High up in the mountain ranges of southern Lebanon, south western Syria and northern Israel lie the villages of the enigmatic Druze community.
Proud and fierce fighters, intensely loyal to their semi-Islamic religion and to their community, they have survived a thousand years of turbulent Middle East history in the safety of their mountain fortresses, often under pressure from the hostile Sunni majority.
They are a small and tightly knit Arabic speaking community. They can be classified as a religio-national group with a clear sense of separate identity, culture, traditions and customs and with their own Druze flag.
Today they number some 750,000 people. In Syria there are 375,000 living mainly in the Jabal el-Druze area, in Lebanon there are 250,000 mainly in the Chouf mountains, and in Israel 100,000 mainly in Galilee and on Mt.Carmel. There are also small Druze communities in Jordan, the United States, Canada and in Latin America.
The Druze religion developed from the Shi'a Isma'ili movement a thousand years ago. To understand it one must be familiar with Islamic esoteric terminology and symbolism.
The strict Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East treated the Druze as heretics, which is why they have kept their religion as secret as possible. They maintained their identity and distinctive faith, settled mainly in the harsh mountain top areas for safety, and always sought autonomy for their community.
The Druze claim that they have always existed in the Near East. They highly esteem Jethro (Nabi Shu'ayb) whom they revere as a prophet and as an incarnation of the Universal Mind (one of the emanations of God). His tomb at the Horns of Hattin near Tiberias, Israel is a Druze holy place, second in importance only to their spiritual centre at Bayyada near Hasbaya in Lebanon.
Western Freemasonry may have been influenced by Druze rituals.
The survival of this community with its distinctive religion for almost a thousand years is truly remarkable.
The Druze faith was founded in Cairo in 1017 AD during the reign of the eccentric sixth Isma'ili Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, Abu 'Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim (985-1021).
According to Isma'ili doctrine the Caliph was also the Imam, the divinely appointed leader of all Muslims. He was seen as a manifestation of the Universal Mind, the first of the divine emanations or cosmic rulers. Al-Hakim however concluded that he was actually a manifestation of the Deity itself, and he gathered a group of disciples who accepted his claims and spread the new teaching.
The leader of these disciples was Hamzah ibn-'Ali, a Persian Isma'ili felt maker, who taught that al-Hakim was the embodiment of God, and that he, Hamzah, was his Imam. Hamzah taught that from al-Hakim in his divine mode had emanated five supreme cosmic rulers (Huddud) - Universal Mind, Universal Soul, The Word, The Pervading Light and The Follower - each of whom was embodied in an actual person. Opposed to these cosmic rulers are false Hudduds, likewise the creation of al-Hakim and manifested in human beings. The cosmic struggle between the true and the false is reflected in the struggle between good and evil we experience in this world and will be finally resolved at the end of time.
Muhammad al-Darazi was another early leader of Turkish origin from Bukhara, who taught that the divine light and spirit embodied in Adam had been transmitted to the Caliph 'Ali (Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law revered by the Shi'a as his true successor), and through him and the Imams of his house to al-Hakim.
Al-Darazi was executed in 1019 AD. Though now regarded as a heretic, he gave the movement its name, and his many missionary travels especially in Syria where he spent much time in the Wadi-al-Taym area at the foot of Mt Hermon, prepared the way for the new religion to take hold amongst the people of that region.
In 1021 AD the Caliph al-Hakim mysteriously disappeared. Some say he was assassinated, but the Druze believe that he has vanished into hiding (occultation) and will one day return to inaugurate a messianic golden age.
The Druze religion has elements of many ancient religious ideas which had been channelled into Isma'ilism - Neo-Platonism, Gnosticsm, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, besides Jewish and Christian mysticism. It was systematised by the teachings of Hamzah and his successors. Druze missionaries were active for a short while in Syria, Persia and even India.
Al-Hakim's disappearance was followed by a time of persecution of the new faith in Egypt. Hamzah went into hiding, and his successor Baha al-Din al-Muqtana said he was in touch with him and predicted his return.
In less than three years since they first appeared, the two founding Druze teachers and al-Hakim himself had disappeared. But the new religion did not disappear. Instead it entered a period of canonisation. Baha al-Din al-Muqtana edited pastoral letters laying down the laws of Druze orthodoxy. This collection of 111 letters includes some written by al-Hakim himself, and others by Hamzah, al-Muqtana and Isma'il al-Tamimi (second in the cosmic hierarchy to Hamzah). It forms the Scriptures of the Druze, who call them Rasa'il al-Hikmah (Epistles of Wisdom).
