bektashis, shared shrines and limited discourses

I am currently working on a project about the role of Sari Saltik (Bektashi) shrines in Turkey and the Balkans in the overlapping of shared pilgrimage practices, shrine appropriation and relationships between narrative and spatial practice/ritual. If anyone has any thoughts on these sujects, please let me know.

I am still refining many of my thoughts, to be honest. But my intention is bring all of this to a focus on how we perceive the binary oppositions of pluralism and intolerance, particularly considering that the Bektashis have been seen as missionaries of a heterodox Islam, an oddly paradoxical positioning, at least for thinkers from the Christian/Post-Christian world. I am interested in the fact that this esoteric movement was not onlly demonised by Sunni Muslims but that much of the literature on the subject (Hasluck: Christianity and Islam under the Sultans) seems to see the missionary intent of the Bektashis as somewhat sinister. At the same time, there is clear evidence of a highly friendly (to an almost blasphemous syncretic degree, from the point of view of many orthodoxies) relationship between Bektashism and Christianity in the Balkans.

In a classic tale, the traditional founder of the main Bektashi centre in Anatolia, Hajji Bektash Veli himself, built his tekke (dervish lodge) on land of a monastery associated with a Christian saint, now often identified with the central Anatolian Orthodox Christian St.Charalambos (although Hasluck suggests this is a later identification). Of course this is not particularly remarkable in one way, but there is a key here: When one of the disciple takes down the bricks of teh monastery and church and explains that he will replace them with a newer better material, Hajji Bektash commands him to bring back all of the old bricks and use them for the Bektashi Tekke.

This is of course allegorical for a self-perception of Bektashi discourse that the teachings of Hajji Bektash do not contradict Christianity and can incorporate what is compatible from that tradition (as, one could say, was done with Central Asian shamanism in the generations before, in the same lineages, as was done with Shiism etc..).

The difficulty comes in when there are different readings for the same narratives, which inevitably, there are. What seems like a friendly syncretism can be perceived as, quite naturally (if we look at the Sari Saltik case and the one previously mentioend) a sorely remembered appropriation, no matter how respectfully undertaken.

I won't go into this now, but by way of a final illustration, it is common in Anatolian folk religiousity, to merge Hajji Bektash with the Christian St Charlambos, but this merging does not go in only one direction. In fact, Christians are known to come to the tekke to pray to St. Charlambos and to cross themselves, ritually appropriating the space for themeselves as well. In Albania, where Bektashis have the strongest contemporay influence, Christian priests come to kiss the hand of the Bektashi's main guide, as related to me by members of the order I have informally interviewed.

Where does one go with this in an intellectual world addicted to ridiculously simplistic binary oppositions dressed in elaborate language and complex hermeneutics, but all of which implicity demand that we fit our answers into their assumption that only intolerance or pluralism (or even degrees of the two) can characterise a given time period, community or ritual practice?

The answers are so much more subtle than can fit within that paradigm...

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Comment by Logan Sparks on May 2, 2012 at 2:10pm

@Nikos Gousgounis, thank you for the suggestions. Yes, I am going to Thrace in the summer for another project on healing ritual practices in Ottoman culture, but perhaps I can spare some time to go across the border into Greek Thrace and see what else I can learn. Do you know at what time of the year the fire-walking is done? And yes I am familiar with the ayazma (in turkish) traditions. They are very strong amongst some Muslim Turks in Istanbul.

Comment by NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS on April 10, 2012 at 10:11pm

Have you visited Bektashis tekke in Gumulzina ? ( turkush appelation of the greek city Comotini in western Thrace) where hhalf poopulation are Sunni Moslim Turks and the other half  orthodox Greeks ? Your study is a syncretism study of two religious systems in mutual influence. About shrines that provide holy water , the greek orthodox religious appelation is Agiasmata very commion in Thrace not only for shrines but also for small sources and fountains of water considered to be holy.Relevent culte one can find in greek and bulgarian fire walking rituals called Anastenaria or Nestenarki, where the fire walkers are visiting the holy fountains a day before their main ritual of fire walking.

Comment by Logan Sparks on April 3, 2012 at 12:28pm

Phillip, I very much feel that this persepctive is relevant but have had trouble conveying it before. And yes I think it can ahve a relevance even in  culture that defines itself as monotheistic. I wrote about it from a slightly different angle as 'imaginal bricolage' in the case of saints in the levant because of the tendency to overlap, for example Elijah with St. George with the Prophet Khidr. Some beleivers simply patronise St George as equivalent to xyz figure. I found it hard to articulate this because when I worked on my PhD I was told that I was positing an 'imagina; world' in a metaphysical sense. The reason for this was that I also pointed out that there is an emic discourse in Islam about imagination via a medieval mystic named Ibn Arabi. Anyway, that is a side point. The short answer is that yes I think there is something to this japanese parallel. I tended to point out that what connects these figures is their tendency to share a certain set of symbols and characterics that allows them to overlap sufficienty as to be almost, but not quite, interchangeable (for some). I am curious about Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit. I will have to have a look. :-)

Comment by Philip Swift on April 3, 2012 at 11:21am

Thanks Logan.

