The Alid Iconography between Bektashi Claiming and Popular Piety in Contemporary Albania

By Gianfranco BRIA – CETOBAC1

This portrait was found in the Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana. It portrays various images of ʿAlī, Abbas and Husayn according to a Shi’ite iconography. Husayn’s is pictured on a horseback and pierced by some arrows, which recalls his martyrdom at Karbala. In the lower right there is a photo of a baby – in Albania, it is common to leave pictures of people at gravesites for blessing. Albania, October 2014. © Gianfranco Bria









  • * Paper presented at the GIS conferences (Paris,  7 juillet 2017).

In recent time, several works have analyzed the institutional and political mutations of Balkan Islam in the post-Communist era (Elbasani 2; Bougarel and Clayer 15). Less attention has been dedicated to the study of everyday life Islamic transformations (Duijzings 157). Starting from this point, this work analyses the iconographic worship at the local and supra-local levels where it takes on several social and political connotations, composed within different discursive fields. This study is based on information collected during a year of ethnographic research within the Albanian mystical networks in 2014.

Bektashi portrays. These frames are sold in all Bektashi shops. Many of them are produced in Tirana by local typographies. Albania, June 2017. © Gianfranco Bria

The general aim is to examine the intertwining of the social and cultural transformations with different religious traditions (native or foreign) that are thus directly detectable in the evolution of the religious worship – such as Alid iconography – in public and private spaces. Considering this, we will focus exclusively on the worship of Islamic icons related to the Alid tradition promoted by the Bektashi community in contemporary Albania. By Alid iconography we mean “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for the figures of ʿAlī bin Abī Ṭālib2 and his descendants Ḥusayn, H̩assan and all Shi’a Imams”. Although this work concerns Islam in particular, it is important to note that Albania is a multi-confessional country; according to the last census, conducted in 2011, the makeup of the country was 60% Muslim, 10% Catholic, and 7% Orthodox (IPSOS).3

This paper partly follows the theoretical approach of TalalAsad on the discursive nature of the Islamic tradition (Asad 14). From this contemporary standpoint, this work considers that the internalisation of public meaning, cognitive categories and recognized norms are configured by the worship embodying (Csordas 11) that develops the habitus (Bourdieu 124) and the practical–emotional dispositions of the believers’ “sense of self” (Pinto 104).

The Bektashiyya was one of the largest Sufi brotherhoods in the Ottoman imperial territory, for its symbiotic bond with the Janissaries. After the suppression of the Janissary order4 in 1826, the Bektashi presence was mainly concentrated in the Balkan Peninsula.

The Bektashiyya played an active role in the construction of the Albanian separatist project. Some baba Bektashis contributed to forge the ecumenical and laic character of the Albanian nation acquiring a specific place on the religious and political scene in Albania: it became de facto a religious community apart (Ibidem).

Tableau with the Twelve Imams dressed as Bektashi Babas. Strips of straw glued to a wooden base. The faces of the Imams and the heads of the lions are done in black ink on bits of white paper. The tableau was
probably made in Kolonje (Albania). © Gianfranco Bria

The symbiosis with the Albanian nation marginally influenced Bektashi beliefs, even the iconographic  that was widespread in several Bektashi branches within the imperial territory.5

Plate depicting the meeting of Haçi Bektashi and Karaca Ahmed Sultán. Ink, pencil and watercolors. Green (the grass and the mountains), red (the roofs of the houses) and yellow (the l on) dominate. Gjakova, Kosovo. © Gianfranco BriaIn many senses, the Bektashi iconography embodies the heart of its creed. According to de Jong’s masterwork, these icons are basically divided into three categories: purely figurative, purely calligraphic and finally both calligraphic and figurative compositions. Many images were formed by two sides that symbolize the division between “bāṭin (the esoteric)” of the Divine embodied by ʿAli and the exoteric of “ẓāhir (the Divine)” embodied by Muhammed that are both the manifestation of the same Divine Reality (de Jong 9).

