Nusayris/Alawis/Alevi/Alawites/Ansaris- Indept Look
Known collectively as the Alawiyyah ("the Followers of Ali"), the Alawis are also known as Nusayris, Nusayriyya, Ansayriyyah, etc. They are Arab Shi'ah who live in Syria, Turkey (mostly in the region of Iskandariyya / Iskenderun) and Lebanon. They are not to be confused with Alevis ("the People of Fire," implying fire-worship, from Alev, "fire", this is actually a misnomer.
Alawism is often referred to as Nusayrism, and other Muslims of Syria often refer to Alawis as Nusayris. "Alawi" is the term that Alawis usually apply to themselves; but until 1920 they were known to the outside world as Nusayris or Ansaris. The change in name - imposed by the French upon their seizure of control in Syria - has significance. Whereas "Nusayri" emphasises the group's differences from Islam, "Alawi" suggests an adherent of Ali (the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) and accentuates the religion's similarities to Shi'ism. Consequently, opponents of the Assad regime habitually use the term Nusayri, supporters of the regime use the term Alawi.
Some would say that the Alawis and Nusayris are not identical, that among the Alawis, there is a sect who followed Abu Shu'ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Numayri and viewed him as a "Bab" and that they are the Nusayris.
The Alawis themselves are divided into five sects:
- The Sun Sect (Shamsiyya)
- The Moon Sect (Qamariyya)
- The Murshidis, named after their Messiah, Sulayman al-Murshid / Salman al-Murshad
- The Haidariyya
- The Ghaibiyya
The Nusayris have been classed as a Ghulat ("extremist") Shi'i sect. Nusayris are named after their purported founder, Abu Shu'ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Abdi al-Bakri al-Namri (d. 868 CE), the pupil of the eleventh Shi'i Imam, Hasan al-Askari (d. 874 CE). The main distinction between the Twelver Shi'ah and the Alawis is that the Alawis believe in "Babiyyat" as an extension of Imamat. The "Bab" is a person believed to be a "door" / "gate" for Imam Mahdi / the Imam of the age. The Shi'ah believe that this special deputyship ended with the fourth Imam.
Despite mutual animosity, the Alawis are much like the Druzes. Historically both the Druze and the Alawis are off-shoots of Ismailism, which was an earlier split from the Shi'i Imamis (Twelver Shi'ah, the sect that predominates in Iran). The Ismailis broke with the Shi'i Imamis over the issue of the succession to the sixth Imam Ismail (d. 760 CE). In about 857 CE, Ibn Nusayr declared himself the Bab of the eleventh Imam. On the basis of this authority, Ibn Nusayr proclaimed a host of new doctrines which, to make a long story short, make Alawism into a separate religion. Alawis reject Islam's main tenets; by almost any standard they must be considered non-Muslims. The majority of Shi'ah believe that Ibn Nusayr was cursed by Imam Hasan al-Askari for deviant beliefs, while other Shi'ah and Alawis suppose that any curses and deviant beliefs were an act of taqiyya and / or false ahadith circulated
An accepted reference on Nusayri rites and doctrines was published in Aleppo in 1859 as Kitab al-Majmu. According to its author, Sulayman al-Adhani, the Nusayris, like other sects of the Syrian mountains on the Mediterranean, primarily believed in the transmigration of souls. Since the French mandate over Syria (1920 - 1946), the term Nusayri has been dropped in favour of the more common Alawi, and a doctrinal, if not political, rapprochement has been in the works with the majority of Shi'ah. The Kitab al-Majmu shows the Alawis as an isolated group who have incorporated many different religions into theirs.
