Dogan Bermek: "The Alevi Belief System and its Rituals"
By Dogan BERMEK
Genel Başkan / President
AVF - Alevi Vakıfları Federasyonu -Federation of Alevi Foundations
During its northwards expansion from the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th and 9th centuries, Islam encountered the native populations of Khorasan and Transoxania, as well as the Turkic peoples, who were already on their seven-century journey from Central Asia to the West.
As a result, the main precepts of Islam and monotheism were incorporated into the egalitarian culture of these Asian tribes, shaped by centuries of nomadic existence and therefore characterised by each individual's contribution to public life, which lead to a brand new interpretation of Islam.
Certain concepts contained in Islam – such as monotheism, the belief that actions for one's religion and one's country are rewarded, the fact that no clerical class is required to mediate between God and the believers, and the idea of a merciful, forgiving God – must have appealed to the tribes from Central Asia, as this religion enjoyed a far greater level of acceptance within these tribes compared with other religions.
However, there were certain elements in the Arabic-Islamic legal and cultural tradition, very highly politicised since the death of Mohammed, which would have been difficult for nomadic peoples to accept and to apply. In short, the belief system reflected by Islam was endorsed, while the Arabic-Islamic approach to law and State administration were incompatible with the tribes of Khorasan and their nomadic lifestyle.
For example, polygamy and the right to dispose of slaves and concubines, enshrined in Arabic-Islamic civil law but hitherto inexistent in the legal traditions of nomads, were perceived as alien, as well as being difficult or practically impossible to apply to a nomadic lifestyle.
The use of power, inevitably determined by relations of production, was more democratic in these nomadic tribes, living in tents according to the rhythm of seasonal migrations and raids, than in Arabian tribes. Individuals' rights and the status of women was characterised by a far more progressive and egalitarian framework.
These customs lingered on for a long time after the adoption of Islam. The fact that up until the end of the Seljuk rule tombs were erected not only for lords (‘bey') but also for ladies (‘hatun') proves that women could contribute not only to social, but also to political life with equal rights. Ladies' tombs around Kayseri and in Eastern Anatolia which were preserved until present, as well as many written records making reference to women using political power, prove beyond doubt that a very progressive civil law tradition for its period prevailed in Anatolia.
Thus, in the area referred to as Khorasan, there was a very quick progression from a polytheistic tradition to the monotheism of Islam. While adopting Islam because its main tenets were compatible with their traditional belief systems, many peoples and especially Turkic nomadic tribes nonetheless adapted Islam to these belief systems. These tribes adopted what one calls Sufism, or the mystical/esoteric branch of Islam, and the way of Ali and the twelve Imams.
Sunni Islam propounds that obeying certain rules and following the five pillars of Islam will lead to moral development, and emphasises the importance of respecting forms.
By contrast, the esoteric tradition (Sufism) attaches more importance to substance than forms and aims at creating morally developed and ‘complete'/'perfect' human beings through education.
Compared to other political views, the philosophy endorsed by Ali and his successors, the twelve Imams, corresponded to a more compassionate and humanistic approach, apprehending rights not as men's or women's rights but more as human rights. Sufism, with its emphasis on free thinking and the need for the individual to find the right path with reason, was seen as closer to the nomadic culture.
Sufism was notably reconciled with this nomadic tradition by the order of Ahmed Yassavi in Turkistan (present day Kazakhstan). This order was not only the origin of this new interpretation, but also directly responsible for its expansion and adoption by many through the spiritual leaders and dervishes it constantly sent towards the West.
It is precisely this interpretation which was to the foundation of what was to become the "Alevi – Bektashi –Mevlevi" belief system known as "Anatolian Alevism".
The missionaries travelling west from the Yassoui order, known under several names, such as the Warrior dervishes, Khorasan dervishes, Anatolian dervishes, Rumelian dervishes (Abdalan-i rum1)and the Sisters of Rum (baciyan-i rum), ensured the rapid expansion of "Alevi Islam" in Asia Minor, Anatolia, Thrace and the Balkans.
