NewsSearchAboutMapContactHelpProject RastkoEnglish index
Projekat RastkoHistory
TIA Janus

Petar Vlahović

Ethnic Processes in the Raška Region and the Ethnic Identity of the Muslims

Source: The Serbian Questions in The Balkans, University of Belgrade, publisher - Faculty of Geography, Belgrade 1995.

The objectives of this paper are to point to the ethnic processes in one part of the Raška region which became a separate administrative unit after the Turkish conquest. The boundaries of this unit were relatively easily changed if the administration required, or in some specific historical circumstances.[1] We are dealing here with the term "sanjak" which meant "region, province" in the Turkish empire.[2]

In our regions, the term "sanjak" has been retained denoting only the Novi Pazar area, the Sjenica and Pljevlja districts of the old Raska province, the territory consisting of the former districts and today's municipalities of: Priboj, Nova Varoš, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Prijepolje, Sjenica, Novi Pazar and Tutin (the former Štavica). Bijelo Polje and Pljevlja belong to Montenegro, and the other municipal territories to Serbia.

In the second half of the 19th century when the term "sanjak" was introduced in the political and geographical terminology in international relations between Austria and Turkey, this territory served only as a corridor through which the Ottoman empire was connected with its estates in Bosnia and Herzegovina and thus it divided Serbia and Montenegro in the political and territorial sense. At the time, these states were independent and internationally recognised. In 1880, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, as a Turkish administrative unit, was divided into two parts: the Sanjak of Sjenica and the Sanjak of Pljevlja. This administrative division into the Sanjak of Sjenica and the Sanjak of Pljevlja was preserved until its final liberation in the Balkan wars from the centuries-long Turkish occupation..[3]

Under the provinces of Raška (Sanjak) we understand the part of south-western Serbia and north-eastern Montenegro, the area of approximately 7000 sq. km. in which the first medieval Serbian state was in the process of forming from the 12th century. This state also encompassed some of the neighbouring territories. At that time and much later, the Sanjak" ...encompassed the then great Rascia... the core of the first Serbian state which symbolised the wholeness of the Serbian race for a long time... even today in Hungary the Serbs are known under the name of Raci[4]." Due to its political position, this territory on which major roads on the Balkan peninsula crossed (the Dubrovnik-Kotor road, the so-called Bosnian road) was politically, strategically, and economically significant. Lordship over this territory was desired by the Bosnian lords (Tvrtko, Kosače) who wanted to govern this Serbian region. Through this province, i.e. along the so-called Bosnian road, passed the main body of the Turkish army in their conquest campaigns towards the north-west.

When the Turks conquered Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro, the Sanjak route started to lose its importance for the Turkish empire. It was not formed as a separate administrative unit until the 18th century, when it became the sixth administrative district in the Bosnian vilayet with the seat in Novi Pazar, on the territory between Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sanjak of Novi Pazar is a highland region on the edge of the Dinaric mountain range where the civilisation streams permeated slowly, while the population remained and survived as the population of "...the Serbian blood, type, and language..." divided into "...two rather distinct elements: the Muslims on one side and the Orthodox Christians on the other. The former are called Turks and the latter Serbs....".[5] This population of "the Serbian blood", but of different religious affiliations, had the same habits of settling and the same form and type of life, the features of which were: specific property relations, dwelling habits, the types of settlement, and forms of social life..[6] The reasons for this should be sought in difficult accessibility to the high mountainous area and in the contending aspirations of the neighbouring countries, especially Austria and Turkey in the 19th century.

