by Omer Zulfu Livaneli

As a man of art and culture, I dream of a world that places humanity at the center of all values and measures of worth. Maintaining the centrality of the worth of man is the only way to prevent the development of distinctions based on race, religion, nationalism, regionalism, and ideology, as well as all forms of fanaticism and violence that stem from them.

One of the elements that is threatening the expanding world today is "communitarianism." Communitarianism is narrowing the expanding world and, in a very dangerous way, is making peoples enemies of one another. The alternative to communitarianism may very well be a universal theory or creed of community. So, just how can communitarianism be overcome? What kind of program can prevent this dangerous polarization from occurring?

I would like to draw a few conclusions by recalling a tradition that is rooted in the Anatolia of hundreds of years ago but whose traces can still be seen today.

I would like to mention a town in Central Anatolia.  The name of this town is Hacı Bektaş.  The town takes its name from Hacı Bektaş, a spiritual authority who settled there after coming from Horasan in the 13th century.  Every year in August, 500,000 people come to this town.  There is no hotel with the capacity to handle the people coming to the town from all parts of Turkey to pay tribute to Hacı Bektaş. In hot weather, men, women and children sleep under the trees. They share their bread and water.  And for the duration of the festivities that last for many days, not a single action that can be characterized as a "crime" is carried out.  There are no thefts, no fights, no incidences of pick-pocketing, no rapes or assaults, and no slander.  A half a million people live as family under those difficult conditions.  Men and women pray together, side-by-side, along with music and dance.  There is no mosque in the town.  None of the forms of worship usually thought of as accompanying Islam can be observed here.

Now I'm getting to the interesting part of my story. In 1995, the Ministry of Justice decided to close the prison in Hacı Bektaş because not a single crime had been committed in the town for years.  What was the point of having an empty building sitting there that served no function?  There were no entries in the records of the gendarme and police since not even a single crime had been committed that needed to be recorded. In a world where crime is constantly on the rise, how was it possible that a town slab dab in the middle of Turkey was able to rid of itself violence 100 %.  How is it possible for the millions of people coming from every corner of the country to refrain from all kinds of criminal activity?

This question can be answered in a single word: Culture!

The traditional cultures of these people protect them from crime. The tradition of Hacı Bektaş presents an obstacle to criminal activity. It removes all distinctions of race, language, religion, and sex. Today in Turkey there are millions of people following the path of Hacı Bektaş who are uniting under the idea of the "brotherhood of man." 

There are no mosques in the towns and villages where they live.  They do not perform what is otherwise thought of as the Islamic form of prayer (the namaz) and they do not fast during the holy month of Ramazan. They worship by performing ceremonies that include songs and dances that are accompanied by the saz. Moreover, not only do men and women take part in these worship ceremonies alongside one another, women are not covered up.  Unlike orthodox Islam, permission was never given to the practice of having four wives. 

How was this pacific culture, which has been passed on into the 21st century and which is being reproduced by millions of people today, formed? How did it develop? In order to find the answer to this question, it is necessary to turn to the 13th century -- some 700 years ago.

But before doing so, let me deviate somewhat and touch upon some of the conclusions I have reached in my research.

The tradition that I described above has been identified as constituting Alevi-Bektaşi belief in Turkey. Bektashism is a religious order founded by Hacı Bektaş that spread mostly through the tekke (or dervish lodge).  Alevism is the form of this doctrine that became widespread among migrants and villagers.  Up until today, many Turkish and foreign academics have carried out research on the Alevi-Bektaşi belief and have investigated this tolerant branch of Islam. Some European academics have even asserted that Alevism is not an Islamic sect at all, but rather is a separate religion in and of itself.  The research that I have carried out on this subject reveals that this tolerant faith cannot be explained through reference to the followers of Ali and the Bektashi-Alevi belief system. I am of the opinion that the roots of this understanding are more widespread and complex.  Irrespective of the extent to which this belief has been carried to the present by members of the Alevi-Bektashi order, and even if for this reason have suffered repression, the formation of this belief system can be perceived as having its roots in the transformation from polytheistic religions to a monotheistic religion and the adjustments that had to be made because of that transformation.

It is known that historically the Central Asian Turks possessed a complex (socio-cultural) structure consisting of a variety of religions, including: Buddhism, Manichaeanism, Shamanism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Judaism.  The Turkish clans coming to Anatolia converted to Islam both as they made their way along the migratory paths and when they reached their final destinations.  In the process, a model appeared that served to reconcile the polytheistic religions that they previously had practiced with their newly adopted religion - Islam.  The religions found in Anatolia having their roots in Mesopotamia contributed to this belief system.  The perspective that the Turkish clans pouring into Anatolia brought with them and that they tried to reconcile with Islam was this: "the exaltation of man and making him the center of the universe." It is for this reason that they developed the theory of metempsychosis that produced the conclusion that "man is made in God's image."

