by Mehrdad R. Izady (Harvard University)

Alevism. A majority of the Dimila Kurds of Anatolia and some of their Kurmanji speaking neighbors are followers of another denomination of the Cult of Angels. These have been called collectively the Alawis ("the Followers of Ali"), the Alevis ("the People of Fire," implying fire-worship or Zoroastrianism, from alev, "fire"), the Qizilbash ("the red heads," from their red head gear; see Costumes & lewelry), and the Nusayri (which can be interpreted as the "Nazarenes," implying Christianity, or as the "followers of Narseh,' the early medieval Kurdish revolutionary of the Khurrami movement who settled with his followers in Anatolia). See Medieval History). The Alevis believe in Ali as the most important primary avatar of the Universal Spirit in the Second Epoch of the universal life, hence their exaggerated feelings for this first Shi'ite Muslim imam. This may be the root of their communal appellation, just as the title Aliullahi ("the deifiers o Ali") serves as one of the titles the outsiders call the Yarsans. A point to note is that unlike in Yarsanism, Ali is a double figure in Alevism. Alevis join the Imam Ali and the Prophe Muhammad together to form Alimu1hmmad, who is then considered a single avatar albeit with double manifestations. The founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail I often referred to himself in his writings with the formula "Alimuhammad," when he was not calling himself Haq, the Spirit.

Despite the importance of Ali in the religion and its modern communal appellation Alevism remains a thoroughly non-Islamic religion, and a part of the Cult of Angels. Like, other branches of the Cult, the fundamental theology of Alevism sharply contradicts the letter and spirit of the Koran in every important manner, as any independent, non Semitic religion might.

Alevism is now also practiced by many Syrian Arabs, where Alevis constitute over 13% of the total population of the state. In Syria they are more often known as the Nusayri and are the predominant religious group in coastal Syria, centered on the ports of Lataki and Tartus. Ethnic Kurds were once numerous here and are still found not just to the north, but also to the east, toward the city of Hama. The Alevi Arabs are thus a mixture a Arab converts and assimilated Kurds (see Historical Migrations). The current presiden of Syria, Hafez al-Assad is an Alevi (more precisely, a Nusayri; see below). Under th French Mandate, this section of Syria was made autonomous for this religious reason.

Many Turkmens of Turkey, who neighbor the Kurds in the Taurus and Pontus mountains near the cities of Adana, Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya are also adherents of Alevism Contrary to the Syrian case, the non-Kurdish Alevis of Anatolia are primarily Turki converts and not assimilated Kurds. Along with the Kurdish Alevis, these Turkmens were the backbone of the armed forces that powered the rise of the Safavids of Persia (se Early Modern History). There may now be as many Turkmen Alevis as Kurds, if not actually more. The Shabaks, who live to the immediate south-southeast of Mosul in central Kurdistan, neighboring the Yarsan Bajalans, also practice a form of this Dimi Alevism.

Dimili Alevism bears closer links to ancient Aryan cults than does Yarsanism. Its rites include daily bowing to the rising sun and moon and the incantation of hymns for the occasion. The communal ritual gathering of Jamkhana is observed by these Dimili Alev as the Ayini Jam, "the Tradition of Jam." The major Jam, or the grand annual communal gathering, coincides with the great Muslim Feast of Abraham that concludes the Ha pilgrimage to Mecca and includes the sacrifice of a lamb. Jam (known as Jamshid i Zoroastrianism and Yamd in the Veda) was the great Aryan hero in the tradition of the Zoroastrians to whom is ascribed the creation of the feast of New Ruz-the Kurdish an Iranic new year. The myth holds that Jam was sacrificed at the end of his own days to the rising sun by none else than Azhi Dahak. In fact, in the renowned Iranic national epic, the Shahnama of Firdawsi, Jamshid is depicted as "the worshipper of the Sun and Moon", are the Alevis.

