Life and Death in Alevism

Historian and author Etem Xemgîn, who is known for his work on Alevism, Mazdaism and Zoroastrianism recently passed away. His rich research included in-depth work on socio-economic structures, traditions and customs among the Kurds. Similar to other communities in the region, the historically oppressed Alevi community has been the victim of assimilationist and genocidal nation-state policies, which include the conscious distortion of their history and realities. In this sense, many different and diverse communities have been referred to as “Alevi” (or “Alawite” in English) in Turkey, despite having little to do with each other. Still today, academic work insists on referring to Alevism as a “syncretic”, “heterodox” and “mystical” sub-group of Shi’ite Islam. While there are indeed followers of Ali or Twelver Islam among those who have been referred to as “Alevi”, it is obvious that others, in particular the Qizilbash Alevis among the mountain-dwelling Kurds, are inheritors of Zarathustrian/Zoroastrian-influenced, naturalistic philosophies, which have little to do with Islam. Etem Xemgîn was one of the first to break with the dominant “Alevis are Muslims” thesis. His revolutionary research and work have been influential in the revival of Alevi consciousness and its emancipation from Turkish-Islamic assimilation policies imposed by the state over the past century and which continue with the Erdogan administration.

The following interview with Etem Xemgîn was conducted by Meral Çiçek in 2012 and first published in Turkish in PolitikART, issue #89.


What is the meaning of graves in the context of social memory?

The culture of graves is in fact a culture of history. This is because graves, the places where ancestors are laid to rest, constitute people’s past. Connection to one’s past in a sense means connection to one’s history. Those who do not respect these graves do not respect their past. The one who does not respect and claim their ancestors cannot claim and defend their country and history. Loyalty to one’s ancestors and their spheres of life is a culture. But when this culture disappears, a person’s ties to their past, the connection to their homeland get lost as well.  This is not a right approach towards faith or life. They say, “not your birthplace, but the place that nurtures you is your country”. That’s fine, but if you lose your ties to your ancestors, to your past, what kind of meaning remains in life?  The same goes for societies. Humans can defend their future to the extent to which they are conscious of their past. After all, humans think and resolve their problems with their knowledge and experience. Therefore, both our past as well as our future are hidden in our graves. For example, Zarathustra says: “The ignorant see everything, but the knowledgeable see the divine in everything that they look at”. Alevis, too, say “If you know yourself, your face is divine (huda/xweda); if you don’t know yourself, God/Truth (Hak)* is far from you” [translator’s note: The term “God” refers to a notion of divine-ness that differs from the God of the Abrahamitic religions].

What kind of burial rituals exist in the geography inhabited by the Kurds?

Long time ago in Mesopotamia, people believed not in the evolutionary, but in the transformative character of nature. The idea was maintained that everything constitutes a source of nourishment for another entity. For example, animals eat each other, humans eat animals, but animals eat human flesh, too. Transformation. That is why the dead were left on so-called “towers of silence”, clean rocky structures. After birds and other animals were done eating the dead body, the bones would be picked up and buried, perhaps after two years or so. Later on, when people realized that this rite brought diseases to the people, they began burying the dead.

Death culture is a culture that is connected to faith. Every faith or belief system has its own ways of treating the dead. Christians pray in their churches, Jews in their synagogues, Muslims in their mosques. Alevis who lived in cities in Turkey used to bring their dead to mosques until recently. Of course, this resulted in lots of contradictions. More recently, the dead are being brought to the cemevi [translator’s note: there is controversy among Alevis regarding the authenticity of the cemevi as Alevi places of culture and spirituality, particularly in the light of the state’s attempt to institutionalize the Alevi community for facilitated control and assimilation]. Since Islam is the dominant religion in the area, Alevism is influenced and often supressed by it. So even when the dead are brought to cemevi, the burial rituals can sometimes resemble Islamic rituals. For example, it sometimes happens that the dede [translator’s note: the dede, contemporary male Alevi spiritual authorities, are considered by Etem Xemgîn to be authoritatian, patriarchal entities that emerged as a result of Ottoman missionarism and that deviate from egalitarian aspects of Alevi philosophy] carry out certain customs, but afterwards recite the “Al-Fatiha” sura and prayers from the Qur’an. Of course, these things are not considered appropriate by Alevism. In my opinion, Alevism has nothing to do with Islam. Due to their co-habitation, Islam and Alevism surely must have influenced each other, but their fundamental values, attitudes, approaches and life ways are separate. We are speaking of two separate, different beliefs.

