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A sect of Shiʿite Muslims in Turkey.

Alevis are the adherents of a belief system fitting loosely under a Shiʿite rubric; they constitute a significant minority in contemporary Turkey. Although no reliable statistics exist, estimates of their numbers run as high as 20 percent of Turkey's population, or somewhere between ten million and fifteen million people. Depending on the observer's political or social agenda, they have been understood to be a religious sect for some purposes and an ethnic minority group for others. Categorization ultimately proves futile, as the term Alevi refers to a number of diverse groups, all maintaining different levels of identification with Alevi-ness (in Turkish, Alevilik ) and with each other. Scholars have posited numerous theories about Alevi influences and origins. Alevis are variously believed to be the descendants of Neoplatonists, gnostics, Manicheanists, Zoroastrians, pantheists, and early Anatolian Christian cults. Some of these lines of cultural descent would place them closer to Kurdish and Iranian elements than to Turkish. A popular theory, advocated by some nationalist politicians as well by as some Alevi leaders, links them with pre-Islamic Turkic belief systems (frequently mislabeled shamanism ).

Language and Beliefs

Many Alevis living in the predominantly Kurdish regions of eastern Anatolia, particularly in the Dersim (Tunceli) regionthe spiritual/historical heart of Kurdish Alevisspeak one of the indigenous Kurdish languages. Others, in southern Anatolia near the Syrian border, speak Arabic, while many in western Anatolia speak Turkish. Groups such as the Shabak Kurds of northern Iraq are also Alevis. By contrast, the Ahl-e Haqq of Iran, although they share some concepts and institutions with the Alevis, diverge historically and in their ritual practices and beliefs. However, most of these groups recognize a sacred hierarchy that includes a trinity consisting of Allah, the prophet Muhammad, and his cousin and son-in-law Ali; they also revere the twelve imams who are central to mainstream Shiʿism.

After these, the next most important figure in Alevi belief is the saint Haci Bektaş Veli, who settled with his followers in the Kir Şehir region of central Anatolia in the thirteenth century. A village bearing his name, Haci Bektaş Köyü, became the center of this group of dervishes, and a large tekke (local headquarters for Sufi orders) and a medrese (Ar. Madrasa ; religious school)still important todaywere established there. Presumably Haci Bektaş Veli was part of a larger movement of Turkmen babas practicing a mystical tradition influenced by Ahmet Yesevi, the central Asian Sufi whose tomb remains an important pilgrimage site. Bektashis were associated with the Ottoman Janissary corps; Janissaries styled their headgear after the cloak said to have been worn by Haci Bektaş Veli. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the reformist Young Turks counted Bektashis among their members, as did the Freemasons.

History and Traditions

The history and traditions of the followers of Haci Bektaş Veli, the Bektashis, overlap with Alevis. However, in some respects Bektashis function much like many Sufi orders. Among the Bektashis, there has been a distinction between Yol Evladi (children of the Path) and Bel Evladi (natural descendants). The former believe that Haci Bektaş was celibate, and membership in the order can only be accomplished through study with a murşit, or spiritual guide, and eventual initiation at an ayin-i cem. The dedebaba, the leader of the entire order, is elected by their babas. The Bel Evladi segment believe that Haci Bektaş married, begot a son, and that the order's leadership since that time should go to his descendants, the Çelebis. Çelebis need not go through initiation (although their followers, talips, must be initiated). Many Alevis concur with the Bel Evladi interpretation.

In the past, and to a lesser extent today, some village-based Alevis have been the talips, the client-disciples, of a Bektashi effendi, or Çelebi based in the tekke of Haci Bektaş Köyü, who might have visited them annually, collected tribute, officiated at an ayin-i cem, and mediated in disputes. Other Alevi villages have maintained the talip relationship with pirs, members of holy lineages not directly related to the Bektashis.

The central communal ritual for Alevis, as for Bektashis, is the ayin-i cem, held, if in a village, in a cem evi. Sites for the ritual exist in Turkish (and European) cities as well, often as part of Alevi cultural centers. The pirs officiate over the symbolic reenactment of the martyrdoms of Hasan and Hüseyin (Husayn), the second and third of the twelve imams, by dousing twelve candles, which is accompanied by impassioned wailing. Some groups of Alevis include wine or raki as part of the cem. Past and present aşiks or ozans (minstrels) are revered, and an essential component of the cem is the playing and singing of the poetry and songs of early Alevis such as Pir Sultan Abdal and Hataʿi (pseudonym of Shah Ismaʿil Safavi). The songs sung in a cem are called nefes by Bektashis and deyiş by village Alevis. Düvaz (short for Düvazdeh imam, the twelve imams) are the most sacred of the songs sung at a cem. The poetry can be understood on multiple levels; ostensible love songs also refer to mystical aspects of the relationship between humans and God, for example. Music typically is played on the saz, a plucked instrument resembling a long-necked lute, sometimes said to be the embodiment of Ali. The strumming and fingering can be complex, demanding a high level of technical virtuosity; many of the rhythms are repetitive, conducive to the semah, trance-inducing dancing performed in the ayin-i cem.

