Syncretistic Religions of Turkey

Alevis are a community of heterodox Muslims culture-specific to Anatolia [Turkey]. Similar syncretistic religious groups exist in Syria (Alawi), Lebanon (Druze), Iran (Ahl-e Haqq), and in Iraq (Yazidi). The Alevis of Turkey are a unique religious association and have a close relationship with Bektaşi Order who originated from the Balkans. Although there are no exact estimations of the population of Alevis in Turkey, the general consensus is that they make up the largest minority and total 10-20 million in population. Alevis are historically connected to the Turcoman Qizilbaş nomads who converted to Shi’i Islam and theology[1] while Turkish dervish institutions “[h]ad received their characteristic features in western Turkestan from Ahmad Yasawi (d. 562/1166); they had acquired an ever-increasing expansion in Anatolia, but at the same time they had adopted heretical tendencies.”[2] The etymology of the name Alevi is tied to a religious appreciation of ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib – cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad – and only after the 19th century replaced Qizilbaş due to the derogatory label that the latter had established.[3]

Like Shi’ism, Alevis also believe that ‘Ali was denied his rightful position as successor to religious and political authority after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, rejecting Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman as legitimate caliphs. Conspiracies about the authenticity of Sunni Islam has often been suggested, claiming early Islamic representatives have intentionally removed religious passages that could have proven ‘Ali as the rightful successor, only justified with the murder of both ‘Ali and his children Hasan and Huseyn. The gradual obliteration of the ehlibeyt (family of the prophet) provided the room for political power under the banner of Sunni Islam, such as Mu’awiyya who later founded the Umayyad dynasty. “Ozet olarak, camilerde Hz. Ali’ye kufur ettirilmesi, once Hz. Hasan’in daha sonar Hz. Huseyin ve ailesinin –ki Peygamberin soyu onlardan devam ediyordu- acimasizca oldurulmeleri, Emevi hanedanina karşi muhalif bir inanc, duşunce ve siyasal temeli olan bir harekete yol acmiş ve cok kan dokulen isyanlara sebep olmuştur.”[4]

Alevism is multi-ethnic and linguistic and similar syncretistic religious are spread over a vast geographical are within and around Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent, the region incorporating Mesopotamia, the upper parts of Egypt and the Near East. According to David Zeidan, “[o]ther names include Tahtaci, Abdal, Capni, and Zaza, which signify specific tribal and linguistic identities.”[5] Tracing the historical genesis and development of Alevism remains controversial, as the region has contained many influential civilisations such as the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, including monotheistic religions beginning with Zoroastrianism through to Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Numerous scholarly and traditional theories have been interchanged and differences between traditional interpretations by various ethnic groups have also been raised. “The PKK and other Kurdish nationalists argued that the Alevism has Zoroastrian origins, saying in fact that the Alevis are related to the Kurds,”[6] yet it is generally acknowledged that Alevis trace their beliefs to the beginning of Islam with pre-Islamic, Christian, Zoroastrian and Buddhist influences until Shi’a Islam spread its authority in the region during the Fatamid Empire. The Fatamid dynasty evolved into a Shi’a Empire beginning 900AD and spread throughout the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. Influenced by the Islamil’I (ithna-ashariyya) Shi’a faith, the Fatamid’s ultimately fell in 1171AD as internal chaos and invasions continuously disrupted the administration, splitting the region into various dynasties, in particular the Seljuq dynasty in 1037AD that was influenced by a heterogeneous combination of Mongol, Turkic and Persian cultures.

