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The Alawites

Since the tenth century, the Alawites have inhabited Syria’s northern Mediterranean coast. The Alawites represent about 10% of Syria’s estimated population of around 22 million. Three quarters, maybe slightly more of Syria’s population, are Sunnis, followers ofthe moderate Hanafi school of jurisprudence. There are minorities of Christians, Druze, and Ismailis, accounting for the rest. Arabs make up about 90%. Ethnic minorities of Kurds, Armenians, and others make up the remaining 10%. Arabic (official), Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian languages are spoken in addition to English and French.[1]


The original name of Alawites is Nusayris. They are one of the extreme Isma’ili sects.Around the end of the ninth century, Muhammad bin Nusayr, a Persian partisan of the eleventh imam, al-Hassan al-Askari (d. 874), formulated the Nusayris’ doctrine.[2] The name Alawite first appeared during the French mandate (1920-1946), possibly because Alawites consider Ali bin Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law, and the fourth caliph as the “incarnation of the deity.”[3]


The Alawites say their ancestors come from the Makhzum tribe in Arabia. There are four main Alawite tribal confederations—the Haddadin, the Matawira, the Khaiyatin, the Kalbiya (Assads’ confederation) and three smaller tribes, the Darawisa, the Mahaliba and the Amamira.[4] Alawites believe that the Prophetwas Ali’s visible veil and that the Prophet’s companion, Salman al-Farisi, was Ali’s proselytizer. The three men formed a divine triad, akin to Christianity’s holy trinity.[5] Transmigration of souls figured in their cosmology.[6] Unlike other Muslim sects, Alawites have a liturgy in their religious rituals.[7] Other similarities to Christianity include the consecration of the sacrament, the celebration of the mass, and thecelebration of Christmas and Easter.[8]


The famous eleventh-century scholar Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Tusi (d. 1067)accused the Alawites of heresy.[9] Al-Tusi, a leading Shi’iteauthority from Persia, wrote two of the four early four Shi’ite canonical Hadith collections. While Twelver Shi’ite heresiographers regard the Alawites as exceeding all bounds in their deification of Ali, the Alawites hold Twelver Shi’ites to fall short of fathoming Ali’s divinity. Sunni heresiographers view the Alawites as disbelievers and idolaters.[10]


Due to their age-old difficulties with Sunnis, Nusayris learned to practice their rituals in secrecy. The sect is hierarchical and esoteric.[11] They have a three-class hierarchy of initiates, consisting only of males, while the rest of the community remains uninitiated.They meet at night in secluded places.[12]


The Shi’ite Fatimid dynasties in Egypt and Syria between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries were helpful to the Nusayris. However, as the Fatimid reign was ended in 1171 the Alawites suffered persecution for the next eight centuries.[13] The orthodox theologian ibn Taymiyya(1263-1328), the inspiration behind the Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia, condemned the Nusayris as being more dangerous than the Christians.Ibn Taymiyya encouraged Muslims to conduct jihad against them.[14] 

How Was Alawism Anointed as a Part of Shi’ism in 1973? 
When Hafiz Assad(1971-2000) revealed his new constitution on January 31, 1973, he excluded the clause that required the president of the republic to be a Muslim. Demonstrations erupted in protest. To avert bloody confrontations, he instructed his rubber-stamp parliament to return the clause back into the constitution. 


To confirm that an Alawite can legitimately be called a Muslim, Hafiz obtained in 1973 from Imam Musa al-Sadr, head of the Higher Shi’ite Council in Lebanon, a religious opinion (fatwa) that made the Alawites a community of Shi’ite Islam.[15]


The opinion was politically expedient for al-Sadr during the turbulent period in Lebanon that led to the civil war (April 1975–October 1990). The fatwa was not assented to by Shi’ites’ senior-most ayatollahs, Grand Ayatollah Abol Qasem Kho’i of the Najaf Seminary, or Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari of the Qom Seminary in Iran.[16] Alawite senior clerics then refused to submit to the authority of the grand ayatollahs in Najaf or Qom.


In July 2005, an international Islamic conference in Amman convened by King Abdullah II, attended by 200 leading Islamic scholars from 50 countries unanimously recognizedthat:


Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali), the two Shi‘iite schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Ja‘fari andZaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim.[17]


The Amman Message did not recognize the Alawites as Muslims. Over 500 leading Muslim scholars world-wide adopted The Amman Message, including the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit at Mecca in December 2005, six other international Islamic scholarly assemblies, and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah, in July 2006.

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[1] Central Intelligence Agency, “The World Factbook.”


[2] Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, (MacMillan Press Ltd, 10thedition, 1970), P. 448.

[3] Ibid, P. 449.

[4] Patrick Seale, Assad, the Struggle for the Middle East(Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995), P. 9.

[5] Martin Kramer;Editor,Shi’ism, Resistance, and Revolution,(Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1987), PP. 237-254.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hitti, History of the Arabs,P. 449.

[8] Matti Moosa, The Nusairi mass, Extremist Shi’ites, (Syracuse University Press, 1987), P. 405.

[9] Barak Barfi, “The Real Reason Why Iran Backs Syria,” The National Interest,(January 24, 2016).


[10] Ibid.

[11] Philip Hitti, Syria: A Short History, (MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1959), P. 172.

[12] Ibid,P. 173.

[13] Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1985), P. 58.

[14] Patrick Seale, Assad, the Struggle for the Middle East, P. 10.

[15]I bid, P. 173.

[16] Martin Kramer; Editor,Shi’ism, Resistance, and RevolutionPP. 237-254.

[17] The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, “The Amman Message,”P. 16.