Alevism between Standardisation and Plurality

Negotiating Texts, Sources and Cultural Heritage

by Benjamin Weineck (Volume editor) Johannes Zimmermann (Volume editor)
Conference proceedings 282 Pages


Over the last decades of the 20th century, Alevi identity, religion and culture have gained an increasingly public character in both Turkey and Western Europe. This book analyses the ongoing efforts of negotiating common cultural denominators and shared repertoires of texts, sources, practices, or musemes, which are to represent Alevism across its ethnic, social, political, and regional differences. Bringing together international contributions from a wide range of disciplines, such as Islamic and Religious Studies, Musicology, Anthropology, and Islamic Theology, this book focusses on the processes of negotiating an Alevi ‘Cultural Heritage’ between standardisation and plurality—processes in which Alevis and non-Alevis, politics and scholarship partake.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Preface
  • The Contributors
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • The Present Volume
  • Series Page
  • Introduction
  • Preliminary Remarks
  • The Language of Standardisation: Tropes, Terms and Figures of Speech
  • Glances on the CEM Dergisi: Standardisation as Necessity
  • Alevileriz.biz: In Search of “Authentic Alevism”
  • Ordering the Kalabalıklık: The Ambivalence of the List
  • ‘Alevi Sources’ between Oral Tradition and Scripture
  • Codifying Performance
  • Standardisation and Canonisation
  • Bibliography
  • Textual (Re-)sources of Alevi History
  • Literary Foundations of the Alevi Tradition
  • Introduction
  • A Theoretical Framework: Canon and Canonisation
  • Routinisation of Alevi Religiosity and the Question of Orthodoxy
  • Writing Religious Knowledge and the Question of Literary Mainstream
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Defining Alevism via Written Texts
  • Introduction
  • Alevi Written Sources: Possibilities, Constraints, Arguments
  • The Textual Material: From Manuscripts to ‘Classics’
  • Besmele Tefsiri (Şerh-i Besmele): Hünkâr Hacı Bektâş-ı Velî
  • Maḳâlât: Hünkâr Hacı Bektâş-ı Velî
  • Kitâb-ı Dâr: (Anonim)
  • Velâyetnâme: Hacı Bektâş-ı Veli
  • Erkânnâme
  • Dâstân-ı İbrâhîm Edhem, Dâstân-ı Fâtıma, Dâstân-ı Hâtun
  • Kitâb-ı Cabbâr Kulu
  • Hızırnâme. Alevȋ Bektaşȋ Âdab ve Erkânı (Buyruk), Seyyid Alizâde Hasan b. Müslim
  • İlm-i Câvidân: Vîrânî Baba
  • Dil-güşâ: Kaygusuz Abdal
  • Saray-nâme: Kaygusuz Abdal
  • Fütüvvetnâme-i Tarikat: Abdülganȋ Muhammed b. Alauddȋn el-Hüseyinȋ er-Radavȋ
  • Muhammed b. Hanefiyye Cengi: Anonim
  • Şeyh Safȋ Buyruğu. Kitâb-ı Menâkıb-ı Şerif Kutbu ’l-Ârifȋn Hazreti Şeyh Seyyid Safȋ—Rahmetullah Aleyh—(17. Yüzyıl)
  • Classification of the Texts
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Alevi Cultural Heritage and the Bektaşi Hagiographies
  • Introduction
  • Alevi-Bektaşi
  • The Bektaşi Hagiographies
  • Characters of the Hagiographies
  • The Folk among the Wonders
  • Features and Interactions
  • Shared Mythology
  • Bibliography
  • Text and Custom
  • Culture, Text and Identity amongst the Alevis
  • Introduction
  • Text and Hierarchy
  • The Village Cosmology and the Buyruk
  • Inversion
  • Ambiguity and Difference
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Musical Practice(s) as Performative Sources
  • Between Debate and Sources
  • Introduction
  • Conceptualising Alevi Music
  • Arriving at Terms for Alevi Music
  • Musical Performance in Alevi Cems
  • Sources of Söz, the Word
  • Sources on Saz, the Instrument/Music
  • Alevi Music as the Union of Saz and Söz
  • Discussion of Alevi Music from the Early Republic to the Present
  • Comparative Studies of Alevi Communities
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Tu Temburî Ez Perde Me
  • Introduction
  • Tertele
  • The Way of Truth
  • Music in Traditional Dersim Alevism
  • “Fountains without Water”
  • “The Dervish Wanders over his Country…”
  • Bibliography
  • (Beyond) Canonised Perspectives on Alevi History
  • Broadening and Homogenising the National Body
  • Introduction
  • Situating Köprülü
  • Modern Reconfigurations of the Term ‘Alevi’
  • The Term ‘Alevi’ in Köprülü’s Scholarship
  • Broadening and Homogenising the National Body
  • Bibliography
  • Outside the Circle?
  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Remarks: Text, ‘Source’ and Alevi History
  • A Text Turned Source
  • Transliteration
  • Translation
  • Alevis Petitioning the Sultan?
  • Population in the Circle of Equity
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • List of Figures