Alawi doctrine is a mixture of Islamic, Gnostic and Christian beliefs. Some Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. The Alawis maintain that all Islamic teaching can be interpreted spiritually and therefore does not have to be taken literally. The Alawis possess a range of distinctive doctrines which have led them to be treated as heretics and non-Muslims, for example:
1. Rejection of the Qur'an.
2. Rejection of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Alawis recognize the five pillars of Islam, but they do not believe that anyone has the privilege of practicing them because they are too pure to be performed by just any soul. The Creed, Prayer, Alms, Pilgrimage, and Fasting during Ramadan, are thus believed only as symbols and there is no need to practice them. According to Ibn Kathir (d. 1372 CE), where Muslims proclaim their Creed with the phrase "There is no deity worthy of worship except but Allah and Muhammad is His Messanger," Alawis assert "There is no deity worthy of worship but Ali, no Veil but Muhammad, and no Bab/Gate but Salman." Furthermore, they believe the five daily prayers to symbolise the pentad: Ali, Hasan, Husayn, Muhsin and Fatimah, and that mentioning these five names suffices one instead of making ghusl from major impurity, or ablution, or fulfilling other conditions and obligatory actions of the five daily prayers. The Alawis have two other pillars: Jihad, which is in Common with the Kharijites, and the worship of Ali, (called Waliya), is the another pillar. This involves not only devotion to Ali, but also struggle against Ali's enemies.
3. Chauvinism for the Shaykhs/Scholars
Alawis have their own shaykhs. These shaykhs are believed to be endowed with a kind of divine authority(Wahi/Revelation from Allah) (a common trend among Shi'ah and Rabbinical Jews today). One of the Shaikh's duties is to lead religious and other forms of ceremony.
4. Belief in incarnation.
Almost all Shi'ah (Zaydis excepted) believe Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, was the rightful first caliph. However, Alawis go further and believe Ali is a member of an appearance of a "Trinity" of Allah. The Alawis believe that Ali is God in the flesh, their Imam on Earth and their God in the heavens; they believe that Ali created the Prophet from his spirit, and that the Prophet created Salman al-Farsi. These three form a Trinity in which Ali is described as the 'Idea', the Prophet is the 'Name' and Salman is the 'door' / 'gate' (Bab). In Sura 6 of the Kitab al-Majmu, it is stated, "I make for the Door, I prostrate myself before God, I worship the essence."
They believe that Allah has appeared in a threeness during at least seven cycles. The last appearance was Muhammad, Ali and Salman al-Farsi, and thus:
[Note that Noah and Seth are together, even though they lived over a millennia apart.]
Hidden: Asaph / Asaf
(7)Revealed: Prophet Muhammad
Gate: Salman al-Farsi
According to Question 44 of the Druze Catechism, the Alawis split off from the Druze because the former worshiped Ali, when they really should be worshiping Lord al-Hakim (996 - 1021 CE) who is visible God to the Druze.
Alawis use wine as a symbol for God, which they use in the manner of a communion service. Like Catholics, they believe that the wine is transubstantiated into the deity, Allah. The wine is consecrated in an occasional and highly secretive mass for the male members of the community.
5. Legalization of intoxicants.
Alawis in Syria drink wine but they do not believe in getting drunk.
6. Belief in reincarnation.
Alawis believe in reincarnation. Contrary to Islamic belief, the Alawis claim that women do not have souls and, therefore, there is no need to explain the secrets of Alawi doctrine to women, because they are not reincarnated. The Encyclopedia of Alawism (New Edition) thus states: "Women are excluded from this because they are born of the sins of devils; for this reason, they are not entitled to participate in the rights of men" (Sulayman al-Adhani, Kitab al-Bakurah, 61). Some modern Alawis consider that women have souls.
The principle of metempsychosis, or the transfer of souls from one body to another, is an essential element in Alawi beliefs. There are different kinds of soul transmigration - some souls pass into the bodies of other humans while other souls pass into the bodies of either animals or plants.
The Alawis believe that all persons were stars in the world of light but fell from here due to disobedience. They believe they must be reincarnated seven times before they once again return to the stars where Ali is prince. A good Alawi will assume a better form after his death than a bad Alawi. The Alawis claim that the Milky Way is infact the deified souls of the true believers. The less pious souls require more transformations. If an Alawi is sinful, he will be reborn as a Chrsitian until his atonement is complete. A bad Alawi will definitely assume a better form than a non-Alawi. Infidels will be reborn as animals.
