Dynamics of Ritual Reflexivity in the Alevi Cem of Istanbul

in Religion and Society

ABSTRACT

The Alevi cem is a communal ritual that is performed weekly among members of a major religious minority in Turkey. Although formerly celebrated exclusively in rural village communities, this ritual became publicly accessible at the end of the 1980s when Alevi cultural associations were opened in the urban centers of Turkey. Since it was made public, the cem has undergone significant changes in the internal dynamics of its performance and in the formal design of its liturgy. By addressing multiple audiences in its urban milieu, the performance of the cem reveals moments of ritual reflexivity. Based on ethnographic research at a cultural association in Istanbul, this article focuses on a cem performance that led to ruptures and mishaps in the presentation of some ritual acts. We analyze the ritual leader’ s response to these incidents and the theoretical implications of this account for the study of ritual reflexivity.

Through previous decades, the Anatolian Alevis, one of the largest religious minorities of contemporary Turkey, underwent a considerable transformation.1 The political vacuum that emerged in 1980 after a coup detat by the Turkish military, accompanied with the rise of Islamist politics, led to discussions of ethnic minority issues that prompted Alevis to redefine their social and political identity. The so-called Sivas event in 1993—when radical Sunnis, who consider Alevis as heretics, set fire to a hotel where participants of an Alevi cultural festival stayed and massacred more than 30 people—became a turning point for the formation of Alevi identity. This event triggered the religious identification of Alevi hometown associations (köy dernekleri) and led to the development of Alevi organizations as a response to this act of terror (Şahin 2001: 102–112; Sariönder 2000: 180–184; Sökefeld 2008: 116–144).

Since then, the struggle of the Alevis began to be publicly recognized (Sariönder 2000: 186187). This move into the public sphere has been a new experience for many Alevis who began to publicly commit to their religious associations, whereas previously Alevis had been accustomed to hiding their religious identity for centuries (Kehl–Bodrogi 1988: 121, 230; Markoff 1986: 42; Vorhoff 1995: 64–68). Organized in cultural associations, Alevis started to make their ritual practice intentionally accessible to non–initiated Alevis and to non–Alevis, in contrast to their former practice of secrecy (Erol 2010: 378–386; Kehl–Bodrogi 1988: 187; Vorhoff 1995: 62–70).

The cem, which will be discussed in detail below, gained prominence through this transformation within the Alevi community. The cem is a communal ritual traditionally celebrated exclusively among the initiated members of the Alevi community in their villages (Gokalp 1980b: 754–755; Kehl–Bodrogi 1988: 179–182; Markoff 1986: 53; Vorhoff 1995: 68). Currently performed as a public ritual in Alevi cultural centers, the cem serves as a major means for the Alevis to be recognized as having a distinct religious tradition (Köse 2009: 149–150; Sariönder 2005: 163–165; Sariönder and Kreinath 2008: 106; Sökefeld 2008: 145–177).

The cem underwent changes in both its constitutive parts and overall design, ranging from the modes of performance and participation to the intended audiences. As a response to different audiences in the environs of cities like Istanbul, there have been some collective attempts by the executives of associations and/or by religious leaders (dede) to integrate the different local traditions of the Alevi ritual into a new form of ‘unified’ ritual.2 In this article, we will focus on the story of one dede who created, according to his own claims, a cem ritual that would incorporate a variety of regional traditions. He seamlessly integrated the building blocks of this cem into a new form with the intention that every Alevi would identify something from his or her own tradition, making it impossible to trace this version of the ritual back to one original cem.

As our account will demonstrate, the cem was not only assimilated into the changing circumstances of the urban milieu; it was also transformed into a ritual designed to address highly diversified audiences—both Alevi and non–Alevi—in Turkey’ s public sphere (Sariönder and Kreinath 2008: 103–105). In the following sections, this article conceptualizes reflexive moments during the cem by analyzing one performance in Istanbul that we were allowed to film. We account in our analysis specifically for different modes of ritual reflexivity in the performance of ritual acts and utterance. In doing so, we follow Christian K. Højbjerg (2002b: 1), who defines reflexivity as a means of transformation that serves “to reorganise experience, achieve self–understanding and thus help facilitate a refashioning of the self or social relationships.” We tentatively distinguish between intrinsic and external modes of ritual reflexivity in line with Højbjerg’s (2002a: 58) approach: “One is defined as intrinsic to ritual performance, whereas the other is generated by events that must be considered external to ritual action. Both modes of reflexivity are relevant in accounting for resistance to the purge on religious beliefs and practices.” The following account of a cem ritual aims to further develop those forms by demonstrating how they are intertwined.

In doing so, we describe how subtle changes and modifications in the internal design unfold during performances of the cem. These shifts in ritual interactions help us determine when and where moments of reflexivity emerge in the ritual performance. Here, we focus specifically on forms of ritual interaction and transition, including ruptures and irritations, as adaptive measures for ritual learning. This analysis is intended to reveal how members of the Alevi community adjust and negotiate their practices in situ. In the conclusion, we will assess the theoretical implications of our ethnographic account for the study of modes of ritual reflexivity in more general terms.

