Current Affairs / history

Islamic Mysticism in the Near Eastern Region

The syncrestic religious groups in the Near East have adopted oral methods of transmission and maintain a particular level of secrecy due to the esoteric content of their faith and the consequent risk of persecution. Most members of the syncretistic religions are often left uninformed about their beliefs, yet they distinctly class themselves as religious adherents to Islam. Similarities between their traditions include their close relationship with Shi’ism, particularly Ismail’i, while also singing, dancing or chanting to hymns and poetry. Pre-Islamic traditions by the Turcoman tribes, Nestorian Christianity and even Buddhism together with the accompaniment of Persian and Zoroastrian beliefs all working within the social complexity of isolation, diaspora and migration for religious heresy adds to this intricacy. It is said that the steady conversion of many Christians in Anatolia to Islam introduced Gnostic elements that spawned the creation of a unique community of Muslims. Parallels between Near Eastern syncrestictic cosmogony and Christianity can perhaps be dated back to the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 that generated the gradual migration and invasion of Anatolia by the Turks, while the Oghuz people under the Seljuk’s expanded their population until the region became predominately Turkish. Although cosmogonic traditions vary between each heterodox group in and around the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia, religious views of angels and the universe together with accounts of the symbolic and mythological tales about God or the Divine Essence provide evidence of their unique similarities. Persecution by the Ottoman Empire for their religious heterodoxy isolated and ultimately developed a unique community and an orally transmitted tradition. It is important to elucidate the basic tenets of these heterodox communities within and around the Fertile Crescent in order to compare their unique relationship to one another.


Bektaşi – Turkey

The Bektaşi are a Sufi dervish order originating from the Balkan region who acknowledge the twelve Imam’s (Twelver Shi’i) and venerate both ‘Ali and the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq.[1] The tarikat or Bektaşi Brotherhood particularly view Haci Bektaş Veli as a saint. Haci Bektaş Veli was a Persian mystic from the 13th century and author of the Makalat, his own discourses and teachings that were religiously and spiritually progressive for his time, particularly since he was sympathetic to the poor living conditions and the rights of women.[2] It is often claimed that Haci Bektaş Veli fought against Arab influence over Islam and attempted to release the oppressed rural and impoverished from the exploitation by the elite, preaching “[a] version of Islam which synthesized Sunni and Shi’i beliefs with Muslim and Christian religious practices.”[3] There are claims that Mustapha Kemal was himself a Bektaşi that consequently established a strong political link between the Bektaşi and the Kemalists, but the legitimacy of the argument is weak.

Although similarities between Alevi and Bektaşi exist particularly because of the mystic Haci Bektaş and Pir Sultan Abdal whom they both revere,[4] there are clear differences. “Her ne kadar, Bektaşi ve Alevi, her iki topluluk da, kendilerini Haci Bektaş’a bagliyor ve ayni kokenden geliyor olsalar da, erkan oldukca farklidir.”[5] Unlike the Alevis who were persecuted and consequently isolated, the Bektaşi Order had considerable protection by the Ottomans and contact with the administration.[6 Bektaşi leadership can be offered upon completion of a degree and while being more theologically scriptualised or codified, any person who wishes to join the order are permitted to convert, a clear difference to Alevis who must be a talip or belong to a dede lineage. “Alevism and Bektaşism share neither the same geographical frameworks nor possess the same internal mechanisms and rules… Bektaşism is dominantly Balkan, while Alevism finds its origins in Anatolia. Bektaşism has been mainly urban, while the Alevism was, until recently, mainly rural.”[7]

While most social and religious duties are held by a dede who guides the various prayers and rituals at the cem house, the head of a tekke (dervish lodge) is led by a baba.[8] The tekke at Hacibektaş was once a place of ritual servitude but has now become a museum and a place of ceremonial gathering. It contains the monastery (maydin evi) which is where most of the services are held, but it also has an ekmek evi that includes the women’s quarters and a bake house (or an aş evi which is the kitchen) as well as an area for guests staying at the lodge (mihman evi).[9] Their religious beliefs incorporate a unique blend of Islamic and Christian elements, such as tying Muhammad, ‘Ali and Allah into a trinity or distributing wine, bread and cheese to new members (murshid or aşik), which is “probably a survival of the Holy Communion as practiced by the Artotyrites.”[10] The Bektaşi distinguish rank through the number of folds in their white cap. “The number four symbolises the “four gates”: shari’a [şeriyat], tarika, ma’rifa, hakika and the four corresponding classes of people: ‘abid, zahid, ‘arif, muhibb; the number twelve points to the number of imams. Particularly characteristic are also the twelve-fluted taslim taşi, which is worn around the neck, and the teber (double-axe).”[11]