According to this principle, there are different degrees of punishment for people after death. The small punishment occurs as the souls of those who defied Alawis pass into the bodies of foul animals and insects until the end of time. The big punishment will occur on judgment day as those souls are eternally put to burn in hell. This doctrine of metempsychosis, which Alawis share with the Druzes, contradicts the Islamic belief that souls remain within the confines of the grave until judgment day.
7. Disbelief in resurrection, Paradise and Hellfire.
Contrary to the above, it has also been said that the Alawis reject the concept of a final Judgement and eternal abode (Paradise / Hell).
8. Astrological doctrines.
While the Prophet was against astrology, Alawis use astrology. They believe the stars in the Milky Way are actually the deified souls of believers.
9. Mosque Attendance.
Attending Mosque is not important to most Alawis. However, they do have ceremonies in the famous Ummayad mosque in Damascus.
10. Status of Women.
Women do most of the hard labour; they are prized "precisely because of the work they do that men will not do except grudgingly, finding it incompatible with their dignity." Women are never inducted into the mysteries ("Would you have us teach them whom we use, our holy faith?"); indeed, their uncleanliness requires their exclusion from all religious rituals. Females are thought to retain the pagan cult of worshipping trees, meadows, and hills, and to have no souls.
While maintaining their beliefs they pretended to adhere to the dominant religion present, in the spirit of the Shi'i principle of taqiyyah (dissimulation of religion). Muslims traditionally disregarded Alawi efforts at dissimulation; they viewed Alawis as beyond the pale of Islam - as non-Muslims. Hamza ibn Ali The Founder of Deviant Druze Sect, who saw the religion's appeal as lying in perversity, said that "The first thing that promotes the wicked Alawi is the fact that all things normally prohibited to humans - murder, stealing, lying, calumny, fornication, pederasty - is permitted to he or she who accepts [Alawi doctrines]." founder of the Druze religious doctrine, Hamza ibn Ali (d. 1021), wrote that Alawis consider "the male member entering the female nature to be the emblem of their spiritual doctrine." Accordingly, Alawi men freely share their wives with co-religionists. These and other accusations survived undiminished through the centuries and even circulated among Europeans. A British traveller of the early 1840s wrote that "the institution of marriage is unknown. When a young man grows up he buys his wife." Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111),wrote that the Alawis "apostatize in matters of blood, money, marriage, and butchering, so it is a duty to kill them."
Alawis do not accept converts or openly publish their texts, which are passed down from their scholar to scholar. The vast majority of Alawis (the "Ammah") know little about the contents of their sacred texts or theology, which are guarded by a small class of male initiates (the "Khassah", c.f. the term "Khassid", a kind of Orthodox but ecstatic Jew). For Initiation, a person must be at least 15 and an Alawaite.
Religious secrecy is strictly maintained, on pain of death and being incarnated into a vile animal. Thus, the most renowned apostate from Alawism, Sulayman al-Adhani, was assassinated for divulging the sect's mysteries in his Kitab al-Majmu. Even more impressive, at a time of sectarian tension in the mid-1960s, the suggestion that the Alawi officers who ran the country publish the secret books of their religion caused an Alawite leader, Salah Jadid, to respond with horror, saying that were this done, the religious leaders "would crush us."
A British traveler observed in 1697 that the Alawis are "of a strange and singular character. For 'tis their principle to adhere to no certain religion; but chameleon-like, they put on the colour of religion, whatever it be, which is reflected upon them from the persons with whom they happen to converse ... No body was ever able to discover what shape or standard their consciences are really of. All that is certain concerning them is, that they make much and good wine, and are great drinkers." A hundred and fifty years later, Benjamin Disraeli described the Alawis in a conversation in the novel Tancred:
"Are they Moslemin?"
