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Bektāshīyah

By:
Frances Trix
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Bektāshīyah

The Bektāshīyah is a Ṣūfī order that became widespread in the Ottoman Empire and today has communities in Turkey, in Albanian regions of the Balkans, and in North America among Albanian immigrants. Bektāshīyah is the Arabic form of its name, while in Turkish it is Bektaşi. The Bektaşi order traces its origin to central Anatolia in the thirteenth century. It takes its name from Haji Bektash Veli, a religious leader from Khurasan in northeast Iran, who, according to tradition, was sent by the famous Ṣūfī of western Turkistan, Ahmed Yesevi, to Anatolia where he settled in a village near the present city of Kirşehir. The organization of the Bektaşi order, however, is credited to a later personage, Balım Sultan, known as the “second pir” (patron saint) of the order, who became head of the Bektaşis in 1501. Balım Sultan was born of Bulgarian parentage (in part) near the city of Edirne, now in European Turkey. In addition to centralizing authority at the Bektaşi headquarters in Anatolia, Balım Sultan instituted the branch of the order that is celibate; it has continued to coexist with the branch that allows marriage.

Bektaşi Beliefs.

Central to Bektaşi teachings is the importance of the spiritual teacher or mürşit (Ar., murshīd); one cannot progress in spiritual growth without a spiritual teacher, who mediates prayer and blessings. Unlike mainstream Muslims, Bektaşis believe in intercession. This intercession can be through earlier spiritual teachers, including the two pirs of the order, the saints, the twelve imams, and ʿAlī, whom the Bektaşis, as well as many other Ṣūfī orders, view as the one who revealed the mystical understanding of the Qurʿān. Thus the Bektaşis are ʿAlid in orientation, professing strong love and loyalty to Ehli Beyt, the “household of the Prophet.”

The Bektaşis have been called Shīʿīs but theologically they differ from many Shīʿīs in their emphasis on the mystic path, as well as in their understanding of Muḥammad and ʿAlī. They refer to “Muḥammad ʿAlī” as a single personage; thus they raise the status of ʿAlī and emphasize the complementarity and unity of the word of God and its mystical dimension. Practices that reflect the ʿAlid orientation of the Bektaşis are their two main annual holidays: Aşure (Ar., ʿĀshūrāʿ), which commemorates the martyrdom of ʿAlīʿs son Ḥusayn; and Nevruz (Ar., Nawrūz), which is celebrated at the spring equinox and is considered the birthday of ʿAlī.

Other practices that are distinctively Bektaşi include their initiation rites. These rites are private, reserved for other initiated members, and include the ceremonial use of candles, sheepskins, and sweet drink. What is striking about these rites, in the context of Islamic society, is the presence of unveiled women. Bektaşis have always accepted women as initiated members, thereby sanctioning their participation in these ceremonies.

Another Bektaşi practice is their communal praise of God (dhikr), which involves the alternation of the chanting of spiritual poetry (nefes) with the formalized sharing of food and drink. Much of the teaching of the order is in these spiritual poems. Also distinctive is their disregard for certain basic practices of Islam; for example, Bektaşis pray twice daily rather than five times a day. Finally, during the ten-day period before Aşure, Bektaşis engage in a special fast and each evening read aloud from the sixteenth-century Turkish poet Fuzulîʿs account of the suffering of the prophets and martyrs.

Throughout their history the Bektaşis have been criticized by Sunnīs and Sunnī Muslim authorities for a range of offenses, from laxness in following standard Muslim practices and immorality in including women in their private rites, to heresy in elevating ʿAlī to the level of the Prophet Muḥammad or above him, and in comparing both to God. These last allegations of heresy reflect the lack of acceptance of mystical teachings found among many Sunnīs.

Bektaşi History.

Despite these criticisms, the Bektaşi order flourished in the Ottoman Empire among townspeople, in contrast to the Mevlevî order (Ar., Mawlawīyah) that drew more urban intellectuals; in frontier regions in the Balkans; and among the Janissaries, the elite troops of the empire. Estimates of the number of Bektaşis in 1900 range from one to seven million. Careful sources estimate that 10 percent of the population of present-day Turkey and 15 percent of the population of Albania were directly or indirectly influenced by the order at the turn of the twentieth century. The popularity of the Bektaşi order may be partly explained in the way that it embodied and also shaped popular Turkish piety; it was syncretistic in its inclusion of pre-Islamic pagan and Christian elements and thus appealed to populations that were formerly Christian. Certainly it provided a broader range of religious expression than that found in mosques; socially, it added communal networks of interaction at a local level and across the empire.

In addition to its religious and social roles in more settled communities, the Bektaşi order sent missionaries of Islam to travel with Ottoman forces into the Balkans. The mobility and simplicity of Bektaşi organization, its relaxed attitude toward the letter of Muslim law, and its tolerance of non-Muslims were all well suited to facilitating the gradual conversion of people in these regions.

The Bektaşis also had a longstanding special relationship with the Janissaries, many of whom had been born of Christian parents. Scholars have debated the onset of this relationship, but it was in place at least by the end of the fifteenth century (the Janissaries were founded in the fourteenth). The Bektaşis officially blessed the troops, provided an ideology of bonding among them, and traveled with them as chaplains. This relationship was also a source of political power for the Bektaşis within the empire.

