The Alevi faith, principles, beliefs, rituals and practices (1995 - 2005) [TUR43515.E]

The Alevi Faith

Alevis venerate and attribute divinity to Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (Contemporary Religions 1992, 81; Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004; Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005; The Economist 19 Mar. 2005, 10). For this reason, Alevis have often been classified as Shi'ite Muslims (ibid.; Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005; Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004; Contemporary Religions 1992, 81). However, Alevis "maintain that their religion is separate from Islam, and that it is a purely Anatolian faith based on Shaman and Zoroastrian beliefs going back 6,000 years" (The Economist 19 Mar. 2005, 10-11). Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004 reported that

... Alevis follow a belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi'a and Sunni Islam and draws on the traditions of other religions found in Anatolia as well. Alevis in Central Anatolia base their beliefs on 12er Shi'ism. Alevi Kurds in the Tunceli area follow the Kurdish "Cult of Angels," or Yarsanism (28 Feb. 2005, Sec. 2.c.; see also International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004).

In October 2004, the Istanbul-based, centre-right, daily newspaper Hurriyet cited Ali Dogan, the General Chairman of the United Federation of Alevi-Bektasi Oragnizations, who described the Alevi faith in the following manner:

... Alevism is neither a religion nor a sect ... [T]he only point (Alevism) shares with Islam is that it incorporates "the trinity of God, Mohammed, and Ali." ... Alevism [is] "a unique philosophy, a faith, a way of life, a culture, a teaching, and indeed a social formula peculiar to Anatolia that is anthropocentric and that goes beyond all these." ...
"Alevism took shape long before Islam with influences from Central Asian faiths such as Shamanism, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeanism. Later, after the emergence of monotheistic religions, it was influenced by Judaism and Christianity. Finally it was most strongly influenced by Islam and adopted by the trinity of God, Mohammed, and Ali as its guide" (1 Oct. 2004).

According to an article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Alevism "presents a culture, philosophy and version of Islam that is perfectly compatible with, and in some respects even exemplary of, the ideals of Western democratic societies" (1 Sept. 2004). The journal article added that Alevis possess a "democratic, laicist and egalitarian outlook" (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004).

The Independent, a UK-based newspaper, reported the following information on the Alevi faith:

Alevis do not face Mecca when praying, are egalitarian in outlook, [and] have traditionally supported left or non-establishment parties...
They have often been very critical of hard-line Islamist parties, while at the same time they are proud to identify themselves as Muslims (The Independent 2 Aug. 2002).

Similarly, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported that Alevis have "traditionally ... voted for the left, and have provided the country with some of its best-known and most radical secularists" (1 Mar. 2005). Agence France-Presse (AFP) also described Alevism as "friendly to secularism" (15 Dec. 2004).

Published in 1997, the World Directory of Minorities explained that Alevis generally belong to one of two groups: those of Qizilbash or those of Bektashi origin (1997, 379). According to this source, these two groups subscribe to "virtually the same system of beliefs but [are] separately organized" (World Directory of Minorities 1997, 379). In addition,

[t]he Alevis (Qizilbash) are traditionally predominantly rural and acquire identity by parentage. Bektashis, however, are predominantly urban, and formally claim that membership is open to any Muslim. Alevi and Bektashi beliefs are presumed to have their origins in Central Asian Turkoman culture. However, they are likely to have absorbed Christian beliefs ... and Iranian pre-Islamic ideas (ibid.).

Though the exact number is unknown, estimates indicate that Alevis comprise approximately one-fifth of Turkey's total population (The Economist 19 Mar. 2005, 11), or somewhere between 5 and 12 million (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005; Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004; International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II).

In his book entitled Islam and Society in Turkey, David Shankland states that

[Turkish Alevis] are extremely diverse: Their costumes, nomenclature, dances, prayers, rites and even annual ritual calendar often differ substantially among groups and locations. They have no church, no codified doctrine, no accepted clergy and no school to teach Alevi customs (Middle Eastern Studies 31 Oct. 2000)

The Alevi houses of worship are called cemevis (The Economist 19 Mar. 2005, 11; Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005), often referred to as Cem houses (International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II), though Alevi followers living in cities tend to practise their faith in private (The Economist 19 Mar. 2005, 11). According to the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, "[i]t is common Alevi usage to greet other Alevis as canlar," or red soul (1 Sept. 2004).

