Project Associate Mohammad Sagha writes on the Bektashi Shi'a community based in Michigan, USA for the Visions Blog. He explores debates on orthodoxy and heterodoxy within Islam and the need to examine the diversity and pluralism within modern Shi’ism which is often overlooked in larger debates of Islam and the Muslim world.
By Mohammad Sagha
“What will you write about the Bektashis?” the Dervish asks me with a smile. The afternoon sun is bearing down on us as we are standing outside of the small tomb dedicated to the previous Babas, or spiritual guides of this small but important Muslim religious community in Taylor, Michigan. The suburbs of metropolitan Detroit is a far ways from the Adriatic Sea and the serene mountainous of the Balkans where this Albanian community of Shi’a Muslims originally immigrated from. The Bektashi community in Michigan is a historic one with their religious center and community formally established in 1954 when a small number of Bektashis gathered funds and purchased a rural property which was to serve as its Tekke, or religious center for the growing needs of its community.
This community’s history, stemming from the religiously diverse and rich environment of the eastern Mediterranean, is rooted in the Bektashi Twelver Shi’a Sufi order bearing the thirteenth-century eponymous founder’s name, Hajji Bektash Veli, a charismatic 13th century Muslim saint and descendent of the Prophet Muhammad from Khurasan (northwest Iran/Central Asia) who attracted a massive following, particularly in Anatolia and the Balkans which is considered to be the historical heartland of the Ottoman Empire. It was from the Balkans and eastern Europe that Devshirme system—forced conscription of young boys into the slave soldier corps of the Ottoman Empire—was centered. This system, which may have been inspired by the Byzantine practice of forcibly conscripting 1/5 of the children in Slav and Albanian areas, was crucial to the history of the famed Janissary corps of which the Bektashi Sufi order was the dominant religious affiliation of its members.
Hajji Bektash was part of a larger Turkic migration of religious saints (Babas) who migrated from their Central Asian homelands due mainly to political circumstances and entered an ethnic, linguistic and religiously eclectic environment in the eastern Mediterranean which was also intimately linked with the surrounding regions of the Caucases, the Iranian plateau, and Mesopotamia. While the exact origins of the Bektashi order are the subject of scholarly debate, what is clear is the highly esoteric, mystical, and Islamic universalistic tendencies of the Bektashi movement and its similar “Sufi” counterparts which can generically be linked to the broader Sufi mystical revival in the Muslim world at this time.
As with many other esoterically oriented movements, the question of orthodoxy and heterodoxy comes to the fore when discussing Bektashism. Since Bektashis—who are linked to the umbrella of Twelver “Alevi Shi’ism” prominent in Turkey and the Levant—do not practice the same Islamic rituals according to a law school (madhhab) as the vast majority of the Muslim world (which the mainstream of Twelver Shi’as and Sunnis alike follow), uncomfortable questions arise pertaining to their Muslim identity (or lack thereof) within the larger Muslim body politic. Since Islamic orthodoxy tends to be understood through ritual practice in addition to standard doctrinal beliefs, Islamic insider-outsider dynamics tend to arise with groups such as the Bektashis whose vast majority of members are not required to follow Islamic law—only a small percent of Bektashis ascend the Sufi order’s hierarchy and are initiated into the ritualistic practices of devotees of the path. There are of course, historical reasons behind this which are in part related to mystical groups such as the Bektashis aiming to protect the promulgation of their doctrines to the wider Muslim society around them which could provoke violent persecution or backlash towards this vulnerable religious minority.
One of the first things visitors will notice upon visiting the beautifully decorated Bektashi tekke is the prominently displayed Dhul-Fiqar in the center of the room, the infamous two-pronged sword of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. This symbol—representing the legendary strength, justice, and nobility of Imam Ali—permeates the Shi’a world and can be seen represented in various art, jewelry, and pictorial representations across the Shi’a worlds.
What makes Bektashi Islam—alongside other types of Alawi and Alevi Islam—so fascinating is its hybrid modern identity which is very difficult to box into any singular category. What became quite clear in conversation with the Dervish head of the Betashi center was the thoroughly Twelver Shi’a beliefs of the Bektashis. Their devotion to the Family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt), to Imam Ali as the fountainhead of esoteric knowledge, to the tragedy at Karbala and the line of twelve Imams had no difference with other Twelver Ja’fari Shi’a Muslims around the world. As their website and publications very clearly state, they adhere completely to the twelve Imams, their orthodox accepted birth and death dates, mainstream Shi’a sources regarding their biographies, and believe in the Mahdi and “Sahib al-Zaman” as Muhammad b. al-Hasan the son of Imam Hasan al-Askari and Lady Narjis.
