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CHAPTER 4 THE ALAWIS

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the mountain ranges of north-western Syria that overlook the Mediterranean Sea, the 'Alawi community has maintained itself for over one thousand years, fiercely clinging to its syncretistic secret religion. The 'Alawis have survived as a distinct group in spite of repeated persecution and the threat of extinction by the Sunni majority and rulers who considered them pagans and heretics who were not eligible for the status of a protected religion.

Also known as Nusayris, they are an Arabic speaking ethno-religious community, who also live in the Latakiah province of Syria and in the adjacent districts of northern Lebanon and southern Turkey. In recent years many 'Alawis have moved to the large cities of Syria. A small number still survive in Wadi al-Taym south of Mt Hermon.

World wide they number 2.2 million people, of whom 1.6 million live in Syria where they constitute 13% of the population and are the largest minority group. The second largest group is that of southern Turkey (0.5 million), where they are known as Alevis - a Turkish cover name for all extreme Shi'a groups.

Their religion is secret and seems to be a syncretistic mixture of extreme Shi'a (Ghulat), ancient pagan, gnostic and Christian elements. They are sometimes classified as a branch of Twelver Shi'ism, but are actually an independent religion. They do not keep the five pillars of Islam, and they have no mosques but meet in private houses for their religious observances. Their festivals include Persian and Christian holy days. They have a ceremony similar to the Christian mass and believe in a trinitarian manifestation of God.

The 'Alawis are a tribal people (divided into four main tribes) with a closed society. They see themselves as a persecuted and despised people, who actually are the chosen people of God, the only ones to have seen the light in a world of darkness.

Their worst enemies were the Sunni majority who opressed and persecuted them cruelly over the centuries because they were labelled as heretics and pagans. The stories of their sufferings are transmitted from generation to generation creating a latent hatred for the Sunnis.

For centuries they were kept on the margins of Syrian society in a state of depressed poverty which forced some families to sell their daughters into servitude to rich Sunni families in the cities. They were mainly farmers who grew vines, wheat, tobacco and cotton in the hills.

The 'Alawis came to power in Syria in 1960 following a series of political upheavals. In 1971 Hafez Assad, an 'Alawi, was nominated president of Syria and has been in power ever since, giving the 'Alawis more power than they have ever had before. Much of his policy, especially his alliance with Shi'a Iran, can only be understood when we realise his 'Alawi background.

 

 

ORIGINS AND HISTORY

 

The 'Alawi Nusayriyah are one of several groups of extremist Shi'a sects known as the Ghulat (exaggerators). While most Shi'a groups revere 'Ali and his family, the Ghulat have gone beyond veneration, considering 'Ali to be the very manifestation God.

The mountainous areas of Syria have always been a safe haven for minority groups seeking security. Three Islamic sects found refuge there: the Assassins (Nizari Isma'ilis) and the Druze who were direct offshoots of the Isma'ili Sevener Fatimids of Egypt, and the 'Alawis who were based on extreme Twelver Shi'a thought mixed with syncretic Christian and pagan influences.

Like these other groups, the 'Alawi religion has a strong gnostic base and is characterised by Syrio-Babylonian, Hellenistic, Persian and Christian influences.

The 'Alawis may be desecendants of an ancient community that kept its own pagan basis and consecutively added to it elements of the new majority religions - Christianity in the Roman-Byzantine period and Shi'a Islam after the Muslim conquest. This local ethnic group was especially receptive to the gnostic ideas of the Ghulat and also absorbed Arabic and Persian tribes with similar beliefs who migrated to their mountains.

The founder of the 'Alawi sect was Abu Shu'ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr (d.874), the "Gate" (Bab) to the eleventh Twelver Shi'a Imam Hasan al-'Askari. He deified 'Ali and his successors in his teachings which started in Persia and Iraq but was brought to Syria by al-Khasibi (d. 957) in the second part of the tenth century. There it took root and survived whilst other centers of the sect disappeared.

Many of the Byzantines and Persians who turned to Islam after the Arab conquest, strongly resented the Arab dominance under which they were relegated to second class status. It was their effort to stress their cultural superiority over the Arabs that led them to accept Shi'a and extreme Shi'a (as well as Sufi) teaching, mixing it with their own ancient religious and philosophical systems. This was their "revenge" for the imposition of Arab rule upon them, and in this way they managed to change Islam into their own mold.

