Alevi worship takes place in assembly houses (cemevi), not in mosques. The ceremony (âyîn-i cem, or simply cem) features music and dance (semah), which symbolizes the main planetes around the Sun (by man and woman turning in circles) and the putting off of one’s self and uniting with God. In Alevism, men and women are regarded as equals, and pray side by side.
Key Alevi principles include:
Some consider Alevism a type of Shi'a Islam (and specifically, of Twelvers (Ithna-'Ashariyya), since Alevis accept Shi‘i beliefs about Imam Ali and the Twelve Imams. Many Alevis, however, are uncomfortable describing themselves as Shi‘i, since there are major differences in philosophy, customs, and rituals from the prevailing form of Shi‘ism in modern Iran.
Alevism is also closely related to the Bektashi Sufi lineage, in the sense that both venerate Hajji Bektash Wali (Hacibektaş Veli), a saint of the 13th century. Many Alevis refer to an "Alevi-Bektashi" tradition, but this identity is not universally accepted, nor is the combined name used by non-Turkish Bektashis (e.g., in the Balkans).
In addition to its religious aspect, Alevism is also closely associated with Anatolian folk culture. The Kurdish and Turkish languages (not Arabic) are generally used in Alevi rituals.
Modern Alevi theology has been profoundly influenced by humanism and universalism. During the 1960s, many younger Alevis came to conceive of Alevism in non-religious terms, with some even relating it to Marxism. The 1990s brought a new emphasis on Alevism as an ethnic or cultural identity. Alevi communities today generally support secularism after the Kemalist model, partly out of mistrust of majoritarian religiosity.
Alevis in Khorasan, Armenia and Azerbaijan speak dialects of Kurmanji or Zazaki. Various groups with similar beliefs exist in Northwestern Iran and Northern Iraq, including the Ibrahimi, Sarliyya, Kakai, Shabaks and Ahl-e Haqq.
"Alevi" is generally explained as referring to ˤAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, cousin, son-in-law, and fostered son of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The name is a Turkish and Kurdish pronunciation of the Arabic ˤAlawī علوي "of or pertaining to ˤAlī" [Ali-evi(House of Ali)]. However, the Turkish and Kurdish-speaking Alevi are not to be confused with the ˤAlawī of Syria, with whom they have little in common other than a shared veneration for ˤAlī.
An alternative (and less accepted) explanation for the name "Alevi" is that it comes from the Turkish word alev, meaning "flame."
Alevi are sometimes called "Qizilbashi" (see "History" for an explanation) and some embrace this name. Others view this as a pejorative (implying that their allegiance lies with Iran rather than Turkey). Many other names exist (often for subgroupings), among them Tahtacı "Woodcutters", Abdal "Bards" and Çepni.
Attempts to identify the origin of Alevism are inherently controversial. Many Alevis trace their tradition to primitive Islam and the Twelve Imams, a conclusion with which some prominent scholars agree. Others see Alevism as a pre-Islamic substrate which acquired a veneer of Shīˤī theology, and disagree as to whether to describe this folk culture as Turkic or Persianate. Still others detect Orthodox Christian influence, perhaps Armenian. More than one of these viewpoints might be true simultaneously.
The Turkic tribes of northern Iran and eastern Anatolia were converted to Shīˤism during the Ilkhan Mongol period. The poet Yunus Emre and saint Hajji Bektash Wali were early saints of this period who would later become associated with Alevism. The Qizilbashi emerged from this milieu as a militant Sufi order centered in Ardabil whose leader Ismā'il succeeded in conquering Persia.
The Qizilbash of Anatolia found them on the "wrong" side of the Ottoman / Persian border after the 1555 Peace of Amasya. They become subjects of an Ottoman court which viewed them with suspicion.
Alevis were early supporters of Atatürk, who they credit with ending Ottoman-era discrimination against them, while Kurdish Alevis viewed his rise with caution. However, Kemalism lost some of its appeal during the 1960s, as many Alevis flirted with leftist dissidence.
There was also a drive-by shooting of Alevis in Istanbul's Gazi neighborhood in 1995 which resulted in the death of some Alevis. Then when protests followed police periodically opened fire on the demonstrators. When the protests were over there were a total of fifteen Alevis killed. The result was a revival of Alevi identity, and debate over this identity which continues today.
