Turkish Alawites or Anatolia Alawites or Alevis (Turkish: Alevilik) is a group in Turkey known as Shi'as. They are Twelver Shi'as insofar as the principles of their religious beliefs are concerned, but they are not practically committed to the Shiite Ja'fari fiqh (jurisprudence) because of being influenced by "Batini" (mystical) beliefs (though they are theoretically committed to the Shiite jurisprudence). According to some views, they were called "Alawites" ('Alawis or Alevis) by the Ottomans about 250 years ago in order to be demarcated from orthodox Shi'as. Since they are mainly based in Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), they are also known as Anatolia Alawites. According to some statistics, Alawites comprise about 30 percent of the Turkish population.
According to some sources, a person is an Alawite if they endorse that there is no god except Allah, that Muhammad (s) is the messenger of God, and that 'Ali (a) is the divine guardian (Imam) in his or her heart, words, and actions (that is, acts upon these beliefs). According to a definition presented by a Turkish Alawite author: "a person who holds fast to the cord of God (that is, the Qur'an) and the Fourteen Infallibles (a), enjoys the lights of Muhammad (s) and 'Ali (a), endorses the beliefs that there is no god except Allah, Muhammad (s) is the messenger of God, and 'Ali (a) is the divine guardian, and acts upon these words".
Historical accounts divide the background of Anatolia Alawites into two periods: the one before the Ottoman empire, and the one after the Ottomans.
Before the Ottoman Government
After the Mogul attack, Turkmens residing in Central Asia immigrated to Anatolia (today’s Turkey). There were followers of Ahl al-Bayt (a) among these people. They were not much acquainted with the Islamic Shari'a and jurisprudence and were influenced by the popular Sufism in that area, and thus they founded the Bektashi order and Alevism in today’s Turkey.
They mostly consisted of immigrants who resided in Iran’s Khorasan before their move to Anatolia. However, there were also Turks from Central Asia who immigrated to Anatolia. The latter group had close ties to the Abbasid government, and thus, they mostly converted to the Sunni Islam. Moreover, after the collapse of the Buyid dynasty, a group of 'Alawis who lived under the Buyid protection moved to Syria and the Mediterranean coasts since the 10th/16th century. The 'Alawis who now live in Antioch, Adana, Mersin, and other Mediterranean coasts are generations of the same 'Alawis who immigrated to Syria after the Buyid period. They are also known as Syrian Alawites.
In the Ottoman Period
In order to strengthen their government and to unify a community of various ethnicities and religions, the Ottomans resorted to Sufi leaders who were very influential among people. Thus, they built up close relationships with Bektashi Alawites and their Dervishes. The Bektashi sect was only a Sufi order then.
The spread of Alevism in the Ottoman realm turned into a threat for the Ottoman government when the Safavid dynasty appeared in 1501 in Tabriz. For Anatolia Alawites had a heartfelt connection to Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili and the Safavids, and thus, they dreamt of the formation of an Alawite government. When the Safavid government was officially announced in 1501 by Isma'il I in Tabriz, the dream came true.
Bayezid II, the then Ottoman king, had a Sunni approach. He undermined the Alawites and approached differently to Bektashi Alawites and Safavid Alawites. Bektashis who comprised a populous branch of Alawites, lived with comfort thanks to supports by the Ottoman government until 1800. Another branch of Alawites who followed the school of Safi al-Din Ardabili and considered Isma'il I as their religious leader, were always oppressed and in exile.
Pressures by the Ottoman government on the latter branch of Alawites were at the highest in the period of Selim I when the Battle of Chaldiran occurred between Ottomans and Safavids in 1514 in which the latter were defeated.