“[H]e (David Zeidan) defends the Alevis against charges that they are ‘not true Muslims’ (whereas in fact they are a split-away from Fatimid Shi’ism).” Zoroastrianism is first recorded by Herodotus in 440BC and gradually introduced monotheism (the belief in the one God – Ahura Mazda) in the region. The invasion of the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire by Alexander the Great and the steady growth of the Roman Empire strained Zoroastrianism into a temporary halt, until it revived once again through the Sassanid Empire in 226AD when it officially became the State religion. The Sassanid’s made contact with the East (India and China) and produced a fascinating cultural revolution, particularly with Buddhism, while at the same time became acquainted with Christian theology through a series of violent contact with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) who spread Christian monophysitic traditions particularly in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Arab invasions in 651AD and the growth of Islam in the region rapidly changed the structure of society, setting the foundation for the Ottoman Empire beginning 1299AD that eventually became one of the largest and most powerful empires in history. The Ottoman Empire allowed numerous religious and ethnic beliefs systems too remain imperforate.

This is perhaps due to not only their significant expansion and lack of ethnically divisive borders all contained with a single administration, but also the jizyah tax or tribute paid by millets (community) for protection. The jizyah levy was economically profitable for the Ottomans, but the refusal to pay created internal division and stimulated violence in the region, particularly with the Mamluks (1250AD – 1517AD), Timurids (1370AD – 1526AD), Black Sheep Turcomans (1375AD – 1468AD), and the Safavids (1501AD – 1736AD). The Qizilbaş became another notorious militant group who refused to submit to the authority of the Ottomans. Flourishing during the late 13th century, the Qizilbaş had a tribal religious order similar (though not the same) to Sufism, while also being influenced by the heterodox religion of the Safviya mystical order dominant amongst the Safavids.[7] The Qizilbaş were known for their fierce military presence that earned them widespread veneration, particularly amongst the Ottoman Janissaries: “The basis of their fighting spirit, however, was their fierce tribal loyalty (ta’aşşup-I oymakiyyat; ta’aşşup-I kizilbashiyyat).” Similar to the Qizilbaş tribes in Anatolia, the Safavids originated through a Sufi order or tarikat in Iran and grew to become a strong military presence in the region, especially with the support of Qizilbaş warriors. “Finally, the armed help of the latter enabled the young Safavid Sheik Isma’il – who was venerated by his Qizilbaş warriors as the reincarnation of ‘Ali and as the Madhi (‘Redeemer’), bringing the reign of justice on earth – to capture the throne of Iran in 1501.” However, their independence and control of Mesopotamia was short-lived after their refusal to pay jizyah.  By violently rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, Shah Isma’ils reign ended with the victory by Sultan Selim in 1514.[9]

The violent revolt and gradual collapse of Safavid Persia consequently found many supporters of ‘Ali killed by the Ottomans, particularly during the reign of Sultan Selim II, and it is for this reason the Qizilbaş retreated to the mountains in Anatolia. Sources show that massacres dating from the sixth century and violent conversion of heterodox groups to Sunni Islam were implemented by the Ottoman Empire. Theological differences were nt the only source of the violence against the Alevis. “[T]he decisive factor seems to be the socio-economic tension between the rural population and the central power that intensified toward the end of the fifteenth century in the Ottoman Empire.”[10] The consequent persecutions thus isolated Alevis and created an independent religious and social community.

Alevi villages are patrilineal and patrilocal. Patrilineality is the succession of the male hereditary lineage that can include inheritance of both property and name, whilst patrilocal residence is a social system that involved married couples living with the husbands’ family if they are unable to afford their own property. There are clear hierarchies within Alevi communities that differ quiet considerably from Sunni villages as they are not only much smaller in population, but tend to take an individualist approach to land ownership and pasture; the village (mahalle) divisions only deliquesce during the summer. It is common amongst many Muslim leaders to claim that they are descendants from religious saints or other authority figures in order to obtain spiritual legitimacy, thus dedes often regard themselves to be descendants of a particular leading figure such as Ibn Arabi, while the effendi claim to be the direct descendants of Haci Bektaş Veli. “The ‘imaginations’ about a supposed common history in processes of ethnicization of suggest that the members of the community may be united by bonds of blood… The dedes claim descent from the Prophet through his cousin and later son-in-law, Ali (b. Abu Talib), his second grandson, Hussein, or others of the Twelve Imams or from Haci Bektaş Veli.” It should be noted that practices are very different between the Arab-Alevis of Turkey – for which my parents belong – and the Turkish-Alevis, and while both do not use a mosque, the latter uses the cemevi as a place of religious worship, something we never did.

