Historically both the Druze and the ‘Alawis are offshoots of Isma‘ilism, which was an earlier split from the Shi‘i Imamis. The Shi‘is are distinguishable in important respects from the majority of Muslims, namely the orthodox Sunnis who believe and accept the sunnah (sayings and doings) of the Prophet Muhammad, side-by-side to the Koran, as their main source of inspiration. While the Sunnis generally have endorsed the caliphate as the legitimate head of political and religious power, the Shi‘i Imamis have by and large rejected the caliph’s claim to leadership, instead recognizing ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, who was the fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as their first imam, or politico-religious leader, and his two sons Hasan and Husayn as respectively the second and third imams. Starting with ‘Ali, the Shi‘i leadership progressed through a line of twelve imams, with the last one having mysteriously vanished in 878. As such the twelfth imam is known as the hidden imam.
The Isma‘ilis broke with the Shi‘i Imamis over the issue of the succession to the sixth imam Isma‘il (d. 760) from whom they claimed to be the legitimate descendants. What historically characterized the Isma‘ilis over the other more orthodox Shi‘is was their secrecy and their belief in the inner and allegorical meanings of the Koran. The mainstream Shi‘is by contrast held the view of the infallible imam who can guide the community to the right path and possesses that unique power to interpret the scriptures. Both the Druze and ‘Alawis maintain doctrines close to Isma‘ilism.
The ‘Alawis or, to use their more appropriate religious name, the Nusayris, are of an unknown origin and there is much speculation as to their inner (hidden) beliefs. A recognized authority as to their initial rites and doctrines was published in Aleppo in 1859 as Kitab al-Majmu‘. According to its author, Sulayman al-Adhani, the Nusayris primarily believed, like other sects of the Syrian mountains on the Mediterranean, in the transmigration of souls. He also argues that the term Nusayri is traceable to Abu Shu‘ayb Muhammad b. Nusayr al-‘Abdi al-Bakri al-Namri, who in turn acted as “the Bab” (Communicator) of Hasan al-‘Askari (d. 874), the eleventh Shi‘i imam.
It remains uncertain, however, whether any of the historical genealogy and doctrine propounded in the aforementioned Kitab is still held by the majority of ‘Alawis today. Since about the French mandate over Syria (1920-46), the term Nusayri seems to have been dropped in favor of the more common ‘Alawi, and a doctrinal, if not political, rapprochement has been in the works with the majority of Shi‘is. Already in 1936 a body of ‘Alawi ulama officially declared that “the ‘Alawis are nothing but partisans of the imam ‘Ali…the cousin, son-in-law, and executor (wasi) of the Messenger.” That position was reiterated in a similar ulama declaration in 1973, three years after president Hafiz al-Asad (r. 1970-2000), himself an ‘Alawi, came to power.
Today the ‘Alawis mostly are located in the southern Iskandarun region of Turkey (renamed Hatay by the Turks after its annexation in 1939, and still claimed by the Syrians) and the Syrian coastline. Only in Syria, however, where the ‘Alawis comprise roughly ten percent of the population, have they recently gained a political status. Though some had been members of the original Syrian army after the French mandate, and though more even took positions with the Baath in 1963, it was only under president Asad that their power consolidated. For instance, out of the thirty-one officers whom Asad hand picked between 1970 and 1997 as chief officers in the armed forces, for the élite military formations, and for the security and intelligence apparatus, no fewer than nineteen or 61.3 percent have been ‘Alawis. The overall socio-economic status of the ‘Alawis within the Syrian community at large, however, does not seem to have improved much in the last few decades.
Batatu, Hanna, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
Seale, Patrick, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
Weulersse, Jacques, Le pays des Alouites, 2 vol. (Tours, 1940).
Loyola University Chicago