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ʿALAWĪYŪN (sg., ʿAlawī; modern English rendering, Alawis, Alawites; French, Alaouites; sometimes called Nuayrīyah). The Arabic word ʿAlawī designates, broadly speaking, a follower of ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib. Next to the prophet Muammad, ʿAlī, Muammad's paternal cousin and son-in-law, is perhaps the most important personality in the religious and political history of Islam. He remains a force to contend with in the daily life of Muslims today, especially among the Shīʿah (from shīʿat ʿAlī, the "party" or followers of ʿAlī): "Ya ʿAlī, madad" ("O ʿAlī, help!") is a moving intercessionary expression often heard in Shīʿī circles. The word Shīʿī (anglicized as Shiite ) has often been used to designate all followers of ʿAlī; but in a more restricted sense, its application is limited to the so-called Twelvers (Ithnā ʿAsharīyah) of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, while ʿAlawī is taken to refer exclusively to the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah of northwestern Syria. The indigenous sources, past and present, do not make such clearcut distinctions, however. The other two leading Shīʿī sects, the Zaydīyah and the Ismāʿīlīyah, have had significant historical and doctrinal differences with the mainstream Twelvers. Finally, there exists a group of extremist Shīʿī sects known collectively as the Ghulāt ("exaggerators"), to which the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah of Syria belong. While the Shīʿah in general hold ʿAlī and his immediate family in high esteem, the Ghulāt have gone beyond veneration, often considering ʿAlī a manifestation of the deity.


The majority of Muslims, called Sunnīs, accepted the early settlement on the succession (caliphate) to the Prophet's leadership, and their religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ) subsequently arrived at a doctrinal position which states that "God's religion is the middle ground between exaggerated zeal [ghulūw ] and negligence [jaf āʾ ]." It was left to the scholars to interpret God's word in the Qurʾān. The Shīʿah, on the other hand, would accept only the leadership of ʿAlī as imam par excellence, and, to satisfy the need for someone who would be specially endowed to understand the esoteric (bāinī) meaning of God's injunctions, they elevated ʿAlī to the position of walī of God: the "friend" of the Almighty and "custodian" of the faith. With time, the Shīʿī scholars developed an elaborate theological system which featured such concepts as imāmah (leadership of the Muslim community), ʿimah (infallibility of the imam), na (attested succession), taqīyah (religious dissimulation), and ghaybah (occultation). Thus the Sunnīs and the Shīʿah became two dimensions of the Islamic dispensation.

With the Ghulāt, the excessive veneration of ʿAlī took a different turn long before the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah came on the scene. Ghulūw manifested itself in a long series of extremist movements, the earliest of which was perhaps that of al-Mukhtār (ah 66, 685/6 ce), who claimed to be an incarnation of Muammad ibn al-anafīyah, a son of ʿAlī by a woman from the anīfah tribe. Toward the end of the ninth century, the Qarāmiah offered another example of religious and social extremism; the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿī state of the Fatimids was founded on the ruins of this movement. A major phase of religious extremism appeared following the decline of Fatimid power in the eleventh century. This development coincided with the resurgence of Byzantine power south of the Taurus Mountains along the traditional limes (thughūr, ʿawāim) in the northern Syrian borderlands, the weakening position of the Shīʿī Hamdanids in Aleppo and the Buyids in Baghdad, and most of all, the influx of Crusader armies along the Syrian coastlands and their final occupation of Jerusalem in 1099.

This unsettled situation engendered three curious religious factions: the ʿAlawīyūn proper in the northwest region of Syria, the Druze sect of southern geographic Syria, and the movement of asan-i abbā (the so-called Assassins) who ultimately established themselves in such mountain strongholds as Alamūt and elsewhere. While the Druze and the Assassins were direct splinters from the Ismāʿīlī Fatimids of Egypt, the ʿAlawīyūn were grounded in Twelver thought with syncretic Christian accretions.

