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Qizilbash:  Names and Designations in Ethno-Religious Identities
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Are the Kizilbash and the Qizilbashi the same people – just different spelling?  Were both found in SE Turkey at turn of century?

Your first suggestion is correct.  These are two different renderings for the same name.  The name is a nickname given because of the color of the headdress of the group.  The word means "Red Head."  It is the Turkish name used by Turkish Sunni for varied Shia groups in different historical periods and religious and social structures of Central Asia.

As I understand it, this term, under whatever spelling, does not represent an ethnic group or lineage group, but a religious/political coalition of Shia Ithnashari followers from several backgrounds.  There is a good summary on Wikipedia which I find credible and understandable.  A brief historical summary from Encyclopaedia Britannica is also helpful.

The name is associated with Azerbaijani* social and ethnic identity due to the prominence of this language group in the movement.  The Azerbaijani and other Turkic groups of the region may have worn this same headdress.  This article provides some helpful insights in this regard: "Qizilbash," Countries and Their Cultures

In modern times it has also become a surname.

You will note that some ethnically unrelated Kurdish groups are also related to the Qizilbash movement.  Political forces at any one time have to be taken into account in these questions.

I would suggest a search on related terms in Google or other Internet search engine for several good online sources that may provide enlightenment.  You should keep in mind that ethnic or social terms are not always clearly and consistently used in various sources.  Terms may represent a self-name, a name commonly used by a neighboring or even enemy people, or may be a social or sect name for a mixed group.

Religious Designation
In some cases traditional ethnic groups are religiously identified, in other cases not.  Religious identity and Lineage (genetic heritage or social group) are not always clearly distinguished or defined in local or academic sources.

In many cases, terms used locally for religious designations were misunderstood by early or uncareful European observers.  They passed on their misconceptions, often based on stilted and simplistic preconceived ideas of "ethnicity" or "tribe."  They would sometimes hear a name indicating some religious orientation or movement and and discuss it as though it were an ethnicity.

Much of this has been sorted out by later anthropologists, linguists and other scientists  Many of these specialists who systematically investigated local cultures, religions and worldviews were Christian missionaries careful of the local culture an concerned to accurately represent the local people, for whom they became advocates.

European Usage
Also be aware of different preferred terms coming to us through the different European languages, that is, names perhaps poorly adapted and popularized through French, then Anglicized or vice versa.

But many of these early or amateurish misconceptions still circulate at the popular level, and some older sources have now become available on the Internet, and are misused by unsophisticated and untrained readers of culture with an often political or ethnocentric agenda.

Over-generalization is easy when one does not known many details of the local context.  Ignorance can led us to draw conclusions that do not represent reality on the ground as the people themselves see and live it.

A name commonly used in French may not be related to one commonly found in English.  A different form or spelling of what was originally the same word may not even be recognizable as coming from the same original word in a local language, due to phonetic adaptation, misperception or other faulty understanding of an original European observer.  A European colonial observer may also have had some biased agenda behind the use of a certain term.

In earlier references there was simply a mistaken identity by European or other observers that took a term of religious import as a designation of lineage or ethnic identity.


I am assuming that these people are different in their beliefs than Alevi.

Following on the previous section, I would warn here about assumptions and conclusions that oversimplify and impose a stock concept.  I will say I have not seen these people (this religio-political coalition called Qizilbash) associated with the Alevi.

But you may find the various terms applied in various ways with different designations for different perspectives overlapping in ways that do not clearly fit the neat terms and categories preferred by analytical western thinking with its desire for categorization of data.

Names and associations are dealt with somewhat spottily in various sources.  And terminology may be used loosely or inaccurately in some sources.  A Wikipedia article has some good detail on the term Alevi and the groups known by this name.

We need to be careful here what question we are asking.  Focus on how a term is used.  The Alevi article notes that this term is used to refer to various Sufi Shia** groups.  There is no reason a variety of influences can be involved in any one group who may be referred to by any particular term.  There is overlap in the use of various terms.

You may find the word Alevi and the word Qizilbash related in some way to the same group where Kurds are involved.  Since some Kurds were involved in the Qizilbash movement, it is possible some Kurds who considered themselves Alevi were also in the Qizilbash movement.

Overlapping Domains
You can see that these terms refer to different "domains," but might overlap somewhat so that some Kurds might be correctly designated by both these terms.

But this does not equate Alevi beliefs or practices with Qizilbash beliefs or practices, which I think were largely political in nature, and largely Turkic in ethnic makeup, with only some Kurdish (Indo-European) participation.

What we need to ask here is how a term is used in a certain context.  So in this case, "Is the designation "Alevi" ever used in conjunction with "Qizilbash?"  Answer:  "Maybe."  We can only watch for indicators as we read and explore in any particular sources, written or oral.  This is like mining - it is a matter of discovery.

Absolute declarations are not usually wise or safe.  Usage is the rule and different groups use terms differently for different nuances of identification of themselves or others.  These terms are "fuzzy."  (See more on this principle in my article "The Rough Edges of Ethnicity.")

Religious Uniforms
Here is another dynamic that might help illustrate:.  The use of uniforms for religious distinctions.  This is less common now in the west but is common in African sects, most of which are syncretic sects with Christian and traditional elements, but also some mainline Christian groups, like Salvation Army, for instance.  Think of the “Redheads” and other religious dress designations in this way.

