Islamic Studies Alawis
by
Stephan Prochazka
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0175

Introduction

The term Alawi (Arabic ʿAlawi, plural ʿAlawiyyun; Turkish Alevi; English Alawi/Alawites; French Alaoui/Alaouites) mainly designates the adherents of two different Islamic sects, both of which belong to Shiʿa Islam. What they have in common is an extraordinary veneration for the Family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) in general and ʿAli ibn Abi Talib in particular. (“ʿAlawi” means adherent or descendent of ʿAli.) Both groups are often regarded as heretics by other Muslims. For a better distinction of the two sects, the term Alawi will be used for the Arabic-speaking communities (which are mainly in Syria) while the term Alevi will denote the Turkish, Kurdish, and Zazaki speaking communities (mainly in Anatolia). The ruling ʿAlawi dynasty of Morocco (in French, Alaouites), named after ʿAli ash-Sharif, is not a subject of this entry. For centuries the Alawi sect was called Nusayri (after its founder Ibn Nusayr, died c. 864)—a term still frequently found in Western works. Historically the Alawis constitute an offshoot of the early Shiʿa with strong Gnostic, Iranian, and Christian influences. Its beliefs and practices are kept secret by the community, being revealed only to initiates, who are always men. Though founded in Iraq, from the 11th century on the sect’s heartland has been western Syria. Their overall number worldwide does not exceed 4 million: c. 2.5 million in Syria; c. 1 million in the Turkish provinces of Mersin, Adana, and Hatay; c. 10,000 in Lebanon; and the rest in the diasporas, particularly in Germany and Latin America. Alevi is a modern umbrella term for a number of heterogeneous religious groups in Turkey and the Balkans, including the Bektashi, Abdal, and Tahtaci, among others. Until recently they were called Kizilbash, “Red-Heads,” by outsiders, an allusion to the red headgear of the Safawi dervish order. The origin of Alevism can be traced back to communities that emerged around mystical dervishes in 13th-century Anatolia. Only later did they come under the influence of Shiʿa Islam, mainly due to their relations with Safawid Iran. Although originally esoteric like the Alawis, beginning with the so-called Alevi revival of the late 1980s most of their beliefs and practices have been open. In contrast to Alawism, women have an important role in the Alevi cult. The estimated number of Alevis in Turkey is nearly 15 million; and large Alevi communities are found in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and Albania as well as in central and western Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria.

General Overviews

The Alawi religion first attracted the interest of Western scholars in the mid-19th century. The number of studies greatly increased after members of this sect gained significant political power in Syria in the 1960s. Very few studies were done on the Alevis prior to the 1980s. Due to their strong and very active presence in Germany, many key studies and reference works about the Alevis are in German rather than English or French. For both Alawis and Alevis, this article confines itself mainly to publications in Western languages. Turkish publications on the Alevis are numerous, but most of them are journalistic in character and often either apologetic or polemic. Given the major differences between Alawis and Alevis, it is not surprising that few works cover the general features of both groups. The most comprehensive is Moosa 1987, which provides a good overview of the history and doctrines of these two sects and other Shiʿite groups. Aringberg-Laanatza 1998 gives a fine overview on the religion and recent history of Turkish Alevis and Syrian Alawis in the context of Kemalism and Baathism. Freitag 1985 discusses the belief in metempsychosis in a broader context, emphasizing that, because it contradicts the Muslim belief in resurrection, it is found only among certain Gnostic sects. Kurt and Tüz 1999 surveys the state of the art of Alevi and Alawi studies at the end of the 20th century. Most of the sources given here and in the subsections provide some basic information on the beliefs and/or historical developments of Alawism and Alevism.

  • Aringberg-Laanatza, Marianne. “Alevis in Turkey–Alawites in Syria: Similarities and Differences.” In Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Edited by Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Özdalga, and Catharina Raudvere, 181–199. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1998.

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    After a brief sketch of the religious origins of these two groups and their circumstances in Ottoman times, the author describes how both the Alevis in Turkey and the Alawis in Syria were able to improve their conditions during the 20th century.

  • Freitag, Rainer. Seelenwanderung in der islamischen Häresie. Berlin: KIaus Schwarz, 1985.

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    Deals with the origin and development of the belief in the transmigration of the soul in several Muslim sects (Ismailis, Druzes, etc.), with long chapters on metempsychosis in Alawism and Bektashism/Alevism.

  • Kurt, Ismail, and Seyid Ali Tüz, eds. Tarihî ve Kültürel Boyutlarıyla Türkiye’de Alevîler, Bektaşîler, Nusayrîler. Proceedings of an International Symposium on Alevis, Bektashis, and Nusayris, Istanbul, 21–23 November 1997. Istanbul: Ensar Neşriyat, 1999.

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    Proceedings of a congress on historical and contemporary aspects of Alevism and Alawism in Turkey. Consists of thirteen articles, followed by summaries of the discussions about the papers read. The authors are all well-known specialists in the field, but several of the contributions are very closely related to their preceding publications.

  • Moosa, Matti. Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

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    The first part deals with the general characteristics of the Shiʿite sects, which are regarded by mainstream Shiʿites as excessive in their veneration of ʿAli. The second half presents a survey of the Alawis but says virtually nothing new concerning their history and faith. Moosa emphasizes the “heretical” character of Alawism and Alevism.

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