A Little-Known History of the Muslims of Medieval Hungary


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 made up a significant part of the population of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. Known as Boszormeny, they not only played a key role in the army of their Hungarian rulers, but also served as shock and shock troops for the kingdom – a region in which they had established numerous towns and settlements.

In addition to their involvement in the military, they were also known as successful merchants and artisans, traveling to various cities in Europe, including Prague, and Asia (Aleppo). There they met Arab and Jewish authors, who were often surprised by some of their facial features – some were blond, others had red hair – and described as speaking a Hungarian variant of Latin, which was the official language of the Hungarian Kingdom.

During a confrontation in the Khazar Khaganate, three Khazar tribes — collectively known as the Kabars (or Kavars) — surrendered to the Jewish faction that had established Judaism as the state religion in medieval Hungary. Leaving the borders of Khazaria, they sought refuge with the Hungarians and became part of their tribal confederation, Het-Magyar or the “Seven Tribes”.

According to the historians al Kufi, Ibn Kathir and al Baladhuri, the Khazars embraced Islam after their defeat by the Umayyad Caliphate in 737 AD.

After the Jewish party gained the upper hand in Khazaria, some of their Muslim subjects were allowed to enter the Kabars association and joined the Hungarians, where they became known as the Chorasmians. Although their connection with Chorasmia is not entirely clear, the Arabic author al Gharnati, who traveled to Hungary in the 12th century, referred to them as Chorasmians.

Other Muslims of Khazaria who kept their religion but stayed to serve the Khazar Jews were referred to as “al arsiyah” or “al larisiya”. They formed the Khazar cavalry. It is likely that the Muslims who joined the Hungarians also held important positions in the military organization of the Het-Magyar.

They had also served in the ranks of the army of the Khazar Khaganate between 800 and 850 AD. The Orientalist historian Prof. Tadeusz Lewicki, who died in 1992, traced the historical roots of Muslims in medieval Hungary, which complemented the work of other Muslim historians on the same subject.

In this regard, it should be noted that the Hungarians referred to Muslims who settled in Hungary under the name of Kalis as “Chorasmians”. The Hungarian name Kalis corresponds to the ethnonym al Khazar (alternatively al Khalis or khazar-khalis), which referred to their ethnicity, according to the medieval Arab-Persian historians al Istakhri and Ibn Hawkal, who lived in western Atil, the capital of the Khazars, lived.

Therefore, the Hungarian Muslims most likely migrated to Pannonia with other Magyar tribes and were of Khazarian origin, since their names were analogous in Hungary and Khazaria.

After a defeat by the Germans at Augsburg in AD 955, the ruler of Hungary, Prince Taksony, reinforced his army with new Muslim contingents.

Two Bulgarian princes – Billah and Baksh, accompanied by a group of Muslim soldiers – came into Taksony’s service and were subsequently settled in Hungary. Two-thirds of the newcomers were settled around the Pest Fortress and one-third housed in other Muslim camps, according to the author of Anonymi Gesta Hungarorum (Files of the Hungarians).

Of course, many writers would like to see Volga Bulgaria, a historical Bulgarian state that existed between the seventh and 13th centuries in what is now western Russia, as the homeland of Muslim settlers. But its remoteness from Hungary, as well as the lack of prerequisites for Muslim resettlement, leads us to believe that ancient Bulgaria, which included lands along the Danube, offered better conditions for Muslim settlers. The territories then spread out along the Danube had become part of a Slavic-Christian state.

In AD 866, Pope Nicholas of Rome wrote a letter to the Bulgarian Prince of the Danube, Boris, demanding the expulsion of what he called “Saracens” – another term for Muslims. It is not known how Prince Boris responded 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 was recorded in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is linked to the appearance of Pecheneg Muslims in the Hungarian Plains, who had settled in Hungary at least a century earlier, when paganism was practiced across much of the region.

