Living Islam in Bosnia

When she left the apartment each day, Leila said, her mother never knew if she would make it back alive

In the late 1990s, I was visiting Islamabad when the Bosnian Ambassador invited me to his   office. He seemed to know me and said he had been a General in the army fighting for his country’s survival and my book Living Islam, which he read several times, kept his spirits up.

It made me curious, and I hoped some day to discover why and how the General was reading my book.

The answer came two decades later when I visited Bosnia during fieldwork for my Journey into Europe book and film project about Islam in Europe.

Living Islam: From Samarkand to Stornaway is about the history and theology of Islam and how Islam is lived and practiced in the world today. It was published in 1993 by the BBC in a limited edition and accompanied a six-part BBC television series, also called Living Islam.

During that period I met Dr Haris Silajdzic, who was then prime minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in London and presented him with the book. He had it translated and widely distributed.

As Bosnia’s prime minister at the time and one of its leading intellectuals, Silajdzic sought to balance Western influences with Islamic ones while taking the best of both. So he passed Living Islam to the urbane Professor Enes Karic, the Bosnian Minister for Education, Science, Culture, and Sport at the time, who gave the book to the Bosnian professor Zulejha Ridjanovic, in order to translate it into Bosnian.

Leila described coming home to the cold apartment, without water and electricity, the windows blown out, and finding her mother working on a particular sentence by candlelight and then reading it to her with pride. ‘Do you think I have got it right?’ she would ask. ‘Have I captured the spirit of the author?’

‘I would say the message of your book, is Living Islam, not Islam of the past, it is Islam from the very life, and that is why I myself and my colleagues are delighted with your book,’ Karic told me in Sarajevo.

“After that we heard that there is a program done by the BBC in collaboration with you under the same title, we as a government, as an independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, sent a letter to the BBC and the BBC offered it to us without paying any money, for free, and the official letter is still available. I remember now every year during the month of Ramadan, everyone sees the program on TV, it really is a wonderful program.”

A highlight of our visit for me was meeting professor Ridjanovic. Now retired, the professor came to see us at our hotel in Sarajevo accompanied by her daughter, Leila Ridjanovic, who works for the UN in Geneva. Together they recounted the story of the translation, which I and my research team heard with fascination.

Professor Ridjanovic had written to me in April 1996. I received the letter at Cambridge and will always treasure it. It was typed on an ancient typewriter and the paper was rough. Even now, reading the letter takes my breath away because it reflects a deep story behind an already dramatic one.

After introducing herself, she wrote. “I must say that it was a tremendous pleasure translating your book. It is so close to the heart of every Muslim, that I considered myself privileged to have the opportunity to do the translation. Both the book, and the series were ready just before the month of Ramadan, and were received with great satisfaction and admiration by the public. I was translating the book in the days of heavy shelling, knowing somehow, that I shall live to see it completed and published. And I did thank Allah, the Merciful.” She ended her letter. “I sincerely hope that someday, you will all be able to come and visit us here in Sarajevo. Please, give my best to Zeenat-hanum and Omar.”

During this time, mother and daughter slept in the corridor of their flat for safety from the shelling. Leila described coming home to the cold apartment, without water and electricity, the windows blown out, and finding her mother working on a particular sentence by candlelight and then reading it to her with pride. ‘Do you think I have got it right?” she would ask. “Have I captured the spirit of the author?’

When she left the apartment each day, Leila said, her mother never knew if she would make it back alive. ‘And every morning when you say goodbye, that could be the last day you see each other.’ Leila recounted how her mother refused to leave the pages that she was translating behind in their flat in case it was struck.

The translation was a triumph. ‘The interest for the book,’ Zulejha said, ‘was tremendous. And it helped people to feel better.’ Living Islam ‘gave us courage,’ said Zulejha. She said that the translated Living Islam “was really given as a present to our soldiers, generals, all the foreign guests…. very important for the morale. It’s really everywhere,’ she said, ‘It speaks to everybody.’

Dr Mustafa Jahic, the director of the historic Gazi Husrev Bey Library in Sarajevo, showed copies of the book to us proudly in the library, as did the head librarian at the Bosniak Institute. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dr Husein Kavazovic, said when we called on him, ‘We are honoured to have you visit us. Your book was an inspiration to our ulema here.’

When Dr Haris visited me with his wife Selma for lunch at American University in November 2017,I could not help thinking that the story of Living Islam embodies the commitment to compassion and the ilm-ethos among Bosnians and the power of their indomitable ill.

The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar

Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2018.