Plate depicting the meeting of Haçi Bektashi and Karaca Ahmed Sultán. Ink, pencil and watercolors. Green (the grass and the mountains), red (the roofs of the houses) and yellow (the l on) dominate. Gjakova, Kosovo. © Gianfranco Bria

The cult of ʿAli, real deity, was presented by many images or calligraphic works that express his union with Allah and Muhammed (Bektashi trinity). In addition to the transformation of ʿAli into a Lion, different images represent his famous sword, Dhu’l-Fiqār, with two points that symbolizes his supreme power. Over the anthropomorphic cult of ʿAli, Bektashi icons represent the Twelve Imams and Fatima in calligraphic or figurative form. Imam Husain is the martyr in Karbala; the color green, used as background in different icons, symbolizes his martyrdom. In addition to the Prophet’s family, the Bektashi icons depict their saint epitome, Haji Bektashi, often in the form of a golden lion (de Jong 11.).

According to interviews with some Bektashi babas6 and surveys in the field, the Alid iconographies were quite widespread among Bektashi networks in interwar Albania. And in other Sufi orders spread7 in post-Ottoman Albania, such us the Rifāʿiyya, the Saʿdiyya, the Qadiriyya, the Mevleliyya and different branches of the Halvetiyya.8

Unfortunately, at the moment we have few empirical proof on this specific topic because during the Communist regime, many icons and religious leaders were destroyed.9

The Twelve Imams – This frame was found in a Bektashi tekkie in Gjrokastër, southern Albania, in September 2014. This frame was produced by Bektashi community for Musa, the Baba of the center. It shows the names of the Twelve Imams, Muhammed and Fatima in Albanian and in Arabic. During the ethnographic survey in Albania (April-December 2014), this image was found also in several Sufi lodges, such as Halveityya in Tirana. Within the frame is printed in Albanian: “To all the lovers of the Prophet’s Family and followers of ʿAlī Way” and “Good Day of Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny)”. Albania, September 2014. © Gianfranco Bria

After the end of the communist period and of the religion ban, Bektashism organized a doctrinal and practical revival that also included the reconstruction of iconographic worship. However, the community lacked the material and economic means to restore the icons destroyed during communist times. A decisive help came from the Iranian and Turkish Alevis10 networks. From 1995-1996, many shi’a missionaries provided a lot of Shiʿa icons to Bektashi leaders thus expanding Iranian political influence in the Balkan area (Lakshman-Lepain 147). Offering support to Bektashi post-socialist revivalism, Alevis tried to evolve from a locally invisible to a transnationally visible belief community, heightening their symbolic and political weight in post-Ottoman space (Zihr 1760). These bilateral relations involved the circulation of several images dedicated to the veneration of ʿAli, Husayn and the Twelve Imams.

From one side, the main subjects were the same as in pre-communist time: the characters of ʿAli, Husain, Haji Baktash and the Twelve Imams depicted or simply written in Arabic or Turkish language (see fig. 1 and fig. 3). On the other side, these new icons were different: the serial printing techniques improved the quality of the images and expanded the number of copies available.

This shop is located in Bektashi headquarter, Tirana: it’s the biggest of Albania. Smaller shops are placed in others Betkashi Centers. . Albania, June 2017. © Gianfranco Bria

At the turn of 21stcentury, the Bektashi community decided to gradually organize the fabrication and diffusion of the icons by themselves. However, this time the icons of the Prophet’s family were joined by some prominent babas portrayed as fathers of the Albanian homeland. The sanctification and ionization of these Bektashi figures, such as Naim Frashëri,11 aimed to promote an intellectual and nationalist identity looking for legitimization in the post-communist religious space. The Albanian language was used in these gadgets to demonstrate the alliance with the national identity. Moreover, this new strategy caused an iconographic renewal that concerned not only frames and portraits, but various objects, such as pens, pins, and pocket images. Several images, printed by local manufacturers in the Tirana industrial area,12 were spread in Bektashi holy centres, religious shops and libraries in Albania, and even in Macedonia and Kosovo. It promoted the emergence of local and even transnational distribution networks that gave undeniable economic benefit to the Bektashi community.

This new iconographic impulse by Bektashis led to counter-narratives by other Islamic authorities about their correctness within the Albanian religious field. The Islamic Community of Albania (KMSH) distanced itself from the Alid iconography promoted by Bektashis, but basically tolerates its worship.

In contrast, the League of Imams (LI) formed by imams who follow a scriptural Islamic interpretation (Endresen 231) strongly opposes the use and dissemination of Alid icons, considering them « blasphemous » and contrary to the « original and true principles » of Islam.