Transformations of the Cem in Cultural Associations

In the past, the house in the village where the cem was celebrated was called cemevi (cem house), and any room in the cemevi could be used for that purpose (Gokalp 1980a: 208). Nowadays, in most cultural associations there is a special room reserved for celebrating the cem. This room includes a podium, most commonly located by the wall opposite the entry door, which serves as a sitting place for the ritual leader, his assistant, and the musician. The ritually demarcated space in front of the podium at the center of the ceremonial room is called the meydan (ibid.: 214; Shankland 2003: 116). The meydan is considered a sacred place wherein the main ritual acts are performed (Markoff 1993: 107; McElwain 1993: 146–150; Mélikoff 1994: 66–67). Music plays an important role during the cem, and the instrument typically used is a saz or baglama—different types of a long–necked folk lute with four strings (Erol 2010: 378; Markoff 1993: 96; McElwain 1993: 139). Considered sacred, they are often referred to as ‘the spoken Qur’ an’ or ‘the stringed Qur’ an’ (Arnaud–Demir 2013: 4; De Rosa 2014: 71; Dressler 2003: 117; Şahin 2001: 226).

Traditionally, candles, called delil or çerag, are used during the cem. These candles represent the divine light and are intended to ensure the presence of Caliph Ali during the cem. Often, either three or twelve candles are used. Three refer to the triad of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali. Twelve refer to the Twelve Imams (oniki imam), who comprise a central element of Alevi belief (Gokalp 1980a: 210). The lighting of these candles marks the beginning of the main part of the ritual, and their extinguishing marks the end.

Despite the relative variation in its form and occasion, the liturgical structure of the cem consists of recurrent features unique to its ritual design. Aside from the material objects used, the performance of acts and utterances is structured around ritual obligations called the Twelve Services (oniki hizmet), often assigned differently to men and women. Each service is associated with different duties and possesses a special function and meaning. These services, their names, and their obligations can differ between communities and regions.3 Traditionally, it was an honor for initiated members to be assigned a service.

The postures, gestures, and movements during the cem include ritual sealing (mühürleme or dar) and prostration (secde or niyaz). In the posture of sealing, devotees cross their feet by placing their right big toe on the left, and by clasping their arms in front of their chest with their head slightly bent forward. In the acts of prostration, they place both hands in front of their body while touching the floor with their palms. They kiss their hands and, while bowing down, touch both hands with their forehead. This sequence is commonly performed three times in a quick, continuous motion. In some parts of the cem, devotees also remain in the position of prostration, with their forehead touching their crossed hands.

The ritual dance (semah) is one of the centerpieces of the cem. It consists of ritual movements performed by men and women who revolve around their bodily axis with the intent of achieving mystical unity with Allah. The semah is usually divided into three parts based on the rhythm and pace of the saz player: slow (agirlama), marching (yürüme), and rapid (hizlanma). There is therefore a tendency to interpret the circular motion of the Alevi semah in terms of “the spatial representation of the perfection of attainment, or the completeness of unity” (Stokes 1992: 219).4 Hence, the ritual dance provides Alevis with an identity marker for their form of ritual prayer (Erdemir 2004: 32; McElwain 1993: 137; Shankland 2003: 124, 129).

Moments of Reflexivity in the Cem

In the following account, we will focus on a specific cem performance at the Kartal Cemevi,5 a cultural association on the outskirts of Istanbul, to identify moments of ritual reflexivity. On a Thursday evening in October 2002, we arrived at Kartal Cemevi and met the religious leader Mehmet Dede. When it approached half–past seven, he adjourned to the ceremonial room, where some of the first participants—mostly neighbors—had already gathered. The women were sitting on the left side and toward the middle of the room, while the men were sitting on the right. Some elderly participants were leaning against the walls while also sitting on the floor. As Mehmet Dede entered the room, the whole congregation got up and formed acircle around the meydan, which was marked by a round red carpet inlaid into the green carpet covering the floor.

Opposite the entrance, behind the meydan, was the podium with a desk and microphone. First, Mehmet Dede kneeled in front of the podium, averted from the congregation, and spoke a prayer. Then he kissed his interlaced hands and took a seat. With his right palm flat against his chest, he greeted the congregation by reciting a short prayer, whereupon many participants bowed and responded, “Allah! Allah!”

After completing his prayer, Mehmet Dede bowed. All of the participants kneeled and kissed both of their interlaced hands on the floor in front of them in the ritual gesture of prostration. After all the participants straightened up, Mehmet Dede informed them that the ritual would be recorded via audiovisual devices by some researchers and pointed at us in the gallery.6

Blessings and the Sermon

Since Mehmet Dede had neither an assistant nor a saz player, he performed these two services and played the saz himself. Meanwhile, some women came forward and lined up in front of him. One woman was holding a large tray filled with food donations (lokma). After the lokma was blessed, the women responsible for the food service took it back to a small kitchen.

Once these women returned to their seats, Mehmet Dede began to speak. He announced that he would chant a hymn (nefes) before his sermon (sohbet or muhabbet). Upon completing the hymn, he read a poem (deyif) that touched on themes of hypocrisy (riyakârlik) and pretense (sahtekârlik). He also elaborated on the spiritual poverty of the human being and reminded the congregation about the previous week’ s conversation on faith and cleanliness before announcing the theme for this evening: order (tarikat) and mysticism (tasavvuf). First, he talked about the perfection of the human being, and then he explained mysticism by way of telling a parable. Up to then, everything had gone smoothly without any ruptures.

At that point, however, some latecomers interrupted his speech. Mehmet Dede stopped and permitted four women and a man to come forward to the meydan to get their lokma blessed. Because they had not taken the proper ritual posture, Mehmet Dede expected the women to seal their feet (ayak mühürleme) in order to receive his blessing. After they obeyed in a gesture of adaptive behavior, he blessed their lokma. Three of the four women left the meydan, although they were supposed to stay. The man, on the other hand, remained in his posture with a lowered head and forced the fourth woman to continue standing next to him by holding her arm. Afterward, Mehmet Dede recited a prayer, and the fourth woman begged his pardon publicly. She said that she did not know how to properly behave during the cem. Mehmet Dede replied calmly that this would not be a problem. It would be more important for her to have the desire to learn how to behave correctly.