In the geographical sense, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar is divided by mountain ranges into three geographical wholes. The mountains of Jadovnik, Zlatar, and the rim of Javor single out as separate wholes the Prijepolje, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Priboj, and Nova Varoš regions. On the other hand, there are the Sjenica plateau and Pester. A special zone is formed by the spur of Mt. Rogozna, which separates the Sanjak from Kosovo and Metohia. The greatest portion of the above mentioned area, apart from the three river valleys (especially the valleys of the Lim and Raška), lies at 800 to 900 metres above sea level, and in the east at more than 1000 metres above sea level. Considering it as a whole, the area belongs to the Dinaric region occupying its eastern part. Observing it from the surrounding mountains (Kopaonik, Zlatibor), the Sanjak gives the impression of a wide "corridor", the bottom of which is furrowed by parallel mountain ranges, from the north-west to south-east, with possibly the total width of 60 to 70 km and the length of approximately 150 km..[7]

The Sanjak can be approached from two sides only: from the Lim valley and the valley of Raška, the tributary of the Ibar river, although both of these rivers (Lim and Raška) pass through strings of hardly usable gorges. From the Lim to the Raška and Ibar rivers and from the towns of Prijepolje to Novi Pazar and Tutin there are no valleys, no larger water streams, and the land does not go below 1000 meters above sea level, apart from the farthest ends..[8]

Similar to this geographical division is the ethnic division of the population. By its origin, the population can be classified into four large local communities. They are: the Old Vlach, Herzegovinian, Vasojević, and the Rašani in the broader sense of the word..[9]

The Old Vlachs constitute the portion of the population that represent a whole living southward from the Zlatibor mountain range, i.e. from Čigota and Murtenica to Mučanj, in the direction of Sjenica, Nova Varoš, and Prijepolje. It is true that the Old Vlachs at some point had a larger territory, from Studenica to Čajnice and Dabar, i.e. the mouth of the Lim river into the Drina river. However, traditionally, the people connect the Old Vlachs to Nova Varoš and its wider surrounding area. Even today, the Old Vlachs represent a specific goldsmith community in the broader sense of the word that, apart from some ethnopsychological features,.[10] was characteristic of the distinctive folk attire, which was also used for practical purposes by the population outside the Old Vlach ethnic region.

The Herzegovinian group expanded in the Pljevlja and Prijepolje areas on the left bank of the Lim river. Today this population, expanding deeper into the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, still retains the main features, although slightly changed, of the people from their native tribes in north-eastern Montenegro.[11] This is the layer that organised the Babinska and other uprisings of the "poor rayah" in the Sanjak province.

The Vasojevići cover the area on both banks of the upper stream of the Lim river and expand all the way to the Rašani. Through these regions passed all the massive migrational streams from Montenegro in the direction of Serbia and other parts of the Balkan peninsula.

The Rašani settle the basin of the Raska river expanding in the area at the foot of Mount Rogozna, then the Novi Pazar ravine, the valleys of the Raska Jošanica, Sebečeva, Trnavska, Izbička, and Deževska rivers, which form a ring around Novi Pazar. The Old Rašani were expelled by the newcomers since the Old Raška population had a great share in migrations.

There are no particular data on the religious affiliation of the population of the today's Sanjak in the past, except those according to which in Novi Pazar, in 1468, there were 201 Christian households and 75 Muslim, and in 1485, 167 Muslim households and 71 Christian. These data show that at the beginning there were more Christian households (201:75) and that the ratio changed considerably in only 17 years (167 :71). If these data listed by Ejup Mušović are correct, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, then the reasons for this change of religious affiliation should be sought in the emigration of the Christian population, the Islamisation of the urban population, and the immigration of the new Muslim population, and also in transferring the Turkish soldiers to new bases for further Turkish conquests.[12]

