The Minor Sect Ruling Syria: Who are the Alawites?

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How did a minor and historically secretive sect of Islam, the Alawites, come to rule Syria, and what do they believe? Somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million Syrian citizens identify as Alawites (also known as Alawis)1.“Syrian Alawites distance themselves from Assad” : BBC 2.“Syria’s Alawites: The People Behind Assad” : WSJ, approximately 12% of the total population of Syria. Geographically speaking, around three-quarters of the Alawi population are concentrated in the Alawi Mountains, but there are also communities along the Syrian coast, and with their recent rise into the regime, large Alawi communities in Aleppo and Damascus.3.Zisser, E. (1999) The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 130 This population includes a disproportionately high percentage of the upper echelons of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), as well as the current President, Bashar al-Assad.

In the West, Alawites are often presented as an offshoot of Shia Islam. This is often reported as the reason for the relationship between the Shia government in Iran and the Alawi regime in Syria.4.“The vicious schism between Sunni and Shia” : The Independent” 5.“Sunni and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism” : BBC 6.https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/the-shiites-are-winning-in-the-middle-east-and-its-all-thanks-to-russia-a7197081.html However, in private, Alawites view themselves as neither Sunni nor Shia, but as a different strand of Islam.

In order to understand this important religious minority and its relationship to the Syrian regime, let us first understand what differentiates Alawites from other Muslims.

Alawites, like the Shia, claim to belong to a long line beginning with the Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (599-661). The theological origins of the Alawites come from the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari and his pupil, Ibn Nusayr.7.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg, 5 Traditionally Alawites were known as “Nusayri’s” after Ibn Nusayr. This terminology was abandoned by the sect’s leader’s due to its negative connotation.8.“Looking at Alawites” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi”

The sect itself was organized by a follower of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, known as Al-Khasibi. Al Khasibi came from Iraq, and began to develop his doctrine under the protection of a local Shia ruler. He died in Aleppo in 969 AD, and his grandson and pupil, al Tabarani, then moved to Latakia to spread the doctrine and converted the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range, in what is to this day the heartland of the Alawite faith.9.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg, 6

The Alawi faith is highly secretive in nature, mainly due to their persecution by Christians, Sunnis and Shias. Because of this persecution, the Alawites heavily practice Taqiya, an Arabic term which refers to denying or dissimulation of religious belief to avoid persecution.10.http://www.discoveringislam.org/alawi_sect.html 11.http://theislamicmonthly.com/syrian-alawites-their-history-their-future/ To add to their secrecy, Alawite beliefs have never been confirmed by their own modern religious leaders. Taqiya also means that the public face of the Alawite movement has morphed throughout time. To avoid persecution during the crusades, the Alawites presented themselves as similar to Christianity, while in the Ottoman period they sought to manifest similarity to Sunni Islam.12.http://theislamicmonthly.com/syrian-alawites-their-history-their-future/

Everything that outsiders can reliably state about Alawites belief comes from their holy books and rare fragments of information that have come out over the centuries. The actual question of what books are considered holy to the Alawites is also debated. The only book besides the Koran that the Alawites leadership have publicly acknowledged is the Nahj al Balagha, “The Peak of Eloquence” — a collection of sermons, letters, tafsirs, and narrations attributed to Imam Ali.13.“Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey: Crucial Differences” : The Gatestone Institute However, former Alawites and Sunni scholars have pointed to the Kitab al Majmu, “The Book of the Collection”, as the main source of teaching for the Alawi sect.14.World Digital Library 15.http://www.discoveringislam.org/alawi_sect.htm This text is not openly published and instead is passed from master to apprentice; however, a version has been published by western scholars.16.World Digital Library

Theologically speaking, Alawites share some of the beliefs of the Twelver Shiites such as the Justice of God, the prophecy of Muhammad, the divine leadership of the 12 imams and the day of judgement.17.http://theislamicmonthly.com/syrian-alawites-their-history-their-future/

The Alawite concept of divinity and God is extremely complicated and abstract.  It reflects Neoplatonic thought – that God is the source of all creation and all perfection, and that the more you move away from God the more you move away from perfection. Since God is incredibly abstract, he has no form or boundaries. The Alawite belief in a divine trinity comprising three aspects of God and that these aspects of God have been given physical presence several times in history. The trinity is composed of God the Mana (Meaning), Ism (Name) and Bab (Gate). One is God in flesh, one is God in spirit, and one is God in the form of a companion.18.Khuri,F (2014)Imams and Emirs: State, Religion and Sects in Islam. Saqi According to Alawites, the first version of this cycle was Abel, Adam and Gabriel and the last was Ali, Muhammad, & Salman.19.http://thestylitepapers.blogspot.com/2007/04/elements-of-nusayri-theology.html Alawites believe that God in the flesh was Ali, who created Muhammad from his spirit, who in turn created Salman al-Farisi, a Persian companion.20.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg, 72

On a practical level, the Alawites base their understanding of Sharia on a “tawil”, an allegorical interpretation, which gives every obligation on esoteric meaning.21.http://thestylitepapers.blogspot.com/2007/04/elements-of-nusayri-theology.html Several Alawite scholars have emphasized the practical aspect of following through with the law to neglecting the practical observances may lead to antinominasion, the idea that works mean nothing and that faith alone leads to salvation.

