capacity as the religion of the truth, Islam is not apprehensive about doing so – the proponents of falsehood are. Yet, Islam sees that as a duty, knowing full well that nothing but positive outcomes can issue from such endeavours. The Qur’an underlines: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” (al-Hujurat, 13). 

The Qur’an likewise instructs as to the nature of dealing with others and inviting them to the path of the truth, clearly disqualifying force and harassment: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is (rightly) guided” (al-Nahl, 125).

“And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them” (al-‘Ankabut, 46).

“…And speak kindly to mankind” (al-Baqarah, 83).

In view of all this, Islam, though theoretically being for a single and united humanity, recognizes the difficulty of achieving such unity. It is the will, as well as wisdom, of Almighty God that, in reality, humanity persists as diverse in religion, conviction and persuasion. The Qur’an affirms: “Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation (united in religion), but (He intended) to test you in what He has given you…” (al-Ma’idah, 48). Also: “And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ. Except whom your Lord has given mercy, and for that He created them (that is to say, they were created to be different)” (Hud, 118, 119). 

The unity of mankind is a puristic and perfectionistic ideal of Islam whose real-world counterpart is its antithesis: diversity. Both of them in their respective ways demonstrate the heavenly wisdom planned to energize the operational vicissitudes of the truth. If the unity of Islam and the diversity of the preordained standards of living can coexist inside the frame of liberty, honesty and integrity, what is unacceptable under all circumstances are the notions of nationalism, bigotry, discrimination and exclusivity, especially when they target the godsends of spirituality. The Prophet said that Islam abolished ‘asabiyyah (any form of isolationism, tribalism, ethnocentrism and nationalism), and he who fights and dies for ‘asabiyyah dies the death of the age of ignorance (Sahih Muslim). 

According to Adil Ozdemir, “any attempt to impose unity or force one’s own beliefs onto others is declared in the Qur’an to be opposed to the divine will and plan in the universe. For Muslims, this tolerance of diversity provides the solution to human suffering inflicted on one another. Guided by the cosmic truth unfolded in the Qur’an, the newly formed Muslim community sought harmony, peace and toleration on earth. Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and even idolatry were ultimately acknowledged as manifestations of divinely-established diversity…Compared to other faiths, Islam developed a moderate position between two extremes: electionism, favouritism, and fanaticism as manifestations of an exclusive mentality, at one extreme, and a sort of pluralism that contradicts the transcendental unity of God, truth and human destiny by relativizing the divine to concrete, limited and anthropomorphic manifestations, at the other extreme. Thus the Islamic plan for a transcendental unity of humanity within its diversity and under one God is a model of unity that also preserves enormous variety within Islam” (Adil Ozdemir, Diversity in Islam).

To illustrate the above mentioned item, when the Prophet appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would then say: “Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; do not break your pledge; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children. When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them…If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them” (Sahih Muslim).

People often make a huge fuss about the choices Muslim warriors were asked to give to their enemies. However, they forget that the three choices were put into effect only after the battle lines had been drawn, when there was no turning back. Military confrontations were always the last resort, after all other alternatives had failed. Yet, even immediately prior to the battles, the last-ditch effort was recommended to be made so as to try to avoid bloodshed. 

As for example, taking everything into account Muslims had no choice but to fight both Romans (Byzantines) and Persians – the two superpowers of the medieval times, albeit at the same time the two super-hindrances in the truth’s way. However, the wars stood for the unfortunate climaxes of the long processes featuring a series of failed diplomatic, political and bilateral relations attributable to the two superpowers’ super-arrogance and super-narcissism. The processes were initiated by nobody else but the Prophet himself.

The Prophet is reported to have sent letters to a number of rulers of the world, informing them who he was and inviting them to Islam as the last revealed word. The letters likewise functioned as his tokens of goodwill; they represented bilateral overtures. Of the kings contacted were Heraclius the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Chosroes II the Khosrau of Persia, the Negus of Abyssinia, Muqawqis the ruler of Egypt, Harith Gassani the governor of Syria, and the ruler of Bahrain.

The text of the Prophet’s letter to Heraclius was as follows: “In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. From Muhammad the slave and Messenger of Allah to Heraclius the ruler of Byzantium. Peace be upon those who follow true guidance. I call you with the call of Islam. Become Muslim and you will be safe, and Allah will grant you a two-fold reward, but if you turn away, upon you will be the sins of the Arisiyyin (peasants, i.e., his followers and subjects who would follow him in non-belief).”

This verse of the Qur’an was also written in the letter: “Say (O Muhammad): ‘O People of the Scripture (the Jews and Christians), come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah’. But if they turn away, then say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims (submitting to Him)’’’ (Alu ‘Imran, 64).