Alevis believe in tensasuh (transmigration of the soul). They reject the five pillars of Islam – such as pilgrimage to the hajj or fasting during the month of Ramadan – and instead believe in the four paths to God.[11] The four paths or methods are used as a guide for their actions in order to attain a closer union with God. Tarikat, the inner law of the community closed to outsiders; şeriyat, rules arranged by outsiders such as the government or other religious body; Marifet, literally “knowledge” together with Hakikat or being one with God and beyond the physical world. There are theological works that they base their beliefs on which mostly contain collected sayings of Ibn Abu Ali Talib and others of the twelve imams according to Twelver Shi’i theology, although it inherently does not contain any codified religious law. Due to religious secrecy and in order to avoid persecution, the takiye was introduced and is practiced among Alevis in order to hide their faith from the community; Allah inancini saklamak zorunda kalan insanlar or those who have no other choice but to hide their religion and faith in God.

The takiye was introduced as a way to keep their religious and cultural practices secret, particularly since Alevi religious faith is seen to be an internal mechanism practiced in the heart. Alevis consider themselves to be Muslim and claim to contain the batini (Islamic revelation) although they reject shari’a and the five pillars of Islam (alms levy, daily prayers, fasting, hajj and the profession of faith) which is merely the zahiri (external faith). The main source of their faith lie in Ali whom they view as seceşme (main source) and hulul (incarnation of God in man). The Alevi also interweave the tarikat ideals into their position vis-à-vis Islam as a whole, so that their religion might be summed up as ‘mystical Shi’ism’. Briefly, they maintain the twelver Shi’ite tradition; that Huseyin and Hasan were murdered at the Kerbela, that the rightly-guided caliphs succeeded them until the twelfth, mehti, disappeared and will ultimately return.[30] Alevis are known for their visual depiction of ‘Ali and representation of him in song and ritual, which sharply contrasts with the Sunni requirement to hide the personage of any revered prophet or saint, particularly Muhammad. ‘Ali’s famous spine cleaver sword (zulifiqar) is worn on necklaces and is often used as a religious symbol, similar to the cross in Christianity.

As the Alevi community is multi-ethnic and linguistic, language plays a predominate role in the construction of identity; there is, therefore, a manifest schism between Turkish and Kurdish Alevis. “Kurt Alvilerin bir dernekleri vardi (federation); fakat, Alevilerinkilerden ayridir.”[12] It cannot be denied that Kurdish communities have maintained a respectable level of cohesion by adopting multiple forms of identities, including language (different dialects), political orientation and ethnicity, while certain communities consider themselves to be Alevi-Kurds and others as Qizilbaş or Zaza-Qizilbaş. Although religious and cultural practices are similarly practiced and appreciated, many Alevi do not consider themselves to be ethnically Turkish. “Both the Kemalist elite as well as the Kurdish national movement are trying to stress what each believes to be an ‘organic relationship’ between Aleviness and either Turkishness or Kurdishness.”

Alevis are prone to secrecy with no accessible scriptures and it is for this reason that conspiracies have been raised and spread with the intent to reduce their religious legitimacy. Tales like the 1922 Nur Baba by Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu – a short story describing Alevi debauchery in a ritual ceremony – is one of various fictitional themes that ultimately justified bigotry and eventual discrimination against the community. This can also be seen by academic G.R Driver (1922) who [in all likelihood reiterated what he was told] wrote about the Qizilbaş with the same derogatory stance. “There, after prayers noteworthy only for revolting cynicism and an invocation of the deity of fecundity, the lights are extinguished and the sexes intermingle without regard to age or the ties of kinship.”[13] Driver falsely clams that this “very degraded superstition” worships a large black dog and only call themselves Muslim to receive the same civil rights as other orthodox Muslims. Similar conspiracies about sexual deviance were circulated about the Arab-Alevi community. “Thus, the theologian al-Ash’ari (874-936) held that Alawism encourages male sodomy and incestuous marriages, and the founder of the Druze religious doctrine, Hamza ibn Ali (d. 1021), write that Alawis consider ‘the male member entering the female nature’ to be the emblem of their spiritual doctrine.”[14]

