Alevism in Munzur
Sitting in the shade of a leafy tree near the springs at the source of the Munzur River, Hayri Dede, a highly-regarded Alevi religious leader, explains: “We do not believe we are going to Paradise after we die. For us, Paradise is the life we are living now. For us, Heaven and Hell are here on this earth.”
Zeynal Dede, one of the most beloved and respected pirs in the upper Munzur Valley, agrees. When he sings a dirge at a funeral, he says, the song is not really intended to benefit the dead person, but is instead meant for the living. “Its real purpose is to make us contemplate our own mortality and encourage us to live better, more ethical lives,” he explains. “It’s pointless to worship material things, because one day you’ll be dead and nothing that you own will matter any more. So the best thing is to be kind and just and generous to other people, because if in this world you are helpful and loving, then you are already living in Heaven. But if you are greedy and mean and dishonest, then you are living in Hell, here and now.”
click play to see Zeynal Dede play a funeral dirge
Kindness, generosity, open-hearted acceptance of others, treating people and the world itself with love – this is the ethos and the daily practice of Alevism – what’s called “the rule of the yol” – the Alevi path. Though it sounds like a remix of the Golden Rule, it’s not simply about doing unto others as you'd like others to do unto you; it’s about doing unto others as one should do unto God, since Alevis recognize a living spark of God in everyone. Acts of kindness and generosity are truly spiritual acts, through which Alevis connect to the divine.
Remarkably, these are not just abstract ideals that people in Munzur agree with in theory, then ignore. To the contrary, they have been absorbed into the culture, like indigo into cloth. They permeate many people’s way of being, and are expressed in ways that are completely natural and entirely authentic. Of course Munzur is not a little utopia filled with perfect, enlightened people – but it’s impossible not to sense the genuine warmth and kindness that flows from and between so many people, in a way that is effortless and organic, and not at all artificial, cynical, or contrived. Even in prayer, the Alevis of Munzur first pray for the well-being of the world, then they pray for the benefit of other people, and only finally, if at all, do they pray for anything for themselves.
In the dedes’ descriptions of Heaven and Hell, much is revealed. First, we see that Alevis are very comfortable with metaphorical interpretations and symbolic, rather than literal, truths; for them, neither Paradise nor the Inferno need to be actual places – instead, they are understood as states of being. It’s also clear that that the spiritual goals of Alevism are meant to be attained in this lifetime, not after death, and that there are choices to be made. Choose wisely, follow the Alevi path, and you may live your life in Heaven; abandon the path and you will dwell in Hell on earth.
Alevism is often defined as a mystical, or syncretic, or heterodox form of Islam, and it’s easy to see why. Alevis regard Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, as a saint, and have even greater reverence for Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, who became the fourth caliph of the Muslim world and remains the primary figure in Shia Islam. Alevis remember the slaying of Ali’s son, Husayn, at Karbala, as a catastrophe – as all Shia and many Sunni Muslim communities do – and numerous elements of Islamic myth, symbol, and history are inseparably intertwined with Alevi beliefs and practices.
The people of Munzur, however, tend to reject the notion that their religion is a branch of Islam. It’s not uncommon for locals to declare to outsiders, “We are not Muslim!” in a pre-emptive effort to clear up any possible confusion about who they are or what they believe. In part, this is because Alevis have long been discriminated against by Turkey’s Sunni Muslim majority, and the people of Munzur have no desire to be mistaken as belonging to a group that looks down upon them and their faith. They also feel that being categorized as Islamic is a fundamental misrepresentation of Alevism, betraying both the essence and the history of their religion.
Other communities of Alevis in other parts of Turkey feel differently about this. Some declare that Alevism is a purer, more truly Turkish form of Islam than the Sunnism imported from Arabia. Others emphasize their connection to Islam as a way of legitimizing their alternative faith in the eyes of Turkey's Sunni mainstream; in reaction to this, it's not unusual for some of the more outspoken residents of Munzur to voice the opinion that Alevi groups that identify as Muslim are selling out to Turkey’s Ministry of Religion / Directorate of Religious Affairs, which has the ability to channel substantial sums of money to communities – and individuals – that it views as allies.