Once this issue was resolved, Mehmet Dede continued his speech. As if responding to this incident, he talked about the social environment and dignity, including good and evil, freedom of choice, and the destiny of humans. Then he talked about the essence of Alevism and the role of Alevis in the world. He emphasized that attendance at the cem is not sufficient. Rather, one needs to follow the rules of Alevism everywhere. One should demonstrate one’ s belief not only in words but also in deeds.

Mehmet Dede briefly returned to the theme of cleanliness (temizlik), which he admonished should not be understood only in bodily terms. Then he told another parable about the ‘four doors’ (dört kapi) one must go through to become a perfect human being. Based on the parable, Mehmet Dede further developed themes of hypocrisy and pretense. Lastly, he explicated what a religious order is and the qualities someone must have to join it. His whole speech lasted for about three–quarters of an hour, and he completed it by greeting and blessing the whole congregation. Here, the first part of the cem ended.

Reconciliation and the Twelve Services

To assure a seamless performance of the ritual, Mehmet Dede explained the core sequences immediately after having completed his speech. Then he demanded that all participants must be reconciled with each other. He asked if there were any problems among the participants and stated that those who had any should reconcile. Although nobody responded, he asked two more times. He also asked three times if all were in consent with another, and the community replied collectively and loudly in the affirmative. Mehmet Dede continued that it could be that some had debts among each other. Again, he asked three times if creditors were willing to give up their claims, whereupon the community answered in the affirmative again. Afterward, as a sign of reconciliation, everyone bowed to their immediate neighbors and kissed them on their left and right cheeks.

After Mehmet Dede performed a prayer, he stated that he would not call all Twelve Services to come to the meydan—as is usually required—because the service positions were not all filled. This was an instance of adaptive behavior and ritual reflexivity on the part of Mehmet Dede. Instead, he announced that only some services would be performed, whereupon he invited the water service (ibrikçi) to come forward. While two women left the circle to obtain utensils from the kitchen, Mehmet Dede talked about an incident wherein some individuals complained that he would conduct a very difficult cem, so they were not willing to participate. He told them that an inauthentic adoration would find no acceptance before Allah.

Meanwhile, the women had already assembled in the middle of the meydan with a pitcher, a bowl, and a towel in their hands. Mehmet Dede recited a prayer for them, which was repeated three times by the women as they took one step forward with each repetition until they stood directly in front of the podium. One of the women poured water over the hands of Mehmet Dede and held the bowl underneath to catch the runoff while the other woman dried his hands. The women also repeated this ceremony several times for some men sitting in the front row of the circle. Subsequently, the women stepped forward into the middle of the meydan and mutually washed their hands. Mehmet Dede explained the meaning of the handwashing, indicating that a washing ceremony in this public context was done merely for didactic and symbolic purposes. He stated that this ceremony would have a different meaning when performed only with initiated members.

Then the light service (çeragci) was prompted to come to the meydan. A man approached the podium on his knees. While the çeragci took the candleholder, placed it on the podium, and bowed before it, Mehmet Dede gave a brief speech on the meaning of the candlelight, interpreting it as the light of science, education, and enlightenment. Next, the çeragci recited a prayer. While the women of the congregation stood up, the men remained seated. The çeragci lit each of the three candles—first the middle, then the right, and finally the left. At the first candle, he recited a prayer for Allah, at the second, a prayer for Muhammad, and at the third, a prayer for Ali. After a prayer by Mehmet Dede, the çeragci took the candleholder and stood. He recited a prayer alternately with the congregation that entailed the names of the Twelve Imams (düvaz imam). Meanwhile, Mehmet Dede remained in a ritual posture of bowing, with his right hand resting on the left side of his chest. He recited a prayer for the çeragci, who kneeled and placed the candleholder on the podium before moving backward in a bowing posture. In this sequence, the ritual interaction among all participants went very smoothly, and the explication of the meaning of the light did not seem to interrupt the ritual flow.

In the following sequence, Mehmet Dede began to play his saz. While still standing, the women moved to the rhythm. Many held their hands crossed on their chest and bowed their heads. Some of the seated men moved back and forth with their upper body. A small boy sitting to the left of his father looked around but was warned by his father when he started to hold his ears shut. After the hymn, Mehmet Dede recited a prayer whereupon the standing women bowed (dar) while the men prostrated themselves (secde). Mehmet Dede concluded his prayer by saying that all those who were standing and kneeling shall be blessed. Thereafter, the women sat down, some of whom bowed again. Mehmet Dede warned the doorkeeper (kapici) to let nobody in from now on. As we will see below, Mehmet Dede still let latecomers in regardless.

At this point, Mehmet Dede invoked the sweeper service (süpürgeci). A woman wearing a skirt over her pants fetched a broom, came to the fore, and presented herself in the middle of the meydan. With the broom in her right hand, she simulated the act of sweeping the floor, but without touching it. While simulating, she recited a prayer. After she repeated the same movement followed by the same prayer, Mehmet Dede interrupted her. He instructed that the broom must touch the floor. Following this rupture in the ritual performance, she corrected her performance for the third and last turn. After prostrating, she walked backward and sat down. Through these instructions, which clearly created a ritual rupture, Mehmet Dede demonstrated that even in insignificant details the ritual actions must be performed as precisely and properly as possible. Although the publicly performed cem is not socially and religiously binding, he demanded full devotion and commitment. This incidence clearly indicated a moment of intrinsic ritual reflexivity.

