Alawis are also called as Nusayri-Alawis. The Nusayri-Alawis are Muslim Shia sect that split off from the major stream of the Islam at the end of ninth century. The Alawis were one of the last Ghulat (exaggerators) sects of Iraq. These groups of mystics were nick-named Ghulat by their rivals because they were seen by their contemporaries as extremist admirers of Ali and his descendents.
Nusyari-Alawi sect can be traced back to the Ghulat of Kufa in the eight century. These mystics attributed their doctrines to the famous sixth Imam of Shias Jaffar-Al-Sadiq. Many scholars also consider that Alawis are preserving and developing doctrines of Ghali Abu-I-Khattab, leader of the Mukhammisa (admirers of the five), a sect which deified the Ahl-al-bayt (the close family of Prophet Mohammad). It includes Ali, his uncle the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and Ali’s wife, and their two sons Hassan and Husain).
Alawi doctrine starts from ninth century A.D. derive from the ‘Twelver’ or Imami branch of Shia Islam (the sect that dominates in Iran). In about 859, one Ibn Nusyr declared himself the bab (gateway to truth) a key figure in Shiite theology. It was Ibn Nusyr and his doctrines that made Alawism a religion with distinct identity from the Shia Islam practiced in Iran.
As Sunni Muslims believe that ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet’. Alawis believe in ‘Holy Trinity’ comprising Ali, Prophet Muhammad and one of the Prophet’s cousin, Salman-Al-Farisi. Alawis asserted that ‘There is no deity but Ali, no veil but Muhammad and no bab (gate) but Salman. Hence, Alawis reject main tenets of Sunni Islam.
Many of the Alawi doctrines have been borrowed from Paganism, Mazadakism and Manichaeism. Alawis have great similarity to Christianity. Alawi ceremonies involve bread and wine. Wine drinking has a sacred role in Alawism. Alawis hold Ali in same manner as Jesus Christ (incarnation of divinity) in Christianity.
Alawi faith is most hidden in appearance, not only from outsiders but also from majority Alawis as well. They maintain strict religious secrecy. Anyone in the past who has tried to unearth the doctrines has been brutally eliminated.
Alawi women are never inducted into the mysteries. They are considered as unclean and excluded from religious rituals. Since women are disrespected, they are not veiled and enjoy great degree of freedom and liberty than Sunni Muslim women.
Many scholars have written that Alawism promotes ‘gay relationships’ and Alawi men freely share their wives with Alawi co-religionists. A British traveller in 1840 wrote that among Alawis, institution of marriage is unknown, when a young man grows up he buys his wife.
Where Alawis live in Syria?
Alawis are the largest Muslim minority in Syria (12.5%). Most of the Alawi population in Syria is concentrated along the Mediterranean coast. Smaller number is concentrated in Alexandretta and Cilicia region of Turkey and Akkar region of Lebanon. The Alawis of Syria are concentrated in Latakia region, with a significant number in the neighbouring plains of the provinces of Homs and Hama. They constitute majority in Latakia region but minority in the capital of Latakia. Most of them live in numerous small mountain villages and engaged in agrarian sector. Rural Latakia is dominated by Alawis however, in coastal towns they are being dominated by Sunni Muslims and Christians.
Economic and Social Condition of Alawis in Pre-Assad Syria
In the pre- Hafiz-Al-Assad Syria Alawi community was very poor and among the least educated in the society of Syria. Most of the Syrian families, specially urban Sunnis use to have Alawi maidservants. Even small Alawi girls use to work in the houses of urban Sunni Muslims. The practice indicated extreme poverty and low status of Alawis in Syria. The bulk of Syrian Alawis of mountain villages were exceptionally poor and region was very under developed. The urban Sunni and Christian were landowners and rural Alawis were landless share croppers. The pathetic economic conditions of Alawis, wide class divide, rural-urban dichotomy and sectarian divisions led to the development of deep-rooted antagonism, distrust and resentment among the Alawis against majority Sunni oppressors.
