Ottoman persecution of Alevis
|Freedom of religion|
The Ottoman persecution of Alevis is best known in connection with the Ottoman sultan Selim I's reign (1512–1520) and his war against the Safavids in 1514. But there are examples that indicate that there already existed problems with Alevi-like groups in the Ottoman Empire since the 14th century.
Persecution of Alevi-like groups before 1500
Ottoman problems with heterodox Muslim groups already existed in the 14th century. An example of this can be found in Seyyid Ali Sultan's (also called Kızıldeli) hagiography, which mentions a certain dervish called Seyyid Rüstem (d. 1421). Accordingly, Seyyid Rüstem got in trouble with the local Ottoman officials, despite the fact that he had a personal agreement with the sultan Orhan I to obtain some soil. As the official had heard of Seyyid Rüstem, he shouted: "How dare this Torlak make a mark on my land and depart from obedience? How can he live without my permission?" It should be mentioned that the term Torlak was a typical and often condescending name for Qālandar people.
This also marks a twist in the Ottoman position into more closely following orthodox Islamic law (Sharia), which did not fall on fertile ground among the more tolerant and mysterious dervishes. This is also an example of how the Ottoman Sultans went from being tribal and clan leaders, which had been the situation of Osman I and Orhan I. The following period is characterized by being more centralist ruled, leading to the elimination of a number of local leaderships.
The 15th century
The Ottoman state must have caused major discontent among heterodox groups, since a growing number of rebellions and problems occurred within the Empire from the 15th century. Among the most notable examples include the Sheikh Bedreddin rebellion, which began in 1416. This rebellion is believed to have been caused by a combination of socio-economic and religious problems. The rebellion, which was also supported by non-Muslims, was eventually defeated, and Sheikh Bedreddin was executed with his apostles (halife) in 1420.
It is also known that the heterodox Shiite sect hurufiyya was widely spread in Iran and Anatolia and that they made propaganda in large parts of the Ottoman Empire. In 1445 a group of Hurufis managed to personally meet sultan Mehmed II, with the intention to invite him to the Hurufi faith. The Sultan allowed them to speak for their cause, and also showed clear signs of interest in their mystical doctrines. This aroused discontent among Mehmed II's closest advisers who were not however, able to take direct action. So they decided to call a scholar named Fakhr al-Din 'Ajami, who pretended to be interested in the Hurufi doctrines and therefore invited the leader of the present Hurufis to his home. But when the Hurufi explained his faith, Fakhr al-Din could not keep himself from shouting "heretic!". The Hurufi then attempted to seek refuge with Mehmed II, but was subdued by Fakhr al-Din's aggressive behavior and therefore held back from defending his guests. The Hurufis were subsequently led to the new mosque in Edirne, where Fakhr al-Din publicly denounced their faith and preached the spiritual rewards, one would obtain by attending to the extermination of their faith. The Hurufi Order was then ordered to make a huge bonfire to burn their own leader. The head of the Hurufis was then thrown on the fire and the other Hurufis were otherwise executed.
This incident also confirms the previous example with Orhan I, where the Sultan's sympathy towards the Torlaks was also destroyed by officials. In the subsequent part of Mehmed II's reign the Ottoman Empire became extended towards both east and west and thus incorporated new areas where there were a greater propensity of heterodoxy. Hurufis and other heterodox Sufi groups were still subject to persecution and massacres in various parts of the Ottoman Empire.
In the mid-15th century there was also a strife between the Ottoman Empire and the semi-autonomic Karaman area. In 1468–1474 disputes led Mehmed II to drive out tribes, possibly Qizilbāsh, from this area to Rumelia and in 1475 he made an end to the Karaman rule.
Persecution of Alevis after 1500
During Bayezid II (1481–1512)
During the sultan Bayezid II the relationship between the state and heterodox groups further worsened. Already by the assassination of the Safavid spiritual leader Shaykh Haydar in 1488, in a letter the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II had expressed that the news has multiplied my joy and about Haydar's supporters, the Qizilbāshes, he said: may God curse Haydar's heretical followers. Only four years later, in 1492, there was an attempt of murdering the sultan by a dervish and a document from 1501 also reveals that Bayezid II had ordered the execution of all Qizilbāshes who were captured from traveling to Iran. The rest of his reign was also marked by numerous Qizilbāsh rebellions, which Bayezid II tried to overcome by deporting thousands of Qizilbāsh from Anatolia to some of the new conquered coastal areas of Greece: Morea, Modon, Coron and Lepanto. The official reason for the deportations was that Qizilbāshes according to religious scholars were "infidels".
During Selim I (1512–1520)
Bayezid II's son, Selim I, however did not think his father had taken sufficiently hard measures against the Qizilbāshes. As governor of Trabzon, he had been closely acquainted with the Safavids and the Qizilbāsh success in Iran and eastern Anatolia. Against his father's desire he had also repeatedly mobilized military forces and made attacks on Safavid land. It is also known that Selim I had a great hatred towards Shia Muslims in general, especially the heterodox Qizilbāsh. Therefore liquidated three of his brothers and forced deposed his father to abdicate to himself to seize power. He then sent his father Bayezid II off on "vacation" after which he too was killed.
