The former Ottoman world is home to many communities of Muslim religious minorities that have been variously deemed heterodox deviants from the acknowledged schools of Islamic law. Narratives about them have focused on a certain impurity or syncretism in their religious practices. One such group is the Kizilbash/Alevi community of Anatolia. From the perspective of Ottoman rulers and statesmen, Kizilbash groups were often seen as politically dangerous heretics to be stamped out, or at the very least reformed. For Protestant missionaries, they were one of many communities in the empire seen as not wholly Muslim, descendants of past Christians or pagans ripe for conversion. With the rise of ethnic Turkish nationalism, another offshoot of this narrative emerged, which posited Alevis as stewards of the pre-Islamic spirituality of Turks from Central Asia. These disparate narratives shared a focus, not on who the Alevis were, but rather why they were not proper Muslims.
In Ottoman History Podcast Episode #148, entitled “Beyond Heterodoxy: Kizilbash/Alevis in Ottoman Anatolia,” Ayfer Karakaya-Stump challenges these views, and the latter nationalist narrative developed by Fuat Köprülü in particular. She argues that the Kizilbash movements that emerged in the borderlands region of Eastern Anatolia during the Ottoman period built on pre-existing Sufi networks affiliated with specific lineages.
Karakaya-Stump highlights in particular the acute problem of sources within the historiography surrounding Alevism in the Ottoman Empire. Few studies have cited sources produced within Alevi communities themselves as significant parts of their analysis. In fact, many have suggested that such sources do not exist. However, Karakaya-Stump has worked extensively with sources scattered among different collections maintained by the various Alevi lineages of modern Turkey. This work demystifies to a large extent the discourses surrounding the history of these communities.
Ayfer Karakaya-Stump is Assistant Professor of History at the College of William & Mary.
Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University researching the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East.
Listen to Episode 148 of the Ottoman History Podcast, “Beyond Heterodoxy: Kizilbash/Alevis in Ottoman Anatolia,” featuring Ayfer Karakaya-Stump.