The Alevis of Munzur trace the origins of their faith to ancient Zoroastrian and Shamanistic traditions that pre-date Islam by many centuries, and claim that the infusion of Islam into their religion occurred as a result of forced conversions at the hands of Muslim armies. Their ancestors, they say, had to give their religion a make-over, so that it looked on the surface as though its practitioners had adopted Islam, while at the core remaining true to itself. Any stories that point to Islam as the source of their unique practices, they claim, are apocryphal, invented so they could continue performing their sacred ceremonies under the thin guise of being faithful Muslims.
In fact, the history of the Alevi religion is clouded in vagueries. It appears to have evolved as a blend of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, Sufism, and other mystical traditions, with some elements eventually incorporated from gnostic interpretations of Shi’ism and Christianity.
The forced conversions to Islam referred to by the people of Munzur most likely happened around the dawn of the 16th century. During the 1400’s, much of eastern Turkey and northwestern Persia was ruled by a Sunni tribal federation known as the White Sheep Turkomans. Western Turkey was ruled by the Ottomans, who were also Sunni. But there were numerous groups in those areas, like the Alevis, who shunned Sunnism in favor of more ancient and mystical beliefs. One of these was the Safaviyya, a Sufi order that was founded in Azerbaijan by a Turkoman sheikh.
When the Safaviyya asserted territorial ambitions in the 15th century, it began to recruit fighters to its side. Those armies wore turbans with distinct red peaks, and thus came to be known as “Kizilbash” – meaning “red headed” in Turkish. Alevi Kurds joined with the Kizilbash, partly because Alevism was much closer to heterodox Sufism than it was to orthodox Sunnism; also, times were tough, economically speaking, and the Kizilbash paid.
In 1502, the Safaviyya leader, Shah Ismail I, with great help from the Kizilbash, defeated the White Sheep Turkomans, went on to conquer and unite all of Persia, and founded the Safavid Empire. Shia Islam was declared the state religion, and everyone living under Safavid control was forced to convert to it under threat of death – including those in eastern Anatolia. At that time, Shi’ism had a more metaphysical and heterodox interpretation than it does today, and the Kurdish Alevis didn’t have to radically alter their religious practices in order to survive.
For twelve years, the Alevi Kurds of eastern Anatolia lived under the rule of the Shah. Then, in 1514, after fierce fighting, Ottoman forces captured most of eastern Turkey. The Alevi Kurds, thus, found themselves cut off from the Persian Safavids and in lands controlled by Ottoman Sunnis. The Ottomans assumed that all Alevi Kurds were affiliated with the enemy armies of the Kizilbash, and unleashed brutal reprisals against them. Many of the Kurdish Alevi tribes thus retreated into the mountains, where they were safe from attack.
Their isolation from Istanbul meant that Alevi Kurds could remain insulated from the dominant Ottoman Sunni culture. Their separation from Persia meant that, while Shia Islam became much more conservative, Kurdish Alevism was able to retain its mystical traditions, beliefs, and characteristics. In the early 16th century, Alevis might have thought of themselves as kindred spirits to the Shia; today, the Alevi Kurds – who are still known as Kizilbash – think of Iranian Shiites as “fanatics” and do not want their religion to be associated with Shi’ism at all.
It should be noted that there are two main branches of Alevism – Kizilbash and Bektashi. When most people think of, write of, or study Alevism, they are focused on Bektashi - while here we are focused on the Alevis of the Munzur Valley, who are Kizilbash. Though many of the beliefs and practices of the two groups are very similar, the Bektashi are distinctly descended from the spiritual lineage of the great mystic, Haci Bektash. The connection that the Kizilbash have to Haci Bektaş is not exactly clear: most tribes regard him as one saint among many, but not as the founder of their faith. In general, the Bektashi Alevis tend to be Turkish while the Kizilbash are Kurdish (or Zaza, as some in Dersim self-identify). The Bektashi are more likely to claim a connection to Islam, in part because of important historical relationships between their tribes and the Ottomans, as well as the reality that for centuries they have lived in closer contact with the Sunni majority. The Kizilbash / Kurdish Alevis, on the other hand, are more likely to flat out reject any suggestion that they are Islamic – though these divisions are not absolute.
