Islam began to spread among Hungarians long before the Magyars heard the first Christian sermon, and before Hungary came under Ottoman rule.
Until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, Muslims had constituted a significant part of the population of the medieval kingdom of Hungary. Known as the Boszormeny, they not only played a key role in the army of their Hungarian rulers, but also served as strike and shock troops for the kingdom — a region where they had built numerous cities and settlements.
In addition to their involvement in the military, they were also known as successful merchants and artisans who travelled to various cities in Europe, including Prague, and Asia (Aleppo). There, they were encountered by Arab and Jewish authors, who were often surprised by some of their features—some were blonde, others had red hair—and described them as speaking a Hungarian variation of Latin, which was the official language of the Hungarian kingdom.
During a confrontation in the Khazar Khaganate, three Khazar tribes — known collectively as the Kabars (or Kavars) — surrendered to the Jewish party, which had established Judaism as a state religion in medieval Hungary. They left the borders of Khazaria, taking refuge with the Hungarians and becoming part of their tribal confederation, Het-Magyar or the ‘seven tribes’.
According to historians al Kufi, Ibn Kathir and al Baladhuri, the Khazars adopted Islam after their defeat by the Umayyad Caliphate in 737 CE.
After the Jewish party gained the upper hand in Khazaria, some of their Muslim subjects were allowed to enter the association of Kabars and joined the Hungarians, where they became known as Chorasmians. Although their connection with Chorasmia is not entirely clear, the Arab author al Gharnati, who travelled to Hungary in the 12th century, referred to them as Chorasmians.
Other Muslims of Khazaria who retained their religion but remained to serve the Khazar-Jews were referred to as ‘al arsiyah’ or ‘al larisiya’. They formed the cavalry of the Khazars. It is likely that the Muslims who joined the Hungarians also held important positions in the military organisation of the Het-Magyar.
They had also served in the ranks of the Khazar Khaganate's army between 800 and 850 CE. Orientalist historian Prof. Tadeusz Lewicki, who died in 1992, traced the historical roots of Muslims in medieval Hungary that complemented the works of other Muslim historians on the same subject.
In this context, it should be noted that Hungarians called Muslims ‘Chorasmians’ who settled in Hungary by the name of Kalis. The Hungarian name Kalis corresponds to the ethnonym al Khazar (alternatively al Khalis or khazar-khalis), which referred to their ethnicity, according to medieval Arab-Persian historians al Istakhri and Ibn Hawkal, who lived in western Atil, the Khazar capital.
Thus, the Hungarian Muslims most likely migrated to Pannonia with other Magyar tribes and were of Khazar origin, given that their names were analogous in Hungary and Khazaria.
After facing defeat at the hands of Germans in Augsburg in 955 CE, the ruler of Hungary, Prince Taksony, strengthened his army with new Muslim contingents.
Two Bulgarian princes — Billah and Baksh accompanied by a group of Muslim soldiers — came to Taksony's service and were subsequently settled in Hungary. Two-thirds of the new arrivals were settled around the fortress of Pest, and one-third were housed in other Muslim camps, according to the author of Anonymi Gesta Hungarorum (Acts of the Hungarians.).
Of course, many authors would like to see Volga Bulgaria, a historic Bulgar state that existed between seventh and 13th centuries in what is now identified as western Russia, as home to Muslim settlers. But its remoteness from Hungary, as well as the lack of prerequisites for Muslim resettlement, make us think that old Bulgaria that comprised territories alongside Danube River offered better conditions for Muslim settlers. The areas spread alongside Danube by that time had become part of a Slavic, Christian state.
In 866 CE, Pope Nicholas of Rome wrote a letter to the Danubian Bulgar Prince Boris, demanding the expulsion of what he called as "Saracens" — another term for Muslims. It is unknown how Prince Boris reacted to this request, but a century later, for one reason or another, Muslims left the Balkan regions of the Bulgarian kingdom.
The next wave of Muslim settlers in Hungary has been recorded in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is associated with the appearance of Muslims from the Pechenegs on the Hungarian plain, who had settled in Hungary at least a century earlier, when Paganism was practised in much of the region.
Pechenegs converted to Islam around 1010 CE, according to al Bakri, and al Gharnati referred to these Muslim Pechenegs of Hungary as Maghribians.
