The Alawites are a sect of Shi'ite Islam prominent in Syria. Alawī is not to be confused with Alevi, a different religious sect based in Turkey, although they share the same etymology.
The Alawites take their name from Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, also the 4th and last "rightly guided Caliph" of Islam. Historically, the Alawites have been called Nusayrīs, Nasiriyya, and Ansariyya. The term Nusayriyya became one of insult, and they themselves preferred to be called Alawiyya to show their reverence for Ali.
The origin of the Alawites is disputed. They are believed to be descendants of people who lived in the Fertile Crescent at the time of Alexander the Great, and gradually added elements of Islam and Christianity to their existing, pre-Islamic religion, when these flourished in the region.
According to some sources, they were originally Nusayrīya, a sect that was an off-shoot of Twelver Shiites in the 9th century. The Alawites themselves trace their origins to the eleventh Shia Imam, Hasan al Askari (d.873), and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). Ibn Nusayr proclaimed himself the Bāb, "Door" (representative) of the 11th Imam in 857. The sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Ibn Nusayr's, known as al-Khasibi, 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.
In the 10th century Alawites were established during the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo, but they were driven out when the dynasty fell in 1004. In 1097, Crusaders initially attacked them, but later allied with them against the Ismailis. In 1120, the Alawites were defeated by the Ismailis and Kurds, but three years later, they fought the Kurds successfully. In 1297, the Ismailis and Alawites tried to negotiate a merger, but it came to nothing.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon came under French mandate. The French recognized the term "Alawī" when they occupied Syria in 1920. The French gave autonomy to Alawites and other minority groups and accepted Alawites into their colonial troops. Under the mandate, many Alawite chieftains supported the notion of a separate Alawite nation and tried to convert their autonomy into independence. A territory of "Alaouites" was created in 1925. In May 1930, the Government of Latakia was created; it lasted until 28 February, 1937 when it was incorporated into Syria.
In 1939, a portion of northwest Syria, the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now Hatay, that contained a large number of Alawites, 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 Iskandarun (later renamed "Hatay" by the Turks) 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. After World War II, Salman Al Murshid played a major role in uniting the Alawite province with the mother land Syria. He was executed by the newly independent Syrian government in Damascus on Monday 12 Dec, 1946 (only three days after a hasty political trial).
Syria became independent on April 16, 1946. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups in 1949, the rise of the Ba'th Party, and unification of the country with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958. The UAR lasted for three years and broke apart in 1961 , when a group of army officers seized power and declared Syria independent again; a further succession of coups ensued until a secretive military committee, which included a number of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid, helped the Ba'th Party take power in 1963. In 1966, Alawite-oriented military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the old Ba'ath that had looked to the Christian Michel Aflaq and the Sunni Muslim Salah al-Din al-Bitar for leadership. They promoted Zaki al-Arsuzi as the "Socrates" of their reconstituted Ba'ath Party.
In 1970, then-Air Force Colonel Hafez al-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, Imam Musa Sadr, leader of the Twelver Shi'ites of Lebanon and founder of the Amal Movement, was asked to proclaim that he accepted the Alawites as real Muslims. Under the dictatorial but secular Assad regime, religious minorities were tolerated, political dissent was not. During an uprising led by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in the city of Hama, perhaps 20,000 were killed by the Syrian military. Many more were killed and arrested throughout Syria and especially in Damascus and Aleppo.
After the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad maintained the outlines of his father's regime. Although Alawites predominate among the top military and intelligence offices, the civilian government and national economy is largely led by Sunnis, who represent about 70% of Syria's population. The Assad regime is careful to allow all of the religious sects a share of power and influence in the government, but there is clear Alawite domination of the highest levels of power. Today Alawites exist as a minority but politically powerful, religious sect in Syria.
Beliefs of the Alawites
Alawites practise religious secrecy. They generally claim they are Muslims, which may be especially the case of the non-initiated. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "The basic doctrine of 'Alawite faith is the deification of 'Ali. They consider themselves to be moderate Shi'ites, not much different from the Twelvers."
Theologically, Alawites today claim to be Twelver Shi'ites, but traditionally they have been designated as "extremists" and outside the bounds of Islam by the Muslim mainstream for their high level of devotion to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Alawite sect is a somewhat Gnostic version of Shia islam. The Alawites believe Imam Ali is the true Successor of Muhammad as well as in esoteric reading of the Qur'an. Alawites regard Imam Aiī as the purpose of life and the divine knowledge of the prophet Muhammad.
They believe that in each world age special prophets like Jesus or Mohammed came to show the right path.
Imam Ali, Muhammad, and a third entity, Salman the Persian are important to the faith. Respectively, they are called the Idea, the Name, and the Door (to god). In Sura 6 of the Mujma', one of their texts, it is stated, "I make for the Door, I prostrate myself before God, I worship the essence."
Alawites do not accept converts or openly publish their texts, which are passed down from scholar to scholar. The vast majority of Alawites (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"). For Initiation, a person must be at least 15 and cannot be a non-Alawite. They believe in metempsychosis; the soul of the pious ascends to the starry heavens via a series of transformations. The less pious souls require more transformations. Several sources suggest that Alawism is a syncretic sect and has affinities with Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and ancient Phoenician paganism, but these claims are hard to verify, due to the secret nature of the sect. They are believed to celebrate Christian festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany, as well as the Zoroastrian new year, Nawruz, along with regular Shiite festivals.
Because only one book has been translated, outsiders know little about Alawite theology. Hanna Batatu's last book has a short but reliable section on Alawite doctrine, theology, and recent debates within the community. How sincere is this rejection of bida "innovation"? There is no way to tell, but it has a long tradition within the community. The French tried to pressure leading Alawite shaykhs to declare Alawiyya a separate religion during the early 1920s, but they lost their battle because many religious leaders refused to do so. After all, Alawites declare themselves to be Muslims in their catechism and believe that Muhammad is God's messenger.
Alawites try to follow the prime example left by Ali. Ali lived out of the eye of the public. Like Ali, the Alawites are too called names and rejected by the common, like Ali, Alawites also keep to themselves, and like Ali, they say that they too "worship God in private and not for show". Although Alawites recognize the five pillars of Islam, they do not believe that anyone has the privilege of practicing them because they are too pure to be performed by "any" soul. Alawites believe that there is no back door entrance to the gates of heaven (i.e. follow the five pillars and you receive the keys to heaven). Instead they believe that one should devote his life the way that the prophet Muhammed would have permitted by following the example of Ali. The insistence on conformism has brought rich political rewards—Alawites enjoy all the rights of Muslims in Syria. Nevertheless, Alawites have paid a steep price for political success and for a share of political power and equality in the nation.Alawites who have speculated on the success are considerably more optimistic about the percentage of Syrians who considered them Muslim than are their Druze counterparts. Several claim that 50% of Syrians or more accepted them as Muslims. The reason Alawites give for their success is that they try harder than the Druze to be like orthodox Muslims and to assimilate to the textbook version of Isl