The Alevi population has been estimated as follows:
The majority of Alevis are ethnic Turks. Some are Kurds. Some are Zazaki, a group whose members either consider themselves Kurds with a different language, or as a distinct ethnicity. Some Alevis are Azeris. Despite universalist rhetoric (and in contrast with Islam in general, or the Bektashi order), Alevi communities do not generally acknowledge the possibility of conversion to Alevism.
Alevi communities are concentrated in central Anatolia, in a belt from Chorum in the west to Mush in the east. The only province within Turkey with an Alevi majority is Tunceli, formerly known as Dersim. Beginning in the 1960s, many Alevis have migrated to the large cities of western and southern Turkey—and to western Europe, especially Germany—and are now heavily urbanized.
There are also large communities of Alevis in some regions of Iranian Azerbaijan. The town of Ilkhichi (İlxıçı), which is located 87 km south west of Tabriz is almost entirely populated by Alevis. For political reasons, one of which was to create a distinct identity for these communities, they have not been called Alevi since the early 20th century. They are called various names, such as Ali Illahi, Ahl-e Haqq and Goran.
Groups with similar beliefs also exist in Iranian Kurdistan. Interestingly both the Dersim (Kirmancki / Zaza) people and the Gorani, who are both considered as belonging to the Hawramani branch of the proto-Kurdish language, adhere to a form of Alevi faith which resembles in many significant respects, such as the perpetuation of a caste system, the religions of the Druze or Yazidi.
A Turkish scholar working in France has distinguished four main groups among contemporary Alevis, which cautiously show their distinctive features in modern Turkey.
Alevi beliefs are hard to define, since Alevism is a diverse movement without any central authority, and its boundaries with other groups are poorly demarcated. Many teachings are based on an orally transmitted tradition which has traditionally been kept secret from outsiders (but is now widely accessible). The basis for Alevism's most distinctive beliefs is found in the Buyruks (compiled writings and dialogues of Sheikh Safi al-Din (eponym of the Safavi order), Ja'far al-Sadiq (the Sixth Imam), and other worthies). Also included are hymns (nefes) by figures such as Shah Ismail or Pir Sultan Abdal, stories of Hajji Bektash and other lore.
Various opinions exist as to the nature of 'Ali. Most would credit him with supernatural strength and wisdom (surpassed only by the prophets), as well as a uniquely intimate connection with the Prophet Muhammad:
Many Alevi perceive a mystical unity between Ali and Muhammad (see Ali-Muhammad), and liken their relationship to the two sides of a coin, or two halves of an apple:
The phrase "For the love of God, Muhammed, Ali” (Hak-Muhammed-Ali aşkına), common to several Alevi prayers, may be taken as equating the authority of the three, or even as an attribution of divinity to 'Ali and Muhammad. In light of the Islamic emphasis on monotheism, such theories are deeply controversial.
Each of the Twelve Imams is said to partake of the "light" (Nur) of 'Ali. Thus Ali ibn Abi Talib is called the "First Ali" (birinci ali), Hussayn ibn 'Alī the 'Second 'Ali' (ikinci ali), and so on up to the "Last 'Ali" (Onikinci Ali), Muhammad al-Mahdi.
Despite this essentially Shi‘i orientation, much of Alevism's mystical language is inspired by Sunni traditions. For example, the Alevi concept of God is derived from the philosophy of Ibn al-'Arabi and involves a chain of emanation from God, to spiritual man, earthly man, animals, plants, and minerals. The goal of spiritual life is to follow this path in the reverse direction, to unity with God, or Haqq (Reality, Truth). From the highest perspective, all is God (see Wahdat-ul-Wujood). Alevis often admire Mansur Al-Hallaj, a 10th century Sufi executed in Baghdad for blasphemy for saying “I am Truth” (Ana al-Haqq).
Another important Alevi concept is that of the "Perfect Human Being" (Insan-i Kamil). (This wording is Sunni; the Shi‘i counterpart would be the "Perfect Shi'a".) Most Alevis would think first of Ali, Hajji Bektash Wali, or the other saints. However the Perfect Human Being has also been identified with our true identity as pure consciousness, hence the Qur'anic concept of human beings not having original sin, consciousness being pure and perfect. The human task is to fully realise this state while still in material human form.
