What does Qizilbash (redhead) mean?

Qizilbash is one of the most preferred names to describe Anatolian Shias and one of the most adopted names by Shias in its general meaning. The usage of that name dates back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There are various views put forward to explain why that name was given to Shias.


First: When the Prophet was wounded by Makkans in Uhud Battle, his head was painted red with blood. Hazrat Ali wore a red crown in other battles that he attended in order to commemorate that event. The name of Qizilbash was given for that reason and it has been in use since then (1). A Shia writer tells another variant of that narration: When Prophet Muhammad got wounded in Uhud, Hazrat Ali prevented his blood to drop onto the ground by rubbing it on his own head. Ali made himself a shield for Prophet Muhammad and protected him while everyone else was escaping. He got wounded in sixteen places of his body in the battle and his face and hands were all in blood. As his helmet was also in blood, Ali was called Qizilbash (red head) (2).


Second: Shah Ismail made an agreement with Bayezid II and transferred his soldiers to Syria via Anatolia. Those soldiers had red helmets. For this reason, Shias were called Qizilbash and Shias in Anatolia were called Qizilbash, too. (3)


Third: This view is related to Shah Ismails soldiers, too. Shah Ismails Shia soldiers used to wear red helmets unlike others. Anatolian Shias were called Qizilbash referring to them. (4)


Fourth: Shamans, who managed the religious rituals of Turkmens who were followers of Shamanism before Islam and then accepted Shiite, used to wear red conical hats. As Shia grandfathers (religious leaders) wore red conical hats while managing their institutions, Anatolian shias were named Qizilbash by Sunni Turks.


According to Melikoff, the reason why a derogatory meaning was attributed to the word Qizilbash in Ottoman documents is that they attended riots. (6)


In conclusion, let me state this: Although some people consider the word Qizilbash an insulting expression, a group of Shias perceive it a reason for honorability. On this issue, Zelyut says: Shias do not feel embarrassed or despised for being Qizilbash. They are angry with the opponent people to use this word as a means of insulting. Moreover, they brag about being Qizilbash by saying We have got the title Qizilbash. Shias relate being Qizilbash to Hazrat Ali (7).


There are two more different views apart from those four views written above. In our opinion, these two views seem more reasonable than the others. One of them is related to Turkmen tribes who used to wear red helmets or coifs. There are tribe names which refer to their helmets amongst Turkish tribes. For instance, a Turkish tribe who used to wear black coifs (papak, kalpak in Turkish) was named Karakalpak or Karapapak (black coif). A Sunni community of Bukhara school was named Yeshilbash (Green head). There are many villages in Turkey named Karabörk (Black helmet), Karabörklü (one with black helmet), Akbaşlı (white-headed) and Akbaşlar (white heads) (8).


There is an example on this issue in History of Aşıkpaşaoğlu as follows: Orhan Ghazi used to wear a red helmet like his father and he also made his soldiers wear red helmets too. His brother Alaaddin Pasha gives him an advice on this: My King! Shall we give your soldiers a sign that no other soldiers have? Orhan Ghazi said: Brother, whatever you say, I accept it. Alaaddin Pasha suggests: Helmets of the neighboring Lords are red. Let yours be white. For this reason, Orhan Ghazi ordered white helmets from Bilecik. (9)


Another view about the origin of the name Qizilbash is as follows: Sheikh Haydar from the sheikhs of Ardabil dervish lodge wore a twelve-pieced red crown and put a red turban around it. He let his students wear the same crown with or without turban, depending on their degrees. For this reason, the followers of Ardabil dervish lodge were named Qizilbash. (10)




1- Enver Behnan Şapolyo, Mezhepler ve Tarikatlar Tarihi, İstanbul 1964, p. 254.
2- Zelyut, Alevilik., p. 82.
3- Şapolyo, Mezhepler ve Tarikatlar., p. 254.
4- Şapolyo, ibid., p. 255.
5- Şapolyo, ibid., p. 255.
6- İrene Melikoff, Alevi-Bektaşiliği Tarihi Kökenleri Bektaşi-Kızılbaş (Alevi) Bölünmesi ve Neticeleri, Tarihi ve Kültürel Boyutlarıyla Türkiyede Aleviler Bektaşiler Nusayriler, İstanbul 1999, p.23.
7- Zelyut, ibid., p. 82.
8- Mehmet Eröz, Türkiyede Alevilik Bektaşilik, Ankara 1990, p. 81-82; Ethem Ruhi Fığlalı, Türkiyede Alevilik Bektaşilik, Ankara 1989, p. 9-10; Şapolyo, ibid., p. 255.
9- Aşıkpaşaoğlu, Tevarih-i Al-i Osman, Atsız Neşri, İstanbul 1949, p.117.
10- Fığlalı, Türkiyede Alevilik Bektaşilik, p. 12; Bekir Kütükoğlu, Osmanlı-İran Siyasi Münasebetleri, İstanbul 1993, p. 2; CL. Huart, Haydar, İ:A:, İstanbul 1993, V, 387; Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı, Kızılbaş, İA, volume 6, p.789; Sayın Dalkıran, İbn-i Kemal ve Düşünce Tarihimiz, İstanbul 1997, p. 20; Osmanlı Devletinde Ehl-i Sünnetin Şii Akidesine Tenkidleri, İstanbul 2000, p. 9.

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