According to Mušović, in 1455, among the first Serbian and Turkish landowners were also mentioned the Muslims: Hamza, the son of Djura; Husein, the son of Rajko; Ilijaš, the Muslim. In the forties of the 15th century, Šain Žunjević, a merchant from Jeleč, was frequently mentioned. Although in the Dubrovnik documents he was referred to as a Serbian merchant since he was from Serbia, he was most probably the Islamised resident of Žunjevići, near Jeleč. For, the name Šain (Šahin) is undoubtedly of Muslim origin.[13] Thus, if we are talking about the Islamised residents of this area, then they were the Islamized Serbs. It would be difficult to adopt the presumption that these Islamised people in the Raska, i.e. Novi Pazar region could be the descendants of the heretics that were expelled by Nemanya at one time.[14] That is how, and it was not a single case, the sons of Jovan-bey, the landowner in the Lim valley, were Islamized back in the 15th century and continued to be landowners. Their descendants, the Begovići - Rašovci, still preserve the tradition of their origin. Some of them live in Bijelo Polje, some in Novi Pazar. Mušović listed a considerable number of common surnames of the Serbs and Muslims: Alagić, Barjaktarović, Bećković, Begović, Bojadzić, Bošković, Bulić, Kadić, Kovačević, Purić, Čaušević, Čubrović, Čuljković, Ćorović, Delić, Drobnjak, Dzaković, Manic, Rašljan, Gojaković, Djokić, Filipović, Gledović, Gračan, Hadzić, Korać, Palamarević. There are also the Islamised Albanian surnames, such as: Ljajići, Ugljani, etc.[17, 18]

Considerable changes in the ethnic structure of the population occurred in the regions of the Old Raska in the times of the Great Migration of the Serbs under Arsenije Carnojevic III. That is why some of the pans were deserted at the time of the Great Migration. The Serbian population that did not emigrate in 1690 gradually yielded to the force and adopted Islam, which had the same impact upon the Serbian national idea as the disappearance of the Serbian population had. Since, at the beginning, the members of the new religion produced the roughest opponents to Orthodoxy in which the Serbian people and their national idea were personified.

The events of the 17th century, particularly those occurring during the war of Porta and the Venetian Republic, as well as the later events, only accelerated the process which started back at the end of the 15th century. The loss of the Serbian Christian element was followed by the arrival of the Muslim (Albanian) population that also changed the ethnic structure of one part of the Sanjak.[21, 22]

The retreat of the Serbian population was also massive in the events of 1737, for the Turks exacted revenge on the "rajah" that stood up and fought in the war on the side of the Emperor.[23] At the same time when the Serbs emigrated to Serbia, the Brdjani, Montenegrins and Herzegovinians immigrated to Sanjak. The Muslim population from Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina also came to Sanjak. "Sanjak served as a hiding place for the majority of the Muslims of the Serbian origin that all left the Dinaric lands conquered by various Christian states."[24] In the Novi Pazar region, even today, there are descendants of the families that emigrated from Serbia in 1804, 1833, and 1867. The number of those from Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina is much higher.[25]

The Muslims of Sanjak, as well as the Serbs and the Montenegrins, are mostly the immigrants "muhadžeri" who from the mid 19th century came from free countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina). "They wanted to stay in the country governed by the Sultan s law which was at the same time close to their native land, i.e. the country of the same nature, race, and language in which they would not feel as strangers."[26] Among them was a considerable grouping of settlers from Montenegro. Later, after the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary (1878), most of the settlers came from the surrounding area of Gacko. A new wave of immigrants (the muhadžeri) came to Sanjak. The same happened after the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908 and especially in the period from 1909 to 1911. At that time more than 450 Muslim families from Bosnia and Herzegovina settled in Sanjak: around 185 families settled westward from the Lim river, over 100 families in the lower stream of the Lim river, and around 50 in the vicinity of Nova Varoš, in the regions where there were no Muslims at all, or only a small number of them. In this way the ethnic map of the Sanjak was changed and the process of Islamisation grew stronger even at the beginning of the 20th century.[27]