In the same vein, Abu Bakr, the first Muslim Caliph, gave an address while sending his army on the expedition to the Syrian borders: “Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone” (Introduction to the translation of the Book of Jihad and Expedition from Sahih Muslim).

When the Muslim armies captured Syria and Palestine, Umar b. al-Khattab, the second Caliph, made peace with the population, highlighting scores of pledges. Among them was “an assurance of safety for the people, for their property, their churches, their crosses, their sick and their healthy, and all their rites. Their churches will not be inhabited (by the Muslims) and will not be destroyed. Neither their churches, nor the land where they stand, nor their rituals, nor their crosses, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted, and none of them will be harmed…As for those who will leave the city (the cities), their lives and property will be safe until they reach their place of safety; and as for those who remain, they will be safe” (Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, History of Prophets and Kings).

As far as the Balkan region is concerned – and to show that this ethics of war and coexistence was a permanent fixture in the history of Islamic civilization – upon conquering Bosnia in 1463, the Osmanli Sultan Mehmed al-Fatih (d. 1481) produced a firman (decree) that targeted the Bosnian Franciscans (the followers of charitable religious orders within the Catholic Church). By extension and indirectly, the entire Bosnian populace was targeted thereby. The firman read approximately as follows: “I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, hereby declare to the whole world that the Bosnian Franciscans granted with this sultanate firman are under my protection. And I command that no one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their churches. They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. They may return to their monasteries which are located near the borders of my state. No one from my empire: notables, viziers, clerks or my maids, will break their honour or give any harm to them. No one shall insult, put in danger or attack the lives, properties and churches of these people!…By declaring this firman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the earth and heaven, by Allah’s prophet Mohammed and by 124.000 former prophets, that no one from my citizens will react or behave contrary to this firman!”

Even inside “The Mountain Wreath” there are references, however oblique and faint, to this Islamic outlook. Certainly, Njegoš wanted to frame his expositions in the contexts of his main theme and subthemes, but the way Muslims perceived the potential of pluralism and coexistence in Serbdom, and the way the Serbs did the same, delicately stepped to the fore. While to the latter the possibility was a definite no-no, in keeping with the Serbian nationalistic creed: “for both of us there is simply no room”, “cleansing our (Serbian) land of loathsome infidels” and “our struggle won’t come to an end until we or the Turks are exterminated”, to the Muslims, however, the idea of living together was a natural thing. 

As per the content of “The Mountain Wreath”, while contemplating and planning the Muslim inquisition and annihilation, the Serbs decided to invite the Muslim leaders – “the leaders of the converts” or “Turkish chieftains” – to afford them one more chance to return to the Christian faith. That was the only way out of the crisis, and the only way to extinguish the flame of the Serbian blood-feud. If not, mass slaughter was the next and only course of action. During the meeting, the Muslim representatives are seen continuously encouraging and even beseeching coexistence, which nevertheless was not entertained in the slightest. The leaders of the Serbs knew that the proposal in question would be in vain, in that he “who has been nurtured by the devil will abide him faithful and forever”; speaking to the self-deluded ones (Muslims), who regarded themselves as the “Sultan’s true sons”, was a waste of time.

For instance, a Muslim leader (Skender-Aga) is pictured speaking desperately: “What is all this, Montenegrin brothers?; Who has fanned this ugly flame of discord?; From where did come this unfortunate thought; of conversing about changing our faith?; Aren’t we brothers despite differences?; Didn’t we fight the same battles together?; We share the good and the bad like brothers.; Doesn’t both Turkish and Serbian maidens’ hair; cover in grief the graves of slain heroes?” 

Another Muslim leader (Ferat Zacir, Kavazbasa) added: “Though this country is a bit too narrow,; two faiths can live together side by side,; just as two soups can be cooked in one pot.; Let us live on together like brothers,; and we will need no other love indeed!”

These propositions were ignored. Yet, they were regarded as “a satanic temptation, the smile of Judas”, which was overcome eventually, and what was intended all along – i.e., the absolute carnage – came to pass (Abdal Hakim Murad, the Churches and the Bosnian War).

The highlighted Muslim behavioural patterns were like that because Islam is the religion for all people, not for a single nation, race or culture. Islam thus propagates unity, equality and brotherhood at all levels, among Muslims at the level of religion, and among the rest of the world at the level of humanness. People’s shared origins, shared human affairs and their ultimate destiny, denote a platform for drawing closer to each other and to strive not just to coexist, but also co-operate. The subjects of nationalism, isolationism and fanaticism are anomalies which Islam condemns. Even the sense of belonging to a community, race and nation, though intrinsic and praiseworthy, Islam sees as secondary and playing second fiddle to the sense of belonging to the universal fraternity of Islam. This fraternity the Qur’an calls “ummah”.

