The Alawis, or Nusayris, who number about 1,350,000, constitute Syria"s largest religious minority. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population; the city of Latakia itself is largely Sunni.There are also less than 100,000 Alawites who live in Lebanon and others who live in the Hatay, Adana, and Mersin of southern Turkey. The Alevis of Turkey are different from Syria’s Alawites, though they share the same name. Turkey’s Alevis are descended from theKizlbash, a Sufi-Shi`a offshoot with connections to early Safavid Iran, whereas, Alawites are Nusayris.
The Origin of the Alawites is in dispute. According to some sources they were originallyNusayri, a sect that broke ties with Twelver Shiites in the 9th century. The Alawites trace their origins to the eleventh Shi"a Imam, Hasan al Askari (d.873), and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). Nusayr proclaimed himself the "bab" or door (representative) of the 11th Imam. The sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Ibn Nusayr"s known as al-Khasibi who died in Aleppo in about 969. Al-Khasibi"s grandson al-Tabarani moved to Latakia on the Syrian coast. There he refined the Nusayri religion and, with his pupils, converted much of the local population. Today Alawites exist as a minority, but politically powerful, religious sect in Syria.
In the 10th century, Alawites were established during the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo but they were driven out when the dynasty fell in 1004.
In 1097 Crusaders initially attacked them but later allied with them against the Ismailis. In 1120 the Alawites were defeated by the Ismailis and Kurds but three years later they fought the Kurds successfully. In 1297 Ismailis and Alawites tried to negotiate a merger, but it came to nothing.
Alawites were actively persecuted under Mameluke rule from 1260 onwards. When the Ottoman Empire took control of Syria in 1516, the Turks are said to have killed over 90,000 Alawites. Afterwards, Alawites were regarded as outcasts and the empire sent Turks to settle their lands. Reportedly some of the Turks converted to become Alawites. After Alawites attacked the Ismaili village of Masyaf in 1832, the Pasha of Damascus sent troops against them.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon came under French mandate. The French gave autonomy to Alawites and other minority groups and accepted Alawites into their colonial troops.
Under the mandate, many Alawite chieftains supported the notion of a separate Alawite nation and tried to convert their autonomy into independence. A territory of "Alaouites" was created in 1925. In May 1930 was created the Government of Latakia, that lasted until 28 February 1937.
In 1939 a portion of northwest Syria, the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now Hatay, that contained a large number of Alawites, was given to Turkey by the French, greatly angering the Alawite community and Syrians in general. Zaki al-Arsuzi, the young Alawite leader from Antioch in Iskandariyya (later named the Hatay by the Turks) who led the resistance to the annexation of his province to the Turks, later became a founder of the Ba"ath Party along with Michel Aflaq. After World War Two, when the Alawite provinces were united with Syria, Alawite followers of Sulayman al-Murshid tried to resist integration. He was captured and hanged by the newly independent Syrian government in Damascus in 1946.
Syria became independent on April 16, 1946. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War over Palestine, Syria endured a succession of military coups in 1949, the rise of the Ba"ath Party, and unification of the country with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958. The UAR lasted for three years and broke apart in 1961, when a secretive military committee, which included a number of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Hafiz al-Asad and Salah Jadid, helped the Ba"ath Party take power in 1963. In 1966, Alawite-oriented military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the old Ba"ath that had looked to Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar for leadership. They promoted Zaki al-Arsuzi as the "Socrates" of their reconstituted Ba"ath Party.
In 1970, then-Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad took power and instigated a "correctionist movement" in the Ba"ath Party. In 1971 al-Assad became president of Syria. Alawite status was significantly improved and in 1974 Imam Musa al-Sadr, leader of Twelver Shiites of Lebanon proclaimed that he accepted the Alawites as real Muslims. Until that time, Muslim authorities - both Sunni and Shiite - had refused to recognize them as true Muslims. The Assads have been vigilant in promoting religious toleration.
