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Remaking Muslim LivesEveryday Islam in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina$

David Henig

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780252043291

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252043291.001.0001

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Blessing Falling from the Sky

Blessing Falling from the Sky

(p.133) 6 Blessing Falling from the Sky
Remaking Muslim Lives

David Henig

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the dynamics unfolding around the politics of Muslim holy sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. It focuses on the outdoor spaces of veneration and prayer (dovište), from small village spaces to larger regional pilgrimage sites. These sites offer a window onto the historical, political, and religious transformations and continuities that have taken place around them over the last hundred years. It shows how the Muslim holy sites became a nexus for local Muslims, national politicians, and numerous international faith-based organizations from Turkey and the Gulf countries to articulate their agendas and interests. Through ethnography of several Muslim holy sites, it illustrates wider ambiguities and areas of contestation over Islamic religious authority, authenticity, and control of historical narratives in postsocialist, postwar Bosnian Muslim politics at large.

Keywords:   Ajvatovica pilgrimage, Dovište complex, Karići pilgrimage, Little Hajj, Muslim Pilgrimage, Muslim politics, Neo-Ottomanism, religious change, sacred landscape

One evening in 2014, I met Džafer over an iftar in Sarajevo. I enjoyed being invited to iftar as it always brought about unexpected encounters and gave me the opportunity to meet new people. It turned out that Džafer was originally from the outskirts of the Zvijezda highlands, where his parents still lived and where he regularly returned. “Did you hear about the dovište?” was one of his first questions to me. Since I had visited most of them, for the rest of the evening we could talk of nothing but the dovište. On that evening I became Džafer’s interlocutor, feeding his spiritual hunger: What was the dovište like in the village where I lived? Was it different from the neighboring villages? What stories did the villagers tell about these sites? Were any good people associated with any of the dovište? Džafer never tired of asking these questions. As a seeker flirting with Sufism as well as other spiritual paths mediated via various online platforms that he would browse tirelessly for many hours every night, Džafer was particularly interested in the presence of the good people, or evlija, who might be linked to these sites in the local historical consciousness. For Džafer, dovište was a site that was instantly connected with the divine, where “bereket [blessing; divine grace] falls directly from the sky,” as he told me. “We might not remember who exactly the dobri [good or holy people] were,” he continued, “but their bereket is still there,” as he was referring to the entire region of the Zvijezda highlands more broadly. It was therefore no coincidence, Džafer considered, that there were so many dovišta and so many graves of good people in (p.134) BiH compared with elsewhere in Europe, because BiH would play an important role when the Day of Judgment (kijamet) came.

The signs that the end times were coming were everywhere, he adamantly contended. Then, Džafer started listing them: the terrible floods that had hit BiH in the summer of 2014; several local earthquakes that occurred the same year; Muslims fighting other Muslims in the ongoing wars in the Middle East; the news about global warming; global economic turmoil; and the refugee crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean. Although Džafer’s account echoed a common millennialist genre prevalent on many of the Islamic Internet forums and websites where he spent so much of his free time, his answer to the frenzy engendered by these virtual exchanges and discussions about the Day of Judgment was strikingly different. Unlike other participants on the online forums, who called for strict pious conduct as the only means of salvation, for Džafer the dovište, where divine grace fell directly from the sky, would become a space of refuge and protection for those who venerated these sites, prayed there, and took care of them.

Not everyone would agree with Džafer. A few years before our conversation, I was traveling by bus from Sarajevo to the Zvijezda highlands, when a billboard caught my attention. It was advertising the 499th Ajvatovica, allegedly the largest Muslim gathering in Europe. Neither the anniversary nor the advertisement itself intrigued me so much as the red graffiti visible from the bus window as we passed. Sprayed across the bottom of the billboard were the words “The biggest heretic religious feast.” The second graffito was less wordy, yet the message was just as strong: the word širk (idolatry) had been sprayed across half of the billboard. I mentioned what I had seen to my village friends. They all quickly responded, “eh, vehabije [Wahhabis]!” The vernacular term “vehabije” emerged in the postwar years and refers to Muslims—Bosnian and foreign—who embrace the teaching of Salafism or other scriptural forms of Islamic teaching and practice and do not recognize the IC-BiH as their Islamic authority (see the sidebar in the introduction; see also Li 2019). The Salafi networks have entered public visibility and stirred controversies on many occasions since about 2000, and they have become vocal critics in social and print media, selected mosques, and elsewhere, of the centuries-long tradition of venerating the dovište to seek divine blessing mediated by the presence of the holy person buried there. Thus the practice of veneration and praying at the holy sites is not void of political entanglements and conflicting interpretations, as I discuss in this chapter.