That is why in Islam there is no military conquest or expansionist doctrine in the conventional sense of the terms. Rather, there is a concept of “fath” which means “opening” and “rendering something free and accessible”. Accordingly, Muslims embarked on the “fath” of the world, which is to say, to “open” and render the world freely accessible and interact-able insofar as the presence of Islam as the final testament to humankind was involved. To be sure, just as Islam wanted the world to be accessible to it, in equal measure it made itself accessible to the world. And as it was championing transparency and accountability, Islam expected the same from others. Additionally, if it conducted metaphysical, axiological and epistemological assessments of other life systems, Islam never shied away from being assessed. Everyone and under all conditions could check, see, read or ask anything about Islam. Criticizing the inappropriate conduct of Muslims was welcome, yet encouraged, reminding of the verity that the principle of enjoining good and forbidding evil is Islam’s prime focus. 

Islam thus promoted a culture of dialogue and debate more than any other religion or ideology. Since its inception, that was its trademark. The Qur’an itself is abundant in allusions to such an attitude. Positively, if there was anything Islam wanted to free and illuminate, it was the mind, and if there was anything it wanted to conquer – as a result of the former – it was the heart.

There is no doubt that the “fath” was the main reason why the Osmanlis arrived in the Balkans as well. Because of that, both the Osmanli policies and activities oozed the spirit of tolerance and peaceful, as well as constructive, coexistence. Undoubtedly, there were many intermittent irregularities and wrongdoings some of which were committed due to certain individuals’ incompetence and dishonest tendencies, and some others because of occasional mutual misunderstandings, mistrust and mishandling of unforeseen occurrences. Be that as it may, those were still exceptions to the established ethos and prevalent tenets.

The foremost culprits, in the main, were the Serbian nationalism and its twin sister in the shape of the Serbian Orthodox Church-affiliated religious nationalism. The two as much blinded as debilitated. They worked much like any intoxicant, to the extent that the ubiquitous Serbian sentiment about the Osmanlis – and Islam – was exclusively along the lines of living through the incapacitating dark ages, tyranny, slavery, suffering and backwardness. The life was at swords’ points. The Serbian history books, wherein everything but the truth was aimed at, are overflowing with hyperboles, misconstructions, distortions and out-and-out lies. 

Logically speaking, if the Osmanlis were as projected by the Serbian nationalistic and historical narratives, there would be no Serbs left after approximately four centuries of the Osmanli active presence in the region. If the Osmanlis wished to forcefully convert the Serbs to Islam and to oppress and liquidate those who declined, just a couple of generations – not the length of four centuries and about ten generations – would have been sufficient for implementing the scheme. 

Surely, the content of “The Mountain Wreath” is a guiding light of sorts. In reference to the work’s subject matter – which is based on actual events in history – if the Montenegrins were able to effect a genocide against the domestic Muslims (Turks) during a couple of days only – allegedly having recourse to a tit-for-tat procedure – one can imagine what could be done in months, years, decades and centuries. Without doubt, there would be no trace whatsoever of any Serb, or of any facet of Serbism, left. 

Another indicator are the swiftness and brutality of the Serbian ethnic as well as religious cleansing against Muslims and everything Islamic in the wake of the end of the Osmanli rule. The Serbian capital of Belgrade was largely Muslim before the 19th century, but “following the establishment of an autonomous Serbian principality in the first decades of the 19th century, the Muslim population was mostly expelled and most of the mosques were destroyed or dismantled” (Marko Attila Hoare, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Genocide, Justice and Denial).

However, what really happened to the Serbs in history was the antithesis of the Serbian nationalistic and religious narratives. Not only did the Serbs, the Serbian Church and the Serbian culture survive, but also they thrived, protected and duly maintained. An example is Sokollu Mehmed Pasha (d. 1579). He was from a Serbian family. He converted to Islam and became an Osmanli statesman. Though a Muslim, he respected Christianity and did not force his family members, or anybody else, to convert. According to Milos Todorovic – who quoted Aleksandar Fotic and his article “Serbian Orthodox Church” inside “Encyclopaedia of the Ottoman Empire” – “in fact, even though he (Sokollu Mehmed Pasha) was a Muslim himself, he helped restore the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć in 1557 with his cousin, Makarije Sokolović, becoming the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, Ottomans even granted the Patriarchate of Peć a far greater extent, well beyond its former borders – it stretched from Dalmatia in the west to Bulgaria in the east, from Hungary in the north to Macedonia in the south, with it assuming control of dioceses outside of the Ottoman Empire as well. This restoration meant that service could be held in Serbian, new churches were being built, religious texts were copied, religious art was being made once again, all of which helped preserve Serbian culture and identity, and was possible thanks to Sokollu Mehmed Pasha’s efforts” (Milos Todorovic, The Problems of Studying Ottoman Heritage in Serbia).

