In 1909, Mary Edith Durham wrote that “the Albanian … pays no more attention to his Hodja than to his priest … If he be an earnest believer, he belongs to some Dervish sect—preferably the Bektashes—which love the Orthodox Mohammedans as do the Dissenters the Church of England.” (High Albania 1985:313). Edith Durham was born in London in 1863, and according to Charles King in the Times Literary Supplement (4 August 2000, pp. 13-14):
Durham was, however, the twentieth century’s indispensable interpreter of Albania, and arguably the most important writer on that culture since J. C. Hobhouse journeyed through the Albanian lands with Byron. She was adored among the Albanians themselves, who knew her as “Kralica e Malësorevet”—the Queen of the Highlanders. “She gave us her heart and she won the ear of our mountaineers”, the exiled Albanian king, Zog, wrote to The Times on her death in 1944.
Thus Albania expert Edith Durham compared the Bektashi Moslems to the English Nonconformists of her lifetime. Nigel Heseltine (1938:110-1) wrote: “Hadji Bektash revolted against the superstitious doctrinal overlay of his religion … The movement may be compared in some ways to the English Reformation, where it abandoned the complex for the more simple, and discarded the meaningless for the intelligible.” The Reformation of the 16th century may be regarded as the beginning of the evangelical faith in England.
In the same period as Bektashism was spreading strongly in southern Albania, a powerful Evangelical movement known as “Primitive Methodism” penetrated southern England. Its name derived from a desire to recapture the original, that is the “primitive,” spirit of a movement dubbed “Methodism” in the previous century. In researching the history of the English movement, I began to discern several parallels between it and Bektashism. This article will explore some affinities between the two religious movements. The article assumes that readers are, or may easily become, familiar with the history and practices of the Bektashis, and with the history of nineteenth century Albania more generally, and focuses on drawing Albanian readers’ attention to perceived similarities.
A major source of information about the Bektashi order is John Kingsley Birge’s The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (Luzac & Co, London, 1937), although it deals mainly with Turkey and says little about Albania. After some introductory sections, Birge gives the history of the order down to 1925, dividing it into three periods: the 13th century till 1500, 1500-1825, and 1826-1925. He then moves on to a description of Bektashi doctrines, beliefs, rites and practices, including their ethical life. His final chapter discusses how Bektashism has been influenced by, or relates to, other religions including Christianity. Supplements supply details of the New Year (Nevruz) celebration, illustrations, a glossary, and a bibliography of works relating to Bektashism.
It is likely that Bektashism came to Albania with the army of Murat II, circa 1430, accompanying the Janissary corps (Birge, p.72). Ali Pasha, who ruled from about 1790–1822, gave support to the Bektashi order, but in 1826 Sultan Mahmud II ordered a general massacre of the Janissaries, for fear of their potential for subversion. He abolished the Bektashi order, destroyed their tekkes and exiled the dervishes. The order went underground and most of the exiled dervishes fled to Albania. By the 1880s their numbers were strong enough to take a prominent part in the agitation for Albanian independence.
In Albania Bektashism flourished mainly in the south. It is in Albania that it found its most congenial home in modern times and was still strong up till the Second World War, numbering 15 to 20 percent of the population (150,000 to 200,000). In January 1922 the Supreme Bektash was an Albanian. Five hundred delegates resolved to break away from the tutelage of Ankara, and the Supreme Bektash’s seat was transferred to Tirana. In 1925 Bektashism was suppressed in Turkey when the government abolished the dervish orders and closed the Bektashi tekkes.
Similarities with Nonconformist English Evangelicals: a backdrop of poverty
The Bektashis of mid-19th century Albania lived in a condition of poverty and vulnerability under the Turk with little or no hope of release. Their poverty and vulnerability need not be described here. What might be less well known is that the area of England on which this article focuses also lay in grinding poverty and despair. William Cobbett describes in Rural Rides (1830) his horseback journeys in the southern English countryside in the 1820s. Here is an extract from his journey in 1825-6:
Poor, half-starved wretches of Binley! The hand of taxation, the collection for the sinecures and pensions, must fix its nails even in them, who really appeared too miserable to be called by the name of people.… These poor creatures, that I behold here, pass their lives amidst flocks of sheep; but never does a morsel of mutton enter their lips.