A certain balance between immigration and emigration, regardless of the internal diversity, was preserved for a relatively long period of time. But the balance was disturbed by the expanding of the Christian states, the liberation of Montenegro in the 17th century, of Serbia in the First Serbian Uprising, during the wars of 1875-1878, and the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908. However, neither then nor later was the area of Sanjak settled by the Christian population (apart from the town itself) smaller than the area settled by the Muslims. This relation has been, more or less, preserved until the present day. According to the 1991 census, of 362,937 inhabitants living in the eight municipalities of the former Sanjak 186,084 were Muslims and 176,853 were Serbs and Montenegrins. They are of mostly the same biophysical features and habits. This is no news since both the Orthodox and Muslims are of the same ethnic origin. Until recently, people believed that many families were Islamized "...not because of their strong will to renounce their religion for good, but because they wanted to avoid ghastly persecutions and hardships." "These recently Islamised Serbs...married into Orthodox families, preserved the remembrance of their Slava (Serbian family feast) for a long time, and kept the same old surnames as their cousins who pertained to Orthodoxy.[29, 30]

Many Muslim families, as well as the Orthodox ones, preserved their features from the pre-Slav period, as it is stated in many a document.[31, 32] Those Muslims who had earlier adopted Islam often reprimanded those who did that later. Ejup Mušović rook Novi Pazar to serve as an example when pointing out that the earlier Islamised population, with a few exceptions, stressed that they were of the Turkish origin, not Albanian or Serbian. This was not the case with those who were Islamised later. They, without prejudice, point out that they were Islamised and that they descended from the Vasojević, Piper, Bjelopavlić, Drobnjak, Klimenti, Škrelja, Hoti, and Šalja families.[33]

It is clear that there are no indigenous Turks in the Sanjak today. Even those who had lived in the area for 400 or 500 years lost the Turkish ethnic features and adopted the means of communication (vernacular) and the way of life of the environment in which they settled, of the native Islamized population in particular.[34]

The previous, however general, discussion is pretty clear, convincing, and based on documents, and it confirms that today's Sanjak, i.e. the Old Raska province was never a geographical nor ethnographic or political whole. On the other hand, it is evident that in this area never existed a separate independent unit, not even an administrative one. At the time of the Turkish rule, it was divided into two wholes: the one with the centre in Sjenica and the other with the centre in Pljevlja. Furthermore, at the time of the Nemanyich rule, this was only a transitional zone, and at the time of the Turkish rule a "place d'armes" and "the gathering zone" of military forces for conquest campaigns towards the west and north-west and along the so-called "Bosnian road" all the way to Vienna in 1683. This route had a similar role at the time of the Turkish defeats when it served for the withdrawal of the Turkish forces towards the south-east of the Balkan peninsula.

In World War II the Sanjak served as a border zone between the Italian and German occupational forces and it became a very significant strategic zone over which the Italian and German occupational forces fought. The zone was also the target of the Albanian quislings, the Ustashi, and the Chetniks. They all searched for or promoted the differences on religious grounds, which gradually came into existence. At the times of the Ustashi domination, in 1941, the Muslims once again started to promote the Latin alphabet as their main alphabet. With the help of the Muslim quisling government in Sjenica, the Muslims were proclaimed the "flowers of the Croatian people". They were requested to place their economic potentials at the disposal of the Independent State of Croatia, and among the Muslim population to mobilize forces for war campaigns on a larger scale against the anti-Hitler coalition by sending them both to the western and eastern fronts as the members of the German forces.

Bogdan Gledović, in his detailed study on the recent history of Sanjak, found out that the organs of the so-called Independent State of Croatia worked out a proposal according to which "...the main portion of the population is comprised of the Croats 'Muslims', i.e. 'the independent portion of the Croatian people' speaking 'the standard Croatian language'!" That is why the administration of the Independent State of Croatia thought that the Muslims from Sanjak "...are not a separate people and can never be." Furthermore, it was estimated that this area "...can accept 1,000,000 (one million) displaced persons..." from Croatia, since according to Pavelic "...the Croats-Muslims of this territory frequently manifested their great desire to be annexed to the Independent State of Croatia...", i.e. that the population of Sanjak was "...97% pro-Croatian and the best pledge of a content coexistent life of the Muslims-Croats and the Croats-Catholics in the Independent State of Croatia." What they really asked for was that "all of the nine districts of the historical, geographical, natural, righteous, and ethnic part of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be included in the Independent State of Croatia."[35] It seems that, even at present, some people are trying to find support for their endeavours in these stimuli, and some even aspire to obtain the autonomy of the Sanjak for which there are no historical, ethnic, or any other but enemy reasons.

