Alawi Islam


The Alawis, also known as Alawites, Nusayris and Ansaris are a prominent mystical religious group centred in Syria who follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam.
The Alawis take their name from علي بن أبي طالب (Ali ibn Abi Talib), cousin and son-in-law of Muḥammad, who was the first Shi'a Imam and the fourth and last "Rightly Guided Caliph" of Sunni Islam.
Until fairly recently, Alawis were referred to as "Nusairis", after Abu Shu'ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr (d. ca 270 h, 863 CE) who is reported to have attended the circles of the last three Imams of the prophet Muhammad's line.
This name is considered derogatory, and they refer to themselves as Alawis.


The origin of the Alawis is disputed.
The Alawis themselves trace their origins to the followers of the eleventh Imam, Hassan al-'Askari (d. 873), and his pupil ibn Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr (d. 868). 
The sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr known as al-Khasibi, who died in Aleppo about 969.
In 1032 Al-Khaṣībī's grandson and pupil al-Tabarani moved to Latakia, which was then controlled by the Byzantine Empire.
Al-Tabarani became the perfector of the Alawi faith through his numerous writings.
He and his pupils converted the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range and the plain of Cilicia to the Alawi faith.
Around the turn of the last century, some Western scholars believed Alawites to be descended from ancient Middle Eastern peoples such as Canaanites and Hittites.

Alawis and the Ottomans

Under the Ottoman Empire members of the Alawi sect were often ill treated, and they resisted an attempt to convert them to Sunni Islam.
The Alawites were traditionally good fighters, and revolted against the Ottomans on several occasions, and maintained virtual autonomy in their mountains.

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.'
On the other hand, throughout the 18th a century a number of Alawi notables were engaged as local Ottoman tax farmers (multazim).
In the 19th century some Alawis also supported the Ottomans against the Egyptian occupation (1831-1840),[27] while individual Alawis made careers in the Ottoman army or as Ottoman governors.
In the early part of the 20th century, the mainly Sunni notables sat on the wealth and dominated politics, while Alawites lived as poor peasants.

The French Mandate period

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon came under a French mandate.
On December 15, 1918, prominent Alawi leader Saleh al-Ali called for a meeting of Alawi notables in the town of Sheikh Badr, and urged them to revolt and expel the French from Syria. When the French authorities heard of the meeting, they sent a force in order to arrest Saleh al-Ali.
Al-Ali and his men ambushed them, and the French forces were defeated and suffered more than 35 casualties.
After the initial victory, al-Ali started to organize his Alawi rebels into a disciplined force, with its own general command and military ranks, which resulted in the Syrian Revolt of 1919.
In 1919, Al-Ali retaliated to French attacks against rebel positions by attacking and occupying al-Qadmus from which the French conducted their military operations against him.
In November, General Henri Gouraud mounted a full-fledged campaign against Saleh al-Ali's forces in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains.
They entered al-Ali's village of Ash-Shaykh Badr and arrested many Alawi notables.
Al-Ali fled to the north, but a large French force overran his positions and al-Ali went underground.
When the French finally occupied Syria in 1920, they recognized the term "Alawi", gave autonomy to them and other minority groups, and accepted them into their colonial troops.
On 2 September 1920 an Alawite State was created in the coastal and mountain country comprising Alawi villages; the French justified this separation with the "backwardness" of the mountain-dwelling people, religiously distinct from the surrounding Sunni population.
It was a division meant to protect the Alawi people from more powerful majorities.
Under the mandate, many Alawi chieftains supported the notion of a separate Alawi nation and tried to convert their autonomy into independence.
The French considered the Alawites, along with the Druze, as the only "warlike races" in the mandate territories, as excellent soldiers, and the communities from where they could recruit their best troops.
The region was both coastal and mountainous, and home to a mostly rural, highly heterogeneous population.
During the French Mandate period, society was divided by religion and geography: the landowning families of the port city of Latakia, and 80% of the population of the city, were Sunni Muslim.
However, more than 90% of the population of the province was rural, 62% being Alawite peasantry. 
In May 1930, the Alawite State was renamed "the Government of Latakia", the only concession the French made to Arab nationalists until 1936.
There was a great deal of Alawite separatist sentiment in the region, but these political views could not be coordinated into a unified voice.
This was attributed to the majority of Alawites being peasants "exploited by a predominantly Sunni landowning class resident in Latakia and Hama".
On 3 December 1936 (effective in 1937), the Alawite state was re-incorporated into Syria as a concession by the French to the Nationalist Bloc, the party in power of the semi-autonomous Syrian government.
In 1939 a portion of northwest Syria, the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now Hatay, that contained a large number of Alawis, was given to Turkey by the French following a plebiscite carried out in the province under the guidance of League of Nations which favored joining Turkey.
However, this development greatly angered the Alawi community and Syrians in general.
In 1938, the Turkish military had gone into Alexandretta and expelled most of its Arab and Armenian inhabitants.
Before this, Alawi Arabs and Armenians were the majority of the province's population.
Zaki al-Arsuzi, the young Alawi leader from Iskandarun province in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, who led the resistance to the annexation of his province to the Turks, later became a founder of the Ba'ath Party along with the Eastern Orthodox Christian schoolteacher Michel Aflaq.
After World War II, Salman Al Murshid played a major role in uniting the Alawi province with Syria.
He was executed by the newly independent Syrian government in Damascus on December 12, 1946 only three days after a hasty political trial.

