Bektashi Thought & Practice

by Huseyin Abiva


We cannot actually speak of a Bektashi “order” as a structured organization with a uniform set of doctrines and rituals until, at the very earliest, the end of the 15th century, more than two centuries after the death of Haji Bektash Veli. When this structuring did occur, it resulted in the formation of a distinctive Sufi brotherhood: one maintaining a form of institutionalized celibacy (mücerredlik), a defined hierarchy, and markedly Shi'īte propensities.


The individual responsible for laying down the existing structure of the Bektashi Order was Balım Sultan (d. 1516 CE), a man commonly referred to as Pîr-i Sânî or “Second Founder”. It was he who gave Bektashism its form that we know today. From his day the order has been directed by a dedebaba, a “great-grandfather,” a man appointed to his position by a council of twelve dedes (literally “grandfathers”, the highest grade in the Bektashi spiritual hierarchy). Underneath the dedes are the babas, men who are charged with running the tekkes, or lodges, in addition to being spiritual guides. Below them in rank are the dervishes, followed by mühibs and aşıks. Although it was acceptable for members of the order to be married (though dedes were absolutely forbidden this), the majority of Bektashis dervishes and babas during the Ottoman period were celibate, as were those living in post-Ottoman Albanian lands. This celibacy was perceived as being done in imitation of the patron saint, Haji Bektash Veli, who never married.


Bektashism has often been perceived by outsiders as being profoundly unorthodox and syncretic in nature. While this may be an understandable conclusion, it fails to grasp the wider picture of the nature of spirituality. Sufis have always made use of numerous religious and social undercurrents to expound mystical realities, more so Bektashis. The most notable of these undercurrents were 1) the thoughts of Fazlullah Astarabadi (d. 1394 CE), founder of the Hurufi movement; 2) the eccentric piety of the wandering Qalandar dervishes; and 3) the organizational structure the renowned artisan guilds of the Akhis. By the late 16th century passionate Shicīte beliefs, bolstered by Safavid propaganda, became widespread throughout Anatolia. These popular sentiments were fully employed by Bektashis in order to express their unyielding attachment to the Ehl-i Beyt, the Prophet’s family, an attachment that had a perceptible place in Haji Bektash Veli’s teachings. Such ideological utilization was not limited exclusively to the early phases of Bektashism for in the late 19th century liberalism, anti-clericalism and, more significantly, Albanian and Turkish nationalism were utilized by many (though not all) Bektashis as vehicles with which the challenges brought on by the rapid social and political changes of the times could be met, albeit with all with a spiritual reworking.


Since the time of Balım Sultan in the 16th century, the essence of Bektashi thought can be best summed up as follows: ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, occupies a predominant position in their spirituality; ‘Ali is seen as the mirror image of the Divine; he is the revealer of the ‘esoteric’ Qur’an, while the Prophet is seen as the vehicle by which the ‘exoteric’ Qur’an became manifest to humanity. Even as ‘Ali personifies the esoteric (bâtin) and Muhammad the exoteric (zâhir),  in reality Bektashis make no distinction between these two figures and they are customarily referred to simply as “Muhammad-‘Ali”, with no disconnection of the names made. Hakk (Reality, i.e. God)-Muhammad-‘Ali form a unified reality expressing a single truth (hakikat). This formula of Hakk-Muhammad-‘Ali should not be confused with the Christian concept of the Trinity, as has so often been done by those outside of the order. Rather, this compounded perception of certainty (yakın) demonstrates the Bektashi acceptance of vahdet-i vucüd (lit. “Unity of being”), a philosophy of existence advanced by the great medieval mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240 CE), who is held in great esteem by members of the order.


