Alawites

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For other uses, see Alawi (disambiguation).
For the mainly Turkish Shi’ite religious group, see Alevism.
Alawites
ʿAlawīyyah
علوية
Dhulfiqar.svg
Zulfiqar, a stylised representation of the sword of Ali, is an important symbol for Alawites
Founder
Ibn Nuṣayr
Regions with significant populations
 Syria 4 million[1]
 Turkey About 700,000-750,000[2]
 Lebanon An estimated 100,000-120,000[3][4][5]
Lebanon/Golan Heights 2,100 live in Ghajar
 Australia Alawites comprise 2% of Lebanese born people in Australia[6]
Religions
Shia Islam
Scriptures
Quran, List of Shia books
Languages
Arabic , Turkish

The Alawites, also known as Alawis (ʿAlawīyyah Arabic: علوية‎), are a prominent religious group, centred in Syria, who follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam but with syncretistic elements. Alawites revere Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib), and the name "Alawi" means followers of Ali. The sect is believed to have been founded by Ibn Nusayr during the 9th century. For this reason, Alawites are sometimes called "Nusayris" (Nuṣayrī Arabic: نصيرية‎), though this term has come to have derogatory connotations in the modern era; another name, "Ansari" (al-Anṣāriyyah), is believed to be a mistransliteration of "Nusayri". Today, Alawites represent 12 percent of the Syrian population and are a significant minority in Turkey and northern Lebanon. There is also a population living in the village of Ghajar in the occupied Golan Heights. They are often confused with the Alevis of Turkey, another Shia sect. Alawites form the dominant religious group on the Syrian coast and towns near the coast which are also inhabited by Sunnis, Christians, and Ismailis.

Alawites have historically kept their beliefs secret from outsiders and non-initiated Alawites, so rumours about them have arisen. Alawites and Shi'ites in general were historically persecuted for their beliefs by the Sunni Muslim rulers of the area.

The establishment of the French Mandate of Syria marked a turning point in Alawi history. It gave the French the power to recruit Syrian civilians into their armed forces for an indefinite period and created exclusive areas for minorities, including an Alawite State. The Alawite State was later dismantled, but the Alawites continued to be a significant part of the Syrian army. Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, the government has been dominated by a political elite led by the secular Al-Assad family. During the Islamic uprising in Syria in the 1970s and 1980s the establishment came under pressure, and the conflict continues as part of the Syrian civil war.

Etymology[edit]

The Alawites take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin, son-in-law and first male follower of Muhammad[7] who is considered by Shia Muslims the first Shia Imam and the fourth Rashidun (Rightly-Guided Caliph) by Sunni Muslims.[8] French occupying forces used the term Alaouites, a transliteration into French.

In older sources, Alawis are often called Ansaris. According to Samuel Lyde, who lived among the Alawites during the mid-19th century, this was a term they used among themselves. Other sources indicate that "Ansari" is simply a Western error in the transliteration of "Nosairi".[9][10] However, the term "Nusayri" had fallen out of currency by the 1920s, as a movement led by intellectuals within the community during the French Mandate sought to replace it with the modern term "Alawi". They characterised the older name (which implied "a separate ethnic and religious identity") as an "invention of the sect's enemies", ostensibly favouring an emphasis on "connection with mainstream Islam"—particularly the Shi'a branch.[11] As such, "Nusayri" is now generally regarded as antiquated, and has even come to have insulting and abusive connotations. The term is frequently employed as hate speech by Sunni fundamentalists fighting against Bashar al-Assad's government in the Syrian civil war, who use its emphasis on Ibn Nusayr in order to insinuate that Alawi beliefs are "man-made" and not divinely inspired.[12]

The Alawites are distinct from the Alevi religious sect in Turkey, although the terms share a common etymology and pronunciation.[13][14]

History[edit]

Origins[edit]

Man holding a falcon, in the centre of a group of people
Alawite falconer photographed by Frank Hurley in Baniyas, Syria during World War II

The origin of the Alawites is disputed. Local folklore suggests that they are descendants of the followers of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (d. 873) and his pupil, Ibn Nusayr (d. 868).[15] The Alawi religious sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Muhammad Ibn Nusayr known as Al-Khaṣībī, who died in Aleppo about 969 AD.[16]

In 1032 Al-Khaṣībī's grandson and pupil, al-Tabarani, moved to Latakia (then controlled by the Byzantine Empire). Al-Tabarani influenced the Alawite faith through his writings and by converting the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range.[16] During the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Western scholars believed that Alawites were descended from ancient Middle Eastern peoples such as the Canaanites and the Hittites.[17][page needed][18]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

