Independent religious group, or religious orientation, mainly in Turkey, but also in Iran, with a world total of between 15 and 25 million adherents. There is no independent data for their numbers, so these statistics are estimates or conjectures.
An elaborated version of the Alevi crest.
The shrine of Sultan Abdel Musa. Abdel Musa, Turkey.
|Alevis by country
Last column: % Alevis of the population
|Other countries: Between 2 and 3 million
*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
Where either Sultan Budala, or Abdel Musa rested, the stone is said to carry the imprint of his back.
Problems of classification
Alevism is often labelled as a branch of Islam, sometimes Sunni and sometimes Shi'i. But the distance in theology and rituals from mainstream Islam is simply too large. Moreover, their origins seem to precede Islam.
The simple disagreement whether Alevis, when classified as Muslims, belong to the Sunni or Shi'i branch, may perhaps be understood as a reflection of bad research or lack of interest among Western scholars to Alevism.
By its origins that precede Islam it represents one of three Yazdani religions; Ahl-e Haqq and Yazidism being the others.
Alevis are among the least described religious groups in the Middle East, despite their high number and presence all over Turkey. As a matter of fact, they represent the world's 5th or 6th largest religion (Sikhism of India is reported to have 23 million adherents), being larger than Judaism. Most reference works on Islam do not mention them, and important encyclopedias like Britannica, Encarta and CIA World Factbook put all Alevis into the category of Sunnis, without mentioning them in any way!
The confusion over the Alevis is linked to a troubled historical past. The Sunni majority in Turkey desired to hide their Alevi minority as well as legitimize Sunni propaganda towards the Alevis. And the Alevis have avoided emphasizing themselves in order avoid confrontation with Sunnis, well aware of the atrocities Christians have suffered as late as the 1910's (see Armenian Genocide and Assyrian genocide). An explanation to their concealment may be found in taqiyya (concealment of belief). While taqiyya is a part of Muslim theology, its roots predates Islam.
Alevis are not Alawites, but historically the two are linked and share many aspects of theology.
The name 'Alevi' is of much interest when trying to find their true origin. It is commonly assumed by outsiders that "Alevi" relates to Ali, their central figure of reverence. This may be a link that many Alevis today would not object to.
A second theory is linking it with fire. The word 'alev', which in Turkish means 'fire', points to relations with Zoroastrianism where fire represents the holiest of religious symbols. Similarities in creed may indicate that Alevis are carriers of the ancient faith, but with numerous additions and alterations through time. Still, this is a connection not commonly known among Alevis.
Alevi theology seems to have departed from other Shi'i orientations in the 13th century. It is clear that differences seen today are mainly a product of developments within Alevi tradition. In the 20th century, Alevi theology has developed a great deal, including new perspectives with respect to modern secularism and humanism.
The Alevis have been staunch supporters of the secularism of the Turkish republic, due to their need to be protected from Sunni discrimination. Still, even in this secularist republic, the state has favoured Sunni to Alevi institutions in terms of funding. But the republic has also been able to protect Alevi adherents more beneficially than was true in the Ottoman Empire.
Alevi theology seem very oriented towards love and caring, not too different from central values in Christianity. Jesus, being one of many prophets they acknowledge, stated something which is dearly remembered within Alevi theology: "Love God with all of your hear, soul, mind and strength; Love your neighbour as yourself."
Alevis state that there are 4 major religious books: The Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Koran. They reject many of the other central texts of both Shi'i tradition and Sunni tradition. Also, Alevis claim that the Muslim Koran has been altered, and that passages that state that Ali should become the successor of Muhammd have been removed. The Alevis read the Koran in a different manner than many Muslims, seeking an esoteric and mystical message, thereby disregarding the many passages containing certain regulations on man.
In addition there are a number of other selections of religious texts, including collections of hadiths relating to Muhammad; the traditions of Ali Nahjul Balagha; doctrines of the imams, Buyruks; texts relating specifically to the most prominent Alevis, Vilayetnameler or Menakibnameler.
According to some sources, the actual acceptance of the Koran seems dubious. Among Alevi statements of such a kind is that "Ali is the speaking Koran", and "The greatest holy book to be read is a human being."
The role of Ali
When some researches place the Alevi origins with Shi'ism they do this to the Twelver branch of Islam. It is true that the imam line is a part of Alevi theology, but as a matter of fact it is the imam line of the Zaydi branch they follow. They, therefore, do not accept the 5th imam of Twelver Shi'ism and his followers.
The Alevis recognize Ali as the true caliph, but his importance seems to be unlimited with the Alevis, and his virtues and qualities are often at a divine level. It is part of Alevi faith to rever Ali together with Muhammad as one entity and referred to as Alimuhammad, though with double manifestations.
The concept of God
There is inconsistent information available as to the Alevi understanding of both God and the Koran. It may be suggested that the Alevis do not believe in a god in an individualized form and as a universal force. Rather god of the Alevis is an entity of, or part of, every human being as well as everything in the universe. God of the Alevis is not a law-giving and punishing god, nor will god reward those who follow certain rules with a place in Paradise.
Alevis do not adhere to central concepts of common Islam, such as prayers (salat), pilgrimage (hajj), and, apparently, not even personal eternity, be it in a netherworld or a paradise.
Other supernatural beings
Alevi theology mention angels, but these seem to play a minor religious role, although they state, as the Muslims do, that the angel Gabriel was the intermediary when Muhammad had the Koran revealed.
The concept of an individual Satan appears to be dismissed, rather the evil is defined as individual selfishness.
Paradise and Hell
There appears to be no concept of neither a hell or paradise in Alevism. Answering Muslims, Alevis may state that a judgement of God will never deal with how a person has been with the performance of religious duties, rather how he has acted towards other human beings.
The Alevis do not build or use mosques, but come together for worship in typical Turkish meeting houses, called cem evi, under the leadership of an elder, known as a dede. Integrated in their many rituals are music and dance, indicating their relationship to Sufi worship (see Bektashi).
The explanation given for the deviations above is that mosques were desanctified when Ali was murdered in a mosque. Prayers have at some point in history been abolished, due to security, reflecting a problematic relationship with mainstream Islam.
People and Life styles
Alevis do not wear any distinctive dress, and cannot be discerned from other Muslim Turks. Central values to Alevism is that work and education are among the greatest acts.
Traditionally, the Alevi have been linked both with Bektashi, a religious movement usually classified as part of Islamic mysticism, Sufism.
The peoples belonging to Alevi are often classified as Kizilbash or Turkmen. A smaller people adhering to Alevism is called Tahtaci (Woodcutters), living along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Aegian Sea.
A third people adhering largely to Alevism is the Zaza, which confusingly also is referred to often as Kizilbash Kurds.
1993: In Sivas, the Turkish Alevi writer, Aziz Nesin, declares that he did not believe in the Koran. Sunni protesters set fire to a hotel, burning to death 36 Alevi singers and writers.