tisdag 7 april 2009

Alevism and Zoroastrianism, Part 3

Dear Robert, Zaneta and friends

I can't help wondering what would happen to the Alevis if somebody handled them a few copies of "The Gathas"? Although officially adherents to a dualist faith, there is very little dualistic about their proper beliefs and practices. Rather they seem to have an awful lot in common with Zoroastrians, especially their pre-occupation with pragmatism and ethics rather than esotericism and moralism.

I will definitely continue to take a great interest in the Alevis. And we should also bear in mind that we a great mission in common with the Alevis: The belief in freedom of religion in the Middle East. Whenever the Zoroastrians have been given a hard time by Muslim rulers, this has been when the Alevis were also given a hard time, and vice versa. Freedom of faith is a common agenda for both groups.


2009/4/7 Zaneta Garratt

Hi Robert and Alexander,
I have followed your talk on Alevis with great interest and I found an article in the net on Turkish Alevis that was really interesting, it seems that they do not ban alcohol, they have a very liberal and healthy attitude to women and even celebrate Nouroz-the article is long but I will put in a bit of it as I found it so helpful-look up the end reference link and read it all if you have not seen it before-

From-Turkish Alevis Today John Shindeldecker

III. Alevis and Islam

One of the first questions asked about Alevis is where they fit in Islam. I assume that if the reader has been exposed to Islam at all, he will be familiar with the commonly taught six basic Muslim articles of faith and the so-called five pillars of Islamic practice. Therefore, I will use this familiar framework as a starting point to describe Alevi faith and practice. Many Alevis will disagree that these six beliefs and five pillars are true Islam. However, I am using them as a starting point because, rightly or wrongly, almost every foreigner who hears about Alevism asks how it relates to these Islamic beliefs and practices. I leave it to the reader to make his own comparison between the Alevi and orthodox interpretations of these concepts. Later I will look at other aspects of Alevi belief and practice.

Six Beliefs of Islam

The commonly taught six essential beliefs of Islam are as follows:

1. Belief in one God

2. Belief in angels

3. Belief in the holy books

4. Belief in the prophets

5. Belief in final judgment

6. Belief in predestination

1. God (Allah / Tanrı / Hak)

If you ask ten Alevis for a description of God, you will probably get ten different answers. Most Alevis I have talked with or whose works I have read believe one or a combination of the following concepts of God:

“Ali is a manifestation of God.”

“Perfect human beings are God.”

“God consists of all things in the universe.”

“God consists of all humanity.”

“You and I are God.”

“God is inside you.”

“God is an undefined force or power.”

“God is truth, love, and knowledge.”

“God is the creator.”

Quite often, Alevis will define God by what he is not. Their purpose is to contrast their belief with what they think other religious groups believe about God. For example, almost all will declare that whatever God is, he is certainly not an angry master who delights in forcing the slaves he has created to obey strict religious rules or face the penalty of burning for eternity. In the same line of thinking, almost all Alevis will deny that God is one who will reward those who follow his rules on earth with eternal pleasures in heaven.

2. Angels (Melekler)

Alevis often say that man is the highest created being, and that the angels “bowed down to Adam when he was created” (Adem’e secde ettiler). Many say that the angel Gabriel was the messenger between God and Muhammed during the transmission of the Kuran.

Alevis who believe in literal good and bad angels and spirits (cinler) often practice superstition to benefit from good ones and to avoid harm from bad ones.

However, many Alevis do not believe in these supernatural beings and say something like, “Satan is simply the selfish desires (nefis) within you.”

3. Holy Books (Kutsal Kitaplar / Hak Kitaplar)

Alevis generally speak of four major holy books: Torah, Psalms, Gospel, and Kuran (Tevrat, Zebur, İncil, Kuran). These belong to the monotheistic “religions with books,” that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Almost all Alevis will say that the four holy books were “let down from heaven” (indirilmiş) to certain prophets: the Torah to Moses, the Psalms to David, the Gospel to Jesus, and the Kuran to Muhammed. Most will say these books were God's written revelation when they appeared, and that the Kuran is the last written revelation of God.