Many have continually portrayed Bektashi doctrine as being pantheist, given the order’s wholehearted acceptance of vahdet-i vucüd. This is an observation that is not altogether accurate. Bektashi attitudes in this regard can be more correctly defined as being panentheist, a belief that maintains that while everything in existence is an emanation of God (part of God Himself), the Divine is far greater in His Reality than His creation; everything is God, but God is not everything. God is visible in creation and, more importantly, His mark is perceptible on the face of each and every human being. Despite orthodox objections to such notions, it is a belief that can be supported with numerous Qur’anic verses as well as Prophetic sayings (hadîth).


Outside of devotion to Imam ‘Ali, other Shicīte inspirations within Bektashi doctrine are the veneration of the twelve Shiīte Imams, as well as the “fourteen innocent ones” (Masûm-i Pâk), the martyred children of these holy figures. There is also adoration of the Onyedi Kemerbestigân, the seventeen loyal companions of ‘Ali, all of whom were girded with the esoteric knowledge of Reality. Reverence for the Twelve Imams takes on many symbolic forms in Bektashism. The tâc (ritual headgear) of dervishes, babas and dedes is called the Husaynî Tâc in remembrance of Imam Husayn. Embellishing this Husaynî Tâc are twelve gores (terks), each representing one of the Imams. Bektashi babas and dervishes wear around their necks a teslîm-i tâş, a stone carved with twelve flutes, likewise representing the Holy Twelve. Bektashis also openly claim to adhere to the mezheb (legal school) of the sixth Shicīte imam, Jacfar as-Sâdiq, despite their seemingly non-emphasis of outward ritual and legalism. As one Bektashi poet wrote:


Tâ ezel bezminden ikrâr eyliyen, şi’îleriz.

Bunda ol ikrârı tekrâr eyliyen, şi’îleriz.


Since the gathering of Eternity, we are Shi'ah.

Here, making this confession yet again, we are Shi'ah.


Bektashis, together with other Sufis, display a marked reverence for the “Friends of God” (evliyas i.e.saints). Central to the belief in the power of these pious individuals is the notion that the entire material and spiritual universe is sustained by a hierarchy of saints, the head of which is known as the kutb (axis).  Beneath this kutb is an array of saints grouped according to their spiritual rank, most notable being the “Forty” (kırklar). Haji Bektash Veli is recognized as the founder of the order and his central role in Bektashi devotion is unquestionable. Holy figures, including Balım Sultan, as well as

those saints who played roles in the expansion of the order, like Sarı Saltık, Sersem Ali Dede, Abdal Musa and Kaygusuz Sultan, are all regularly included in Bektashi litanies. One manifestation of the veneration of evliyas has been the construction and visitation of türbes (mausoleums). Most Bektashi tekkes found throughout Anatolia and the Balkans have (or had) türbes attached to them that contained the graves of famous babas and dervishes. These places continue to be sights of regular pilgrimage for Bektashis, non-Bektashis and even non-Muslims. Türbes are recognized as powerhouses of both spiritual and worldly blessings, as well as conduits for barakah, grace.


As with other Sufi orders the need for a mürşid, a spiritual guide, is central to Bektashi belief. Accompanied by a mürşid, a neophyte is able to carefully journey to the state of Insan-i Kamil, “Perfect Human”. Along the way, four symbolic portals are crossed: the first is şeri’at (exoteric law), followed by tarikat (the spiritual path), ma’rifet (gnosis) and finally hakikat (the state of reality). As briefly mentioned above, the Bektashi order is hierarchical in character. In this hierarchy, aşıks form the lowest grade. They are those uninitiated sympathizers, who may, at sometime in the future, become candidates for admittance. Once an aşık receives initiation, he or she is raised to the next level of membership, which is the rank of mühib and is now allowed to participate in some of the guarded ceremonies held within the tekke’s meydan, a hall reserved for the performance of the ayın-i cem. The mühib is put into a probationary period during which service to the tekke is carried out. This period can last several years or it can be very short. Following this period, if the baba of the tekke determines the mühib spiritually fit, a ceremony can be performed that will raise him or her to the rank of dervish. At that point, the newly elevated dervish must decide whether to undertake a life of celibacy (mücerredlik) or marry (mütehillik). Needless to say those choosing celibacy gain a much more esteemed place in eyes of the community in recognition of their commitment and sacrifice. During the ceremony accompanying the mücerredlik vows, the right ear of the dervish is pierced and from then on they wear an earring called a mengüş as a reminder of their vow. During the Ottoman period the mücerredlik ritual could only take place within the tekke of Haji Bektash, the tekke of Seyid Ali Sultan in Dimetoka (Greece) or in the tekke of Karbala (Iraq). At the end of the 19th century the Şahkulu Tekke in the suburbs of Istanbul was added to this list. Since 1925, when all Sufi tekkes in Turkey were closed, the ceremony has been held at the seat of the World Bektashi Community in Tirana, Albania.