Many Alevis would define the Perfect Human Being in practical terms, as one who is in full moral control of his or her hands, tongue and loins (eline diline beline sahip); treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar); and serves the interests of others. One who has achieved this kind of enlightenment is also called eren or munavver.
The Alevi spiritual path (yol) is commonly understood to take place through four major life-stages, or "gates":
These may be further subdivided into "four gates, forty levels (dört kapı kırk makam). The first gate (religious law) is considered elementary (and in this we may perceive a subtle criticism of other Muslim traditions).
The following are major crimes that cause an Alevi to be declared düşkün (shunned):
Most Alevi activity takes place in the context of the second gate (spiritual brotherhood), during which one submits to a living spiritual guide (dede, pir, mürşit). The existence of the third and fourth gates is mostly theoretical, though some older Alevis have apparently received initiation into the third.
The central Alevi corporate worship service is the cem (a Kurdish word meaning congregational or assembly meeting). The ceremony's prototype is the Prophet Muhammad's nocturnal ascent into heaven, where he beheld a gathering of forty saints (Kırklar Meclisi), and the Divine Reality made manifest in their leader, Ali.
Semah, a family of ritual dances characterized by turning and swirling, is an inseparable part of any cem. It is performed by men and women, to the accompaniment of the bağlama.
The Rite of Integration (görgü cemi) is a complex ritual occasion in which a variety of tasks are allotted to incumbents bound together by extrafamilial brotherhood (musahiplik), who undertake a dramatization of unity and integration under the direction of the spiritual leader (dede).
The phrase mum söndü ("The candle went out") alludes to a holy moment of some cem rituals in which twelve candles (representing the Twelve Imams) are doused with water. Contrary to a hoary tradition of Sunni gossip, and to the undoubted disappointment of many, orgies apparently do not follow (though it is of course difficult to prove a negative). Rather, participants lament the martyrdom of various holy figures.
Musahiplik (roughly, "Companionship") is a covenant relationship between two men of the same age, preferably along with their wives. In a ceremony in the presence of a dede the partners make a life-long commitment to care for the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of each other and their children. The ties between couples who have made this commitment is at least as strong as it is for blood relatives, so much so that müsahiplik is often called spiritual brotherhood (manevi kardeşlik). The children of covenanted couples may not marry.
Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi reports that the Tahtaci identify musahiplik with the first gate (şeriat), since they regard it as a precondition for the second (tarikat). Those who attain to the third gate (marifat, "gnosis") must have been in a musahiplik relationship for at least twelve years. Entry into the third gate dissolves the musahiplik relationship (which otherwise persists unto death), in a ceremony called Öz Verme Ayini ("ceremony of giving up the self").
The value corresponding to the second gate (and necessary to enter the third) is aşinalik ("intimacy," perhaps with God). Its counterpart for the third gate is called peşinelik; for the fourth gate (hakikat, Ultimate Truth), cingildaşlik or cegildaşlik (translations uncertain).
Many folk practices may be identified, though few of them are specific to the Alevis. In this connection, scholar Martin van Bruinessen notes a sign from Turkey's Ministry of Religion, attached to Istanbul's shrine of Eyüp Sultan, which presents
...a long list of ‘superstitious’ practices that are emphatically declared to be non-Islamic and objectionable, such as lighting candles or placing ‘wishing stones’ on the tomb, tying pieces of cloth to the shrine or to the trees in front of it, throwing money on the tomb, asking the dead directly for help, circling seven times around the trees in the courtyard or pressing one’s face against the walls of the türbe in the hope of a supernatural cure, tying beads to the shrine and expecting supernatural support from them, sacrificing roosters or turkeys as a vow to the shrine. The list is probably an inventory of common local practices the authorities wish to prevent from re-emerging.
Other, similar practices include kissing door frames of holy rooms; not stepping on the threshold of holy buildings; seeking prayers from reputed healers; making 'Lokma' and sharing it with others.
