July 24, 2003

Kurds and Alevis

I came across this interesting paper while looking up information on the Kurds, who are, I believe, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state.

Jason Smith, the paper's author, notes that many Kurds adhere to something called the "Cult of Angels," of which the Alevis are a sect. He also notes that perhaps 20 percent of the Kurds living in Turkey (perhaps at some point we will refer to this as occupied territory) are Alevis, although he does not say what percentage of Alevis are Kurdish. The erudite Smith tells us more about the Cult of Angels:

Izady describes the cults as "indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquity and originality, each of which is a variation on and permutation of an ancient religion that can loosely be labeled the 'Cult of Angels' (Izady 137)." He describes the doctrine of the Cult of Angels:

"All denominations of the cult, past and present, hold a fundamental belief in luminous, angelic being, of ether, numbering seven, that protects the universe from an equal number of balancing dark forces of matter. Another shared belief, and a cornerstone of the cult, is the belief in the transmigration of souls through numerous reincarnations (Izady 137)."

"The cult," Izady writes, "is a genuinely universal religion. It views all other religions as legitimate manifestations of the same original idea of human faith in the [Universal] Spirit...Thus, a believer in the Cult has little difficulty being associated with Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or any other religion, as to him these are all just other versions of the old idea (Izady 138)." There seems to be a close relationship between Islam and the Cult, but it also seems evident that the Cult is neither a part of nor even an offshoot of Islam, as it predates Islam. Granted, the cult does contain some characteristics of Islam. However, the cult is very widespread, and absorbs aspects of the many religions that it comes in contact with and has come in contact with.

An old idea, indeed. Interestingly, Smith also tells us,

The Medes from which the Kurds originated were Zoroastrians. Since that time, the three great middle eastern religions have successively attempted to proselytize the Kurds. Mehrad Izady writes,

"Exiled Jews, according to the Talmud, were granted permission by the Jewish authorities to proselytize and succeeded spectacularly in converting nearly all of central Kurdistan to Judaism. Christianity was even more successful. Large numbers of Kurds in far Western and Central Kurdistan converted to Christianity. The introduction of Christianity was soon followed by Islam, which added further to the religious diversity of Kurdistan (Izady 131)."

Apparently, some of that diversity is preserved in the heterodox beliefs of the Alevi sect.

Posted by Ideofact at July 24, 2003 11:37 PM

bill, you sound like you're describe yezidis more than alevis. yezidism of course is strictly a kurdish religion and even more persecuted than the alevis.

Posted by: razib at July 26, 2003 12:30 AM

Yeah, most of the post was about the Yezedis, the title was probably misleading. However, the author of the paper I cited argues that Alevis were a sect of Yezedis, something I hadn't heard before.

Posted by: Bill at August 12, 2003 11:14 PM

This "Cult of Angels" is Mehrdad Izady's term to describe general religious trends within the various tribes of Kurdistan. As is the case in so many translations, certain terms that Izady uses to describe Kurdish religions and sects miss the mark. The Yezidis, Alevis, and Yarsanis, as well as the Baha'i faith and the Magian influence in the Jesus myth, all fall within the Kurdish and earlier magian sphere of influence. Also I want to add that there is evidence that the Magi of Media were NOT Zoroastrians. The rugged and fiercely independent Median tribes of the Zagros mountains were opposed to the official Persian state religion. There has always been a tension between the civilized plains dwellers and the peoples of the mountains. I would refer you to THE KURDS - A CONCISE HANDBOOK by Mehrdad Izady. The author shows that this tension goes back all the way to the mythical and semi-legendary time of Gilgamesh. Izady describes how the Cedar forests of the Zagros mountains were sverely depleted as early as 1000 B.C. in order to provide beams and other building materials for the assyrian and Babylonian city temples and palaces. I spit on the memory of those austentatious fools and I pray that Nabi Khizr bestows knowledge upon the hearts and minds of humans so that they work to preserve what is left of the highland forests.

Posted by: Hamilton Sarain at August 28, 2003 08:55 PM

Thanks for pointing out the book -- I'll see if I can track it down.

I'm certainly a conservationist, although isn't there a statute of limitations for holding civilizations of the past in contempt for the environmental damage they did?

Posted by: Bill at August 28, 2003 10:42 PM

Well I made that "Nabi Khizr" comment because I grew up in a semi-rural setting and I find pece and tranquility in the mountains, forests, and other wide-open spaces. The comment was not all in seriousness. I am well aware of the reality of modern life. For a few years I have been digesting what I learned about the Kurdish and median Magi influences over the centuries on different religions. I have a strong affinity with the philosophy that good and evil, pleasure and pain, light and darkness, are all part of the whole. There is a struggle in this life between "good" and "evil", order and chaos, harmony and imbalance. I'm sure this is not an idea unique to the Kurds. However, I have found in Alevi and other Kurdish-influenced teachings that the teachers and saints have a way to get right to the heart of the matter - the essence of all religions. Many Alevis do not believe in the literal existence of jannah(paradise) and jehinnom(hell) that Muhammad described with such vivid imagery. What is most important is this life and what kind of life we will pass on to future generations. I would refer you to the last few episodes in the 1001 Nights(Alif Laylat wa Laylah). Dunyazad goes through a series of garment changes which symbolizes the different religions that influenced the people of Kurdistan. Ultimately, Dunyazad(Dunya-zad - the World; or Dun-Yazad - the garment of the Angel of Media) strips away her garments and lies nude in the nuptial chamber as she awaits union with Shahzaman(Shah-zaman - Time). many of us have moved beyond the oppressive and false doctrines of state religions to grasp the perennial truth and live a secular lifestyle. Just as Danile Quinn writes in BEYOND CIVILIZATION, "there is not any one right way to live," and I hope more and more people adopt the new tribalism and "walk away from the pyramid." We must look forward to a new way of life because silly notions of an imaginary afterlife will keep so many people complacent and content with the status quo. I deny the resurrection, and I know that "eternal life" can only be experienced here and now in this LIFE. I am grateful for what I learned from Alevi and other Kurdish "Sufi" teachings.

As for the matter of environmentalism, the information in Izady's book is just an example of how far back human degradation of the environment can be traced. Will we ever learn? This entire earth needs our care. We have no choice but to practice stewardship in order to ensure a good way of life for generations to come.

Alright... that's enough idealism. I have to get back to the practicalities of life... paying the rent... paying the bills...

Posted by: Hamilton Sarain at September 6, 2003 01:57 PM

All this crap is ultimately irrelevant. I make arrogant statements about the "Jesus myth" and try to come across as some kind of secular humanist. I look at the media here in the United States. I look at the predominant secular culture. It's based on image, money-grubbing rampant capitalism, self-indulgence, and self-serving comfort-seeking materialism. John Calvin was right about the inherent depravity of mankind. There is none without sin... We sin against each other, against ourselves, and against God's good creation. For anyone who chances to read this message, which is one of many links that will be found upon typing my name into a search engine, this will be the last little message I type for some time. It's November 15th, 2003 and I don't want to have any more to do with the internet. I prefer reality. I've had enough of this cyberspace virtual reality crap. I am a man with many doubts. I offer all that doubt, as well as all my frustration, anger, jealousy, envy, and other negative emotions to God. Jesus Christ is Lord - the image of God. My faith is weak, but I have a good understanding. I pray that the Love of God will transform my life and heal me, so that I may live for others with lovingkindness.

Read Psalm 36... I have read it often as of late...

Posted by: hamilton sarain at November 15, 2003 07:50 PM

Psalm 37 that is...

Posted by: hamilton sarain at November 15, 2003 07:51 PM