After the Maghribians arrived in Pannonia and the Magyar Outer Subcarpathia, they played a role — one that should not be overlooked — in the conversion to Islam of the Pechenegs who had arrived there during an earlier period.
In 1150 CE, it is said that both constituent Muslims of Hungary — the Chorasmians (Kalis) and the Maghribians (Pechenegs) — fought together as part of a single auxiliary army in the war against Byzantium. Most likely, their unification under the battle banner of the Hungarian king became possible following the abolition of discriminatory laws against Muslims, which were issued by the Hungarian kings after the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Hungary in 1000 CE.
Before they were abolished, these laws forbade the practice of Islam by native Hungarians (i.e. Kalis, or Chorasmians). For example, article 9 of King Laszlo’s (Ladislaus) Code of Laws stated that if it became known that a Muslim returned to his faith or practiced circumcision (of his children), his property was to be confiscated and he was to be expelled from the country. This law was supplemented by new anti-Islamic sections in King Coloman's (1095-1116) Code of Laws.
Thus, according to article 46, if someone saw a Muslim refraining from pork, fasting (during the month of Ramadan) or performing ritual ablutions, said witness was obliged to report to the king, and whoever reported it would receive a part of the Muslim’s property, which was to be confiscated.
Article 47 stipulated that the Muslims should build churches in their settlements and that half the population of each town or settlement should leave it and settle among the Christians, with the ‘native Christians’ in turn settling in their place.
Article 48 forbade marriages between Muslims, who were only allowed to marry Christians, while article 49 required Muslims to treat guests to pork only.
However, according to al Gharnati's reports, these requirements did not apply to the Pecheneg Muslims, or Maghribians, who were considered federates of the Hungarian king and could practice Islam openly. However, the Kalis, or Chorasmians, were also allowed to openly practise their religion and even, as aforementioned, made up a single auxiliary army of the Hungarian king alongside the Maghribians.
In 1232, King Andre II, known as The Golden Bull, once again outlawed Muslims — including Maghribians — in Hungary. Despite the complete prohibition of Islam in the country, the edict was, however, either suspended or was not enforced.
In his description of the Mongol invasion of Hungary from the perspective of the Mongols, the Arab-Persian author Ibn Said pointed out that there were Biljad al Bashkirs in Hungary — Bashkirs meaning Hungarian Muslims, who he differentiated from Hungarian Christians, though al Gharnati called all Hungarians Bashkirs.
Ibn Said noted that ‘al Bashkirs’ were Muslims, and cited the legend of their conversion to Islam by one “Faqih from Turkmanlar”. In 1241, Hungary faced a devastating Mongol invasion. The Bashkir people from all faiths and ethnic backgrounds took part in the battle, defeating the Mongol raiders and pushing them back to Asian steppes.
Al Qazwini, a contemporary of Ibn Said, recounts the story of one of the Muslim theologians (faqih) from the Country of Bashkirs, Hungary, who claimed that the number of ‘Bashkir’ people — in this case, all Hungarians — was very large, with most of them professing Christianity, but many being Muslims who had to pay tributes (jizya) to Christians, just as Christians in Muslim countries had to pay tributes to Muslims.
He also reported that the king of that country had a large army, part of which consisted of Christians, with the other part being made up of many (Arab) Muslims who adhered to the teachings of the school of Abu Hanifa. The cited quotation clearly indicates that Muslim Bashkirs belonged to the same nationality as Christian Bashkirs and practiced Islam in Hungary before the Mongol invasion.
The last mention of the presence of Muslims in pre-Ottoman Hungary, however, was in the Latin Document of 1290, which dealt with the reign of King Ladislaus IV (1276-1290) — a most unusual Hungarian ruler. He was brought up by his mother, who was the daughter of the Cuman-Kipchak Khan, Köten, after spending a long time as a hostage of Hungarian aristocrats, whom he greatly disliked. He also disliked the Catholic Church, which justified the crimes of Hungarian magnates.
Throughout his life, Ladislaus wore Cumans' clothes and surrounded himself with Cuman guards, with whom he launched all his military campaigns. Ladislaus IV delegated all affairs of state management to a Bashkir nobleman — a Muslim by the name of Musa — who was, however, forced to accept Christian baptism immediately after his appointment.
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