Ritual of Repentance

Before worship in the strict sense could begin, Mehmet Dede let the community swear a collective repentance (tövbe duasi), insisting that they should worship with humility coming from the heart. Together with Mehmet Dede, all of the participants raised their hands for adoration. Alternating with the prayer recited by him, the congregation repeated three times in unison, “May Allah forgive our sins! [Tövbe estagfurullah!]” At the end of this repentance prayer, Mehmet Dede prompted the Fatiha prayer, whereupon the congregation recited the first Surah of the Qur’ an. He demanded that this worship not be exercised in disguise, as such would be a mistake. One should repeat the name of Allah with devotion throughout the cem. Even if only for an hour, everyone should raise oneself up from the material world (i.e., the body) and enter oneself (i.e., the soul). Wishing for Allah to accept their prayers, he played the saz and chanted several hymns (nefes). Slowly, some women moved to the rhythm and patted their knees. Although the shift or transition between instruction and performance went without any incident, the following example shows how ritual ruptures can occur anytime, heightening the reflexive attitude among the actors.

During the singing, newcomers arrived and waited next to the doorkeeper to gain admittance. Although Mehmet Dede could see them from the place he occupied, he ignored them; it was the doorkeeper who kept them at the door through his posture and gesture. The rhythm of the saz play accelerated, and some men began to pat their knees. After a series of hymns were completed, the community prostrated while Mehmet Dede recited a prayer. The community responded in unison with the liturgical formula, “Allah! Allah!” Only then did Mehmet Dede allow the newcomers to enter, gesturing with his hand for them to do so. In other words, Mehmet Dede waited to complete the liturgical sequence before he accepted newcomers, helping illustrate which segments could be interrupted. Some of them came to the podium and prostrated right in front of Mehmet Dede before they sat down. Without further pause, Mehmet Dede sang another hymn, and the congregation responded with, “Allah! Allah!” While reciting various hymns and prayers, the congregation prostrated several times.

Ascension of the Prophet and the Ritual Dance

The subsequent ritual sequence exemplifies a form of reflexive attitude among all the participants, who responded with movements and gestures to a hymn about the ascension of Prophet Muhammad (miraçlama). The women stood while the men knelt. Participants imitated specific actions of Prophet Muhammad, which were praised in this hymn. When Mehmet Dede recited “now we hold our hands [fimdi senden el tutalim]” the participants held hands. While singing “Muhammad bound his waist [Muhammet belini bagladi],” the women made a hand gesture as if binding a belt. Singing “bowed down and prostrated [egildi secde kildi],” the women bowed and touched the floor with their right hand, and the men prostrated. At the line “Muhammad stood up [Muhammet ayaga durdu]” all of the men stood. The men bowed again as Mehmet Dede recited “sat down and became calm [oturuben oldu sakin].” At the line “prostrated with all [cümlesine secde kildi]” the men sat again and prostrated while the women bowed and touched the floor with their right hand.

The last sequence of this hymn involves the semah, the ritual dance. Beginning with the line “one drank this syrup [ol çerbetten biri içti],” Mehmet Dede changed the rhythm of his saz play to mark the transition to a new sequence of ritual acts. Four men and four women left their places and went to the meydan. After they hugged and kissed each other, they slowly started to perform the semah while moving counterclockwise in a group circle and raising their hands. As Mehmet Dede accelerated the rhythm of his play, the movements of the dancers accelerated. While rotating around their body axis, the dancers faced the podium in a gesture of respect whenever they passed.

When the semah reached its peak, following the ever–increasing speed of the saz music, a woman and a man were thrown out of balance by their own fast movements. Beating her arms wildly, the woman screamed “Allah! Allah!” and went into a trance. The man began to turn faster and lost his balance, falling to the ground. Immediately, he stood up and continued to dance ecstatically until the rhythm slowed. As Mehmet Dede ended his music, the dancers lined up before him. They all bowed in the ritual posture of sealing their feet (ayak mühürleme) while Mehmet Dede blessed them. He recited a prayer, after which the dancers left the mey-dan again, moving backward. He also blessed all of the participants. The interaction between Mehmet Dede’ s music and the dancers’ bodily movements demonstrated how they interacted and responded to each other in adaptive ways. Both dancers who experienced ecstatic moments regained control of their bodies through the change of musical rhythms and the singing of the hymn. Particularly here it became clear that ecstasy was considered one of the possible outcomes of this dance, which would quite likely lead to mishaps and improvisation and create unanticipated moments of ritual reflexivity throughout the performance.

After the semah was completed, the ritual mode of interaction changed considerably. Now Mehmet Dede prompted the woman who was responsible for the sweeper service to come forward again. She came to the meydan, prostrated, and performed the same sequence as in the beginning. After she returned to her seating place, Mehmet Dede blessed all those sitting on their knees and told them they could now sit comfortably. Thereupon he prompted the water deliverers (saka) to prepare their service. While two women went to get the utensils, Mehmet Dede explained the meaning of the semah. He said it was his obligation to do so because the dance represented the ascension of worship, the highest level of the state of love and enthusiasm. When the semah was being danced, all participants were unified in their heart with the dancers. In ecstatic turns of the semah, the spirit of Allah is present because the semah is the elevation of the Prophet Muhammad to the ascension (miraç)—to a mystical unity with Allah (tevhid). This would be the moment of union between the lover and the beloved. Even those who did not dance the semah should immerse themselves in the love of Allah, so that there is no moment that one would remain merely oneself.

