Teacher rediscovers Europe’s Muslim roots – and plans to uncover Britain’s secret past

Teacher rediscovers Europe’s Muslim roots – and plans to uncover Britain’s secret past

Tharik Hussain, Bangladesh-born but East-London raised, entered the world of travel as a relative novice. But he soon began stumbling on Islamic relics in an unexpected place: Europe.

After years of travelling, he has written the first ever English-language travelogue shining a light on this relatively unknown world.

He tells The Mirror about his life, how he first found these historical secrets, and how we may all have undiscovered histories waiting to be found just around the corner.

East London’s Brick Lane is heaving.

It’s full of dishevelled bars, vintage clothes shops, coffee houses, house plant specialists and street food markets. It’s a young, wealthy, hipster’s dream.

The tourists flock here, but there’s more to this place than lattes and vinyl.

Unfamiliar script adorns the street signs, beautiful and intricate beneath the English. Menus glued to windows in South Asian restaurants offer dishes your local curry house doesn’t: Bhaja Rupchanda, Keski Mas Bhuna, Brain Masala… brain?

A pointed spire, silver and glittering, sits outside an 18th century Grade II listed red brick building: a minaret.

“Probably the most hipster minaret in the world,” says Tharik Hussain with a chuckle as we navigate the street’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith history.

The 42-year-old author and teacher has taken me on a tour of his history, his culture, and his childhood: one rich in Muslim and Bengali — Bangladesh — heritage.

He has an eye for the most obscure yet significant aspects of his city. His words are weighted carefully as he takes me through the colourful and often brutal history of East London. He absorbs the sounds, the smells, and the people of this busy lane. “It’s all changing,” he says, a grin.

Tharik Hussain found Islamic relics in Europe
Tharik Hussain)

He has visited historic sites all over the world
Tharik Hussain)

“And that’s not bad. But we can’t lose the history of things, what came before.”

The history of things has become intertwined with Tharik’s life.

A journalist turned schoolteacher, he later tried his hand at travel writing, and a series of almost accidental discoveries while journeying across Europe led to his writing a book. And not just any book.

His Baillie Gifford Prize long-listed book Minarets in the Mountains, is the first English-language travelogue to explore a forgotten people of Europe – the continent’s indigenous Muslim population.

For more than 600 years these people have lived in and around the Western Balkans, a place that we, in the West, might call Eastern Europe.

When the Ottomans pushed north from Turkey in the 14th century, they brought with them a new religion, a new culture, a new system of laws.

They oversaw vast breakthroughs in science, and contributed a significant portion of their time to the arts during a period known as the Ottoman Empire’s ‘Golden Age’.

They were religiously tolerant, accepting the banished Jews of Southern and Western Europe, and protected the Christian inhabitants they conquered — a non-negotiable aspect of the Quran.

“But you and I weren’t taught about that in school,” he tells me as we leave the busy streets for a quiet coffee shop.

My education begins here.

Tharik started off as a journalist before becoming a teacher
Tharik Hussain)

Tharik was born in Khali Dhor, a tiny village in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh – a place where the majority of Brick Lane’s Bengali community migrated from in the early and mid 20th century.

Tharik’s family made the journey to Britain in the Eighties, and he was brought up in Tower Hamlets – just a stone’s throw away from where we are now sitting.

The arriving Bengalis were squeezed in and around Brick Lane, most likely because it was one of the most run-down parts of London and had a long history of being home to migrants. French Huguenots lived there in the 17th century and Irish and Ashkenazi Jews were there two millennia later.

Despite this being a dark period in his life, fraught with racism, Tharik finds a positive in what he describes as being “under siege”.

The fear of a racial attack instilled in him the habit of always having an “exit strategy” from wherever he might find himself: a route in which he could easily escape a situation and get home safely without leaving a breadcrumb trail to his front door.

He said: “I never travel without an exit strategy whenever I’m in foreign lands; it’s something that’s almost innate.

“Knowing how I can get myself out of trouble: I will always have that contingent thing in the back of my head because I grew up with it. It was something I had to have.”

As a young man, Tharik landed a job as a reporter for the Eastern Eye, Britain’s largest Asian newspaper. Soon after, 9/11 happened, and he was offered the role of a lifetime, a post investigating Islamic extremism.

Tharik was born in Khali Dhor, a village in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh
Tharik Hussain)

Minarets in the Mountains is the first English-language travelogue to explore Europe’s indigenous Muslim population
Tharik Hussain)

“It would have made my career as a journalist,” he says.