The visitation of graves or other outdoor places of worship often becomes a site of contest and negotiation over boundaries of appropriate thought and practice in Islamic societies (Ho 2006: 10–11). Indeed, the two episodes illustrate (p.135) the polysemic character of dovište. For Džafer, my village friends, and my other interlocutors, these are the sites where “blessing falls directly from the sky” and where villagers have entered through their veneration and prayers into vital exchange with the divine over a long period of time. They have done so despite various historical vicissitudes and attempts from religious as well as secular centers of power to mute such practices. The dovište and the forms of veneration it entails constitute a nexus that orients villagers in historical time and space, instructs them how to relate to the divine, and shapes villagers’ self-construction and self-articulation of Muslimness in the course of history. For vehabije, the dovište represents an expression of un-Islamic idolatry, a set of wrong beliefs. But there is also the IC-BiH, local and national politicians, and numerous international Islamic actors, for whom the annual gatherings and venerations of dovište offer a platform for articulating their agendas and interests.

Although this chapter situates these two episodes within the context of the dynamics unfolding around the politics of holy sites in the Zvijezda highlands, the two episodes are also indicative of wider ambiguities and areas of contest over religious authority, authenticity, and historical consciousness in postsocialist, postwar Bosnian Muslim politics at large. The postsocialist liberation of religious life, heightened postwar ethnonational identity rhetoric, and the proliferation of international Islamic humanitarian organizations in the country have opened up public debates about the character of Bosnian Islam, about its geopolitical and georeligious orientations, and what it means to live a Muslim life. Special attention in these debates has been paid to discourses on renewed Bosniak traditions and to Muslim holy sites such as Ajvatovica, which was advertised on the defaced billboard. By tracking the local forms of visitation to the holy sites, and elucidating their polyvocality, this chapter addresses how villagers have responded to these transformations in the religious landscape in the postsocialist, postwar era.

The Journey

The engagement of the living with the graves of the holy people and martyrs, and with the dovište, cannot be fully understood without also understanding the journeys and histories of mobility behind it (Ho 2006). The dovište is not only a site fixed in a particular place. It is a node of encounter in the circuit of movement across time and space. People, miracles, sacred genealogies, and historical narratives dwell and flow in the orbit surrounding such sites. In the Zvijezda highlands, every dovište is intertwined with others through ritual calendars, (p.136) through kinship and friendship relations forged between villages that are linked to the particular sites and cultivated over generations, and through personal histories of visitation and paying respect to other places in the region over a long period of time. Narratives of miracles (keramet), successful cures, and historical events associated with individual dovište are retold time and again. Very early on during my fieldwork, when I was conversing with Fadil, then in his seventies, about his religious socialization, he began with a reference to a particular dovišta. In 1955, when Fadil was ten years old, he started walking with his father to the dovište Karići to take part in the annual three-day hatma dova,1 which was known regionally as little hajj (mali hadž), referring to the hajj in Mecca. Pointing in various directions with his index finger, Fadil then started listing other dovišta he regularly visited. In our conversation, Fadil was stringing one dovište after another into his narrative along the horizon of the Zvijezda highlands like the prayer beads that he always carried in his pocket, threaded together.

The discourses and practices surrounding the dovište thus encourage specific forms of travel to local or regional holy sites, recognized in the Islamic traditions as ziyārat (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990). In the highlands, this particular form of veneration is referred to by some villagers as zijaret, although the more common reference is the dova at a particular site. Villagers visit these sites individually or in smaller groups throughout the year whenever they seek blessings and divine intervention in their everyday life. Villagers travel in larger numbers across the highlands, along with urbanites and diasporic Bosnians living abroad, for annual gatherings scheduled according to the ritual calendar, and organized by the regional branches of the IC-BiH.