The Ottoman Empire oppressed the Alawites,[19] attempting to convert them to Sunni Islam.[20] The Alawis rose up against the Ottomans on several occasions, and maintained their autonomy in their mountains.[21]

In his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence wrote:

The sect, vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever. Their villages lay in patches down the main hills to the Tripoli gap. They spoke Arabic, but had lived there since the beginning of Greek letters in Syria. Usually they stood aside from affairs, and left the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.[22]

During the 18th century, the Ottomans employed a number of Alawite leaders as tax collectors under the iltizam system. Some Alawites supported Ottoman involvement in the Egyptian-Ottoman Wars of 1831–1833 and 1839–1841,[23] and had careers in the Ottoman army or as Ottoman governors.[24]

Early in the 20th century the mainly-Sunni Ottoman leaders were wealthy and politically powerful, and the Alawites were poor peasants.[25][26] Alawites were not allowed to testify in court until after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.[27]

French Mandate period[edit]

Grainy photo of mustachioed man in traditional Syrian dress
Saleh al-Ali, leader of the 1919 Alawite Revolt against French rule

After the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon were placed by the League of Nations under the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. On 15 December 1918 Alawite leader Saleh al-Ali called for a meeting of Alawite leaders in the town of Sheikh Badr, urging them to revolt and expel the French from Syria.

When French authorities heard about the meeting, they sent a force to arrest Saleh al-Ali. He and his men ambushed and defeated the French forces at Sheikh Badr, inflicting more than 35 casualties.[28] After this victory al-Ali began organising his Alawite rebels into a disciplined force, with its own general command and military ranks.

The Sheikh Badr skirmish began the Syrian Revolt of 1919.[28][29] Al-Ali responded to French attacks by laying siege to (and occupying) al-Qadmus, from which the French had conducted their military operations against him.[28] In November, General Henri Gouraud mounted a campaign against Saleh al-Ali's forces in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains. His forces entered al-Ali's village of al-Shaykh Badr, arresting many Alawi leaders; however, Al-Ali fled to the north. When a large French force overran his positions, he went underground.[28]

Alawite State[edit]

Multicoloured map
Map of French Mandate states in 1921–22 (Alawite State in purple)

When the French began to occupy Syria in 1920,[30] an Alawite State was created in the coastal and mountain country comprising most Alawite villages; the French justified this by citing differences between the "backwards" mountain people and the mainstream Sunnis. The division also intended to protect the Alawite people from more-powerful majorities, such as the Sunnis.

The French also created microstates, such as Greater Lebanon for the Maronite Christians and Jabal al-Druze for the Druze. Aleppo and Damascus were also separate states.[31] Under the Mandate many Alawite chieftains supported a separate Alawite nation, and tried to convert their autonomy into independence.

The French encouraged Alawites to join their military forces, in part to provide a counterweight to the Sunni majority (which was more hostile to their rule). According to a 1935 letter by the French minister of war, the French considered the Alawites and the Druze the only "warlike races" in the Mandate territories.[32]

The region was home to a mostly-rural, heterogeneous population. The landowning families and 80 percent of the population of the port city of Latakia were Sunni Muslim; however, in rural areas 62 percent of the population were Alawite peasants. There was considerable Alawite separatist sentiment in the region,[33] evidenced by a 1936 letter signed by 80 Alawi leaders addressed to the French Prime Minister which said that the "Alawite people rejected attachment to Syria and wished to stay under French protection". Among the signatories was Sulayman Ali al-Assad, father of Hafez al-Assad.[33]

In May 1930, the Alawite State was renamed the Government of Latakia in one of the few concessions by the French to Arab nationalists before 1936.[33][33] Nevertheless, on 3 December 1936 the Alawite State was re-incorporated into Syria as a concession by the French to the Nationalist Bloc (the party in power in the semi-autonomous Syrian government). The law went into effect in 1937.[34]

Woman bent over, picking up leftover grain
Alawite woman gleaning in 1938

In 1939, the Sanjak of Alexandretta (now Hatay) contained a large number of Alawites. The Hatayan land was given to Turkey by the French after a League of Nations plebiscite in the province. This development greatly angered most Syrians; to add to Alawi contempt, in 1938 the Turkish military went into İskenderun and expelled most of the Arab and Armenian population.[35] Before this, the Alawite Arabs and Armenians comprised most of the province's population.[35] Zaki al-Arsuzi, a young Alawite leader from Iskandarun province in the Sanjak of Alexandretta who led the resistance to the province's annexation by the Turks, later became a co-founder of the Ba'ath Party with Eastern Orthodox Christian schoolteacher Michel Aflaq and Sunni politician Salah ad-Din al-Bitar.