In African and Asian cultures they may wear their uniforms in a wide range of social settings, not just for official duties or ceremonies as in the west.  It may become the dominant way of dressing.

This is similar to some of the radical holiness or Mennonite sects.  The latter also usually have some lineage or cultural commonality of identity.  The former do not normally.  The “uniform” may also extend to form of dress and use of technology as part of the communal identity.

The most famous New world example of this is probably the Amish in Canada and the USA.  These groups are identified by a common cultural and genetic communal heritage as well as the social glue of a religious identity.

These separatist colonies prefer 19th century clothing styles as a badge of their purity and separate identity from the godless "English." It is considered a sin, for instance, among the similarly separatist Hutterite colonies of the US and Canada, for the men to have back pockets on their pants, a sign of worldliness.  Women are not allowed any pockets in their dresses.  Part of the social uniform is the forbidding of skating, a popular winter activity on the frozen lakes.***

Just keep in mind in that complex Central Asian context that terms are not mutually exclusive.  they may refer to some distinction or domain that overlaps with another.  Some designations are primarily ethnic, with religious or political overtones, some are primary political with religious and/or ethnic overtones, etc.

Focus on usage, not some preconceived meaning of a term.

Named By Dress
It is common in several social and ethnic or political segments of human society for a group, either ethnic or political, to be named after the style of dress.  There are various peoples throughout Central, South and Southeast Asia called by names of colors, such as Red Miao (Hmong), Blue or green, Black and Yellow Miao, and similarly among various other peoples.

Armenians and Qizilbash

Here is a quote I have. Does this sound accurate to you?

       “I am a Kizilbash Kurd.  According to our ancestors, there is a bridge between our laws and those of the Armenians, and should the bridge ever collapse, we will come together in one law.”
       “We know that our laws and those of the Kizilbash are close to each other. St. Sarkis is a revered saint for both of us,” our authoritative corporal said.
       “For that reason, I have always helped the Armenians when they have needed my help,” said Ahmed, as he smoothed his moustache.

 (Source Unknown)

The quote you cite seems reasonable enough to me.  The Armenians were/are neighbors of the Azerbaijani and perhaps others involved in the Qizilbash movement.  It would make sense that they shared common heritage at some point, having been jointly subjects of several different empires over the ages.

I am not able to speak directly to any specifics of relationship between the Armenian people and the Azerbaijani or other components of the Qizilbash.  I am not very familiar with the details of Armenian history.

The Armenian King Tiridates, who was also a Zoroastrian priest, traveled to Rome in 66 CE and allowed the Roman Emperor Nero to Crown him King of the Armenians.  (This was part of an agreement settling the border war with the Parthian Empire, which allowed Armenia to remain in the Parthian Empire, but the king required the approval of the Emperor of Rome.)

It is usually helpful to look into the history of such situations.  Here the reference to St Sarkis is helpful.  Sarkis was a Christian Roman soldier who was persecuted for his Christian faith.  This historical figure, who had become legendary, is part of the historical heritage of the region, the common heritage of peoples of the region.

Sarkis was a Greek who lived in the 4th century (300s CE), and thus centuries before Islam existed among the groups that later developed to become known by the terms termed Alevi or Qizilbash.  Sarkis was put to death by a Zoroastrian Sassanid (Persian) ruler because, according to the legend, he failed to participate in a Zoroastrian worship practice, proclaiming that we should worship only the One God.

He would thus be a hero to all who rejected the pagan practices, or opponents of Persian domination.

Christian-Muslim Alliances
There were later alliances among various Christian rulers and religious leaders at the time of the Arab sweep conquering the various territories of Asia in the 600s to 700s.  There were various conflicts and alliances over the centuries as various Muslim Empires of different ethnic groups conquered Central and Southern Asia, the “Middle East” and northern Africa in their own turn.

Those best known outside the area and who held power for the longest periods are the Mongols (The Moghul Empire) and Turks of two different tribes, until an Arab resurgence after WWI and WWII in cooperation with the Europeans who broke the yoke of the failing Ottoman Turkish Empire.

* Azerbaijani:  called "Turkmen" in older texts and those referencing older sources.
** Note that it is common in general classifications to class Sufism as a version of Sunni, not Shia.  I have even seen outright statements that Sufis are Sunnis.  However, in reality, there are Sufi associations with Shia groups and movements as well.)
*** Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2010), pages 7, 191.  See my review of this book.

Also related:
The Kurds
[reviews] Recovering a Heritage: The Hutterites
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
The Yezidis – An Angelic Sect
Yezidis, Kurds and Zoroastrianism

Related on the Internet:
Alevi - Wikipedia
King Tiridates of Armenia - Wikipedia
Kizilbash - Encyclopaedia Britannica
Kizilbash as a surname - LinkedIn Profiles
The Miao
"Qizilbash," Countries and Their Cultures
Qizilbash - Wikipedia
St. Sarkis
Sufism - Sufis - Sufi Orders: Sufism's Many Paths


First written in reply to an email query and exchange 9-10 July 2013
Developed July 2013
Article finalized and posted on OJTR 2 February 2014
Last edited 9 July 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
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