Almost all Alevis say that the Kuran contains everything that was in the first three books, or that all four books are basically the same. Many Alevis claim that the first three books predicted Muhammed’s coming. Some say that the Biblical prophet Elijah is Ali.

Most Alevis believe that the original Kuran stated clearly that Ali, Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law, was to be the Prophet's successor, that is, God's vice-regent on earth, or caliph (veli, halife). But most claim that the parts of the original Kuran related to Ali were taken out by his rivals.

According to Alevis, the Kuran should be interpreted esoterically, inwardly, or mystically (batıni yorum). For them, there are much deeper spiritual truths in the Kuran than the strict rules and regulations that appear on the literal surface (zahiri yorum). However, most Alevi writers will quote individual Kuranic verses as an appeal for authority to support their view on a given topic, or to justify a certain Alevi religious tradition. Alevis generally promote reading the Kuran in Turkish rather than in Arabic, stressing that it is important for a person to understand exactly what he or she is reading.

However, many Alevis do not read the Kuran or the other holy books, nor base their daily beliefs and practices on them. They consider these ancient books irrelevant today.

Alevis also look to other religious books outside the four major ones as sources for their beliefs and practices. These include:

1. the hadith (hadisler), the traditions of Muhammed;

2. the Nahjul Balagha, the traditions and sayings of Ali;

3. the Buyruks, the collections of doctrine and practices of several of the 12 imams, especially Cafer;

4. the Vilayetnameler or Menakıbnameler, books that describe events in the lives of great Alevis such as Haji Bektash.

A significant number of unwritten Alevi teachings and legends are credited to Ali, Muhammed, Haji Bektash, and others (rivayetler).

Alevis generally place greater importance on living human revelation and wisdom than on the written Kuran or other holy books. Alevis often quote these two statements:

“Ali is the speaking Kuran.”

Ali konuşan Kuran’dır.

“The greatest holy book to be read is a human being.”

Okunacak en büyük kitap insandır.

Apart from books, perhaps the most important source of Alevi beliefs and thought are the mystical poems and musical ballads (deyişler, nefesler) that have been passed down from generation to generation, many of which have not been recorded in writing. Among the greatest Alevi-Bektashi poet-musicians (aşıklar, ozanlar) are Yunus Emre (13-14th century), Kaygusuz Abdal (15th century), and Pir Sultan Abdal (16th century).

4. Prophets (Peygamberler)

Alevis in general express belief in the prophets mentioned in the Kuran. These were men chosen by God for specific purposes for specific times. Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammed received major books from heaven. Others, like Abraham and Noah, also received small amounts of written revelation from God. Most Alevis say that all the prophets were sinless. Some say that all the prophets were human representations of God.

I believe it will be helpful for the perspective of the foreign reader if I give a little more detail on Alevi beliefs about Jesus and Muhammed, who Alevis consider to be the last two prophets.


To the majority of Alevis, Jesus is no more or less great than any of the other prophets. He is known specifically as the prophet of the Christians, and the prophet to whom the Gospel (İncil) “descended upon.” Some Alevis believe the Kuran literally where it says that Jesus was born of a virgin. Alevis who do not believe in the supernatural do not believe the Biblical stories of Jesus's virgin birth, his working miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.

However, almost all Alevis who have read the New Testament (also İncil in Turkish) strongly identify with how Jesus acted toward the religious fanatics and hypocrites of his day. Alevis are also surprised at how Jesus summarized all of the teaching of the Torah, the Psalms, and the prophets in two simple commands: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength; Love your neighbor as yourself.” This essential teaching of Jesus reminds Alevis of their basic values of “love of God and love of man” (Tanrı sevgisi, insan sevgisi).

Some Alevis are aware of the teaching of Jesus’ second coming to earth. Among these Alevis, some say that Jesus is the same person as Mehdi, the 12th imam, who they are waiting to return to earth.


To Alevis, Muhammed is the seal, the last of the prophets. No one bearing the title prophet has come since him. As the final prophet, receiver of the Kuran, and cousin and father-in-law of Ali, Muhammed has a very special place in Alevis’ minds and hearts.

As we shall see later, many Alevis equate Muhammed and Ali, and use the single name Muhammed Ali for this personality.