What kind of life philosophy does Alevism entail?

In our Alevism, there is the fundamental rule of “four main secrets”, or four basic elements. These are fire, air, water and earth. They constitute the fundamental source of all known existences in the universe. Because they constitute the fundamentals of life, they are considered sacred in Alevism and must therefore not be defiled in any way. For example, it is not permitted to put down a fire by blowing it out. When we were children, we were told “Don’t blow at fire, it will wound your lips”. Because fire is sacred, the dirty breath of the human body must not soil it. In the same way, earth, water and air must not be polluted.

As Zarathustra says, if the source of a life is not pure, that life itself cannot be pure either. To the extent to which a thing’s source of life is impure, its life, too, will be soiled. These fundamental aspects essentially come from Zarathustrian belief.

What do you think about the topic of death?

In my opinion, what we refer to as death is qualitatively not an end. It is the dispersion of an organized existence. The human body is a form of organization. An organized-ness that comes out of the together-ness and action of different organs in one place. As long as each organ fulfils its duties, life continues. But once one of these organs is no longer able to work, the other organs get affected, they weaken and finally, this social organization disperses. So, this dispersion simply implies the end of this organized-ness, but this does not mean the end of a life. These dissolving structures return to their respective essential matters to re-configure themselves in new existences and entities.

For example, the body structure comes from this fundamental secret; the body comes from the earth returns to it. Whatever comes from air, vaporizes and returns to air. The water and blood in our body re-unites with water. What we call soul, namely body heat and life energy become heat again. This comes from the sun itself. You know how they say that the soul comes from God? God is the sun! That is where the soul comes from and where it will return to. The fire culture in Zarathustrian belief continues in Alevism. Since the soul comes from God, it is pure, divine and a part of God. This increasingly develops into mysticism. The philosophy of “one bite, one coat” [translator’s note: this is an idiom for “just enough to keep body and soul together”], namely the philosophy of non-indulgence is based on this. At the heart of mysticism is the desire to remain as pure as the soul, to become divine. Staying as pure as the soul that comes from God requires mastery over the passions of the body, which comes from the earth. Therefore, one must refrain from desire and lust. Seclusion is related to this. Retreating for 40 days with a bite to eat is seen as a way of focusing on divine thought. We call those who reach this state “saintly”. In our regions, this culture still prevails. Some call such individuals crazy, some call them poor. They have no possession, marriage or passion. They will have a bite to eat, if they find some. They are seen as holy in a way. Once they die, their graves become accepted as sites of visitation. People have faith in them and view them as saints.

If life and death are in a constant loop, how come death is so painful?

People can get used to everything, but they can never get used to death. This is despite them being confronted with death everywhere and at all times. The human being constantly stands between life and death, we can die at any moment. Even though we are conscious and aware of this, we fail to develop familiarity, we never see death as something normal, even though death is a normal aspect of nature. But people suffer incredible sadness, experience great pain when they lose a loved one, a family member. That is why laments are sung; for days and weeks, people grieve after the dead. This is part of human nature. We adapt and get used to everything, except death.

Everything must return to its self. This is the case in every formation. Humans, too, are a formation. The end of this formation is not equivalent to the end of everything. Everything that returns to its essence continues its existence there. That which determines life is movement. The smallest atomic nucleus in the universe is in a state of movement due to imbalance. Life is a state of movement. In this universe, there is movement in all that exists. In stones, in the soil, everywhere. While this life continues, it is the human entity that returns to its essence. It finds life again in a new formation. Concerning death, Zarathustra has a doctrine of eternal life. He days: “You are the co-incidental creation of the coming together of two people, but whether you live eternally is in your hands”. You will live as long as a value that you have created continues to exist.

He also says “Don’t be sad, don’t cry on the first three days. Because the departing soul might lose its way during those three days”. So, in Zarathustrian faith, you do not mourn during the first three days. In my opinion, this means the following: the sorrow of a person who has not cried during the first three days after a loved one’s death is likely to have been soothed significantly.  They are less likely to suffer more sadness from that point on. I see this custom as a way of reducing the violence of the sadness in the first moments of experiencing the death of a loved one. Since death is a natural phenomenon, I believe that Zarathustra’s aim is to help people handle it more maturely.