Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Alawite Sect: Secrets and Denial

Specials- Alawite
Alawite men and women dance in the eastern Turkish city of Sivas. Photo: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

The Middle East has multiple religions and sects. However, most of the population in the region does not know much about them. The Alawite sect has emerged more prominently since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 as many Alawites are part of the regime, notably President Bashar al-Assad. Despite this, details of the sect remain largely unknown to the outside world for several reasons, one of which is the fact that the sect’s sheikhs and clerics are keen to keep the details secret, both to external forces and even to some Alawite followers themselves. As a result, most of the publications released about the Alawites by members of other sects contain inaccurate or untrue information.

The Alawite sect is named after Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and considered to be the first imam of the Twelver school of Shia Islam. Some Alawite clerics describe Ali as ‘a partner of the Prophet Muhammad in prestige and in everything but prophecy’. The perception that Alawites regard Ali as God incarnate is a fabrication, according to Sheikh Zulfikar Ghazal, one of the great Alawite sheikhs in Syria.

The sect is sometimes also called Nusayris, a reference to its founder Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Bakri al-Numeiri, whom the Alawites consider to be al-Bab, a religious rank known to the Shiite imamate (leadership), while the other followers of the Twelver school view al-Numeiri as an imposter.

As a Twelver (imamate) branch of Shia Islam, the Alawites share many religious teachings with the other Twelver sects. Sheikh Suleiman al-Ahmad, one of the leading Alawite sheikhs, explained, “The Alawites do not have independent doctrines for worship and religious provisions that are based on knowledge of halal (what is permissible) and haram (what is impermissible), and not even transactions such as those related to inheritance. They depend on the Imami Jaafari doctrine, considering it to be the origin and Alawites to be one branch of it.”

Speaking to Fanack, Sheikh Shadi Abdu Mari, a Shiite cleric and member of the Alawite Islamic Council of Lebanon, said, “The Alawites have a Sufi method within their Twelver Shiite sect, similar to the Sufi methods embraced by Sunnis; and these methods can be described in short by saying: the Alawites are ideologically an Irfani [gnosis or knowledge] group of Sufis while they are Jaafaris from a jurisprudence point of view.”

Their primary reference is the Koran, like all other Muslims. The Irfani approach means knowing God and having full faith in him, his messengers, books and awliya (saints). Researcher and academic Muhammad al-Ahmad said that the best way to understand the Alawite way of thinking is to regard it as an attempt to link Islamic religion with Greece philosophy.

Furthermore, the Alawites believe in reincarnation, the idea that the human soul is subjected to repeated tests until it is purified and then presented to God to be held accountable on the Day of Judgment. The belief was denied by Sheikh Mari and Alawite scriptures reject the questioning of reincarnation. Perhaps interpretations would vary from one person to another, but the problem could be in the contradiction of the texts, he said.

The Alawites are concentrated in Syria, where they make up a small percentage of the population, with pockets in Lebanon and Turkey. Their precise number is unknown, but it is estimated that there are between 7 and 14 million Alawites in the world.

Accusations levelled at the Alawites

The Alawites are often accused of being esoteric, in other words they manifest their religion and teachings differently from what their essential beliefs say. In his book The Alawites, writer Musa Mkhawwal defined the Alawites as those who manifest their essence in different forms and make tawil (hermeneutic interpretations) of every Koranic revelation.

Sheikh Mari referred to Alawites as the natural alternative to brutality, or a translation of the term known as etiquette, which is the art of making highly refined conducts, rules that are related to morals and practices and that include a set of written and unwritten rules and principles governing courtesies. He said that tuqya, a precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution, is the alternative because of the absence of intellectual and ideological freedom in view of the atrocities that the region has witnessed throughout history, the effects of which have made it an obligation to obey the powerful or be killed. He added that, since these peoples do not yet accept and respect other religious opinions, tuqya is the solution to prevent killing and slaughter.