1 ‘Rum' is a generic term for former Roman provinces which gradually came to denote the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
These leaders, who advocated the principle of "Looking at seventy-two nations with one eye" and declared the respect of human rights the foremost objective, contributed to the creation of an environment of social peace based on the respect for individuals and their labour, skills and knowledge, in which several ethnic groups could live harmoniously. On the foundations laid by these missionaries in Anatolia and Rumelia (Europe), a vast empire such as the Ottoman Empire could rise in a relatively short period.
The belief and value system that we now call "Anatolian Alevism" came into being in this period.
According to this belief system, all created beings are to be respected, as they all contain a trace of divine essence. The utterance by Mansur Al-Hallaj of the sentence "Ana al-Haqq" ("I am the Truth", truth being one of the ninety-nine names of Allah) is a reflection of this belief. The Khorasan, Transoxania, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Thrace of those days was characterised by a multitude of divergent creeds and this new monotheistic belief system, which embraced all beings and creeds without arrogance or condescension and with an egalitarian respect and love, spread surprisingly fast, easily and peacefully in the region.
These pioneers, called the Khorasan dervishes, Warrior dervishes (Alp eren?) or Anatolian dervishes, by respecting and embracing the cultures of different ethnic groups, succeeded in transmitting the concept of respect for all, the Creator as well as the created, and in bringing together different ethnic groups and cultures around the same belief, without abandoning their particular colours.
This approach, developed by the order of Ahmed Yassoui, shaped the "Anatolian Alevism" in Minor Asia and Anatolia .
Without exclusion or arrogance, the Anatolian Alevi – Bektashi – Mevlevi belief systems were able to blend, absorb and even enrich the cultures of peoples living in these regions, as well as of those arriving through migrations.
It is precisely because of this that one can still find traces of shamanistic, Greek and Roman cultures in the rituals of these peoples. The most striking characteristic of the Anatolian dervishes was that, when they were appointed as missionaries and spiritual leaders to an area and were about to leave their order, they donned a wooden sword. This was meant to mark that, although they were leaving for battle in order to spread their ideas, this was a spiritual battle in which no one ought to be hurt or harmed. The Anatolian mosaic of a multitude of groups with different beliefs came together around this spiritual leadership and peacefully evolved towards the foundation of the Ottoman Empire from a legacy of centuries of Roman and Byzantine rule as well as the city states, clans and feudal principalities, remnants of the Crusades.
In brief, the Anatolian dervishes founded systems of international, commercial and civil law in Anatolia towards the end of the Seljuk rule and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. The belief system one calls Anatolian Alevism was thus adapted to social life by the Anatolian dervishes in this period.
In the Bilecik province, Sheikh Edeb Ali prepared the foundation of the Ottoman State and developed a secular approach to State administration, concentrating not on religious differences but on the fundamental rights of the Sovereign, and laid the foundations of an inclusive public international law system embracing Anatolia and Thrace of the period. This legal approach was carefully applied during the periods of expansion and development of the Ottoman Empire. At various stages of the conquests in Thrace and the Balkans, including the capture of Constantinople, the freedom and rights given to local populations led to these communities often welcoming Ottoman rule. (devletler hukuku egemen devletler arasindaki iliskileri duzenledigine gore, bu soyledigin devletler hukukuna ornek teskil eder mi?)
During the same period, in Sulucakarahöyük, Nevsehir province (today's Hacibektas), Haji Bektash Veli (1210 – 1270) developed civil law principles, still very progressive in today's standards, enshrined in the rules such as "look at the seventy-two nations with one eye" or "whatever you are looking for, look for it within yourself". Monogamy, right to education for children regardless of their sex, the importance of respect for the rights of all created beings, including of humans irrespective of their beliefs, of animals and of the nature, are at the heart of the civil law system he developed, which remains modern even by today's most progressive standards. Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Abdal Musa, Taptuk Emre and other great Anatolian dervishes who lived in the same period developed this approach in their respective regions, and contributed to the irrevocable adoption of the principles of tolerance and universal love by the public.
