During the spread of Islam, the Sabi religion, which is rooted in western doctrines, was dominant in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Even though Christianity was strong in the parts of Anatolia ruled by Byzantium, the Sabians were the majority, especially around the Euphrates river (the River Firat) in Eastern Anatolia. The Sabi religion was a folkloric form of the Babel doctrine that dates back to the ancient Uyghur civilization. Being the source of all monotheist religions one way or another, the Sabi religion met Pythagoras supporters during the conquest of these lands by Alexander the Great, gaining further momentum. The doctrine of Pythagoras played an important role in renewing the existing esoteric beliefs among the Sabians and in forming the Ismaili Cult after the two movements were united.
Just like Shamanism, the Sabi religion was a Sun cult where the first monotheist religion, Mu, had put the Sun in the place of God as a symbol of God himself. With the Sun being the first, the Sabians used to believe in seven stars. These seven stars were as follows: Shamash, being the most honorable God of the Sun; Sin, the Lunar God and the spouse of Shamash; Nabu, the God of Mercury; Ishtar, the Goddess of Venus; Nergal, the God of Mars; Marduk, the God of Jupiter; and Ninurta, the God of Saturn.
As well as these gods and goddesses, the Sabians also regarded Hermes, Pythagoras, and Orpheus as demigods.
According to the Sabi belief, special rituals were organized for each planet on each day of the week, and they offered prayers for all the planets every day. Sundays were for Sun rituals, Mondays were for Moon rituals, Tuesdays for Mars, Wednesdays for Mercury, Thursdays for Jupiter, Fridays for Venus, and Saturdays for Saturn rituals. In western languages based on Latin, the names for the days of the week are exact reflections of this Sun cult. For example, Sunday refers to the Day of the Sun, Monday refers to the Day of the Moon, and Saturday refers to the Day of Saturn.
This cult changed slightly after it met with the doctrine of Pythagoras during the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest. The Sabi religion turned into a belief system where its followers believed in a Holy Presence and its six assistants. At the same time, some esoteric beliefs had settled into the Sabi religion, such as air, water, earth, and fire being the four essential elements of life. It was also believed that nonliving things, plants, and animals also had spirits, and one could only reach the Holy Presence through love. After these developments, Azimun, Hermes, Orpheus, and Pythagoras became holy spirits for the Sabians. They were regarded as demigods who achieved union with the Holy God.
Like in other esoteric doctrines, it was essential to keep secrets in the Sabi religion. The Sabians never gave their secrets to outsiders.
The secret rituals of the Sabians were held in lounges beneath sanctuaries dedicated to the planets. These lounges were filled with sculptures of planets, which had been worshipped once but remained as symbols after the Pythagorean doctrine. A branch of the Sabi religion was based in the Arab Peninsula. While migrating to Egypt, this one branch of the Sabians went to Yemen. Nigist Saba was the queen of these Yemeni Sabians, and King Solomon fell in love with her. This Yemeni belief is also mentioned in the Quran, calling them the monotheistic believers.
The Ismaili Cult—relying on the view of the Sufis, which originated from The Alexandrian School on one hand and the Sabi religion on the other—played a significant role in spreading the esoteric belief system to the Islamic world. The Ismaili Cult spread very quickly among the shamanistic Turks because an esoteric point of view already existed in Shamanism.
Before dwelling on the Turkestan and Turkish Sufis, it is better to examine some Sufis who contributed a lot to Islam.
Mansur Al-Hallaj was one of the most significant Sufis. He exclaimed, “I am the Truth” and was publically executed by the orthodox Sunni authorities because he did not recant. Born around 850 AD, Mansur was killed in 922 AD in Baghdad on the order of Khalif Muktedir. He believed in the unity of the human–God–universe trinity. During his younger years in Cairo, he was introduced to the followers of The Alexandrian School and adopted their views. Later on, he traveled around Turkestan and spread his views in the dervish lodges. According to Mansur, the “One” was the truth and “Plurality” was the reflection of the “One” in various shapes and qualities. The universe and humanity were also included in the “One” and identical to the “One.” Therefore, it was right to exclaim, “I am the Truth.” Humanity was God and a part from God himself. However, God was not just humanity—he was the entire universe. According to Mansur, the universe was not created but rather gushed out from God as the unique source of light and love. The word “light” used by Mansur includes both the divine light and the divine love in itself.
The story of creation, explained by all the Abrahamic religions, is a misinterpretation of existence. Those incapable of understanding the truth claim the whole of existence is apart from God. They believe that they are single entities. The only way to realize this mistake is through intuition, and every individual can reveal this intuitive power by retreating into his shell. Because of this retreat, the divine love first occurs and then the divine light very clearly rises in the heart. Thus, the real secret is seeing God inside the heart.
