Transmission Processes of Religious Knowledge and Ritual Practice in Alevism between Innovation and Reconstruction

by Johannes Zimmermann (Volume editor) Janina Karolewski (Volume editor) Robert Langer (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 290 Pages


This volume examines transmission processes of Alevi religious knowledge and ritual practice in the last decades. It assembles contributions by researchers from Germany, Great Britain, and Turkey. They focus on the question how religious knowledge and ritual practice are constantly (re-)negotiated and (re-)distributed in Alevism and, as a comparison, in Yezidism. These processes are discussed in regard to the conditions of social and cultural change, transnational migration, and globalised communication. In doing so, the contributions to this volume follow different approaches and discuss fundamental methodological issues.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Ritual as a Microcosm of Society: The ʿAyn‑i Cem of the Kızılbaş-Alevis (Rıza Yıldırım)
  • Location(s) of Memory and Commemoration in Alevi Culture: Incorporation and Storage (Béatrice Hendrich)
  • Discovering Alevi Rituals by Analysing Manuscripts: Buyruk Texts and Individual Notebooks (Janina Karolewski)
  • Orality and Scripturality: A Historical Ethnographic Account of Religious Ritual Practice in an Alevi Village (Robert Langer / Hasan Gazi Öğütcü)
  • Between ‘Authenticity’ and ‘Reliability’: The Negotiation of Religious and Ritual Knowledge in an Alevi Online Discussion Forum (Johannes Zimmermann)
  • The Role of Female Minstrels in the Transmission of Alevi Ritual Knowledge: Two Female Âşıks from Kısas-Urfa, Turkey (Hande Birkalan-Gedik)
  • Orality, Literacy and Textual Authority amongst the Yezidis (Christine Allison)
  • Rekonstruktion des Alevitentums im transnationalen Raum zwischen ethnischen und sprachlichen Grenzen: Das Beispiel Varto (Erdoğan Gedik)
  • Seris Index


This volume contains contributions presented at the symposium “Reception Processes of Alevi Ritual Practice Between Innovation and Reconstruction”. The conference was organised by the Collaborative Research Center 619 “Dynamics of Ritual” and its subproject “Ritual Transfer Among Marginalized Religious Groups in Islamic Societies of the Near East and in the Diaspora” (Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near East, Chair for Islamic Studies / Ottoman Studies at Heidelberg University). It was held at the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg (IWH) on October 30–31, 2007.

During its second research period (2005–2009), the project focussed on questions of ‘innovation’ and ‘reconstruction’ of Alevi ritual practice and tradition that are of prime importance for the understanding of the dynamics of ritual. The main emphasis of this conference rested on the reception processes of Alevi ritual practice and their changes. These are dependent upon the general transformations that the Alevi communities have undergone—not only in Turkey but also in the diaspora and on a transnational level—during the 20th century. In the course of these processes of migration and urbanisation, the structure of the community, its religious institutions, the organisation of religious specialists and connected transmission processes have often changed considerably. This is illustrated through the modification of ritual structures—such as the transition from one configuration of ritual to another (e.g. from görgü cemi to öğreti cemi)—or by developments such as the decline in importance of religious specialists (e.g. dedes nowadays often being employees in cultural associations). Simultaneously, the ritual itself may be a stimulus for the participants to reflect upon community structures, their personal and their collective history and, let us not forget, their own sense of self. Such considerations lead us to reflect upon concepts such as ‘ritual reflexivity’ and ‘recursivity’ that have to be taken into account when examining changes and modifications in the way that ritual practice and ritual knowledge is transmitted.

The contributions to this volume attempt to shed light on these hitherto often neglected interdependencies, and to analyse the ways in which the mechanisms and instruments for the transmission of Alevi ritual knowledge and practice have changed and adapted to altering and modifying contexts and realities.

In the first contribution, Rıza Yıldırım attempts to analyse the cem ritual in the context of pre-modern Kızılbaş society and to scrutinize its central role in shaping the religious understanding, perception and practice of community members.←7 | 8→ Yıldırım emphasises that the cem ritual can be understood as a microcosmical representation of Kızılbaş society with strong ties to the everyday life of these communities. Its historical development, he states, has to be investigated by contextualising it within its specific societal, spatial and cultural settings. The permanent presence of ritual aspects in daily routines serves to maintain tradition and practice. He points to the central role of the cem in governing the societal and judicial orientation of Kızılbaş community structure, its function in both binding the members of the community together as well as separating them from ‘the other’, i.e. neighbouring Sunni communities, and hence its role for reproducing a ‘compact community’, which severely reduces individuality while augmenting communality.

