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Alawi Shi'as: another face of Islam


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Guest Javanmard

08 April 2000, Copyright © Turkish Daily News

Alawis: A faith and a culture

The life of Anatolian people is shaped by their beliefs. Numerous nations have lived in Anatolia throughout history, rendering it a culturally diverse territory. In this context, the Alawis represent not only a faith, but also an Anatolian culture

The core belief of the Alawis is adherence to the Imam Ali. The line of the 'Twelve Imams,' who are prayer leaders, starts with Ali and ends with his 12th grandson Mehdi. In the Alawite faith, the imam performs not only an administrative function, but is also known to assist a divine task

Women are granted high respect and regarded as sacred by the Alawis. 'Kadincik Ana,' who is the archetypal female figure, bears certain similarities to the Virgin Mary. Women are regarded as 'mothers' and fall into a certain hierarchy according to age group and social and familial standing

The Alawite community in Europe feels comfortable combining their traditions with Western beliefs. Their ingrained notions of equality mean that they do not feel inferior to their host nations. They have no prejudice against other religions, as the existence of Alawite delegates in the German Green Party demonstrates

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Alawis: A faith and a culture

The life of Anatolian people is shaped by their beliefs. Numerous nations have lived in Anatolia throughout history, rendering it a culturally diverse territory. In this context, the Alawis represent not only a faith, but also an Anatolian culture

The core belief of the Alawis is adherence to the Imam Ali. The line of the 'Twelve Imams,' who are prayer leaders, starts with Ali and ends with his 12th grandson Mehdi. In the Alawite faith, the imam performs not only an administrative function, but is also known to assist a divine task

Women are granted high respect and regarded as sacred by the Alawis. 'Kadincik Ana,' who is the archetypal female figure, bears certain similarities to the Virgin Mary. Women are regarded as 'mothers' and fall into a certain hierarchy according to age group and social and familial standing

The Alawite community in Europe feels comfortable combining their traditions with Western beliefs. Their ingrained notions of equality mean that they do not feel inferior to their host nations. They have no prejudice against other religions, as the existence of Alawite delegates in the German Green Party demonstrates

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Gul Demir

Istanbul - Turkish Daily News

The drive to investigate and analyze the past is a distinctive feature of modern times. In the name of Christianity, Pope John Paul apologized for the mistakes made by the church and pledged to make amends. It was the same pope who reexamined Galileo's trial in 1979 and declared the scientist's innocence. John Paul did not shy away from pointing out injustices committed by the Church. It seems unlikely that the Islamic world could not undertake a similar reassessment. In our day, the investigation of the injustices suffered by the Alawis and the debate of the issues involved can proceed on a realistic footing. The development of democracy in a quickly changing world is contingent on not neglecting this kind of effort.

The Alawis in Turkey did not have a a single proper name prior to the 19th century. Throughout history, they were designated variously as "zindik," "mulhid" and "kizilbas," the latter carrying the derogatory meaning of "rebel." Later on, God was attributed the character of rebelliousness, and they were called "Alawi" after Imam Ali. This name carried pejorative connotations, and the Alawis were excluded from the larger Islamic community for their practices of not going to the mosque, not fasting during the month of Ramadan, not having women wear the turban and allowing them to stand next to men during community meetings, and defying the ban on alcohol consumption.

In fact, the Alawite faith is an integral part of the development of Islam. Their belief is generally understood as an adherence to the creed of Imam Ali, whom the Alawis see as a symbol. Not only the Alawis, but also the Shiites and Sunnites accept Ali as a spiritual leader.

The Turkish Republic was conceived and established as a secular state. The establishment of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in 1924, one year after the foundation of the modern state, suggested that religious and political affairs would thenceforth be separated. It is for this reason that the Alawis supported the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had called for the murder of the Alawis, and sided with the modern republic.