So, was Sokollu Mehmed Pasha an Osmanli or a Serb? The question was a conundrum, Milos Todorovic concludes. Both the Serbian people and his childhood community would have seen Sokollu Mehmed Pasha “as their own, but so too would the Ottomans, as he was the grand vizier, and this is exactly the problem when trying to represent the Ottomans as the ‘other’” (Milos Todorovic, The Problems of Studying Ottoman Heritage in Serbia).

What is more, Belgrade was one of the most important Osmanli cities. It was like the Empire’s capital in Europe. It was very prosperous. It is yet said that the Catholic pressure on Belgrade, Serbia and its Orthodox Church was prevented thanks to the Osmanlis. That way – strange as it may sound – the Serbian Orthodox Church was protected and in a way fostered, if observed from the Serbian point of view (Selim Hilmi Ozkan, The Capital of the Ottoman Empire in Europe).

Milos Todorovic added that the whole problem was the fact that “the Serbian national identity is based on an antagonistic relationship with the Ottomans”, and that the myth of the Ottoman (Osmanli) enslavement of the Serbs, expressed as “the 500 years of Turkish yoke”, was perpetuated in the Serbian school textbooks and the public discourse. Neither was the Serbian historiography willing to do itself justice by turning a blind eye to the accuracy of events. As a consequence, if the purpose of the science of history is to quest after the truth wherever facts may lead, one wonders what exactly the Serbian understanding of that science is.

People are brainwashed and (mis)led into the nationalistic traps. Nonetheless, as Milos Todorovic continues, “Ottomans did not have a plan to ‘change’ or ‘civilize’ the people they were conquering – they did not force them to adopt a new culture or religion. However, Serbs today see this period as a ‘period of slavery’. They look at themselves as slaves and impute the characteristics of colonized people on themselves in an attempt to demonize the Ottomans by representing them as colonizers who robbed Serbs of their freedom despite the fact that they did not. In reality, Serbs were free citizens of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottomans did not force them to adopt a new culture or even a new way of life; they just brought it with them and Serbs adopted it on their own terms, which is why it is also questionable to which extent Ottomans can be described as the ‘other’” (Milos Todorovic, The Problems of Studying Ottoman Heritage in Serbia).

By and large, the Osmanlis followed a policy of tolerance towards non-Muslims and afforded them proper and complete protection of their lives, property and religious freedom. Churches were protected and were given all the privileges previously enjoyed. The church leaders were also given administrative autonomy in running their religious institutions. However, it is possible “that some churches were demolished for reasons that they were either built illegally without authorization from the Osmanli officials, or that they were not in the right and proper place, or for other reasons which required their removal” (Mesut Idriz, An Outline on Islamization of the Balkans). 

After the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) had been conquered (opened to Islam) in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed al-Fatih, as a matter of course the Christians were allowed to stay and enjoy full religious freedom. They were treated fairly. The Sultan himself appointed Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Since historically Constantinople was the seat of the Church, the tradition was maintained. Still nowadays that is the case (Mehmet Maksudoglu, Osmanli History, 1289-1922, Based on Osmanli Sources). 

The conversion of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral into a mosque is often cited as an example of the Osmanli misconduct, which nevertheless cannot stand up to scrutiny. The Cathedral was converted – or rather adopted – because of sudden, and progressively widening, demographic imbalances in the city of Constantinople, and because of the intrinsic economic and architectural tenets to the effect that the functions of buildings ought to be fully optimized. On the whole, in Islamic art and architecture – as is the case with any other built environment system based on reasonableness – the sheer form, literal symbolism, monumentalism and ceremonialism assume a subsidiary role to the matters of function and serviceability. Hence, due to the nature of the development of Islamic civilization and its unique interactions with other civilizations, there existed a subtly cultivated notion, as well as practice, of “converting churches and temples into mosques.” In a nutshell, those buildings were not converted, but salvaged, reconditioned and embraced. Instead of them underperforming, withering away and even malfunctioning, they were adapted, reprocessed and, as such, forever conserved. The forces of the economic, socio-political and religious development trajectories were at play.