Tharik mulled it over in his mind for months. He only had a basic knowledge of Islam but something told him that morally, ethically, this wasn’t the right thing to do.

“I knew if I turned this job down, I wouldn’t be working in mainstream news journalism anymore.” And that’s exactly what he did. He left journalism.

He re-trained as a teacher. He vowed to continue to write. And, he soon began to travel It would prove to be the right decision.

One of his earliest trips was with his wife, Tamara, to Morocco. It’s a well-trodden route today, but back then there were few ways of getting there other than by plane. But Tharik heard about a different way: turn up in the south of Spain and wait for a boat.

“We were surrounded by local Moroccans who were making the crossing, people who worked in Spain who were going home,” he says. “I remember turning up in Tangier knowing very little, being completely conned by a local guy who was pretending to be a guide who then took money from us. Tamara was actually pregnant.”

From this point, they jetted off together as much as they could, and sometimes alone too.

An eye towards Islam, Tharik discovered the Muslim splendours of southern Spain’s Andalusia. It left him questioning why and how there were remnants of his religion in a place that was supposed to be Christian.

He wants people to know that Muslim heritage is “our European heritage”
Tharik Hussain)

Something similar happened in 2003, when he and Tamara visited Saudi Arabia. Young and broke, the cheapest tickets got them a nine-hour stopover in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Tharik discovered a mosque just outside of the city, the Hala Sultan Tekke. Reaching it, he wasn’t impressed: “It didn’t look like it was in very good repair.”

An old man sitting at the mosque’s entrance handed him a visitor’s pamphlet, and he stuffed it into his pocket and forgot about it. They entered, and immediately felt uncomfortable: there was a tomb inside.

It was something which, for people who at the time subscribed to a “Saudi version” of Islam, didn’t sit well.

It wasn’t until later, when Tharik took the crumpled pamphlet from his pocket, that he discovered the tomb was the alleged resting place of Umm Haram, an aunt of the prophet Muhammad.

Some historical accounts suggest she died at the site after falling off her mule between 647 and 649 CE. While this is contested, it didn’t matter.

What mattered was why there were first generation Muslims on European soil. Why hadn’t anyone told Tharik about this before? Did it mean there was 1,400 years of history and Muslim heritage lying across Europe that he wasn’t aware of?

“In hindsight, it is one of the most significant moments in this whole journey.”

Tharik has visited stunning locations across the globe
Tharik Hussain)

The Balkans are home to the most religious Europeans anywhere on the continent. A 2018 Telegraph survey found that in Macedonia, 88 percent of people considered themselves religious; 83 percent in Kosovo; 77 percent in Romania; 70 to 72 percent in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece; while a lesser 65 percent in Bosnia. Bulgaria and Albania lagged behind at 52 and 39 percent respectively.

Tharik’s journey in Minarets in the Mountains follows a route through many of these nations: Bosnia and Herzegovina; Serbia and Kosovo; North Macedonia; Albania, and Montenegro before returning to his launch point.

Little has been said of the fact that many of these countries hold Muslim majority populations. Before setting out on his journey, Tharik wasn’t sure what he was going to find.

Apart from the internet, there was little in the way of first-hand knowledge about the route, apart from one of the first great European Muslim travel writers, Evliya Çelebi, who’s, ‘Book of Travels’, would guide him along the way.

It didn’t disappoint, revealing to him minarets of all shapes and sizes, regularly appearing like splinters on the horizon; crumbling madrasas (Islamic schools) accompanied by worn mosques; mysterious and mystical Sufi tekkes (lodges) overlooking idyllic rivers; and ancient Islamic literature preserved for hundreds of years. It all gave Tharik a sense of just how Islamic Europe once was, and still is.

He was shown around some of the Western Balkans’ most significant, secret and mysterious sites: the mystical Dervish Blagaj Tekija; Sarajevo’s Gazi Huzrev-beg mosque; the tomb of Sultan Murad I in Kosovo; Skopje’s 450-year-old Ottoman clock tower; the Ali Pasha mosque in Tetovo; the Krujë castle. They conjure-up images of the East and the call to prayer, a place beyond Europe. But these places are in Europe, and you can fly to most of them in under five hours.

One of the many beautiful places Tharik has travelled to
Tharik Hussain)

Perhaps the best-known attraction he visited is the most tragic one. The Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was built in the 16th century by the Ottoman architect, Mimar Hayruddin. Western historians and academics for years refused to believe that Muslims could achieve such a feat of engineering: it must have been the Romans, they said.