As mentioned, the Bektaşi had considerable protection by the Ottoman Empire particularly because the Janissaries appreciated the similarity the order had with Christianity. Esra Ozyurek states that between the 16th and the 19th centuries, the Ottomans embraced the Bektaşi Order and made it the central religious organisation of the Janissaries, until 1826 when many Janissaries were killed and the Bektaşi Order made illegal. Like the Alevi, the Bektaşi allow women to participate in rituals and often sing and dance to hymns, bestowing great favour to ‘Ali and also Shah Isma’il among others. A translated version of a nefes poem is as follows:

I took the mirror to my face
Ali appeared to my eye…
He is Jesus and Christ
He is the refuge to the believers
He is the Shah of the two worlds
Ali appeared to my eye
Ali is the pure, Ali is the clean
Ali is the hidden, Ali is the manifest
Ali is the first, Ali is the last
Ali appeared to my eye
Ali is the life, Ali is the Beloved
Ali is the religion, Ali is the belief
Ali is the merciful, Ali is the compassionate
Ali appeared to my eye.[12]


Alawi – Syria

The endeavour to further understand the Alawi (traditional known as Nusayr’i) of Syria has increased over recent decades, particularly because most of the political and military elite are from an Alawi background. An ethnic minority numbering three million, the Alawis are mainly populated around the rural mountains of the Latakia region in Syria (75%) with a small proportion in urban cities of Syria; they can also be found in Lebanon and Israel (after the capture of the Golan Heights). Groups of Arab speaking Alevis who distinctly trace their lineage to the Alawi in Syria are located in southern Turkey (particularly Hatay and Adana) and though they share a similar name and other practices, the Alawi in Turkey do not correspond or affiliate with the Alevis of Anatolia.

Like many of the heterodox communities, little is known of their origin and mixed views are often reiterated, although it has been claimed that the Alawi are remnants of the ancient Canaanite people who were influence by Christianity and Isma’iliyyah Islam before adopting Arabic as their primary language.[13] It has been claimed that the sect developed during the mid-ninth century in Iraq under Muhammad B. Nusayr al-Namiri who revered the tenth Shi’i Imam[14], yet unlike the Anatolian Alevis who were Turcoman that converted to Islam, the Alawis were Arabs that similarly converted. “The Alawites in Syria… had already established their religious sect during the tenth century in Jabal Ansariyya near Latakia. Their secret faith is described as a blend of ancient Syrian or Phoenician paganism (mainly the worship of the triad: the sun, the moon and the stars or sky), possibly influence by various Christian Trinitarianism… and largely manifested in a Shi’i-Ismaili fashion with adherence to Imam Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law, and to Salman al-Farisi, one of Mohammad’s Persian followers.[15]

Because of their esoteric religious beliefs, the Alawi have experiences centuries of poverty, isolation and persecution by the Sunni elite in the region. The greater risk of violence forced the Alawi to practice taqiya much more rigorously than Alevis. The use of particular codes or jargon in their scriptures can only be understood by the initiated who are orally taught the socio-dialect and the meaning behind the content, while some manuscripts have little information about the divine charactic of ‘Ali, though it is widely known to be an integral part of Alawi belief. Most Alawi members are often excluded from the traditions and practices, especially women who are considered incapable of comprehending the vast scale of their beliefs. Sulaiman Efendi al-Adhani (b. 1834/1835) published the kitab al-bakurat as-Sulaimaniya fi kashf asrar ad-diyanat an-nusairya that discusses the origin of myth in Alawi tradition and contains narrative accounts of their cosmological structure and ideas.[16] According to Alawi beliefs, God revealed himself to the world seven times, each time as a different figure accompanied by two others.[17] With the divine triad and the transmigration of souls, it is believed that ‘Ali was thus an incarnation of God, accompanied by Muhammad and Salman al-Farsi.[18] Tord Olsson provides some valuable information about the religious doctrines and esoteric content of the Alawi community that is gradually slipping into the hands of researchers.