According to an Alawite saying22.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg, 131, “ilm (knowledge) without amal (work) is like a traveler who sails in a boat without a sailor”. Despite this, the mystical aspect of the religion means that a stronger emphasis is placed on knowledge.

Differences in religious doctrine mean that the Alawites take a different view on the five pillars of Islam. In the Shahada (declaration of faith), the Alawite’s believe that Muhammad, the traditional prophet of Islam, and Ali, the traditional first caliph of the Shia, are personifications of the same deity.23.http://www.muslimhope.com/Alawites.htm Therefore, where Shia affirm “There is no other God but Allah, his Prophet is Muhammad and Ali is his beloved one” the Alawites use their own shahada: “There is no God but Ali”, or a longer version “I testify that there is no other God but Ali the transcendent the esoteric, and there is no veil but Muhammad the righteous the faithful, and there is no path to him but Salman the powerful”.24.http://www.salafi-islam.com/uncategorized/ibn-taymiyyahs-fatwa-against-the-alawi/ The other pillars of Islam are similarly altered, with prayers beginning at noon instead of dawn, and almsgiving not necessarily implying monetary contribution but also the gift of spiritual knowledge, and finally, the Hajj being a metaphorical journey instead of a literal one.25.http://thestylitepapers.blogspot.com/2007/04/elements-of-nusayri-theology.html 26.http://theislamicmonthly.com/syrian-alawites-their-history-their-future/ 27.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg, 140-142 In fact, several Alawite scholars have heavily criticized the process of the hajj as worship of a stone.28.https://www.wdl.org/en/item/7473/

Alawites have faced oppression throughout almost their entire history: beginning with the Umayyads, and continuing through the Abbasids, Mamelukes and the Ottomans, the minority religious group has faced, at one end, a ban on practicing their religion; and on the other end, it was actively persecuted.29.“Syria’s Alawites, a secretive and persecuted sect” : Reuters For example, the Mamelukes prevented initiation into the religion and issued special taxes against the Alawites, while the Ottomans built mosques inside Alawite towns, that preached Sunni Islam to try and draw adherents away from the sect.30.http://origins.osu.edu/article/alawites-and-fate-syria Moreover, at several points in their history, Alawites have been targeted by many fatwas — issued by both Sunni and Shia scholars —  declaring them non-Muslims. The first of these appears to have been Taqi ad Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa in the early 1300’s. Other such fatwas have been issued in the 16th and 19th centuries.31.http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00263200902940251?src=recsys&journalCode=fmes20

Historically, one of the characteristic features of the Alawi community has been a lack of cohesion. The Alawis were — and remain — established as a confederation of four primary tribes: the Kalbiyya, Haddadin, Khayyatin, and Matawira. This tribal configuration, while providing some umbrella sense of unity, is weak and unstable at best, with many of the Alawites along the coastal region following no tribal framework. In addition, the community of the Alawites has no functional organized religious establishment. Various Alawite clerics operate within a tribe or clan, but there does not appear to be any overarching religious structure.32.Zisser, E. (1999). The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 130 33.https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/18805/SY

Following the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, lands containing most of the Alawites found themselves under the French Mandate. For the first time in history, the Alawites found themselves in a land where they were no longer officially persecuted.34.Zisser, E. (1999). The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 131 As part of the French model of divide and rule, the Alawite community was granted its own semi-autonomous state along the coastal and mountain regions comprising many historically Alawite villages.35.http://origins.osu.edu/article/alawites-and-fate-syria The French justified this separation by claiming the mountain dwellers were “backward” and religiously separate from the predominantly Sunni inhabitants of Syria. While some of the Alawi took part in the 1918-1921 Arab revolt against the French, they quickly became disillusioned and felt no loyalty to the Pan-Arab movement36.http://www.mepc.org/roots-alawite-sunni-rivalry-syria which spawned it. Many of the Alawites were grateful to the French for elevating their political status, and by the mid 1920’s most of the Alawi notables had begun to work with the French Colonial Authorities.37.Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley. Syria and Lebanon Under French Mandate. London: Oxford University Press, 1958 The everyday Alawi peasant was typically impoverished, and many found that work in the Mandates military was a good way to move up in the world. By the end of the French mandate over half of the troupes spéciales du Levant were made up of Alawites.38.http://www.danielpipes.org/191/the-alawi-capture-of-power-in-syria This work in the national army, when combined with a lack of other forms of social cohesion, religious institutions, and poor social mobility began to bind the Alawi people into the Syrian state which exists today.