Historical Development

Almost every founder of a Shīʿī movement, including the Ghulāt sects, claimed some attachment to, or direct genealogical descent from, ʿAlī or his immediate descendants, the twelve imams. The ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah, though claiming no direct descent from any of the imams, believed that each of the twelve imams had a "gate" (bāb), beginning with Salmān al-Fārisī, who was the "gate" of ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, and ending with Abū Shuʿayb Muammad ibn Nuayr, the "gate" to the eleventh imam, al-asan al-ʿAskarī (d. 874). The twelfth imam had no "gate"; however, Muammad ibn Nuayr continued to assume that position during the period of occultation. The ʿAlawīyūn consider the office of the bāb one of their basic religious institutions, and since they claim Ibn Nuayr as their founder, they are sometimes known as the Nuayrīyah. Ibn Nuayr was succeeded by Muammad ibn Jundub, then by Muammad al-Jinān al-Junbulānī. It was at about this time that a certain usayn ibn amdān al-Khaībī, originally from Egypt, was attracted to northern Syria and became the ideological leader of the movement. He was active at the courts of the Hamdanids of Aleppo and the Buyids of Baghdad. The center for ʿAlawī activity, however, moved to Latakia when these Twelver Shīʿī states succumbed to the Sunnī Seljuk Turks.

During the early Mongol period the ʿAlawī community witnessed a short revival under Emir asan al-Makzūn al-Sinjārī, "one of the greatest and most pious shaykhs of the sect, who rescued ʿAlawī authority, organized the affairs of the community, and provided his followers with a comfortable way of life" (awīl, pp. 309310). Soon, however, the region fell under Mamluk domination. The anbalī scholar Amad ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) wrote a scathing refutation of the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah (Risālah fī al-radd ʿalā al-Nuayrīyah) in which they are said to believe in the drinking of wine, the reincarnation of the soul, the antiquity of the world, and the fact that their god who created the heavens and the earth is ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, who to them is the imam in heaven and the imam on earth; and to claim that Muammad the prophet is only the "name" while ʿAlī is the "meaning" and essence. Condemning the ʿAlawīyūn along with other sects such as the Malahidah Assassins, the Qarāmiah, the Ismāʿīlīyah, and all types of bāinī esoterics, Ibn Taymīyah accuses them of kufr ("unbelief") worse than that of the Jews and Christians, calls them mushrikūn ("polytheists"), and prohibits marriage with them, partaking of their food, or allowing them to guard the frontiers of Islam. The North African traveler Ibn Baūah (d. 1377), who passed through Nuayri territory, observed that they believed in ʿAlī as their god and that they did not pray, nor did they perform ablutions or observe the fast incumbent upon all Muslims. According to Ibn Baūah, who was a Mālikī jurist, they used the mosques, which the Mamluk rulers had forced them to build, as stables for their animals. At one time, he reports, the sultan had ordered their extermination but was reminded by his chief minister that the Nuayrīyah were still needed to till the land.

In the sixteenth century, the Ottomans under Sultan Selim fought Shiism on all fronts: against a large-scale Shīʿī rebellion in Anatolia, against the Safavids of Iran, and against the ʿAlawīyūn of Syria. Once victory was attained, however, the issue was allowed to fade, and during the next four centuries the ʿAlawī communities suffered the benign neglect of Ottoman rule. They were not treated as a millet (autonomous religious community), and their affairs were left in the hands of their tribal chieftains. Midhat Pasha, the nineteenth-century reform-minded governor of Syria, attempted to institute a separate administration (liwāʾ) for the ʿAlawīyūn. Under the French Mandate after the First World War, they were treated as an "independent" state within Syria and were referred to as the "Alaouites" for the first time. The French drafted many of their young men for what came to be called the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. This special status survived into the late twentieth century with an ʿAlawī circle dominating the Syrian military government, led by President Hafiz al-Asad, himself an ʿAlawī.

