Monday, September 07, 2009

Those tolerant Bektashis!   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 03:11:00 PM

Slate has a "dispatch" from the peculiar nation of Albania. The second is titled Albania, the Muslim World's Most Pro-American State. I do think it would be an exaggeration to analogize this title to one which asserts "France, the Catholic World's most laicist state!" Albania is a bit more Muslim than France is Roman Catholic from the data I can see, but we're a long way from the time when France was the "Eldest Daughter of the Church." Times change, despite cultural baggage.

But I want to focus on some passages about the Bektashi sect which is based out of Albania:

This syncretism formed the perfect ground for the spread of Albania's second-most-popular faith, Bektashism, a secretive, heterodox Shiite sect with which roughly 40 percent of the country's Muslims identify (the rest are Sunni). The Bektashi are one of several Shiite sects known by Muslim heresiographers as Ghulat ("exaggerators"): those who have exceeded the proper bounds of religion by ascribing divinity to human beings (typically, to Ali, the first Shiite imam). Bektashism, like other Ghulat sects, contains many Christian-like elements: belief in a trinity (of God, Mohammed, and Ali), confessions, drinking wine, and a ceremonial supper resembling the Eucharist.

Bektashism and other Ghulat sects are shrouded in mystery in large part because their members have been persecuted as heretics. The Bektashis are most similar to the Alevis (also known as Kizilbash) of Turkey, where the Bektashis once had their headquarters. Some scholars have said Alevis and Bektashis are two names for one people; at the very least, they appear to share a common origin. Turkey's Alevis, sometimes called Alevi-Bektashis, are thought to number between 10 million and 20 million. They have no mosques, no muezzins, no ban on alcohol, no obligation of daily prayer, and no fasting during Ramadan. Several Western missionaries, as historian Matti Moosa has documented, have said that the Alevis are "a corrupt Christian sect" and that they accepted "Jesus Christ as the Son of God under the name of Ali" but could not profess this openly for fear of Sunni persecution.


As we sip a sweet peach tea, the dedebaba explains that tolerance of other religions is Bektashism's most important principle. "We all adore the same God," he says. "All the prophets, from Adam to Mohammed, were sent to spread his message." The dedebaba's faith, which contains a strong mystical strain, is often described as a Sufi order. But, he tells me, "though similar to Sufism, Bektashism cannot be considered a part of it."

He willingly discusses some aspects of his faith: "God, Mohammed, and Ali are a trinity-they are inseparable." He confirms the existence of others, like ritual meals and confessions, but he says no more: "Not everything in our religion can be said." Wiping his brow with a white handkerchief, he tells me he has undergone two heart surgeries in the United States. "In Detroit," he says, "we have a Bektashi tekke. When I go there, it is like a little Albania!"

There's a lot there. I've actually tried to do some digging into the background of some of the esoteric and obscure religious sects of the former Ottoman domains. Numbers, beliefs and practices are really hard to come by. There are two primary reasons. First, these groups have spent hundreds of years being persecuted by Sunni religious authorities, while in Albania they had to go through the gauntlet of Communism. Keeping a low profile has now become an essential part of their religious tradition. Secondarily, many of the sources are biased insofar as they are Sunni, and so wish to exaggerate how outlandish or deviant the beliefs and practices of these groups are. There is for example a peculiar convergence between some Sunnis and Christians in viewing these sects as Christianized, though the underlying reason for the depiction naturally differs.

The passage above was dense with obscurity, but if you know the words and background history you might be a bit surprised. For example, the Bektashis are often portrayed as syncretistic and peaceful Muslims, as opposed those intolerant Sunnis. But this is a sect which came to prominence in large part through its ties to the Janissary military order. Its suppression was incidental to the abolition of the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire. Secondarily, that strange word, "Kizilbash." That's a pointer to another distant, but very likely, connection which the Bektashis have: with the Safavid dynasty of Iran. The Safavids started out as a Turkish Kizilbash movement, out of the same religious milieu as the "syncretistic" and "tolerant" Bektashi or Alevi, who suffered under Sunni Ottoman oppression. But they ended up conquering Iran, and forcibly converting the Sunni population in that nation to Shi'ism.

If you didn't know these specific historical events, and the contingencies entailed, it might be a great deal more plausible that these heterodox Shia sects are somehow naturally more tolerant. But when you're an oppressed minority you see the virtue of tolerance firsthand. When the shoe is on the other foot this principle of the religion seems to fade.

Note: For me the most frustrating thing about groups like the Bektashis and Alevis is that the range of numbers you get is enormous. You can find data which suggests that 40% of Albanians are of Bektashi background, and data which asserts that only 1% of Albanians are Bektashi. In Turkey, where the Alevis face more social marginalization the numbers are even harder to come by (naturally mainstream sources give low numbers, while the Alevis give very high numbers).