There are historical accounts of the exacerbation of the conditions for non-Bektashi Alawites after the defeat of the Safavids until the collapse of the Ottoman government. The conditions were so grave that Alawites were forbidden from carrying copies of the Qur'an, and people were forbidden from selling Qur'ans to Alawites. In order to have copies of the Qur'an, Alawites had to ask their Christian and Jewish friends to bring them Qur'ans. They were banned from holding rituals and any religious congregations in mosques, Khanqahs, and any other places. If they held such congregations, they would be exiled or killed. This Shiite group did not have the right to go to schools or to found specific places to teach their religious doctrines to their next generations. Moreover, their escape to distant, difficult-to-access areas in mountains and forests out of fear from mass murders made it impossible for them to communicate with cultural centers of Shi'as.
Thus, the number of scholars among them decreased and Alawites lacked sufficient religious knowledge in general. So, they tended to Batiniyya and relied on knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next. As a result, the social and economic status of Alawites was weakened, and culturally speaking, the Ottoman oppressions led to the coerced isolation of non-Bektashi Alawites for centuries until the foundation of the republic government in Turkey.
Turkish Alawites consist of four ethnic groups:
The majority of Alawites are Turkmens. Turkmens are a branch of Turks called "Oghuz". Oghuz people who converted to Islam since the second half of the 10th/16th century were called "Turkmens", but the ones who did not convert to Islam are still known as "Oghuz". Turkmens branch, in turn, into three ethnicities:
- Chinese: this group goes back to the Üçok (three arrows) branch of Oghuz Turks.
- Tahtacis: today this group of Turkmens lives in vast areas of south to southwestern parts of Turkey, from Maraş to Taurus Mountains, and from the end of these mountains to the south of the Aegean Sea (a sea along the northwestern to southwestern Turkey). Tahtacis live in forest areas of Adana, Maraş, İçel, Burdur, Isparta, Denizli, Muğla, Aydın, İzmir, Balıkesir, and Trakya (the European part of Turkey).
- Bidis: this group is a Bozok branch of Turkmens who contributed to the establishment of the Safavid government. Today, Alawites living in the center of Anatolia are considered as Bidis. They live in Ankara, Tokat, Kırşehir, Kayseri, Nevşehir and its suburbs.
Some Istanbul-based researchers believe that one-third of Kurds residing in Turkey are Alawites. Alawite Kurds are scattered in Bingöl, Tunceli, Erzincan, Sivas, Yozgat, Elazığ, Malatya, Kahramanmaraş and Kayseri.
Zazas are another ethnic group of Alawites. Their language is very similar to Kurdish and even Luri. Nearly half of Zazas are Sunni and the other half are Alawites. Alawite Zazas live in areas of Munzur mountains in northern Turkey, the center of Erzincan, and Erzurum.
Arabs compromise the fourth Alawite ethnicity. They live in southern Turkey and in the borderlines of Syria in Hatay and Adana. The population of Arabs is smaller than that of other ethnic groups in Turkey. One of the most important and magnificent festivals of Alawites is Eid al-Ghadir ceremony in Hatay attended by thousands of people. Sunni Muftis as well as government officials also attend the ceremony.
Population and Distribution
Although a census is conducted every ten years in Turkey, since religious tendencies and ethnicities are not asked in these censuses, there is no exact or official report about the population of Turkish Alawites and the percentage of their population relative to the whole Turkish population. Thus, Alawites and scholars of Shiism provide different statistics of the Alawite population. Some people estimate that Alawites comprise 30 percent of the whole Turkish population.
Rıza Zelyut, an Alawite author, claims that Alawites constitute one-third of the Turkish population. İzzettin Doğan, the head of Cem Endowment Foundation, believes that the Alawite population is about 25 million. Some non-Turkish researchers have estimated their population to be between 10 to 20 percent of the whole Turkish population. In his book, Géopolitique du chiisme (Geopolitics of Shi'as), Francois Thual reported that there were 16 million Alawites in Turkey when the whole population of the country was 62 million.
Ahl al-Bayt (a) World Assembly has estimated in a report that Alawites constitute 25 percent of the whole Turkish population. Dunmaz, the author of Turkish Alawites, said that after several travels to Alawite regions of Turkey and meeting Alawite figures he can speculate that their population is about 23 million.
Dunmaz’s results about the population of Turkish Alawites were based on the official census of 1985 when the population of the whole Turkey was 50 million.