As his principal sources, he makes wide use of buyruk texts that he understands, however, not simply as historical sources for the development of the cem ritual and its socio-religious context, but to which he attributes a status and evolution of their own. This status, the author argues, materialised simultaneously with the evolution of the cem. By scrutinising these processes, Yıldırım characterises this evolution as a mutual interaction between text and ritual. Moreover, he critically assesses the available sources and offers a general discussion of buyruk manuscripts from the early 17th to 19th centuries.

While Yıldırım focusses mainly on Alevi scriptural traditions, Béatrice Hendrich in her contribution applies a broader concept of cultural storage devices for ritual knowledge and practice. She delivers an important insight into the process of the materialisation of Alevi culture by identifying location(s) of collective memory and commemoration in Alevi culture. Her main emphasis rests on the paradigmatic change concerning the storage devices for religious knowledge in recent Alevi culture. This shift is not restricted to a move from orality towards literacy but also includes the relegation of the traditional technique of embodying cultural memory in the chain of pirs and dedes. These are increasingly replaced by physical, mostly architectural archives such as commemorational statues and ‘cultural centres’, cem evis, museums or other modern spatial structures. The use of literacy and the construction of an explicitly Alevi (‘sacred’) architecture are not entirely new to Alevi culture, but draw on the Bektaşi tradition of tekkes, which form the historical basis for contemporary Alevi communities. Still, Hendrich argues, the main impetus for this paradigmatic change lies in the modifications of the present socio-cultural context.

Janina Karolewski and Robert Langer / Hasan Gazi Öğütcü, by combining philological and ethno-historical methods, both concentrate on the ways of storage, transmission and reception of ritual knowledge and practice within←8 | 9→ the defined setting of one Central Anatolian village community, and historical developments therein.

Robert Langer’s and Hasan Gazi Öğütcü’s contribution—centered around methodological questions and giving a comprehensive overview of the project’s approaches and research architecture—focusses on the ruptures and continuities in the village’s ritual tradition, making use of data collected in the course of interviews with the village population. Langer and Öğütcü point out that to assume that such individual and collective accounts of the villagers contain accurate descriptions of former ritual practice is misleading. Of course, such data can be used to identify key historical dates or to outline general historical developments; for example the abandoning of the talip görme (nowadays often referrred to as görgü), which was performed in the village in question for the last time, according to the informants, in the late 1960s. In fact, these data can also be used to identify recent modes of reception of mediatised forms of Alevi ritual—i.e. filmed performances edited to be broadcasted or stored in online Social Media—and their repercussions on recent village practice, which has none the less continued to a certain degree from the 1960s until today, as well as its revitalisation on individual, communal and collective levels.

Janina Karolewski, making use of the above mentioned oral history data and methods in order to contextualise her material, presents a hitherto neglected, even almost unknown type of written source concerning Alevi ritual: handwritten notebooks, her examples dating from the late 1920s and 50s. These notebooks, preserved in Alevi families, contain not only hymns and prayers, but also prescriptions for ritual practice. The composition of such notebooks is interpreted by the author as an attempt of both dedes and talips to preserve their ritual knowledge—up until that time predominantly transmitted by oral and mimetic means—when faced with the disruption of the Alevi tradition. Furthermore, she examines in how far personal notebooks and guidebooks differ from buyruk manuscripts and texts on rituals contained in buyruks.

Johannes Zimmermann, in his contribution, focuses on the Alevi online discussion forum www.alevileriz.biz as an example of new forms of transmission of religious knowledge and ritual practice in the New Media. Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, he shows that—especially for the younger generation of Alevis in the diaspora—such media play a vital role when it comes to acquiring knowledge not only about Alevism in general, but also about its rituals specifically. In the virtual sphere of cyberspace, authority and definitional power are—at least partly—negotiated and redistributed independently from the communal power structures of the offline world. The author shows how users of the online board←9 | 10→ acquire definitionsmacht by making efficient use of the features that the internet provides for the creation, invention and representation of online identities. Hereby, he demonstrates the ways in which New Media emerge as a new sphere for the transmission of religious knowledge and its storage. In doing so, these media challenge not only the role of the dedes, the ‘traditional’ transmitters of religious knowledge, but also that of their ‘modern’ successors, the Alevi associations in Turkey and Europe.