Beyond the level of dervish are the babas, the spiritual guides of the tekkes, the dedes, men who have the authority to nominate a worthy dervish to the rank of baba, and finally, the dedebaba, the designated head of the entire Bektashi Order. All of these men don their symbolic dress, whose foremost components are the tâc, the hırka, which is a white ankle-length gown, and the kemer, a broad woolen girdle. They also wear a teslim-i taş, and a haideriyye, a sleeveless vest, usually made of green cloth.


One distinctive characteristic that Bektashis have gained over the centuries is a reputation for non-observance of the rituals of normative Islam, such as the five daily prayers and fasting, as well a legendary antipathy for Sunni clergymen (hocas).  It is, nevertheless, a glaring oversimplification to state that Bektashis hold no reverence for the şeri’at, Islamic law. The şeri’at is given due respect by Bektashis as being one of the four thresholds that must be crossed to enter Reality. Yet as far as the implementation of the şeri’at in daily life it must be understood that in Bektashi doctrine all exoteric ritual is given a deeper esoteric interpretation, and thus ritual takes on a more subtle significance, far more consequential than simple physical exercise. Therefore Bektashis, by and large, do not frequent mosques and do not necessarily pray in the same manner as Sunnis. In addition to the fast of Ramazan (which is, once again, not universally carried out) they observe a more rigorous fast during the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muharram in remembrance of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.


The most important Bektashi ritual of devotion, called the niyâz, occurs during the ayın-i cem ceremony and it is comprised of a prostration in front of the mürşid, the spiritual guide. The theological basis behind the niyâz can be found in those verses of the Qur’an which deal with the creation of Adam, the first man. The ayın-i cem (which means “congregational ceremony”) is also seen as a reenactment of the “banquet of the forty” which took place in the unseen world (ga’ib) during the Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly ascent (mi’râc). The ayın-i cem typically takes place on Thursday

night (which is Friday by Islamic reckoning), and only those who have been initiated into the order may be in attendance. There are also other, less restricted, gatherings called muhabets, during which a baba explains doctrines and gives spiritual upliftment, customarily by means of nefes, Bektashi poetry that is often put to song.


Among the principal celebrations of Bektashis are the Matem and the Sultan Nevruz. The word matem literally means “bereavement”, and it is a period of fasting and abstinence during the first ten days of the month of Muharram carried out in commemoration of the martyrdom Imam Husayn. The faithful meet every night in the tekke during the Matem to read accounts of the passion of Imam Husayn (customarily the epic Hadîkat-i Su’adâ by the 16th century poet Fuzuli) and to recite litanies. Despite the somber mood of the Matem, there are no displays of bodily mortification in Bektashi tekkes as observed in mainstream Shicī circles. The Matem period is ended on the tenth day with the ceremony of Aşure, during which a sweet pudding (also called aşure), containing cereals and various fruits, is prepared and served. As for the Sultan Nevruz, a day which corresponds to the spring equinox, it is a much more cheerful celebration. It is a day observed by Bektashis as the birthday of ‘Ali. On the occasion of the Sultan Nevruz lambs are sacrificed and large ceremonial feasts are held.

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