In the 'Alawi religion there is a definite stress on the superiority of Persia in a golden age before Islam. 'Ali is said to have manifested himself in the person of two Persian Kings before reappearing as an Arab. Before leaving, he deposited with the Persian Kings the divine wisdom and revelation of himself which the Persians (as Shi'as) have faithfully preserved, whilst the Arabs (as Sunnis) have lost. Most 'Alawi religious leaders and writers were of Persian origin.

Ibn-Nusayr, the founder, was followed by ibn-Jundub and al-Junbulani as leaders. Then came al-Khasibi who is the highly respected unifier and consolidator of this religion. Al-Khasibi (d.957) taught for a while at the courts of the Shi'a Hamdanids of Aleppo and the Shi'a Buyids of Baghdad. When these Twelver Shi'a states were taken over by the Sunni Seljuk Turks, he moved to Latakia which became the 'Alawi centre.

During the Crusades, the 'Alawis were accused of favouring the Franks, and were punished for it by the victorious Sunni Ayyubis and Mamluks of Egypt who saw their victory as a good excuse to try and annihilate all Shi'as in their kingdom. In 1220 the 'Alawis were almost eliminated by the Sunni Kurds migrating from the north-east and by the Isma'ilis attacking from the south. The Emir Hasan al-Makzun of Jebel Sinjar in northwest Iraq came to their aid with all of his people. He overcame the Isma'ilis and the Kurds, settled in the Jabal as ruler over all 'Alawis, and reorganised the community.

They had another brief respite during the Mongol invasion of Syria. But the victorious Mameluk armies of Sultan Baybars destroyed their castles and forced them to build mosques and to conform to orthodox Sunni Islam. Although they outwardly complied, they never used the mosques and continued practicing their own religion and rites.

The Mamluk rule lasted till 1516, when the Ottoman Turks crushed the Mamluks and added Syria and Egypt to their Sunni Empire. During the takeover they massacred thousands of 'Alawi leaders. In the centuries long conflict between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi'a Safavids of Persia, the 'Alawis were suspected of favouring the Persians and as a result they were again cruelly persecuted. Regarded as heretics and pagans they were not given independent religious status and were hated and exploited by their Sunni neighbours and landlords.

The 'Alawis rebelled against the Ottomans in 1806, 1811 and 1852. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the Ottomans introduced some reforms, giving the 'Alawis limited autonomy. A real change for the better came after WWI when the French took control of Syria. The French created a separate autonomous 'Alawi region which was given independent status in 1922. The economic conditions where improved and education introduced. Many young 'Alawis joined the army to improve their socio-economic prospects. This was encouraged by the French, who under the ancient "divide and rule" policy favoured the minority groups at the expense of the Sunni majority.

During the negotiations for Syrian independence, the 'Alawis would have preferred independence or attachment to Lebanon as they were afraid of renewed repression by the Sunni majority. They were however finally included in the Syrian territory when independence was granted in 1946.

The 'Alawis continued to infiltrate the army and the security forces, where they eventually came to control the centers of power. In the 1950s they also started to infiltrate the radical Ba'ath party and when it rose to power they where ready to take control of the Syrian State.

In 1971 Hafiz al-Assad, from the Matawira tribe, became the first 'Alawi president of Syria. Whilst keeping up the appearance of pan-Syrian nationalism and accepting Sunni Islam as state religion, Assad severely repressed the Islamic Brotherhood and all Sunni groups that threatened his position. At the same time he gave most positions of power in the security forces, the Ba'ath party and the Government to 'Alawis.

The 'Alawis, a minority group, now controlled the Syrian state. The Sunnis reacted by civil unrest and by assassinating key 'Alawi leaders. In 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood started a rebellion in Hama which was brutally put down by the Defense Companies commanded by Rif'at Assad, the president's brother. It is estimated that at least 20,000 people were killed and part of old Hama destroyed in the fighting. Assad has been firmly in control ever since.

 

 

RELIGION

 

The 'Alawis believe in the absolute unity and transcendence of God who is undefinable and unknowable. God however reveals himself periodically to man in a Trinitarian form. This has happened seven times in history, the last and final revelation being in 'Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi. (Salman was a Persian disciple and close companion of Muhammad).

The first person of this Trinity ('Ali) represents the Meaning of the Deity (Ma'na) which is the inner essence of God. The second person (Muhammad) is the Name or the Veil of Deity (Ism, Hijab) - its outward manifestation. The third person (Salman) is the Gate (Bab) of the Deity, through whom the true believer can gain an entrance to the mystery of the Godhead as revealed in 'Ali.