"It is very easy to say what they are not, and that is about the extent of any knowledge we have of them; they are not Moslemin, they are not Christian, they are not Druzes, and they are not Jews, and certainly they are not Guebres [Zoroastrians]."
Sulayman al-Adhani explained this flexibility from within: "They take on the outward practices of all sects. If they meet Muslims, they swear to them and say, 'We are like you, we fast and we pray.' But they fast improperly. If they enter a mosque with Muslims, they do not recite any of the prayers; instead, they lower and raise their bodies like the Muslims, while cursing Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, and other "
Taqiya permitted Alawis to blow with the wind. When France ruled, they portrayed themselves as lost Christians. When Pan-Arabism was in favour, they became fervent Arabs. Over 10,000 Alawis living in Damascus pretended to be Sunnis in the years before Assad came to power, only revealing their true identities when this became politically useful. Since about the French mandate over Syria (1920 - 46), the term Nusayri seems to have been dropped in favour of the more common Alawi, and a doctrinal, if not political, rapprochement has been in the works with the majority of Shi'ah. During Assad's presidency, concerted efforts were made to portray the Alawis as Twelver Shi'iah.
Imam ibn Taymiyyah [Majmu al-Fatwa 35 / 145], when asked if it is permissible for a Muslim to marry a Nusayri, or to partake of their food, etc. replied that they were from among the Qaramatah and Batiniyyah, "their aim is repudiation of Islamic beliefs and laws in every possible way ... such as that 'five prayers' means knowledge of their secrets, 'obligatory fast' hiding of their secrets, and 'pilgrimage to Bayt al-Atiq' means to visit their shaykhs, and that the two hands of Abu Lahab represent Abu Bakr and Umar, and that 'the great news and the manifest imam' [al-Naba ul-Azeem wa al-Imam ul-Mubiyn] is Ali ibn Abu Talib. When they have an opportunity, they spill the blood of Muslims, such as when they once killed pilgrims and threw them into the well of Zamzam [apparently confounding the Alawis with the Qarmatians, who did such things when they occupied Makkah]. Once they took the black stone and it stayed with them for a period of time [again, a reference to the Qarmatians], and they have killed so many Muslim scholars and elders that only Allah knows their number. They wrote many books, such as what the questioner mentioned, and others. It is known to us that the coast of Sham was only taken over by the Christians [north European Crusaders] from their [Nusayri] side. And also that they are always on the side of every enemy against Muslims, so they are with Christians against Muslims. From the greatest afflictions that have befallen them are Muslims' opening conquest of the coast (of Sham) and defeat of the Christians. Nay, one of the greatest afflictions that has befallen them is Muslims' victory over the Tatars [Mongols], and from the greatest holidays for them is the Christians' conquest ... of Muslim ports. They don't admit that this world has a Creator that created it, or that he has a religion that he orders with, or that he has a place with which he will reward people for their deeds, other than this place."
Alawis tend to show more friendliness to Christians than to Muslims. For these reasons, many observers - missionaries especially - have suspected the Alawis of a secret Christian proclivity. Even T. E. Lawrence described them as "those disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, antiforeign, distrustful of Islam, drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution." The Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens unequivocally concluded from his research that "the Nusayris were Christians" and their practices combine Christian with Shi'i elements.
At the age of 19 Alawis undergo an initiation rite in which they begin to learn some of the secrets of the sect. Alawis are in fact born into the sect; the initiation ceremony serves to confirm their membership.
While the two Islamic/Muslim holidays such as Id al Fitr and Id al Adha are celebrated, in addition to Shi'i holidays such as Yawm al-Ashura, Alawis celebrate some Christian holidays such as the day of Epiphany. By commemorating this day in which Jesus was baptised by St. John, Alawis believe that God will answer their prayers. In addition, their celebration of Christmas is a way for Alawis to affirm the different ways in which God has manifested Himself on earth. Their prayers on both these days resemble to a large degree those held in Christian masses.
Alawis have special feasts in which they celebrate the anniversaries of their sacred figures.