5. Judgment (Ahiret / Yargılanma)

As stated above, Alevis do not accept the idea of a hard-faced God judging man based on how he has performed his religious duties during his life on earth. No Alevi I have met or read about believes in a literal hell where souls will burn eternally. Nor do they believe in a heaven which will be filled with pleasures like wine and women for men who have been religious on earth. Alevis love to quote the 13-14th century Turkish poet Yunus Emre, who declares his inner love for God by rejecting a literal, sensual paradise:

“They say heaven

Is a mansion and virgins.

Give those to whoever wants them.

What I need is you, you.”

Cennet cennet dedikleri

Bir köşk ile bir kaç huri

İsteyene ver sen anı

Bana seni gerek seni

Alevis in general say that if God is going to judge mankind, he won't do it based on a person's performance of religious ritual during his life, but according to how that person has treated other people. They say that God commands,

“Don't come to me if you have taken another person's rights.”

Bana kul hakkıyla gelme.

The 15th century Alevi poet Kaygusuz Abdal even challenges a common idea of God’s judgment. In the following lines, the poet dares God to face the same test he expects of men:

“So you made a bridge of judgment

for your slaves to pass over

that is thinner than a hair.

How about if we watch you try and pass over it, if you're so brave?”

Kıldan köprü yaratmışşın

Gelsin kullar geçsin deyü

Hele biz şöyle duralım

Yiğit isen geç a Tanrı...

6. Predestination (Kader)

The doctrine of a God being in control of everything, determining everything, and being the source of both good and evil is not prominent in Alevi thought. This is called by various names and is equivalent to predestination or determinism (kader, alın yazısı). Alevis who believe in God as a concept of love reject the idea that a loving God would be the source of evil.

In practice, most Alevis live their daily lives as if a person can actually change his or her lot in life through education, work, and cooperation. In fact, a common Alevi statement is, “The greatest act of worship is to work” (En büyük ibadet çalışmaktır). However, almost all Alevis accept the idea that certain facts of life are out of their control, such as accidents, sickness, and death.

This finishes our brief summary of Alevi belief from the point of view of the commonly known six basic articles of Islamic faith. Now let us turn to the Alevi perspective on the commonly taught five pillars of required Islamic practice.

The Five Pillars of Islamic Practice

The commonly taught five essential practices, or “pillars,” of Islam are as follows:

1. Confession of faith

2. Fasting

3. Ritual Prayer

4. Offerings

5. Pilgrimage

1. Confession of faith (Kelime-i şahadet)

It is taught that saying the creed, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the apostle of God” is required of any person who wants to be a Muslim. This confession contains the twin doctrines of God and the last prophethood of Muhammed. Some Alevis will add this statement to the creed: “Ali is the vice-regent (veli) of God and Ali is the trustee (vasi) of Muhammed.”

In the above discussion on the six essential points of Islamic faith, we saw the various Alevi beliefs about God and Muhammed. Alevis who say this confession will obviously be thinking of their own unique beliefs about God and Muhammed when they repeat the creed.

In addition, most Alevis place more importance on how a person interacts with other people, that is, whether he acts like a “human being” (insan), than whether he has correct theology. Most say,

“The important thing is not religion, but being a human being.”

Önemli olan din değil, önemli olan insan olmak.

2. Ritual Prayer (Namaz)

Almost no Alevi practices ritual prayer five times a day or goes to a mosque (cami) for the prayer service at noon on Fridays. These are simply not Alevi religious customs. In fact, several sayings succinctly summarize the Alevi attitude toward ritual prayers:

“We don't do ritual prayers, we do supplication.”

Bizde namaz yok, niyaz var.

This means that when Alevis pray in their worship meetings, they are entering into a deeper spiritual relationship with the leader of the meeting and with God than if they were simply doing a form of prayer.

To Alevis, relationships with people are more important than observing formal religious ritual. Two common Alevi sayings illustrate this:

“If you hurt another person, the ritual prayers you have done are counted worthless.”

Bir insanı incitsen, kıldığın namaz geçerli değil.

“My Kaaba is a human being.”

Benim Kâbem insandır.

The Kaaba is the building in the courtyard of the great mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is the focus of prayer and object of pilgrimage for millions. This saying can be interpreted, “My spiritual focus of attention is the people around me, not a building in Mecca.”