The Alawite faith

The core belief of the Alawis is adherence to Imam Ali. The "Twelve Imams" (Prayer Leaders) begin with Ali and end with his 12th grandson Mehdi. In their faith, the preacher performs not only an administrative function but is also known to assist a divine task. He is the manifestation of God on earth and is known as his most mature and innocent envoy. Since these characteristics are present only in Ali, he and his descendants are attributed "immortality."

In the Alawite faith, the title of imam passes from father to son. In addition, since Ali was the son of the prophet Muhammad's uncle and married his daughter, he comes from the prophet's lineage. Only Ali's descendants can serve in the capacity of imam. The imamate is held to be a divine office, and no one outside Ali's lineage is eligible for this position. According to the Alawite faith, God is one, and the only creator of life on earth. Muhammad is God's envoy, and the only authority after him is Ali. It is for this reason that Alawis call their leaders "sheikh" or "dede," which suggests a wise person, rather than "imam."

Alawite traditions

One important tradition is that individuals who are not born of Alawite parents are not accepted into the community. It is forbidden to marry a non-Alawi, all of whom are considered "strangers." Anyone who acts in defiance of this law is excommunicated, never to be readmitted to the community. Each Alawi belongs to a "hearth," the membership of which passes from father to son.

The Alawis believe in the Koran and respect its injunctions. Yet their beliefs concerning fasting, prayer and pilgrimage vary from it. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and raki (an anise-based hard liquor) are not forbidden. The segregation of women is not held as valid. Their entertainment and music culture, however, is in line with mainstream Islamic conceptions.

The place of women in the Alawite community

Women are granted high respect and regarded as sacred by the Alawis. "Kadincik Ana," who is their archetypal woman figure, has certain similarities to the Virgin Mary. Women are described as "mothers," and they fall into a hierarchy according to their age group and social and familial standing. The entire community respects the woman as a "mother." The relationship between men and women is characterized by love and respect. In addition, a woman is regarded as the sister of all men. Furthermore, the Alawite faith is based upon the "brotherhood" of all their "souls." They do not consider women as concubines or objects of sexual pleasure.

Both men and women participate in special village entertainments and are expected to conform to their norms. Women are independent; they vote and are asked for approval. Men cannot divorce women according to their whim. Women who are married or are beyond a certain age can participate in community rituals known as "Cem Ayini."

The Alawite cem rituals

People must vow "eternal brotherhood" in order to participate in Alawite rituals. In this rite, the community elder known as "dede" sanctifies the individuals and declares their spiritual comradeship. "Eternal brotherhood" is one of the seven rules which every Alawi must obey. The man and woman who unite in eternal brotherhood promise to help each other spiritually and materially. They support one another during good and bad times.

The cem ritual, which is the foremost ceremony of the Alawis, can be performed at a special lodge or anywhere else. While there is not a specific time scheduled for the ceremony, it is performed more often after the harvest and during the winter months. Led by the "mursid" (also known as "dede" or "pir"), the ceremony is preceded by the allocation of the "twelve tasks," which correspond to the transcendental duties ascribed to men in the other world.

The dishes brought by the participants are put on a table surrounded with candles. The "mursid" makes his entrance and takes a seat to the left of the "throne," after which the official in charge of lighting the candles comes in. The community is informed about the opening ceremony, and there is a short conversation about morality. This is followed by a musical performance of "nefes" (religious songs) composed by Sheikh Ismail accompanied by the saz (a stringed instrument resembling the lute), after which there is the sema (dance) ceremony. The high point of the cem ritual is the "tevhid," which is a declaration of the unity of God, during which people embrace each other in exultation and then engage in self-flagellation. The cries of "sheikh" are followed by a tune describing the union of the prophet with God. This section called "mirac" features the dramatic staging of the prophet's encounter with supernatural events, such as his escape from a wayward lion by swallowing his sacred ring.

During this supernatural journey, the prophet reaches the divine throne and hears Ali's voice from the depths. He draws a curtain, and when he sees Ali, he addresses him in the following words: "If I had not known that you were born of a mother, I would have said that you were God. I was able to approach you but could not divine your secret."