Ahi Evran Sheikh Nasureddin (1172-1262), ensured the organisation of crafts and trade which was a premise for the establishment of a peaceful sedentary life in Anatolia. Remnants of the resulting "Ahi" organisation, which had its roots in Central Asia, have persisted until present. This organisation superposed a value system on relations of production and trade in urban life, which puts emphasis on mastery and moral stature in
the exercise of a profession, irrespective of the professionals' origin, language, religion or race, and thus corresponds to a very progressive understanding of commercial law. Many aspects of this legal tradition are still visible in modern societies, notably in institutions such as exchanges and chambers of commerce and industry, which are the backbone of the relations of production in Western economies. Equivalents of these institutions and control mechanisms were developed and implemented under the Ahi organisation.
The Anatolian Alevis – Bektashis and Mevlevis belong to the Jafari school of thought. In accordance with the principle of "one way, one thousand and one paths" (buradaki surek tam olarak ne anlama geliyor?), certain practices are different from one community to the other. The Bektashis and Mevlevis are referred to as ‘babagan', whereas the Alevis are called ‘dedegan'. In Alevism, i.e. the dedegan branch, spiritual leadership is inherited by the most mature son or daughter, whereas in the Bektashi and Mevlevi (i.e. the babagan) branches, all titles are given after elections. Whereas these belief systems essentially follow the same principles, one can observe small differences with respect to their internal organisation and rituals.
The Alevi – Bektashi – Mevlevi rituals, which will be examined below, are marked by the abovementioned framework of egalitarianism, respect for the individual, pluralism and social solidarity. Music plays an important role in many of these rituals.
The following are some common characteristics of these generally very simple rituals:
- The language of religious services is Turkish. No language is used which would be unintelligible to the audience. The spiritual leaders make their prayers in a clear and understandable Turkish (including the Kurdish-speaking regions).
- None of these rituals is restricted to men or women, all rituals are accessible to the society.
- Except for the death rituals, all events involve music and often dances called ‘sema' or ‘semah'.
- All rituals take place under the guidance and authority of a spiritual leader, variously called ‘pir', ‘postnisin', ‘dede' or ‘baba'.
- Sufficient numbers of attendants contribute to the smooth running of rituals. Their services concern all stages, from the invitation of the participants until the end of the ritual. Some of these services, which will be examined in more detail below, are playing the ‘saz' (a string instrument in the form of an elongated lute), zakirlik (?), slaughtering of sacrificial animals, supervision or lighting.
- In nearly all these rituals, ‘lokma', i.e. food offered to the community by an individual, is distributed. With the exception of the month of Muharram (first month of the Islamic calendar), animals can be sacrificed. In the Alevi – Bektashi belief, offering something to the others or accepting such an offering is a form of blessing. Lokma is a very significant sociological link between the individual and the community and can take the form of any kind of food, such as meat from sacrificial animals, bulgur (pounded and boiled wheat), various kinds of pastries, halva, fruits, or simply a few roasted chickpeas and dried apricots. The variety and abundance of lokma depends on the financial situation of the person offering it. What matters is however not the quality of lokma, but the fact that the person in question is offering something which will be shared by the community. Lokma is thus distributed in almost all these rituals to mark this sociological link. Before lokma is distributed, it is blessed by the spiritual leader (such as dede, baba, or dedebaba) with a short ‘lokma prayer'. ("yiyene helal, yedirene delil olsun"u ceviremedim – ‘may it be legitimate for the eater, and a proof for the giver(‘s generosity)' gibi bir sey oluyor ki pek bir anlami kalmiyor).
After having examined the common characteristics of the Alevi – Bektashi rituals, one can broadly distinguish between rituals of (everyday) life and faith-related, spiritual rituals.
Rituals of life concern event such as:
- Military service / going to war,
as well as social events, such as:
- Taking up of a profession
Events marking the progression from one level to the next:
- Exclusion from the profession
Faith-related rituals can be summarised as follows:
- Muharram fasting and asure
- Hıdırellez - Nevruz,
- Cem ceremonies,
- Acceptance to the spiritual path,
- Companionship ("Musahiplik"),
- Visits to sacred places,
- Exclusion from the path,
Naturally, rituals of life and faith overlap in many areas, and the distinction made between these two kinds of rituals is not always pertinent.
Rituals of life:
Birth: Birth is celebrated with ritual visits, where jewels or other presents are offered to the family. There can be votive sacrifices. The Bektashi visit the family one week after the arrival of the baby.