The Ayini jam constitutes basically the same religious occasion as that of Jamkhana of the Yarsans and Jam of the Yezidis. The Alevis, despite the verbal torments of outsiders, still allow full participation of women in their rituals and religious gatherings, particularly the occasion of the major Ayini Jam. This is therefore the specific occasion to which outsiders point for their accusation of the communal sex ritual of the "candle blown out" mentioned earlier.

Some Dimili Alevis, as well as the Yezidi clans, still maintain the ancient Iranic rite of worshipping the deity represented as a sword stuck into the ground. Mark Sykes in 1908 mentions this practice among a few Dimili tribes: the Bosikan, Kurian, and apparently also the Zekiri, Musi, and Sarmi, but he adds that at the time the last three no longer practiced it. This rite is mentioned by Herodotus for the Iranic Scythians and Sarmatians (kinsmen of the Kurds and other Iranic peoples) in Ukraine of 2300 years ago. (The resemblance between the Dimili tribal name Sarmi and the that of Sarmatians is also worthy of note.) The image of the sword stuck in the ground or a rock is of course similar to that of the British Excalibur and King Arthur. There is a strong possibility that the two are related. In AD 175, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius assigned a legion of Sarmatians from Pannonia (modern Hungary) to serve in England and Scotland (the Sarmatians' commander's name was Lucius Artorius Castus!). According to Nickel, the basic elements of the legend may have been introduced into Britain by these Sarmatian settlers, and the familiar story of Excalibur may thus be akin to this Dimili Alevi religious practice. The Dimila are the last Iranic people still practicing the ancient rite.

Some modern European travellers have reported, as hearsay, that some Qizilbash worship a large (black) dog as the embodiment of the deity (Driver 1921-23). Even though Driver's account is rather derogatory toward the Alevis and to the practice, of which he clearly does not approve, veneration of the dog as a symbol of good (the serpent standing for evil) is a very ancient rite. The binary opposition in which the dog and serpent symbols represent the basic poles is found in almost all Gnostic religions of the old, particularly Mithraism (Jonas 1963).

The divine reverence for Ali practiced by the Alevis became the most conspicuous religious sign of the Qara Qoyunlu and the early Safavid dynasties. Added to their other non-Islamic rites and beliefs, this alienated them from the Muslim surroundings, to which they sought to extend their political domination and their Alevi religion under the pretense of Shi'ism. They were commonly referred to as the Qizilbash, a name still carried by the modern Alevi Dimila Kurds of east-central Anatolia-the area where the movement began in the 15th century.

To form the critical human force necessary for the outburst of the Alevis in the 15th and 16th centuries, two factors proved crucial: 1) the unprecedented demographic gains by the Kurds in the period between 1400 and the 1520's (see Demography), and 2) the earlier successful conversion to the Cult of Angels of vast numbers of the neighboring Turkmen tribes of Anatolia and the Caucasus. The early patrons of this Alevism, better known to historians as extremist Shi'ites, were the Turkmen royal house of Qara Qoyunlu, which ruled basically the entire area of contemporary Iran, as well as the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia (see Medieval History). The inclinations of the Qara Qoyunlu toward the Cult of Angels and away from Islam were too clear at their own time. Even today, the last remnant of the royal Turkmen Qara Qoyunlu tribe living in exSoviet and ranian Azerbaijan are followers of the Cult of Angels according to Minorsky. The list of the primary Kurdish tribes that participated in the Safavid Alevi revolution included the Shamlu, Shaykhawand, Shadlu, Khajawand, Zafranlu (Za'faranlu), Stajlu (Istajlu), and Quvanlu (Qova). All these tribes are still extant and Kurdish (see Table 1).

The red headgear that gave the name Qizilbdsh, Turkic for "red heads," to these socioreligious revolutionaries, are still worn among the Alevi Dimila Kurds. Among the non-Alevi Kurds, it finds its last remnants in the tradition of the Barzanis. The chiefs of the Barzani Confederacy, who have traditionally commanded high religious leadership as well, carry the exclusive privilege of wearing red turbans to their family as a sacred tradition (see Costumes & lewelry). This red color was also the hallmark of the Mazdakite and the Khurramite movements, which are the direct predecessors of Alevism.