These remarks by Mehmet Dede exemplified his attempt to celebrate the semah in spiritual unity by providing a mystical interpretation of the dance. He used this moment directly after the semah to teach the participants not only about its meaning but also about ways they can identify with the dancers. This mode of identification was reiterated in the following sequence of ritual mourning, in which ritual participants themselves imitated the sufferings of the martyrdom of Imam Hüseyin, son of Caliph Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ritual Mourning

During the final remarks about the semah, the women serving as water deliverers sat on the meydan and prostrated. After Mehmet Dede recited a prayer, the serving women stood up and assembled in front of the podium with a pitcher and a glass of water in their hands. Mehmet Dede then recited a poem commemorating Imam Hüseyin and the battle of Kerbela, during which he and his followers were killed by enemies after many days of thirst.

Mehmet Dede blessed the water, and the women delivered it to individual participants. Some of them drank the water from a cup or out of their hands, whereas others sprinkled it onto their face. While the water was still being distributed, Mehmet Dede began to play the saz and to chant in a grieving voice an elegy (mersiye) about the martyrdom of Imam Hüseyin and his relatives who died in the battle. Several elderly women and men lowered their heads and started to cry. After concluding the elegy, Mehmet Dede recited a prayer while bending and prostrating, marking the end of the mourning. Everyone stood up as the water deliverers lined up on the meydan, and Mehmet Dede thanked them for their service. After a brief dialogue, one of the participants kneeled on the meydan and began to sing ardently a mourning hymn into the microphone. This incident marked a spontaneous initiative of a participant that obviously was not part of the liturgy. Still, it did not cause any rupture during this ritual sequence.

Wrapping up the Ritual with a Playful Interlude

After the sorrow of the mourning sequence, the ritual mood again changed considerably as Mehmet Dede prompted the food service. Several women got up and came back with trays full of small bags filled with fruits, bread, and cookies. While assembling in front of the podium, the women recited a prayer, whereupon Mehmet Dede gave his blessings. After one woman had passed one of the bags to Mehmet Dede, the other women began to distribute them to all of the participants. When the microphone was laid down, the cem seemed to be over, but Mehmet Dede reminded the women that over at the gallery there were two souls—referring to us—for whom they should also provide bags.

After the food was distributed to everyone—including us—one of the women got up and asked if everyone was satisfied. She asked this question three times, and the congregation responded in unison that they were satisfied. Mehmet Dede then blessed the food service and prompted the women to sit. Thereafter, he advanced to the ‘prayer of unity, and closed his own prayer by reciting the Fatiha prayer as the whole congregation joined him. By referring to us not as researchers, as in the beginning, but as souls, he not only shifted the mode in which he addressed us but also reflexively included us in the cem as part of his audience.

Mehmet Dede then repeated the blessings for all and called the ritual servants to come forward, whereupon he spoke his prayer. The candle lighter spoke a prayer in which he asked Allah to accept their services. Mehmet Dede reaffirmed that prayer, and all of those responsible for the services during the ceremony prostrated. Then he formally blessed all Twelve Services (oniki hizmet) before they returned to their places. After the food was blessed, Mehmet Dede gave permission to eat. He immediately added that anyone who had eaten before his blessing should come forward for punishment (ceza). Some got up at once, while others came only after he made his demand more explicit, insisting to have all ‘sinners’ in front of him.

This calling forth was not for punishment, as Mehmet Dede explained. Rather, it is the beauty of the cem that sinners can come forward. In former times, he added, some had eaten their food purposely before the blessing. In the meantime, the sinners lined up in front of the podium. Mehmet Dede advised them to take the ritual posture of sealing (mühürleme). He then turned to the community, stating that those who have been submissive would accept every punishment the community imposed on them. He asked the congregation which punishment the sinners should receive. Some shouted that they should donate. When Mehmet Dede asked the congregation whether the community should determine the donation amount, the acclamations clearly indicated that the amount should be left to the sinners. Mehmet Dede confirmed that these sinners should donate as they saw fit and asked if they would accept the punishment. With their consent, Mehmet Dede blessed them, spoke a prayer, and used this moment to underline the importance of ritual blessing and to strengthen the community. After he expressed his wish for Allah to accept their worship and their food sacrifice, the cem ended. Everyone stood up and hugged and kissed each other. Many went to Mehmet Dede, kissing his right hand to receive his blessing and to show respect. Numerous participants picked up their cushions and left.

Conversations on the Cem

After the cem, which took about two and a half hours, many participants—including us—gathered in the courtyard. Some elderly women asked us our reason for filming the ritual. Some of them thanked us for conducting research about them so that we could show others who the Alevis are and what they do when performing the cem. One woman emphasized that, after all, they only worship in the name of Allah. With these statements, these women alluded not only to the fact that the cem is scorned by most Sunnis as heresy—by some even as an orgy—but also that the cem provides an opportunity for the Alevis to present themselves as a distinct religious community. While drinking tea, one Alevi woman visiting from Germany who had taken part in the ceremony told us that she had never participated in a cem before. She liked it so much that she now wants to attend another cem when back in Germany.

In an interview we conducted with Mehmet Dede some days after the cem, we specifically asked him how he copes with the regional differences of the Alevi ritual practice, reflected in the diverse members of the community. He argued that the cem he conducts cannot be associated with any regional tradition and—as indicated above—claimed to have created a new cem with the intention that every participant could find something from his or her local tradition because he strives to integrate different elements from every region known to him in his practice. He explained that there can be differences in the Twelve Services or in the order of ritual sequences, but that there are no differences in the hymns. After all, these hymns have come from poets who wanted to serve the same mystical aim and path (yol). Hence, one might see differences in the performance of the cem, but there are none in its foundation. The ever–changing form is unimportant because the mystical unity with Allah (tevhid) is the only subject that should matter.