On March 8, 1963, “the Baath revolution overturned the political establishment and, in fact, terminated an entire political system”.39.Zisser, E. (1999). The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 134 The revolution was led by a group of five army officers, three Alawis and two Islamilis, another minority sect. Though the Alawi’s established dominance of the Military Committee, they needed additional support to fully take over the country.40.“March 8th, 1963 retrospective” : The Nation To accomplish this, they brought in veteran members of the Baath party, as well as Sunni military officers such as Amin al-Hafiz, to help back up the coup.41.http://countrystudies.us/syria/16.htm Over the next 8 years the Alawites consolidated their hold on power, and on February 1971 the veil was lifted and the Alawi reins of power were revealed to the public. With this reveal, Hafez Assad, along with his Alawi powerbase, were in preeminence in Syria.42.Zisser, E. (1999). The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 136

Once Hafez Assad secured the allegiance of the Alawi community through a combination of generosity and violence, he began to use them as the main support base for the regime. The Alawi’s gradually gained complete control over the army and internal security forces.43.wwww.danielpipes.org/191/the-alawi-capture-of-power-in-syria Since the early 1990’s up to the modern day, the alliance which has run the country is composed of an urban Sunni economic elite and the Alawite officer corps. In this symbiotic relationship, the Sunni elite respect the authority of the Alawi officers, and in exchange the Alawites provide security and economic stability for the Sunni economic elite. Many of the middle-class Alawis began to move to the city and integrated with the greater Syria population.44.Zisser, E. (1999). The Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. Lynne Rienner, pg 136-137

With this integration began a bid for Alawite acceptance as a brand of Islam. Observers have pointed out that the Alawi have not always thought of themselves as Muslim.45.“Looking at Alawites” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi Some scholars believe that the idea of Alawism being a branch of Islam was just French Colonial rhetoric justifying the integration of the Syrian state.46.Worth, R (2016). Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil from Tahrir Square to ISIS. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: pg 82 To secure legitimacy as a member of a state dominated by Islam, the Alawis had to end their isolation and present themselves as part of the Muslim world. As Yaron Friendman writes, “To end their long isolation, the name of the sect was changed in the 1920s from Nusayriyya to Alawiyya “followers of Ali”, a synonym for Shi’ism. By taking this step, leaders of the sect expressed not only their link to Shi’ism but Islam in general”.47.Friedman, Y. (2010). An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, 77. Pg. 234-235

In the recent past, efforts to bridge the Muslim-Alawi divide have almost all been political. In 1936 the Sunni Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husayni, declared the Alawis to be Muslim as part of his effort to break the colonial grip on power.48.http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00263200902940251?src=recsys&journalCode=fmes20 The second attempt was in 1963 when Shia cleric of Iran, Ayatollah Hasan Mahdi al Shirazi, declared that Alawis and Shia were the same.49.https://www.juancole.com/2015/08/secular-alawites-crescent.html This was the exact same time that Hafez al Assad needed legitimacy to pacify the Sunnis in Syria who questioned the government’s religious credentials.

The third attempt to confer Islam upon the Alawi community occurred in the 1990’s. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s religious credibility was called into question when the Muslim Brotherhood pointed out, outraged, that “Islam is the religion of the state” was not inscribed in the constitution.[“Hafiz al-Assad Discovers Islam” : ME Forum]] Assad tried to pacify the Brotherhood by adding a constitutional clause requiring that the president would always be a Muslim, but this did not appease critics; indeed, it took a speech by Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr stating that the Shia and Alawis were the same sect and that they were “partners in distress, since they [Alawis] were persecuted like the Shia”.50.http://martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/syria-alawis-and-shiism/ As a reward for his show of support to the Alawites, Sadr was given a position as one of Assad’s close confidants.51.Al-Jazeera

In terms of international relations, the relationship between Iran and Syria is far from a religious one. Religious similarities are not the basis of an alliance, and even then Alawis and Shias are far from similar. Finding the reasons for Iran’s close cooperation with the Assad regime requires going beyond mere sectarian explanations. Both nations have had the same strategic goals for years: weakening Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, thwarting American influence, combating Sunni radicalism and strengthening Hezbollah. However, this political alliance also benefited from a corresponding religious alliance.

Not all Alawis have benefited from Assad’s rise to power, and while many members of the Alawi community have integrated into Syrian society, many remain impoverished. Besides, the Alawi community remains as divided as ever. In 2016 a group of Alawi leaders voiced condemnations of the national Syrian government, claiming in an eight-page document titled a “declaration of identity reform” that Alawi’s are not a form of Shia Islam but a “third model of and within Islam”.52.“Syrian Alawites distance themselves from Assad” : BBC While the future of Syria’s Alawites remains intrinsically linked to the Assad regime, the Alawite community is far from a monolithic entity and remains marred by deep divisions.

 

Chris Gentry

Chris Gentry is a graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He specializes in Turkey, Syria and Iraq particularly the military background of those conflicts. His other interest is in the religious history of the region and has worked on several academic projects related to the Druze, Ismali;i and Assyrian Christian populations. He is also the director of the Syrian Civil War Podcast.

References   [ + ]

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36. http://www.mepc.org/roots-alawite-sunni-rivalry-syria
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51. Al-Jazeera