The Alevis are a Turkish-, Kurdish-, Zazaki- and Albanian-speaking ethno-religious group based in Turkey, Albania, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Iraq and Iran.
Traditionally, they were a significant population in the central and east Anatolian provinces of Turkey, but they are now spread around the world. Seen by some more as a movement than as a tradition, the Alevis were 'mystical dissenters' in Central Asia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Anatolia and ancient Egypt who helped to shape Anatolia in Turkey in the 13th century.
Some Alevis also refer to their tradition as the Alevi-Bektashi tradition, because of the similarities between their origins and beliefs and those of the Bektashi Order (Sufi Islam tradition). Others, however, claim that these are distinct groups.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of information on Alevi identity in both the electronic media and in scholarly writing, with a range of differing views and interpretations as to what Alevis actually believe and practice. The Alevis appear undisturbed by the diversity within their tradition.
The Alevis’ emphasis on mysticism and symbolism, and their rejection of a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, have resulted in a perception among many mainstream Muslims-both Shias and Sunnies-that Alevis do not meet the fundamental criteria for being Muslim. This has led to centuries of persecution as well as accusations of immoral activities and being ‘un-Islamic’. There have been a number of reports of discrimination and violence against Alevi communities in Turkey. This violence has also recently begun to spill over into diaspora communities.
At times, various Turkish governments have been accused of turning a blind eye to these racially motivated attacks against Alevis and discouraging Alevi cultural integration into Turkish society. For example, while Christians and Jews are officially recognised as minority groups, the Alevis are not. Minorities in Turkey can request exemption from religious education, namely Sunni religious education, but Alevis cannot as their existence as a tradition remains unacknowledged. Turkey’s Alevis therefore argue that they are forced to participate in and pay taxes for the provision of religious education where only Sunni Islam is taught in religious classes.
While the current government is said to be taking positive steps towards the acknowledgement of the Alevis, discrimination continues to be a significant challenge. Many Alevis believe they cannot identify publicly as Alevis because of fear of intolerance. Fear of discrimination has also resulted in many Alevis alienating themselves from mainstream Islam and identifying as non-Muslims.
Alevis believe in the basic pillars and fundamentals of the faith of Islam. However, they attach a more spiritual and symbolic meaning to each of them. Below are some of the key beliefs and practices of the Alevis:
Prayer – Seeing themselves as spiritual Muslims – like the Sufis – the Alevis congregate for a worship and prayer ceremony called the ‘cem’ (pronounced 'jem') in a meeting-house. The ceremony combines singing, music, poetry and dance (Semah). Today, with Alevis migrating to different countries, such rituals may not be strictly adhered to, but there remains a set design and plan for the ‘cem’, incorporating its most essential features.
Almsgiving – There is no set amount for almsgiving. However, the Alevis generally donate generously to help the disadvantaged, provide food to worshippers, and support religious/cultural education, as well as contribute to scholarships for students.
Fasting – Alevis fast in the first 12 days of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic Calendar, marking the murder of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson, Hussain). In addition to giving up food and liquids till sunset (not strictly adhered to by all Alevis), the days of fasting are also meant to be a time for sacrificing other comforts and pleasures, as an appropriate symbol of mourning. Alevis may also fast from February 13th to 15th (Hizr Feast).
Hajj – While not an Alevi practice or requirement, some Alevis may make religious trips to tombs of revered saints for self-cleansing and blessing.
Holy Books – Alevis believe in all four Holy Books, and that the Qur’an is the last revelation, completing the message that had been passed along for centuries through the other books and religions. The Alevi interpretation of the Qur’an is largely mystical rather than literal, containing what they consider to be deeper spiritual truths. Alevi elder, Hadji Bektas Veli, says that ‘the biggest book to read is the Human Being.’ The Qur’an is generally read in Turkish for better understanding.
Religious literature – In addition, the Alevis also possess an extensive religious literature consisting of the recorded sayings of Imam Ali, the collection of doctrines and practices of the 12 Imams, as well as the events, accounts of the lives, teachings and writings (mystical poems and ballads) of Alevi elders and poets.
Prophets – Alevis believe in the continuity of Prophethood, and hold Prophets Muhammad (PBUH), David, Moses and Jesus in high regard. Muhammad (PBUH) is believed to be the final Prophet.
Heaven and Hell – Alevis believe in the Cycle of Existence, in which every human being passes through 32 stages until reaching Complete Human Being stage to unite and melt within God. Alevis perceive death as the ‘changing of the phase’ during the Cycle of Existence. The concept of heaven and hell is interpreted symbolically, according to Alevi belief. Accordingly, a person is perceived to be in hell if s/he is consumed by arrogance, hatred or animosity and, oppositely, in heaven when s/he is in a state of love, peacefulness or act of sharing.
Rules and Rituals – Adherence to rituals and rules is considered much less important by the Alevis, with emphasis rather on human relationships, compassion and connection with God.
'Four Doors' – Alevis believe in 'four doors' (i.e., religious law, spiritual path, spiritual knowledge/skill, and spiritual truth), with 10 levels in each. A person is thought to begin his/her spiritual journey as a novice through the first door, and is then led by a spiritual guide through the rest of the doors until s/he acquires oneness with the ultimate truth through the fourth door. This is interpreted as the achievement of completeness and perfection, including control over selfish desires, equal treatment of people, and serving others’ interests.
Ali’s image – Imam Ali’s picture is prominent in many homes, community centres and publications. Some wear sword-pendants to represent Ali’s sword and their devotion to him.
Community gatherings – Today, with the migration of Alevis, many community centres exist around the world, functioning as a place for worship services, Semah courses, religious and history lessons, foreign language and handicraft learning, job training for women, medical services, scholarship programs, funeral services, and the like.
Festivals – Alevis today commemorate a number of different Islamic events and festivals. They include religious fasting, sheep sacrifice and celebrating the coming of Spring.
Many of the factors identified which placed Alawites at risk of persecution, apply also to the Alevis. There are however four additional factors of relevance:
MYTH: Alevis believe that Imam Ali is a perfect human, with supernatural strengths and wisdom.
FACT: Various Alevi poets define the place of Imam Ali in the “Alevi Path” as follows: the image of God appeared within Ali. That’s why Imam Ali is accepted as the most enlightened and virtuous person.
MYTH: Imam Ali is a deity in a trinity with God and Muhammad.
FACT: Imam Ali is not a deity, although he is an inseparable part of the God-Muhammed (PBUH)-Imam Ali trinity in Alevism. Imam Ali and Muhammed (PBUH) are considered to be path brothers who have been accepted as the beginning of “The Gathering of Forties Myth” in Alevi Path.