One of the first things Selim I did as sultan, was to get the Ottoman Shaykh ul-Islam ibni Kemal (d. 1533), to issue a new fatwa against the Qizilbāshes for once and for all to justify and legitimize the killing of them. Then he gathered a great army consisting of 200,000 men to lead a gratuitous war against the Safavids. On his way to the Safavid Empire in the east, Selim I sought out and prepared a register of all the rebellious Qizilbāshes he could tracked. Alevi folkloric view argues some 40,000 Qizilbāshes were massacred during Selim I's campaign and then Selim I continued towards Safavid land. In the Ottoman source Selimşâh-name it says:
Her şeyi bilen Sultan, o kavmin etbâını kısım kısım ve isim isim yazmak üzere, memleketin her tarafına bilgiç katipler gönderdi; yedi yaşından yetmiş yaşına kadar olanların defterleri divâna getirilmek üzere emredildi; getirilen defterlere nazaran, ihtiyar-genç kırk bin kişi yazılmıştı; ondan sonra her memleketin hâkimlerine memurlar defterler getirdiler; bunların gittikleri yerlerde kılıç kullanılarak, bu memleketlerdeki maktullerin adedi kırk bini geçti.
The omniscient Sultan Selim I sent accurate writers all over the country to take note of the supporters of the group called Qizilbāshs, part by part and name by name, it has been ordered by Divan [a senior executive institution of the Ottoman Empire] to retrieve records to Divan on everyone from age seven to seventy and the names of forty thousand persons were noted in those registers, old and young, then officials brought the registers to the administrators of all regions [of the country]; the places they went, they killed more than forty thousand by sword in these areas.
However, Ottoman Tahrir Defters of the time, in which all demographics and tax payers for each village were registered, do not justify these claims. Likewise, Ottoman historians studying on Seriyye Defterleri , official records for the local disputes, did not find evidence for such a huge death toll. When the total population of that time considered, 40000 is more that total of nine large cities of the Anatolia. Thus, majority of the Ottoman historians believe that the leaders of the insurgent Alevi groups were killed and that remained in social memory of the Anatolian Alevis.
Battle of Chāldirān (1514)
With Selim I in the lead, the Ottoman Empire entered a war against the Safavid dynasty in 1514, that ended with an Ottoman victory. Chāldirān symbolizes an important turning point for Qizilbāshes because this war was the culmination of the long Ottoman-Safavid conflict. The war also marked the loss of the only hope of safety the Qizilbāsh people had left.
Selim's reign marked one more thing: the Ottoman Empire with the conquest of the Mameluke Sultanate, now officially became an Islamic caliphate, where governance was based on orthodox Islamic law (Sharia ).
After Selim I
After Selim I's reign the subsequent sultans continued the same harsh treatment towards Qizilbāshes in Anatolia. Qizilbāshes responded to the oppression by increasingly revolting against the Ottoman rule. These frequent rebellions continued periodically up to the early 17th century.
The extremely violent period from 16th to the 17th century, however, was eventually subdued a little, but the oppression of Qizilbāshes continued until the Ottoman capitulation.
Typical persecution methods
From the early 16th century the Ottoman administration was specialized in "chasing" Qizilbāshes. This century was perhaps the most harsh century for the Alevis (Qizilbāshes). They were persecuted for both sympathizing with the Safavid struggle, but also because of their "heretical" beliefs. In order to capture Qizilbāshes the Ottoman state used several methods.
Being "Qizilbāsh" was a crime on its own and Qizilbāshes were kept under constant surveillance. Some of the most frequently used surveillance and persecution methods in the Ottoman Empire were:
- Persecution based on others' reports / notifications.
- Open or secret persecution.
- By asking people who were regarded as more "credible" or "objective", for example officials or Sunnis.
Typical punishment methods
The Ottomans also had different methods of punishment against Qizilbāshes. Most of the punishments took place by fabricating a reason to kill them. These false accusations were often led into the formal procedures to make them seem more realistic. In cases where the accused Qizilbāshes had many sympathizers or relatives, the Ottoman regime tried to avoid riots by not killing too many at a time.
Some of the most common punishments were:
- Expulsion: Many Qizilbāshs were expelled to Cyprus and cut off from their villages and families, but the Qizilbāshes who were halifes were executed immediately. The most typical displacement locations were Cyprus, Modon, Coroni, Budun(?) and Plovdiv.
- Imprisonment: Some were also jailed and then usually expelled to Cyprus to cut them off from their families.
- Forced labor: A second method of punishment was to send Qizilbāshs for forced labor on galleys (Kürek mahkumiyeti) where they should work as oarsmen.
- Drowning: Some Qizilbāshes was executed by being drowned in the Halys River (Kızılırmak), others were executed "on the spot". Other times Qizilbāshs were executed with the sole purpose, to deter other Qizilbāshs and give them a "lesson".
- Execution: This method, often termed siyaset or hakkından gelme in the Ottoman archives, was perhaps the most widely used method of punishment of Qizilbāshes.