The first person, the Ma'na, is the real substance of God, the source and meaning of all things. The other two are derived from him and inferior to him. They are emanations of the Ma'na's light. In 'Alawi theology 'Ali is thus placed above Muhammad in the hierarchy of the trinity. All attributes and names of God are given to 'Ali and worship is directed to him.

Muhammad emanated from the light of 'Ali's essence, and 'Ali taught him the Quran. Muhammad's role as Ism (Name = Logos?) was to create and sustain the universe, and as Veil (Hijab) to reveal 'Ali to mankind. Muhammad is thus the intermediary between man and God.

Salman in turn emanated from Muhammad and is the only Door (Bab) which leads to the Ma'na through the Ism. He also appeared as the angel Gabriel to guide Muhammad into the Quran. He is also called the Holy Spirit and the Universal Soul, the third person in the 'Alawi Trinity.

The 'Alawi profession of faith states: "I testify that there is no God but 'Ali ibn-Talib the one to be worshipped, no Veil but the Lord Muhammad worthy to be praised, and no Gate but the Lord Salman al-Farisi the object of love".

The mystery of the Trinity is the centre of 'Alawi worship and rites. It is symbolised by the three letters AMS (Arabic 'Ain, Mim, Sin) standing for 'Ali, Muhammad and Salman. These three are one and it is blasphemy to try and separate them. Meditating on the relationship between the three persons of this Trinity is part of 'Alawi religious practice.

Out of the Bab emanated the five Lords of the Elements (Aytam - incomparable ones), who are also identified with real historical figures. These powers (hierarchies) under Salman, are the creators and sustainors of this universe. Below them are five further spiritual ranks. All these heavenly beings appeared in human form and are personified in Nusairi notables.

In addition to the hierarchies, the 'Alawis also revere many prophets and apostles. The total number of hierarchies, apostles and prophets is said to be 124,000.

Light is the very essence of God, so the 'Alawis worship the sun and the moon seeing them as the abodes of 'Ali, Muhammad and Salman. Actually there are two divisions within the 'Alawis: The Shamsiya (from the Arabic Shams, meaning sun), identify 'Ali with the sun and Salman with the moon. The other group, the Qamariyah (from Qamar, the moon), identify 'Ali with the moon and Salman with the sun. Prayers are said facing the sun.

The heavens are worshipped as God's abode. 'Alawi worship of sun, moon and sky can be traced back to the Sabean sect, an ancient Aramaic community of upper Mesopotamia (Harran) who worshipped the sun, moon and the five planets. They believed that God had one essence but was multiple in his manifestations.

Like Twelver Shi'ites, the 'Alawis believe in the twelve Imams from 'Ali down to Muhammad the Mahdi, each of whom had a Gate (Bab) who served as the pathway leading believers to the Imam. The twelfth Imam disappeared leaving no Bab. This position was then claimed by ibn-Nusayr the founder of the 'Alawi faith. The Imams are seen as pre- existent heavenly spirits around God's throne who later descended to earth in physical bodies to lead humans in praise back to God.

The 'Alawi feasts include the general Muslim feasts of 'Id al-Fitr ( but without the fast of Ramadan) and 'Id al-Adha (without the pilgrimage to Mecca). From Shi'a Islam they celebrate 'Id al-Ghadir that commemorates 'Ali's nomination as successor to Muhammad, and the 'Ashura that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, 'Ali's son, at Karbala.

The Persian Nawruz (New Year, held in Spring and symbolising the change from cold to heat), and the Mihrajan (signifying the change from heat to cold in the Autumn), are also celebrated by the 'Alawis revealing the strong Persian links of their religion.

Christian feast days such as Christmas, Epiphany (the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist), Pentecost and Palm Sunday are celebrated. Also the feasts of Saint John the Baptist, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Barbara and Saint Mary Magdalene.

The 'Alawis also celebrate a ceremony resembling the mass (Quddass), where wine and bread are consecrated and partaken of by the male initiates. The wine especially is considered to be the very essence of God ('Ali), transsubstantiated by the mass and offered to the believer. It is called "The Servant Of Light" ('Abd al-Nur). Vines are treated with great respect in 'Alawi culture.