In our interview, Mehmet Dede also indicated that he strictly rejects any kind of ritual manuals that canonize and homogenize the plurality of ritual practices, because this—at least according to his conviction—can be done only with the permission of all religious leaders in Turkey. He was therefore unwilling to specify for us any of the traditions he was building on. This clearly demonstrates that he adheres to the oral transmission of ritual traditions in Alevism and, to some degree, to the principle of secrecy. We argue that this puts him in a position to be able to choose how to perform the specific services and sequences during the ritual without having to follow any written rules, adding another layer of intrinsic ritual reflexivity.

By intentionally integrating various elements of different but unspecified Alevi ritual traditions while maintaining core elements to form a new cem, Mehmet Dede deals with the plurality of traditions. In considering the needs of participants who wish to maintain traditions as much as possible in an urban context, he aims to show that different regional forms of cem can neither affect nor impair the actual subject matter. In line with other Alevis who try to unify the cem, he is convinced that the essence of the cem is unique and that differences therefore cannot impede it.

Conclusion

As our ethnographic account of a performance of the cem indicated, the flow of ritual action and interaction was interrupted while the ritual leader and the participants intentionally shifted their modes of interaction to adjust to emerging contexts of framing. Various sequences revealed moments of ritual rupture due to the mismatch of expectations and irritations, for example, when to arrive, how to behave, and how to perform specific ritual acts and utterances. These moments of intrinsic ritual reflexivity—occurring through ruptures and transitions between sequences, along with forms of ritual interaction—showed that participants are instructed on how to follow a specific order and how to observe and imitate a set of rules during their performance.

Since participants were obviously at different levels of competence, the ritual leader used various instances to generate instructions and to address everyone. Moreover, corrections and adjustments to the performance were implied in the instructive intermezzi, illustrating how far these acts and utterances should be performed in modes of intrinsic ritual reflexivity. These instructions typically function as adaptive measures and are made in response to the glitches and ruptures that might occur during the ritual.

Revisiting the framework in the introduction to this special section, we would like to address some theoretical issues that arise from the ethnographic account presented above. As outlined, Højbjerg (2002a, 2002b) has elaborated on the notion of religious reflexivity. While his distinction between intrinsic and external ritual reflexivity has proved to be helpful throughout our account, it is not clear how exactly these modes of ritual reflexivity are related to one another and what the transition between these modes would look like.

To further refine Højbjerg’ s distinction, we want to revisit the very concept of ritual, which we conceive of as the performance of complex sequences of formulaic acts and utterances that are set apart from other forms of everyday behavior through the process of framing (Handelman 1977: 185–187; Kreinath 2018). The term ‘framing’ is commonly used to mark the beginning and end of sequences of interactions in ritual performances, including ruptures and transitions. However, like intrinsic and external ritual reflexivity, this term is too often used to identify what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the ritual performance (Handelman 2004: 9–15; Köpping 1997: 5–6; Kreinath 2012: 47–50; 2016). While the sequences of discrete ritual interaction rely on auditory and visual markers—indicating the transitions from non–ritual behavior to ritual behavior and back, or from one ritual sequence to another—they mainly account for the structural features in the distinction between ritual and non–ritual. This distinction would apply to the reflexivity of ritual, but not for the dynamic processes in the transition into and out of the mode of ritual action as it applies to the reflexivity in ritual (Kapferer 1984: 181–182). Nonetheless, these differences are only heuristic and blend into one another as exemplified through the cem.

As addressed above, the ritual interaction among participants often begins or ends through feedback loops, leading to the initiation and completion of specific ritual acts and utterances. These forms of framing structure and restructure ritual performances. They are embodied by participants as they respond and adjust to the processes of ritual framing initiated by other participants, and, by way of doing so, they initiate and engage in new sequences of ritual interactions through postures, gestures, and movements. These observations on the transitions and ruptures of ritual framing are substantiated by further evidence we collected regarding the cem. To account for these dynamics, we paid close attention in our description of the cem to those moments, contexts, and configurations of ritual framing, within which the performance of ritual acts and utterances becomes reflexive (Handelman 2004: 14; Kapferer 1984: 181–182; Turner 1977: 33).

The concept of ritual reflexivity further helped account for the intrinsic and external dynamics in the performance of ritual when conceived as perspectives and dimensions. Here we follow George Herbert Mead ([1934] 2009: 134), who defined reflexivity in relational and contextual terms as “the turning–back of the experience of the individual upon himself.” Thereby, the individual is able “to take the attitude of the other toward himself, that the individual is able consciously to adjust himself to that process, and to modify the results of that process in any given social act in terms of his adjustment to it” (ibid.). This is exactly what allows us to conjoin intrinsic and external ritual reflexivity. As it became apparent in our description of the cem, the general concept of reflexivity as proposed by Babcock (1980) is applicable and most suitable to our case. Thus, any form of signification possesses the capacity of being reflexive, namely, “to turn or bend back upon itself, to become an object to itself, and to refer to itself” (ibid.: 2). In a similar way, we submit to the point made by Don Handelman (1982: 163) that ritual reflexivity emerges through meta–communication, arousing “emotions about how taken–for–granted categories of persons or relationships become unlike or alike one another, and therefore questions the basis of such distinctions.”

The cem is of interest for addressing ritual reflexivity in that it serves as a platform for the Alevis to acquire the competence to exercise formerly esoteric practices as a marker of their public identity. Following Handelman (1998), we conceive of the cem not only as a ‘model’ of a ritual practice that ‘mirrors’ the conditions of the Alevis in the urban milieu of cities like Istanbul. We also see the public sphere itself as a mirror, in which the Alevis reflexively mold and establish their identity as a religious community (Sariönder and Kreinath 2008: 95–96). Therefore, we argue that rituals should be understood as a dynamic capable of transforming social relations in the same way that the participants in a ritual performance are able to transform the form of the ritual performance itself (Handelman 2004: 15–16; Kapferer 2006: 516–517).

