Maja Bjelica — Breath, silence and listening in the thought of Luce Irigaray: Recognizing Aleviness as a Possible Culture of Breath

The research presented at the seminar is part of a PhD thesis which explores hospitality in its many forms. In connecting the notions and phenomena of breath, silence and listening with hospitality, be it as its conditions, possibilities and/or intrinsic properties, the thought of Luce Irigaray is crucial, since it provides theoretical grounds for the concepts at stake. Moreover, her account on music as well as religion, can provide a path to explicitly connect these notions to both case studies of the PhD project, namely, the one that deals with hospitality within the Alevi community in Turkey and hospitality in and as “musicking” (musical activity).

The Alevi, a Turkish religious minority, oppressed for centuries and still not recognized as such by the Turkish government, put specific elements in the centre of their regular ritual, e.g. breath, music, dance, which are performed by men and women together. During ethnographic work in Istanbul the author could find some matching similarities between their attitude to religion and life and the thought of Luce Irigaray, who promotes a cultivation of a Culture of Breath that would bring humanity towards a more ethical becoming.

In her essay “The Age of Breath” Irigaray states that breath is “[…] the first autonomous gesture of a human living, and it is not possible to be divine without being autonomous with respect to the mother and the father, to the lover, to the child, to the others in general, women and men.” (Luce Irigaray, Key Writings, London and New York: Continuum, 2004, p. 146). Similarly, also the Alevis acknowledge the autonomy and particularity that the breath gives to individuals, which can be heard when referring to “someone’s breath” which represents his or her personality and character, and also a specific attitude towards (or relationship with) god. Moreover, every Alevi uses a specific breathing way or practice when reaching towards god or better, when becoming divine. In their ritual activities (and their general moral and ethical stand) strive to unite with god, which is performed also with the breathing exercises integrated into their praying and rites. Also, there is some similarity in the tendency to reach the divine already “in this world” and not postponing it to the life “on the other side”.

Irigaray further on writes: “God is us, we are divine if we are woman and man in a perfect way.” (Ibidem, p. 149). Also the Alevis believe that they can recognize the god in them if they follow their life and moral ideal, the so called insan-ı kâmil, which could be translated as “perfect human”, also “mature, capable, integral human”. Reaching this ideal is about enhanced rising towards god of a human without imperfections (Esat Korkmaz, Kırklar Cemi, 2nd ed., Istanbul: Anahtar kitaplar, 2008, p. 266).

At the same time it is possible to claim, just as for the breath, that the significance of woman, her breath, femininity, and maybe also the fundamentality of sexual difference, are intrinsic aspects of Alevi tradition and belief. “For building bridges between different traditions, women are privileged mediatrices. For them, neither dogmas nor rites, and even not representations are indispensable to approach the divine” (Luce Irigaray, Key Writings…, p. 170). The author also states that a more feminine interpretation of religion is possible with “[l]istening to the spirit instead of the letter […]” (Luce Irigaray, Key Writings…, p. 146). Both claims are compatible with the non-scriptural nature of Alevi religion that is concerned more with human wisdom than the words of the Koran or other sacral writings. Also it can be said that the Alevi tradition is not fixed in any dogma, and the rituals are changeable and different among communities, therefore unsettled. It is quite impossible to claim, that the Alevis would have a settled identity or ceremonies. Therefore one could state that the Alevis’ identity is fluid, which derives exactly from the fact that they do not have fixed commandments or strict ritual patterns.

In summarising the parallels between Irigaray’s thought and Alevi religion it is possible to see, that the capabilities of a woman with her openness, reachability and faithfulness towards her own breath, that are emphasized by the philosopher, very much resemble the tendencies of the religious and the life practice of the Alevis. As it is possible to claim that breath is intrinsic to Alevi belief, so it is to say that the recognition of woman is an integrated part of Alevi culture, at least from the point of view of expressing respect towards her. Not only, that she is treated as equal, or better, that she is not treated as property of and as inferior to man, but also her difference is acknowledged, which can be understood from the fact, that she is needed and present in every ritual as a complementary part of the male energy. It can be noticed, that male members of Alevi communities pay special attention and care to the feelings and safety of their female members.

It is interesting to notice that Irigaray puts the cultivation of breath in the sphere of the religious, which should establish a new and unified energy, since the religious “is that which joins, links together” (Luce Irigaray, Key Writings…, p. 149). It makes sense to see Alevis and their faith and life philosophy as an additional possibility to recognize, especially through music activity, the significance of breath that determines our existence. Breath, that is always intrinsic to the Alevi ritual practice, precedes every settled ritual or dogma, since these are met as fluid; all of this is consistent with Irigaray’s thought about surpassing and accepting cultural differences: “The breath exists before and beyond any representations, words, forms, all kinds of specific figurations or even idols, all sorts of rituals or dogmas, and thus allows a communication between cultures, sexes and generations. Breathing can create bridges between different peoples or cultures, respecting their diversities” (Ibidem, p. 146). Here, another parallel comes to mind: the philosopher in another of her essays (see Luce Irigaray, Key Writings…, p. 135-136) claims, that (also) music is the needed activity that can assure a space of intersubjective and intercultural dialogue. A realistic possibility of understanding Aleviness as a fertile environment for the existence and development of a culture of breath can be acknowledged.


Irigaray, Luce. “The Age of Breath.” In Key Writings, Luce Irigaray, 165–170. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. “Before and Beyond Any Word.” In Key Writings, Luce Irigaray, 134–141. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. Introduction to “Part IV: Spirituality and Religion.” In Key Writings, Luce Irigaray, 145–149. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Korkmaz, Esat. Kırklar Cemi. 2nd edition. Istanbul: Anahtar kitaplar, 2008.