I suppose what I was thinking about was how these divine figures are understood to inhabit the same space - or even the same 'body' as it were. In the Japanese case (which I'm sure John is familiar with) Buddhist divinities are often conceived to be one and the same as Shinto gods, being aspects of each other. Where one aspect comes into view (worshipped as Buddhist, for instance), the other aspect recedes, but is still present nonetheless - a bit like Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit. So it's not a question, in this case, anyway, of either/or. But I'm not sure how relevant this is to the territory you're working on.     

Comment by Logan Sparks on April 3, 2012 at 10:05am

John Mc Creary, first thank you for the applause! Its good to have feedback because it gives me a sense of what direction to continue in. I really love the expression 'edifice complex' and, as a form of Islam, Bektashism actually fits very well with the Chinese food model. There is a bricolage going on but it is not random or lacking in a certain sesne of harmony for those who practice it. As I am just getting better at the source langauge and also getting more literature I am coming across all kinds of stories, such as one in which the founder of the Bektashi order takes his dervishes to do Sufi ceremonies that include burning juniper leaves and sitting around fires etc...But always with some explanation for the role of these practices, in the text.

About tourism and modernity, yes I think you raise an important issue. Actually I touched on this in my PhD, which was on similar subjects. I could still go much further, but one thing I see is that this element is very often left out and that there is a back and forth between the two with a lot of identity ambiguity. 'Pilgrims' and 'tourists' can be doing what appear to be the same actions but with widely different understandnings of why they do it and who they are.

@Phillip Swift Your points are helpful and do make sense. :-) One thing I have considered, also, is that under the circumstances this may have been more helfpul than it seems, also, under say teh Seljuk or Ottoman empires where the state cold ahve given full rights to a Muslim group to do what they like. Perhaps Hajji Bektash was having a very mediating influence by trying to maintain a respect for the local culture when perhaps this was not a requirement of the time (of course we are talking about a story that cant be verified historically but which stands for some experience, lets say, as a narrative). I tend to agree with Eade and Sallnow about meaning attribution. Thanks for your feedback!

Comment by Philip Swift on April 2, 2012 at 5:08pm

Your project sounds fascinating, Logan.

The story about the dervish lodge reusing the building materials of the former Christian monastery prompts me to make a bad joke about 'brick-olage'. But more seriously, as you say, what looks like deference paid towards another religion, could be understood, on the other hand, as a form of appropriation. (The latter being open to violent possibilities - I'm thinking of van der Veer's work on the Babari Mosque in Ayodhya.)

It's been quite a while since I read anything about pilgrimage, but Eade and Sallnow's notion of pilgrimage sites as being 'almost' religious voids (in so far as they allow for the construction of varying interpretations) is perhaps overly 'pluralist', in terms of the dichotomy you want to avoid. Quite understandably, you want to get away from a model that only recognises one of two positions. From what you say, it seems that your informants (whether Bektashi or Christian) might be working with another model, where it is not so much a case of the Hajji Bektash OR St Charlambos but both the Hajji AND the Saint. But quite possibly, what I'm saying makes no sense!    

Comment by John McCreery on March 28, 2012 at 4:48am

Logan, first allow me to call for a round of applause for your attention to the subtleties. That is where the best thick description/hermeneutics has to go. My own pilgrimage experience is limited to Taiwan in the late 1960s. My impression is that many of the issues you raise were not especially salient there. This has something to do with the basic Chinese attitude toward religion, which resembles the Chinese attitude toward food. Virtually anything can be added to a stir-fry and swallowed if it tastes good.

It is, however, important to remember that food is very, very important in Chinese life and a relatively open attitude toward syncretism does not imply that people don't take their pilgrimages seriously. It is perfectly possible from a Chinese perspective to combine entertainment along the lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with serious appeals for divine intervention to cure sickness, for example. Major pilgrimages, many now across the straits of Taiwan to cult origin temples in mainland China, involve thousands of people and enormous expenditures of both money and effort. 

The Taiwan case does, however, raise one dimension of differentiation on which your post does not touch, the impact of modernization, especially modern tourism. Taiwan in the late 1960s was launched on a course of rapid economic development, and people with traditional religious convictions were among those with money to spend. One result was a temple building boom analogous to what historians of American Christianity call the post-WWII "edifice complex." Another was a boom in pilgrimages, largely bus tours, promoted by an emerging tourism industry as well as religious entrepreneurs organizing tours for their followers. 

I know nothing about religion in Turkey and the Balkans, but I wonder if tourism leads to a modernization of religious attitudes that includes growing tolerance for whatever pilgrims care to believe as long as they contribute to the local economy.


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