However, many people failed to comprehend the full picture. They observed but an aspect or two of the multitiered phenomenon, whereupon they embarked on making sweeping judgments. One of those people was Njegoš himself. His myopic vision could not take him beyond the superficial actuality that the Hagia Sophia had been “lost to Muslims”. From his point of view, there was nothing else that mattered, neither the contexts, backgrounds, nor the dynamics of cultural and civilizational interactions and the variables of the rise and fall of civilizations. Thus inflaming subjective nationalistic and religious sentiments, Njegoš only discerned that “St. Sophia is but a stable now”, in line with a fallacious tale that upon conquering Constantinople Sultan Mehmed al-Fatih entered the Hagia Sophia on horseback; that Muslims ruled the (Byzantine) throne they had unjustly taken; that Muslims insulted God from the holy altar (of the Hagia Sophia after it had been turned into a mosque); and that a mosque rose where the broken Cross lay (that is, where the transformed Hagia Sophia was).

As a final point, Njegoš insinuated that the local Muslims accepted to be converted to Islam for fear of torture or death, because “the fear in life often stains one’s honour.” However, if that was the case, it is unclear why later when the Osmanli power structure waned, and was soon extinguished altogether and replaced by the indigenous Serbian alternatives, those people did not give in. Despite the fact that there was no more fear of the Osmanli “torture and death”, they did not even contemplate the prospect of reverting to the standards of old days. They were happy about who they were and wanted by all means to remain so. This definitely begs the question of why those people – provided they were involuntary Muslims (Turks) – were ready to be ill-treated and driven out, and even to die for their new “imposed” identity, and if they had been forced once, because they were weak and chickens, why they could not be forced again. Why, at the end of the day, did not they covet to restore their lost or stained honour?

True that Njegoš attempted to portray the converts as cowards, hypocrites and traitors, but – in opposition – they appear as though enlightened and genuinely free souls. Njegoš certainly failed in his design. The converts were real heroes, for they remained true to themselves and to their illuminated preferences. While the rest of the Serbs were suffocating in an avalanche of socio-political, cultural and religious constructs, the converts were taking pleasure in the free choices they themselves had made. While the former, furthermore, bragged about the narrow-mindedness of Serbism, at the expense of a great many human virtues, the latter did about their humanism and the universal appeal of the Islamic message, albeit without compromising the genuine meaning and significance of national, plus cultural, attachments whatsoever.

Notwithstanding what Njegoš wanted, the conflict between the two sides was a conflict between entrapment and liberty, between irrationality and enlightenment, and between bogus honour and the one authenticated-by-reason-and-spirit. Amazingly enough, all crimes Njegoš imputed to the Osmanlis and by extension to all Muslims were in fact committed by the Serbs over and over again, and are set to be committed evermore. The ultimate difference between the Osmanlis (Muslims) and the Serbs is that whereas the transgressions of the Osmanlis were imaginary, the Serbian recurring crimes are self-evident. The pages of history are soaked with the innocent Muslim blood, as are international bodies and courts today with admissions, condemnations and charges against the Serbs as perpetrators. In agreement with the proverb “time will tell”, it has become apparent as to who was right and who was wrong, who was honest and trustworthy and who was false-hearted.

The clash between prejudice, closed-mindedness and parochialism, on the one hand, and open-mindedness, progressiveness and tolerance, on the other, Njegoš finely drew attention to – perhaps inadvertently – when one of his characters, Knez Rogan, said to a Muslim chief, Hadji-Ali Medovic, Kadi, that he was “wise and a writer”, that he “attended the school in Istanbul and paid visit to the city of Makkah”; however, those things counted for nothing, in that more wisdom he was surely in need of. “This school of ours is harder to master”, inferred the Serb.

The message was that attending schools in the cosmopolitan Istanbul, which was the world’s cultural and civilizational capital, and visiting Makkah, which was the spiritual capital of all Muslims coming from all over the world, contained no value. Such was worthless in comparison with what the “lofty mountains of Montenegro” had to offer: fanaticism, illiteracy, backwardness and savagery. Hardly surprising that Muslims suffered what they suffered. Nothing different, nor better, could be expected in environments where depravities and provincialism openly ruled. 

Njegoš himself personified this culture. Vasa D. Mihailovich stated in the introduction to “The Mountain Wreath” about the author: “Born November 1, 1813, in the village of Njegusi in Montenegro, Njegos was a member of a leading family which had produced state leaders for several generations in that small mountainous country. He grew up among illiterate peasants and shepherds, whose main duty was to fight incessant battles with the invading Turks and to till their infertile land. He left home when he was eleven and entered the Cetinje monastery, at that time the only place of any culture and education in Montenegro. His schooling was meagre and unconventional; first in the monastery, then as tutored by the self-educated and eccentric poet Sima Milutinovic Sarajlija. Milutinovic taught the young Njegos a few basic disciplines and instilled in him an appreciation for heroic folk poems, through which he called forth Njegos’ own poetic inspirations. Njegos was sent by his uncle, the state and spiritual leader of Montenegro, to a school near Herceg-Novi, on the Adriatic coast, just beyond the Montenegrin border. His brief stay there was highly beneficial to him because for the first time he was able to live in a more civilized environment” (Vasa D. Mihailovich, Introduction to “The Mountain Wreath”).