After World War II, Sulayman al-Murshid played a major role in uniting the Alawite province with Syria. He was executed by the Syrian government in Damascus on 12 December 1946, only three days after a political trial.

After Syrian independence[edit]

Syria became independent on 17 April 1946. In 1949, after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Syria experienced a number of military coups and the rise of the Ba'ath Party.

In 1958, Syria and Egypt were united by a political agreement into the United Arab Republic. The UAR lasted for three years, breaking apart in 1961 when a group of army officers seized power and declared Syria independent.

A succession of coups ensued until, in 1963, a secretive military committee (including Alawite officers Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid) helped the Ba'ath Party seize power. In 1966 Alawite-affiliated military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the Ba’ath Party old guard followers of Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and Sunni Muslim Salah ad-Din al-Bitar, calling Zaki al-Arsuzi the "Socrates" of the reconstituted Ba'ath Party.

In 1970 Air Force General Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, took power and instigated a "Correctionist Movement" in the Ba'ath Party. The coup of 1970 ended the political instability which had existed since independence.[36] Robert D. Kaplan compared Hafez al-Assad's coming to power to "an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries".[30] In 1971 al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time permitted only for Sunni Muslims. In 1973 a new constitution was adopted, replacing Islam as the state religion with a mandate that the president's religion be Islam, and protests erupted.[37] In 1974, to satisfy this constitutional requirement, Musa as-Sadr (a leader of the Twelvers of Lebanon and founder of the Amal Movement, who had unsuccessfully sought to unite Lebanese Alawites and Shi'ites under the Supreme Islamic Shi'ite Council)[38] issued a fatwa that Alawites were a community of Twelver Shi'ite Muslims.[39] Under the authoritarian, secular Assad government, religious minorities were tolerated more than before but political dissidents were not. In 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an anti-government Islamist insurgency, Hafez Assad staged a military offensive against them known as the Hama massacre.

Beliefs[edit]

Large group of people looking at the camera
Alawites celebrating at a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II.

Theology and practices[edit]

Alawites consider themselves to be Muslims, although some Sunnis dispute that they are.[40] Alawite doctrine incorporates Gnostic, neo-Platonic, Islamic, Christian and other elements and has, therefore, been described as syncretistic.[41][42] Their theology is based on a divine triad,[40][43][44] or trinity, which is the core of Alawite belief.[45] The triad comprises three emanations of the one God: the supreme aspect or entity called the "Essence"[45] or the "Meaning"[44] (both being translations of ma'na), together with two lesser emanations known as his "Name" (ism), or "Veil" (hijab), and his "Gate" (bab).[43][44][45][46] These emanations have manifested themselves in different human forms over several cycles in history, the last cycle of which was as Ali (the Essence/Meaning), Muhammad (the Name) and Salman the Persian (the Gate).[43][45][46][47] Alawite belief is summarised in the formula: "I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning".[40] [48] Alawites also hold that they were originally stars or divine lights that were cast out of heaven through disobedience and must undergo repeated reincarnation (or metempsychosis[45]) before returning to heaven.[40][46] They can be reincarnated as Christians or others through sin and as animals if they become infidels.[40][49]

Alawite beliefs have never been confirmed by their modern religious authorities.[50] Alawites tend to conceal their beliefs (taqiyya) due to historical persecution.[51] Some tenets of the faith are secret, known only to a select few;[19][52] therefore, they have been described as a mystical sect.[53] Alawites do only celebrate Islamic festivals, their most-important feast is Eid al-Ghadeer.

Bearded man with sword in his belt
Alawite man in Latakia, early 20th century

Opinions on position within Islam[edit]

Alawites have always described themselves as being Twelver Shi'ite Muslims and have been recognized as such by the prominent Lebanese Shi'ite cleric Musa al-Sadr.[54] The Sunni Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini issued a fatwa recognising them as part of the Muslim community in the interest of Arab nationalism.[55][56] However, Athari Sunni (modern day Salafis) scholars such as Ibn Kathir (a disciple of Ibn Taymiyya) have categorised Alawites as pagans in their writings.[19][57][58]

Barry Rubin has suggested that Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor Bashar al-Assad pressed their fellow Alawites "to behave like 'regular Muslims', shedding (or at least concealing) their distinctive aspects".[59] During the early 1970s a booklet, al-`Alawiyyun Shi'atu Ahl al-Bait ("The Alawites are Followers of the Household of the Prophet") was published, which was "signed by numerous 'Alawi' men of religion", described the doctrines of the Imami Shia as Alawite.[60] Additionally, there has been a recent movement to unite Alawism and the other branches of Twelver Islam through educational exchange programs in Syria and Qom.[61]

