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Alevis

By:
David Shankland
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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    Alevis

    [This entry contains two subentries:

    Overview

    The Alevis are a group whose members stem from Anatolia and, to a lesser extent, the Balkans. They are characterized by their strong emphasis on the mystical side of Islam: the idea that a part of God lies within all human beings, and that appropriate ethical conduct is more important than any strict following of the orthodox rules of faith. This they sometimes encapsulate by drawing a contrast between the “five pillars” of Sunnī Islam in Turkey, and their “three conditions”: “Be master of thy hands, thy tongue, and thy loins” (i.e., do not steal, do not tell falsehoods, and do not commit adultery). Known as edep, this prescription is known widely within Turkish mystical Islam. What is notable about the Alevis is the priority that edep is given within their religious culture: everyone—men and women—is part of this mystical tradition by virtue of being born into it.

    Until recently, the Alevis have inhabited primarily rural, often mountainous locations, predominantly in the central and eastern regions of Anatolia, that is, the provinces of Tokat, Yozgat, Sivas, Amasya, Erzincan, Erzurum, Kahramanmaraş and Tunceli, though they may be found also in the west, notably Balıkesir. There is no single overarching Alevi organization. However, many Alevis, particularly those toward the central and western regions, are influenced by the Bektaşi brotherhood, whose tenets they may regard as following theirs very closely. Locally, leadership is usually conferred through hereditary patrilineages (known variously as dede, lit., grandfather or pir) whose founder or later descendants are regarded as being sacred by virtue of being favored by God with a miraculous sign. The hierarchical relationship between dede and their followers is crucial to Alevi life: the dede has a duty to teach the tenets of the Alevis (Alevilik) to his followers, to advise them in times of difficulty, to lead collective religious ceremonies within the community, and to act as mediator in times of dispute.

    The principal Alevi ceremony is the cem, which usually takes place during the winter months. Held at night, it is a complex and rich ritual whose central rite marks the passing of God 's secrets to ʿAlī, from whom they are believed to have been passed to his martyred children Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, and their descendants down to the Alevi community. The congregation collects in a large room, men and women together, grouped around a central space which is known as ʿAlī 's meydan. If there are disputants, they are called to this space, and until their problem is resolved, worship cannot take place. The dede leads the ceremony, and is accompanied by a minstrel (aşık), who plays a prominent role, singing laments celebrating the twelve imams and otherwise accompanying the unfolding ritual. The culmination of the ceremony is the sema or sacred dance of the forty. There are different versions of this sema, but it usually consists of two or three pairs of mature, married couples, dancing in a circle in unison. Traditionally, outsiders were not permitted at this ceremony, though among the migrant communities abroad, such a prescription is often lifted.

    Though clearly influenced by Shiism, the Alevis themselves do not typically regard themselves as Shīʿī. The word Alevi itself appears to be of comparatively recent origin, dating perhaps to the end of the nineteenth century. It is best to conceive of them as a number of disparate groups, perhaps not clearly defined, that have gradually, as the Turkish republic has taken shape, come to see themselves as being part of a similar religious tradition. Though there is no one text that unites all Alevis, many refer to a work known as the Buyruk or decree, said to be written by Imam Jaʿfar. This exists in different versions, but is thought to have been compiled in the sixteenth century in the time of Shāh Ismāʿīl, perhaps as an attempt to create support against the Ottomans. Alevi traditions may draw upon older forms of Islam too: many may refer back to eastern schools, such as those of Ahmad Yasavī at Khorāsān. There may also be an affinity with the Mevlevîs, or with Anatolian figures such as Yunus Emre.

    The Alevis have never quite been accepted within the Turkish state, as their highly devolved organization and culture often creates an uneasy relationship with authority, particularly in the tribal east. Nevertheless, relations with the republic have often been good, and the Turkish Alevis, and at least some of the Kurdish Alevis, strongly supported Atatürk and his secular reforms. Indeed, the history of the left-wing Republican parties in Turkey could hardly be written without including the role of the Alevis, who regarded them as a defense against the re-Islamification of the public sphere.

    There is no accurate idea of the population of Alevis. Estimates range from as low as 10 percent to as high as 30 percent of Turkey 's population. In recent decades there has been rapid migration from the countryside, whether to urban centers within the republic or further abroad, particularly Germany, Holland, and Austria. In these new milieux there is a strong intellectual movement toward the reformulation or codification of Alevi tradition, often led by young intellectuals who are not necessarily themselves of dede descent. In terms of modern ethnicity, Alevis may be both Turkish and Kurdish. In Germany at least, this ethnic distinction may become apparent in the form of Alevi religion that is regarded as most appropriate for the community to pursue, and can give rise to lively internal debate. The current situation is fluid, and as the republic itself moves away from secularism and toward the acceptance of a form of political life based on Sunnī Islam, it is potentially tense.

    See also ʿALAWīYAH.

    Bibliography

    • Mélikoff, I.Hadji Bektach: un mythe et ses avatars: genèse et évolution du soufisme populaire en Turquie. Leiden: Brill, 1998.
    • Shankland, David. The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. London: Routledge, 2003.

    David Shankland

    Turkey

    Alevis are the second largest religious community in Turkey after the Sunnīs, with a population in Turkey that is estimated at between fifteen and twenty million. A great majority of Alevis lived in rural areas until the mid-twentieth century, though today, most Alevis live in urban centers. There are approximately one million Alevi immigrants outside Turkey, the majority in Germany. Alevis are a multiethnic religious group whose members speak various languages including Turkish, Kurmanji, Dimili, Arabic, and Azeri, among others. Alevis do not proselytize and practiced strict endogamy until very recently.