However, one of the main differences which exist is the variant Betashki scholarly-clerical structure which differs from other Twelver Shi’as since the Bektashi hierarchy is based around a Sufi order rather than the contemporary system of clerical Marja’iyya (Grand Ayatollahs) that the majority of other Twelver Shi’as follow. The reasons behind this are rooted in how historical circumstances have led to diversity in ways Shi’ism is practiced and the religious leaders of transnational Shi’ism are chosen. Cut off from the Iranian heartland and project of the Safavids under which particular forms of orthodox Shi’ism were practiced—i.e. a religious government ruling in collaboration with clerical elite practicing the Ja’fari legal madhhab—the Bektashis were in a very precarious circumstance in which the Ottoman Sultan and his Sunni clerical allies considered some forms of Twelver Shi’ism as heretical and were engaged in a vicious struggle framed in terms of religious animosity against the Safavids. This meant that certain forms of Twelver Shi’ism practiced in Ottoman domains had to adapt to the socio-political circumstances and pressures imposed on them from the outside. These historical circumstances affected the trajectory of Shi’as living in Ottoman lands and resulted in different rituals and orthodoxy developing for today’s Alevi and Bektashi Shi’as who did not have the same access to formal religious clerical oversight as their Shi’a brethren in Safavid domains.
The “Dervish” (a rank within the Bektashi Order) who arranged for our visit in Michigan—Dr. Eliton Pasaj—was both knowledgeable and very forthcoming about the practices and challenges facing Bektashi Muslims in the contemporary period. I was deeply impressed by his sincerity and openness regarding the beliefs and practices of his community. Due to the thorough secularization Albanians underwent in the 20th century under communist dictatorship, he was dealing with a complex set of issues confronting his community regarding conceptions of Islamic rituals, practice, and orthodoxy. While Dr. Pasaj, as a scholarly community leader, would have liked to see normalized certain practices, such as abstinence from alcohol, he was facing pushback from some community members who conflated such beliefs with Salafi-Wahhabi Islamism and similar mischaracterizations of adherence to Islamic norms. Regardless, he himself had gone on Hajj pilgrimage, and other Bektashis also regularly undertake pilgrimage to the tombs of the Imams, including to Karbala, Iraq, where the tomb of Imam Husayn is located.
Often, when discussing the Bektashis and Alevi Muslims, it is said that they practice a heterodox Islam which is a mix of “Islam,” shamanistic practices, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and other “non-Islamic” beliefs. This understanding, however, is generally a type of scholarly categorization of Bektashis and Alevis who, from their own perspective, are in fact practicing normative Islam—viewing them as heterodox or not authentically "Islamic" is a view from the outside of their community. Orthodoxy/heterodoxy categorizations stem from insider-outsider dynamics; and understanding of Bektashim is almost exclusively from an outsider perspective.
As we stood outside the tomb of the previous Babas, internally adorned with verses from the Quran, which the Bektashi community in Michigan had built, we discussed pilgrimage practices, different expressions of spirituality, and the pressures Muslims around the world were facing from Salafi-Wahhabi persecution and discrimination. Eliton looked at me and stated with confidence that even if other Muslims did not consider him to be a Muslim, he was proud to be one and that no matter what others thought, they would continue to practice Islam and stay true to their heritage and genuine beliefs.
This community of Bektashi Twelver Shi’as in Taylor, Michigan—just a 20 minute drive from Dearborn which hosts the largest concentration of Arab Muslims in North America, most of whom are Twelver Shi’as—gives us much to think about as Americans and as Muslims living in a pluralistic society such as the United States. Despite their proximity to a thriving Muslim community just minutes away, institutional linkages were non-existent and there was an almost complete lack of outreach between the communities which pointed to the lack of intra-faith dialogue between Muslim-Americans who practically shared a wide range of experiences as members of American civil society. This is particularly relevant as minority groups tend to be very insular and inward looking. The tendencies within such communities would be to keep the communities inward looking and largely aloof from other diverse expressions of Islam. However, as this brief visit demonstrated, it is extremely beneficial to the health and understanding of our communities to have public outlets which connect diverse Muslim groups with one another and can spark conversations about pluralism and the core messages which can connect us all together.
Considering Bektashim as a genuine variant expression of Twelver Shi’ism helps us understand diversity and unity in Islam and within Shi’ism itself which is all the more important given that diversity and plurality within Shi’ism is often overlooked within global Shi’a communities. As minorities both within the Muslim world as well as within American society, the diversity and unity in Islam and Shi’ism is fully on display when interacting with the Bektashi Shi’as—we would do well to listen to their stories and share our collective narratives with one another in understanding how diversity, ritual practice, and belief within Islam can exist in pluralistic social contexts.
Mohammad Sagha is an Associate with the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a PhD candidate in Islamic History and Civilization at the University of Chicago. He is also a Co-Director of the Shi'i Studies Group at the University of Chicago. Previously he was an Iran Project Associate and the Iran Project Coordinator at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is additionally an editor for SHARIAsource at the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. Follow him on twitter @mosagha.
 David Nicolle, The Janissaries (London: Osprey, 1995), 8.
 John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes, (Hartford, Conn: Hartford Seminary Press, 1937), 40-51.
 See: Marshall Hodgson, Venture of Islam, Volume II: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).
 “The Twelfth Imam: Muhammad al-Mahdi (May Allah hasten his unveiling!),” https://www.teqeusa.org/the-twelve-imams/the-twelfth-imam/.
 Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture, and History of Shi’ite Islam (London: IB Tauris, 2002), 18.