Fifth: Muslims as an “evil and devious lot” 

To Njegoš, Muslims (Turks) were evil and devious. They would stop at nothing while trying to achieve their evil objectives. Theirs was the principle to the effect that the end justified the means. They simply could not be trusted nor cooperated with. Any form and degree of peaceful coexistence with them was ruled out. No Serb needed the company of a Turk. 

That is why those Christians who intermingled with Muslims were rebuked in the most severe terms. They were pictured as traitors in their own right, bringing dishonour to the Serbian nation. They knew of no dignity of heroes, otherwise they would not have dragged themselves after the Turks. In the Serbian eye, they were more hateful than the Turks themselves. As conspirators and collaborators, such people were called the table-licking dogs, the plate-lickers and even the offspring of Vuk Brankovic who according to the Serbian folklore is said to have betrayed his lord Prince Lazar during the historic Kosovo battle. Those people’s life pattern was like the one of Vuk Brankovic, the perennial representation of infidelity and disloyalty.

Muslims likewise were dubbed sly and willing to kill, for which the Serbs had to be on guard at all times and under all circumstances. No norm were Muslims willing to observe, nor value to venerate, in the matters of carrying out their plans. Nobody could know what they were to do next. Even black magic, despicable to reason and outlawed by religion, was made use of in Muslims’ deceits.

As a case in point, no sooner had the Montenegrin national and religious chiefs taken counsel among themselves “to strike a blow at the domestic Turks”, than the vizier of Skadar (today the city of Shkoder in Albania) – a sanjak of the Osmanli Rumelia Eyalet – employed a local old witch, after somehow coming to know what was happening, asking her to go to those Montenegrin chiefs and to confuse them, so they will be busy with their troubles. The witch claimed to have been taught what exactly she should do and how. She was chosen because no one would be suspicious of her there due to her frequent visits among them. 

The poor old woman was given no choice. She was threatened by the vizier as she was departing: “If you don’t confuse the Montenegrins; you, old woman, I swear on my firm faith; I will lock up in one of the houses; ten grandchildren that you still have at home; and your three sons, all three of them married.; I will lock up and then burn them alive!” Crying, the old sorceress underlined that it was only that threat that forced her to sow discord among her Montenegrin brothers.

Njegoš sent a chilling message to those Christian compatriots of his who were bent on cooperating with Muslims: “Some Turks you fight, others you treat like friends; in vain hopes of placating your own Turks.; But just the same, do not deceive yourself!; Should they ever catch you again, brother,; they’d cut off your head that very instant,; or they would tie your hands behind your back; and torture you then to their hearts’ delight.; Birds of the same feather flock together!; Turks are always brothers to each other.; Strike while you’re still able to swing your arm,; and feel sorry for nothing in the world.”

Sixth: Islam, women and domestic life

Njegoš was explicit in his attacks on the status of woman, marriage and family institutions, and the domestic life in Islam. Not only in his eyes, but also in the eyes of each and every Islamophobe – notwithstanding the times and contexts of their operations – were the Muslim home affairs repulsive. Hopping from one fallacy to another, they all kept railing against the subject matters. 

To Njegoš, the Muslim marriage ceremony was devilish and without rites, following which a man and a woman lived like beasts together. The Islamic marriage was akin to making “some kind of a contract, as if they were renting a half a cow.” What is more, Muslim women were not counted as family, but were treated “like purchased slaves instead.” A woman was to a man “like some sweet fruit or a piece of roast lamb.; While she is that, you may keep her at home; when she is not, throw her out on the street!” Such was the case because – Njegoš judged – Muslims were a dirty and immoral sort of dogs, addicted to wickedness and inequality! There was actually no law or justice wherever they reached: “For them the law is what their heart desires; what it does not, it’s not in the Koran.”

Seventh: Muslims and kidnapping

Njegoš illustrated Muslims as prone to kidnapping. He envisioned a case whereby the Turkish chief of guards, Mujo Alic, is said to have run away with a certain Ruza, the wife of a Serb named Kasan. Kasan was guilty of locking up “a fairy in a prison” and of being “such a lowly coward.” He invited a calamity by not being sufficiently a man, by not being a “Serb.” Mujo fled with Ruza and his youngest brother. The incident was intolerable inasmuch as nobody would have dared even to imagine a Serbian woman marrying a Turk. However, as soon as it became known that a Serbian woman had run off with a Turk, some brave Serbs decided to go and pursue them. The wedding ceremony was shortly found and both Mujo Alic and his brother were killed, “with them, alas, the unlucky bride, too.”