Although each individual site has its own story to tell, six distinct variables situate them in villagers’ conceptual geography of dovište: scale (national-local); gender openness and restriction; historical trajectory between continuity and discontinuity (before, during, and after socialism); the degree of state involvement; presence or absence of commercial elements; and choreography, such as the inclusion of secular “folklore” elements into the ritual performances (Bringa and Henig 2017: 85). What all the sites share is the fact that they are the places where “blessing falls directly from the sky,” and all dovišta thus mediate the relationship between villagers and the divine, villagers themselves, and the relationships between life and afterlife. Over the years, I frequently encountered references to the Karići dovište—the site of little hajj—that were similar to what Fadil told me early on during my fieldwork, underscoring its importance in the regional historical consciousness and in Muslim self-conceptions in the Zvijezda highlands

(p.137) Karići Dovište

Dova na Karićima is the annual three-day zijaret during which Bosnian male Muslims—local and from farther afield—gather to recite the entire Qur’an (hatma dova) for Hajdar-dedo Karić, and pray for Allah, and the Ottoman and Bosnian martyrs at the place of the wooden mosque called Karići. The place is situated right at the top of the plateau at the intersection between Selačka, Budoželjska, and the Zvijezda highlands. Although there are no written historical records about Hajdar-dedo Karić, he remains alive through a vivid oral tradition, the annual dova, and Muslims’ individual visits in search of blessing throughout the year. It is narrated that Hajdar-dedo Karić was one of the messengers of Islam who were brought to the Balkan peninsula during the early Islamization era. These narratives portray Hajdar-dedo Karić as a wise, knowledgeable Islamic scholar, effendi, the founder of the mosque through dream revelations, a dervish sheikh and a holy man (evlija and dobri) who performed keramet during his life. The very first tomb (mezar) next to the mosque, situated so as to face in the direction of Mecca, and with a small pit in the middle, is venerated not only during the three-day dova but during individual visits throughout the year. This kind of gravestone (nišan) was usually made for individuals who performed miracles during their lifetime. The rainwater caught in the pit is conceived as

Blessing Falling from the Sky

Karići mosque—the place of ibadet (prayer) and mehabet (intimate conversation).

(p.138) healing and is used to treat various kinds of illnesses, as well as for good luck, blessing, and fortune.

Many stories of divine power are associated with the site. During the Second World War, Četnik troops tried to burn down the wooden mosque but were unable to set it alight by any means. Another story relates that no Muslim community has dwelled on the plateau for the last 150 years, and that the mosque and pilgrimage site were used only during the annual gatherings and individual visits. The only residents living in relative proximity were a few Serbian households. The Orthodox families became very respectful caretakers for the mosque and even held the key in the past, although they did not participate in the zijaret as such. Even in the more distant villages I was repeatedly told one story. At the time when the Karići mosque was abandoned and visited only during the annual pilgrimage or individual visits, these Orthodox families despairingly struggled with bad crops as much as with illnesses of their livestock. While searching for help, they were told by an Orthodox cleric that there must be a sacred building near by their homes that they needed to take care of, and it was the Karići mosque. Eventually, the families did so and all the bad luck vanished.

During the period of socialist Yugoslavia, the Karići pilgrimage was neither sanctioned by the state nor banned by the IC-BiH. In 1993, during the Bosnian war, a VRS (Vojska Republike Srpske; the Army of Republika Srpska) army tank drove through the ancient wooden mosque. At the time, the region was barely accessible because of the many land mines scattered around the pilgrimage site during the war.2 Local Muslims temporarily organized the annual gathering in a nearby provincial town mosque. After the war, the landscape was slowly demined, the wooden mosque was eventually rebuilt in 2002 with the timber from surrounding forest, and the three-day dova fully restored.

Although the restoration of the mosque was initiated by a group of local Bosnian Muslim patriots, the land and the mosque are officially owned and controlled by the IC-BiH. The IC-BiH is also responsible for organizing and setting the dates in July for the Karići annual gathering. The date is counted according to the old Julian calendar as the week of the eleventh Tuesday after Jurjevdan. The gathering begins with Friday’s noon prayer and lasts until the Sunday midday prayer. Only male Muslims are allowed to attend the Karići gathering. The gathering involves reciting the entire Qur’an, singing ilahija (songs in praise of Allah), and other performances, such as singing verses from mevlud both in Turkish and Bosnian, tevhid for the Ottoman as well as Bosnian martyrs, and performing a collective devotional prayer, kijam zikr. The devotional prayer ki-jam zikr is performed by dervishes and led by a dervish sheikh. The devotional zikr prayer was also performed as part of the dova gathering under socialist (p.139) Yugoslavia; this is worth mentioning as all dervish orders in BiH had been officially banned in the 1950s by the IC-BiH itself, with the Yugoslav state’s assistance, for being “devoid of cultural value” (Algar 1971: 196), and this ban lasted until 1989, following the postsocialist liberalization of religious life.

According to some Bosnian authors, the Karići pilgrimage has been an annual tradition for more than four hundred years (Muftić 2004; Mulahalilović 1989: 192–96). Some of those who associate the holy site with the ritual prayers for rain push the continuity of the practice even further back to pre-Islamic roots (Hadžijahić 1978). Be this as it may, the notion of undisrupted continuity of the Karići dova that belongs to the practice of journeying to dovište across the highlands plays an important role in Bosnian Muslims’ historical consciousness throughout Central Bosnia.

