Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Druze of the Levant, from Past to Present

Specials- Druze
Druze men at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights flash the V for victory sign as they look out across the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra, visible across the border – 2018. Photo AFP

Despite the generally unreceptive climate for religious minorities in the Middle East, the Druze have played an important role in the turbulent history of the region. Most notably, their fighters supported the Ayyubid and later Mamluk forces by resisting Christian Crusaders on the Lebanese coast. During the Ottoman Empire, the Druze often rebelled against the Turkish sultans despite the fact that they enjoyed considerable autonomy, which was not the case for many other minority groups. The mountainous terrain of their homelands in Lebanon, Syria and Israel has been their best geopolitical asset, giving them natural protection and making them hard to reach by invaders.

The Druze faith is isolationist and highly insular. It does not permit conversion, either away from or to their religion. In general, marriage outside the faith is uncommon and frowned upon. The religion is also secretive, with practices that are unknown even to some members. Only uqqal (‘knowers’), an elite class of religious leaders, can fully participate in their services and have access to the scriptures, which are known as al-Ḥikmah al-Sharifah.

The religion has its roots in Egypt. It is believed to be an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism. Perhaps, for this reason, Egypt’s al-Azhar, the centre of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world, recognizes the Druze religion as one of the Islamic sects akin to Shiism. During the reign of the sixth Fatimid caliph al-Ḥakim bi-Amr Allah, who ruled from 996 to 1021, some Ismaili theologians started a religious movement that regarded al-Hakim as a divine figure.

It is very likely that this was encouraged and endorsed by al-Ḥakim himself, but not surprisingly it set the stage for a harsh reaction from the Fatimid religious establishment at the time. Although the Fatimid religious authorities suggested al-Ḥakim and his predecessors were divinely appointed, they were not prepared to regard them as divine figures in themselves. When this controversial idea was publicly preached for the first time in 1017, it caused a major riot in Cairo.

Ḥamzah ibn Ali ibn Aḥmad al-Zuzani and his former disciple Muḥammad al-Darazi were the two leading figures in this new religious movement. However, soon competition and rivalry started to overshadow their relationship.

Ḥamzah seems to have been favoured by al-Ḥakim, and al-Darazi was soon declared an apostate within the movement, which led to his disappearance. It is very likely that Ḥamzah used his advantageous position and proximity to al-Hakim to eliminate his rival. Yet despite al-Darazi’s disappearance, his name continued to be attached to and define the movement, al-Duruz.

Given the controversial nature of this movement, al-Hakim himself mysteriously disappeared in 1021. Clearly, the religio-political establishment at the time could not tolerate a caliph who claimed divinity. His removal from power paved the way for the bloody persecution of the Druze community under al-Hakim’s successor, al-Zaḥir.

Hamzah went into hiding. Without a leader, the movement gradually died out in Egypt but started to emerge in some parts of Syria and Lebanon, where early missionaries had established communities. Given the persecution of and mounting pressure on the movement, in 1043 the Druze community stopped proselytizing and ceased to recognize conversions to their faith.

Specials- Druze
The five coloured star which is the symbol of the Druze community is seen on top of the Prophet Ayub shrine in Niha village southeast of Beirut. Photo AFP

In terms of beliefs, the Druze call themselves muwaḥḥidun (‘unitarians’). Their faith is eclectic and encompasses elements of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Ismailism, Pythagoreanism, Hinduism and other philosophies, which constitute a distinct theology that emphasizes both the role of the mind and truthfulness. The Druze follow an esoteric interpretation of the Five Pillars of Islam. As mentioned, modern Islamic scholars identify them as Muslims.

However, this is disputed by other Muslims who argue that the Druze should not be considered as such since they do not practice exoteric interpretations such as fasting and making the pilgrimage to Mecca.The Druze are primarily located in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. It is difficult to verify their exact numbers. Both in Lebanon and Syria, census is politically sensitive and unreliable.

For example, no official census has taken place in Lebanon since 1932 due to the sensitive balance between the country’s religious factions. However, some sources suggest that in the early 21st century they numbered around 1 million. There are around 300,000 Druze living in Lebanon. Since the country’s independence, they have maintained significant political and economic power.

During the civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Druze community had no natural allies. Therefore, they had to actively build alliances in order to survive. Although many Druze in Lebanon were members of the nonreligious Syrian Social Nationalist Party, led by the Jumblatt family, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) turned into a powerful Druze militia, building strong links with external players such as the Soviet Union and Syria.

Syria has an estimated 600,000 Druze, which is the largest community of its kind in the world. Most of them originally came from Lebanon in the 18th century and settled around al-Suwayda in the ‘Druze Mountains’. Despite their minority status, they have played an important political role, confronting various overlords, from the Ottomans to the French in the 1920s and ’30s. Even after Syrian independence in 1946, they revolted against the nationalist regimes.

However, when the civil war broke out in 2011, they decided to stay neutral. Some sources suggest that the Israeli Druze encouraged their Syrian counterparts to declare independence from the Syrian regime and establish an autonomous region similar to the US-backed Kurdish zone in north-eastern Syria. However, the Syrian Druze have not followed this example.

There are about 150,000 Druze living in Israel, mainly in the north of the country. Unlike other communities, the Israeli Druze are on good terms with the state. Druze soldiers are active in the Israeli military – the only Arabs to be conscripted – and have fought in every Arab-Israeli war. However, in 2018 the Druze led a protest against a new law that enshrined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

There is also a sizeable Druze community living outside the Middle East, mainly in Europe and the United States. Amal Clooney is perhaps the best known member of this community who has also married outside the faith.