Who are the Syrian Allawis? 20 September 2012

Mr and Mrs Assad

In 1973 Musa al-Sadr, at that time the preeminent religious authority for the Shi’a of Lebanon, issued a fatwa concerning the Alawis of Syria. After centuries of controversy this religious ruling stated unambiguously that the Alawis were to be considered Shi’a Muslims. Nothing better illustrates the tangled interplay of religion, politics and identity in the region than this fatwa. This was not simply the culmination of a rarefied theological debate. It served at once to validate the claims of the Assad clan to the leadership of Syria and recruit a powerful regional ally for the Shi’a of Lebanon in the power struggles which were soon to tear that country apart. In doing so it crystallized a fault-line which hearkened back to the battles over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad in the earliest days of Islam, and which continues to provide a powerful animating narrative in the politics of the region today.

The origins of the Alawi sect can be traced back to the early struggles over the succession to the caliphate that gave rise to the schism between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam. After the death of Muhammad, the Muslim community was divided into two factions – those who thought that its leadership should pass to any suitable candidate chosen by consensus from among the Prophet’s companions, and those who privileged the claims of Ali, his cousin, son in law and, according to some, his designated successor. Thereafter the Shi’at Ali or ‘Party of Ali’ – the Shi’a – believed that the succession should continue to pass through the male line of the Prophet’s descendants, the imams.

Over the years Shi’a Islam diverged in belief and practice from Sunni Islam. In the early centuries of Islam, the distinction between Sunni and Shi’i was considerably more blurry. However, following the tenth century orthodoxies were crystallised and theological viewpoints established. In particular, Shi’ism tended to elevate the imams to a quasi-divine status, as visible manifestations of the spirit of God. In addition, Shi’a theology came to believe that, behind its clear external meaning, the Qu’ran contained a hidden truth, the secrets of which remained inaccessible to the uninitiated reader. Although this is also a common view within the Sunni tradition, it still led to the creation of different commentaries upon the Quran and thus at times wildly different interpretations and religious rulings between the Sunni and Shi’i.

The incorporation of such ideas into mainstream Shi’ism gave rise to much criticism from Sunni theologians, who regarded them as dangerously heterodox. However, some of the more extreme ideas were denounced even by orthodox Shi’a. Among the theologies condemned by orthodox Shi’a was the creed which began to develop in ninth century CE Baghdad under the tutelage of Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Bakri al-Numari.

Muhammad ibn Nusayr’s followers, the Nusayris, claimed that he was the Bab (or ‘door’) of the imam – a mystical claim advanced by various figures in the course of Shi’a history. Despite the apparent best efforts of the eleventh of the Shi’a imams to pour cold water on such claims, Muhammad ibn Nusayr attracted a sizable band of followers. By the eleventh century CE there were two main Nusayri centres, Baghdad in Mesopotamia and Latakia in Syria. In 1258, Baghdad was sacked by the invading Mongols. Its inhabitants were massacred, the Nusayris among them, but the community survived in Syria. Known since the 1920s as the Alawis, they remain centred on the mountainous coastal region around Latakia.

Cut off from the centres of power and wealth, the Alawi community withdrew into itself and developed a highly secretive faith. Indeed, some of central mysteries of Alawite theology are not generally shared even among the Alawis themselves, being known only to the Alawi Shaykhs and passed down from teacher to student.

In line with the teachings of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, it is known that Alawite theology considers the One God to be inexpressible. However, it is believed that a hierarchy of beings emanates from Him, and that the Imam Ali was the embodiment of the highest of these. Alawis have religious books distinct from mainstream Sunni or Shi’i Muslims, written by their own theologians, and pray in private houses rather than public mosques. Having traditionally had no special places of worship, and often facing suspicion or outright hostility from orthodox Sunni authorities, their traditions were handed down in homes and schools by religious scholars. It has been suggested that the religion is highly syncretic, combining elements of Christianity and Isma’ili Shi’ism. Notably, festivals including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday are observed by celebrations that incorporate the ritualistic use of bread and wine. Some sociologists of religion have also indicated that Alawi Shi’ism has also adopted aspects of Gnostic traditions, such as the pre-Christian Yazidi tradition, Mandaeism and the once far-reaching Manichaen religion.

Alawis comprise less than 12 per cent of the Syrian population, but until the 1920s they constituted the poorest and most numerous peasants in the regions around Latakia, typically working under Sunni and Christian landlords.

At the time of the Crusades, Alawis had often sided with the Frankish Kingdoms against the Sunni dynasties and, although forced to conform to the outward forms of Sunni Islam by the Mamluks after the eventually expulsion of the European invaders, their loyalties continued to be viewed as suspect. Throughout the nineteenth century the Alawis remained in a more or less permanent state of low-level insurrection against the Ottoman authorities, who feared (with good reason) that their appeals for outside assistance could serve as a possible pretext for intervention by the European powers.

These fears were realised after World War I, when the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire were shared out amongst the victorious British and French allies. The French pursued a policy of divide and rule in their newly-allotted territories and the mountain district behind Latakia, was proclaimed a separate state under heavy French protection.

By pursuing a divide and rule approach the French sought to counter the rising forces of Arab nationalism, which was mainly an urban, Sunni phenomena. This was perceived as a threat by the minority religious communities as well as the French, and a friendly relationship was cultivated between the French mandate administration and the Alawis, Druze, Christians and others.

In particular, Alawis served under French officers in the security forces and were used to maintain order and suppress local rebellions. By the end of the mandate, several infantry battalions were composed almost entirely of Alawis but not one battalion was composed entirely of Sunni Arabs, despite the latter forming a significant majority among the wider Syrian population. Naturally this generated considerable resentment, but for young Alawi peasants the army was regarded as a much-needed vehicle for social mobility, providing a steady income as well as access to training and exposure new ideas.