Circumcision and "kirvelik" (compaternity): The "kirve" (a kind of godfather) system is a very important institution of social solidarity. The kirve is as important as a second father for the boy who sat in his lap during his circumcision, and has the obligation to treat him as one of his own children if the boy's father is dead or in difficulty. The kirve has to act both as a spiritual and secular guide to the child. In nomadic warrior societies, this institution has been used as an element of social security, ensuring that children can be raised in a healthy environment in case of losses or broken families, which were frequent. In order to secure their future, families distribute their children among different kirves. Due to these important responsibilities, it is a very difficult task to choose a kirve, or to act as one. Families bound with this link consider their children as siblings and marriage among them is not allowed. The kirve is made official during the circumcision ceremony and cannot waive or transfer his rights and responsibilities. Those who do not fulfil their obligations properly can be punished.
"Musahiplik": Musahiplik is a system of companionship which completes the social security system together with "kirvelik". Any two adults with good morals can become musahip, i.e. companions. Musahiplik concerns two couples who join their paths. This link of companionship is considered more important than blood and family bonds. Similar mechanisms as in "kirvelik" are here used for the protection of wives and daughters. In case of severe material difficulties or death, the musahip (companion) is responsible for looking after the widow and the daughters, by providing the same living conditions to them as to his wife and daughters. This responsibility cannot be transferred. The oath of musahiplik is sworn during a special cem ceremony ("görgü cemi").
In the Alevi – Bektashi societies, "kirvelik" and "musahiplik" are two very important social security institutions that aim to prevent poverty and destitution. These social institutions enjoyed such widespread acceptance In Anatolia and the Balkans that they can even be found in many families who consider themselves Sunnites.
Starting school: A procession is organised, mainly among the Bektashi. The child starting school is prepared at home. The teacher and all the other children at school come to this house. The teacher makes the child write on a piece of paper, than puts powdered sugar on the ink and makes the child lick the paper. Finally, the procession proceeds to the school with the new child.
Asking for a girl's hand in marriage: An indispensable condition in Alevi - Bektashi societies is that the man and the woman voluntarily agree to marry, after having met and known each other. There can be no forced marriages and agreement is essential. For example, one of the oaths sworn during the "musahiplik" ritual is that the companion's daughter's hand will be given only to the one she wants to marry. When a marriage is decided, syrup is prepared and the families decide on the bride price (a dowry paid by the husband's family).
Marriage: Several rituals are practiced, including a henna ceremony for the bride. The best man is either the groom's "kirve" (godfather) or "musahip" (companion). The kirve may delegate this task if there is a significant age difference.
Military service: The group leaving for the army are accompanied until they leave the village or the town. The rich are expected to give pocket money for the draftees. This ritual is still very alive in Anatolia.
Death rituals: Death is perceived as "walking to God" or returning to one's origin in the Alevi-Bektashi belief system. Sacrificial meat and halva is distributed, sometimes a cem ceremony is conducted. Food and halva is distributed on the third, seventh and fortieth days after death. If possible, an animal is sacrificed and "lokma" is distributed, which is called "can aşı" (life food).
Rituals linked to crafts and trades ("Ahilik"):
The "Ahi" system is a very progressive social organisation of professions based on professional solidarity, education and specialisation, which seeks to ensure that the individuals' status is proportional to their contribution to society, regardless of their race, religion or language. This organisation, which was founded by Ahi Evran in its Anatolian form, is presumed to have originated in Central Asia and Mongolia and was very vibrant until recent times.
The Ottoman Sultans Murad I (1362-1389) and his father Orhan I (1324-1362) were leaders who had an Ahi identity. As a prince, Suleyman I (the Magnificient) was the apprentice of the Greek jeweller Constantine, who was an Ahi in Trebizond.
The Ahis built caravanserais in cities and on trade routes, guesthouses in villages, "zaviye"s (guild chambers which also had a spiritual component) and a postal system.