It endured 455 years in time before the Bosnian war sealed its fate. On November 9, 1993, after a 24-hour standoff between Christian Croatian gunners and Bosnian Muslim infantry, the Croats turned their attention to the bridge. If the Bosnians wouldn’t give up, then their history would.

It was an act of cultural genocide. Shell after shell was fired at the bridge. It held on to its roots for a long time. But, eventually, after an orgy of hate smashed its foundations, the piece of history, the piece of European Islamic cultural identity, crumbled into the grey River Neretva.

Today, after a major renovation campaign, Mostar Bridge sits just as it did over 400 years ago.

As well as Islamic architecture, Tharik came across a number of Islamic sects: the Bektashi and the Alevi, to name a few. He thinks that a “distinct series of Muslim identities” have developed in the Balkans, because of the way in which the region’s religion is intertwined with its history.

“These people follow a particular type of Islam that is rooted in an Ottoman culture. They look for the theological inspiration from the historic Turkish Islamic presence which is something you wouldn’t overtly find in the UK or the rest of Europe.”

It is an important point: a colourful snapshot of Islam’s global spectrum that should, in theory, provide the Western Balkans with connections across the world. But the opposite is true: the region’s religion is seldom explored on a global scale. But why?

He examines historical records and relics
Tharik Hussain)

While not a definitive answer, a glimmer of understanding might be found in the British Museum’s ‘Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World’ exhibition. It was meant to be an event to match all events.

“It was opened with a relative amount of fanfare,” says Tharik. “It was a big deal in our community of academics and activists who work in Muslim heritage.”

But, looking at the exhibits, you’d not find anything from the Western Balkans.

How might the Western world know about this slither of Islam if not even Muslims and those who sympathise with the religion promote the intricate and beautiful arts and culture of the Ottomans in Europe?

Tharik thinks it’s an issue with the Islamic narrative itself. But it goes deeper than that. The West has overlooked the cultural history of Muslims in the Western Balkans full stop.

“We tend to look past certain histories and romanticise others. The West tends to look at the Roman and Hellenic cultures and hold them up as great philosophers with great democracies. But we conveniently overlook the issue of women and how they were treated; we overlook the horrors and the atrocities.”

Here, Geography is key. For much of the past 1,700 years since the Romans legalised it, Europe has been majority Christian. “The West would simply have viewed these Ottomans in Europe as invaders, not rightful inhabitants, and so the cultural narrative goes that we ignore them to erase them.”

Sampling the local cuisine
Tharik Hussain)

The same can be said of Christianity in the Middle East. The religion was born there, with ancient relics and churches scattered across the region. Even in North Africa, ancient churches stand pale in dusty, desert landscapes.

But, in those places, “Christian history is either ignored, overlooked, or not given the credit it’s due.” The history of a place is a constant battle. The winners choose what parts to keep, and what parts to rub out.

So, what does that mean for the UK? Might we have unknown, undiscovered histories?

“Absolutely without a shadow of a doubt,” says Tharik. “And this is what makes history so exciting, because there are so many layers that have been deliberately ignored. History is a selective telling of a story. For someone who goes digging into, there’s the realisation that there are always other layers that you can explore.”

Your history is your history, and anything that threatens to shake it will be met with fierce resistance. Psychology tells us that we are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’t fit our world view.

But Tharik believes that histories, like Islam in Europe, are ones that we, as Europeans, share: “All the layers I have found in my travels, those are ours. Mine and yours. They are ours collectively as Europeans or whatever we want to call ourselves in a moment in time.”

His hopes, then, are for a future when he doesn’t have to write books and give talks about ‘Muslim Europe’ in order for people to know about it. He hopes that one day, people will accept that, yes, Muslim heritage is “our European heritage”.

After talking to him for nearly two hours, Tharik has to leave for a family dinner. I step out onto the eclectic Brick Lane and walk to the tube. The street is still heaving and the dishevelled bars, vintage clothes shops, coffee houses, house plant specialists and street food markets are still there. Brick Lane is still a young, wealthy, hipster’s dream.

The South Asian restaurants still have menus glued to the windows offering dishes your local curry house doesn’t. But looking around, I can’t help but feel like something’s different. Something inside me feels tingly, excited, electric. It could be the caffeine. Or, it could be hope.

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