The Present Volume

This volume is the result of the international symposium (cf. above) which formed the conclusion and the climax of a short-term research project entitled “Negotiating Alevi Cultural Heritage” funded by the Field of Focus 3 of the Initiative of Excellency.

The research project focused on the construction, definition and proliferation of politically effective concepts of an “Alevi Cultural Heritage” in transnational perspective between Alevi communities in Turkey and their German counterparts. In the course of this research, which also took into consideration the political and social dimension of such a heritage, manifold questions regarding the interdependence of concepts such as “cultural heritage”, “hegemony”, “standardisation” and “canonisation” arose. These concepts increasingly appeared as underlying principles shaping both inner-Alevi discourse and debate and the way Alevi communities in Turkey and the diaspora communicate with the surrounding societies. The ways of speaking about Alevi history and its belonging to the nation-state are not only governed by nationalist imaginations and historically grown regimes of integration but are furthermore increasingly shaped by actors such as UNESCO and its specific linguistic register of “cultural heritage”, “diversity” and “vernacular minorities”. As such, negotiating common points of reference among heterogeneous Alevi communities as well as their belonging to the Turkish nation as “Anatolian Cultural Heritage” is heavily influenced by such powerful actors, the discourses of which intersect which specific arguments about what belongs and what does not belong to the “Alevi path”; which historical narratives, texts, practices, musemes or semiotics may serve representing both the heterogeneous Alevi communities and their—supposedly—Anatolian roots?

This sketch illustrates to what degree this field of research displays a variety of different analytical layers and aspects that render it simply impossible to treat in a comprehensive way. One practicable approach therefore seems to offer punctual, inductive spotlights on different aspects of these multi-layered, multi-vocal and poly-form processes. The present volume therefore does not claim to be a comprehensive overview or systematic and completed treatment of this field of study. It rather wants to stake out the preliminary horizons of future Alevi-related research that raises the question of the powerful interdependency of standardisation efforts and the modern and post-modern processes of Alevi Vergemeinschaftung in transnational space that simultaneously have to ←15 | 16→come to terms with the inherent heterogeneity and plurality of Alevism itself. Thus, the volume documents but some glimpses of the negotiation process of a shared ‘Alevi Cultural Heritage’ between various actors in the field, Alevi and non-Alevi, politics and scholarship. Bringing together very different epistemological approaches and disciplinary cultures, it is intended to illuminate the variety of arguments in favour and against certain common denominators of the greater Alevi community. Such an engagement with a shared repertoire of texts, sources, customs, etc. relating somehow to Alevi tradition(s) is by necessity conflictual and the various contributions gathered together here may differ severely in their approaches to common denominators of Alevilik. Yet, we argue, such an endeavour also takes the imperative in any study on Alevism seriously, be it contemporary or historical, to grasp the inescapable heterogeneity of the subject under consideration. The volume therefore also constitutes an attempt to give voice to these very different approaches to the topic and to their mutual non-congruence in argument—as an empirical fact of the plurality of Alevi-related discourse itself.

The editors have chosen to arrange the contributions to this volume—despite their limited number—in four thematic sections, each of which approaches a group of ‘sources’ or ‘resources’ of Alevi and Culture: While the texts, practices or musemes discussed in the different contributions may serve as ‘resources’ within standardisation and canonisation-processes and thus forming—among other elements—a kind of heterogeneous “Kanonfundus”, they may also serve as ‘sources’ for philological, historical or anthropological research, which, in turn, would approach theses sources with different hermeneutical and epistemological prerequisites. Thereby, in synopsis, the contributions render visible the contours of an ‘Alevi archive’: not only do they employ a specific set of terminology (language), like “heritage”, birlik, or “canon”, they also draw on a discernible repertoire (corpus) of texts, musemes, or practices. In aligning this corpus to Alevi traditions, they follow (and likewise produce and reproduce) discoursive rules of what may be perceived as an ‘Alevi heritage’. The sections are:

1)Textual (Re)sources of Alevi History

The section focusses on the different texts and textual genres that serve as the basis for discussing an Alevi ‘written Heritage’. It treats different analytical approaches to the topic and directs the attention to various forms and strategies of appropriation, standardisation and instrumentalisation of textual (mainly handwritten) sources that are conceived as being able to constitute an Alevi ‘canon’.