Since the demise of the state socialist Yugoslav regime in the late 1980s, and in the postwar years in particular, the Muslim holy sites have become a nexus where debates often take place about continuity and discontinuity, about tradition and “new interpretations” of tradition.3 Across the villages, this takes a form of frequent juxtaposing the Karići and the Ajvatovica sites. My friends and interlocutors often compared Karići and Ajvatovica, although the great majority had never traveled to Ajvatovica. Yet this juxtaposition and ensuing tensions are worth probing as they mirror how village Muslims make sense of the key transformations of Muslim holy sites and sacred landscape after socialism.


Let me now turn again to the story of the defaced billboard advertising the Ajvatovica pilgrimage. These days, the Ajvatovica gathering is presented by the IC-BiH as the largest Muslim pilgrimage in Europe, with a long history of continuity. This is done so despite Ajvatovica having been banned during the socialist period in 1947 and renewed only in 1990. Contrarily, according to the local Salafi circles, Ajvatovica is the largest heretic feast in BiH (Suljić 2013). So what renders Ajvatovica so contentious?

The Ajvatovica pilgrimage, near the town of Prusac, boasts legends and hagiographical accounts similar to those of the Karići site, dating back to the seventeenth century (and in some accounts to the fifteenth century), and involving another legendary messenger of Islam, an effendi, a dervish sheikh Ajvaz-dedo.4 The stories say that Ajvaz-dedo was a holy person. When he came to Prusac, there was no proper water supply in the village. A spring was near the village, but the water was blocked by a rock. Ajvaz-dedo spent forty days praying to Allah, and on the fortieth day he dreamed about two billy goats colliding. When (p.140) he awoke, the rock had split in half, freeing the water. Local villagers saw this as a miracle (keramet) and blessing (bereket), and, ever since, have traveled to the place where the rock split to perform prayers for Ajvaz-dedo and Allah.

Unlike the Karići gathering, Ajvatovica was officially banned during the socialist period, in 1947 (Mulahalilović 1989: 192–96). But again, the story is not so clear-cut. As Tone Bringa (in Bringa and Henig 2017: 91) writes,

the story about what led to the ban has made the Ajvatovica procession in particular a powerful symbol of repression and defiance. In 1947 the procession was stopped by police before they reached Prusac. The police asked the participants at the head of the procession for official documentation for permission to proceed. They had no such documentation and refused to stop […] the imam at the head of the procession was arrested a few days later. He received a six-year prison sentence. (For a detailed account of the event, see Hadžić 2005). However, like other banned religious activities, a lower-key and more secretive dova took place without the procession throughout Communist times. Prusac inhabitants and a small circle of trusted relatives and friends would continue to celebrate Ajvatovica out of sight of the public and the government’s watchful eye, and dervishes would hold a mevlud and a zikr at the site

(Hadžić 2005).

The “new” and increasingly more monumentalized Ajvatovica was created in 1990, following the postsocialist liberalization of religious conduct, supported by the IC-BiH, the SDA (led at the time by Alija Izetbegović), and various media, such as the weekly Islamic publication Preporod. In 1990, thousands of people attended the Ajvatovica. In the following year, 1991, it attracted even more Muslim travelers, this time also including women, and was accompanied by a cultural program (Perica 2002: 86). The program and changes in the choreography of the event need to be understood within a climate of increasingly competitive nationalisms of the time (Croat, Serb, and Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak) that became anchored in religious traditions, and instrumentalizing religious differences.5 When the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, the gathering was interrupted again. However, since the region where the Ajvatovica pilgrimage site is located was controlled and defended during the war by the Bosnian army, Ajvatovica gained in public discourse the character of a holy land, expressing the continuity of a threatened Muslim community and its cultural heritage (Sarač-Rujanac 2013). In the postwar years, the celebrations continued with the expanded religious-cultural program and changed choreography that was introduced in 1991. Since then, Ajvatovica programs have spread to other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina beyond Donji Vakuf and Prusac, and under the auspices of Program dana Ajvatovice there are “cultural, religious, and sports programs: in at least seven cities, including Sarajevo (Bringa and Henig 2017: 91).