Hande Birkalan-Gedik, in her article, turns to a very special group of transmitters of religious and ritual knowledge in Alevism: female aşıks. By considering the relationship between (literary) genre, gender and nationalism, she establishes an analytical framework that helps us to understand the emergence and continuity of the female aşıks. She also considers the political contexts of their poetry with particular emphasis on concepts such as Alevism (Alevilik) and nationalism. Touching upon the impact of nationalism on folklore, Birkalan-Gedik analyses the ways in which Alevi women have been conceptualised and represented in the gendered discourses of their community. She familiarises the reader with the biography and work of two female aşıks from the Bektaşi-Alevi village of Kısas (Urfa): Hürü Aşan and Emine Uğur, both of whom define themselves as performers of aşık literature. By considering the effects of the concept of Alevilik not only within a cultural, but also within a religious context, she points out continuities and contingencies in the process of the transmission of religious and especially ritual tradition and knowledge.

It is the consideration of the influence different social and religious contexts can exert that links the contribution of Christine Allison with Hande Birkalan-Gedik’s analysis. Equally, her focus on the scripturalisation of Yezidi tradition builds a bridge to Janina Karolewski’s discussion of 20th century manuscripts and notebooks from Alevi families. In the last decades, a development from orality to literacy has taken place within Yezidi communities not dissimilar to processes of scripturalisation among the Alevis of Turkey. By applying a differentiated understanding of ‘orality’ and ‘literacy’, she discusses the impact of phenomena such as mass alphabetisation, urbanisation and intellectualisation on Yezidi communities in two different historical and geographical settings. The first of these is Iraq, where provenance-based forms of authority have only recently been replaced by textual forms of authority, and where the relatively short period of literacy in combination with the specific settlement patterns of Yezidis has led to an especially strong relationship between text and ritual, and therefore to a considerable reduction of the number of competing ‘Yezidisms’. Here, she points to the impact these shifts have had on the senior hierarchy of Sheikhan concern←10 | 11→ing their control over Yezidi practice on a trans-local level. On the other hand, in her second case study, Allison focuses on the former Soviet Union, where the beginnings of mass literacy date back to the 1920s and 30s. Here, Yezidis have therefore long been acquainted with written identity discourses, even though this has only been possible within official Soviet ethnography and folklore (studies). For this reason, Yezidis in Caucasia have been able to integrate their specific ‘Yezidicity’ into urban life.

Erdoğan Gedik’s German language case study on the Alevi community of Varto draws on the vast body of material collected during his fieldwork in Varto and its surroundings. The author explores the question of how ethno-linguistic, religious and national identities change in heterogeneous settings such as Varto. There, according to the author, this setting is created by the cohabitation of Turkish, Kurdish and Zaza groups and their respective languages and idioms that undergo constant processes of exchange. In the course of his argument, Gedik puts special emphasis on religious practice. He shows how different ritual traditions, in combination with linguistic and cultural contact settings lead to the emergence of new hybrid forms of religious practices. These are illustrated not only by the case of congregational rituals, but also by analysing modifications in the way the tombs of local saints are visited and venerated; a practice the author considers a constitutive element of local Alevi identity and practice. Additionally, Gedik points to the fact that the increasing activity of Turkish and European scholars and researchers within such communities also has an impact on their development and the change of their ritual practices.

This volume is characterized by a great variety of methodological perspectives on a wide range of transmission and reception processes in Alevism and beyond. It covers an equally wide spectrum of specific aspects and features of historic and contemporary Alevi ritual practice. In doing so, and by showing how these processes have triggered and influenced changes in the structure and self-understanding of the group nowadays termed as ‘Alevi’, the contributions of this volume shed light on the processes that have led to the emergence of modern ‘Alevism’ and have formed its fundamental cultural resources. Of course, this volume cannot offer a comprehensive or conclusive treatment of these complex and multi-layered problems. It is, in the best sense, to be understood as a preliminary synopsis of promising approaches to an aspect of Alevi research that is both essential and yet to be fully developed.