The main 'Alawi Holy Book is the "Kitab al-Majmu'" compiled by al-Khasibi and containing 16 Suras. Other sacred books are: Kitab al-Mashaykha (manual for Sheikhs), Kitab Majmu' al-'Ayad (Book of Feasts) and Kitab Ta'lim al-Diyana al-Nusayriyyah, the 'Alawi chatechism.

The 'Alawis believe in the transmigration of souls (metempshychosis, reincarnation). Unbelievers (Muslims, Christians, Jews) return as animals, whilst 'Alawis are reincarnated in other 'Alawis and eventually can reach the state of luminous stars!

Another important 'Alawi principle is that of Taqiya - religious dissimulation, practiced also by Shi'as and the Druze. 'Alawis may pretend to adhere outwardly to the majority religion in order to ensure their own survival. This also means keeping the 'Alawi religion and its principles hidden from outsiders.

 

'ALAWI SOCIETY

 

The 'Alawi community is organised as a secret society, revealing its teachings only to the fully initiated who pledge themselves to keep them secret. Initiation is an extremely important ceremony, and special signs of recognition are used to identify members.

The 'Alawi community is divided into the "Khassah", the initiated religious leaders who learn the mysteries of the religion, and the ignorant majority called "'Ammah". Any male over eighteen can try and receive initiation if he passes certain tests. He is then attached to a spiritual guide and can gradually ascend to higher degrees of initiation (Najib, Natik, Imam). All Khassah must pledge to keep the secrets of the faith (Kitman) and it's obligations.

The ignorant 'Ammah are expected only to keep general moral rules, be loyal to the community's spiritual leaders, celebrate the 'Alawi feasts and make pilgrimages to the tombs of various holy men, amongst them al-Khidr (Elijah, St. George) and other saints venerated also by Muslims and Christians.

Religious knowledge is the exclusive privilege of the men, so only males are initiated. 'Alawis believe that women were created from devils. Women therefore have a low status in 'Alawi religion and society. They are not taught any prayers nor are they initiated into the secrets of their religion.

After initiation the new disciple is gradually introduced to the mysteries of his religion and is entitled to partake in the celebration of the mass and to receive the consecrated wine in which 'Ali has manifested himself.

'Alawi society is still strongly tribal and patriarchal. Feuding was the norm until the beginning of this century, and marauding into the territories of neighbouring non-'Alawi communities was common. Today the community is fairly united under its religious leaders. The problems they now face are those of the new ideas penetrating the younger generation as larger numbers seek further education in universities.

 

 

EVANGELISM AMONGST THE 'ALAWIS

 

There are many nominal Christian and heretical Christian elements in 'Alawi religion. They include the concept of the Trinity, the celebration of the mass, the keeping of Christmas and other Christian holy days. Christian names such as Matthew, Gabriel, Catherine and Helen are common.

Much of our knowledge about the 'Alawi religion comes from an 'Alawi convert to Christianity, al-'Adani, who was burnt alive for his apostasy and for divulging the secrets of the 'Alawi faith. There are very few 'Alawi converts at this time, and no Christian workers specialising in outreach to the 'Alawis.

As with the Druze and other similar closed and secret sects, the 'Alawis are enslaved by spiritual principalities and powers who will not easily be shaken. Much specific intercession has to be made on their behalf, followed by the praying forth of skilled workers to this specific field who will be willing to immerse themselves in 'Alawi culture and befriend 'Alawis as they seek for opportunities to share Christ with them.

Whilst there are superficial similarities to Christian doctrines, concepts and practices, we must be careful to realise the differences. We must present them with a loving and feeling personal God with whom we can have a relationship as opposed to their abstract and unknowable God, and explain the concept of incarnation, where God not only manifested himself in human flesh, but actually was made flesh and dwelt amongst us in Jesus Christ.

Christ must be presented as truly God and truly man, who fulfills all they would look for in 'Ali and Muhammad and Salman - and much more. The fulness of the Godhead dwells in him, and he is the only Mediator and the only Door. It will not be easy to avoid confusion with their concepts of a multitude of divine ranks and manifestations, where Jesus is but one of many and may be seen as an earlier manifestation of Muhammad

The problem of sin must be pushed to the forefront, and with it the concept of sacrifice and atonement which only Christ could perfectly achieve.

Taqiyah presents us with both an opportunity and a problem. On the one hand it would allow a true seeker to come a long way in accepting Christian teaching and practice whilst still within the 'Alawi framework, on the other hand we could never be sure of the real motives of such seekers and would have to humbly leave such soul searching to God.