16 November 2017
Alawites celebrate a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. (photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Of all the religious minorities in the Middle East, perhaps the ‘Alawi or Alawites are the most familiar to people outside the Middle East. In the world CNEWA serves, one of the most prominent political rulers in the region is an ‘Alawi: Bashar al-Assad, the strongman ruler of Syria. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, was also a member of the faith.
The ‘Alawi are also known in history as the Nuṣayri; that is now considered pejorative and was replaced by ‘Alawi. There are significant ‘Alawi minorities in Lebanon (180-200,000), Turkey (500,000-1 million) and Syria (1.5-3 million). The ‘Alawi faith is — like many of the minority religions of the Middle East — highly syncretistic, i.e. comprised in part of beliefs and practices taken from other religions — often with changes that make them unrecognizable. It is generally agreed that the religion has its origins in Shi’ite Islam, but its adherents are considered to be a in ġulāt, “extreme” and heretical, although Muslim opinions about the ‘Alawi religion have vacillated over the centuries.
If syncretism is common among minority religions in the Middle East, so is secrecy, and the ‘Alawi are no exception — though some studies about the faith have been undertaken over the last century. The ‘Alawi belief revolves around a trinity or, perhaps better, a triad. They believe in one god, who is referred to as the “Essence” or “Meaning” (Arabic: ma‘nā) from which emanate two further manifestations: the “Name” or “Veil” and the “Gate.” These can take different manifestations in history, the most common being ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as the “Essence,” Muhammad as the “Name” and Salman al Farisi as the “Gate.” Other figures from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament appear in differing roles.
The ‘Alawi believe that they were originally astral lights who fell from grace and descended to earth. Salvation is achieved through a series of rebirths (metempsychosis). Those who are judged to have been evil are reborn as women — considered to be demonic and excluded from rituals — along with members of other religions, such as Christianity, etc. Salvation consists of achieving contemplation of the “Essence” after having journeyed through the seven heavens. The exclusion of women from rituals has brought about a type of female piety that differs from that of male adherents and tends to be quite syncretistic.
One of the more unusual practices of the ‘Alawi is the quddas, a highly secret and important ritual, open only to males; during this ritual, wine is consecrated and consumed. At times ‘Alawi have been particularly concerned to keep this ritual secret from Christians. ‘Alawi also have holidays. They celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian (Zoroastrian) New Year, as well as Christmas, the Epiphany and the feasts of Mary Magdalene.
The fate of the ‘Alawi over the centuries has been varied. Generally regarded as heretics, they were spared by the Crusaders because the Crusaders thought they were not Muslims. During the time of the Ottoman Empire there were attempts made to convert the ‘Alawi to Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of the empire. After World War I and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, France took control of northern Syria and southern Turkey, where a large number of the ‘Alawi lived. Perhaps as part of a divide-and-conquer tactic, the French were favorable towards the ‘Alawi. For a while there was an ‘Alawi province. It later became the Government of Latakia and was finally subsumed into the modern Syrian state.
There is an unusual variety of opinions among Muslims as to the nature of the ‘Alawi faith. Some, like the medieval Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), believe that the ‘Alawi are infidels and subject to jihad. Generally Shi’ite Muslims consider them “extremists” and heterodox. On the other hand, Haj Amin al-Husseini (d. 1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for political reasons recognized the ‘Alawi as Muslims. Some scholars and observers think that, since taking control of Syria in 1971, the al-Assad family has worked to “sunnify” the ‘Alawi to make them more acceptable to the Sunni majority in Syria. Whether this is true and, if true, effective, remains to be seen. However, it needs also to be noted that historically the strongest allies of the al-Assad family have been the Iranian Shi’ites.
Unlike other religious minorities in the Middle East, the ‘Alawi do not live under the threat of extinction.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak