Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), reviewed here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]


Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!

[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

One thought on “Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

  1. Pingback: Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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