(p.141) The choreography of the “new” Ajvatovica has become part of the monumentalized Bosniak tradition of the postwar years as it has been promoted by the IC-BiH as well as many Bosniak politicians. The orchestration and choreography of the Days of Ajvatovica (Dani Ajvatovice) unfold as an assemblage of religious pilgrimage, political gathering, and social parade composed of various events, concerts, and lectures that are widely advertised and promoted on billboards across the Federation, as well as in televisions and newspaper advertisements. During my fieldwork, I was repeatedly told by male and female villagers alike that Ajvatovica used to be an all-male gathering; only after 1990 was it publicly promoted in the nationalized rhetoric as a gathering for all Muslims. Unlike Karići, for many of my interlocutors, the Ajvatovica pilgrimage was re-orchestrated and instrumentalized in Bosniak political discourse as a fertile national symbol in post-Yugoslav public debates on collective Bosnian Muslim identity.


Karići is an important historical anchor around which villagers can thread their individual and collective historical experiences. During my fieldwork in the highlands, I was often drawn into the conversations and memories of pilgrimage, expressing villagers’ strong emotional attachment to Karići. Such conversations have a shared narrative form that characteristically starts with individual experiences, for instance, by noting the exact date villagers visited Karići for the first time and continues by recounting how all important historical dates are enfolded into their own life stories and travels to the dovište. The elderly Fadil, when asked how many times he had traveled to Karići, had a straightforward answer for me: “Only Allah knows, but as far as I remember I have never omitted, as my father never did,” referring to inherited historical sensibility of obligation and care toward Karići that was cultivated in his family over generations. He also recalled specific years when he went to Karići, such as the year his father died, the year that the war in BiH broke out, and those years after the site was destroyed and later rebuilt. Younger villagers, born in the era of socialist Yugoslavia, told me other historical experiences. Men in their forties often said to me that they attended the pilgrimage for the first time only after the end of Yugoslav communism in 1990, many only after the 1990s war, when they realigned themselves with the renewed and liberalized Islamic tradition and discourses on Bosnian Muslim identity. A dervish sheikh from Herzegovina in his midfifties reminisced: “I visited Karići for the first time in 1981. I remember very vividly how I met old men in very old traditional clothes, fezzes wrapped in a golden cloth that they brought from hajj, and with beautifully decorated horses. (p.142) It was astonishing. They were so nice. Today it is different—these gatherings are one of the last expressions of living Bosnian Islam. It is not like Ajvatovica.”

These narratives and ongoing conversations frequently juxtapose Karići and Ajvatovica. More generally, villagers are attempting to come to terms with profound transformations and monumentalization of numerous dovišta in the postsocialist, postwar years. Their accounts are often very passionate, as the narrators express pride and anger entwined with melancholy and nostalgia over the changing character of the Muslim sacred landscape. Media coverage of the Ajvatovica and the Karići events from recent years also favors the former; the latter received hardly any attention in the public sphere, and in the mass media in particular. Villagers and urbanites of various walks of life from the region also reflected on this fact and blamed the IC-BiH and its imams, as well as Bosniak politicians for overlooking Karići, and prioritizing and monumentalizing Ajvatovica. One of the villagers told me:

Many of the [IC-BiH] representatives don’t care when it comes to places like Karići. After the war, in 1997 when people wanted to return the dova back to Karići from the municipal mosque, the mufti was against it.6 He said “I won’t come—there are land mines.” The old local imam, a real patriot, just said, “So what? We are going there anyway, and if you want to come, you are welcome.” He at the end came, but it already demonstrated the attitude of the Islamska Zajednica [IC-BiH] toward Karići. Ajvatovica is more important for them. What do you expect, it’s something that has already turned into an ideology. The previous grand Bosnian mufti [Mustafa ef. Cerić] said that the Ajvatovica is the biggest Muslim dovište in Europe. He didn’t need to say anything like that. It was unnecessary and it also showed what was already at work at the time: nationalization.

What is unfolding in these narratives is a paradox. Although many villagers shared similar opinions, at the same time they were also proud that Karići had not been “sullied” yet by any novelties. Back in 2008, I was told by one Muslim traveler

Today, Ajvatovica is like many other gatherings you can attend, all are just one big parade (teferič). Whereas Karići is the place where people come to pray and contemplate together (ibadet), to have a conversation (mehabet) but not a parade, and it has always been like this. Karići has had continuity! I tell you what, these Bosnian gatherings aren’t what they used to be. Today, people say that they are going to a gathering, but they mean a parade (teferič). And Ajvatovica? Ehh, that’s for tourists. Only Karići still continues in the way of traditional Muslims’ gatherings as it used to be everywhere here. Even a few decades ago you could meet so many hajis in the Karići, the golden fezzes were just everywhere. Indeed, in the past people said, “Karići—this is our little hajj.”