Most members of the new sect lived in Syria where they became known as Durzi. When al-Muqtana withdrew in 1034 their missionary efforts ceased ("the gates were shut"),they developed a doctrine that there could be no further admission into their community of the Muwahhidun (declarers of the Oneness) as they now called themselves.
Initially there were Druze adherents in Egypt, Iraq, Persia and India, but they have survived only in Syria. The Druze missionaries found ready acceptance for their teaching among the peoples populating the foothills of Mt Hermon, many of whom had migrated to this area from Iraq and Persia in the 9th century (e.g. the Yamani Tanukh tribes from Hira on the Persian border who had been Nestorian Christians, but where then Islamicised after the Muslim conquests) and who were familiar with the Gnostic ideas forming the background of Druze teaching.
DOCTRINES AND LAWS
Hamzah taught that al-Hakim was the manifestation of the Godhead. Compared to him, 'Ali and the Isma'ili Imams were but minor figures.
God is beyond comprehension, transcending language and thought, undefinable. This concept of an unknowable, transcendent and remote God (common to most Shi'a and Sufi groups), is coupled with the belief that this ultimate God, in order to bring himself nearer to human understanding, has appeared in a number of manifestations and revelations, the final one of which is al-Hakim. (Manifestation is deemed different to incarnation in that the human reflects the Deity as a mirror reflects an image, but the image is not incarnated in the substance of the mirror).
There were nine earlier manifestations of the Deity, but al-Hakim was the final and most perfect. There had also been earlier manifestations of the divine emanations (particularly the Universal Mind), in Jethro, the Messiah of True Justice in the days of Jesus, and Salman al-Farisi, the famous Persian companion of Muhammad.
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were mere prophets, much inferior to the manifestations of Deity and it's emanations.
The Druze doctrine of "Ghaybah" - the absence of their founder figures - is similar to that of the Shi'a. Al-Hakim did not die, he is unseen (in occultation) but still living on earth. He will one day return as the Messiah (Mahdi) to judge the world and to bring in a golden age of justice in which the Druze will be the universal rulers.
The laws given by Hamzah are binding on the Druze to this day. Amongst them are some that insist on equality in marriage and restrict divorce to weighty reasons. Seven commandments which form a moral code (rather than the external Sunni rituals), replace the five pillars of Islam:
1. The Druze must speak the truth amongst themselves. (Dissimulation to outsiders - Taqiya - is permitted to ensure Druze survival).
2. Druze must help and defend each other to the point of taking up arms.
3. Druze must renounce all beliefs that negate the oneness of God.
4. Druze must separate themselves from unbelievers.
5. Druze must recognise the absolute oneness (Tawhid) of the Lord manifested in al-Hakim.
6. They must be content with whatever the Lord does.
7. They must submit to the Lord's will and commands.
Another important Druze belief is that the number of souls in the Druze community is fixed. Any Druze who dies is immediately reborn in another Druze.
The doctrine of Taqiya (dissimulation) requires that to preserve the secrecy of their faith and to ensure Druze survival they may pretend to accept the faith of the religious majority.
The Druze separated themselves from other religions, but they participate in the veneration of certain saints and prophets whose tombs are places of pilgrimage to other faiths.
The Druze community is divided into two classes: The 'Uqqal (knowers, sages), and the Juhal (ignorant ones). The 'Uqqal, who constitute some 20% of the community, are those who have been initiated into the doctrine and practice of the Druze religion. They have studied the Druze scriptures and the writings of Druze sages over the centuries. The 'Uqqal can be recognised by their special garments and white turbans. The most learned and pious amongst them are called "Sheikh", and are recognised as the leaders of the community in both spiritual and temporal affairs. 'Uqqal are trained in special schools and the more zealous ones spend time in spiritual retreats called Khalwas.
In each district one of the Sheikhs, usually a member of a leading family, is chosen as the Ra'is (head), the supreme religious authority.
All 'Uqqal must behave with decorum, lead a morally blameless life, be peace makers, abstain from stimulants, lying, stealing and revenge. They attend the Friday evening services in the Majlis (place of gathering) which is a simple hall with no pictures on the wall and with a curtain separating men from women during prayers. Only the 'Uqqal are allowed to read the Druze secret books and participate in the secret rituals.
The Juhal, the uninitiated majority of the community, are expected to lead humble and honest lives, loyal and obedient to their spiritual leaders. Any Druze can try to become 'Uqqal. The majority who don't succeed can comfort themselves with the hope that they will achieve higher rank in a future rebirth.