And here is an extract from an article by Rev. W. Rowe in the Aldersgate Magazine (1900:701-2) entitled “Condition of the agricultural Labourer,” in which he looks back to the mid 1840s:
As a rule he was housed as no gentleman would house his horses or dogs. Comfort as understood by not a few of us was unknown to him. His wages were a mere pittance—scarcely enough with what his wife and children might earn in the summer, to keep him and them from starvation. In the winter his physical condition was most deplorable.… Meat, as an article of diet, was unknown to him as a rule.
Similarities with English Evangelicals: influence for good
Joseph Swire (1929:40-4) writes that the Bektashis’ influence for good was almost tangible in districts where it prevailed, and relates that in the 1930s they were gaining ground due to the prestige and attraction they earned by their absence of ritual, simplicity, courtesy and hospitality. According to Hasluck (1925:395) the lives of many Bektashi dervishes were so pure and selfless that no breath of scandal touched them, and they exercised a power for good, thereby winning numerous adherents. The very words denoting degrees of membership, ashik and muhib, literally mean lover and sympathiser, or one who loves (Elsie 2001:30).
Brailsford (1906:247-8) wrote: “But to me the type of the good Bektashi is the sheikh of the Teké in Prizrend. Gentle, dignified, and courteous … he even made his way to Rome, anxious to prove his tolerance by paying his respects to the Pope.”
In 1824 Samuel Heath came as the first preacher of the evangelical movement to the region of southern England on which this article focuses, beginning at the village of Brinkworth, then known as a place of much wickedness and barbarity. So notorious was its wickedness that for years it had been deemed perilous for a stranger to ride through it alone, and when the preachers came, they endured considerable persecution. Many attended with the intention of throwing stones to throw at them, but on hearing the preaching, they quietly dropped them and sought divine forgiveness of their transgressions and renewal of their lives. A great reformation took place, and the church at Brinkworth became a centre from which its influence for good spread widely over the counties of Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire.
Similarities with English Evangelicals: religious features
Bektashis were earnest. This was noted in the quotation from Edith Durham with which this article begins. Brailsford (1906:243-4) says that “there is a religious influence at work among the Moslem Albanians more salutary than their natural indifferentism … a variety of sects which expand and refine its teaching and introduce into its harsh and positive doctrine an element of mysticism. In Albania, as in Crete, the most important of these sects is that of the Bektashis… It is not perhaps too much to say that nearly every Albanian—at all events in the South—who has any interest in religion at all, is a member of the Bektashi sect.” The English movement (which took the name Primitive Methodist) was noted for its zeal and fervour and the ardent commitment of its adherents to its beliefs and practices, a commitment reflected in their daily lives as well as their private and corporate religious activities.
High Standard for Membership
Among the Bektashis there was a careful selection of candidates, for not everyone might become a Bektashi. A satisfactory sponsor must guarantee that the candidate was of good moral character. This is explained more fully by Rexheb (1967:103): “Hajji Bektash urges extreme care in the selection process of spiritual members. Each prospective member, muhib, is to be closely examined and no one shall be allowed to join the order if suspected of expediency or curious intrusiveness. … Once he welcomes the sacrifice for the sake of truth, he becomes a lover, ashik. More strenuous demands must test his fortitude…” Hasluck (1925:394) wrote: “Moreover, Bektashis generally practice what they preach, a feat they owe to careful selection of candidates in the first instance.” In Primitive Methodism, members “on trial” were required to give three months’ evidence of good conduct before admission to full membership. They would then be full members of the society, and would join a “class,” that is, a company of believers who met weekly for worship and mutual improvement in Christian knowledge and holiness, a devotional gathering designed to promote growth in holiness.
The English movement placed great emphasis on the development of holiness, “without which no man will see the Lord” (cf. Hebrews 12:14). It was an earnest desire for perfection, purity, and freedom from all sinful thoughts, words and acts. In Bektashism, suluq refers to the spiritual walk of the believer as he learns how to subdue the craving for worldly needs, to shun vanity, envy and conceit, striving for the highest ethical conduct and for humility and to nurture his soul. God’s love for the believer, and the believer’s love for God, together with the joy it brings, is the central theme (Rexheb (1967:104-6, 116-122). Birge (1937:202-3) commented: “Bektashis, both in Albania and in Turkey, have on the whole borne a reputation for ethical living somewhat higher than the other racial and religious groups in the midst of which they have been living.” As Naim Frashëri expressed it in his Fletore e Bektashinjvet: “The Bektashi keeps unspotted his heart, his soul, his mind, and his conscience, and his body also, his clothes, his abode and his dwelling, his honour and his good name” (Hasluck 1929:556).