As in Yarsanism, some branches of Alevism have for various reasons grown ever closer to the mainstream Shi'ite Islam they helped form in its current state in the course of the 15th-17th centuries. The most transformed branches of Alevism are similar in their association with Shi'ism to the Ahl-i Haq followers of Nurali Ilahi (see Yaranism). Even at their most advanced stage of convergence, neither the Ahl-i Haq nor the Alevis qualify as Shi'ites or Muslims by any Koranic standards.

Alevism was a disfavored religion in the Ottoman Empire, whose ruling sultans wore the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad and championed the cause of orthodox Sunni Islam. The Alevis were exposed to many massacres and state-sponsored pogroms immediately after the annexation of eastern Anatolia from Persia under the Ottoman sultan Selim in 1514.

Despite this, the Alevis have seen far less oppression than the Yezidis. This has been due to their larger numbers. Even today followers of this religion constitute roughly 20% of all Kurds.

The centuries-long underprivileged status of the Alevi community under the Ottomans and the suspicion of their Persian sympathies was inadvertently carried over into the Turkish Republican period after 1922, even though the Republic confessed total secularism, and Persia/Iran had ceased to be a threat. Only recently has it occurred to Ankara that there is no logic in disfavoring the Alevis, and the Bektashi Sufi order which is strongly associated with it. On the contrary, there is much to be lost by continuing the old anti-Alevi policies. These policies have turned the Alevi Kurds (who saw themselves discriminated against on two counts, being Kurds and being Alevis) into some of the most radical insurgents and most extremist of all political groups. The rebellious attitude of these contemporary Alevis towards an oppressive state reminds one of the earlier movements by the followers of the Cult of Angels (e.g., the Mazdakites and the Khurramis), and the radicalism it has imparted to Shiism.

Alevism is now recognized in Turkey as an "indigenous" Anatolian religion worthy of respect. Cloaked in nationalist garb, and a useful counterweight to the rising militancy among the Sunni Muslims, Ankara even officially sponsors some Alevi festivals (see Festivals, Ceremonies, & Calendar).

Attention must be also given to Nusayrism, the branch of Alevism that was formed by the introduction of Arabian values into the practice of the Cult of Angels when it was introduced into the Syrian coastal regions by immigrating Kurds. Since Nusayrism is now followed by peoples who do not consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds, a brief observation of its tenets is all that is given here. Instead of Ali, Nusayrism takes Salman to be the most important avatar of the Spirit after the Lord God. Salman was a Persian companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Other Islamic figures fill in the Second Epoch (the most important earthly one) of the universal life, as they do in Alevism. The dates of the major annual celebrations of the Nusayris closely parallel those of the Yezidis, with New Ruz (March 21), Mithrakan (called Mihrajdn by the Nusayris, October 6-13), the Feast of Yezid (December 25) all being celebrated. The fourth celebration, observed on the occasion of the Tiragan by the Yezidis in late July, is replaced by Sada among the Nusayris, and is held in January about the time of the Christian feast of Epiphany.

The marked difference between Nusayrism and Alevism, and in fact the rest of the Cult of Angels, is not in their theology but in their sociology, particularly their treatment of women. In a very un-Kurdish fashion, but on par with other Semitic religions, women are held in a very low station by the Nusayris. They actually believe women, like objects and animals, lack souls, and that the soul of a sinful man may reincarnate into a woman aher his death, so that he may spend one life span in the purgatory of a woman's soulless body. In fact, while retaining Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, on the Itst of the major avatars of the Spirit, Nusayris turn the name into Fatim a masculine form of Fatima's name. They believe her to have been a man, manifesting himself as a woman only to give birth to Ali's sons and imams, Hasan and Husayn. This is a clear challenge to the high status that women enjoy in virtually all other branches of the Cult of Artgels, belief in whtch requires the presence of one female Major Avatar in every stage of reincarnations of the Spirit.

The Kurds : A Concise Handbook by Mehrdad R. Izady