The connection of the Bektaşis with the Janissaries was such that in 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II abolished the Janissaries as part of his campaign to modernize the military, the Bektaşis were also targeted. Bektaşi tekkes, or centers, were destroyed; some Bektaşi leaders were executed, some were exiled, and some refigured themselves as Nakşibendis (Ar., Naqshbandīyah) to ride out the persecution. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, the Bektaşis had regained their tekkes and were publishing numerous books. Politically, many Bektaşis of this period were progressive and included members of the Young Turks as well as Albanian patriots. Nonetheless, the Bektaşis again suffered the closing of their tekkes when in 1925 Atatürk abolished all Ṣūfī orders in the Republic of Turkey. In response, the Bektaşis moved their headquarters from Anatolia to Albania.

With the Communist takeover of Albania in 1944 the Bektaşis again began to suffer restrictions. In 1945 all property of religious institutions in Albania was confiscated, and in 1947 an attempt was made to force celibate Bektaşi clerics to marry. The 1967 proclamation of Albania as an atheist state was followed by further destruction of Bektaşi tombs and mausoleums (türbes), along with mosques and churches. Countering this, Albanian immigrants and refugees in America established a Bektaşi tekke in Michigan in 1953. Yet another blow to the Bektaşis in Egypt took place in 1957, when the government under Nasser closed the Bektaşi tekke in the Muqaṭṭam outside Cairo, which since the nineteenth century had been led by Albanian babas (clerics).

In the 1990s, the situation in both Albania and Turkey improved somewhat for Bektaşis. The Communist regime in Albania fell in 1990–1991, and the Bektaşi headquarters there reopened in April 1991. In Turkey there has been recognition of the contribution of the Bektaşis to Turkish culture through their extensive spiritual poetry that is largely in Turkish. After great decline in the early part of the century, there has recently been some growth in Bektaşi fellowships in Turkey and among Turkish guest workers in Europe. Further, in the second half of the twentieth century there has been public acknowledgment by Bektaşis that the village Alevîs (Ar., ʿAlawīyah; including the Qizilbash) and the Bektaşis have much in common in terms of practice and belief.

Assessment.

Overall, the Bektaşi order was an important expression of and influence on Islam among Turkish people in Anatolia and an important agent of Islam in the Balkans. Its practices, theology, and link with the Janissaries attest to the wide range of variation in Islam. The spiritual poetry produced and preserved by its adherents is a valued contribution to Turkish and Albanian culture.

It appears unlikely, however, that the Bektaşis will regain the popularity and political power they once held. In Turkey there remain laws limiting the order, and Islamic political parties are not favorable toward them. In Albania, in the Muslim Albanian regions of the former Yugoslavia (Kosovo and Macedonia), and in Albanian communities in North America, there is a critical lack of trained Bektaşi clerics, partly reflecting the secularization of the times but also exacerbated by the direct suppression Bektaşis have suffered in the twentieth century.

See also JANISSARIES; Mysticism; and SUFISM, subentries on Ṣūfī Orders and Ṣūfī Thoughts and Practice.

Bibliography

  • Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. London, 1937; reprint, 1965. Still the most comprehensive overview (including history, beliefs, practices) on the Bektaşi order to date. It is clearly written and well documented. Find it in your Library
  • Clayer, Nathalie. L’Albanie, pays des derviches: les ordres mystiques musulmans en Albanie à l’epoque post-ottomane (1912–1967). Berlin, 1990. An interesting analysis of the spread of Ṣūfī orders in Albania in the twentieth century, including much on the Bektaşis. Find it in your Library
  • De Jong, Frederick. “Problems Concerning the Origins of the Qizilbaş in Bulgaria: Remnants of the Safaviyya?” In Convegno sul tema: la Shīʿa nell’impero ottomano. Rome, 15 April 1993. Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani. One of the few references to Bektaşis in Bulgaria, based partly on ethnographic work conducted in the early 1980s. Find it in your Library
  • Faroqhi, Suraiya. Der Bektaschi-Orden in Anatolien (from the late 15th century to 1826). Vienna, 1981. An economic and social history of the Bektaşi order in Anatolia, based largely on archival material. Includes maps of the location of Bektaşi tekkes in Anatolia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Find it in your Library
  • Küçük, Hülya. The Role of the Bektashis in Turkeyʾs National Struggle. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Noyan, Bedri. Bektaşîlik Alevilik: Nedir? (Bektashism and Alevism: What are They?)Ankara, 1985. A thorough description of Bektaşi beliefs and practices by a scholarly Bektaşi leader in Turkey, whose father was also a high-ranked Bektaşi. Find it in your Library
  • Nüzhet, Sadettin. Bektaşi Şairleri (Bektashi Poets). Istanbul, 1930. An anthology of selected poets along with brief biographies. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bektaşi poets are particularly well represented. Find it in your Library
  • Rexhebi, Baba. Misticizma Islame dhe Bektashizma (Islamic Mysticism and Bektashism). New York, 1972. A contextualization of mysticism in Islam, and Bektashism in Islamic mysticism by the baba of the Bektaşi tekke in Michigan. Includes biographies and poetry of otherwise inaccessible Balkan Bektaşis. Find it in your Library
  • Rifat Efendi. The Mirror of Retaliation in the Refutation of Villainies. Istanbul, 1876. The Bektaşi response to a bitter attack on the order in 1873 by the Sunnī Ishak Efendi. Find it in your Library
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Rev. ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Find it in your Library
  • Trix, Frances. Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master. Philadelphia, 1993. A sociolinguistic study of learning in the Bektaşi master-student relationship, based on extensive research with Baba Rexheb of the Michigan Bektaşi tekke. Find it in your Library
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