Mansur was labeled as aberrant by the Sunni authorities when he said, “One who knows himself knows God, and one who loves himself loves God.” First, they tried to flog him into recanting. They then flayed him before Sunni believers stoned him to death.
Mansur’s choice to die for his beliefs had a very deep impact on the Sufis. Following his death, the Sufi trend grew stronger rather than weaker.
Feridettin Attar was another Islamic philosopher who had significant impact on the Anatolian Sufis.
Attar was born in 1119 AD in Nishapur, where he died in 1193. He is best known for his book Mazhar-ul Acaib, which embodies esoteric views. Having been accused of being a pagan by the authorities because of this book, Attar left his country for a while because his life was in danger. After a change in governance, Attar returned home and continued spreading his doctrine.
Attar played a significant role in spreading the notion of the “unity of being” (Vahdet-i Vucud) among the Sufis. According to Attar, existence gushed out of the divine light, namely God, and was visible. It also came from God and will return to God again. The divine light comes to light gradually from the supreme level toward the lowest level, and these levels make up the various types of entities. Existence does not mean being created from nothing. It defines the action of becoming visible. A human being is identical to God, and he or she is a divine entity and the closest one to God among all entities. With this feature, he is at the center of the “unity of being” (Vahdet-i Vucud). Individual willpower is a part of the overall willpower.
The spirit is immortal. It comes from God, and it will return to God again. On the other hand, the body is the means of the spirit on Earth. The spirit will wear out as many bodies as possible in order to mature and reach God.
In his famous work Mazhar-ul Acaib, Attar said God wanted to become visible as a result of his self- admiration. Thus, the divine existence started, and all types of entities were born. Love is the source and the primary reason for this existence.
Like the other supporters of the esoteric doctrine, Attar claimed that a spirit reaches maturity by passing through several stages before finally returning to God as a perfect human being. These views of Attar also had a great influence on two Anatolian Sufis, Yunus Emre and Rumi.
Another Sufi who campaigned for the esoteric view to be widely known and appreciated by the masses was Omer Khayyam.
Khayyam reflected his thoughts in poetry whose quatrains were passed down from generation to generation.
Khayyam was born in 1050 AD in Nishapur, which was accepted as the source of light at that time. Having an artistic side, Khayyam preferred a different lifestyle to the other Sufis. He was fond of drinking wine, and he went to wine houses rather than dervish lodges. He travelled to several Turkish provinces including Samarkand and Isfahan. Although he worked on algebra, his views were transferred to modern times through his poems and specifically his quatrains.
Another Sufi who was a very important figure in the history of esoteric doctrines was Ahmed Yesevi. He was a Turkish Sufi who led the way for his successors. Before explaining his life and thoughts, let us have a look at the belief system of the Middle–Asian Turks and their circumstances during the spread of Islam.
The Middle-Asian Turks, as the inheritors of the Ancient Uyghur Empire, used to believe in the solar cult, Shamanism. According to Shamanism, which was a deteriorated version of the Naacal doctrine, Turks were born from the Sun and Moon, which were male and female reflections of the same God. The priests of Shamanism, namely the Shamans, used to wear red conical hats, play the lute, and dance during Sun and Moon worship ceremonies. A similar practice can also be seen among the Anatolian Alevis, who were a continuation of Shamanistic Turks and lived among the whirling dervishes.
One needed to follow a very long path before becoming a Shaman. Candidates were committed to be priests with special ceremonies, but they could only become a real Shaman after receiving the visual secrets. According to Shamanism, everything on Earth has a soul. Even the mountains, lakes, and forests were regarded as living things. Trees were holy. The Sun and Moon were symbols of the biggest God (namely Tengri Ulgen or Sky God Ulgen) and their reason for existence. Tengri Ulgen was the son of Black Khan. Shamans used to retreat into their shells to reach Tengri Ulgen. Actually, the name “Shaman” derives from this state, meaning “being in a state of ecstasy.”
It was impossible to comprehend Tengri Ulgen by thinking. Therefore, the Sun and Moon had to be respected and worshipped as the two representatives of Tengri Ulgen. It was essential to respect to the relationship between nature and humanity as much as the relationships between human beings, because the spirit of a stone, tree, or river was as important as the human spirit.
In the ancient legend of Oghuz Khan, the story about the origins of the Turks is narrated as follows:
“A light was seen in the sky while Oghuz Khan was praying to Tengri Ulgen. There was a girl standing in the middle of this heavenly light. This girl gave three children to Oghuz. They named them the Sun, Moon, and Star.” These are symbolized by a triangle with an edge looking downwards, describing the spirit going down to land from the sky.