(p.143) Narratives like this one succinctly articulate some of the competing and contradictory perceptions of how activities at the holy sites are orchestrated nowadays. The great majority of my friends and interlocutors critically reflected on the organization and choreography of the dovište. This runs to the heart of changing dynamics of power relations, shifting hierarchies, and the agency of various actors in the process of making dovište, and it magnifies the contradictions in changing postsocialist, postwar Bosnian Muslim politics. It particularly reveals how the various actors understand and validate what it means to be a Muslim or what constitutes genuine Bosnian Islamic tradition and practice, and how the long-lasting local Muslim practice of travel to the holy sites is controlled, authorized, negotiated, and contested.

In the case of Ajvatovica, it is mainly the change in its choreography that was often criticized. My village friends pointed out on various occasions that traditional Bosnian dove, such as that at Karići, used to be all male and that the IC-BiH should not have opened up the Ajvatovica gathering to women. This was also the reason some of my interlocutors cited for deciding never to conduct a pilgrimage to Ajvatovica. Another oft-repeated criticism was how Ajvatovica was turned into a widely advertised and expensive event with an opulent program. Because of its visibility, Ajvatovica opened the space for various Bosniak politicians as well as Muslim ulema to instrumentalize the event to promote themselves in the public sphere. Many local dervish communities also feel rather uneasy about the ways Ajvatovica is orchestrated, yet for different reasons. During pilgrimages over the past few years, folkloric groups from Turkey have been invited, sponsored either by Diyanet (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı; Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs) or by TIKA (Türk İşbirliği ve Koordinasyon İdaresi Başkanlığı; Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), to perform “classical Turkish Sufi music” alongside “whirling Turkish dervishes” as part of the construction and performance of “traditional Bosnian Islam” choreographed by the IC-BiH. By including such staged manifestations of “tradition” performed by Turkish folkloric groups, the IC-BiH silences the living tradition of Bosnian Sufism and makes it part of a distant and folklorized Ottoman past (for a similar case in Turkey, see Walton 2017). In more recent years, folkloric groups in the Ottoman army costumes took part on the stage as well. The increasingly visible presence of Turkish actors during such events indexes an increasingly assertive geopolitical role Turkey has pursued for over more than a decade in BiH and Southeast Europe at large (Merdjanova 2013, Öktem 2012). Drawing on the references to the Ottoman empire as well as on the discourse of quasi-kinship relatedness between Turkey and its “kin communities” (akraba topluluklar), in which the main connective tissues are Islam and shared Ottoman past, even the sites like Ajvatovica, local mosques, and (p.144) other dovišta have become entangled in the neo-Ottoman realm of Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions.

Karići is organized less ostentatiously than Ajvatovica. It attracts over a couple of thousand of pilgrims every year. Although it is perceived by the majority as a continuation of “traditional” and genuine Bosnian Muslim practice, the Karići dova has not been devoid of multiple tensions over the potentially competing meanings of the gathering. In summer 2009, a group of Diyanet representatives was invited by the local IC-BiH branch to attend the Karići pilgrimage. As part of its educational and humanitarian activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the group organized a summer Qur’anic school for children in mosques across the highlands. Some of the Turkish guests also took part in the Karići program by publicly reciting the Qur’an and mevlud. Eventually, in conjunction with the nighttime sermon, one of the guests gave a short speech during which he discussed the importance of Hajdar-dedo Karić and the even greater importance of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Bosnian lands more than five centuries ago and proselytized Islam in the region. The Turkish effendi emphasized how the sultan established intimate and enduring kinship ties (porodične veze) between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This speech sharply contrasted with that of the local imam, who represented the IC-BiH and who only very briefly repeated a few historical facts about Hajdar-dedo Karić. During his talk, he did not speak of Hajdar-dedo Karić having brought Islam to the region or refer to Karići as a place connected to Sufism; instead, he characterized the Karići pilgrimage simply as a traditional gathering of Bosnian Muslims who had survived various aggressions in the past. This was not the only speech delivered by the imam in the public in a similar manner, and I found an echo of discontent among the audience.