Even though Alevis do not go to mosques or practice ritual daily prayer, they do hold corporate worship in a service called an assembly meeting (cem or ayini cem).

3. Fasting (Oruç)

Alevis who fast generally do not observe their major fast for 30 days during the month of Ramazan. The main Alevi fast is held during the first 12 days of the Muslim month of Muharrem (Muharrem or Mâtem Orucu), which comes 20 days after the Feast of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı). Another Alevi fast is the three-day Hizir fast (Hızır Orucu), generally observed 13-14-15 February.

4. Offerings (Zekât)

There is no set formula or amount expected for almsgiving among Alevis. A common method of Alevi almsgiving is through donating food, especially sacrificial animals, to be shared with worshipers 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.

5. Pilgrimage (Hac)

Visiting Mecca is not an Alevi practice. However, visiting (ziyaret) and praying (dua) at the tombs (türbe) of Alevi-Bektashi saints is quite common. Alevis are not commanded or required to make these visits. They do not go to gain credit in heaven. Their purpose is to ask for spiritual cleansing and blessing for themselves or others. Some of the most frequently visited sites are:

1. Hacı Bektaş, Kırşehir

Hundreds of thousands of Alevis gather in the memory of Haji Bektash at his lodge (tekke) and tomb every 16 August.

2. Abdal Musa, Tekke Köyü, Elmalı, Antalya

Its special celebrations are held in June.

3. Şahkulu Sultan, Merdivenköy, İstanbul

Cem services are held here every Sunday and on Alevi holidays.

4. Karacaahmet Sultan, Üsküdar, İstanbul

Cem services are also held here every Sunday and on Alevi holidays.


Seyit Gazi, Eskişehir

-----------Though Alevis are mystical in many of their beliefs, they do have regular form or design in their ceremonies and practices (erkân). Traditionalist Alevis believe that certain exact rituals must be followed and specific prayers (gülbank) said during cems and for all other religious rites and ceremonies. Because most Alevi forms and traditions have been passed down the generations orally rather than in writing, these forms may vary from region to region. However, non-traditionalist Alevis will say that it is not necessary to follow any form strictly.


Characterized by turning and swirling, this dance of worship has many varieties. Performed by men and women to the accompaniment of the lute, the semah is an inseparable part of any cem. It symbolizes the putting off of one’s self and uniting with God.------

Newroz (Nevruz)

The day of 21 March is known by most Alevis as a day of newness, reconciliation, and the start of spring. Many Alevis also believe that 21 March is the birthday of Ali. Some also believe that it is the wedding anniversary of Ali and Fatima, the day Joseph was pulled out of the well, and the day God created the earth. Nevruz is celebrated with cems and special programs.

It is visibly obvious that Ali is extremely important to modern Alevis. His picture is prominent in every Alevi worship place and association, and it often appears on the cover of Alevi publications. Many families place pictures of him in their homes. And some, particularly young people, wear small gold replicas of Ali’s sword, zülfikar, attached to chains around their necks. ---

Four Doors, Forty Levels (Dört kapı kırk makam)

One key way Alevis describe how they are different than those who follow Islamic law (şeriat), but also love the family of the prophet, is with the concept of Four Doors, Forty Levels (dört kapı kırk makam). This is the process by which an individual commits him or herself to a living spiritual guide (dede, pir, mürşit) and that spiritual leader guides the person through a series of four “doors” (kapı), each of which has ten “levels” (makam). The individual enters the first door as a novice. The person who makes it through to the fourth door achieves oneness with ultimate truth (hakikat). The doors' names are religious law, spiritual path, spiritual knowledge/skill, and spiritual truth (şeriat, tarikat, marifet, hakikat).

To Alevis, anyone who only believes in the rule of religious law has not advanced beyond the most basic level of spiritual knowledge. Whoever has entered the next level through a relationship with a spiritual guide has left religious legalism behind and started on the path of inner, deeper spiritual insight.