The Sufi brotherhoods in Albania (the Rifāʿiyya, the Halvetiyya, the Qadiriyya and the Sādiyya) maintained a rather ambivalent attitude toward Bektashi icons. Some shaykphs, such as Sheh Hajdari of Rifaʿi in Tropoja, do not want to adopt the Bektashi icons and criticism their aspirations, while other Sheikh support bektashi strategies.

The narrations and counter-narrations towards Bektashi iconographies resulted from the strong fragmentation of the religious arena.


Embodied and lived icons

In many ways, the confrontation between these religious authorities seems to be detached from the faithful who choose critically and individually how to express their religiosity. The main iconographic users are the believers, not even muslims or bektashi, who obtain the icons to satisfy their individual religious and sacred needs. On the other hand, by spreading their icons, the Bektashis sought to shape popular piety to receive religious and social legitimacy within Albanian society. In this sense, the iconographic renewal contributed to customize and format the Albanian religious field framing religious behaviors by believers-customers. Bektashis seem to use these images as consumer-products to satisfy the religious needs of the faithful that use the icons for different reasons: requests for money, luck or health. In this sense, the icons could represent fast-items that are rapid to use and easy to find within the religious market.

Bektashi gadget – These gadget are sold in the shop of Bektashi headquarter in Tirana. Most of them are made in Tirana; others come from Iran and Turkey. . Albania, June 2017. © Gianfranco Bria

However, the rapid use/consummation of snapshots and the icons frames cognitive behaviors and emotional perceptions. For the faithful, the icons are a tactile visual and material device that emits beneficial power and reconnects the baraka (divine blessing) of the saint wherever and whenever. The impact and the visual perception of the icons modulate the believers’ semantic interpretation.

The iconographic experiences of the believers are perceived as authentic and contribute to legitimizing the iconography as a correct linking-divine worship. It forges the religious behavior and shapes living religion; the icons have become one of the main ways to link the human being to the divine. This embodying experience produces cumulative effects in the construction of moral disposition and a sense of self of the believers. ʿAli and Husain are represented as figures that are merciful and righteous; pious models forged by embodying experiences of the believers that fix solidarity–community webs between the actors. These networks share a morality formed by the symbolic capital of Bektashism, based on ecumenical, progressive and neo-spiritual values. The slogan “Bektashism supports religious harmony and tolerance” is the most widely shared quote of many believers.13

In several sufi graves, believers put their pictures on the frames . Tropoja, Northen Albania, june 2017. © Gianfranco Bria


Asad, Talal.The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.Georgetown UP, 1986.

Basu, Helene and Pnina Werbner, eds. Embodying Charisma. Modernity, Locality and the Performance of Emotion in Sufi Cults. Routledge, 1998.

Birge K. John. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes.Luzac, 1927.

Bougarel, Xavier and Nathalie Clayer.Les musulmans de l’Europe du Sud-Est. Des Empires aus États balkaniques. IISMM – Karthala, 2013.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford UP, 1998.

Clayer, Nathalie.“God in the “Land of the Mercedes”. The Religious Communities in Albania since 1990”. Albanien. Peter Jordan, Karl Kaser, Walter Lukan et al., Peter Lang, Österreichische Osthefte, 2003, pp.277–314.

—(a).“L’islam balkanique aujourd’hui entre science et recherche de valeurs”. Croyance, raison et déraison. Ed Gérard Fussman, 2006, pp. 319-339.

—(b).“Saints and Sufis in post-communist Albania.” Popular Movements and Democratization in the Islamic World. Ed. Masatoshi Kisaichi, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33-42.

—. Aux origines du nationalisme albanais : la naissance d’une nation majoritairement musulmane en Europe. Karthala, 2007.

—. “La Kadiriye en Albanie.”Journal of the History of Sufism, Special Issue, The Qadiriyya Order. Dedicated to Alexandre Popovic, Simurg,2000, pp. 213-244.

—.“Muslim Brotherhood Networks in South-Eastern Europe.”European History Online (EGO), Institute of European History (IEG), 2011, pp. 1-23.

—.“Tasavvuf, Music and Social change in the Balkans since the beginning of the XXth Century with special consideration on Albania.”Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East.Ed. Anders Hammarlund, ed. Tord Olsson, and ed. Elisabeth Özdalga, Swedish Research Institute, 2001, pp. 125-135.

—.“The Bektashi Institutions in Southeastern Europe: Alternative Muslim Official Structures and their Limits.”Die Welt des Islams, vol. 52, 2012, pp. 159-194.