Four women in traditional dress
Alawi women in Syria, early 20th century

Some sources have discussed the "Sunnification" of Alawites under the al-Assad regime.[62] Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, writes that Hafiz al-Assad "tried to turn Alawites into 'good' (read Sunnified) Muslims in exchange for preserving a modicum of secularism and tolerance in society". On the other hand, Al-Assad "declared the Alawites to be nothing but Twelver Shiites".[62] In a paper, "Islamic Education in Syria", Landis wrote that "no mention" is made in Syrian textbooks (controlled by the Al-Assad regime) of Alawites, Druze, Ismailis or Shia Islam; Islam was presented as a monolithic religion.[63] Ali Sulayman al-Ahmad, chief judge of the Baathist Syrian state, has said:

Population[edit]

Map showing the current distribution of Alawites in the Northern Levant

Syria[edit]

Alawites have traditionally lived in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Latakia and Tartus are the region's principal cities. They are also concentrated in the plains around Hama and Homs. Alawites also live in Syria's major cities, and are estimated at about 12 percent of the country's population[64][65][66] (2.6 million, out of a total population of 22 million).[1]

There are four Alawite confederations — Kalbiyya, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah — each divided into tribes.[19] Alawites are concentrated in the Latakia region of Syria, extending north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey, and in and around Homs and Hama.[67]

Before 1953 Alawites held specifically-reserved seats in the Syrian Parliament, in common with all other religious communities. After that (including the 1960 census) there were only general Muslim and Christian categories, without mention of subgroups, to reduce sectarianism (taïfiyya).

Turkey[edit]

Adolescent boy standing in front of younger children
Alawite children in Antioch (now in Turkey), 1938

To avoid confusion with the Alevis, the Alawites call themselves Arap Alevileri ("Arab Alevis") in Turkish. The term Nusayrī, previously used in theological texts, has been revived in recent studies. In Çukurova, Alawites are known as Fellah and Arabuşağı (although the latter is considered offensive) by the Sunni population. A quasi-official name used during the 1930s by Turkish authorities was Eti Türkleri ("Hittite Turks"), to conceal their Arabic origins. Although this term is obsolete, it is still used by some older people as a euphemism.

The exact number of Alawites in Turkey is unknown; there were 185,000 in 1970,[68] suggesting about 400,000 in 2009. As Muslims, they are not recorded separately from Sunnis. In the 1965 census (the last Turkish census where informants were asked their mother tongue), 180,000 people in the three provinces declared their mother tongue as Arabic; however, Arabic-speaking Sunnis and Christians were also included in this figure. Turkish Alawites traditionally speak the same dialect of Levantine Arabic as Syrian Alawites. Arabic is preserved in rural communities and in Samandağ. Younger people in the cities of Çukurova and İskenderun tend to speak Turkish. The Turkish spoken by Alawites is distinguished by its accents and vocabulary. Knowledge of the Arabic alphabet is confined to religious leaders and men who have worked or studied in Arab countries.

Large, pink mosque with tall minaret
Alawite Imam Ali Mosque in Jabal Mohsen, Lebanon

Alawites demonstrate considerable social mobility. Until the 1960s, they were bound to Sunni aghas (landholders) around Antakya and were poor. Alawites are prominent in the sectors of transportation and commerce and a large, professional middle class has emerged. Male exogamy has increased, particularly by those who attend universities or live in other parts of Turkey. These marriages are tolerated; however, female exogamy (as in other patrilineal groups) is discouraged.

Alawites, like Alevis, have strong leftist political beliefs. However, some people in rural areas (usually members of notable Alawite families) may support secular, conservative parties such as the Democratic Party. Most Alawites feel oppressed by the policies of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı).[69][70]

Lebanon[edit]

There are an estimated 100,000 to 120,000[3][71] Alawites in Lebanon, where they have lived since at least the 16th century.[72] They are one of the 18 official Lebanese sects; due to the efforts of their leader, Ali Eid, the Taif Agreement of 1989 gave them two reserved seats in Parliament. Lebanese Alawites live primarily in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli (where they number 40,000–60,000) and in 15 villages in the Akkar District, and are represented by the Arab Democratic Party.[73][74][75] Their Mufti is Sheikh Assad Assi.[76] The Bab al-Tabbaneh–Jabal Mohsen conflict between pro-Syrian Alawites and anti-Syrian Sunnis has affected Tripoli for decades.[77]

There are also about 2,000 Alawites living in the village of Ghajar, which is split between Lebanon and the Golan Heights.[78] In 1932 the residents of Ghajar were given the option of choosing their nationality, and overwhelmingly chose to be a part of Syria (which has a sizable Alawite minority).[79] Before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the residents of Ghajar were counted in the 1960 Syrian census.[80] When Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, Ghajar was a no man's land for two-and-a-half months.

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