Q[uestion] 1: Who is our Lord, who has created us?
A[nswer]: He is our master, the commander of the faith, the prince of the bees, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and he is god, of whom (it holds true that) there is no god except him, the merciful, the compassionate.[19]

The initiated can only be male and both his parents must also be Alawi. Both the Shi’i and Alawi regard Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence), a collection of sermons and sayings written by or attributed to Ali, as critical to their religious beliefs. A dede is quite different to a hoca used in Alawi communities, particularly southern Turkey. A dede practices tarikat while a hoca would prefer the practice of şeriyat. Anyone can become a hoca and often learn or teach in Arabic, while a dede must be born into a family lineage. “They have additional specialized functions: a hoca reads the nikah before the consummation of a marriage and it is a hoca who leads the burial service cenaze and intones hymns, ilahi, over the body as it is laid to earth.”[20]

The community are split into four tribal divisions or associations, namely Khayyatun, Haddadun, Matawirah and Kalbiyyah.[21] While only men can be initiated into Alawi rites, there are no particular patrimonial or lineage requirements and any Alawi man can be initiated to become a tribal leader; most tribal leaders still retain a level of power amongst the rural and uneducated. The Alawi communities in the urban or coastal areas in Syria are fragmented, particularly because of their loose tribal associations and their previous dominance by the Sunni or Christian elite, sharply contrasting with the Alawi tribes in the mountainous regions who hold stronger tribal and religious ties. Nevertheless, the last several decades have shown a new and emerging Alawi community developing in both rural and urban environments, particularly due to education and career opportunities, something I shall further elucidate in another post.


Ahl-e Haqq – Iran

The Ahl-e Haqq (or Yarsan) is an Iranian based esoteric community primarily situated in western Iran, but also Iraq and Turkey, while being scattered amongst the mountains in Geran, Kermanshahan and western Azerbayjan. Most adherents are from a Kurdish or Lak (an ethnically unique Persian group closely related to Kurdish) ethnicity. It is difficult to determine the exact genesis of the religious order and white it is generally agreed that they began under the leadership of Sultan Sahak during the late 14th or early 15th century, there are hardly any sources that can directly prove this.[22] Similar to Alevis, the Ahl-e Haqq believe in the interconnectedness of ‘alam-i batin (inner world) and ‘alam-i zahir (outer world).[23] Like most of the syncretistic religions of the Near East, the Ahl-e Haqq believe in dunudunu or the transmigration of souls as well as mazhariyyat or the manifestation of the divine essence (God or zat-I haqq) in human beings. “The division of beings into two distinct categories is perhaps a later development of Zoroastrian ideas. The sacrifice of the cock has been several times connected with the corresponding Jewish rite, while the biblical names (Dawud, Musi) may have come through the intermediary of the Qu’ran.”[24] The etymology of the name Ahl-e Haqq translates to, ‘followers, or people of the truth, the divinity.’[25] Unlike the Alawi who worship ‘Ali and revere Sultan Sahak (who is also used as an avatar in Yezidi traditional commentary), conversely the Ahl-e Haqq worship Sultan Sahak and revere ‘Ali.

The Ahl-e Haqq texts such as the Tadhkira’i A’la, the Shah-nama-ye Haqiqat and the Ilam-e Haqiqat explain tales of the genesis of the universe together with the light of God. It also similarly speaks of the ‘pearl’ that the Yezidi use to describe the divine essence. Zat-I haqq or the divine essence was originally hidden in a pearl in the ocean of the universe, and this divine essence transformed into Khavandgar (creator) in the first cycle of divine manifestation (the decond is ‘Ali before the cyclic cosmogony establishes the shari’at (Islamic law), the tariqat (ritual teachings) and ma’rifat (knowledge of divine reality) until finally manifesting in Sultan Sahak who established Ahl-e Haqq.[26] A collection of kalam (sacred hymns) can be found in the book Kalam-i Saranjam (conclusion) sid to be written by the angel Pir Musi, a companion of Sultan Sahak who was charged with recording the actions and behaviour of people, though this elusive text written in Gurani is difficult to obtain.[27] Like the Alevis, the Ahl-e Haqq do not follow the pillars of Islam and have instead adopted their own methods of ritual and practice. “Instead they have their own sacred universe and their own rituals, which centre on the jam (lit., assembly) when they chant their sacred hymns (kalam), play their sacred lute (tanbur), make offerings of food, and share a sacrificial meal,” while adhering to religious secrecy or sir (mystery).”[28]