Turkish Alawites are not economically prosperous. Their condition is the same as other Turkish Shi'as. Alawites were always opponents of existing governments throughout different periods, and thus, they did not usually have the opportunity to serve in governmental institutes. Moreover, Turkey’s economic system plays a significant role in the economic condition of Alawites. In this system, investors and big corporations support the government and help it be re-elected. And in return, the governments provide them with more facilities and loans. Most of the investors are Sunni nationalists. Thus, Alawites who have always supported anti-government parties were deprived of governmental facilities. In general, the economic condition of Turkish Alawites is average and below average.
Political Condition of Alawites in 20th and 21st Centuries
During over six centuries of the Ottoman dynasty, Alawites, and in particular non-Bektashi Alawites, not only lacked any political positions in the Ottoman governments, but were deprived of their basic civil, social, and religious rights. Late in the Ottoman period, and specifically from 1876 onward, a great number of people were sent to Europe to be educated and then contribute to the progress of Turkey. Upon their return, these people, who came to be known as enlightened thinkers, played a crucial role in the collapse of the Ottoman government and the establishment of the Secular Republic of Turkey on the basis of their materialistic and westernized views.
Alawites who had suffered a long period of coerced isolation during the Ottoman empire played a significant role in the formation of the enlightenment movement and the establishment of the Secular Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Atatürk. Many Alawites thought of Atatürk—a Bektashi Alawite—as their savior and supported the republic government in Turkey in order to free themselves from Ottoman oppressions.
They so highly regarded of Atatürk that they put his portraits besides the portraits of Imam 'Ali (a) and Haji Bektash Veli. This is despite the fact that in 1925, Atatürk abolished all religious groups and orders. Their rage at the Ottoman government and their nationalistic passions in the wake of their victories in battles of independence (1919-1922) outweighed any reasons for them to encounter Atatürk.
Moreover, extensive changes in Turkey after the establishment of the Republic government were followed by remarkable developments for Alawites, including the construction of roads in difficult-to-access areas where Alawites lived, the improvement of communication facilities, and compulsory educations which led to more interactions between Alawites and big urban communities. Moreover, the secularization of the government, abolishment of the Shari'a law, and the announcement of the public religious freedom played a crucial role in reducing the threats faced by Alawites from central and surrounding communities of which they were part.
Despite the above advantages, the regime change in Turkey imposed damages to the Alawite communities as well, including the fading of the responsibilities of Dadas (Alawite leaders), decline of rituals, ignorance on part of Alawite children who were educated in the new school system about Alevism, and in general, the alteration of religious traditions, particularly the issue of the self-evidence of the collective unity of the sect. All of this was rooted in the rise of group migration of Alawites from their villages to big cities, especially from 1948 to 1956.
Alawite Political Tendencies
After the establishment of the Secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, Alawites founded their first political party under the (Turkish) "Unity Party" in 1966 after about 40 years. In the red flag of the party, there were 12 stars symbolizing the Twelve Imams. In 1969, the party managed to obtain 8 parliamentary seats. When the party failed in 1973, its members moved to the "Republican People’s Party".
Following the 1980 coup d'état, Alawites tended to the "People’s Social-Democratic Party". After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Alawites have been exploited by leftist socialist and communist parties in Turkey. Their leftist tendencies are originated in the living conditions of Alawites who migrated to cities—in fact, they lived in slums under terrible conditions. This led educated young Alawites to turn to attractive slogans of justice and equality by socialists. Thus, a significant part of guerrilla and unarmed organizations consisted of Alawites, and Alawite symbols, such as their anthems and long mustaches, turned into symbols of revolutionary, leftist tendencies.
Their religious rituals took a political tone. Eventually, Alevism came to be taken by its proponents to have a socialist, progressive, and justice-seeking connotation, contrary to Sunnism which came to be a full-fledged symbol of political regress and rightist tendencies.
The communist tendencies of Alawites eventuated in a bitter fate for them. In 1978, the extreme rightist party of "National Movement", under the leadership of the radical nationalists, Alp Arslan, killed over 100 Alawites in Kahramanmaraş in southern Turkey.