The ceremony continues with the arrival of the prophet at "Kirklar Bezmi," where a certain ritual symbolic of the spiritual unity of the community is performed. Afterwards, the bard who recounts this transcendental moment gets up, followed by the community members who, putting on belts or turbans, start the sema dance. Next, the story of the martyrdom of the Imam Huseyin at Kerbela is remembered, and there is a collective lamentation and purification ceremony symbolized by the sprinkling of holy water on the believers to keep them free of evil spirits. The mirac ceremony ends with prayers, after which the community partakes of the collective meal and puts off the candles.

The Alawite faith is not a monolithic entity, and there are differences from one community to the next. In Iran, the Alawis are called Shiites, while according to mainstream Islam, they are known as "the fifth sect."

The life of the Alawis in Europe

Throughout history, the Alawite and Sunnite communities lived in peace, and their struggles were occasioned by political factors. It would be incorrect to see in these events the confrontations of the Alawis with the Sunnites. Yet class distinctions persist among the Alawis, and it is known that an Alawite worker feels uncomfortable pronouncing his creed in his workplace.

Alawis have been ostracized and were subjected to pressure because of the differences of their creeds and traditions. This situation persists to our day. Furthermore, the entire community has been slandered for behavior which does not reflect the community norms, such as calling the "mum sondu" (candle is out) ritual a kind of sexual orgy. The Alawis have even been subjected to violence because of their beliefs.

The violent incident in Maras on Oct. 24, 1978 has not been forgotten by the Alawis. During a congress in commemoration of Pir Sultan Abdal in Sivas, a group of religious reactionaries caused a fire at a hotel, which ended in the death of 37 people. Violent events on July 2, 1993 and March 12, 1995 in the Gazi neighborhood spread to the Alawite neighborhoods in Ankara and Istanbul.

Fleeing persecution in Turkey, the Alawis settled in various European countries such as Italy and Greece, as well as in the United States. There is a significant Alawite population in Western Europe, particularly in Germany. These individuals admit that they have undergone certain changes, adopted new ways of thought and gotten accustomed to European traditions. For instance, the Alawis of Augsburg and Ulm have reinterpreted the "Hizir Cem" ritual in the way described below.

Clad as St. Nicholas, the "dede" arrives at the place where the ceremony is to be performed. Hunchbacked and walking with a cane, he performs the sema dances accompanied by music and distributes candy and fruit to the children. Then, sitting down on a cushion, he calls the children to his side and tells them the story of a miracle-worker called Hizir who once lived in Anatolia and was the savior of the poor.

As the above story indicates, the Alawite community in Europe feels comfortable combining their traditions with Western beliefs. Their ingrained notions of equality mean that they do not feel inferior to their host nations. Furthermore, they have no prejudice against other religions, as the existence of Alawite delegates in the German Green Party demonstrates.

Contemporary Alawis

The Alawite faith combines notions of equality, justice and progress and symbolizes resistance to oppression, tyranny, injustice and exploitation. Yet in Turkey, Alawis were able to survive only in the form of a hidden and introverted rural culture. The tradition has been transmitted orally without being written down and is not part of the formal education in Turkey. Alawite leaders receive their education in foreign countries such as Iraq and Egypt.

While the Alawis are associated with notions of rebelliousness, the Alawite population in Turkey, which is around 20 million, has been able to express its culture more freely during the last few decades. Today, they are able open community houses and lodges, and their poems and songs are being modernized.

Today, some Alawite intellectuals would like to reassess Alawite history through the methods of modern science and historiography. The leaders of the "Alawite enlightenment" would like to steer clear of conflict and view differences as strengths rather than disagreements.

The Alawite community demands not a religious reawakening but rather democratic rights, which are also called for by other social groups in Turkey. In the words of one intellectual: "While we may submit to different Islamic creeds, in principle, we are all equal. This is what we say we should advance towards our goal without hurting one another, in a spirit of tolerance and through dialogue. Our goal is for Turkey to implement constitutional and social agreements whereby all different identities are respected."

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