Druze society is a theocracy, with the religious leaders having the last word in spiritual and in temporal matters. The political leaders are drawn from the important feudal families, the greatest of them being known as Emirs. Important families today are the Jumblatt and Arslan families in Lebanon, and the al-Atrash family in Syria.
Women hold a relatively respected position in Druze society. Women may become 'Uqqals and be initiated into the mysteries of their religion. Monogamy is the rule, and marriage is permitted only within the community. Divorce is permitted but difficult. Wives have the same rights as their husbands where divorce is concerned and divorce is relatively rare in Druze society.
Family honour is very important, and strict modesty is enforced on all women who are seen as its bearers. Any breach is severely punished - often by the death of the offenders.
The basic social cell is the extended family which is patriarchal. Related families are grouped into clans that are autonomous in managing their own affairs.
The Druze have taken an active part in various periods of Middle East history. Under the Tanukh and Arslan families they helped in the wars against the Crusaders. From their fortresses in the Gharb district east of Beirut, they raided the coastal plain and finally succeeded in holding Beirut and the maritime plain against the Franks.
From the middle of the 12th century, the Ma'an family from the Chouf mountains overlooking the southern maritime plain of Lebanon came to power. They helped the Mameluks in the last battles against the Crusaders and in the battles against the Mongols.
In 1305 the Sunni Mameluk Sultan of Egypt, Baybars, decided to punish the heretical sects of Syria (Isma'ilis, Druze, Nusayris and Maronites), for their real or supposed support of the Crusaders. He inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Druze at Karawan, forcing them to outward compliance to orthodox Sunni practice.
The Ma'an family favoured the Ottoman Turks in their fight against the Mameluks, and with the Ottoman victory at Mardj Dabik in 1516 the Druze Emir Fakhr al-Din was acknowledged as feudal lord of southern Lebanon. The Druze prospered as powerful vassals of the Ottoman Turks, enjoying considerable autonomy under their Emirs. Every now and then they attacked the Turks, and when defeated would withdraw to their impregnable mountain fortresses.
The Emir Fakhr al-Din al-Ma'ani II (1572-1635), was a remarkably enlightened Druze ruler who professed Sunni Islam to the Turkish authorities and was sympathetic to Christians. He spent several years in Florence as a refugee where he reportedly was baptised. In 1624 the Sultan recognised him as Lord of Arabistan - from Aleppo to the borders of Egypt. Later he was suspected of rebellion and was beheaded in Istanbul.
At the end of the 17th century the Shihab family succeeded the Ma'ans as the leaders of the Druze. They came originally from the Hijaz and were related to the noble family of Quraish - Muhammad's own clan. This gave them a high standing in the eyes of all Muslims.
The Shihab leadership continued till the middle of the 19th century, culminating in the governorship of the Emir Bashir Shihab (1788-1840) whose aid was sought by Napoleon in his Syrian campaign.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Druze were involved in a struggle for control of the Levant between the Qaysi and the Yamani factions that went back to the Arab Muslim conquest of Syria in the 7th century. The Qaysi party represented north Arabian Bedouin tribes who had emigrated to Syria during the Islamic conquest and were treated as inferior by the Yamanis who originated in south Arabia and had migrated to Syria in pre-Islamic times.
In this bloody struggle all racial and religious lines were crossed, and Muslim, Christian and Druze were to be found on both sides.
The prolonged struggle ended with the defeat of the Yamanis at the battle of Ein Darah in 1711. Many Yamani Druze then emigrated to the Hauran district of southern Syria which was gradually conquered and settled by them. Since 1860 it became known as Jabal al-Druze and is the major Druze centre today.
For most of the Ottoman period, the Druze with their well organised fighting forces and powerful landlords were the dominant force in the Lebanese mountains. From the middle of the 19th century and until after WWI they became involved in a bitter struggle against the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, another religio-national group surviving in the mountains of Lebanon to the north of Beirut. The two groups had been friendly for centuries, but were now caught in the struggle of the Great Powers for spheres of influence within the weakening Turkish Ottoman Empire (The sick man of Europe). At the same time the Maronite population expanded, and Maronites and other Christians from Syria gradually settled in the Chouf, the Druze heartland. This caused increasing friction and jealousy, the Druze fearing for their hegemony in Lebanon.
In 1832 Egyptian forces sent by Muhammad 'Ali invaded Lebanon and were supported by the Emir Bashir Shihab. (The Shihab dynasty was Druze, but some members had converted to the Maronite faith). This move alienated the Druze who were angered by the forced conscription and higher taxes imposed by the Egyptians.