However, he, like most of the Alawite clerics, denies that the Alawite doctrine contains hidden rituals, scriptures or mystical worship. This was contradicted by an Alawite woman in Syria, who told Fanack that part of the faith is not made public, and that giving such details to someone who is not Alawite is considered a disclosure of secrets. However, women are not taught religion or religious teachings in the Alawite sect, so it is unclear how much this interviewee knew. Moreover, some prayers are taught to males only after puberty, that is at the age of 15. Both men and women are allowed to pray five times a day. However, prayer and the other pillars of Islam, including paying alms and fasting during the month of Ramadan, are not obligatory in the sect, something that Alawite clerics also refute.

Sheikh Mari said that this misinformation has haunted the Alawites since the disappearance of al-Imam al-Askari, the 11th imam of the Twelver school, in 260 Hijri (873 AD), although clerics have made efforts over time to put the record straight. According to researcher and academic Mohamed al-Ahmad, because the Alawite doctrine was banned, the Alawites’ failure to reveal the details of their faith and the lack of information about them was a way to preserve their existence.

The Alawites have regularly faced persecution, notably the military campaigns in the 14th century carried out by the Mamluks in the Levant, based on religious fatwas (decrees), the most famous of which was issued by the Sunni Sheikh Taqiy al-Din ibn Taymiyyah, who accused the Alawites of being infidels and a batini group claiming to be Shiite. For his part, al-Azhar al-Sharif and other Shiite clerics considered in many of their fatwas the Alawite sect to be Islamic and therefore it was impermissible to label it as infidel. many Alawites were killed in the military campaigns, their mosques were demolished, their books were burned and they were prevented from entering mosques. Moreover, thousands of Alawites were massacred by the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Levant after 1516.

The establishment of the French Mandate for Syria after the First World War marked a turning point in Alawite history. It gave the French the power to recruit Syrian civilians into their armed forces and created exclusive areas for minorities, including an Alawite State. The Alawite State was later dismantled, but the Alawites continued to be a significant part of Syria’s armed forces. Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1971, the government has been dominated by a political elite led by the Alawite al-Assad family.

Like other Shiite sects and many Sunni Sufis, the Alawites share rites sanctifying shrines of figures who are descended from the house of the Prophet Muhammad or imams. They also observe Id al-Ghadir, among other religious holidays celebrated by Muslims. Id al-Ghadir is held on 18 Dhu al Hijjah (the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar), which Alawites and Shiites in general believe was the day the Prophet Muhammad approved Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor. On that day, the Shiites renew their allegiance to Ali. It is called the big day because it is believed all prayers are answered.

The Alawites also differ from the Shiite imamate in some details. They agree with them in disagreeing with the Sunnis regarding the eligibility of Ali bin Abi Talib to succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Sheikh Mari described the Alawite position regarding the remaining Muslim sects, saying, “The Alawite clerics have always conveyed gentle messaging to their brother Sunnis and Shiites, as well as to all other sects.” He also cited the Alawite poet Makazun, saying:

‘I had my wishes fulfilled, thanks to Abu Uday and his son; I am now full of certainty after being stuck in ignorance.

Their light has led me to guidance, so I salute and praise both of them.

I follow the same religion as theirs against the will of the enemies, and I am a devout person, unlike many others.

I follow the doctrine of [prophet companions] Abu-Bakr [al-Siddiq] and Omar [bin al-Khattab], and I shall not abandon this religion, even if others do.

I follow the Sunnah of [prophet companion] Othman [bin Affan], a faith that leads to the right path.

And I am a Yazidi who does not accept aggression, and only ignorant people speak ill of Yazidis.’

In another international message, Alawite poet Abu al-Fadl al-Muntajab al-Ani wrote:

‘I am Mousavi [a reference to Jews] and Christian, and I seek guidance from the faith of [the Prophet] Muhammad too.

So, you can call me on any occasion a Muslim, Jew and Christian.’