Njegoš’s strategy worked. There were always people who thought that Muslims were not merely prone to kidnapping, but also that doing so was typical of the Islamic faith. The practice signified the tip of a wider criminal pattern, consistent with the traditional designations of Muslims in the West as Ishmaelites (meaning “castaways”, “outlaws”, “pariahs” and “persona non grata”) and Saracens (meaning “thieves”, “raiders” and “plunderers”).

Among those who subscribed to this outlook was Edward Dennis Goy, a scholar at Cambridge University and the author of “The Sabre and The Song: Njegoš’s The Mountain Wreath” – as informed by Srdja Pavlovic in his own article “The Mountain Wreath: Poetry or a Blueprint for the Final Solution?”. While equating the deed of Mujo Alic with a kidnapping, Edward Dennis Goy went on to explain “that this type of event was a common criminal practice associated with Islamicized Montenegrins of the period. Moreover, Professor Goy then projects this negative stereotyping forward through time in order to reach the startling conclusion that ‘when one considers modern Islam and its taking of hostages and murder, one may wonder whether it is not a characteristic of the faith’” (Srdja Pavlovic, The Mountain Wreath: Poetry or a Blueprint for the Final Solution?).

Parenthetically, while dealing with the last two subjects, Njegoš gave away that he was sexist and discriminatory. The Serbian woman (Ruza) that had run away with the Muslim man (Mujo Alic) was of course guilty of her unforgivable sin, but her action was not entirely startling, given that all women are selfish, greedy and untrustworthy. That is their innate nature about which nothing can be done: “A woman’s mood is a funny business!; A woman cares not about a man’s faith.; A hundred times she would change religion; to accomplish what her heart desires.”

Eighth: the Kosovo myth 

The Kosovo battle in 1389, which ended in an Osmanli victory, was pivotal in the history of the Balkans. It signalled “the collapse of Serbia, and the complete encirclement of the crumbling Byzantine Empire by Turkish (Osmanli) armies” (Battle of Kosovo, Encyclopaedia Britannica). It was not until the 19th century that the Kosovo battle became the central theme of Serbian epic. It developed into the principal purpose and focus of Serbian mythology, assuming a cosmic dimension. According to Michael Sells, heretofore, “rather than Prince Lazar, the main Serbian epic hero was Marko Kraljevic, a Serb vassal of the Ottomans. Because he fought both for and against his masters in Istanbul, Prince Marko has served as a figure of mediation between the Serbian Orthodox and Ottoman worlds. In the epic literature, Marko stands in contrast to the polarizing figures identified with the battle of Kosovo as it was configured by nineteenth-century Serbian nationalists” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The reconstruction of Serbian mythology – and history – was in earnest during the first Serbian uprising against the Osmanlis (1804-1813). The uprising was led by George (Đorđe) Petrović (known as Karageorge or Karađorđe). The re-enactment of folklore in the name of history never subsided ever since. During the uprising, Belgrade was taken in 1806 as the climax of a series of significant victories. The events arose a Serbian sense of self-worth and attachment, becoming a symbol, and at the same time marking the beginning, of a nation-building process. Consequently, “in 1829, Serbia was granted autonomy from Ottoman rule in the Treaty of Adrianople and in 1830 Milos Obrenovic founded the first modern Serb dynasty. The Kosovo legends became part of the Serbian revolutionary movement and those parts of the tradition especially meaningful for such a movement were preserved and emphasized” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

One of the early major contributors to the reconstruction of Serbian mythology was Vuk Karadzic (d. 1864), the originator of the modern Serbian literary consciousness as well as culture. “He collected popular songs and epics and published them in a four-volume set that became, for Serb nationalists, the canonical source and voice of the national spirit” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia). His contribution to the creation of the Kosovo myth was epitomized in his famous Kosovo curse. In the curse, Vuk Karadzic threw profanities at whoever identified himself as a Serb of Serbian blood and sharing the Serbian heritage, but failed to come to fight at Kosovo. By “Kosovo”, besides the legendary battle, all future Serbian battles and nationalistic undertakings have been implied. They were all “Kosovos”.