Human-centered perspectives are not limited to Alevi-Bektashism.  For example, in the 13th century, such personalities as Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, Sheik Edebali and Ahi Evran were not part of this order.  Moreover, the great poet of this century, Yunus Emre, did not directly mention the Alevi faith.

What this means is that we are confronted by a period of belief whose "human-centricism" is broader and more comprehensive than the Alevi-Bektaşi movement.

13th-century Anatolia was a confusion of races, religions, and languages. The peoples who lived under Byzantine and Seljuk sovereignty enriched through their variety the Anatolian peninsula, which stretches like a bridge between Asia and Europe. Arabs, Jews, Magians, Yazidis, Kurds, Turks, the people of Pontus, Christians, Muslims, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Albanians, Asians, migratory tribes on horseback arriving from the steps of Central Asia, Greeks, Armenians, Persians formed a virtual Tower of Babel.

Hacı Bektaş who was a student of the religious teacher and sufi from Horasan, Ahmed-i Yesevi, became part of this wealth of humanity.  He came to a place called Suluca Karahöyük, which is remembered today by his own name.

During the same century, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, whose father had migrated from the city of Belh, lived in the Byzantine city of Ikonia.  The great poet and thinker, Yunus Emre, was travelling around Anatolia in the personage of a wandering dervish. Ahi Evran was establishing the organization of guilds among working people. In addition, Sheik Edebali was continuing the spread of humanist thought as the spiritual teacher of Osman, who was to found the Ottoman State.

The spread of the teachings of such great humanists during the same century in Anatolia began to have an impact in a very short time. Anatolians, who had become tired and poor because of devastating wars, the Crusades, and religious conflict, wholeheartedly adopted these humanistic and unifying ideas. This was one of the one fundamental factors contributing to the Turkification of Anatolia.  The names of mountains, rivers, villages, and cities were Turkified.  Moreover, the spiritual foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which was to last for 600 years, were laid during this period.

A poem in the vernacular of the people remaining from hundreds of years ago explains the impact of Hacı Bektaş in the following way:

The true guardian in the conquest of Rumeli
'Tis the generation that holds the wooden sword

The term "Rumeli" mentioned in the poem is being used, from the point of view of the Turks, in the sense of the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is for this reason that Mevlana Celaleddin is called "Rumi."  As for the wooden sword, it is taken as a symbol of peace.  Everyone knew that wars could not be fought with a wooden sword; neither could conquests be made.  But this has another symbolic meaning: The wooden sword was one of the symbols considered sacred by the Shamans. Turks who migrated from Horasan to Anatolia were originally from Central Asia, where Shamanism was widely practiced.

From the beginning of the 10th century, these tribes had begun to accept Islam; nevertheless, they did not entirely abandon their Shaman traditions.  In fact, they mixed the Shaman traditions with their newly adopted religion. There is one reality that unifies researchers who have studied the transition of Turks to Islam, which took hundreds of years, and their failure to completely abandon their Shaman traditions. Turks were not only Shamans. There were Turkish clans that adopted many different religions, including Manicaeism, Buddhism, Nestourianism, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, and Judaism.  Even today, it is possible to come across Turkish tribes who have the beliefs of this religion.

Anatolian Alevism appeared in the 11th century during the period of the Anatolian Seljuks.  The greatest factor in the rise and spread of this religious orientation was the wandering dervishes who came from Horasan to Anatolia.  These wandering dervishes were called Turkistan Erens (a mode of address among dervishes), Horasan Erens, and Roum Erens.  The term Turkistan was used to refer to Central Asia, while Horasan was used to refer to Iran.  As for the term Roum, it was used to refer to Anatolia -- in other words, the territories of Eastern Rome.

One of the most important pirs among these erens was Ahmed-i Yesevi.  It is recorded in such sources as the Vilayetname that the 77,000 pirs in Horasan were connected to Ahmed-i Yesevi, who was called the "pir of the 99,000 pirs in Turkistan."  In Roum -- in other words, Anatolia -- there were 57,000 pirs

By mixing Shamanistic elements with Islam, Ahmed-i Yesevi developed a religious orientation that was different from Orthodox Islam.   He sent the students that he trained to a variety of countries, with the intention of spreading this novel religious understanding. Yesevi's ideas, which appeared as a heterodox form of belief, spread to Anatolia and the Balkans through the efforts of these wandering dervishes.   One of Yesevi's students, Hacı Bektaş, came to Central Anatolia -- to Suluca Karahöyük, which is the town by the name of Hacı Bektaş today. 