Alawis celebrate many Christian festivals, including Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost , and Palm Sunday. They honor many Christian saints: St. Catherine, St. Barbara, St. George, St. John the Baptist, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Mary Magdalene. The Arabic equivalents of such Christian personal names as Gabriel, John, Matthew, Catherine, and Helen, are in common use.
They also celebrate Nawruz, which is the New Year of the Zoroastrians. Shi'ah celebrate this also.
The Nusayris were a remnant of the Shi'i upsurge which had swept The Muslim World a thousand years ago.
Ibn Nusayr proclaimed himself the Bab of the eleventh Imam in 857 CE. The sect seems to have been organised and evolved through a follower of Ibn Nusayr's, Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasabi (c. 970 CE), who died in Aleppo in about 969. Al-Khasibi's grandson, al-Tabarani, moved to Latakia on the Syrian coast. There he refined the Alawite religion and, with his pupils, converted much of the local population.
The French Mandate, 1920 - 1946
The establishment of French rule over former Ottoman territories after World War I benefited the Alawis more than any other community. French efforts to cooperate with the minorities meant the Alawis gained political autonomy and escaped Sunni control. France occupied Syria in 1918, and received the Alawite Territory as a mandate from the League of Nations on the 2nd September, 1920. According to Yusuf al-Hakim, a prominent Syrian politician, the Alawis adopted a pro-French attitude even before the French conquest of Damascus in July 1920. "The Alawis saw themselves in a state of grace after hell; accordingly, they were dedicated to the French mandate and did not send a delegation to the [General] Syrian Congress." So intensely did they oppose Prince Faysal, the Sunni Arab ruler of Syria in 1918 - 20, whom they suspected of wanting to dominate them, they launched a rebellion against his rule in 1919, using French arms. According to one well-informed observer, the Alawis cursed Islam and prayed "for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire." General Gouraud received a telegram in late 1919 from 73 Alawi chiefs representing different tribes, who asked for "the establishment of an independent Nusayri union under our absolute protection."
Two years later, the Alawis rebelled against French rule under the leadership of Salih al-Ali, a revolt that had more to do with the Ismailis siding with France, than with an anti-Imperialist drive. Initially, the Alawite Territory was an autonomous territory under French rule, and the French kept the peace until the 1st July, 1922, when it was incorporated into French Syria and the autonomous state of Latakia was set up. The Alawis gained legal autonomy; a 1922 decision to end Muslim control of court cases involving Alawis transferred these cases to Alawi jurists. The Alawi state enjoyed low taxation and a sizeable French subsidy. Not surprisingly, Alawis accepted all these changes with enthusiasm. As soon as the French authorities granted autonomy to the Alawis, they won Alawi support.
On the 29th September, 1923, the Alawaite State was declared with the port city of Latakia as its capital. After Alawis massacred some Christian nuns on the 27th of April, 1924, the French persecuted the Alawis. On the 1st January, 1925, the Alawite Territory was formally renamed the Alawite State.
In return, Alawis helped maintain French rule. They turned out in large numbers when most Syrians boycotted the French-sponsored elections of January 1926. They provided a disproportionate number of soldiers to the government, forming about half the eight infantry battalions making up the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, serving as police, and supplying intelligence. As late as May 1945, the vast majority of Troupes Spéciales remained loyal to their French commanders. Alawis broke up Muslim demonstrations, shut down strikes, and quelled rebellions. Alawis publicly favoured the continuation of French rule, fearing that France's departure would lead to a reassertion of Muslim control over them.
H. Schoeffler was the French Governor (1925 - 5 December 1936) of the Alawite Territory during a key epoch of its history.
On the 22nd September, 1930, the Alawaite State was renamed the Sanjak of Latakia. The population at this time was 278,000. On the 5th December, 1936 (effective on the 28th February, 1937), the Alawite State was fully incorporated into Syria.