During the public performance of the cem in cultural associations, the presence of non–Ale– vis is anticipated, and the performances can be seen as instructive. The practice of cem can also be conceived as transformative because it is a mode of learning in the sense of ‘doing as if’. These associations open the possibility to exercise the ritual practices of cem in the context of big cities for Alevis who come from different regional traditions. The cem is, therefore, of special interest for discussing the dynamics of intrinsic ritual reflexivity in relation to external ritual reflexivity. It clearly serves as a platform for the Alevis to acquire and regain the ritual competence to exercise their formerly esoteric practices, which consequently came to serve as a marker of Alevi ritual identity in the ever–changing public sphere of Istanbul.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We are particularly thankful to Emma Gobin and Maxime Vanhoenacker who, through their conference and feedback, helped give shape to the argument presented here. We also appreciate the work that Wichita State University anthropology students Brent Kennedy, Briana Winter, and Carrie Winder put into the final text through copyediting and proofreading it at various stages. All remaining errors are our own.

NOTES
1

Alevis identify themselves as followers of the way of Caliph Ali, Prophet Muhammad’ s cousin and son–in–law, and his adherents. Some European and American scholars try to find the origins of Alevis in Christianity (see Dressler 2013; Karakaya–Stump 2004), while some historians trace the roots of Alevism to the Turks of Middle Asia and their shamanic traditions (Cahen 1968: 4; Mélikoff 1994: 29–52). Still others address similarities to the Kurdish Ahl–i Haqq and Yezidi beliefs, underlining possible Iranian roots (Bruinessen 2017: 69–71). Erman and Göker (2000: 99) find that the number of Alevis in Turkey is estimated “by different sources” to range “from at least 10 percent to over a quarter of the total population.”

2

Another effort to deal with the plurality of the ritual practice consists of the creation of manuals written by religious leaders. These manuals aim to deliver respective instructions for celebrating the cem. This indicates that ritual competence is acquired not only through imitation and oral instruction as in former times, but also through scripturally fixed rules (Sariönder 2005).

3

These variations also become apparent when one compares different accounts of the Twelve Services. See, for example, Bozkurt (1990: 156–159), Gokalp (1980a: 210–212), Kehl–Bodrogi (1988: 187), Mélikoff (1998: 204–206), Öztürkmen (2005: 252), Yalman (1969: 55–56), and Yaman (1998: 161–162).

5

Kartal Cemevi Kültür Egitim ve Sosyal Dayaniçma Vakfi—in short, Kartal Cemevi—was founded as an association in 1994 and turned into a foundation in 1996. The cemevi on this site is a separate building with a dome and gallery. The visitors to this cemevi are mostly the inhabitants of the district Kartal and surrounding neighborhoods (Sariönder and Kreinath 2008: 98).

6

Aside from the main argument of this article—namely, that reflexive ritual dynamics emerge in moments of rupture and adaptation—one of the side effects of this research was that the filming of ritual performances like the cem not only framed the context of our ethnographic research as reflexive, but also, from a methodological perspective, was the more adequate way to capture moments of reflexivity.

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    • Export Citation
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Contributor Notes

JENS KREINATH received his PhD from the University of Heidelberg and teaches socio-cultural anthropology at Wichita State University with a focus on the anthropology of religion and linguistic anthropology. He is co-editor of The Dynamics of Changing Rituals (2004) and Theorizing Rituals (2006) and is editor of The Anthropology of Islam Reader (2012). He has published articles in the Journal of Ritual Studies (2012) and Visual Anthropology (2012) on the semiotics of ritual, the history of anthropological theory, and the formation of concepts in the study of religion. His current research is on inter-rituality and inter-religious relations among ethnic minorities in the context of saint veneration at shared pilgrimage sites in Hatay, Turkey. E-mail: jens.kreinath@wichita.edu

REFIKA SARIÖNDER has degrees in sociology (University of Bogaziçi and Bielefeld University) and in psychology (Wichita State University) and has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on Anatolian Alevis in Istanbul and Berlin. Her current research is on domestic violence shelter workers as part of her dissertation project in the Community Psychology Program at Wichita State University. Her publications include articles and chapters on gender issues and religious minorities of Islam, and she is the co-editor of Mythen der Kreativität (Myths of Creativity) (2003). Aside from participating in interdisciplinary and international projects at research centers of German universities, she has presented papers at national and international conferences. E-mail: rsarionder@gmail.com

Religion and Society

Advances in Research

  • Arnaud–DemirFrançoise. 2013. “Garder le rythme: Écoute et danse rituelle dans le semah des Alévis de Divrigi (Turquie)” [Keeping the rhythm: Listening and ritual dance in the semah of the Alevi of Divrigi (Turkey)]. Cahiers de Littérature Orale 73–74: 1-14.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • AykanBahar. 2013. “How Participatory Is Participatory Heritage Management? The Politics of Safeguarding the Alevi Semah Ritual as Intangible Heritage.” International Journal of Cultural Property 20 (4): 381-405.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BabcockBarbara A. 1980. “Reflexivity: Definitions and Discriminations.” Semiotica 30 (1-2): 1-14.

  • BozkurtFuat. 1990. Semahlar (Alevi Dinsel Oyunlari) [Semahs (Alevi religious dances)]. Istanbul: Cem Yayinevi.

