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BEKTASHIYAH. This Sufi order became widespread in the Ottoman Empire and today has communities in Turkey, in Albanian regions of the Balkans, and among Albanian immigrants in North America; Bektashiyah is the Arabic form of its name, while in Turkish it is Bektasi. The Bektasi 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 command of the famous Sufi of western Turkestan, Ahmed Yesevi, to Anatolia where he settled in a village near the present city of Kirsehir. The organization of the Bektasi order, however, is credited to a later personage, Blim Sultan, known as the “Second Pir” (patron saint) of the order, who became head of the Bektasis in 1501. Balim Sultan was born of at least partly Bulgarian parentage near the city of Edirne, now in European Turkey. In addition to centralizing authority at the Bektasi headquarters in Anatolia, Balim Sultan instituted the celibate branch of the order that has continued to coexist with the married branch.

Central to Bektasi teachings is the importance of the spiritual teacher (Ar., murshid; Tk., Mursit). One cannot progress in spiritual growth without a spiritual teacher, and prayer and blessings are mediated by the teacher. Unlike orthodox Muslims, Bektasis believe in intercession. This intercession can also be through earlier spiritual teachers, including the two pirs of the order, the saints, the twelve imams, and `All, whom the Bektasis as well as many other Sufi orders view as the one who revealed mystic understanding of the Qur’an. Thus the Bektasis are `Alid in orientation, professing strong love and loyalty to Ehli Beyt, the “household of the Prophet.” They have been called Shi’s but theologically they differ from many Shi’is in their emphasis on the mystic path, as well as in their understanding of Muhammad and `Ali, which includes reference to “Muhammad ‘Ali” as a single personage; thus they both raise the status of `Ali and emphasize the complementarity and unity of the word of God and its mystical dimension. Practices that reflect the `Alid orientation of the Bektasis are their two main annual holidays: A§ure (Ar., `Ashura’), which commemorates the martyrdom of `Ali’s son Husayn; and Nevruz (Nawruz), which is celebrated at the spring equinox and is understood as the birthday of `Ali.

Further practices that are distinctively Bektasi include their initiation rites. These rites are private, reserved for other initiated members, and include 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. Bektasis have always accepted women as initiated members, thereby sanctioning their participation in these ceremonies.

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

Throughout their history the Bektasis have been criticized by Sunni 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 `Ali to the level of the prophet Muhammad or above him, and in comparing both to God. (These last allegations of heresy reflect  Sunnis’ inability to deal with the mystic expression.) Yet despite these criticisms, the order flourished in the Ottoman Empire among townspeople (in contrast to the Mevlevi order (Ar., Mawlawiyah), which 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 Bektasis in 1900 range from one to seven million. Careful sources (Birge, 1965; Rexhebi, 1972) see 1o percent of the population of Turkey (with modern boundaries) and 15 percent of the population of Albania as directly or indirectly influenced by the order at that time. The popularity of the Bektasi order may be partly explained in that it embodied and also shaped popular Turkish piety, and that it was syncretistic in its inclusion of per-Islamic pagan and Christian elements, thus appealing to populations that were formerly Christian. Certainly it provided a broader range of religious expression than the mosque; 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 Bektasi order was a source of missionaries of Islam who traveled with Ottoman forces into the Balkans. The mobility and simplicity of Bektasi organization, its relaxed attitude toward the letter of Muslim law, and its tolerance of non-Muslim peoples were all well suited to facilitating the gradual conversion of people in these regions.

The Bektasis 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 Bektasis 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 Bektasis within the empire.

The connection of the Bektasis 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 Bektasis were also targeted. Bektasi tekkes, or centers, were destroyed; some Bektasi leaders were executed, some were exiled, and some refigured themselves as Naksibendis (Ar., Naqshbandiyah) to ride out the persecution. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, the Bektasis had regained their tekkes and were publishing numerous books. Politically, many Bektasis of this period were progressive and included members of the Young Turks as well as Albanian patriots. Nonetheless, the Bektasis again suffered the closing of their tekkes when in 1925 Ataturk abolished all Sufi orders in the Republic of Turkey. In response, the Bektasis moved their headquarters from Anatolia to Albania.

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

In the 1990s, the situation in both Albania and Turkey has improved somewhat for Bektasis The Communist regime in Albania fell in 199o-1991, and the Bektasi headquarters there reopened in April 1991. In Turkey there has been recognition of the contribution of the Bektasis 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 Bektasi 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 Bektasis that the village Alevis (Ar., `Alawiyah; including the Kizilbash) and the Bektasis have much in common in terms of practice and belief (Noyan, 1985).

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


Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. London, 1937; reprint, 1965. Still the most comprehensive overview (history, beliefs, practices) on the Bektasi order to date. It is clearly written and well documented.

Clayer, Nathalie. L’Albanie, pays des Dervcshes: Analyse due rayonnement des ordres msytiques musulmans en Albanie a l’epoque postottomane, 1912-1967. Berlin, 1990. An interesting analysis of the spread of Sufi orders in Albania in this century, including much on the Bektasis.

De Jong, Frederick. “Problems concerning the Origins of the Qizilbas in Bulgaria: Remnants of the Safaviyya?” In La Shi’a nell’Impero Ottomano. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, Rome, 15 April 1993. One of the few references to Bektasis in Bulgaria, based partly on ethnographic work conducted in the early 1980s.

Faroqhi, Suraiya. Der Bektaschi-Order in Anatolien (from the late 15th century to 1826). Vienna, 198i. An economic and social history of the Bektasi order in Anatolia, based largely on archival material. Includes maps of the location of Bektasi tekkes in Anatolia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Noyan, Bedri. Bektasilik Alevilik: Nedir? (Bektashism and Alevism: What are They?). Ankara, 1985. A thorough description of Bektasi beliefs and practices by a scholarly Bektasi leader in Turkey, whose father was also a high-ranked Bektasi.

Nfizhet, Sadettin. Bektafi Sairleri (Bektashi Poets). Istanbul, 1930. An anthology of selections of poets along with brief biographies. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bektasi poets are particularly well represented.

Rifat Efendi. (The Mirror of Retaliation in the Refutation of Villainies). Istanbul, 1876. The Bektasi response to a bitter attack on the order by the the Sunni Ishak Efendi in 1873.

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 Bektasi tekke in Michigan. Includes biographies and poetry of otherwise inaccessible Balkan Bektasis.

Trix, Frances. Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master. Philadelphia, 1993. A sociolinguistic study of learning in the Bektasi master-student relationship, based on extensive research with Baba Rexheb of the Michigan Bektasi tekke.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bektashiyah/

  • writerPosted On: November 2, 2012
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