    The term Alevi, often used to refer to descendents of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, has also come to denote, since the sixteenth century, a person who is a member of a sect that holds ʿAlī in high esteem. In the contemporary Turkish, Alevi is used as an umbrella concept to refer to a range of groups including Kızılbaş, Bektaşi, Tahtacı, Çepni, and Amucalı, among others. From the late nineteenth century on, the term Alevi became a popular euphemism to refer to these groups, particularly owing to the pejorative connotations of the term Kızılbaş in conservative Sunnī parlance. The Ottoman political and religious establishment propaganda (since the sixteenth century) claimed that the Kızılbaş, who were supporters of the Ṣafavid rivals of the Ottomans, practiced incestuous orgies during their religious ceremonies. Beginning with the Alevi revival of the 1990s, however, Alevis started to reappropriate the word Kızılbaş, and use it in affirmative ways.

    The Alevi faith is often puzzling to outsiders since its adherents do not see themselves as either Sunnī or Shīʿī. Alevis never recognized the authority of the Sunnī caliphs. Instead, they pay allegiance to the twelve imams. Alevis are often characterized by their Sunnī rivals by reference to their failure to follow the Sunnī orthopraxy, particularly their refusal to perform the five daily prayers, the Ramadan fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Alevis, however, present the teaching of four gates and forty stations (dört kapı kırk makam) as the central tenet of their spiritual path (yol). This mystical journey begins by following the formal religious rules (şeriat) and ends with the discovery of the divine within, and ultimately in union with the divine (hakikat). The goal of human beings in life is to attain the status of a perfect human being called insan-ı kâmil. Other distinguishing features of Alevi teachings involve the belief in reincarnation and metempsychosis as well as the mystical unity between Prophet Muḥammad and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. Although Alevi teachings are for the most part transmitted orally by religious guides and minstrels, there are also various important written documents. A collection of manuscripts attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq called Buyruk (the Command) is accepted as one of the most important sources of Alevi belief and practice.

    The central ritual of Alevis is the âyin-i cem, a congregational ceremony of men and women which is comprised of various different practices called twelve services (oniki hizmet). The cem ceremony involves chanting, music, and ritual dance (semah). It is modeled after the archetype of the congregation of the forty saints (kırklar cemi) which is believed to have taken place on Prophet Muḥammad's return from his ascent to heaven. Two key Alevi practices which are based on kırklar cemi are spiritual brotherhood (müsahiblik) and people's courts (görgü). Becoming a müsahib involves the establishment of a lifelong relationship between two married couples whereby they are expected to stand in solidarity with each other in all aspects of life. This fictive kin relationship is as strong as a consanguinal relationship and the intermarriage of children of müsahibs is considered incestuous. The practice of görgü in cem ceremonies involves the settling of disputes and reconciliation of differences in the presence of religious guides. In rare cases in which members of the community are guilty of serious offences, people can be declared düşkün and ostracized from the community.

    Alevi men and women carry out cem ceremonies in worship halls called cemevi and do not attend mosques. Alevis used to carry out cem ceremonies secretly, out of fear of persecution by the Ottoman Sunnī establishment. This secrecy continued until the late twentieth century. Although cem ceremonies have become public for the most part, the Turkish state still does not recognize cemevi as a worship hall, although these halls are considered and tolerated as cultural centers.

    Alevi communities are served by male religious guides called dede or baba, although there are few instances of women serving as well. Most of the religious guides are members of patrilineages and they putatively demonstrate agnatic descent from the twelve imams. Religious guides are also assisted by zakirs, who play a stringed instrument called bağlama during the cem ceremony. Alevis refer to bağlama as telli Kuran, the stringed Qurʿān. This is connected to the Alevi belief that human beings are Kuran-ı Natık, the speaking Qurʿān. Spiritually mature people, Alevis believe, can speak out or sing the divine wisdom to the tunes of the bağlama.

    There is no universally accepted central and hierarchical organization of Alevis. The town of Hacıbektaş, where the shrine of the patron saint Hacı Bektaş is located, is believed to be the spiritual center of the Alevi faith. The Ulusoy family residing in Hacıbektaş is recognized by some Alevis as the descendants of the saint Hacı Bektaş. Most Alevis in Turkey, however, are organized in Alevi associations and foundations, the number of which exceeds three hundred. These organizations are members of umbrella organizations, the most important one being the Alevi Bektaşi Federation (ABF). The Federation of Alevi Associations (ADF) and the Federation of Alevi Foundations (AVF) were also established recently as alternative umbrella organizations to ABF. These two more recent federations, however, bring together fewer organizations. The European Confederation of Alevi Unions (AABK) based in Germany, which also includes ABF of Turkey as a member, is currently the most important transnational organization representing Alevis around the world. Alevis, once a closed and secretive community practicing dissimulation for fear of Sunnī persecution, have become public within the last two decades. Today there is a rich array of Alevi TV channels, radio stations, popular and academic journals, publishing houses, and websites.

    See also ALEVIS, subentry OVERVIEW and Bektāshīyah.]

    Bibliography

    • Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. London: Luzac & Co., 1937.
    • Shankland, David. The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. London: Routledge, 2003.
    • Shindeldecker, John. Turkish Alevis Today. Istanbul: Şahkulu Sultan Külliyesi Vakfı, 1996.
    • Yaman, Ali and Aykan Erdemir. Alevism-Bektashism: A Brief Introduction. London: England Alevi Cultural Centre & Cem Evi, 2006.

    Aykan Erdemir

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