←16 |

2)Text and Custom

As opposed to the textual repertoire and their function within Alevi communities and identity politics, this section focuses on the relation of text and custom—a relation that is crucial to emphasise especially with regard to the oral and mimetic dimension of Alevi traditions.

3)Musical Practice(s) as Performative Sources

Musical performances not only constitute a central aspect of Alevi ritual practices, but are—by many Alevi authors—conceived to be one of the fundamental elements of Alevi identity within the bipolar framework of saz ve söz. Methodologically, they can also be understood as a conceptual link between textual and performative (re-)sources that have become the object of inner-Alevi standardisation and canonisation processes in recent years. In contrast to ritual practices which are impossibly exactly reproduced, music can be textually fixed by the help of notation systems. Music and its performance must therefore be counted among the scarce examples for performances that can be scriptually represented and thereby objectified.

4)(Beyond) Canonised Perspectives on Alevi History

In early historical research on Alevis, Ottoman sources have been studied that document the persecution of the Kızılbaş and the marginalisation of the Kızılbaş-Alevis by the Sunni Ottoman State. The contributions in this section counter such canonised historiographical patterns taking up genealogical and philological approaches on (late-) Ottoman and early republican sources—both narrative and archival. As such, they seek to overcome binary historiographic paradigms and thereby contribute to further develop a more sophisticated idea of the Kızılbaş-Alevis’ historical condition within the Ottoman realm and on Alevi history in general.

In the first contributions, Rıza Yıldırım and Doğan Kaplan articulate two different, potentially opposing arguments for the possibilities and constraints of representing Alevi traditions via historical texts. While Yıldırım emphasises the methodological problems of determining the “degree of Alevi affiliation of any literary product”, Kaplan presents the reader an overview of such a seemingly representative ‘canonisation project’, i.e. the publication of the series Alevî-Bektâşî Klasikleri by the Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı in which the author participated himself as editor.

Yıldırım identifies a number of obstacles preventing the effective emergence of an Alevi canon of religious texts. Among these obstacles, the author counts the relative unimportance of literacy within Alevi religious culture, the absence ←17 | 18→of centralised Alevi (theological) institutions as well as the non-existence of an ‘Alevi orthodoxy’ enabling the community to create “a full-fledged canon which would claim definitive authority over the faith and practice”. At the same time he discusses methodological questions and gives an overview on the cultural development of Alevi communities in Anatolia from the 15th through the 21st centuries.

On the contrary, Doğan Kaplan in his article strongly argues in favour of the possibility of an Alevi textual canon by applying a strictly agent-centred perspective in regard to the selection of texts representing Alevism. His contribution—consequently structured as a comprehensive overview on a specific collection and publication project—represents the above-mentioned inductive spotlights in the fullest sense of the word: By describing and enumerating both texts and actors forming part of the controversially discussed publication series Alevî-Bektâşî Klasikleri, Kaplan draws a vivid picture of the potentials and restrictions of such projects in Turkey. Thereby, he also points to the fact that the mere acts of collecting and listing must be understood as highly political, just as such acts are representative of the means and cultural techniques by which ‘Cultural Heritage’ is negotiated and gains political effectiveness.

What both contributions have in common—despite their fundamentally different perspectives and approaches—is that they both take the (handwritten) source and its role within Alevi communities as their starting point by simultaneously raising the question of how to define and measure the ‘Aleviness’ of such material. They both also bear witness of the fact that the question of the existence or non-existence of an Alevi textual heritage can hardly be addressed without taking into consideration the contested nature of such processes oscillating between emic and etic attributions, academic, political and hegemonic discourses as well as national and transnational debates.

