The modern Bulgarian state was founded in 1878 on former Ottoman territories. It became the first Balkan Ottoman successor to inherit a considerable Muslim population, accounting for more than a quarter of the inhabitants of Bulgaria. After providing an overview of the Muslim community in the newly established Bulgarian nation-state, this study explores in detail the emergence and development of a cultural and political reform movement among the Muslims of Bulgaria. It also addresses how they “navigated between empire and nationstate and sought to be a part of an increasingly wider modern world” (p. 1). As perceptively observed by Methodova, “There is a considerable body of scholarship on the Muslims and Turks of Bulgaria in various languages” (p. 4). Nevertheless, most of the studies on the subject take a rather long durée approach, spanning a hundred-year period with a particular focus on assimilationist policies carried out by the Bulgarian state in the 1980s.
This study, however, by focusing on the period between 1876 and 1908, aims to shed light on the experiences of the Muslims in the three decades after the end of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria, a period which has “remained understudied” (p. 4). Yet, more significantly, by focusing on the reform endeavors among the Muslims of Bulgaria during this period, a topic “almost completely neglected” (p. 4) by the current scholarship, the study deliberately seeks to provide a narrative on “Muslim perspectives and agency” (p. 5) on modernity, nationalism and belonging by shifting the focus “away from the prevailing state-centered approaches” (p. 5). This study is based on Ottoman and Bulgarian archival records and a variety of newspapers and periodicals published by the Muslims of Bulgaria. Among these sources, periodicals published by the local Muslims, such as Muvazene (Equilibrium), Tuna (Danube), Uhuvvet (Brotherhood), Balkan, and Gayret (Zeal) are read very closely and excerpts from these are presented throughout the study. Methodieva notes that “Ottoman and Bulgarian archival records provide valuable information about Ottoman and Bulgarian aspirations, as well as insights into the context that engendered the rise of reform initiatives” (p. 9) among local Muslims; however, she points out that they fall short of providing their ideas, struggles, and aspirations regarding their community during the political shift from an imperial rule to a nation-state. As part of her research, Methodieva read various sources, particularly those produced by the local Muslims themselves, including but not limited to the local press, petitions sent by Muslims to various authorities, as well a few published memoirs. Her research supports the argument that during the period under consideration, local Muslims of Bulgaria became “the architects of important institutions that reinforced communal cohesiveness, such as an independent Muslim press, the Muslim Teachers’ Association, kıraathanes, and theater troupes” (p. 236). Methodieva goes on to challenge the established historiographical narrative that those Muslims who remained in Bulgaria after the de facto establishment of Bulgarian principality in 1878 were isolated and ignorant masses unaware of what was going around them and made only intermittent efforts to transform their community.
This study is structured into seven chapters and a conclusion. Chapter 1 provides a historical background for Ottoman existence in the region and scrutinizes major events, particularly the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878. The war led to an unprecedented Muslim exodus from the region, and the subsequent Berlin Treaty, which, among many other things, guaranteed formation of an autonomous Bulgarian state under Ottoman suzerainty. After presenting the composition of Bulgaria’s Muslims in terms of ethnic, sectarian, and sociocultural diversity as well as their major communal institutions, chapter 2 looks at how a newly established Bulgaria conceptualized and administrated its Muslim population. Chapter 3 examines the policies followed by the young Bulgarian state to do away with the material, architectural, and aesthetic remnants of the Ottoman legacy (such as introducing sweeping urban transformation projects and land regime changes). It goes on to explain how these policies impacted Muslims and paved the way for the reform movement.
The remaining chapters in the book move away from state-centered analysis, instead focusing on the Muslims themselves and their ideas and initiatives to transform and mobilize their community. After examining the intellectual and social origins of the Muslim reform movement, chapter 4 presents some of the main figures who played a crucial role in the formation of the Bulgarian Muslim community during the period under discussion. It is in this chapter that Methodieva realizes one of her main goals, that is, bringing out “faces” from the historical masses. In this regard, she reconstructs the life trajectories of prominent members of the Muslim community such as reformist Ali Fehmi and his opponent Rıza Pasha. This approach not only aims to avoid the ambiguity associated with general terms such as community and minority but also further highlights Muslims’ agency.
Chapter 5 examines in detail the reform agenda of the Bulgarian Muslim community, extending from the improvement of education and functions of pious foundations to the new interpretations regarding the role of women in society. This chapter also looks at various means used by reformists to realize their agenda. Besides schools, theaters, reading salons, and the press, popular political campaigns were actively promoted and employed by the reformists to educate and transform the community.
Chapter 6 explores Muslim attempts to play an active role in Bulgarian parliamentary politics in addition to struggles over the lead ership of the Muslim community. The final chapter provides insight into how the Muslims of Bulgaria cultivated new notions of identity and community. It demonstrates that while “Bulgaria’s Muslims were elaborating ideas of national community and identity locally, they increasingly turned their attention outside as they began to imagine their place in a larger, globalizing world” (p. 218) and exchanged ideas Muslims elsewhere, especially those in Bosnia and Crimea. After a summary of the main findings, the book closes by suggesting further research avenues to explore the lives of Muslims in general and reformists in particular after the declaration of independence in Bulgaria and Türkiye.
Overall, Between Empire and Nation provides a coherent understanding of the events, the people, intellectual ideas, and initiatives that defined the reform movement among Bulgaria’s Muslims. It proves to be a significant contribution to a vital but neglected chapter in the history of Muslims in Bulgaria. In this regard, the work is not only essential for students studying Ottoman Balkans but also for scholars studying the formation of the Bulgarian nation-state. Just as significantly, the study promises to be useful for those scholars working on reform movements in the Muslim world. Bulgaria’s Muslims, like other Muslims in different parts of the world, grappled with the challenges of modernity and Islam in their writings. They also took an active role in transforming their major institutions, culture, and society as a minority group during the formative years of the Bulgarian nation-state.