Newroz (Persian: Nowroz, literally "New Day") is the ancient Iranian New Year, observed and practiced by Iranians and many ethnic groups(Ulghurs, Kurds, Uzbeks...)on 21 March (the Spring equinox) as a celebration of newness and reconciliation. Apart from the original beliefs of the Zorastrian founders of Nowruz, Alevi also celebrate and commemorate the birth of Ali; the wedding of Ali and Fatima; the rescue of the prophet Joseph from the well; and / or the creation of the world on this day. Various cems and special programs are held.
Hidrellez honors the mysterious figure Khidr (Turkish Hizir) who is sometimes identified with the prophet Elijah (Ilyas), and is said to have drunk of the water of life. Some hold that Khidr comes to the rescue of those in distress on land, while Elijah helps those at sea; and that they meet at a rose tree in the evening of every 6th of May. The festival is also celebrated in parts of the Balkans by the name of "Erdelez," where it falls on the same day as Djurdjevdan or St. George's Day.
Khidr is also honored with a three-day fast in mid-February called Hızır Orucu. In addition to avoiding any sort of comfort or enjoyment, Alevis also abstain from food and water for the entire day, though they do drink liquids other than water during the evening.
Note that the dates of the Khidr holidays can differ among Alevis, most of whom use a lunar calendar, but some a solar calendar.
The Muslim month of Muharram (or Mâtem Orucu) begins 20 days after Eid ul-Adha (Kurban Bayramı). Alevis observe a fast for the first twelve days. This culminates in the festival of Ashura (Aşure), which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala. The fast is broken with a special dish (also called aşure) prepared from a variety (often twelve in number) of fruits, nuts, and grains. Many events are associated with this celebration, including the salvation of Hussain's son Zaynul Abideen from the massacre at Karbala, thus allowing the bloodline of the family of the prophet to continue.
Alevis are not expected to give Zakat in the Islamic mode, and there is no set formula or prescribed amount for charity. A common method of Alevi almsgiving is through donating food (especially sacrificial animals) to be shared with worshippers and guests. Alevis also donate money to be used to help the poor, to support the religious, educational and cultural activities of Alevi centers and organizations (dergâh, vakıf, dernek), and to provide scholarships for students.
While Alevism does not recognize an obligation to go on pilgrimage, visiting ziyarat and performing dua at the tombs of Alevi-Bektashi saints or Pirs is quite common. Some of the most frequently visited sites are the shrines of Shahkulu and Karacaahmet (both in Istanbul), Abdal Musa (Antalya), Seyit Gazi (Eskishehir), the annual celebrations held at Hacibektas (16 August) and Sivas (the Pir Sultan Abdal Kültür Etkinlikleri, 23-24 June).
In contrast with the traditional secrecy of the cem ritual, the events at these cultural centers and sites are open to the public. In the case of the Hacibektaş celebration, since 1990 the activities there have been taken over by Turkey's Ministry of Culture in the interest of promoting tourism and Turkish patriotism rather than Alevi spirituality.
Some Alevis make pilgrimages to mountains and other natural sites believed to be imbued with holiness.
In contrast to the Bektashi tariqa, which like other Sufi orders is based on a silsila "initiatory chain or lineage" of teachers and their students, Alevi leaders succeed to their role on the basis of family descent. Perhaps ten percent of Alevis belong to a religious elite called ocak "hearth", indicating descent from ˤAlī and/or various other saints and heroes. Ocak members are called ocakzades or "sons of the hearth". This system apparently originated with Safavid Persia.
Alevi leaders are variously called murshid, pir, rehber or dede. Groups that conceive of these as ranks of a hierarchy (as in the Bektashi tariqa) disagree as to the order. The last of these, dede "grandfather", is the term preferred by the scholarly literature. Ocakzades may attain to the position of dede on the basis of selection (by a father from among several sons), character, and learning. In contrast to Alevi rhetoric on the equality of the sexes, it is generally assumed that only males may fill such leadership roles.
Traditionally dedes did not merely lead rituals, but led their communities, often in conjunction with local notables such as the ağas (large landowners) of the Dersim Region. They also acted as judges or arbiters, presiding over village courts called Düşkünlük Meydanı.