My interlocutors contended that the imam detached himself from shared regional, long-standing historical narratives about Hajdar-dedo Karić and, as a result, departed from the local historically formed articulations and self-conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim. The great majority also rejected the Turkish guest speaker. Although he included Hajdar-dedo Karić firmly in his speech, he did so by embedding regional narratives into a grand narrative of postimperial Ottoman nostalgia in which Turkey was presented as the center, with Bosnia and Karići on a periphery that had been civilized and Islamized by the Ottomans. This statement also contradicted the attempts of the IC-BiH to present its large Muslim gatherings as being exclusively European. In a unanimous response to the entire orchestration of the pilgrimage, my Muslim interlocutors angrily disapproved: “Did they come to Turkify (turćit) us again?” (p.145) expressing sharp disappointment that the IC-BiH brought these Turkish guests and permitted them to intervene in the choreography of the Karići dova.

Another voice in this cacophony of discontent arose from local patriotic villagers who were engaged with the restoration of the damaged Karići mosque in early postwar years, and who were strongly attached to the story of Hajdar-dedo Karić. Yet they were largely excluded from organizing the event. These unfolding tensions illustrate that, despite the years of postsocialist liberalization, the IC-BiH is still trying to maintain a complete monopoly over the appropriation of the Bosnian sacred landscape and religious authority in its attempt to contain diverse and often competing interpretations of Islam and Muslim practice by various means, while silencing or excluding others from the orchestration of the dova.

Stinking Manure

According to Džafer, who we met at the beginning of this chapter, the Zvijezda highlands are a place of marvel due to the high number of dovište and a place where “blessing falls directly from the sky.” Although Karići is the central dovište, it needs to be situated within this wider network of dovišta and the circuit of zijaret movement that intertwines them. Previous chapters discuss the long-lasting importance of local dovišta at the outskirts of villages to which villagers regularly travel in order to perform the prayers for rain, and according to the ritual calendar or their own individual circumstances, to seek blessing, prosperity, and well-being.

After 1945, the socialist Yugoslav state, with the assistance of the IC-BiH and its modernizing ethos at the time, imposed many restrictions on the use of dovišta, attempting to erase various religious practices such as prayers for rain. In the ensuing decades, nearly half of the sites ceased to exist in Central Bosnia, although numerous dovišta continued to be venerated despite the restrictions. It became common during my fieldwork to hear from older villagers, “Prayer for rain—it was the only place and moment where you could even meet people engaged with the [Communist] Party,” as these events were usually organized with special approval under the official umbrella of traditional village parades (teferič) and gatherings. At the wake of postsocialist religious liberalization, and especially after the war ended in 1995, the organization of rain prayers gained significance again, and prayers at many sites have been revived, and in some cases incorporated into the process of monumentalization of Bosniak Islamic tradition and national collective identity.

(p.146) For many villagers, who rely on their land and agricultural production due to widespread economic precarity, prayers for rain continue to be seen as significant fertility rituals that they use in order to schedule various agricultural activities. The IC-BiH and other actors view them differently. Local dervishes have actively participated in the rain prayers along with villagers and even assisted in some cases with their postsocialist revivals. For dervishes, an engagement with the dovište, and praying on these sites is also a form of historical practice. They link the proof and legitimacy of their own presence in the region with some of the dovišta that are associated in local historical consciousness with dervishes who came to proselytize Islam in the early Ottoman period. The toponyms of selected dovišta further confirm this narrative, as some of the sites are known in the vernacular as Sheikh’s Tekke (Šejhova Tekija), Sheikh’s Spring (Šejhova Voda), and Sheikh Feruh’s Türbe (Šejh Feruhovo Turbe). Therefore, as was the case with the Karići site, by participating in the prayers for rain, many villagers also felt that they participated in continuing their spiritual tradition rooted in the region. Many imams, conversely, see these gatherings solely as a way of articulating the political identity of Bosnian Muslims, and debating, channeling, and authorizing the discourses on religious orthodoxy that have a long tradition among the urban ulema. This is often at odds with how villagers relate to the dova gatherings in their everyday historical work, and in their

Blessing Falling from the Sky

Prayer for rain.

(p.147) articulations of Muslimness through the practices of vital exchange with the divine at dovište—where blessing falls directly from the sky.