Research questions such as that of ‘innovation’ versus ‘reconstruction’ of Alevi ritual, as well as the discussion about ‘traditional transmission’ versus ‘external influences’ that represent the main focus of many of the contributions to this←11 | 12→ volume, also figure prominently in inner-Alevi discourses and debates. It is one of the aims of this volume to make these discourses more accessible to researchers from various fields of study. Thus, it aims to encourage trans-disciplinary approaches to the study of religious traditions undergoing processes of adaption to new contexts—for which Alevism provides an excellent example. As the research of the Heidelberg-based project, that was active from 2002 to 2013, has shown and as the conference and its vivid methodological discussions have further underlined, the topic of ‘Alevi ritual history’ and its multidimensional contexts, settings and dynamics can only be accessed adequately when expertise from different fields of research are brought together and combined.

Special thanks must be attributed to Dr Frank Neubert, who on behalf of the Collaborative Research Center 619 “Ritual Dynamics” introduced the participants to specific methodological approaches developed in Heidelberg by presenting examples from his own research on the “International Society for Krishna Consciousness”.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to include in this volume all of the presentations given during the conference. The contributions by Dr Hege Irene Markussen (Lund) on “Ritual Criticism and the Alevi Cem” as well as by Dr Ayfer Karakaya-Stump (Williamsburg VA) have been published elsewhere1.

The printing of this volume has been made possible by the generous funding offered by the Collaborative Research Center 619 “Ritual Dynamics” and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The head office of the Collaborative Research Center—and especially Dr Brigitte Merz—has contributed administrative and organizational resources and skills before, during and in the aftermath of the conference.

The editors are grateful to Mrs İrem Wedekind (M.A.) who has partly undertaken the task of copy editing this volume with great care, diligence and commitment. Most of the English articles were revised by Dr Caroline Tee who—in this process— offered not only her linguistic skills but also scientific expertise from her own research on Alevism in Turkey. The contribution by Janina Karolewski was revised by Carl Carter. The editors would also like to thank Eva Henrich (M.A.) and Patrica Roth (Heidelberg) who deployed their linguistic skills in←12 | 13→ undertaking some last proofreading tasks. The editors are also indebted to Dr Ellen Peerenboom, executive manager of the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg, and her team, who offered the external participants of the conference their hospitality and ensured, by their efficient organisation, its smooth and successful realisation. Mr Hasan Gazi Öğütcü and Prof Dr M. Fuat Bozkurt attended the symposium on behalf of the Alevi community and contributed an Alevi perspective on the research topics presented as well as valuable first hand observations and information.

Due to the imponderabilities academic life these days gives rise to, the final editing and publication of this volume was delayed several times. We thank all contributors for their patience and faith in our project.

The editors←13 | 14→ ←14 | 15→

1 Hege Irene Markussen, “Ritual Criticism and the Alevi Cem Ritual”, Axel Michaels (ed.), Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual, vol. 4: Reflexivity, Media and Visuality, Udo Simon (ed.), Section 1: Reflexivity and Discourse on Ritual, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011, 147–62; and Ayfer Karakaya Stump, “Documents and Buyruk Manuscripts in the Private Archives of Alevi Dede Families: An Overview”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 37 (2010), 273–86.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Yezidism Knowledge transmission Scripturalisation Islam Religious history Mythology
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 290 p., 14 b/w. ill., 4 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Johannes Zimmermann (Volume editor) Janina Karolewski (Volume editor) Robert Langer (Volume editor)

Johannes Zimmermann is assistant professor at the chair of Islamic Studies (Ottoman Studies) at Heidelberg University. Janina Karolewski is research associate at the Collaborative Research Centre SFB 950 «Manuscript Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe» at the University of Hamburg. Robert Langer is head of the junior research group «Contemporary Islamic Cultures» at the University of Bayreuth (Religious Studies) and associate professor for Islamic Studies at Heidelberg University.


Title: Transmission Processes of Religious Knowledge and Ritual Practice in Alevism between Innovation and Reconstruction