—. “The Tijaniyya. Islamic reformism and Islamic revival in inter-war Albania.”Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 29, no.  4, 2009, pp. 483-493.

—. “Transnational Connections and the Building of an Albanian and European Islam in Interwar Albania.”Transational Islam in Interwar Europe. Muslim Activists and Thinkers.Ed. Götz Nordbruch and ed. Umar Ryad, Palgrave McMillan, 2014, pp. 45-66.

—., L’Albanie, pays des derviches. Les ordres mystiques musulmans en Albanie à l’époque post-ottomane (1912-1967).Otto Harrassowitz,1990.

Csordas, J.Thomas.“Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos, vol. 18, no. 1, 1990, pp. 5-47.

De Jong, Frank.“The Iconography of Bektashism. A survey of themes and symbolism in clerical costume, liturgical objects and pictorial art.”Manuscripts of the Middle East, vol. 4, 1989, pp. 7-29.

Duijzings, Ger. Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo.Hurst and Company, 2000.

Elbasani, Arolda and OlivierRoy.“Islam in the Post-Communist Balkans: Alternative Pathways to God.”Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, vol. 15, no. 4,2015, pp. 457–471.

Elbasani, Arolda ed. European Integration and Transformation in the Western Balkans: Europeanization or Business as Usual? Routhledge, 2013.

Endresen, Cecilie. “Faith, Fatherland or Both? Accommodationist and Neo-Fundamentalist Islamic Discourses in Albania.”The Revival of Islam in the Balkans. From Identity to Religiosity. Ed. E.Elbasani anded. Olivier Roy, Palgrave McMillan, 2015, pp. 222-241.

Henig, David. “Crossing the Bosphorus: Connected Histories of ‘Other’ Muslims in the Post-Imperial Borderlands of Southeast Europe.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 58, no. 4, 2016, pp. 168–203

IPSOS Survey. Symbolic nation building in West Balkans, 07 Jan. 2011, Accessed on 22March 2017.

Kolczynska, Marta. “On the Asphalt Path to Divinity. Contemporary Trasformation in Albanian Bektashism: The case of Sari Saltik Teqe in Krujë.”Anthropological Journal of European Cultures,vol.22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 53-71.

Lakshman-Lepain, Rajwantee.“Albanie: les enjeux de la réislamisation.”Les Nouvelle Islam Balkanique. Les musulmans, acteurs du post-communisme 1990-2000.Xavier Bougarel and Nathalie Clayer, Maisonneuveet Larose, 2001, pp. 133-176.

Lyratzaki Irini.“Alevi-Bektashi communities in southeastern Europe: spiritual heritage and environmental consciousness.” The Diversity of Sacred Lands in Europe: Proceedings of the Third Workshop of the Delos Initiative. Ed.J.-M. Mallarach, ed. T. Papayannis, and ed. R. Väisänen,  2012, pp. 95-107.

Melikoff, Irene. Hadji Bektach: Un Mythe Et Ses Avatars: Genesee et Evolution du Soufisme Populaire en Turquie. Brill Academic Publishers, 1998.

Pinto, Paulo. “Sufism and the Political Economy of Morality in Syria.” Sufism and Politics. Ed. P. L. Heck, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2007, pp. 103-136.

Popovic, Alexandre. Les Derviches Balkaniques hier et aujourd’hui. Les Éditions ISIS, 1994.

Raudvere, Catharina.“Claiming Heritage, Renewing Authority.” European Journal of Turkish Studies, vol. 13, 2011, pp.1-16.

Rossi, Ettore. “Giannizzeri.” Enciclopedia Italiana, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 1932.

Schick, İrvin Cemi̇l. “The Content of Form: Islamic Calligraphy between Text and Representation.” Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Brigitte M. Bedos-Rezak and ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Dumbarton Oaks, 2016, pp. 173-196.

Sulstarova, Enis. “Islam and Orientalism in Contemporary Albania.”The Revival of Islam in the Balkans. From Identity to Religiosity. Ed. Arnolda Elbasani and ed. Olivier Roy, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, pp. 23-41.

Trix, Francis.The Sufi Journey of Baba Rexheb. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with Pennsylvania UP, 2009.

Zihr, Besim Car.“Following the dead beyond the ‘nation’: a map for transnational Alevi funerary routes from Europe to Turkey.”Journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol.35, 2012, pp. 1758-1774.

