Haci Bektas Veli


Legendary figures are part of the collective memory of peoples, they allow populations to breathe and taste the sinews of their history with a concreteness that no textbook can match. The presumed as well as the extant deeds of the eponymous religious heroes who appear in the remembered history of Turkey make up such a rich tapestry, which yesterday as today provide a large Turkish public with vivid images of their ancestors as well as their ancestral social institutions.

This certainly is the case with Haci Bektas Veli, an Ottoman "saint" whose origins and life are still not well known but whose endurring stamp on the contemporary Turkish religious imaginary is incontestable. Part of the reason for this persistence is the involvement of this holy man in the events which marked the foundation of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Although we do not know the exact dates of Haci Bektas Veli's life and although he reappears in narratives separated by large stretches of time it can be stated with confidence that he was a typical leader of the Turkmen tribal migrants from Central Asia who, in successive cumulative waves changed the population structure of Asia Minor. These events occurred between the 11th and 15th centuries. Islam had reached Central Asia by the 9th century but it was only by entering the more central Islamic cultural centers of West Asia that the Turkmen began to acquire a more than superficial knowledge of their religion. Met with and treated with contempt by the earlier settled population of the cities and by their political leaders who had borrowed Iranian culture as a tool of urbanity the Turkmen clustered around their own Sheiks who, long before, had taken up the role of missionaries for Islam in Central Asia. In Anatolia it was the same missionary sheikhs (known as Babas) who worked to synthesize the pre-lslamic religious elements that still prevailed in Turkmen beliefs with the demands of puritanical, orthodox Islam which frowned on what it saw as Turkmen magical practices. The Babas influence was enormous and rivaled that of the military leaders and the prestige of the Seljuk rulers. These, although of Turkic origins had adopted aspects of Iranian culture and used the Turkmen as convenient military contingents.

Like many dervishes of the same origin Haci Bektas was also a mouthpiece for the social grievances of the Turkmen, exploited as they were by the rulers. We know that he was involved in the social upheaval against the Seljuk rulers headed by a certain Baba Ilyas (c. 1240).

The influence of Hacl Bektas was solidly institutionalized through his identification with a religious - sufi, mysticalorganization, i.e. the Bektashi order. This order took over the mission of making better Muslims of groups for whom Islam was still a superficial veneer hiding many heterodox practices. However, it only assumed its final form in the 16th century at the time of the leadership of Balim Sultan. The use of "sultan " here is simply a connotation of prestige and influence. The Bektashi had already begun to take over the religious patronage of a new Ottoman military formation, the janissaries at an earlier stage. These were the elite troops of the Ottoman Sultan. The organization was well established by the reign of Murad ll (1446-51).

The janissary system was founded on the recruitment of young, able boys from Christian families who were later converted to Islam and integrated into Ottoman society by a live-in stint with Turkish families. They were further integrated into the Ottoman politico-military system by training received in their barracks. The earlier experience of integrating lessons into central orthodoxy having prepared the Bektashi for this additional task thereafter they became a more general instrument of the Ottoman government in promoting Islamic orthodoxy in the emerging Ottoman Empire.

The connection between the janissaries and Haci Bektas Veli was symbolized by the headgear of the janissaries which was a sleeve-like hat of white felt (bork in Turkish) with a top part of angora wool folded towards the back (yatirtma). This was supposed to symbolize the cap of the simple felt coat worn by Hacl Bektas (kepenek).

It appears that although in the short run the Bektashi order was successful in bringing a number of heterodox groups into the central Islamic path, in the long run the order, itself succumbed to heterodoxy. Various authors have pointed out the Bektashi's incorporation into their rites of features of popular mysticism and their far-reaching disregard for Muslim ritual and worship which also includes their cavalier attitude towards obligatory prayer.

The link between the janissaries and the Bektashi order as patron and protector continued until the beginning of the 19th century. The janissarie's increasing insubordination and their involvement in political cabals at the time when a number of sultans were attempting to create a disciplined army on the Western model made them increasingly unpopular with Ottoman sultans and reforming statesmen. Reformers also preferred a middle of the road orthodox Islam as an ideology to be used for the mobilization and unification of theirMuslim subjects. Eventually, Sultan Mahmud II decimated the janissaries by the use of the cannon with which he destroyed their barracks (1826).

The janissary corps was abolished and the Bektashi order proscribed. Their property was transferred to the rival Naksibendi order. However this does not seem to have stopped the underground activities of the Bektashi during the 19th century.

Ironically, while the alliance of the janissary corps and the Bektashi worked in an anti-reformist direction, the ideas of the Bektashi -by themselves and due to their heterodox content- had point of contact with the liberal thought of the philosophers of 18th century France and what this meant was that the Bektashi could establish loose contacts with one of the networks that carried the ideas of the 18th century philosophers, namely the Freemasons. It appears that this link can be followed in the era which followed the official instauration of a period of social, economic and political reforms in 1839, the period which is known in Turkish history as the Tanzimat.

Both prominent reforming statesmen and their more liberal adversaries appears as Freemasons during the 19th century when French and English Freemasons established branches in Istanbul. This membership increased in the last years of the 19th century and among the group of opponents to Sultan Abdulhamid 11 (1876-1909) known as the Young Turks.

The Turkish Republic banned all religious orders but they seem to continue to live underground in contemporary Turkey.

Once more we see here the viability of deeply anchored world-views in sections of the Turkish population. Such a persistence certainly deserves more study of the myths and symbols which serve as a social anchor for the contemporary Turks.

source: SKYLIFE 8/92