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members of a heterodox sufi order that blends pre-islamic, christian, and shiʿite elements.

Although different sources dispute the date of the appearance of the legendary Hajji Bektash, it is probable that he fled to Seljuk, Anatolia, around 1230 with Kharezmian Turkmen tribes of Central Asia seeking refuge after the Mongol conquests. He was welcomed into the Oghuz tribe of Çepni, where he was a healer and thaumaturge and led a life of meditation. After his death, Kadıncık Ana of the Çepni, who was either his adoptive daughter or spiritual wife, founded the order that today bears his name with the help of her disciple, Abdal Musa.

Unlike his contemporary Jalal al-Din Rumi, who fled to Anatolia near the same time, Bektash did not study Islam in a formal Sunni madrasa, but retained pre-Islamic practices of the Central Asian plains. There is some overlap in religious practices between Mevlevi and Bektashi dervishes, such as the semah, or whirling ceremony, although the former tends toward Sunnism. Bektashism incorporates elements of traditions of pre-Islamic Central Asia and Anatolia, including some Christian practices, and displays a distinctively intense veneration for the fourth caliph, Ali.

The Ottoman Empire recruited janissary soldiers from its Christian Balkan populations who found Bektashism easier to follow than Sunni Orthodox Islam. It is their adherence to Bektashism that helped it to spread during Ottoman times. Its characteristic liberalism, support for the oppressed, and support for political revolts attracted disfavor from the Sunni Ottoman establishment. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II attempted to suppress the Bektashis by annihilating the janissaries. Devotees operated clandestinely, and their network of lodges (Tekkeler/Cem Eviler) helped the Young Turks before the revolution of 1908.

Bektashis welcomed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's successful challenge to Ottoman rule because his secular policies curbed Sunni influence. They continued to support him despite his suppression in 1925 of all dervish orders, including their own. They survived in hiding in Turkey and openly in the Balkansuntil the 1960s when some restrictions were lifted on religious groups. Their annual festival, held in mid-August in Hacibektaş, has become a significant national event publicly celebrating their mystical poetry, music, and dance as contributions to Turkish culture.

Estimated at between five and twenty million in Turkey in the 1990s, devotees are divided between those, commonly known as Alevis, whose leaders claim descent from their patron saint, and those who assert that he had no children. According to Alevis, one must be born Bektashi. Others claim that one becomes Bektashi by choice and can rise to the higher ranks of baba, halife, and dedebaba. However, all share a deep attachment to the trinity of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali, and the Twelve Imams, Fourteen Innocents, and Forty Saints of the spiritual hierarchy, and a conviction that their interpretation of Islam absolves them from the obligations observed by Sunni Muslims. Most practice in their own lodges instead of in mosques and do not make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but on visits to Hacibektaş they observe pre-Islamic and Meccan pilgrimage rituals. They are traditionally monogamous and proud of the equal participation of the women of their order. Their enjoyment of alcohol and non-adherence to the fast of Ramadan contributes to their popular image as irreligious and their famed satirical wit. Despite their differences regarding individual Bektashi membership entitlement, the terms Bektashi and Alevi are sometimes used interchangeably or hyphenated to indicate a blend of the two orientations.

Many Alevi Bektashis lost their lives when attacked by Sunni right-wing extremists at Kahramanmaraş in 1978, and at Sivas in 1993. Since the 1980s, Alevi Bektashi villagers come under growing pressure to improve their material lot by abandoning support for left-wing politicians and resistance to Sunni Islam. Though Alevi Bektashis trace their heritage to rural roots, they have become increasingly aware of the potential for tapping into urban discourses of democracy to strengthen their order. They run their own radio stations, print literature, and claim adherents in Western societies who come to them through the channels of Westernized Sufism.

see also alevi; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; janissaries; mahmud ii; shiʿism; sufism and the sufi orders; sunni islam; tekke; young turks.


Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. London: Luzac and Company, 1937.

Mélikoff, Irène. "Bektashi/Kızılbaş: Historical Bipartition and Its Consequences." In Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul Transactions: Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives, vol. 8, edited by Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Özdalga, and Catharina Raudvere. Istanbul: Numune Matbaası, 1998.

Trix, Frances. Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Webb, Gisela. "The Sufi Order (of the West)." In Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis, 2d edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Yavuz, M. Hakan. "Media Identities for Alevis and Kurds in Turkey." In New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, edited by Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

John D. Norton

Updated by Maria F. Curtis