Rise of Alawi Political Power
When French mandate ended in Syria in 1946 the power went into the hands of urban Sunni elites. Alawi community showed great resistance to integrate Latakia region with Sunni Syria. On the other hand Sunni rulers in Damascus spared no effort to integrate Latakia into Syria (because this region offered them only access to sea). After 1954 Alawis changed their outlook towards integration with Syria that ushered a new era in the political life of Syria i.e. the political rise of Alawis. Once the Alawis recognised that their future is permanently tied to Syria, they started a rapid rise to power.
Alawis focused on two main forces in Syria – the Military and Ba’ath Party. Sunni rich and land owning community despised army as a profession and regarded Homs (the Military Academy) as the place of socially undistinguished. However, the Alawis considered Homs as a place of opportunity and flooded Syrian army with people of its community. By 1949 Alawis constituted two-third of the high ranking officers in the Syrian army. Alawis also joined Ba’ath party in very large numbers. Those Alawis who migrated from rural areas to urban areas became permanent and active members of Ba’ath party. In fact, one of the founder members of Ba’ath party was an Alawi, Zaki-Al-Arsizi, he brought rural peasants and labourers (mostly Alawis) in huge numbers. The doctrine of Ba’ath party Socialism and Secularism attracted the Alawis. They were more inclined towards secularism, as it offered them promise of less prejudice and withdrawal of state from religion. When Ba’ath party came to power in a coup by a group of Ba’athist army officers in 1963, Alawis were able to increase their strength and in less than three year time they controlled key party and government positions. Alawi power consolidated after Alawi General Hafiz-Al-Assad (Father of Bashar-Al-Assad) became the president in 1971.
Alawis under Hafiz Assad Rule
Under the rule of Hafiz Assad power of Alawis grew leaps and bounds. Members of other religious groups, including Sunni high rank army officers were in no position to mount challenge to Alawi-dominated establishment. Sunni officers were usually dispersed in peripheral units away from urban areas. As a group Alawis favour and support further strengthened their position in Syrian society. The Hafiz regime diverted a great proportion of government investments to Alawi dominated Latakia region. Very soon Alawis became millionaires, got maximum government contracts and reached to upper class of Syrian society. Hafiz faced several uprisings and revolts but he was able to suppress it. Under his rule those who used slogans such as ‘Allah Akbar’ were harshly punished. Despite the government harsh countermeasures, the anti-regime violence continued in Syria.
Syrian Civil War and Basher-Al-Assad
The bloody civil war of Syria has been going on since last eight years. More than 4,65,000 Syrians have lost their lives in fighting. Around one million are injured and over 12 million population of Syria has been displaced. In 2011, the protest that started in Syria was not sectarian but against oppressive and corrupt regime of Assad. The protest was brutally crushed by Basher-Al-Assad and Syria’s security regime that has long been dominated by the members of Alawi sect, of which Assad is a member. In July, 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of Free Syrian Army to overthrow the government. Since, 2015 Assad air force and Russian air force has been incriminately bombing urban areas (Sunni rebel’s stronghold) of Syria. Sunni rebels are being covertly and overtly supported by Tukey, Saudi-Arabia and United States of America. Due to the unholy war about 5.6 million people most of them women and children have fled from Syria to Lebanon, Jordon and Turkey. Many Syrians refugees have got asylum in European countries as well. Entire infrastructure of Syria has been devastated. There is acute scarcity of food and clean drinking water. Horrific tales of death and survival come every day from different corners of Syria.
Several Islamic fundamentalists have been able to exploit the bloody suppression of Sunni Muslims by Assad-Alawi regime. It has given an opportunity to the Jihadist groups in Syria such as Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front that controls large part of north-west Syria and the Islamic State (ISIS) capturing large tracts of north-eastern Syria. These Jihadist groups have incited emotions of Sunni Muslims youths by calling Alawis more infidels than Jews and their complete disregard to Islamic duties. Under the influence of Jihadist propaganda many disoriented youths have joined their ranks, ignoring the larger geopolitical connotations and its impact on humanity and world peace.
1. Yaron Friedman The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria, BRILL
2. Mahmud A. Faksh The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force, Taylor & Francis
3. Daniel Pipes The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria, Taylor & Francis