Ordinary Alevi would owe allegiance to a particular dede lineage (but not others) on the basis of pre-existing family or village relations. Some fall instead under the authority of Bektashi dargah (lodges).
In the wake of 20th century urbanization (which removed young laborers from the villages) and socialist influence (which looked upon the dedes with suspicion), the old hierarchy has largely broken down. Many dedes now receive salaries from Alevi cultural centers, which arguably subordinates their role. Such centers no longer feature community business or deliberation, such as the old ritual of reconciliation, but emphasize musical and dance performance to the exclusion of these. Dedes are now approached on a voluntary basis, and their role has become more circumscribed—limited to religious rituals, research, and giving advice.
According to Australian anthropologist Dr. Sevgi Kilic, while Alevi women do not experience gender segregation in the private and public domain they are subject to traditional male values about women's sexuality and constructed within the honour/shame paradigm. Dr. Sevgi Kilic is of Alevi heritage and her family migrated to Australia some 40 years ago. Growing up in a western society she was unaware of the rich culture and traditions and the unique identity of the Alevi, and she poignantly reveals how she "learnt to be an Alevi" through the narratives of the women in her study. This ethnography is the first on Alevi women in Turkey and argues that Alevi identity is complex, diverse and rich in its theory and practice.
Hence, while rural Alevi women subscribe to traditional conservative views about women's status in the family, these ideas are rapidly changing within an urban environment, where many are compelled to work as domestic servants and in other low paid jobs. Unlike Sunni women in Turkey, Alevi women are not required to wear a headscarf or other bodily coverings. According to Kilic this is because Alevi identity is very much focused on the internal rather than the external representation and covering women's hair or concealing the female body in and of itself cannot legitimize women's moral, social, political and economic worth. Thus an unveiled Alevi woman cannot impugn her honour or her communities. Thus Alevi women's bodies are what Kilic calls paradoxically 'neutral' and acts as an "ideology of difference."
The relationship between Alevis and Sunnis is one of mutual suspicion and prejudice dating back to the Ottoman period. Sunnis have accused Alevis of heresy, heterodoxy, rebellion, betrayal and immorality. Alevis, on the other hand, have argued that the original Quran does not demand five prayers, nor mosque attendance, nor pilgrimage, and that the Sunnis distorted early Islam by omitting, misinterpreting, or changing important passages of the original Quran, especially those dealing with Ali and ritual practice.
Alevis see Sunni narrowmindedness as originating in Arabia and as contrary to the Turkish national character. Sunna and Hadith were Arab elite innovations, created to ensure Arab dominance of Islam and to enslave the masses through manipulation. All evil developments in Islam are seen as the fault of Arab society and character. Sunnism, according to the Alevis, is not true Islam but an aberration that by its strict legalism opposes free and independent thought and is seen as reactionary, bigoted, fanatic, and antidemocratic. Alevis believe Sunni nationalism is intolerant, domineering, and unwilling to recognize Alevi uniqueness.
The ideals of equality, justice, and respect for all are prominent in Alevi society and give Alevi women a more respected status than that of Sunni women. Alevi women do not need to be veiled and are not as segregated, nor must they fear polygamy or one-sided divorce as Alevis practice monogamy and divorce is forbidden. Women also partake equally in the religious life of the community.
In today's political arena Alevis see themselves as a counterforce to Sunni fundamentalism, ensuring the continued secularism of Turkey. Alevis, who have a great interest in blocking the rising fundamentalist influence, are the main allies of the secularist forces, and are also searching for alliances with moderate Sunnis against the extremists. They are demanding that the state recognize Alevism as an official Islamic community equal to, but different from, Sunnism.
There is some tension between folk tradition Alevism and the Bektashi Order, which is a Sufi order founded on Alevi beliefs. In certain Turkish communities other Sufi orders (the Halveti-Jerrahi and some of the Rifa'i) have incorporated significant Alevi influence. Though generally regarded as a Sunni group historically, some Rifa'is accept the Alevi identity. This is particularly common among Turkish teacher Sherif Baba's Rifa'i Marufi Order, whose worship combines elements of typical Alevi traditions with Sunni practices. They have sometimes identified with the Alevi, with whom they share secularist principles, a general scepticism of extreme orthodoxy, an emphasis on men and women worshipping together, a common group of revered saints such as Hajji Bektash Veli and Pir Sultan Abdal and a deep devotion to the family of the Prophet Muhammad.