© PROPHET (ANR-16-FRAL-0003-01)


  1. Gianfranco Bria’s Ph.D. research focused on a Sufi revival in post-communist Albania. This one-year research adopted an ethnographic method based on observing participation of daily life of Albania dervishes, including ritual and practices. []
  2. The Prophet, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAli, his daughter Fatima, his grandchildren Hasan and Husain and their direct descendants and successors, the Imam, are certainly a peculiar framework in the Shi’ism. However, the function of these figures is characterized by a number of peculiarities that have their origin in the sacred story and in the doctrine of all forms of Alidism. These characteristics have favored the rise over the centuries of political ideology and even artistic or religious expressions, such as the iconography of this family within the Islamic world. Probably, the original confessional fluidity between Shiism and Sunnism (crystallized only in the Safavid era) shaped an inherent common presence of some elements of Alid worship among the mystical movements borne or formed in Anatolian-Iranian area. See Alessandro Bausani, Persia religiosa. Da Zarathustra a Bahā’u’llāh. Edizioni Lionello Giordano,1998 []
  3. These percentages have been widely criticized and are still a sensitive topic. For more information see Endresen, C. “Status report Albania 100 years.” Strategies of symbolic nation-building in South Eastern Europe. Ed. P.Kolstø, Ashgate, 2012. []
  4. Janissary [from Turkish yeniçeri (new soldier) and collectively the new militia] elite corps of the Ottoman Empire (established in the 14th century). Originally, they were formed of young people forcibly enlisted from Christian families who were then brought up in the Muslim religion (devshirme). Cf.Rossi, Ettore. “Giannizzeri.” Enciclopedia Italiana, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 1932. []
  5. For a general survey about iconographies in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Empire, see Schick, İrvin Cemi̇l. “The Iconicity of Islamic Calligraphy in Turkey.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 53/54, 2008.Schick, İrvin Cemi̇l. “The Content of Form: Islamic Calligraphy between Text and Representation.” Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Brigitte M. Bedos-Rezak and ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Dumbarton Oaks, 2016  []
  6.  The most significant interviews about this topic were two: the first to Hanif, Bektashi dede (approx. 60 years old) in the headquarters of Bektashi Community in Tirana, December 2014; the second, to Musa, a baba (approx. 50 years old) in Gjirokastër in April 2014. Both said that Alid iconography was spread in Bektashi tekke in post-Ottoman Albania. []
  7.  In interwar Albania, there were present Sufi orders Nqshbandiyya and Tijaniyya that probably didn’t get iconographies. Cf. Tahsin, Hasan. Shtyllat theme lore te¨ tarikatit tixhani, Gutenberg, 1941; Luli, Faik, Islam Dizdari, and Nexhmi Bushati. Ne¨ kujtimte¨ brezave, Rozafat, 1997. []
  8.  In 1936, under the invitation of King Zog, the Rifāʿi, the Saʿdiyya, the Qadiri and Tijaniyya formed the association “Drita Hyjnore (Divine Light)”, under the institutional umbrella of the Islamic Community of Albania. Cf. Popovic, Alexandre. Les Derviches Balkaniques hier et aujourd’hui. Les Éditions ISIS, 1994. []
  9.  Hoxha’s communist servants destroyed many images […] only the images of the dictator were permitted” said Hanif, Bektashi dede (approx. 60 years old) in the headquarters of Bektashi Community in Tirana, December 2014. []
  10.  The definition of Alevi, sometimes called Kizilbaş, is somewhat complex and problematic. This article treats Alevi as a mystical branch of Islam whose adherents are followers of ʿAli, the Twelve Imams and their descendants in contemporary Turkey. For further information about Alevis and Kizilbaş (terms often confused) see Dressler, Markus. Writing Religion. The making of Turkish Alevi Islam, Oxford UP, 2013. []
  11. Poet and leader of the Albanian Renaissance, Naim Frashëri (1846-1900), was the author of an epic poem Qerbela dedicated to the martyrdom of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, from which nationalist and patriotic themes develop. The Bektashi leaders elected him to babaof honor, as the father of Bektashism and the Albanian nation. []
  12. Information gathered during a survey in Albania in March 2016. []
  13. According to several Interviews conducted in Bektashi headquarter in Tirana in Octobernovember 2014. []
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search