Among the Bektashis women were not veiled; indeed, one of the outstanding features of Bektashism, unique in Islam, is that women were treated as equals. As Naim Frashëri expressed it in his Fletore: “As the man, so is the woman, one in kind and not separated” (Hasluck 1929:555). Women participated in all ceremonies and freely conversed with the men. They underwent the same ceremony of initiation and joined in the common festive meals and gatherings. Birge says that “Woman’s place among Bektashis has been unique in Ottoman history. To her has been ascribed the dignity of personality equal with that of men … making possible within the Bektashi tekke, a social life nowhere else countenanced among Moslems in Ottoman days” (1937:159). In like manner, the English movement allowed roles to women which other Christian churches forbade, and women functioned in the trusteeship of buildings, leading meetings for fellowship, testimony and prayer, in public prayer, and as preachers, both local and itinerant. In fact, the movement was almost unique in its widespread use of female preachers.
Search for Inner Spiritual Experience
Bektashi emphasis was inward rather than outward convention (Elsie 2011:30). Their teaching was mystical, and at the banquet which preceded a layman’s admission, a secretly administered dose of opium transported him to an ecstatic state of delight, in which he might fancy he beheld God himself. The 1830 Primitive Methodist Magazine (pp. 68–69) quotes the journal of preacher John Walford for 1828:
1st May spoke at Lightwood Green. Several shook and trembled under the word. Afterwards we agonized with the Lord… fourteen were brought to the ground, two got liberty, several received entire sanctification, and three were caught into vision.
Sunday 4th May The work broke out in all directions, and especially the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit. In the course of the day, many received the blessing of entire sanctification, several conversions took place, and some were in vision.
Lightwood Green is not in the part of Britain where this author grew up, but John Walford was stationed in a group of churches in Shropshire, the county from which Samuel Heath, mentioned above, came to Brinkworth at about the same time. Here is John Ride (Primitive Methodist Magazine 1831:266) describing a meeting held on Sunday 22nd August, 1830, at Shefford in the area this article concentrates on:
…the power came down in a way I never saw before, and it ran like fire. The glory appeared visible. By some it was seen as a light, and by others as fire falling among the people, and instantly every mourner sprang up and shouted for joy. Fifteen found liberty.
Supernatural Intervention and Occurences
Bektashi teaching and practice incorporated supernatural and pagan elements. It supplied numerous miracles and charms for the more superstitious to believe in. The movement in my home area, at the same time Bektashism was spreading throughout southern Albania, was accompanied by numerous instances of dreams, presentiments of death, supernatural protection, divine guidance and assurance concerning the future, divine wrath against mockers, supernaturally significant weather at important moments, causing a poltergeist to desist, and physical healing. This purpose of this article is not to examine these incidents theologically or spiritually, but rather to highlight both movements’ attraction to outsiders. In an age of supernatural belief, seekers after spiritual reality could readily recognise areas of overlap with their existing beliefs and thus make an easier transition from adherent to member, or from talip to muhip.
Among the Bektashis social inequalities were ignored and work was seen as a duty whereby man earns his right to food. They they sought to lead lives of simplicity and brotherly love. All of these features characterised also the evangelical movement in southern England.
Sunni Moslems, who made up the other Moslem party in Albania, abominated Bektashi adherents, who were subject to insult, contempt and sometimes persecution. The Sunnis, not the Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox, were the Bektashis’ principal adversaries. Brailsford (1906:244) wrote that “a profound distrust and hostility divides the dervishes from the orthodox Mohammedan clergy.” Not dissimilarly, it was often the clergy of the State church who opposed the English non-State churches, as Clifford (1876:7, 15) writes:
The Free Churches in the rural districts are passing through a severe trial. The clergy have adopted the principle of extermination. Their policy is the policy of suppression, and wherever they can they will carry it out without stint.
Both the English movement and the Bektashis encountered opposition and persecution also from the secular authorities. A widespread uprising began among agricultural labourers in southern England in the summer of 1830. By December the troubles had spread across southern England, with machine breaking, cattle maiming and incendiarism. Although no link was established with the Primitive Methodists, their close-knit fellowship and their gatherings in humble homes, the adherents and members being predominantly working-class, brought them under unjustified suspicion, and some were brought before magistrates. There was false accusation, trial and imprisonment. Not dissimilarly, Mahmut II made a thorough-going attempt to exterminate the Bektashis, owing to their association with the powerful Janissaries, and their leaders went into hiding (Birge 1937:78-9). Then in 1925 the government of the Turkish Republic abolished all tekkes and dervish organisations. As the Republic aimed to become a modern nation, the Republic’s Grand National Assembly closed all tekkes, for reasons which included the Bektashi belief in the supernatural and the Republic’s suspicion that the order’s close-knit secrecy might prove a breeding-ground for sedition. Penalities of not less than three months imprisonment were made law. This oppression led the Bektashi order to choose Albania as its new world centre.