The secrecy of their religious doctrines led to these suspicions, and what better way to dehumanise and justify repression than by fabricating tales of sexual perversion. Consequently, Alevis have long been persecuted and this violence continues even in secular Turkey today, such as the Sivas massacre where on July 2, 1993, 37 Alevis were killed by radical Islamists who set fire to their hotel. Although the Turkish government is attempting to open the door for a better understanding of the Alevi community, such abrogating themes amongst the uninformed populace remain and have led Alevis to re-consider their social and political position in Turkey. This can be seen by the establishment of various organisations such as the Cem Foundation, which distributes information through journal articles, radio and other forms of media circulation. Thogh it can be said that the end of the Cold War and the economic and political crises of the early 1980’s led to an increased desire for recognition, the attacks on Alevis during the 199’s and the current fear that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are gradually and quietly implementing Sunni Islamic values has only amplified suspicions and led to an intensification in political, academic and social activism.

It would seem that rejecting Islam to adopt a more Christian outlook is a big problem for many people to understand and indeed when so absorbed into their own culture and beliefs, they become immovable in their worldview that difference or change is a threat rather than a difference. However, I am going through a transition at the moment to try and solidify my own understanding, independent of any denomination, of what is the most righteous way to view and understand the world at large and I believe it is essential to look at the past, to anaylse the present and read all the scriptures without prejudice or bias to gain enough knowledge to make your own decision. It comes at a price, but it is worth it as you are honest with yourself and living in the present.

Further reading:

[1] Qizilbaş literally means “red head” which is attributed to Ali who told followers at the Battle of Siffin (657CE) to tie a red cloth around their heads so that each can distinguish one from the other.
[2]C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960), 1162
[3] The Qizilbaş were detested by the Ottomans and thus the name became known to refer to those who supported the Safavids.
[4] Nihat Cetinkaya, Kizilbaş Turkler, Tarihi, Oluşumu ve Gelişimi (Istanbul: Kum Saati Yayinlari, 2004) 72
[5] David Zeidan. “The Alevi of Anatolia” Middle East Review of International Affairs 3:4 (Dec 1999) 1
[6] Paul J. White and Joost Jongerden, Turkey’s Alevi Enigma: A Comprehensive Overview, (Boston: Brill, 2003) 82
[7] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 243
[8] Ibid., 20 The Battle of Chaldiran (1514) occurred between the Shah Ismail of the Safavid Empire in Iran and Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire. According to Karin Vornhoff, the Safavid Battle of Caldiran brought the Bektasi and the Kizilbas closer.
[9] Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Ozdalga, Catharina Raudvere, Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives (Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 1998) 154
[10] Paul Stirling, Culture and Economy: Changes in Turkish Villages (Cambridgeshire: The Eothen Press, 1993) 52
[11] Michael Stewart, “Modernity and the Alevis of Turkey: Identity, Challenges and Change” Journal of International Relations Vol. 9 (Spring 2007) 1-19
[12] Irene Melikoff, Haci Bektas Efsaneden Gercege Ceviren: Turan Alptekin (Istanbul: Cumhuriet Kitaplari, 2004) 328
[13] G.E Driver “The Religion of the Kurds” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, (University of London, 1922) 5
[14] Michael H. Van Dusen, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria” Middle East Journal 26:2 (Spring 1972) 128

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