The Ahl-e Haqq have sayyids or direct descendants of Sultan Sahak and have eleven different holy lineages called khandan (house) each headed by a pir.[29] What differentiates them from other syncretistic religions, however, is that common members of the community can obtain high-ranking religious positions while not obtained the sacred texts, instead relying on a kalam-khan or one who can recite the kalam orally without the text.[30] Publication of Borhan al-Haqq (demonstration of truth) by Nur Ali Elahi, a Persian jurist and philosopher, describes the historical and theological of the Ahl-e Haqq and provides valuable information about their rituals, rites and beliefs.


Yazidi – Iraq

Most Yazidi reside in the province of Mosul, settling particularly in the mountainous areas of Jabal Sinjar and Shaikhan, and while most Yazidi communicate officially in Kurdish, small communities can be found in Armenia, Georgia, Syria and Turkey.[31] The Yazidi believe in unique cosmogony and myths about the genesis of the universe, angels and prophets, since their “[t]heology and mythology, particularly cosmogony, show traces of a non-Islamic tradition which may be of ancient Iranian origin.”[32] Like most heterodox communities, the Yazidi were separated and persecuted from the Muslim world that intensified during the Ottoman period through their centralisation and sunnification policies against heterodox communities. It is difficult to trace the historical emergence of Yazidism, but “[i]t seems that Yazidism, an indigenous Kurdish faith influence by Zoroastrism, was revived by ‘Adi b. Musafir (c. 1075 – 1162), an Arab Sufi shaikh whom the Yazidi regard as the saintly founder of their religion.”[33] Like many of the hetrodox communities, hymn (kawl) are often used to orally channel their affection for the prophets and saints and illustrate their religious beliefs.

The Yazidi believe in the one God and seven archangels, haft surr or the “Seven Mysteries”.[34] The most revered archangel is the Ta’use-e Malak (Peacock Angel). The peacock angel known also as Melek Tawus or Azra’il has been labelled seytan (devil) by the wider Islamic community, although the Yazidi deny this assertion. They believe that human beings were created through Adam, without Eve, claiming that while “Christians, Jews and Muslims were sprung from Adam and Eve, their own patriarchs were descendants of a certain Shahid, the son of Adam alone”.[35] The Yazidi text, Meshef Resh, tells the tale of how God created the White Pearl and the bird Enfer, before the haft surr are formed through this white pearl sitting on the back of Enfer. The Yazidi sharply contrast the love for ‘Ali unlike most of the other syncretistic religions, instead venerating Yazid b. Mu’awiya (particularly in Sinjar), the second Ummayad Caliph and son of Muawiya B. Abi Sufyan, known to be the cause of the martyrdom of Hasan and Huseyin.[36]

It was once prohibited to read and write amongst the Yazidi that consequently created a unique oral and syncretistic tradition encapsulated within a tribal and hereditary social order with strong ties to kinship; the Yazidi hierarchical divisions also include the requirement or custom to only marry within the tribe. Worldwide horror at the violent death of a young Yazidi girl, stoned by the community due to her apparent intentions to marry a non-Yazidi and filmed on camera by the youths present, expose the simplicity to breach moral law because of such a custom. There are bavs or bras (tribal sections) that function as the main political units for the Yazidi.