  • BruinessenMartin van. 2017. “Between Dersim and Dâlahû: Reflections on Kurdish Alevism and the Ahl–i Haqq Religion.” In Islamic Alternatives: Non–Mainstream Religion in Persianate Societies ed. Shahrokh Raei65-93. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CahenClaude. 1968. Pre–Ottoman Turkey: A General Survey of the Material and Spiritual Culture and History c. 1071-1330. Trans. J. Jones–Williams. New York: Taplinger.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De RosaSinibaldo. 2014. “Samah—Kardeçlik Töreni: A Dynamic Bodily Archive for the Alevi Semah.” Congress on Research in Dance Conference Proceedings 8: 70-74.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DresslerMarkus. 2003. “Turkish Alevi Poetry in the Twentieth Century: The Fusion of Political and Religious Identities.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 23: 109-154.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DresslerMarkus. 2013. Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • ErdemirAykan. 2004. “Incorporating Alevis: The Transformation of Governance and Faith–Based Collective Action in Turkey.” PhD diss.Harvard University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ErmanTahire and Emrah Göker. 2000. “Alevi Politics in Contemporary Turkey.” Middle Eastern Studies 36 (4): 99-118.

  • ErolAyhan. 2010. “Re–imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah.” Middle Eastern Studies 46 (3): 375-387.

  • ErsevenIlhan Cem. 1990. Aleviler’ de Semah [Semah among Alevis]. Ankara: Ekin Yayinlari.

  • GokalpAltan. 1980a. Têtes rouges et bouches noires: Une confrérie tribale de l’ Ouest anatolien [Red heads and black mouths: A tribal brotherhood of the Western Anatolian]. Paris: Société d’ Éthnologie.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GokalpAltan. 1980b. “Une minorité chîite en Anatolie: Les Alevî” [A Shiite minority in Anatolia: The Alevi]. Annales 53 (3-4): 748-763.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HandelmanDon. 1977. “Play and Ritual: Complementary Frames of Meta–Communication.” In It’ s a Funny Thing Humour ed. Antony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot185-192. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HandelmanDon. 1982. “Reflexivity in Festival and Other Cultural Events.” In Essays in the Sociology of Perception ed. Mary Douglas162-190. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HandelmanDon. 1998. Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events. 2nd ed. New York: Berghahn Journals.

  • HandelmanDon. 2004. “Re–framing Ritual.” In The Dynamics of Changing Rituals: The Transformation of Religious Rituals within Their Social and Cultural Context ed. Jens KreinathConstance Hartung and Annette Deschner9-20. New York: Peter Lang.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HøjbjergChristian K. 2002a. “Inner Iconoclasm: Forms of Reflexivity in Loma Rituals of Sacrifice.” Social Anthropology 10 (1): 57-75.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HøjbjergChristian K. 2002b. “Religious Reflexivity: Essays on Attitudes to Religious Ideas and Practice.” Social Anthropology 10 (1): 1-10.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KapfererBruce. 1984. “The Ritual Process and the Problem of Reflexivity in Sinhalese Demon Exorcisms.” In Rite Drama Festival Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance ed. John J. MacAloon179-207. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KapfererBruce. 2006. “Dynamics.” In Theorizing Rituals: Classical Topics Theoretical Approaches Analytical Concepts ed. Jens KreinathJan Snoekund Michael Stausberg507-522. Leiden: Brill.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Karakaya–StumpAyfer. 2004. “The Emergence of the Kizilbaç in Western Thought: Missionary Accounts and Their Aftermath.” In Archaeology Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: The Life and Times of F. W. Hasluck1878-1920 Vol. 1 ed. David Shankland329-353. Istanbul: Isis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kehl–BodrogiKrisztina. 1988. Die Kizilbaç/Aleviten: Untersuchungen über eine esoterische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Anatolien [The Kizilba^/Alevis: Studies on an esoteric religious community in Anatolia]. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KöppingKlaus–Peter. 1997. “Introduction: The Ludic as Creative Disorder: Framing, De–framing and Boundary Crossing.” In The Games of Gods and Man: Essays in Play and Performance ed. Klaus–Peter Köpping1-39. Hamburg: Lit Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KöseTalha. 2009. “Re–negotiating Alevi Identity: Values, Emotions and the Contending Visions on Future.” PhD diss.George Mason University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KreinathJens. 2012. “Naven, Moebius Strip, and Random Fractal Dynamics: Reframing Batesons Play Frame and the Use of Mathematical Models for the Study of Ritual.” Journal of Ritual Studies 26 (2): 39-64.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KreinathJens. 2016. “Framing.” In Vocabulary for the Study of Religion ed. Robert A. Segal and Kocku von Stuckrad44-47. Leiden: Brill.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KreinathJens. 2018. “Ritual.” In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology Vol. 9 ed. Hilary Callan. New York: Wiley–Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2128.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MarkoffIrene. 1986. “The Role of Expressive Culture in the Demystification of a Secret Sect of Islam: The Case of the Alevis of Turkey.” World of Music 28 (3): 42-56.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MarkoffIrene. 1993. “Music, Saints, and Ritual: Sama and the Alevis of Turkey.” In Manifestations of Sainthood in Islam ed. Grace M. Smith and Carl W. Ernst95-110. Istanbul: Isis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McElwainThomas. 1993. “Ritual Change in a Turkish Alevi Village.” In The Problem of Ritual ed. Tore Ahlbäck131-168. Ãbo: Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MeadGeorge H. (1934) 2009. Mind Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MélikoffIrène. 1994. Uyur idik Uyardilar: Alevllik–Bektaplik Ara^tirmalari [They woke us up as we slept: Studies on Alevism and Bektashism]. Trans. Turan Alptekin. Istanbul: Cem Yayinevi.

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