I begin with the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
The Islamic Center of Irvine organized a trip to Bosnia. We chose this location because 1) many Muslims visit other regions like Andalucia, Istanbul, Morocco, Jerusalem, and Arabia but few know about the benefits of visiting Bosnia 2) there are many lessons to learn about how Islam came to Bosnia, the recent war/genocide that took place against Muslims, and how Islam is practiced in an Eastern European country 3) it was summer and the only good time to enjoy nice weather in Europe.
Our trip to Bosnia began on Friday Aug 11, 2023. We departed from LAX but since it was Jumu’ah time and since we had a group, I gave the khutbah in the airport and we prayed together. We flew from LAX to Vienna, then to Sarajevo. I have visited Bosnia before in 2006 as a school fieldtrip, taking a bus from France to Sarajevo and back. Going by airplane is a very different experience.
We arrived in Sarajevo on Saturday and were quite tired from the flight, so we just checked into our hotel and rested.
The hotel had a masjid near the reception so we decided that we would pray there and cover one hadith after each prayer. After fajr prayer, my friend and I decided to go out for a walk. It was a little cold in the morning but I barely managed without a jacket. We passed by several shops and then the Ilidza River that runs through the area. Most shops were closed because it was Sunday morning but a few were starting to open up.
We had breakfast at the hotel then gathered for a group introduction. We were twenty people in total. Most were from Orange County/LA and some from Flint, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. We began with a visit to the Spring of River Bosna, after which the country gets its name. The region is very beautiful, with an abundance of mountains, forests, rivers, and waterfalls. Bosnia made the list of one of the top ten places to visit in 2010 Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel”. The Huffington Post called it the “9th Greatest Adventure in the World for 2013” and also said it has “the cleanest water and air in Europe, the greatest untouched forests and the most wildlife”.
We then headed to Trebevic Mountain and went up by an open cable car. The weather was lovely and we got to see the entire city from above. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and its largest city, with a population of almost 500,000 people. We then went to visit the Igman War Mosque which was built by the soldiers fighting off the Serbs after the invasion of the city in 1992. We prayed inside and reflected on a hadith after prayer. We then visited the charming Old Town of Sarajevo with its old-style shops and restaurants, as well as masjids which were over 500 years old.
The Igman War Mosque
The City Hall in Old Town Sarajevo
Picture of the Old Town main street
Picture of the mosque in the Old Town
We caught the bus after breakfast and headed to the city of Mostar. It was about a three hour journey but we also stopped for a nice boat ride in a lake on the way. It was refreshing since Mostar is known to be quite hotter than Sarajevo. We also visited the little village of Blagaj, with a population of only about 2,500 people, just outside the city of Mostar. It is situated at the spring of the Buna River and contains a historical tekke (Dervish monastery) built around 1520. We enjoyed the natural beauty and had some fish on the river bank.
We arrived at our four-star hotel in Mostar and noticed that right next to it and across from it are heavily damaged, abandoned buildings that had clearly been bombed and are riddled with bullet holes. The destruction was preserved in the middle of the rebuilt city to remind people of what took place from 1992-1995. Seeing such a sight in-person is much more powerful than merely reading about what happened.
Picture of the hotel
We prayed maghrib in the mosque near our hotel, which just happened to be the oldest masjid in Mostar. It was destroyed around World War II and just rebuilt five years ago. I spoke with the Imam and learned a little more about the history of the town and people. He mentioned that people jump off the famous Mostar Bridge every week and you need training and a permit before you can do so. I contemplated following the tradition for a moment, until he showed us a few videos of people from around the world who also got hurt while jumping since it is not an easy feat to land properly. We then asked what time the masjid opens for Fajr and he said that it does not open. We politely requested an exception and he said he will keep the main gate open from 3:30-5:30AM so we can pray in the courtyard outside the masjid. Our group found it sad that people are not praying in the masjid, especially since so many Muslims live around it, and it is famous due to being the oldest masjid in the city. American Muslims have a very different perspective and expectations about what should be happening in Muslim majority countries. Nonetheless, we appreciated the gesture of keeping the gate open.
My friend Eddie Redzovic (famous for “The Deen Show” on youtube) connected me with another shaykh who leads prayers at the closest mosque to the Mostar Bridge. We visited him and he kept emphasizing that Islam is making a comeback among the Bosnian people, especially the youth. He explained that it is slow and steady, despite all the attempts by local and foreign powers to take people further away from the path of Islam. It was lovely to see the optimism.
Photo of Mostar at night
We prayed Fajr, as planned, inside the compound of the nearby masjid. We then headed to the famous Mostar Bridge for the daily hadith lesson. It was empty, which was great, since it was so crowded last night. The time after Fajr is precious and beautiful. We walked around, had breakfast, then headed to the Museum for Genocide Victims.