After this slaughter, military groups who feared the threats of leftist movements launched a coup d’état in 1980. The coup leaders supported Islamist tendencies in order to block the influence of Alawites and communists—which they considered as being equivalent. Thus, for the first time after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, religious education on the basis of the Hanafi School became compulsory for everyone from elementary schools to high schools, and the entrance of the graduates of seminary schools in universities were permitted, and the number of Sunni mosques and seminary schools increased, in accordance with the article 24 of the 1982 Constitution. Moreover, when compulsory mosques were built in Alawite areas, Hanafi leaders of congregational prayers were imposed to them by the government.
These actions led to a great anger among Alawites culminating in their protests and demonstrations in Turkey. In response to the protests, extreme rightist parties killed Alawite protesters. Thus, at least 25 Alawites were killed in Çorum in 1980. The event of Kahramanmaraş and its aftermath led to the immigration of Alawites to Europe.
The frustration of enlightened Alawites with communism and the collapse of the former Soviet Union prepared the ground for the return of Alawites to their original identity. They found that before the emergence of socialism, the ideas of equality, justice, and freedom were always tied with Alevism. This realization, as well as the appearance of Islamic fundamentalism, or political Islam, in Turkey, were the main motivations for the foundation and development of Alawite organizations.
Thus, the fear from the possible conversion of Alawite youths to the Sunni Islam, led Alawite seniors to hold the "Cem" rituals in cities in order to acquaint the young generation with their past ways of life and etiquettes, as well as to write numerous books to religiously educate the youths. The vast religious and cultural activities of Alawites in 1990s were accompanied by the general influence of the religion on the public lives of Turkish people.
The context provided a ground for the exacerbation of Sunni-Alawite tensions. Examples of such tensions include the burning of the hotel in which the guests of the Alawite conference in Sivas by Sunni participants of congregational prayers in 1993, which led to the murder of 37 people, and the shootings by anonymous people in the Gaziosmanpaşa district of Istanbul in 1995, which led to the murder of 18 people.
Alawites in the Period of the Ruling Justice and Development Party
When Turkey officially requested to join the European Union, a new opportunity was opened to Turkish Alawites; for a necessary condition for joining the European Union is to provide and guarantee religious and ethnic freedoms. The Alawites seized the opportunity and shared their demands with the Turkish government, ruled by the views of the Islamist party of Justice and Development.
When it took over the power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party took actions to interact with Alawites and began to expand its influence in Alawite areas. Thus, in 2007 elections, the party managed to attract the votes of some Turkish Alawites. When the party won again, Erdogan’s government recognized the necessity of a more serious interaction with Alawites and accountability to their demands, and thus, he accelerated his efforts to do so.
Public efforts of the Erdogan’s government in this respect include the broadcasting of the mourning ceremonies of Imam al-Husayn (a) on the first 12 days of the Muharram month on the Turkish national TV and Radio (TRT), and in particular, the broadcasting of the mourning ceremonies on Tasu'a and Ashura in Istanbul and Ankara, in which the Turkish prime minister and Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi religious and political figures are present, and the broadcasting of religious and cultural programs regarding the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (a).
An important service of the Erdogan’s government to Turkish Alawites is the permission to teach textbooks at Turkish schools which aim to introduce students to Alevism. The books are to be taught from the fourth year of the elementary school. The contents of the books are prepared by İzzettin Doğan, the head of the Turkish Cem Foundation. By organizing a workgroup for pursuing Alawite demands, the Turkish government seeks to attract an extensive Alawite support. In 2014, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new Turkish prime minister, visited a religious site of Alawites in Tunceli for the first time.
Since Alawites contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman government and the formation of the Secular Republic of Turkey, and since they did not have any knowledgeable scholar in the contemporary period, they were accused of atheism and infidelity. The accusation appears in many books written to reject Alevism. However, Alawites always believed in one God. Their old texts, such as the essays attributed to Haji Bektash Veli and Sheykh Sefiyuddin Veli’s book, Muhabbet, as well as recent Alawite books reflect their belief in monotheism.