The “perfect human being” (İnsan-ı kâmil)

Related to the idea of going through stages of spiritual development until achieving oneness with truth is the concept of attaining total completeness. This is called becoming the “perfect human being” (insan-ı kâmil). It appears to me that most of today's Alevis would define the perfect human in practical terms as one who is in full moral control of his or her selfish desires (eline, diline, beline sahip), treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar), and serves the interests of others.---------

The drinking of alcohol is not forbidden among Alevi-Bektashis. Many of their jokes feature this subject. Here is one example:

Wine and water

Due to the pressure of his friends, a Bektashi went with them to a mosque at Friday noon. During the sermon, the imam was describing in vivid detail all of the natural and religious reasons why drinking any alcohol at all is bad.

As an illustration, the imam said, “If you put a bucket of water and a bucket of wine in front of a donkey, which one will it drink? The water, of course. Now why would a donkey choose to drink the water and not the wine?”

Unable to control himself, the Bektashi shouted out, “Because it’s a donkey, that’s why!”---------


best wishes from zaneta

To: Ushta@yahoogroups.com
From: robert.langer@ori.uni-heidelberg.de
Date: Tue, 7 Apr 2009 04:08:14 +0200
Subject: Re: [Ushta] Alevism and Zoroastrianism, Part 2

Dear Alexander,

sorry for responding late, while the discussion was going on somehow.

First of all, I would be very interested to know the source of the
"fact sheet" on Alevism you posted.

> Please also note that the word "alev" means "flame" in Turkish...

This is true. However, I am not sure of its etymology. It is written
in Ottoman Turkish either with alef-madda ('long alef') or with ´ayn
(Arabic phonem). As we have in Ottoman words such as "alev-kesh" or
"alev-gir" (Persian compounds), it was used in a Persian context, too.
(I even encountered the word "alev-gah" for "atash-kade".)

> + Pantheism, they don't see Allah as a god of justice, of punishment
> or of reward as in the Koran.

This seems to hold for most of the Alevis.

> + Otherwise they recognize the Koran, but as an irrelevant book that
> should be read esoterically.

Not irrelevant, but----as you said----to be considered more important
for its "baten" ('hidden') content than its "zaher" ('open').

> + They reject the existence of Heaven and Hell, and commonly they
> adhere to the reincarnationist belief.

Reincarnation, soul wandering, metempsychosis etc. obviously play a
role in several such groups, especially----interestingly----with the
Arab Nusayri-´Alawi. It is interesting to me it is seldomly put
forward in modern Alevi "theology". They seem to avoid this topic in
modern contexts.

> + Almost no Alevi practices ritual prayer five times a day or goes
> to a mosque [cami] for the prayer service at noon
> on Fridays.


Assemblies [cuma aksamlari, literally, "Friday
> nights"] have been traditionally held on Thursday by night
> and are conducted with great secrecy in lodges [tekke] inside of
> particular houses. The assembly is leaded by a guru
> [dede], performing animal sacrifices [kurban], and leading the
> members - males and females - when dancing the
> "Semah", a dance characterized by turning and swirling, and
> symbolizing the putting off of one's self and union
> with God (ecstasy).

This is the centre of Alevi religious practice. However, do we have
anything like that in Zoroastrianism (at any time or region), I wonder?

> Sins must be confessed at the guru.

True. This, we have in Zoroastrianism, don't we? ("tovbe")

> + Avatars: the most important of them would be Ali (from there
> "Alevism"); he is seen as semi-divine, or even as a
> sort of Christian Logos.

Yes. Ali is seen as some preexisting entity.

> + Existence of innumerable superstitions.

What should that mean? (That is, why I was wondering, who made up the
"fact sheet".)

> + The Sufi elitist variance of the Alevism, the Bektashi sect, is
> usually antinomian (ideological immoralism) at least
> in appearance: due to their most high knowledge, it allows them
> to don't follow the Islamic mandates or laws
> (Shariah).

This holds also for the "non-elitist" rural Alevis. They consider
themselves as being collectively to be on the level of 'tareqat',
whereas the 'common' Muslim still "hang around" on the level of
'shari´at'. (1. shari´at, 2. tareqat, 3. ma´refat, 4. haqiqat).

> Also, they do not recognize Mohammed and do not view the Koran as
> a perfect book.

They recognize Mohammed, but as a kind of forerunner or 'announcer' of
Ali. For Koran see above.

Best wishes,


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