Relation to Shiism

Inasmuch as the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah profess allegiance to ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, they share many of their beliefs and practices with the rest of the Shīʿah. Within Shiism, however, two traditions have survived: a high Islam, "orthodox," scribal tradition which has been preserved in the writings of the three main Shīʿī groups, the Twelvers, the Ismāʿīlī Seveners, and the Zaydīyah, and a folk Islam, "popular," nonscribal, secretive tradition which is the hallmark of the Ghulāt. The ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah of northwestern Syria belong to the latter tradition. The idea of the bāb as the "gate" to the imam appears to have been an attempt to preserve Twelver continuity, which the mainstream Shīʿī scholars resolved through the concept of occultation. In any case, the Shīʿī ʿAlawīyūn had no chance to further develop high Islam ideas since their patrons in Aleppo and Baghdad (the Twelver Hamdanids and Buyids respectively) had just lost their power to the ardent Sunnī Seljuks, and the ʿAlawīyūn were left essentially on their own.

At exactly the same time, moreover, the ʿAlawī lands were invaded by the Christian knights of the Crusader armies. Hence, in addition to their original extremist views about ʿAlī and the imams, the ʿAlawīyūn inherited Christian elements which they incorporated into their folk Islam beliefs (although the Islamic core remained predominant). Ideas of a trinity (a concept abhorred in official Islam) became current, with ʿAlī as the maʿnā (esoteric meaning and essence), Muammad as the ism (outward exoteric name), and Salmān al-Fārisī as the bāb (gate to ʿAlī's esoteric essence). Joined together, the three appear in a profession (Shahādah) of the faith: I testify that there is no god but ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib al-maʿbūd ("the worshiped one"), no veil (ijāb) but Muammad al-mamūd ("the praised one"), and no gate but Salmān al-Fārisī al-maqūd ("the intended one"). In addition to the traditional Sunnī and Shīʿī holidays, Christian feast days such as Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost are celebrated. There are also several mass-type ceremonies, such as the incense mass and the adhān mass (for the Muslim call to prayer), during which the congregation chants hymns said to have been composed by one of the early fathers, al-Khaībī, although the Arabic language of the original indicates a more popular folk-literary hand. Belief in reincarnation is widespread: Muslims returning as donkeys, Christians as pigs, Jews as monkeys. This syncretic mixture of ideas has led one French authority on the ʿAlawīyūn to describe their beliefs as "a deformation of Christianity or a survival of ancient paganism" (Weulersse, 1946; p. 271). Another work, based substantially on polemical material, seems to be in partial agreement: "From an Islamic standpoint, the religious beliefs and practices of the Nuairīs set them off as a distinct religion, neither Islamic nor Christian nor Jewish, and it has always been the consensus of the Muslim ʿulamāʾ, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, that the Nusairis are kuffār (disbelievers, rejectors of the faith) and idolaters (mushrikūn) " (ʿAbd-Allāh, p. 48).

Contemporary Importance

The importance of the ʿAlawī Nuayri community now derives largely from the widespread contemporary revival of Islam. Their numbers have always been small: 300,000 according to Ghālib al-awīl in the 1920s; 225,000 according to Weulersse in 19431944; 325,311 according to Hourani in 1946; 600,000 or 700,000 according to Petran in 1972; and at most a "million or so" according to Batatu in 1981 (the last figure probably includes ʿAlawīs throughout the world). In the "independent" Alaouite state under French administration, the Representative Council of 1930, for example, included ten ʿAlawī members, two Orthodox Christians, one Maronite Christian, three Sunnīs, and one Ismāʿīlī. In more recent times, ʿAlawī leaders, both religious and secular, have been making outward attempts to gain acceptance among the rest of the (largely Sunnī) population of Syria. In 1973, for example, an official statement was issued by as many as eighty ʿAlawī religious leaders proclaiming the adherence of the community to the teachings and legal practices of Twelver Shiʿism and adding that "whatever else is attributed to them has no basis in truth and is a mere invention by their enemies and the enemies of Islam" (Batatu, p. 335). Mūsā al-adr, a politico-religious leader of Lebanon's Twelver Shīʿī community and founder of the Amal movement in the 1970s, included a number of representatives of the Lebanese ʿAlawī community in his Shīʿī Council, while a recent booklet, Al-ʿAlawīyūn shīʿat ahl al-bayt (a title that identifies the ʿAlawīyūn with the "party of the house of the Prophet," namely, ʿAlī and the imams), indicates a rapprochement of the community with the mainstream Twelvers. (A preface to this publication, written by a Twelver scholar, asan Mahdī Shīrāzī, avers that "the words ʿAlawī and Shīʿah are interchangeable.") Developments such as these may suggest a shift in ʿAlawī orientation from the Ghulāt to "orthodox" Twelver Shiism.

