27 August 2009

The Alevis: Turkey’s egalitarian and mystical minority

An Alevi dance during worship

Patrick Comerford

In a country with a surprising variety of religious and cultural minorities, the Alevi are an interesting community in Turkey that seldom come to outside attention although they may be tens of millions in number.

Although the Alevis are regarded as being members of a Muslim sect, they worship in assembly houses (cemevi) rather than mosques, with their principal ceremony (âyîn-i cem, or simply cem) featuring music and dance (semah) and their rituals conducted mostly in Turkish, and sometimes in the Kurdish language.

At the heart of Alevi values is love and respect for all people, and they often say that “the important thing is not religion, but being a human being.” Alevis teach tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups, believing that “if you hurt another person, the ritual prayers you have done are counted as worthless.” They promote respect for working people, saying “the greatest act of worship is to work.”

They have long accepted the equality of men and women, who pray side-by-side, and they have long practised monogamy. Alevis proudly point out that they are monogomous, Alevi women worship together with men, Alevi women are free to dress in modern clothing, Alevi women are encouraged to get the best education they can, and Alevi women are free to enter any occupation they choose. Alevi women are not required to wear a headscarf or other bodily coverings because, they say, Alevi identity focuses on the internal rather than the external image.

Modern Alevi theology has been profoundly influenced by humanism and universalism. The 1990s brought a new emphasis on Alevism as a cultural identity. Alevi communities in Turkey today generally support Turkish secularism and the Kemalist republican tradition. For centuries, the Alevis have been the victims of persecution, often resulting in death. The Alevis were early supporters of Atatürk, crediting him with ending the discrimination they suffered under Ottoman rule. However, Kemalism lost some of its appeal in the 1960s, as many Alevis flirted with left-wing dissent.

Yet, despite their universalist values, and in contrast to other forms of Islam, Alevi communities do not generally acknowledge the possibility of conversion to Alevism.

So, are the Alevis true Muslims?

Alevism is a unique sect of “Twelver” Shi‘a Islam, and Alevis accept “Twelver” Shi‘i beliefs about Ali and the Twelve Imams. But some Alevis are uncomfortable about describing themselves as orthodox Shi‘i Muslims as there are major differences in philosophy, customs, and rituals from the prevailing form of Shi‘ism found in Iraq and Iran today.

Alevism is also closely related to the Bektashi Sufi lineage, and Alevis venerate Hajji Bektash Wali, the Bektashi saint of the 13th century. Many Alevis refer to an “Alevi-Bektashi” tradition, but this identity is not universally accepted.

In addition to its religious aspect, Alevism is also closely associated with Anatolian folk culture.

The name Alevi is probably a Turkish and Kurdish word referring to followers of ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, a cousin, son-in-law, and adopted son of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

Some Alevis are also called Qizilbashi, although this name is sometimes regarded as being pejorative and implying that their allegiance lies with Iran rather than Turkey.

Attempts to trace the origins of these people run the risk of being caught up in controversy.

Many Alevis trace their tradition to primitive Islam and the Twelve Imams, a conclusion with which some prominent scholars agree. Others see Alevism as a pre-Islamic substrate that acquired a veneer of Shī‘ī theology, and ask whether it is principally a Turkish or Persian folk culture. There are even some who argue that it reflects and incorporates many aspects Orthodox Byzantine or Armenian Christianity.

The Alevi population has been estimated as anywhere between 10 and 20 million people – between 15 and 30 per cent of the population of Turkey. There is no independent data, but either estimate makes the Alevi the second-largest religious community in Turkey, following the Sunni Muslims.

Most Alevis are ethnic and linguistic Turks, but 40% are Zazas and Kurds – although most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Their communities are concentrated in central Anatolia, in a belt from Chorum in the west to Mush in the east. The only province within Turkey with an Alevi majority is Tunceli (Dersim). From the 1960s on, many Alevis have migrated to the large cities of western and southern Turkey, and to Germany and other parts of western Europe.

There are four main groups among today’s Alevis in modern Turkey.

The first group is mainly represented by the urban population and emerged in the modern Turkish republic. For decades, this group has belonged to the political left and its adherents often see Alevism as an outlook on life more than a religion. The followers hold ritual unions of a religious character and have also established cultural associations named after Pir Sultan Abdal. Humanity enjoys a central role in their belief system, and the phrase “God is Man” is often attributed to this group.

The second group is more mystical and has links with the Haci Bektashi Sufi brotherhood. The non-Muslim saints they admire include Saint Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi.

The third group regards themselves as true Muslims and readily co-operate with the state. This group follows the way of Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Imam. Their concept of God is closer to orthodox Islam, but like the first two groups they believe that the Qur'an was manipulated by the early Sunni Caliphs in order to eliminate Ali.