There were two versions of Vuk Karadzic’s curse, one produced in 1814 and the other in 1845. The latter version was as follows: “Whoever is a Serb of Serbian blood; Whoever shares with me this heritage,; And he comes not to fight at Kosovo,; May he never have the progeny; His heart desires, neither son nor daughter; Beneath his hand let nothing decent grow; Neither purple grapes nor wholesome wheat; Let him rust away like dripping iron; Until his name be extinguished” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The major products of the Kosovo myth were the portrayal of Prince Lazar – the leader of the Serbs at the Kosovo battle during which he was killed – as a Christ figure, the representation of Kosovo itself as a Serbian Golgotha, and the depiction of Muslims as the evil brood of “cursed Hagar” and as the Christ (Prince Lazar) killers. At first, these viewpoints were confined to mere sermons and oral traditions, but were later developed into full-fledged doctrines. There is even a painting from the latter parts of the nineteenth-century where Lazar (as the Christ) is depicted at a Last Supper (emulating the Christ’s Last Supper or Holy Communion) on the eve of the Kosovo battle when Lazar will be killed (mimicking the eve of the Christ’s crucifixion), surrounded by knight disciples (resembling the Christ’s disciples or apostles), one of whom, Vuk Brankovic, was set to betray the Christ-Lazar (during his own Last Supper, the Christ similarly predicted that one of his present apostles, Judas, will betray him). The painting belonged to the art school of Serbian romanticism. 

In short, the Kosovo myth entailed a myriad of essentials serving as ingredients for the Serbian racial-qua-cultural awareness and nation-building. Some of them were the implications of the Last Supper, the treason of Lazar’s brother-in-law Vuk Brankovic, the heroic death of Milos Obilic who killed the Ottoman Sultan Murad, Lazar’s deliberate choice of death and the kingdom of heaven over earthly fame, the sorrows of mothers and maidens who lost their sons and grooms, etc. In the middle of all this Muslims were thrust as Christ-killers (Lazar-killers), traitors (Judases), and greedy cowards (poturice). They thus cannot go unexposed and unpunished, for the sake of exonerating the “historical truth” and also “victims.” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia; Aleksandar Pavlovic and Srdjan Atanasovski, From Myth to Territory: Vuk Karadzic, Kosovo Epics and the Role of Nineteenth-Century Intellectuals in Establishing National Narratives).

As a follower of Vuk Karadzic, Njegoš partook in the development and propagation of the Kosovo myth. His role perhaps was the greatest. In “The Mountain Wreath” there are twelve references to the Kosovo battle, two to Prince Lazar, one to the accursed supper of Kosovo, eleven to Milos Obilic as “the wonder of all valiant knights”, and five references to Vuk Brankovic as the embodiment of betrayal, disloyalty and shame. Muslims’ purported wickedness was projected against the background of those portrayals. And sure enough, Njegoš dedicated his epic to Karageorge (Karađorđe), the leader of the first anti-Osmanli revolution and the father of Serbia. The substance of “The Mountain Wreath”, it stands to reason, was the fulfilment of a vision.

If Montenegro regained what it had lost, that would be as if Prince Lazar’s crown was shining on the Montenegrin people (and all Serbs), and as if Milos Obilic had returned to the Serbs. That would suggest especially Lazar’s resurrection, evocative of the Christ’s resurrection three days after he had been killed by crucifixion. The resurrection prospect was possible only because of the Montenegrin Serbs’ courage and resolve to go after the traitors and killers of the Christ-Lazar (the local Muslims). Only by exterminating them were the resurrection and revenge of the Kosovo debacle conceivable. 

The Kosovo battle signified the loss of Serbian happiness; however – when all is said and done – “bravery and our Montenegrin name; have risen from Kosovo’s tomb again; above the cloud into the knights’ kingdom,; where Obilic holds sway over shadows.” Following the rebirth, the Kosovo wounds were set to hurt no more, and the promise of history was ready to be fulfilled. The days when the Muslims were exterminated were the best days and the most priceless to the Serbian nation’s great heroes. “Since Kosovo there’s never been such day”, Njegoš reasoned, which nevertheless makes some sense because after death, the best – and only – thing one can look forward to is resurrection. 

Njegoš was unambiguous that the whole hope the Serbs had was buried in one large tomb at the Kosovo field. That hope was risen from the same tomb after the Kosovo loss had been avenged and a blueprint for the future laid down. From the same tomb the fallen Serbian heroes had been resurrected and their struggle forever immortalized. Like so, Njegoš likewise immortalized himself, and cleared the way for his own resurrection in the near future. Kosovo in this fashion also became the site of the “Judgment Day” – as Njegoš declared – obviously coming subsequent to the resurrection trials. Kosovo was as much an idea as a palpable context within which the worldly as well as heavenly destinies of the Serbs were cast. Those destinies were to be woven into an existential wreath, a Montenegrin mountain wreath.

When finally in 2013 Njegoš was declared a saint, it was appropriate to justify the initiative by calling to mind that he was a witness of the Christ’s and also the Christ-Lazar’s resurrections, and that his servitude to God was in the service of the nationalistic and religious Cross, crucifixion and resurrection. Having become a saint, Njegoš was resurrected, too. ***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

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