Hasluck (1929:483-5) points out that the Janissaries (which derives from yeni çeri) were enrolled by the sultans from a tithe taken on Christian children. The children of this levy were forcibly converted to Islam and especially trained for service with the Janissaries, but some would undoubtedly have assimilated elements of their Christian background before being removed from their families. Throughout the history of the corps, Bektashi baballarë (fathers) accompanied the troops as chaplains, and in becoming enrolled as members of the Janissaries each soldier was required to pledge a vow of loyalty to the Way of Haji Bektash (Birge 1937:74).
In chapter nine of her Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle, Edith Durham asserts: “Study of the Macedonian question had shown me that one of the most important factors of the Near Eastern question was the Albanian, and that the fact that he was always left out of consideration was a constant source of difficulty. … Between the Bektashi and the Christians there appeared to be no friction.” Naim Frashëri in his Fletore e Bektashinjvet (Bucharest, 1896) says “The Bektashi … all have Ali as their father and Fatima as their mother. … And just as they believe in them and love them, so do they believe in Moses, Mary and Jesus and their disciples” (Elsie (2001:32-3). Naim Frashëri’s Fletore e Bektashinjvet says that “the Bektashis believe … in Moses and Miriam and Jesus and their servants” (Frashëri as translated in Hasluck, 1929, page 554),
The Bektashis have indeed a respect for Christ, and Birge (1937:217) relates that “on the walls of meydans [places where ceremonies were performed] in Albania no picture was more commonly found than a print bearing in large letters the separate Arabic letters with which the nineteenth sure [verse] of the Kuran begins, and these large letters were made out of an arranged writing of the whole chapter which tells the Muhammadan version of the birth and early life of Jesus.”
Bektashis also believe in Christ’s crucifixion and death, but they do not believe that his body was raised glorified from his grave. Tyrabiu (1929:12) explains: “Por ndaj bektashinjtë që janë vetëdora ‘mushkëri e Krishtit’ ay profet u mbërthye në kryq me të vërtetë, trup i tija vdiq e nuk u ngrit mâ nga varri nonse shpirti i tij ‘ideali’ u ngjall përsëri, u rrit e u naltua gjer në fron të Perëndisë” (“… that prophet was truly nailed to the cross and his body died and did not rise again but his ‘ideal’ spirit was raised again, indeed it ascended all the way to the throne of God”). Both sides concede that this is a fundamental difference between the two religions, for the Christian scriptures say: “I delivered to you as of first importance … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day,” and the same scriptures relate that his tomb was empty because his body had been raised in glory—not only his spirit (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; cf. Matthew 28:6).
There are other insurmountably wide divergences between Bektashi and Christian teachings, notably concerning creation, sin, death, and man’s postmortem destiny, but this article focuses on similarities, not differences. Nonetheless, Logoreci (1977:32), concerning the spread of Islam in Albania, writes of “the Bektashis, an heretical Moslem sect whose doctrine and outlook were generally more acceptable to Christian communities than those of the official Sunni Mohammedanism of the Turkish state … The tolerance of the Bektashis towards other religions was an additional advantage they had over other Mohammedans.”
Heseltine (1938:111) wrote, “Certainly they have carried on their activities in Albania for a great number of years, and by their constant identification with Christianity, their adoption of Christian saints and the similarity of the two doctrines, they are more acceptable to most Albanians than a rigidly sectarian establishment.” Christian saints favoured by Bektashis include Charalambos, Naum, and Spyridon, whilst Elias of Mount Tomorri became Abbas Ali for Bektashis (Hasluck 1925:397).