In Ahi zaviyes, members are separated between 9 groups and 5 ranks, the highest rank being sheikh (leader). All zaviyes were under the leadership of the "sheikh of sheikhs" (roughly equivalent to the president of a union of chambers). Each profession has its own banner, drum, horn and a patron. These patrons are often prophets or saints, to name a few: Adam (farmers), Enoch (tailors and scribes), Isaac and Moses (shepherds), Josef (clockmakers), Lot (historians) Elias (weavers), David (blacksmiths), Jonah (fishermen), Jesus (travellers), Mohammed (tradesmen), etc…
This organisation of traders and craftsmen is very similar to today's chambers of commerce. Guild statutes called "fütuvvetname" regulate aspects such as clothing, journeys, required skills, punishments and conditions for exclusion from the guild, conditions for helping the crippled and retired, etc…
Several bodies (such as boards of management, inter-guild committees) have regular and exceptional meetings to take the necessary decisions. Apart from these meetings, there are several trade-related rituals.
Aides – children smaller than 10 work as aides.
Apprentices – After two years of work as aides, the child can become an apprentice. On the day of the ceremony, after the Morning Prayer, the guardian of the apprentice presents gifts to the guild members (a copper cauldron, ladles or spoons). The master praises the skills of the apprentice and gives advice regarding his shortcomings. The guild master blesses the apprentice by rubbing his back and fixes a weekly wage. A week's wage is contributed by the master to the treasury.
Journeyman – After three years of successful apprenticeship comes the journeyman stage. This ceremony takes place in the guild chamber in the presence of the entire guild council. The most experienced journeyman assumes the responsibility of service and guidance. After his master and three other masters testify to the good morals of the apprentice, his guardian gives his consent to his promotion. The new journeyman puts on his professional clothes for the first time. The guild master puts a special girdle around his waist and gives him advice. After paying his respects to all the guild members, the journeyman leaves the guild chambers with his guide, stands in front of his master's shop and accepts other journeymen's congratulations. His guardian presents gifts to guild members according to his financial situation.
Master – The ceremony of mastery takes place during Nevruz. Journeymen, who have held this title for three years, never been criticised for inappropriate action, educated apprentices, and who have the competence to run a shop, can become a master. The chosen journeyman is told to look for a shop 30 days in advance. When he finds suitable premises, he informs his master who informs the guild. The ceremony is held with the participation of guild members, the local judge, prefect, etc. His master replaces the journeyman's girdle with the master's girdle. After paying his respects, the new master goes to his shop. Three journeyman, two apprentices and one aide come to congratulate the master in the name of their fellows.
There are several other rituals regulating punishments for unethical behaviour, going up to exclusion from the profession, as well as rituals for guild members who retire or become invalid.
The Ahi organisation, which was influential in towns, had its equivalent in rural areas in the form of a fellowship (yaranlik) system, which continues to exist and has the aim of furthering solidarity in the village and educate villagers. Its rituals are simplified forms of the Ahi rituals. "Fellows' chambers" are founded in villages, to organise meetings, cem ceremonies, readings and other rituals, and its members take turns to carry out the necessary services. These meetings are much more frequent between autumn and spring, and the chamber is inactive during the summer period, due to agricultural activities. The "fellows" organise assistance to the needful, and help with the organisation of weddings and funerals. They assist old and poor people and those without relatives in tilling their fields and harvesting. A common feast is organised at the end of the harvest.
Rituals of faith (spiritual rituals):
These rituals aim at enriching peoples' inner lives and helping them to attain higher moral and spiritual maturity, with a view to bringing them closer to the level of "insan-i kamil" (perfect human being).
Karbala and Mourning : The month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar) is a month of mourning due to the events that took place in Karbala. On the twentieth day following Eid-ul Adha, the Muharram fasting begins, lasting twelve days. Very little is eaten and one drinks as little water as possible. The fasting ends on the 12th day (10th among the Bektashi) with the distribution of asure (a desert with a wheat and chickpea basis and several ingredients). In Alevi-Bektashi belief, the tenth day of Muharram is not only the anniversary of Hussein's martyrdom in Karbala, but of many other events, such as Heaven's acceptance of Adam's repentance, the deliverance of Moses' people, the rescue of Abraham from fire, the reunification of Jacob with Josef, the return of the dove to Noah with an olive branch in its beak, the escape of Jonah from the fish's belly and the ascension of Jesus. This day is commemorated with a cem ceremony. The amount of daily water intake is slightly increased at this stage, but water-fasting continues until the 12th day of Muharram when Hussein was buried.