In many of their remarks, Alawites use the expression, "Haqq – Muhammad - 'Ali" or "Allah – Muhammad - 'Ali", which led their critics to assimilate them to a belief like Trinity in Christianity. Alawites have replied to the objection that the expression is meant to show their deep love of God, the Prophet Muhammad (s), and 'Ali (a), that is, it reflects their belief in Allah, prophethood, and Wilaya.
Prophethood and Imamate
Alawites firmly believe in the general prophethood and specifically in the prophethood of Muhammad (s), and in many of their rituals, they ask for the Prophet’s (s) intercession. Like other Twelver Shi'as, they believe in the immediate Imamate of 'Ali (a) after the Prophet (s). They take Imamate to be a position given by God to 'Ali (a), Imam al-Hasan (a), Imam al-Husayn (a), and his children. They believe that Imam is God’s Hujja on the Earth.
Alawites believe that after the demise of the Prophet (s), the three caliphs usurped the right of 'Ali (a), and thus, they are hostile to the caliphs. Alawites emphatically highlight the mystical aspects of prophethood and imamate, holding them to originate in spiritual proximity to God.
Turkish Alawites as Ghalis: a Truth or an Accusation?
Alawites have also been accused of being Ghali, that is, exaggerating about 'Ali (a) by identifying him with God or taking him to be prior to the Prophet (s). Turkish Alawites believe that it is a baseless accusation and cannot be found in any Alawite source. The accusations are rooted in the strong love of Alawites for 'Ali (a) and their detestation of caliphs in a country which was under Sunni Ottomans for over six centuries.
The most popular name among Alawites is Ali. They put portraits of 'Ali (a) in the best parts of their houses, work places, and places of rituals.
Turkish Alawites and Commitment to the Shari'a
In addition to religious beliefs, mystical doctrines have been very significant for Turkish Alawites, and they accompanied the shari'a with Tariqa. This led to erroneous interpretations of the commitment of Alawites to the shari'a and jurisprudential laws. However, the leaders of the first group of Turkish Alawites, such as Bedrettin Nuyan, always considered themselves to be the followers to the same Ja'fari Fiqh as is believed by other Imami Shi'as. Like many other Muslims, they take the Ancillaries of the Religion to consist of prayer, fasting, hajj, zakat, khums, jihad, al-amr bi l-ma'ruf (enjoining the right), al-nahy 'an al-munkar (forbidding the wrong), tawalli, and tabarri.
However, a movement was formed among Alawites which appealed to some mystical doctrines and was less committed to the shari'a. They set aside prayers, fasting, hajj, and other shari'a laws under the pretext of entering the stage of Tariqa. Instead of saying prayers, they perform circle prayers which consist in the ritual of "Cem" (jam', that is, congregation) and praying in the ritual. With regard to fasting, they only believe in fasting in the first 12 days of the month of Muharram. However, some Alawites are practically committed to fasting in the month of Ramadan, but as a symbol for their love of the Twelve Imams (a), they fast on the first 12 days of the Muharram month as well.
According to some scholars, Alawites refused to perform their practices, such as going to mosques and saying prayers there, as a result of Ottoman oppressions, and in this way, they expressed their opposition to Ottomans. Others believe that their escape from Ottomans to hard-to-reach areas and their migrations from cities to remote places led to their isolation. The isolation resulted in two problems: first, their social and economic status was undermined, and second, culturally speaking, they could not have any religious teachings since they had no schools. Thus, they adopted Batiniyya and relied on orally-transmitted teachings. Their Batini approach was reinforced by mystical doctrines of the Bektashi order which were always held by Anatolia Alawites.
Like other Shiite groups, Turkish Alawites hold some religious rituals and ceremonies, such as Ashura rituals, Musahib rituals, Cem rituals, and the memorial of Haji Bektash Veli.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from (علویان ترکیه) in Farsi WikiShia.