Beliefs and Practices

Other beliefs and practices of many Alevis include fasting during the first twelve days of Muharram and the celebration of Nevruz. A well-known Alevi precept is eline, diline, beline, sahip ol (be the master of your hands, tongue, and loins). This guides behavior for Alevis, who avoid making an outward show of their piety at the expense of inner purity. This is consonant with the permitted practice of taqiyya (dis-simulation). Taqiyya reflects the pervasive belief in esotericism, which emphasized the internal, the unseen, the purity of one's heart. Many Alevi beliefs have been codified and inscribed in Buyruk (decree), believed by some to be the collected sayings of Imam Cafer-i Sadik, the sixth of the twelve imams.

Other religious tenets include a belief in divine incarnations and in reincarnation. Spiritual guidance is manifested in the hierarchy of the four gates of şeriat, tarikat, hakikat, and marifet. Alevis are differentiated from Sunnis in their attitudes and practices surrounding the social and ritual status of women. An Alevi saying, kadin, toplumun annesidir (woman is the mother of society), summarizes the central role of women, who are integral to the cem ceremony and can take leading roles. It is uncommon to see Alevi women wearing headscarves in urban settings. In villages they may; however, their scarves do not cover all their hair. This is consistent with a belief system that values the inner aspects of life more highly than the external.

Politics and History

As a minority that explicitly opposed the hegemonic Sunni power of the Ottoman Empire, the Alevis have been seen as threatening and have long been subject to persecution. The pejorative sobriquet kizilbaş (redhead) derives from an implication that they were traitors, in league with the Iranian Safavi Empire and its founder, Shah Ismaʿil, who established a similar form of Shiʿism as the dominant religion of his realm; the terminology thus has its origins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1925, republican Turkey closed all Sufi orders, tarikats, and tekkes; banned the use of related titles; and prohibited certain practices; the Alevis were driven underground in their religious practices.

A sense of victimization and martyrdom pervades the Alevi worldview. Subject to persecution and massacres throughout their history, Alevis revere and identify with ancestral martyrs. Twentieth-century massacres and oppression are conceptualized in mytho-historical terms, as part of the cultural logic of their understanding of history. Killings and attacks in Malatya, Kahraman Maraş, and Çorum in the late 1970s, and in Sivas in 1993, serve as proof for many Alevis of the persistence of persecution. The attacks in the 1970s, many perpetrated by right-wing Sunnis, were incited by the fascist National Movement Party and depended on the collusion of local police and the army, many of whom identified the Alevi not only with immorality and religious heresy but also with communism.

In the 1970s and 1980s many Alevi youth, particularly from the Dersim area, were attracted by Maoism; with the collapse of the left in Turkey, this was one of the few surviving outposts. Some of these activists moved away from the Turkish Maoists and developed an Alevi variant, proposing the ethnic basis of Alevilik, and advocating an Alevistan or Zazaistan as the rightful homeland of the Zazas. Such movements have been stronger in the European Alevi diaspora than in Turkey. One of the consequences was that the PKK, the dominant Kurdish nationalist group, vied for Alevi allegiance and in 1994 established a publication, Zülfikar, laden with Alevi symbolism and meant to attract Alevi adherents. The PKK also attempted to win Alevi followers by adopting an anti-Turkish-state stance, associating state oppression with Turkish Bektashi-ism. Ultimately many Dersim Alevis were forced through threats of violence to choose sides.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a resurgence of Alevilik emerged both in Turkey and in the European Alevi diaspora. In Turkey, numerous publications appeared in bookstores, Alevilik was discussed in the national press, and there were efforts to establish a special Alevi desk at the Directorate of Religion in Ankara. No longer associated exclusively with the political left, some Alevis have moved to the right. In the 1980s, the popular annual festival at Haci Bektaş Köyü began to be patronized by politicians of all persuasions, eager to win over the Alevi electorate; the state became a sponsor of the festival as sanctions against Alevi self-expression were lifted. Official support may have been meant "to counterbalance the growth of Sunni Islamism, but also to stop Kurdish nationalism making further inroads among Kurdish Alevis. There was some pressure to emphasize the Turkishness of Alevism." Since the 1990s, Alevi organizations and publications have proliferated in Turkey and Europe (predominantly in Germany). Internet technology has fostered new expressions of Alevilik, as it has facilitated transnational links.

see also ahl-e haqq; alawi; allah; anatolia; bektashis; janissaries; kurds; madrasa; muhammad; muharram; shiʿism; sufism and the sufi orders; tekke; turkey; young turks.


Markoff, Irene. "Music, Saints, and Ritual: Sama and the Alevis of Turkey." In Manifestations of Sainthood in Islam, edited by Grace Martin Smith and Carl W. Ernst. Istanbul: The Isis Press, 1993.

Olsson, Tord; Özdalga, Elisabeth; and Raudvere, Catharina, eds. Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives: Papers Read at a Conference Held at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, November 2527, 1996. Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 1998.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. "'Aslini inkar eden haramzadedir!' The debate on the Ethnic Identity of the Kurdish Alevis." In Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East: Collected Papers of the International Symposium "Alevism in Turkey and Comparable Sycretistic Religious Communities in the Near East in the Past and Present": Berlin, 1417 April 1995, edited by Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, and Anke Otter-Beaujean. New York; Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. "Kurds, Turks, and the Alevi Revival." Middle East Report 200 (summer 1996): 710.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. "The Shabak, a Kizilbash community in Iraqi Kurdistan." Les annales de l'autre Islam 5 (1998): 185196.

Ruth Mandel