Researchers have suggested that the widespread adoption of the name ‘Alawi’ over the older style ‘Nusayri’ during this period was imposed by the French in order to emphasise the Alawis’ self-identification as followers of Ali. By focusing on the Alawis’ similarities to the Shi’a, the French cultivated the rift between Alawis and Sunni Arab Nationalists. However, Alawis themselves have argued that they were simply discarding a derogative name given to them by their opponents in favour of their original, preferred title.

Either way, it is true that the term Nusayri is mainly used today in a pejorative sense by conservative Sunnis, who continue to regard Alawis as a heretical sect outside of Islam.

The change of name also coincided with increased efforts by the Alawis to be accepted as part of the Shi’a Muslim community. In 1926 a group of Alawi Shaykhs issued the following proclamation:

‘Every Alawi is a Muslim . . . every Alawi who does not confess his Islamic faith or denies that the Qu’ran is the word of God and that Muhammad is his Prophet is not Alawi . . . The Alawis are Shi’ite Muslims . . . they are the adherents of the Imam Ali.’

Acknowledging the importance of unity against the backdrop of the Arab Revolt, then raging against colonial rule in British Mandated Palestine, the wider Muslim community was quick to respond. In July 1936, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a pan-Arabist who supported the idea of a Greater Syria, granted the Alawis a fatwa according to which he considered them to be Muslims.

When independence from French rule finally came in the 1940s, the urban Sunni elite who had inherited the Syrian government integrated Latakia into Syria and abolished the Alawite state. Alawite seats in parliament and the courts that applied Alawite laws of personal status were also abolished and after some initial unrest the Alawis gradually became reconciled to the idea of a common Syrian citizenship.

At the same time, further steps were being taken to recognise the Alawis as part of the Shi’a creed. Delegations of Alawi students began to attend the seminaries of Najaf in Iraq to learn the doctrines of Shi’a Islam, and mosques were constructed in Alawi villages and towns.

The greatest shift of power for the Alawis, perhaps in their entire history, came during the 60s and 70s. In 1963 a group of Syrian military officers staged a successful coupe in the name of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party. The mainly Sunni, urban bourgeoisie considered Ba’ath ideology suspect for its secularism and advocacy of socialism, but the religious minorities found a nationalistic ideology in which all Arabs were equal, whether Sunni Muslims, Alawis or members of other religious communities, strongly appealing. Following the 1963 coup, many suspected of disloyalty to the new regime were replaced by Alawis. In 1970, this allowed Hafez al-Assad, the Alawi commander of the air force, to stage a successful coup of his own, placing the government of Syria under Alawi control.

The significance of this can not be overstated. For many Syrians, it came as an unprecedented shock. The Syrian Alawites, who were for centuries a clandestine and minority group, now ruled over the greater part of the Levant.

Assad’s early position was far from assured. In January 1973, he issued a draft of a new constitution. Unlike previous versions of the Syrian constitution, the phrase ‘Islam is the religion of the state’ was not included. This lead to widespread unrest, spearheaded by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. In an attempt to defuse the rising tide of opposition, President Assad amended the draft to specify that ‘The religion of the President of the Republic has to be Islam’. At the same time he stressed his own Islamic credentials, citing the previously issued fatwas with the support of the Alawi Shaykhs. But it was not enough. Assad realised that to silence the voices of opposition he would require the endorsement of a credible outside authority.

For this, Asad turned to the Lebanese Shi’a leader Musa al-Sadr. Al-Sadr had already taken several steps to embrace the Alawis as a part of the Shi’a creed. In 1970, as chairman of the Supreme Islamic Shi’a Council, he sent a petition to the Civil Service Board in Lebanon to consider the Shi’a and the Alawis as one creed and to combine their rights of employment. Then In July 1973, al-Sadr appointed an Alawi as a mufti (a religious judge qualified rule on matters of Islamic law) of Tripoli and North Lebanon. At the same time he made a public pronouncement stating that “those Muslims called Alawis are the brothers of the Shi’a”.

This was to have geo-political repercussions. By ruling that Alawis were to be considered Shi’a, Musa al-Sadr effectively rendered Sunni-majority Syria a Shi’a power, which ensured that the growing Shi’a minority in Lebanon would have a powerful regional ally.

When, in 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran lit the touch paper for the so-called Shi’a awakening, Alawi-controlled Syria provided a vital link between Lebanese Shi’a groups such Amal and Hezbollah and their Iranian Shi’a sponsors. The overthrow of the Sunni-minority leadership of Shi’a-majority Iraq, by a US led coalition in the 2003 Gulf War, inadvertently extended a ‘Shi’a crescent’ which already stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

The current support of the Gulf states for the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition can be seen as a reaction to this. The authoritarian Sunni monarchies of the Gulf have their own Shi’a minorities, many of whom are located in oil-rich regions. This gives Gulf states, and their Western backers, plenty of cause to be wary of regimes who espouse revolutionary ideologies calculated to appeal to disenfranchised minority Shi’a.

With their religious and political identities so inextricably linked, Syria’s Alawis are now facing an uncertain future. If Syria were to fragment along sectarian lines, any attempt to create a breakaway Alawite state could set off a dramatic wave of sectarian violence. Given the demographic and economic realities, it is in any case unlikely that an Alawite enclave centred on the coastal regions could form the basis for a viable independent state. What is certain is that Alawi identity will continue to evolve in response to political pressures. It seems increasingly likely that this evolution will take place within the context of a very different Syria.

About Christopher De Bie

Christopher De Bie graduated from Birbeck College with an MA in Islam, Politics and Society, specialising in religion, secularism and modernity in Iran.

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