Druze – Lebanon

Similar to the Alawi, many members of the Druze community are unaware of the secret doctrines of the religion and only those who are initiated are allowed to learn the esoteric content of their unique faith. Persecution forced the Druze to isolate themselves in rural or mountainous areas of southern Lebanon where their religion flourished and spread to Israel (Galilee) and Syria (Aleppo). The Druze religion began in the 11th-century during the Fatamid empire under the leadership of Hamza ibn-Ali, where in Cairo the Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah became revered as an incarnation of God.[37] As the Druze believe in the transmigration of souls, they claim that successive reincarnations of al-Hakim will gradually allow him to return and re-establish the Druze movement. The Druze have combined their belief in the ta’wil (esoteric secrecy) and the tanzil (outer meaning) through their reverence of al-Hakim who, along with Hamza ibn ‘Ali after establishing missionaries within the Fatamid Empire, disappeared.[38] Leadership was later given to al-Muqtana Baha ad-Din whose collected writings and epistles together with those of Hamza ibn ‘Ali developed the foundation of Druze scriptures, even though persecution turned the order into a secret religion.[39] “Like Druze, Shi’a and Alawis they [Alevi] practiced dissimulation and secrecy about their religion (taqiya).”[40]

The dynamics of contemporary Druze communities are highly individualised, whereby “[e]veryone “knew” or interpreted the meaning or function of every social interaction… everyone was enmeshed in it.”[41] There are hierarchical divisions in traditional Druze communities, not only between the initiated or the ‘uqqal (sage) and the non-initiated or juhhal (ignorant), but also spiritual hierarchies amongst the ‘uqqal.[42] The juhhal have no spiritual obligation and merely adhere to the basic tenets of communal obligation, while the ‘uqqal work as mediators if there are any social conflicts. They are highly respected for being the guardians of the esoteric and secret content. “Through their attendance at meetings in the khilwe (prayer house) on Thursday and sometimes Sunday evenings, the ‘uqqal are responsible for maintaining the spiritual well-being of the community in which they live.”[43] Spiritual hierarchies amongst the ‘uqqal or okhtyar (old man) – who must wear distinct clothing with a laffi (red and white turban) – can be observed by the wearing of the headdress and whether one has a beard or moustache. Since the Druze believe in transmigration of the soul, women are viewed to play a crucial role in birth and the transcendental process of reincarnation, although they are not particularly allowed to participate in initiation or religious hierarchy.

[1] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 1162
[2] Ibid., 1162
[3] Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[4] Irene Melikoff, Haci Bektas Efsaneden Gercege Ceviren: Turan Alptekin (Istanbul: Cumhuriet Kitaplari, 2004) 290. Pir Sultan Abdal is a famous poet – “Hatai etkileyici ve surukleyici (charismatique) bir kisilik olmakla birlikte, Betasi-Alevi sairler icinde en taninan vee n evilen suphesiz Pir Sultan Adbal’dir.”
[5] Ibid., 255
[6] Stewart, op. cit., 135
[7] Ibid., 177
[8] Mahmud Faksh. “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force.” Middle Eastern Studies 20 (1984): 133–153
[9] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 1162
[10]Ibid., 1162
[11]Ibid., 1162
[12]Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[13] Faksh, op. cit., 135
[14] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 146
[15] Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[16] Ibid., 177
[17] Faksh, op. cit., 135
[18] Ibid., 135. Salman al-Farsi was a companion of the prophet Mohammad.
[19] The sources are from the kitab ta’lim diyanat an-nusairiya.
[20] White and Jongerden, op. cit., 44
[21] Faksh, op. cit., 137
[22] Hosseini, Z. Mir, “Inner Truth and Outer History: The Two World of the Ahl-I Haqq of Kurdistan” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 26 (1994) 268
[23] Ibid., 267
[24] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 263
[25] Hosseini, op. cit., 267
[26] Ibid., 271
[27] Ibid., 268
[28] Ibid., 268
[29] Ibid., 270
[30] Ibid., 270
[31] Fuccaro, Nelida. “Communalism and the State in Iraq: Yazidi Kurds (c1869 – 1940) Middle Eastern Studies (35:2, 1999) 1.
[32] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 314
[33] Fuccaro, op. cit., 10
[34] Ibid., 314
[35] Driver, op. cit., 201
[36] Fuccaro, op. cit., 15
[37] J. Oppenheimer, “Culture and Politics in Druze Ethnicity”, 1:3 (1977) 623
[38] Ibid., 623
[39] Ibid., 623
[40] Zeidan, op. cit., 2
[41] Louise E. Sweet, “Visiting Patterns and Social Dynamics in Eastern Mediterranean Communities” Anthropological Quarterly, 47:1 (Jan., 1974) 113
[42] Oppenheimer, op. cit., 624
[43] Ibid., 624

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