An important difference between Bektashi and Kizilbash Alevis is the influence of Armenian Christianity on the culture and beliefs on the Kurds of Dersim. For centuries, Armenians had a strong presence in the region. Some adopted Alevism in the 16th century, during the period when the Persian Safavids ruled eastern Anatolia and imposed Islam as the state religion. Since Alevism is such a heterodox faith, Armenians were able to maintain many of their practices, which became incorporated into Kizilbash Alevi customs.
During Ottoman times, as Armenians were even greater targets for persecution than the Alevis, more Armenian Christians gradually became Alevi. This phenomenon culminated during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18, when 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated in all manner of horrible ways by the Ottoman state.
Though Sunni Kurds frequently participated in atrocities committed against Armenians in eastern Turkey, the Alevi Kurds refused to join in, and are known for protecting the Armenians during the so-called Great Crime. According to the German vice-consul in Erzurum during World War I, "the Kurds from Dersim...turned out to be the most important saviors of the persecuted Armenians. They organized regular escape roads to Russia, which, in the following period, particularly in the 30’s, led to their own annihilation by the Turks.” Alevi Kurds also sheltered the Armenians living in Dersim, covering up for the Christian families that stayed in the area and pretended to be Alevi themselves. Today, many crypto-Armenians from Dersim are beginning to re-claim their Armenian heritage.
Since Armenian traditions had merged into Alevism centuries earlier, the Armenians remaining in Dersim were easily absorbed into Alevism. It has long been said that "less than the thickness of an onion skin separates the Alevis and the Armenians." Such a smooth transition would not have been possible were the Alevis practicing a religion that resembled Sunni or Shia Islam. In fact, the differences between Alevism and Islam are profound.
Alevis in Munzur do not read the Koran. They reject the fundamental “pillars” of Islam, including the Ramadan fast, the Haj to Mecca, and the obligation to pray five times a day. When Alevis do pray, they don’t do it in mosques; in fact, in the town of Ovacik, the lone mosque is visited only by people who are not from the valley: policemen, soldiers, and some students who have come to attend the local college. When the call to prayer is broadcast, it’s not unusual to see a look of scorn cross the faces of some locals, who feel the mosque has been imposed upon their community by the Turkish government – which also forces their children to study Islam in school, even though it contradicts what the children are taught at home.
One of the few rituals shared by Muslims and Alevis is male circumcision. Here, five-year-old Serhat Yerlikaya is dressed up for photos that will grace the invitation to his circumcision ceremony.
While virtually all aspects of a faithful Muslim’s life are guided by the precepts of Sharia law, Alevis disregard Sharia as a rigid, and essentially useless, list of rules and regulations that they have no duty to follow. They believe there are four gates through which people have to pass on their journey toward God, and that Şeriyat (Islamic law) is the very first. After that comes Tariqat – ‘the path,’ which according to anthropologist David Shankland is “the inner way of the heart into which Alevis are born;” Marifet, or knowledge, an esoteric understanding of the divine; and Haqiqat or ultimate truth, which is the kind of union with God that’s achieved only by saints. For Alevis, Sharia laws can be seen as a kind of spiritual training wheels, which perhaps serve a purpose for those who can't stay upright without them, but which tend to get in the way when trying to actually go anywhere.
Alevism is focused on batın – the inner world of hidden meanings where spiritual truth is revealed – not zahir – external, surface appearances. For those who are on the path of batin, the do’s and don’ts of Sharia serve no purpose. What’s important to them is inner spiritual growth, not outward displays of faith or strict adherence to a litany of rules. While there are a core list of do’s and don’ts that Alevis are expected to obey, such as not stealing, murdering or committing adultery, the emphasis is, above all else, on treating other people, and nature, with love and respect.