The Syrian-Sunni majority did not appreciate Alawite power and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate Assad in June 25, 1980. Assad answered by sending troops to the Brotherhood stronghold in the town of Hama. The Syrian Army practically wiped out the Brotherhood sympathizers in the Hama Massacre during which over 10,000 were killed. Since the Hama uprising and its suppression, Syria has been an island of stability in the region. After the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad maintained the outlines of his father"s regime. Although Alawites predominate among the top military and intelligence offices, the civilian government and national economy is largely led by Sunnis. The Assad regime is careful to allow all the religious sects a share of power and influence in the government.
Theologically, Alawites today claim to be Twelver Shiites, but traditionally they have been designated as “extremists – ghulat” and outside the bounds of Islam by the Muslim mainstream for their deification of Ali ibn Abi Talib or Ali. Only one holy book of the Alawites, Kitab al Majmu`, has been translated into French and printed. Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of the deity in the divine triad. As such, Ali is the "Meaning;" Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, is the "Name;" and Salman the Persian is the "Gate." Alawi catechism is expressed in the formula: "I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning." An Alawi prays in a manner patterned after the shahada: "I testify that there is no God but Ali." But he also must declare that he is a Muslim. Alawites believe that they are the true and best Muslims.
The Alawite religion is secret and Alawites do not accept converts or the publication of their sacred texts.
The vast majority of Alawites know precious little about the contents of their sacred texts or theology which is jealously guarded by a small class of male initiates. At the age of 15 or 16 all Alawite men are given a few hours of initiation classes, but from then on, it is up to them to decide whether they want to become students of the religion, attach themselves to a Shaykh, and begin the lengthy initiation process and course of study in the religion.
Because only one book has been translated, outsiders know little about Alawite theology and much nonsense is repeated on web pages. Hanna Batatu’s last book has a short but reliable section on Alawite doctrine, theology and recent debates within the community. Many leading Shaykhs today reject much of the tradition laid out in theKitab al-Majmu`.
The French tried to pressure leading Alawite Shaykhs to declare the Alawite religion a separate, non-Muslim religion during the early 1920s but they lost their battle because many religious leaders refused to do so. After all, Alawites declare themselves to be Muslims in their catechism and believe that Muhammad is God’s messenger.
The Alawite religion seems to be based on Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism. According to Alawi belief, all persons at first were stars in the world of light but fell from the firmament through disobedience. The material world is a place of danger, enemies and impurity. The essential evil of this present existence can be escaped by the help of the divine creator. Every Alawite has within his soul a bit of the light of the divine creator, which can be accessed and lead him on the right path and salvation. Faithful Alawis believe they must be transformed or reborn seven times before returning to take a place among the stars, where Ali is the prince. If blameworthy, they are sometimes reborn as Christians or Jews, among whom they remain until atonement is complete. Infidels are reborn as animals.
Because of the highly syncretistic nature of the religion, scholars have claimed that Alawism is related to Christianity because they have a trinity, drink wine as a possible form of communion, and recognize Christmas. Various sources claim that their rites include remnants of Phoenician sacrificial rituals.
Although Alawites recognize the five pillars of Islam, they consider them symbolic duties and few perform them. Hafiz al-Assad’s efforts to bring his people into the main-stream of Islam included building mosques in major Alawite towns. Reforming clerics have encouraged fellow Alawites to pray regularly and perform the basic tenets of mainstream Islam. Bashar has followed his father’s lead in pushing his community to shed their idiosyncratic rituals and theology. Alawite shaykhs are encouraged to deny the divinity of Ali and proclaim themselves Twelvers.
Today, most Alawites only know the tenets of Sunni Islam because they are taught them in mandatory religion classes from first grade through twelfth grade. Traditionally, Alawites have five subsects;Ghaibiyya,Haidariyya,Murshids (after Sulayman al-Murshid),Shamsiyya (Sun Sect) andQamari (Moon Sect). Sects are oriented by tribe.