Differences Between Alevis and Alawis (Nusayris)

In 1996, an article in the Middle East Report explained that the term 'Alevi' is

... a blanket term for a large number of heterodox communities whose beliefs and practices differ significantly. In the eastern province of Kars, there are communities speaking Azerbaijani Turkish and whose Alevism closely resembles orthodox Twelver Shi'ism of modern Iran. The Arabic speaking Alevi communities of southern Turkey (especially Hatay and Adana) are ethnically part of Syria's 'Alawi (Nusrayi) community and have no historical ties with the other Alevi groups. The large Alevi groups are the Turkish and Kurdish speakers; both appear to be descendants of rebellious tribal groups that were religiously affiliated with the Safavids (July-Sept. 1996, 7).

According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, "[t]he name Alawi (Turk., Alevi) is frequently ... applied to other extremist Shi'i communities in Anatolia" (1987, 245). An Introduction to Shi'i Islam indicated that "the Arabic-speaking Alawi (Nusayri) community centred on the Mediterranean coast between Antakya and Mersin" is one of four main Shi'ite groups in Turkey (1985, 269). However, according to Contemporary Religions, Turkey's Alevis "are sometimes confused with the 'Alawis, some of whom are also found in Turkey, but the distinction remains clear if the latter are referred to by their other name, Nusayris" (1992, 81).

Differences Between the Sunni Faith and Alevism

Over the past several years, various news articles have reported that Alevis take a more relaxed or moderate approach to religion and the interpretation of Islam than do Sunnis (BBC 19 Nov. 2004; AFP 15 Dec. 2004). Specifically, the BBC outlined that:

[t]he man they worship, Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, was slain in a mosque, so they don't pray in them. Alcohol is not prohibited, and Alawite women don't cover their heads.
In fact, Alawite women seem to lead a much more prominent place in Tunceli society than anywhere else in the east; they sit in cafes together or with other men, walk around dressed in smart business suits and generally behave in a, well, Western manner. It is a world away from the separate tables of the city of Konya (19 Nov. 2004; see also The Independent 2 Aug. 2002, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005 and Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004).

The Sunni faith also differs from Alevism in the following ways: (1) Alevis fast during the Ten Days of Muharram and not during Ramadan (World Directories of Minorities 1997, 380); (2) Alevis do not prostrate themselves during prayer (ibid.); (3) Alevis do not go to mosques, but use cemevleri that are also used as socio-cultural centres (ibid.; CEU 15 Apr. 2002, 92; Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005; International Religious Freedom Report 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. II); (4) Alevis "do not have obligatory formal almsgiving, although they have a strong principle of mutual assistance" (World Directory of Minorities 1997, 380); (5) Alevis "tend not to attribute great importance to theology/a fixed creed or performance of religious rites" (UK Apr. 2003, Sec. 6.148); (6) Alevis do not pray five times a day (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005); (7) Alevism allows the consumption of pork and alcohol (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1 Sept. 2004); and (8) Alevism allows men and women to pray together (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 1 Mar. 2005; International Religious Freedom Report for 2004 15 Sept. 2004, Sec. I), for it is "friendly ... to gender equality" (AFP 15 Dec. 2004).

The Relationship Between Sunnis and Alevis

The relationship between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey is occasionally "tense" and "polarized" (CEU 15 Apr. 2002). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in February 2002 that Alevis have "difficult relations" with the state and with Sunni Islam (28 Feb. 2002). However, in the updated November 2002 edition of the report prepared by researchers who conducted a fact-finding mission in October 2000 to Turkey, David McDowall observed that

Strict Sunnis see the Alevi religion as deviant and have ascribed to it all sorts of fictitious immoral practices. With the greatly increased drift of Alevis to towns and cities during the last 25 years or so, a growing number of ordinary Sunni citizens have got to know Alevis at a personal level and their prejudices have often dissipated. ...
Yet there is still an institutional and political (as well as social) Sunni bias against Alevis in urban areas, and this is expressed both by ordinary citizens and also by the police. ...
... Alevi children can be at risk of torture in police detention (Nov. 2002, 58).