The author also deals with the question of the Muslim national identity. There are two opinions. First, in our circumstances, the Muslims are objectively a national community, but subjectively, they have lost their national feeling and awareness under the influence of the Islam and the Turks.[36] Second, the Muslims are objectively and subjectively (in our situation) a national community since they have never renounced their Serbian language or lost their belief and awareness that they are different from the Turks who have brought Islam to them.[37, 38]

Our Muslims adopted Islam through the Turks. Still, the Turks did not succeed in imposing their language and customs through their religion. There was a strong feeling, regardless of the fact that Islam seized deeply into their social life, that our Muslims represented a separate whole, different from the Turks, according to language, tradition, and ethnic origin. They create in the Serbian language poems, stories, and other forms of non-written heritage as well as works of artistic literature.[39] During the Turkish rule, the Muslims in our country pertained to their heritage calling their religion "Turkish" (instead of "Islamic") and calling themselves "Turks" (instead of "Muslims"), in the same way as the Serbs were closely connected to Orthodoxy towards the end of the 19th century, i.e. until the formation of the national state, and as the Croats pertained to Catholicism.[40]

The reasons for the adoption of Islam by the South Slav population were various. Still, social-economic and cultural-historical reasons prevailed since the pashadoms in the Balkan peninsula, due to their border and military-strategic significance, had a special status in the Ottoman administration. By adopting Islam the native population did not renounce their own culture, but supplemented it with the oriental heritage and thus formed new features which gradually singled them out as a separate whole. The adoption of the new religion understood the building of a corresponding social, economic, political, and military hierarchy, which imitated the Turkish style of life and strove towards the equality with the Turks in all spheres of life, even with the citizens of the highest ranking in the Ottoman Empire. They were rather successful in their intention without ever losing the specific features of their Balkan identity.[41]

In the specific social-historical conditions of development the Muslims of the South Slav origin developed the cultural features which singled them out from other peoples and the Turks. They became a separate ethnic community. That is why the roots of this culture should not be solely sought in the Asian-African substrata. The support for this cultural development and for the specific Muslim identity is found to a greater extent in the pre-Islamic heritage of the Slav-Balkan origin.


1. Gaston Gravje, Novopazarski Sandžak /The Sanjak of Novi Pazar/ (Novi Pazar: Zavičajni muzej Novi Pazar /reprint/, 1977).

2. Gliša Elezović, Turski spomenici /Turkish Monuments/, book I, vol. 2 (Belgrade: SAN, 1952).

3. Ivan Kosančić, Novo-pazarski Sandžak i njegov etnički problem /The Sanjak of Novi Pazar and its Ethnic problem/ (Belgrade: Geca Kon, 1912), Fig. 1.

4. Gravje, op. cit. pp. 20, 54 (Note 10).

5. Ibid., p. 10.

6. Ibid., p. 20.

7. Ibid., p. 7.

8. Ibid., p. 8.

9. Kosančić, op. cit., p. 6.

10. Sreten Vukosavljević, Pisma sa sela /Letters from the Country! (Belgrade: Savremena škola, 1962), p. 196.

11. Petar Vlahović, "Raslojavanje plemena u XX veku u Srednjem Polimlju i Potarju," /Decomposition of Clan-system in the 20th century.../ in Naučni skupovi, 7, Odeljenje društvenih nauka. 3, CANU (Titograd, 1981), pp. 365-374.