An Alawi note to the French government in July 1936 asked: "Are the French today ignorant that the Crusades would have succeeded if their fortresses had been in northeast Syria, in the Land of the Nusayris? ... We are the people most faithful to France." Even more strongly worded was a petition of September 1936, signed by 450,000 Alawis, Christians, and Druzes, which read: "The Alawis believe that they are humans, not beasts ready for slaughter. No power in the world can force them to accept the yoke of their traditional and hereditary enemies to be slaves forever ... The Alawis would profoundly regret the loss of their friendship and loyal attachment to noble France, which has until now been so loved, admired, and adored by them."
In 1939, a portion of northwest Syria, the Sanjak of Alexandretta / Iskenderun, now Hatay, that contained a large number of Alawis, was given to Turkey by the French, greatly angering the Alawite community and Syrians in general. Zaki al-Arsuzi, the young Alawite leader from Antioch in Iskenderun who led the resistance to the annexation of his province to the Turks, later became a founder of the Ba'ath Party along with the Eastern Orthodox Christian schoolteacher Michel Aflaq.
Sulayman al-Murshid, "the Electric Messiah", was born sometime before 1900 CE. His name appears to be more correctly written "Salman" not Sulayman. He proclaimed himself the Messiah, he proclaimed himself divine; many Alawis followed him. His followers claimed he performed miracles. For example, he would secretly bury food in a mud wall, and when he hit the wall hard, food would come out for the villagers to eat. His legs would glow in the dark, because he painted them with phosphorus. The phosphorus would glow when he would literally light up, because he had lights connected to a small battery he carried. Alawi resistance to Muslim rule took a new turn in 1939 with the launching of an armed rebellion led by Sulayman al-Murshid, who challenged Muslim rule with French weapons and some 5,000 Alawi followers. After World War II, when the Alawite provinces were united with Syria, Alawite followers of Sulayman al-Murshid tried to resist integration and they fought against the Nationalist Syrian troops, who captured al-Murshid despite his French backing, after he led the second revolt in his career, in 1946. Syria became independent on the 16th April, 1946.
Right up to independence, Alawi leaders continued to submit petitions to the French in favour of continued French patronage. For example, a manifesto signed by twelve leaders in March 1945 called for all Alawi soldiers to remain under French command and French arbitration of disputes between the Alawi government and Damascus. Sulayman al-Murshid was hanged by the Syrian government in Damascus on the 12th December, 1946.
Since 1970, following the coup of the Alawi Air Force Colonel, Hafiz ibn Ali ibn Sulayman al-Assad, the Alawis have been dominant in Syrian political and military life. Hafiz al-Assad, was born on 6th October, 1930, in Qardaha, a village not far from the Turkish border and the seat of the Alawi religious leader. Hafiz was the second of five children (Bayat, Hafiz, Jamil, Rif'at, Bahija); in addition, his father had an older son by another wife. The family belongs to the Numaylatiya branch of the Matawira tribe (this means Assad's ancestors came from Iraq in the 1120s). Assad took power and instigated a "correctionist movement" in the Ba'ath Party.
In 1971, al-Assad became president of Syria, a function that the Constitution only allows a Muslim to embrace. Then, in 1974, Musa Sadr, leader of the Twelver Shi'ah of Lebanon and founder of the Amal Movement, was asked to proclaim that he accepted the Alawis as "real Muslims".
Today Alawis exist as a minority but politically powerful, religious sect in Syria. Alawis dominate the government, hold key military positions, enjoy a disproportionate share of the educational resources, and are becoming wealthy. And so the Alawis have metamorphosed from being the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised, and most backward people of Syria, into the ruling elite of Damascus.
Allawi Leader Bashar Al-Assad Current Leader of Syria
The Alawis or Nusayris number approximately 3 million and live primarily in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. It is estimated that there about 2.5 million Nusayris in Syria who make up about 15-20% of the population of the country. Indeed, the headquarters of the entire sect is in Damascus, Syria. Approximately 65% of the Latakia populace on the Syrian Mediterranean is Alawi, constituting approximated 75% of the Syrian Alawi population.