The fourth grouping is actively being influenced by official Iranian Shi'a Islam to see themselves as part of true “Twelver” Shia Islam and to reject Bektashism. They follow Sharia customs and opposes the power of the secular state.

Alevi beliefs are hard to define and difficult for the outsider to access. Many of their teachings are based on an orally transmitted tradition that has traditionally been kept secret from outsiders. In addition, Alevism is a diverse movement without any central authority, and its boundaries with other groups are poorly defined and delineated.

However, the basis for Alevism’s most distinctive beliefs is found in the Buyruks or compiled writings and dialogues of Sheikh Safi al-Din, who gave his name to the Safavi order, Ja'far al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, and other key figures from the past. The teachings can also be found in hymns or nefes written by Shah Ismail and Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century martyr, the stories of Hajji Bektash, and other writings.

Most Alevis believe 'Ali had supernatural strength and wisdom as well as having a uniquely mystical connection with the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. They talk of Muhammed as “the city of spiritual knowledge” and Ali as “the door.” They compare the mystical unity between Ali and Muhammad with the two sides of a coin or the two halves of an apple.

Alevi mystical language speaks of the goal of spiritual life being to follow a path towards unity with God, from the highest perspective all is God. This is coupled with the Alevi concept of the “Perfect Human Being,” who is identified with humanity’s true identity as pure consciousness. The human task is to fully realise this state while still in material human form.

The Alevi spiritual path is commonly understood to take place through four major life-stages, or gates:

1, Sheriat or Sharia (religious law);
2, Tarikat (spiritual brotherhood);
3, Marifat (spiritual knowledge);
4, Hakikat (Reality or Truth, i.e. God).

The major crimes and offences for which an Alevi can be shunned are: killing a person; committing adultery; divorcing one’s wife; marrying a divorced woman; and stealing

The central Alevi corporate worship service is the cem. Semah, a family of ritual dances marked by turning and swirling, is an inseparable part of any cem. This is performed by men and women together, to the accompaniment of the baglama, an instrument that Ross Daly has introduced to Greek music in recent years. The dance symbolise the revolution of the planets around the Sun or the putting off of one’s self and uniting with God.

Alevi practices that are viewed with suspicion by other Muslims include the use of candles in rituals, asking the dead directly for help, and sacrifices at shrines. Other, similar practices include kissing door frames of holy rooms, not stepping on the threshold of holy buildings, and seeking prayers from reputed healers.

Unique festivals among the Alevis include the Persian New Year at the Spring equinox, which also marks the birthday of Ali, the wedding of Ali and Fatima, the rescue of the prophet Joseph from the well, and the creation of the world. Hidrellez, which can fall on Saint George’s Day, honours Hizir, who is sometimes identified with the prophet Elijah.

Alevis are not expected to give Zakat in the Islamic mode, and there is no set formula or prescribed amount for charity. Nor does Alevism recognise an obligation to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Alevis have suffered suspicion and prejudice since the beginning of the Ottoman period. They have been accused of heresy, heterodoxy, rebellion, betrayal and immorality. Their discources on light and darkness and their use of candles in their rituals has led some Sunni Turks to accuse them of Zoroastrian beliefs. Alevis, for their part, argue that the original Quran does not demand five daily prayers, attendance at mosques, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. They view the Sunna and Hadith as Arab elitist innovations to ensure Arab dominance of Islam and to manipulate and enslave the masses.

In today’s political debates in Turkey, Alevis see themselves as a counter-force to Sunni fundamentalism, and as bulwarks of Turkey’s secularism. Alevis often regard Sunni Islam as strict and legalist, working against free and independent thought, as reactionary, bigoted, fanatic, and anti-democratic.

This conflict reached its climax in Sivas on 2 July 1993, when Alevis were celebrating the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. Coming out of mosques after their Friday prayer, a mob of 20,000 or so Sunnis surrounded the Madimak hotel, chanting anti-Alevi and pro-sharia slogans. The hotel was stoned and set on fire, and 33 Alevis died inside. The perpetrators have been treated lightly, according to Alevis, and have either been given light sentences or never brought to trial. There have been drive-by shootings of Alevis in Istanbul, and protesting Alevis have often been arrested.

But the Alevi tradition has given Turkey some of its most beautiful, mstical music, arising from the cem, the practice of zikr, or remembering God’s names, and the sema or ritual dance, which is accompanied by sung mystical poetry and instruments such as the baglama or saz, a plucked folk lute with frets.

This specialised sacred musical repertoire includes songs of mystical love and hymns about the mystical experience. Many of Turkey’s major traditional musicians today are Alevis, while many non-Alevis have also recorded Alevi songs. This is a tradition unknown to many Europeans, but it is a fascinating part of the religious and cultural mosaic of Turkey today.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

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