The Alawites in an Independant Syria

Syria became independent on April 17, 1946.
In 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups and the rise of the Ba'ath Party.
In 1958, Syria and Egypt were united through a political agreement into the United Arab Republic. The UAR lasted for three years.
In 1961, it broke apart when a group of army officers seized power and declared Syria independent anew.

A further succession of coups ensued until, in 1963, a secretive military committee, which included a number of disgruntled Alawi officers, including Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid, helped the Ba'ath Party seize power.
In 1966, Alawi-affiliated military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the old Ba'ath that had looked to the founders of the Ba’ath Party, the Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq (see left) and the Sunni Muslim Salah al-Din al-Bitar (see right), for leadership

 ميشيل عفلق‎‎ - Michel Aflaq (1910 – 23 June 1989) was a Syrian philosopher, sociologist and Arab nationalist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of Ba'athism and its political movement; he is considered by several Ba'athists to be the principal founder of Ba'athist thought. He published various books during his lifetime, the most notable being 'The Battle for One Destiny' (1958) and 'The Struggle Against Distorting the Movement of Arab Revolution' (1975).

صلاح الدين البيطار Salah ad-Din al-Bitar (1912 – 21 - July 1980) was a Syrian politician who, with Michel Aflaq, founded the Arab Ba'th Party in the early 1940s. During their student days in Paris in the early 1930s, the two worked together to formulate a doctrine that combined aspects of nationalism and socialism. Al-Bitar later served as prime minister in several early Ba'thist governments in Syria, but became alienated from the party as it grew more radical, and in 1966 fled the country. He lived most of the rest of his life in Europe, and remained politically active until he was assassinated by unknown persons in 1980.

They promoted Zaki al-Arsuzi (see right) as the "Socrates" of their reconstituted Ba'ath Party.

The Assad Family

In 1970, then an Air Force General,  حافظ الأسد‎ - Hafez al-Assad (see right), an Alawite, took power and instigated a "Correctionist Movement" in the Ba'ath Party.
The coup of 1970 ended the political instability having lasted since the arrival of independence.
In 1971, al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time allowed only for Sunni Muslims to hold.
In 1973, a new constitution was adopted that omitted the old requirement that the religion of the state be Islam and replaced it with the statement that the religion of the republic's president is Islam. Protests erupted when this was known.

In 1974, in order to satisfy this constitutional requirement, Musa Sadr, a leader of the Twelvers of Lebanon and founder of the حركة أمل - Amal Movement who had earlier sought to unite Lebanese Alawis and Shias under the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council without success, issued a fatwa stating that Alawis were a community of Twelver Shia Muslims.
Under the authoritarian but secular Assad government, religious minorities were tolerated more than before, but political dissidents were not.
After the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son  بشار حافظ الأسد‎ - Bashar al-Assad maintained the outlines of his father's governance.
In 2012, the Alawis comprised the overwhelming majority of the top military and intelligence offices.
Government employees from lower bureaucratic ranks are largely from the popular majority of the Sunni Muslim faith, who represent about 74% of Syria's population.
The Alawis are currently the politically most powerful religious affiliation in Syria and the only one in direct governmental control.

Alawite Beliefs

Alawis are self-described Shia Muslims, and have been called Shia by other sources, including the influential Lebanese Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr of Lebanon.
The Alawis get their beliefs from the Prophets of Islam, from the Quran, and from the books of the Imams from the Ahlulbayt such as the Nahj al-Balagha by Ali ibn Abu Talib.
At least one source has compared them to Baha'is, Babis, Bektashis, Ahmadis, and "similar groups that have arisen within the Muslim community", however the prominent Sunni Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni issued a dubious fatwah recognizing them as part of the Muslim community in the interest of Arab nationalism.
Sunni scholars such as Ibn Kathir, on the other hand, have categorized Alawis as pagans in their religious works and documents.

Many of the tenets of the faith are secret and known only to a select few Alawi.
According to some sources, Alawis have integrated doctrines from other religions (syncretism), in particular from Ismaili Islam and Christianity.
Alawites are reported to celebrate certain Christian festivals, "in their own way", including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, which make use of bread and wine (without alcohol).
It has also been suggested that they also practice a religious feast called by the Persian name Naw Ruz.
Their main feasts though are Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Mawlid an-Nabi Muhammad and the Shia feast Eid al Ghadeer.

Alawis in Syria

Traditionally Alawis have lived in the Alawite Mountains along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Latakia and Tartous are the region's principal cities.
Today Alawis are also concentrated in the plains around Hama and Homs.
Alawis also live in all major cities of Syria.
They have been estimated to constitute about 15–20% of Syria's population - 4.5 million people.
There are four Alawi confederations—Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah—each divided into tribes.
Alawis are concentrated in the Latakia region of Syria, extending north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey, and in and around Homs and Hama.[58]
Before 1953 they held reserved seats in the Syrian Parliament, like all other religious communities.
After that, including for the 1960 census, there were only general Muslim and Christian categories, without mention of subgroups in order to reduce "communalism" (taïfiyya).

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