It was a gruesome exhibit, filled with torture devices used on the Muslims. Everything from baseball bats to slingshots were used against the Muslims, even by civilians. Everyone who visited left with a sense of sadness and horror, and the way they looked at the remnants of the demolished buildings around the city had changed.
We only had a few hours before departure so we went to the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque which allows us to climb up the minaret where we can see the whole city. It is a rare experience to climb up a 500-year-old, very high, minaret. This was my second time, but the first time for most in the group. It is a narrow walkway and very high. While walking up I wondered what the muezzin who did this regularly must have felt like, walking in the dark with a candle to get up every day.
We then went to the Bridge museum, located in the main fortress, and learned how the Ottomans constructed the Mostar Bridge. It was a marvel of its time. Even after it was targeted and destroyed during the war (which was caught on camera so they could not deny it or place blame on someone else), it had to be rebuilt without using modern glue in order for it to be considered a UNESCO world heritage site. We learned how the modern engineers were baffled at how the Ottomans could have built something so remarkable during that era: it seemed to defy the laws of physics.
We then headed back to Sarajevo and visited the Tunnel of Hope next to the airport. This was dug by the Bosnian army in 1993 to transport supplies in and out of Sarajevo since it was completely surrounded by Serbian forces. Since the United Nations controlled the airport area, they dug underground to link Sarajevo with Bosnian-held territory on the other side. It was an ingenious way to bypass the siege which lasted for years. There were over two million trips made through this tunnel during that time. It is horrifying to imagine that in a modern city, residents would have to hide behind buildings while walking on the street because a sniper would shoot them if they did not. At night, when someone woke up in their apartment building and decided to light a cigarette, they would be taken out by a sniper because they could see the flame in their scope. What a horrible ending: dying with a cigarette in your hand.
We arrived back in Sarajevo by the afternoon.
We headed to Srebrenica where a massacre of Muslims occurred in July 1995. It has been classed as a genocide. It is one of the best documented modern genocides with a plethora of evidence of exactly what happened and why. This is what makes it unique among other tragedies that occur in the world.
There is a massive memorial with the number 8372 written. It represents the original body count of Bosniak Muslim men and boys that were found there. The Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), under the command of Ratko Mladić, were responsible. Over 600 killed were minors: teens, children, toddlers, and babies. They were executed and dumped into mass graves to try to cover up what happened. Every year, they find more bodies so the number is actually much higher.
Right before the massacre, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a “safe area” under UN protection. The Muslims flocked to the region thinking they would be safe. But the UN sent only a few, barely armed, “peacekeepers”. The Serb army took the area over and captured the few peacekeepers. The UN proved to be useless. This was supposed to be a safe zone. This is why the Bosnian people refer to the UN as the “United Nothing”.
Srebrenica is today situated in a Serb controlled region (within the country of Bosnia) which operates almost as an independent state called Republica Srpska. Many of the people who committed these atrocities, which are so well documented, remain free and unpunished until today. Our guide was asked, what is the one lesson someone should learn after visiting this site. His response, “Never trust anyone.”
After returning to Sarajevo we met two local brothers, who lived in the United States for a while but moved back to Bosnia. They are heavily involved in calling people back to Islam. They gave us a very hopeful picture and reflected on the state of affairs in the country. They mentioned the challenges of having the masjids and imams under the official government banner and how such “funding” comes with a price and a level of control that is not very healthy. Muslims in America often overlook the benefits of such freedom to establish mosques and organize religious events as they please (although it has its cons as well).
We visited the town of Travnik. It was the capital of Bosnia for the Ottomans for a time when they had lost the capital to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We prayed in the Colorful Mosque which has an entirely unique design: a mix of East and West. There are no other mosques designed like this.
The Imam was very friendly, and he then invited to take us for coffee. We couldn’t refuse. It was a sad practice to see that in Travnik coffee is served with a cigarette. The Imam said it is “tradition” and then quoted “a coffee without a cigarette is like a mosque without a minaret”. I was feeling some dismay until he clarified that that is what the people say, but he is adamant that smoking is 100% haram without a doubt.
The Colorful Mosque
Bosnia was a great country to visit to learn about the history of Islamic civilization in the area as well as the modern political issues that occurred. It is easy for a Western Muslim to fit in since it has a lot of modern European influence and many people speak English well. The people are also very friendly but the economy is not very strong and there are other political challenges. Nonetheless, Western English-speaking Muslims should maintain a strong connection with the Muslims in Bosnia for our mutual benefit.
[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar | Aug 17, 2023 – Sarajevo, Bosnia