The article that was posted on the Kurdish Study Group at Deakin University, Australia, also provided details on the relationship between the Alevi and Sunni populations in Turkey:

The beliefs and practices of the Alevis are often the cause of friction with Anatolian Sunnis. Ziya Gökalp stated that 'The so called Kizilbash were regarded as the most heretical group of the heterodox Alevis'. Some Sunni Muslims still accuse the Alevis of engaging in wild sex orgies, involving incest, pederasty and other scandalous practices, citing the Alevis' secrecy as evidence that the latter have something to hide. A section of Sunnis in Turkey have a long history of despising and at times even persecuting Aleviism. The term 'Kizilbash' (red heads), once simply a reference to the red bonnets of the first Alevis, is now often a term of abuse in Turkey. The Alevis' secrecy is quite innocently explained, therefore, as necessary to prevent the Sunnis from discovering that an Alevi religious ceremony is underway, lest the Sunnis disrupt it (White n.d.). [Footnotes omitted].

For additional information on the Alevi faith, principles, beliefs, rituals and practices, please refer to the information contained in the attached excerpts.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Agence France Presse (AFP). 15 December 2004. Sibel Utku Bila. "Turks Grapple with Minority Taboo as EU Imposes Change." (Dialog)

An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism. 1985. Moojan Momen. New Haven: Yale University Press.

BBC. 19 November 2004. Jonny Dymond. "Turkish Journey: A Town Called Trouble." [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]

Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. 1992. Edited by Ian Harris et al. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. 28 February 2005. "Turkey." United States Department of State. Washington, DC. [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]

Council of the European Union (CEU). 15 April 2002. The Netherlands Delegation. Official General Report on Turkey (January 2002). [Accessed 23 Oct. 2003]

The Economist. 19 March 2005. Tim Hindle. "Looking to Europe: A Survey of Turkey." London, UK: The Economist Group.

The Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987. Vol. 1. Edited by Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Hurriyet [Istanbul, in Turkish]. 1 October 2004. Umut Erdem. "Turkish Alevi Leader Says Alevism is Not Islamic." (FBIS-WEU-2004-1001 6 Oct. 2004/WNC)

The Independent [UK]. 2 August 2002. Maureen Freely. "Turkey Wants to Be a Modern European Nation." [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]

International Religious Freedom Report 2004. 15 September 2004. "Turkey." United States Department of State. Washington, DC. [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]

Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 1 September 2004. Vol. 30, No. 5. Kira Kosnick. "Speaking in One's Own Voice: Representational Strategies of Alevi Turkish Migrants on Open-Access Television in Berlin." (Dialog)

McDowall, David. November 2002. Asylum Seekers from Turkey II. A Revised, Updated Edition of the Report of a Mission to Turkey, October 2000. [Accessed 23 Oct. 2003]

Middle Eastern Studies [London]. 31 October 2000. Vol. 36, No. 4. "Islam and Society in Turkey." (Dialog)

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). 28 February 2002. Jean-Christophe Peuch. "Turkey: Court Ruling Shows Authorities' Refusal to See Alevism As a Religious Community." [Accessed 23 Oct. 2003]

United Kingdom (UK). April 2003. Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). Turkey. [Accessed 23 Oct. 2003]

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. 1 March 2005. Vol. 24. Jon Gorvett. "Following December's EU Summit: Turkey Forced to Reassess Issue of 'Minorities'." (Dialog)

Paul White. n.d. "Ethnic Differentiation Among the Kurds: Kurmanci, Kizilbash and Zaza." [Internet] [Accessed 12 Apr. 1999]

World Directory of Minorities. 1997. Edited by Minority Rights Group (MRG). "Turkey: Religious Communities." Minority Rights Group Interational: London.


Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. 1992. Edited by Ian Harris et al. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK, pp.81-82.

The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). 2004. The European Union, Turkey and Islam. [Accessed 5 Apr. 2005], pp. 123-132.

Shankland, David. 2003. The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. London: Routledge Curzon, pp. 94-132.

Additional Sources Consulted

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World

Internet sites, including: Al Bawaba, Amnesty International (AI), European Country of Origin Information Network (ECOI), Freedom in the World 2004, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF-HR), Jane's (Online), Mid East Web Gate Way, Middle East Times (Online), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL),, World News Connection (WNC), Zaman.