Like many of the so-called "ghulat" groups, Alevis praise Ali beyond what mainstream Shi‘ites would allow. He and Muhammad are likened to the two sides of a coin, or the two halves of an apple. Some even speak of a trinity of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali. According to Shi'a belief, whoever says the Shahadah is considered a Muslim. Accordingly, Ayatollah Khomeini put an end to excluding Alevis from the ranks of Muslims. He pronounced that they are technically considered Muslims even if they have differing beliefs to the Usoolis.
Alevi religious services, referred to collectively as cem or âyîn, include spiritual exercises that incorporate elements of zikr ("remembrance" or recitation of God's names, in this case without controlled breathing, but with some elements of body posturing) and sema (ritual dance). The latter is accompanied by sung mystical poetry in the vernacular, and by the sacred ritual instrument known as baglama or saz (a plucked folk lute with frets).
Such music is performed by specialists known as zâkir, aik, sazende or güvende, depending on regional usage. They are recruited from Alevi communities and descended from dede lineages. Many are also known to be poet/minstrels (aik, ozan) who perpetuate the tradition of dervish-lodge (tekke) poets such as Yunus Emre (13th century), Nesîmî (14th century), Pir Sultan Abdal, Hata'î and Genç Abdal (16th century) and Kul Himmet and Kul Hüseyn (17th century). The poetry was composed in the Turkish vernacular and follows the principles of folk prosody known as hece vezne in which the focus is the number of syllables.
The specialized sacred musical repertoire of Alevi musicians includes
The dances are performed with dignity by couples, and choreographies employ circle and line formations as well as arrangements where couples face one another, thus synchronizing their movements more closely. As the tempo of the music increases, the figures become more complex and intense. There are many regional variants of sema, but the most widespread and important are the Dance of the Forty (Kırklar Semah) and the Dance of the Cranes (Turnalar Semah).
The âyîn-i-cem can be heard on the JVC CD Turkey. An Esoteric Sufi Ceremony. Unfortunately for non-specialists, the notes are very vague and give no indication of location, performers, musical genres or poetic forms. The recording was made in Istanbul in 1993, and the ceremony includes in an order typical of a cem: a deyi that reiterates the line of descent of the sect in a historical framework, two düvaz (one based on the poetry of Hatayi, and the other on the poetry of Kul Himmet), prayer formulas, the illâllâh genre that incorporates the tahlîl formula into the poem to create an atmosphere of zikr while sect members create rhythmic intensity by hitting their knees in time to the music and sway their bodies slightly, the Dance of the Forty (Kırklar Semah), the Dance of the Cranes (Turnalar Semah) and prayer formulas.
Alevis have a significant role in Turkish music and poetry. Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century Alevi poet whose poems and songs often contain spiritual themes, is revered as a saint and hero. Important figures are the Sufi poet Yunus Emre, widely regarded as having been Alevi, and Kaygusuz Abdal. Their poems shape Turkish culture up to now, and are also performed by modern artists. Songs attributed to these poets have been embraced by left-wingers in the 20th century. The aşık bards are also influenced by Alevi tradition.
Many of the major traditional musicians in Turkey are Alevi, including Arif Sağ, Musa Eroğlu, Erdal Erzincan, Neşet Ertaş, Muharrem Ertaş, Aşık Mahzuni Şerif, Aşık Feyzullah Çınar, Aşık Veysel Şatıroğlu, Ali Ekber Çiçek, Sabahat Akkiraz, Belkıs Akkale, and Ulaş Özdemir. Other non-Alevis, such as Ruhi Su and Zülfü Livaneli, have recorded many Alevi songs. Mercan Dede, an artist whose music combines electronic and traditional Sufi elements, has made some songs involving Alevi themes in cooperation with singer Sabahat Akkiraz.
Below are a series of videos from Turkish television showing a cem service:
I. General introductions
II. Kurdish Alevis
III. Alevi / Bektashi history
IV. Ghulat sects in general
V. Alevi Identity
VI. Alevism in Europe
VIII. Turkish-language works