“Later on, another girl appeared from a tree hole while Oghuz Khan was wandering around the woods. There were three other children with this girl. They named the children Sky, Mountain, and Sea, and the Turks came from these six offspring.” In the second part of the legend, the girl coming from the tree hole symbolizes nature and thereby the universe. Sky symbolizes air, Mountain symbolizes earth, and Sea symbolizes water. Also in the legend, their symbolic image is a triangle with an edge looking upwards, symbolizing the spirits returning to Heaven and God. The intersection of the two triangles forms a six-pointed star, which is an ancient symbol of Mu or, in other words, the star of divine justice.
All this shows the Middle-Asian Turks used to believe in a “Sky God” religion that could be accepted as a monotheistic religion. Gods beneath Tengri Ulgen were secondary gods. However, this monotheistic belief system did not satisfy the Muslims of the time. The Islamic prophet Muhammad announced that the Turks were enemies, even though he hardly met them. In one of his hadiths called Kitat Ul Turk, he mentions that fighting Turks has a special meaning, and doomsday can only come after the Turks are killed by the Muslims. In Buhari’s book Es Sahih Kitabul Cihad, where the prophet hadiths are compiled, it is pointed out that Prophet Muhammad said, “No doomsday can happen before the broad-faced, small-eyed, low-nosed Turks with shield-like faces are killed.” Relying on this hadith, Arabic forces invaded the Turkish lands and killed the “nonbelieving” Turks. Eventually the world did not come to an end, but rather the Turks converted to Islam.
During the reign of the Umayyad Dynasty, Arabic military forces invaded Turkestan with a highly racist attitude, and the Turkish nation responded to this very negatively. Long-lasting and bloody wars took place between the two nations. Turkish populations living in towns converted to Islam much more easily because of intensive constraints and tax exemptions granted by the Arabs. Meanwhile, it took much longer for the nomads to give up Shamanism and convert to Islam. In the end, they only became so-called Muslims with their own way of interpreting Islam.
The Arab invasion of prosperous Middle-Asian cities started around 630 AD. The defeat of Turkish Khagan Su-Lu by the Arab forces, during the period of Caliph Yezid II, resulted in the permanent establishment of Islam on Turkish land. Arabs took many Middle-Asian Turks to their home countries as slave soldiers, but this caused an unexpected result. A massive Turkish migration began, and all Arab lands came under Turkish rule in due course. As a result, Turkish hegemony started in the Arab lands and lasted until the end of the previous century.
Turks resisted the imperialist Islam imposed by the Umayyads, and this resulted in bloody wars and hostility between the two nations. The reason behind this strong resistance was a desire to protect their own beliefs from the extreme Arab nationalism of the Umayyads. The Umayyads regarded themselves as a superior race, and the Turks were a race to be exterminated. They displayed their racist attitude in every non–Arabic town they invaded. For instance, in a Persian or Turkestan town, local people were not allowed to walk on the same sidewalk as the Arabic invaders. A local resident had to move aside when he saw an Arab coming. According to the Umayyads, they were the masters, and the other nations were slaves. Non–Arabs were not allowed to marry Arab women, and those who defied this were beheaded.
The Abbasids, who emerged after the fall of the Umayyad Dynasty, could not rely on the Arabic elements that once worked in favor of the Umayyads. Therefore, they had to place their horses in the hands of Turkish mercenary soldiers. This later resulted in the compromise that all nations were equal with the Arabs, provided they converted to Islam.
Meanwhile, another incident helped the Turks and Arabs grow closer, and more Turks converted to Islam. The Chinese–Turkish rivalry had been going on in Middle-Asia for centuries, and China invaded a massive part of Western Turkestan around 700 AD. 50 years later, when the Chinese began a new offensive, the Turks wanted the help of the Abbasids. With the help of the Arabic military forces in the area, Turkish forces defeated the Chinese in the Battle of Talas, and Western Turkestan was retaken from China.
The success of the Turkish army put together by the Abbasid Khalifs increased the demand for Turks, and this was the starting point of an irrepressible migration. During the ninth century, the Turkish population was already dominant in Khorassan and the surrounding area. However, Turks who resided in the area of Khorassan had to convert to Islam because the current residents had long been Muslims and did not accept believers of other religions among themselves. Thus, Turks converted to Islam in their masses, but most of them preferred the Ismaili cult because its principles were closer to Shamanism. At the time, the Ismaili cult was very organized and powerful in the area.
Ahmed Yesevi was born into this climate during the 12th century. In Khorassan and around, in addition to the Ismaili Dais, the Futuvve organization (connected to the same cult) was quite widespread, too. Ahmed Yesevi, who had also been initiated as an İsmaili Dai, became the sheikh of the Khorassan İsmaili lodge. His followers were known in public as Saints of Khorassan or “Baba Erenler.” Like in other İsmaili lodges, the murids of the Khorassan lodge were supposed to be sincere and truthful in their words and actions, very secretive, obedient to their sheikh’s orders, and attentive to their masters in order to become mature enough to understand the symbols and secrets.