Over the years of my fieldwork I visited nearly all of the local prayers of rain, and became well acquainted with the imams who were responsible in organizing and leading the gatherings. After one of the prayers, I interviewed the imam who led the gathering, a cleric who had received religious training in a Gulf country. He was surprised that I was interested in these practices, and he ironically pointed out to me that “it would be better to abandon such heretical [bogomil] traditions.” Then he added, with strong disapproval in his voice, “What a folk Islam! I don’t understand why people still care.” On a different occasion the imam used even more derogative language of “peasant Islam” (seljački islam), implying a moral hierarchy between his urban sensibilities, education, and manners, and villagers’ rural practices. His opinions and comments were well-known to my friends and interlocutors. In response to his comments, villagers described the imam, apart from numerous swearwords, as a reformist. I was told that he was not born in the region and did not grow up there, and his regular income from the IC-BiH means he doesn’t need to plough the soil, so he could hardly understand the importance of rain prayers. Other villagers often ironically commented that, for the reformist imams, “manure will always stink,” thereby expressing the imams’ detachment from village life. The reaction of one villager neatly and straightforwardly captures this ambiguity and the clashing conceptions of externally imposed scriptural reasoning and registers of Muslim conduct as they are shaped in regard to local historical consciousness: “He is not traditionalist but revolutionist. He is not interested in any tradition. If so, then it is the dead tradition contained in the books. He is from the outside, he does not understand what people care about and strive for here.”

On another occasion, on which the prayer for rain was led by a local imam, the same villager who disapproved so strongly of the imam commented of the local cleric, “He is a good effendi, one of us, he does not pretend anything. The effendi is from here, not like those young imams today who don’t respect our tradition, the tradition of Bosnian Muslims. Contrarily, they try to impose various foreign novelties from Turkey or Arabia where they studied. This is not good.” These tensions are not simply a conflict between the “modernist” IC-BiH and parochial regional “traditionalists.” The ways villagers apprehend and enact what constitutes “correct” Muslim practice or choreography of sacred spaces are often ambiguous, contradictory, and contested. In the villages where new mosques were built only recently, and often thanks to the aid of Islamic humanitarian organizations from the Gulf in the early postwar years (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003, H. Karčić 2010) and later from Turkey, the (p.148) choreography of prayers for rain was also contested. In some cases, the prayers were relocated from the outdoor holy sites to the mosques, which has generated tensions in village politics, both secular and religious, and has often driven a wedge between neighbors.

During my visit to one village, I was quickly drawn into an ongoing dispute that consumed everyone for months over the relocation of the rain prayer from the outdoor holy site to the newly built village mosque: “We have a new mosque even with a balcony, so why should we climb to the hills forevermore? We should follow progress, we ought to be modern!” Here, the expression “being modern” refers to a similar rural/urban divide earlier articulated by the imam. Later, it was explained to me that the reference to “being modern” means “adjusting the tradition (adet) [of prayers for rain], not its abandonment.” Nonetheless, on the day of the prayer for rain, approximately two hundred men of various ages assembled at the local holy site, about an hour’s walk away, and the distance did not seem to deter anyone. Anthropologists of pilgrimage have long argued that movement and journeying are inseparable from actual pilgrimage sites (Coleman and Eade 2004). Indeed, here in the ongoing vital exchanges between villagers and the divine, it was the movement to the dovište that was as important as praying at the dovište.

The potential danger of tensions between villagers lies elsewhere. Throughout this chapter I have illustrated how dove and dovišta are to a great extent under the control of the IC-BiH, and any decision related to their orchestration needs to meet with the approval of the respective local IC-BiH branch (medžilis). In the village where a quarrel over the relocation of the gathering arose, the dispute had intensified because the newly appointed village imam, a representative of the IC-BiH, was a newcomer to the region. He had studied in Saudi Arabia, and his attitude toward prayers for rain was dismissive, meaning that he decided not to attend any of them. Some of the villagers did not hesitate to call him vehabija—the same term as they used to describe the vandals who sprayed the graffiti on the billboard advertising the Ajvatovica. And it was this imam’s rather extreme attitude that eventually led to reconciliation of the two village factions, who became united in discontent against him and decided to invite another imam to the outdoor holy site. They invited one who did not question either the choreography or the practice of prayers, one for whom “manure does not stink.”


(1.) A gathering during which an entire Qur’an is recited.

(2.) On land mines in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina and their impact on local communities, see Henig 2012 and 2019.

(3.) As Vjekoslav Perica (2002) documented, this was the case for all religious communities across socialist Yugoslavia at the time.

(4.) In the Middle Ages, Prusac was an important town on the trading route between the Adriatic coast and Asia, and during the Ottoman era it also became an important center of Islamic learning (Bringa and Henig 2017: 90).

(5.) Choreography refers here to a configuration of actors and institutions, and the interplay between them in relation to the use and control over a (holy) site or shrine (see Barkan and Barkey 2014). The story of Ajvatovica (small Kaaba) was newly retold by a Bosniak intellectual, Husein Čepalo, in a short pamphlet published in 1991, Ajvatovica: mala ćaba.

(6.) During the war, the Karići gathering was relocated after the mosque was destroyed and the surrounding landscape heavily mined.