12. Ejup Mušović, Etnički procesi i etnička struktura stanovništva Novog Pazara /Ethnic Processes and the Structure of the Population in Novi Pazar/ Posebna izdanja Etnografskog instituta SANU, 19 (Belgrade, 1979), p.59.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid. pp. 60-61-

15. Olga Zirojević, Tursko vojno uredjenje u Srbiji I459-1683 /Turkish Military Administration in Serbia.../ Monograph, 18 (Belgrade: Istorijski institut, 1974), p.302.

16. Mušović, op. cit., p.61.

17. Ibid., pp. 127-279.

18. Mušović, Stanovništvo sjeničkog i tutinskog kraja /The Population in Sjenica and Tutin Districts/, Etnoantropološki problemi - Monographs, 8 (Belgrade: Filozofski fakultet, L989), pp. 57-114.

19. Jovan N. Tomić, O Arnautima u Staroj Srbiji i Sandžaku /About the Albanians in the Old Serbia and Sanjak/ (Belgrade: Geca Kon. 1913). p.47.

20. Ibid... p.48.

21. Gravje, op. cit., p. 12.

22. Tomić, op. cit., p.40.

23. Ibid., p.58.

24. Gravje, op. cit., p.11.

25. Mušović, Etnički procesi..., p.88.

26. Gravje, op. cit., pp. 11-12.

27. Ibid.

28. Kosančić, op. cit., p. 20.

29. Ibid., p. 21.

30. Vlahović, "Ostaci hrišćanske religije kod Muslimana u srednjem Polimlju," /Traces of Christianity with the Muslims.../ in Ogledi, Zbornik radova, 2 (Belgrade: Filozofski fakultet, 1953),p. l60.

31. Ibid., pp. l53-161.

32. Mušović, Etnički procesi..., p. 72.

33. Ibid.

34. Amtun Hangi, Život i običaji Muslimana, 3 /Life and Customs of the Muslims/ (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1990), p.25.

35. Bogdan Gledović, "Narodnooslobodilački pokret u Sandžaku u prvoj godini oslobodilačkog rata," /The liberation Movement in Sanjak .../ in Vojnoistorijski glasnik, 2 (Belgrade: Vojnoistorijski institut JNA, 1972), pp. 20-22.

36. Mehmed Begović, Muslimani u Bosni i Hercegovini /The Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina/ in Politika i društvo, 18 (Belgrade: Francusko-srpska knjižara A. M. Popović, 1938), p.25.

37. Ibid., p.26.

38. Vlahović, Narodi i etničke zajednice sveta /The Peoples and. Ethnic Groups in the World/ (Belgrade: Vuk Karadžić, 1984), pp. 205-207.

39. Begović, op. cit., p.29.

40. Ibid., pp. 31-32.

41. Vlahović, Narodi..., pp. 205-207.

Dr Petar Vlahović is Professor of Ethnology of the Yugoslav Peoples and Ethnogenesis, and of Ethnic and Biophysical Anthropology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade. He is the member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Belgrade. In addition to numerous studies and articles, he has published books Brodarevo i njegova okolina /Brodarevo and its Surroundings/ (1968), U vrtlogu života - prilozi etničkoj i istorijskoj antropologiji - /In the Maelstrom of Life - Contributions to Ethnic and Historical Anthropology - / (1978), Na životnim raskrsnicama - prilozi proučavanju etničkih procesa - /At the Crossings of Life - Contributions to the Study of Ethnic Processes - / (1987), Narodi i etničke zajednice sveta /Peoples and Ethnic Groups of the World/ (1984), Običaji verovanja i praznoverice naroda Jugoslavije /Customs, Beliefs and Superstitions of the Yugoslav Peoples/ (1972), Život i običaji naroda Kine /The Life and Customs of the People of China (1973), and Pisci naše etnologije i antropologije/The Writers of our Ethnology and Anthropology/ (1987).

// Projekat Rastko / Istorija //
[ Pretraga | Mapa Projekta | Kontakt | Pomoć ]