Marc Soileau—by scrutinising different Bektaşi hagiographies (vilayetname)—attempts to shed light on the questions of how historical Alevis as “village-based folk” are represented within this textual genre and how such texts document and establish links between these ‘Alevis’ and Bektaşi saints. Basing his study on a philological and literary interpretation of hagiographic texts both proliferated and used within Alevi and Bektaşi contexts, Soileau argues that such textual traditions played a major role in the shaping of a shared Alevi-Bektaşi ‘mythological world’ serving also as the basis for many contemporary Alevi identity discourses. By understanding Alevism and Bektaşism as two distinct social patterns and by identifying Alevism with the “village-based hereditary folk model”, Soileau also widens the perspective from the ‘normative’ and elite-centred perspectives of Kaplan and Yıldırım, to the rural contexts.

←18 |

It is this rural context that offers the setting to David Shankland’s anthropological study on the relationship between text and custom within an Alevi village setting. Mainly based on his extensive field-work in an Anatolian village, Shankland describes the specific modes in which texts are used by Alevi villagers and their hierarchical relationship to custom. As a comparative background, the author refers to the social position of ‘text’ within Sunni contexts. For Shankland, the position of ‘text’ within Alevi rural communities is subordinated to their social hierarchies, and it is those textual aspects which support the spiritual role of the dede, who therefore serves as the physical as well as conceptual incarnation of the often-quoted Alevi dictum “okunacak en büyük kitap insandır”.

As Shankland positioned his reflections at the intersection of text and practices, the contributions by Ulaş Özdemir and Martin Greve leave behind the boundaries of textual material in the narrow sense of the word and direct their attention to standardisation and canonisation processes in the realm of musical performances as one example of the interdependence of standard and plurality beyond the written word. As Yıldırım and Kaplan did for textual sources, Ulaş Özdemir raises the question of how to define an ‘Alevi musical tradition’ beyond the constraints of essentialist approaches and perspectives. He thereby attempts to develop a methodological framework for further musicological inquiries in the field of Alevi studies.

While Özdemir mainly aims at conceptual questions, Martin Greve, in his contribution, focusses on a specific example taken from his extensive ethno-musicological fieldwork among Kurdish Alevis in Dersim/Tunceli. Taking the overall historical and social development of the region as background, Greve discusses the different forms of representing and performing ‘Alevi music’ in Dersim—a region where the majority of the population is Alevi. For this purpose, he focusses on the biography, education and careers of a number of Alevi musicians and attempts to characterise their musical activities and performances between ‘pan-Anatolian’ and ‘local’ traditions and practices. He thereby also raises the question in how far a standardising pressure is exercised on the Dersim context by the ongoing activities of national and transnational Alevi associations, and the Turkish state.

The last section is opened by Markus Dressler’s contribution. Dressler emphasises the impact that Turkish-nationalist scholars—most prominently Fuat Köprülü—had on the emergence and proliferation of the widespread notion that Alevism was a ‘heterodox-Islamic’ and ‘Turkish-syncretistic’ phenomenon. By historicising such narratives and by describing the various different semantic layers of the term ‘Alevi’ in Köprülü’s writing, he deconstructs seemingly stable collective identity concepts connected with and founded upon these ←19 | 20→terminologies. Thus, Dressler strongly argues for a non-essentialist approach to contemporary Alevism and its seemingly objective historical representations within texts, objects, and practices and thereby points at the epistemological canonisation governing the field of Alevi related (historical) research.

The contribution of Benjamin Weineck takes as its point of departure the multiple modern textual representations of inner-Alevi persecution narratives which up to today are mainly based on the inner-Alevi reception of Ottoman administrative documents. Such documents—mostly originating from contexts directly associated with the Ottoman central state and its main institutions—are oftentimes conceived by Alevi authors and researchers as a sort of contrafactum to what is understood as an ‘Alevi source’. In directing his attention to this ‘external’ documentation, Weineck raises the question of how such etic perspectives on Alevi history relate to general historiographic research based on Ottoman sources and what the field of Ottoman Studies can contribute to the writing of an ‘Alevi history’. He focuses on the possibilities and constraints of identifying the ancestors of contemporary Alevis in Ottoman administrative letters from the 18th century—a period which as yet remains poorly studied with regard to Alevi history. In doing so he draws on the combination of Ottomanist historiographical instruments, such as diplomatics and palaeography, and on the results of various different Alevi araştımracı yazar in order to come to terms with the exemplary case depicted by a single entry of the Kadi Court register No. 74 (1193/1779) from Divriği.

Biographical notes

Benjamin Weineck (Volume editor) Johannes Zimmermann (Volume editor)

Benjamin Weineck is Research Assistant in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Bayreuth. Johannes Zimmermann is Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near East at Heidelberg University.


Title: Alevism between Standardisation and Plurality