- Stoning: Although stoning was normally only used against people who had committed adultery, this punishment method was also used on Qizilbāshes. There is an example of a Qizilbāsh named "Koyun Baba" who was stoned because of his faith.
Religious rulings (fatwa)
The first religious statement on the Qizilbāshes was probably issued under Bayezid II within the first years of the 16th century, but the oldest preserved fatwa is the one belonging to Hamza Saru Görez (d. 1512), an Ottoman Mufti of Bayezid II's reign:
O Muslims, know and be aware that the Qizilbāsh people, whose leader is Ismail son of Ardabil has looked down on our Prophet's laws (Sharia), his custom (sunna), the religion of Islam, the religious science and the Qur'an, which tells us what is right and wrong. They have regarded the prohibitions of the Great God as being allowed. They have offended the Holy Qur'an and burned it by throwing it into the fire. They have even seen their own damned leader as God and prostrated to him. They have cursed and denied the caliphate of the noble Abu Bakr and Umar. They have slandered and cursed the Prophet's wife, our mother Aisha. They intend to eradicate the Prophet's laws (Sharia) and the religion of Islam. Their other bad statements and behavior similar to what is mentioned here, is known clearly by both me and the rest of the Islamic scholars. We have therefore in accordance with the rules of the religious law (Sharia) and the rights provided in our books, issued a statement (fatwa) towards this population as being infidel and pagan. It is any Muslims duty to destroy such a population. The holy martyr Muslims who die in this connection are will achieve the highest paradise (Jannat ul-Ala). The infidels who die, will become contemptible and end up in a place in the deepest hell. The condition of this population is worse than the unbelievers (Christian and Jews). The animals that these people butcher or hunt down are impure (murdar), whether it is by falconry, bow or dog. The marriages they make among each other or with other populations are not valid. They have no right to inheritance. If they live in a village, only the Sultan of Islam, has the right to take over their properties and values and their children by slaughtering all the villagers. These values can only be divided between soldiers of Islam. After this collection, one should not listen to their repentances and regrets, but kill all of them. If it is known that there are any one of them or anyone who supports them here in this town, these must be killed. This kind of population is both incredulous and pagan and at the same time harmful. For these two reasons, it is necessary (vajib) to kill them. God helps those who help the religion and harms those who do harm to a Muslim.
Prohibition of the Bektashi Order (1826)
According to historian Patrick Kinross, sultan Mahmud II had knowingly encouraged drummer to revolt as part of the Sultan's "coup against the Janissaries." Through af fatwa, the sultan informed them that he was about to create a new army, organized and trained in accordance with European standards. As expected, the Janissaries then drew mutinied and advanced against the sultan's palace. In the following battle the Janissary barracks took fire because of a heavy artillery attack. This resulted in the killing of 4,000–8,000) Janissaries. The survivors were then either expelled or executed and their possessions were confiscated by the sultan. This event is called Vaka-i Hayriye (The Auspicious Event).
The remaining Janissaries were then executed by beheading in a tower in Thessaloniki, which was later called "Blood Tower". In this context, there was also issued a (fatwa) that allowed the extermination and prohibition of the Bektashi Sufi Order. The former leader of the Bektashi Order, Hamdullah Çelebi, was initially sentenced to death, but then sent into exile in Amasya where his mausoleum exists today. Hundreds of Bektashi tekkes were closed and the working dervishs and babas were either executed or expelled. Some of the closed tekkes were transferred to the Sunni Naqshbandi Order. It all resulted in the execution of 4,000–7,500 Bektashis and the demolition of at least 550 big Bektashi monasteries (dergâh).
The official reason for the prohibition of the Bektashi Order was "heresy" and "moral deviation".
Implications of persecution
The century-long suppression has led to a general fear among Alevis. This has meant that until recently they still have tended to keep their identity hidden from strangers. Their religious assemblies (ayin-i cem) have also been practised secretly with several guards having to keep surveillance. Suppression has also been one of the reasons that Alevis often held their religious assemblies (ayin-i cem) at nights.
It is also noteworthy that most Alevi villages and settlements are very remote. They are usually located in high mountain areas, in deep valleys or surrounded by dense forest areas. Only a minority Alevi villages are located on lush and level plains. It is exactly because of the Ottoman persecution that Alevis have sought refuge in mountains to avoid attracting attention. The Turkish province Tunceli is a good example of this. Tunceli is the province with the highest percentage of Alevis in Turkey and is known for being a "hard penetratable" and barren mountain area.
Moreover, many of the allegations and false rumors that were put into circulation by the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, have survived up to this day. This has resulted in Alevis repeatedly being subjected to verbal attacks and violations in public and on television.
These circumstances have also caused the Alevis to feel like second-class citizens even after the founding of the democratic republic of Turkey. If one presents himself as a Muslim in Turkey, it is still often considered a matter of course that he is a "standard" Sunni Muslim. And Alevis are also often assessed from a Sunni perspective, which is why they often need to explain themselves on issues as why they do not pray in mosques or fast during Ramadan. Many Alevis therefore demand a more tolerant and diversity conscious approach that can recognize and accept Alevis as they are, instead of being redefined and constantly questioned.
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