Some of these dervishes travelled about as wandering folk poets, reading their poems to the people.  Most of these poems that reach us today as oral literature are based on 6 syllables, with some being 6 and 5 syllables.  This fact makes me think of the wandering poets who read 6-syllable poems of Homer that we term "hexameter," who travelled in Anatolia hundreds of years before the dervishes.  Humanism quite openly and clearly appears in the discourse of these poets and dervishes. Hacı Bektaş, in one of his poems says the following:

Heat is in the fire, not the pan
The working of miracles is in the head, not the crown
Whatever you are seeking, look within yourself
Not in Mecca, in Jerusalem, or in Pilgrimage

During the same period, the great poet Yunus Emre wrote:

Whatever you suppose yourself to be
Assume it to be the same for others
The meaning of the four books
If there is any, is this

The fundamental principle of Alevi morality is "be in control of your hand, tongue, and body."  The practical import of these principles means distancing oneself from bad things done with the hands such as theft and fighting, things done with the tongue such as insulting and lying, and from such physical affronts as sexual assaults.

The form of community worship performed by the Alevis is called cem ayini or the "group ceremony." In these ceremonies, people sit in a circle in such a way as to be able to see one another's faces.  Sitting in rows behind one another so that the back of the person sitting in front is seen, as Muslims who pray in the mosque do, is not considered appropriate by Alevis.  It is for this reason that the faces of men and women, which are deemed sacred, should be seen by one another. The group ceremony is lead by the religious leader, known as dede. Dedes usually play the saz.  The saz is the developed form of the musical instrument called the kopuz, which was brought by the Turks from Central Asia. It is an instrument with a long neck and strings.  The poems of poets of the past are recited in the accompaniment of this instrument. Ali and the 12 Imams are prayed to and advice is given to the community. During certain parts of the ceremony, men and women dance what is called the "semah." This dance, which is reminiscent of the movements of the crane, is interesting.  According to Alevi belief, the soul migrates and enters the body of another: it is the crane that carries these souls. My having personally attended some cem ceremonies has provided me with some valuable first-hand experience with the centuries-old practice. The cem ceremony of the snow-covered village of Hınzoru, which has had few contacts with the modern world -- located as it is in the summits of the Keşiş Mountains in Eastern Anatolia -- provides testimony that the form of the cem ceremony  may not have changed much over the past few centuries. 

In another part of the cem ceremony, unresolved conflicts arising between individuals are brought before the community and the dede and discussed. Complaints made about one another, are solved through village witnesses and the decisions of the dede.

It is easy to understand why the central Ottoman administration did not look favourably upon these perspectives.  This is because the Ottoman Sultans, in order to rule an empire expanding over vast areas, preferred the Sunni sect of Islam, which was considered a kind of Islamic Orthodoxy and which had strict religious rules. Neither Sultan Osman, who founded the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 13th century, nor Sultan Orhan's affinity to Alevi-Bektashism, or even the ties of the Janissary army to Hacı Bektaş changed this reality.  Shah Ismail, who was of Turkish origins, obtained power in Iran. The emergence of a great number of supporters of Shah Ismail from among the Alevis in Anatolia, especially at the beginning of the 16th century, began to make the padishah, Yavuz Sultan Selim, uncomfortable.  Prior to the start of the Iran-Ottoman War, a great massacre of Alevis occurred in Anatolia. Those who managed to remain alive escaped into the mountains and had to continue their worship and lives in hiding. The victory of the Ottomans in this war prevented the Alevi system of belief from becoming a form of administration.

Later, after centuries of repression, the Alevi-Bektaşi perspective reappeared with the interest shown in it by the "Young Turks." Furthermore, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who organized the resistance in Anatolia, went to the town of Hacı Bektaş and got the support of the spiritual leader who represented Hacı Bektaş.  During the Republican period, the Alevis took positions in support of laicism, Atatürk's reforms, women's rights, modern lifestyles, and later the social democratic movement.

The Alevis have continued to thrive for 700 years and present a model of community living and humanism. Instead of perceiving Islam as a single and unchanging whole, I believe that it is necessary to notice the nuances and shades within it. At this point, the Anatolian Alevi identity, as is the case with other beliefs within the fundamental area of "man," is deserving of more attention and research as a religious form having the closest of ties to modernity.

* Excerpts from the lecture given at Princeton University by Zulfu Livaneli, March 2001.

Post this article to Facebook