Pechenegs converted to Islam around AD 1010 according to al Bakri, and al Gharnati referred to these Muslim Pechenegs of Hungary as Maghribians.

Upon their arrival in Pannonia and the Magyar Outer Carpathians, they played a significant role in the conversion to Islam of the Pechenegs who had arrived there earlier.

It is said that both of Hungary’s constituent Muslims – the Chorasmians (Kalis) and the Maghribians (Pechenegs) – fought together as part of a single auxiliary army in the war against Byzantium in 1150 AD. Most likely, their unification under the Hungarian king’s battle banner became possible after the abolition of the discriminatory laws against Muslims enacted by the Hungarian kings after the introduction of Christianity as Hungary’s state religion in 1000 AD.

Before being abolished, these laws prohibited the practice of Islam by native Hungarians (i.e. Kalis or Chorasmians). For example, Article 9 of King Laszlo’s (Ladislaus’) Code of Laws said that if it became known that a Muslim was reverting to his faith or practicing circumcision (of his children), his property should be confiscated and he should be expelled from the country. This law was supplemented by new anti-Islamic sections in the law book of King Koloman (1095-1116).

Thus, if anyone saw a Muslim abstaining from pork, fasting (during the month of Ramadan) or performing ablutions, that witness was obliged under Article 46 to report to the king, and whoever reported this received a portion of the Muslim’s property, that should 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 and settle among the Christians, with the “native Christians” in turn settling in their place.

Article 48 banned marriages between Muslims, who could only marry Christians, while Article 49 required Muslims to serve guests only pork.

However, according to al-Gharnati reports, these requirements did not apply to the Pecheneg Muslims or Maghribians, who were considered federates of the Hungarian king and could openly practice Islam. But the Kalis or Chorasmians were also allowed to practice their religion openly and, as mentioned, even formed a single auxiliary army of the Hungarian king alongside the Maghribians.

In 1232, King Andre II, known as The Golden Bull, again outlawed Muslims – including Maghribians – in Hungary. However, despite the total ban on Islam in the country, the edict was either suspended or not enforced.

In his description of the Mongol invasion of Hungary from the Mongol point of view, the Arabic-Persian author Ibn Said pointed out that in Hungary there were Biljad al Bashkirs – Bashkirs, meaning Hungarian Muslims, whom he distinguished from Hungarian Christians, although he called al Gharnati all Hungarian Bashkirs.

Ibn Said noted that “al Bashkirs” were Muslims and cited the legend of their conversion to Islam through a “Faqih from Turkmanlar”. In 1241, Hungary faced a devastating Mongol invasion. The Bashkir people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds took part in the battle, defeating the Mongol invaders and driving them back to the Asian steppes.

Al Qazwini, a contemporary of Ibn Said, tells the story of a Muslim theologian (faqih) from the land of the Bashkirs, Hungary, who claimed that the number of “Bashkirs” – in this case all Hungarians – was very large, whereby the most profess Christianity, but many were Muslims who had to pay tribute (jizya) to Christians, just as Christians in Muslim countries had to pay tribute to Muslims.

He also reported that the king of that country had a large army, part of which was Christian, part of which were many (Arab) Muslims who adhered to the teachings of the school of Abu Hanifa. The quoted quote clearly shows that the Muslim Bashkirs were of the same nationality as the Christian Bashkirs and practiced Islam in Hungary before the Mongol invasion.

However, the last mention of the presence of Muslims in pre-Ottoman Hungary was found in the 1290 Latin document dealing 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, Koten, after spending long periods hostage to Hungarian aristocrats whom he greatly disliked. He also disliked the Catholic Church, which justified the crimes of Hungarian magnates.

Throughout his life, Ladislaus wore Cuman clothing and surrounded himself with Cuman guards, with whom he launched all his military campaigns. Ladislaus IV delegated all matters of state administration to a Bashkir nobleman – a Muslim named Musa – who, however, was forced to accept Christian baptism immediately upon his appointment.

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