Despite being an İsmaili Dai, Ahmed Yesevi made some changes in his own lodge. For instance, he increased the steps of his doctrine from six to nine by copying the Futuvve organizations. In order to become a sheikh, a Yesevi murid should have passed these nine steps and attained salvation. These nine steps were as follows:
- Patient ones
- Eager ones
- Enlightened ones
Each of these steps refers to a degree, and the names given to the possessors of these degrees indicate that Yesevi was an İsmaili Dai.
The target of the Enlightened Ones, the ultimate stage in Yesevi belief, is to reach the divine truth and become united with God through spiritual evolution. According to Yesevi, the only method to achieve this is to retreat into one’s shell because there is no way to comprehend God by thinking. Therefore, the enlightened person should retreat into his shell and search for God in himself through intuition.
Retreating into one’s shell requires disregarding one’s self, thinking about no one else but God, and being content with the minimum in order to not disturb the flow of thought. The deep intuition ensured by retreating helps spirits to discover the necessary love to reach God. An enlightened person in retreat passes through three stages: (1) Knowing one’s self, (2) Comprehending the truth, and (3) Reaching God. At this point, the enlightened person becomes one with God.
The Yesevi belief system took the retreat method from Shamanism and adapted it to esotericism. Therefore, the masses who already believed in Shamanism did not find the cult strange, and the Turks, who wanted an escape from the strict rules of Islam, found their solution in the Yesevi belief system. While nomads preferred the Alaouite sect through the Ismaili cult, Yesevi cult, and Futuvve Organization, the Turks settled in towns, and their governors, preferred the Sunni branch of Islam. The Turkish governors chose the Sunni view because its methods were much more effective at leading the masses. The Seljuks were the major players who ensured the Sunni cult became widespread and institutionalized among the urban Turks.
As before, the Baghdad Caliphate again came under the pressure of the Mutezile and İsmaili schools. After the Seljuks grew stronger and defeated the Ghaznavian and Byzantium forces, the Abbasid khalif Kaim sent a message to the Seljuk Sultan Tugrul Bey to get rid of the İsmaili pressure. Seljuk forces under the command of Tugrul Bey entered Baghdad in 1055 AD. This caused massive destruction of Sufi groups such as the Mutezile and Baghdad Fellowship İhvan-i Sefa, in which Ebu Hamid El Gazali was a member. Ismaili Dais and Sufis were forced to leave Baghdad. Abdulkadir Cilani, founder of the Kadiri cult, was one of these.
In the meantime, the Mongolian invasion of Turkish towns resulted in the Turks beginning a massive migration west. Along with the Turkmens, the İsmaili Dais who were widespread in Turkish towns also migrated west. After the Byzantium forces were defeated by the Seljuks, the majority of the Turkmens were settled in Anatolia by the Seljuk rulers to act as a buffer between the two countries. However, they later turned out to be a problematic group for the Sunni–Muslim Seljuk rulers. The İsmailis, as the natural ally of the Alaouites, did everything they could to destroy the state of the Seljuks. Followers of Hasan Sabbah from Alamut, the last castle of the İsmaili cult, assassinated many Seljuk rulers and significant Sunni leaders of the period. Alamut continued to be a nightmare for the Sunnis until 1256 when Mongolian forces under the command of Hulagu Khan conquered the castle and slaughtered many followers of Hasan Sabbah. The İsmailis who were able to flee the slaughter took refuge in Anatolia living with their supporters, but the İsmaili belief lost much of its strength.
After settling in Anatolia in large numbers, the Turks nearly controlled the whole country in just 45 years. The former Anatolian nations showed no resistance to this massive incursion from the east. On the contrary, they almost offered their lands to Turks. But how did this happen?
The former residents used to be surrounded by Anatolian polytheism, the Apollo religion, and the Pythagoras and Sabi doctrines. Their biggest fear was the Sunni-Muslim invasion. Although the newcomers said they were Muslims, they were not so interested in Islam. Thus, both the old and new Anatolians were quite close in terms of belief. Local residents saw that they could easily get on with the Turkmen people. On the other hand, some historians state that the Turkish people had already lived among Anatolia’s local residents, because they had come to the land much earlier. It is claimed that the Skythians, a branch of the Turks, resided in Anatolia around the fourth millennium BC. On the other hand, the Sumerians, a branch of the Ancient Uyghur Civilization, are thought to have evolved from the Turks. The existence of these ancient Turkish clans helped the new Turks to be easily accepted. As a matter of fact, less than a hundred years later, when the Mongolians entered Anatolia with their strong armies, they did not receive a warm welcome from the Anatolian residents. In the end, while most of them returned to their own lands, only a few Mongolians were able to settle in Anatolia and assimilate with the Turkmen people.
As a result, at the start of The Crusades, the name for Anatolia turned into “Turchia,” meaning “Land of the Turks.”