See Also

Assassins; Druze; Taqiyah.


Older published works on the ʿAlawī Nuayri sect, though slightly dated, contain much useful information on the origins, beliefs, and practices of the community. See, for example, René Dussaud's Histoire et religion des Nosairis (Paris, 1900); Louis Massignon's "Nuairī," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 19131934); René Basset's résumé of Dussaud's Histoire in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 9, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1917); Samuel Lyde's The Asian Mystery: Ansaireeh or Nusairis of Syria (London, 1860); and Sulaymân Effendi of Adhanah's Al-bākūrah al-Sulaymānīyah fī kashf asrār al-diyānah al-Nuayrīyah, translated and partially presented by Edward E. Salisbury in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (1868): 227308. Of special importance is Louis Massignon's "Esquisse d'une bibliographie nuayrie," in Mélanges syriens offerts à Monsieur René Dussaud, vol. 2 (Paris, 1939), pp. 913922, containing a list of manuscripts on the ʿAlawīyūn which still await the specialized scholar.

More recent French works on the subject include Jacques Weulersse's Les pays des Alaouites, 2 vols. (Tours, 1940), his Paysans de Syrie et du Proche-Orient (Paris, 1946), and Munir M. Mousa's "Étude sociologique des ʿAlaouites ou Nuairis" (Ph.D. diss., 2 vols., Sorbonne, 1958). For important information on the ʿAlawīyūn during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, see Ibn Taymīyah's "Risālah fī al-radd ʿalā al-Nuayrīyah," in Majmūʿ al-rasāʾil (Cairo, 1905), pp. 94102, and Ibn Baūah's Travels, translated by H. A. R. Gibb (London, 1962).

Special mention should be made of the first book in Arabic by a member of the ʿAlawī community, Muammad Amīn Ghālib al-awīl's Taʾrīkh al-ʿAlawīyin, originally written in Turkish and recast in Arabic (Latakia, Syria, 1921); the second edition (Beirut, 1966) contains a sixty-page critical introduction by the Twelver Shīʿī writer ʿAbd al-Ramān al-Khayr. awīl's work is somewhat polemical but is nevertheless full of valuable source material. Some largely unreliable statistics on the ʿAlawīyūn are found in such works as Albert Hourani's Minorities in the Arab World (1947; reprint, New York, 1982) and Tabitha Petran's Syria (New York, 1972).

Serious modern writings on the ʿAlawīyūn are scarce. See Claude Cahen's "Note sur les origines de la communauté syrienne des Nuayris," Revue des études islamiques 38 (1970): 243249, and Hanna Batatu's "Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance," Middle East Journal 35 (1981): 331344; also Nikolaos van Dam's The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics, 19611978 (London, 1979).

Finally, owing to contemporary attempts to rehabilitate the ʿAlawī Nuayrīyah within the Shīʿī fold, several works of a largely polemical nature have been produced; see, for example, ʿAbd Allāh al-usaynī's Al-judhūr al-taʾrīkhīyah lil- Nuayrīyah al-ʿalawīyah (Dubai, 1980), and ʿAbd al-usayn Mahdī al-ʿAskari's Al-ʿAlawīyūnaw al-Nuay-riyūn (n.p., 1980), both of which quote extensively from the early heresiographical literature. Umar F. Abd-Allah's The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley, 1983), with foreword and postscript by Hamid Algar, outlines the attempt by the present ʿAlawī military regime in Syria to control the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood there.

Michel M. Mazzaoui (1987)