During this period, some Alevi tribes (such as yuruks) do not kill animals or cut trees, do not use sharp instruments, shed blood, or eat meat or eggs. They avoid holding knifes – in some villages, even onion is cut and prepared before Muharram. Verbal disputes and swearing are completely forbidden.
Nevruz: Nevruz is celebrated on the 21st of March as New Year's Day and considered the birthday of Ali. As agricultural work intensifies after this date, no cem ceremonies are held in the period that follows. The night before Nevruz is a time for prayers. Celebration and cem ceremonies take place during the day. The Alevi believe that on this day, the earth and the sky are blessed for a new and fruitful year.
Hidirellez: In Alevi – Bektashi belief, Hizir is a prophet that was sent by God to educate Moses, when the latter started thinking that he was the wisest person on earth. Hizir, together with the prophet Elias, is a symbol of the highest level of spiritual evolution. It is believed that these two prophets drank from the source of immortality, and that they help those in need, Hizir on the land and Elias on the water. The night of the 6th of May, called Hidirellez, is the time when Hizir and Elias meet under a rose tree to confer before returning to their duties. Hidirellez is characterised by many colourful rituals. A special cem for Hizir is conducted and a Hizir fasting is observed in certain areas. It is believed that stepping on the grass on this day will bring luck. Lovers who want to be united, or those who have a need or a wish, use various devices to catch the attention of Hizir and Elias, to transmit their wishes to them and to detect the signs of their presence.
The most original and refined of Alevi – Bektashi rituals of belief is undoubtedly the "cem", which have several categories. The two main categories are (gorgu cemi) and (muhabbet cemi). The cem ceremonies are conducted under several different names, depending on their aims, geographic regions, different traditions, etc. These differences are a reflection of the cultural wealth of these regions and the synthesis of several cultural traditions. Because of their cultural and sociological significance, cem
ceremonies are considered a treasure in Anatolian ethnology.
A typical görgü cem is organised as follows:
- The congregation meets in the "cemevi" (cem house). The dede who will conduct the cem and other attendants start carrying out their functions after prayers. If there is a sacrificial animal, it is prepared according to appropriate rites and handed over to the butcher.
- Cem is "unified", no new participants can be admitted after this point.
- The congregation seeks to settle the differences that might exist between their members. The participants render account of their conduct. If it is considered necessary, they can be condemned or punished.
- The service starts after prayers.
- A wide variety of semahs (ritual dances), which vary according to the number of participants and the general aim pursued, are conducted. These dances are often characterised by Central Asian symbology.
- A "lokma" (ritual meal) prayer is made and lokma is distributed.
- The cem disperses.
The Alevi world view has set out several moral principles (not harming any living being without reason, principles of self-control, non-discrimination, etc.) which are transmitted to individuals during cem ceremonies and other rituals. Those who do not observe these rules are chastised with specific punishments, which can go from a simple excuse to full repentance, and may include financial and corporal punishment (such as making husbands who have beaten their wives to stand up with a big weight on their shoulders), and in extreme cases might result in the exclusion from the spiritual path or society altogether.
Another important area for spiritual rituals concerns acceptance to the spiritual path, i.e. joining a spiritual order. A candidate must be at least 18 years of age, have the required mental and physical capacity. They need to have showed their will to enter the path, and obtained their spouse's consent in case they are married. These are very elaborate rituals including several stages.
Often, the sacrifice of an animal is an important component of the spiritual rituals. The sacrificial animal has to be prepared according to very particular rites – as they represent the person who has offered them, they have to be thoroughly cleaned. After having been blessed by the spiritual leader, they are carried to the area where they will be sacrificed without letting their hooves touch the ground and their eyes are bound. They are sacrificed after further prayers. Their bones have to be kept intact, put into a bag and buried in a place where nobody will tread upon them.
There is a particular Alevi – Bektashi symbology, which suggests Central Asian descent. Each tribe has kept a sacred animal and plant. The Tahtaci tribe, for instance, does not use the word "bear", and says "the big boy" or "the one on the mountain" instead. The Alevi – Bektashi do not eat pork, rabbit or bear. Owls are considered a bad omen, swallows and doves are sacred. Cranes represent the voice of Ali. Horses are treated as brothers and sisters, and are always considered a good omen.
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