Earlier than Logoreci and Heseltine, Hasluck (1925:397) wrote that “on the social side, Bektashism makes definite attempts at bridging the gap between Christianity and Islam. On the religious side, its tolerance has resulted in Bektashis and Christians frequenting each other’s shrines.” It was noted above that Brailsford (1906:247-8) recorded that the sheikh of the tekke in Prizren “made his way to Rome, anxious to prove his tolerance by paying his respects to the Pope.” He received a Roman Catholic rebuff: “He waited some months for an audience, and came away grieved at the rebuff with which his simple impulse of charity had been met.” In contrast, extracts under Turkey in the British and Foreign Bible Society’s annual reports suggest that there was a period of rapprochement with Evangelicals. Their 1860 volume (pages 84-5) records “facts connected with the distribution of the Scriptures in the Turkish empire.” One such fact was sent in by Dr. Schauffleur:
“Lately, the chief saint of the Bektashee dervishes, a man of some 80 years of age, before whom all pashas rise and kiss his hands, held a meeting, attended by eighteen distinguished dervishes, at his house. He had previously sent to Mr. Williams for a Bible. From this book he read to the meeting, commended the book to all present, and told them that Selim Effendi knew the way to heaven: he moreover urged them to listen to him, and sent one of them to Mr. Williams to kiss his hands for him. I am assured that such facts as the foregoing are of frequent occurrence, and they most evidently indicate the change which is gradually coming over the Mohammedan mind in reference to Christianity. Faith in the Koran is daily becoming weaker, the attendants at the mosques are falling off, and the Crescent begins to wane before the Cross.
The 1863 volume (pages 127–28) carries this report from Philip O’Flaherty:
“I gave one New Testament to a Pasha … and a copy to each of two Babas, or Bectash Dervishes, from the interior, both of whom are resolved to teach the blessed truths of that Book to their Dervishes … Many months ago, I became acquainted, through the Baba (Abbot), or chief of certain Bectash Dervishes, with three other Babas of the same sect. I sometimes visited them, and sometimes they came to see me. Some of them attended my meetings, and read their Bibles diligently. I was very much pleased to see these four men, the other day, in the house of the chief Baba, with a Bible open before them, and conversing on the great and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, the Atonement. I was heartily welcomed by each and all, and was requested to speak to them of this marvellous doctrine. After I had done so, the chief Baba recommended their resolution, which I subsequently learnt was to introduce the Bible to their Tekes (houses of worship), and friends and people in Swas (Asia Minor) and Ezroom (Armenia). The Baba said he was convinced of the truth of the Bible … but said it was necessary to exercise the strictest caution. One of these men afterwards said he wished to be baptized …”
According to Birge (1937:80, 96, 217), in Virani Baba’s Risale (or treatise), a Hurufi book written from the Bektashi perspective, Virani says that a man must be born twice in order to attain to God. He must be born from his mother, and born again into the world of reality. This resonates significantly with the words of Jesus in John 3:1-8 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This article has explored affinities between two movements, widely separate in space but concurrent in time, in their social backgrounds, in a range of aspects of their faith, morality, aspirations and practice, their influence in their respective societies, and the reaction they provoked from ambient secular and religious establishments. Friendly and mutually respectful interaction was noted from the 1860s, to which, in conclusion, might be added an article in Evangelical Christendom published in 1931, in which the General Secretary, Mr Gooch, wrote:
I may mention some interesting incidents during my visit to Kortcha. Mr. Kennedy took me to visit (on three separate occasions) the head Babas of the Bektashi Dervish Mohammedan sects… I had interesting interviews with these old Moslem leaders and heart-to-heart spiritual talks about their faith.
This author welcomes similar instances today of increased understanding, respect and “heart-to-heart spiritual talks” between believers in these two faiths.
—David M. Young, M.A., M. Phil
Birge, J. K. (1937) The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (Luzac & Co: London)
Brailsford, H. N. (1906) Macedonia: its races and their future (Methuen, London)
Clifford, J. (1876) Religious Life in the rural Districts of England. (Yates & Alexander: London)
Durham, M. E. (1909) High Albania (1909 Edward Arnold, London, and 1985 Virago. London)
Durham, M. E. (1920) Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle (Allen & Unwin: London)
Elsie, R. (2001) A Dictionary of Albanian religion, mythology, and folk culture (New York University Press)
Hasluck, F. W. (1929) Christianity and Islam under the Sultans (Clarendon Press, Oxford)
Hasluck, M. (1925) The Nonconformist Moslems of Albania (The Contemporary Review)
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Logoreci, A. (1977) The Albanians: Europe’s forgotten survivors (Gollancz: London)
Rexheb, Baba (1967) The mysticism of Islam and Bektashism (translated by Bardhyl Pogoni) (First Albanian Tekke in America: Taylor, Michigan)
Swire, J. (1937) King Zog’s Albania (Robert Hale, London)
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