There were several massacres, notably that of Christians by Druze in Jabal al-Druze in 1825, and of the Druze of Matn by the Maronites in 1845. In 1860 the Druze burned 150 villages and massacred 11,000 Maronites. This led to armed French intervention and an agreement, guaranteed by the Western powers, which resulted in local autonomy for Lebanon under a non-Lebanese Christian governor (Mutassarif).
During this period leadership had passed to the Jumblat family which was of Kurdish origin.
The hostility between Druze and Maronites erupted again recently in the civil war in Lebanon from 1976 onward.
During the French mandate and in the independent Lebanese state that followed it political power was strictly divided along communal lines with the Christians having the preeminence. It was the desire for a change of the status quo by the under-represented communities that sparked off the civil war of 1976 in which the Druze consolidated their position in all territories where they are the majority.
In the Jabal al-Druze the Druze rebelled against the French in the early twenties under the leadership of Sultan al-Atrash. They defeated the French in 1925, when they were joined by other Syrian nationalists. The rebellion spread to Damascus and the French bombarded the city and retook it in 1926. The French then encouraged the Druze isolationist tendency in order to keep them from the nationalist movement sweeping the Arabs, which eventually led to the creation of the independent states of Syria and Lebanon.
After Syrian independence, the Druze reached prominent positions in the Syrian armed forces, but where eventually sidetracked by the 'Alawi rise to power. Having similar roots however, they are not unhappy with the 'Alawi regime.
True to their tradition of siding with the stronger party in each area, the Druze in then Palestine fought on the Jewish side in the Israel-Arab wars. They do compulsory military service in the Israeli army and some have risen to high rank in it. The Druze have been recognised as an independent religious community in Israel with the same status as the Muslim and Christian communities.
WAY OF LIFE
The main values holy to the Druze are their religion, their land and their honour. They are quick to fight for any perceived attack on any of these. Their tenacious and fierce spirit inspires others to leave them alone and to treat them with due respect.
Like other people in the Middle East they cling fanatically to the customs of hospitality, generosity, honour and revenge known to us from the Bible. They are sometimes called Bani Ma'arouf (sons of charity) because of their hospitality. When provoked in their honour they will react with fierce violence, keeping track of their blood feuds for generations, unless duly dealt with by the time honoured methods of the Sulha (reconciliation) as practiced in this area since time immemorial.
Druze society is still mainly rural and traditional. Today more and more young Druze are graduating from high schools and universities. Modernisation has brought some alienation from religion, but in recent years there has been a return to the faith as in Islam. Many Druze have attained important positions in the countries they live in. Many seek employment in the armed forces of these respective countries and are welcomed there because of their fame as fierce fighters.
The Druze continue to seek communal autonomy in the countries they reside in, and continue to cultivate a separate Druze consciousness and identity.
EVANGELISM AMONGST THE DRUZE
Specific prayer must be the first priority for any attempt at Druze evangelism. It must be directed at the principalities and powers that so effectively control the Druze through their religion. It is only as these powers are shaken that we can expect to see larger numbers of Druze turning to Christ.
As of today there are only a handful of professing believers in Christ from amongst the Druze. There are very few if any Christian workers working specifically and exclusively amongst the Druze anywhere. This too must change if we are to see this people group open up to the Good News.
A careful study of Druze religion and culture will reveal some keys to a more effective presentation of the claims of Jesus. All they see in al-Hakim is more gloriously revealed in Christ. Of course there are pitfalls in their rejection of incarnation as opposed to manifestation and in their Gnostic belief in an impassible and transcendent God who can have no direct contact with this world but needs the mediation of his emanations. Christ as true God, true man and Mediator again fulfills the different roles in Druze religion. It will be by presenting the glories of Christ, of which they are ignorant, that we may well gain a hearing.
Druze people are also interested in eschatology, and that could provide for another avenue of sharing our faith. The Druze doctrines of the disappearing and returning Messiah (Mahdi) can offer a link.The cross of course is the main stumbling block as with so many other faiths. There we must appeal to their conscience which will attest to the fact that none of them can live a perfect life according to their own religious tenets, let alone the Biblical ones of the ten commandments and the sermon on the mount.
We need people who are willing to give their lives to living amongst the Druze, befriending them, identifying with them and tactfully sharing Christ with them in an atmosphere of trust and respect.
The practice of Taqiya provides both a problem and an opportunity. A problem because we may never be quite sure of the person's true motivation, but must leave it to God. An opportunity because it can provide a framework for Druze society to accept such people who profess their belief in Christ, in the conviction that this is being done to ensure Druze survival.