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LOCATION: Syria; Lebanon; Turkey.
POPULATION: 1.4 million in Syria; 100,000 in Lebanon; indeterminate numbers in Israel-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, uncounted numbers in Turkey, and a small diaspora in Australia
RELIGION: Secret 'Alawi faith; a branch of Shia Islam


'Alawi (or 'Alawite) means "a follower of 'Ali," the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. The 'Alawis (and all Shia Muslims) believe that 'Ali was Muhammad's rightful heir to political and spiritual leadership of the Muslim community. Originally calling themselves "Nusairis," they became known as 'Alawis only in 1920 after the French colonizers dubbed them as such. As part of their colonial strategy, the French normally allied with the minority of any particular territory they occupied. The minority would then greatly benefit from the occupation of the country, as the French would promote them to positions from which they otherwise would be banned. This was true of the 'Alawis as well.

During the Abbasid Empire of the 12th century AD, Nusairi views became increasingly differentiated from mainstream Shia views. This resulted in increasing persecution by the Sunni government of the Abbasids. The Nusairis were forced to flee from Iraq and Arabia farther and farther west, until they reached the mountains in western Syria on the Mediterranean coast. There they survived, despite continuing persecution, for centuries.

The French granted the people they called 'Alawis a strong measure of autonomy in 1920 when the French occupation of Syria was formalized by the League of Nations. However, when the French left in 1946, the new Syrian government sent troops into the 'Alawi villages to squelch their autonomy and forcibly assimilate them into becoming fully integrated Syrian citizens. Although some 'Alawis moved down from the mountains to the Latakia province on the coast, they rarely mingled with the rest of Syrian society, even in their new urban environments.

The 'Alawi are believed to be remnants of an ancient Canaanite people, who were then influenced by both Islam and Christianity. They adopted the Arabic language and Islamic faith over the course of the Muslim domination of the region beginning in the 7th century AD. However, they broke away to form their own religion during the reign of the Abbasids. Sunni and Shia Muslims refuse to accept 'Alawis as true Muslims because of their belief in a holy trinity: the Imam 'Ali as the most important figure; Muhammad; and Salman al-Farisi, one of Muhammad's companions. In Syria, the president is required to be a Muslim by law, and as an 'Alawi, the first Asad had a religious cleric issue a fatwa, a Muslim religious pronouncement, that 'Alawis were Muslim. The head of state as of 2008, Bashar al Asad, relies also upon this fatwa for his legitimacy.

Location and homeland. In 2008 there were estimated to be about 2.6 million 'Alawis in the world. Most (about 1.4 million) were concentrated in the Latakia province on the western coast of Syria though there are small numbers in Turkey, Israel (2,000 in Israel-occupied Golan Heights), Lebanon, and Australia. In Lebanon, they live in a small area just to the south of the Syrian border; in Turkey they occupy rather larger settlements near Antioch, the al-Kuysar plateau, and in the plains formed by the Lower Orontes river.

The ancient 'Alawi stronghold is the Jabal an Nusayriyah mountain range, which is named for them ("Mountains of Nusairi," as the 'Alawis were formerly known). The mountain range runs north-to-south along the Mediterranean coastal plain of Syria. It is sometimes called Jabal 'Alawite. The wetter western side of the range supports some farming, but the drier eastern side is good only for sheep-herding. It is a poor region, and the 'Alawis have for centuries been a poor, struggling people. Over 60% of the rural population along the coast in the Latakia province is 'Alawi. The largest ethno religious minority group in Syria, 'Alawis made up between 10% and 12% of the total Syrian population according to 2004 estimates; reliable, more precise figures are unavailable.

'Alawis are not considered by some to be true Arabs; they converted to Islam centuries after the majority of modern-day Syrians. Thus, 'Alawis have historically felt a sense of estrangement from the Sunni Arab majority that surrounds them. Centuries of persecution and life hidden away in tiny mountain strongholds has also led to a sense of separation and isolation for the 'Alawis. Their society is organized tribally, with most 'Alawis belonging to one of four main tribal confederations: the Haddadin, the Matawira, the Khaiyatin, and the Kalbiya. Three smaller tribes—the Darawisa, Mahaliba, and 'Amamira—settled at the northern end of the Jabal an Nusayriyah range. Some detribalized 'Alawis settled on the plains surrounding the mountain area. Modern 'Alawis are trying to replace tribal notions with notions of citizenship in the state, but all 'Alawis, even the children, still know which tribe is theirs.

Language. The 'Alawis adopted Arabic as their language during the period known in the West as the Middle Ages. Arabic, spoken by at least 300 million people worldwide, has many dialects. Nevertheless, most Arabs can understand each other's speech, although certain words may have different nuances in different countries. Written Arabic comes in two varieties: the classical Arabic of the Quran and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). The latter is the version of the language printed in newspapers and books in all Arab countries. Arabic is written and read from right to left. "Hello" (marhaba or ahlan) in Arabic is a very informal greeting one rarely hears. Far more common is the traditional As-salam alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Walaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Go in peace." "Thank you" is Shukran and "You're welcome" is Afwan. These greetings and pleasantries are known not only in the Arab world but by virtually all Muslims around the world who use them daily. "Yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara.

Religion. The precise details of the tenets of the 'Alawi faith, its rituals and practices are somewhat mysterious. After decades of persecution by Muslims who considered their veneration of saints and other rituals and beliefs heretical to orthodox Islam, the 'Alawis began to carefully guard their holy books and practice their rituals in private. The 'Alawi story of creation tells of a spirit world inhabited by beings of light who worshiped God but who began over time to deny his divinity. This caused their exile from paradise and condemned to the mundane existence of suffering humanity. The 'Alawis worshipped a pantheon of prophets and minor deities throughout their history, but in the Islamic era they have embraced devotion to a trinity consisting of the Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi, one of the Companions of the Prophet, the men and women who were Islam's first converts and are held in great esteem all over the Muslim world. It is speculated that they perform a ritual using bread and wine to represent the body and blood of the incarnate God, much as Christians do in their Eucharist or Holy Communion. Only men take part in worship and are initiated into the faith. The initiation is a long process that begins no earlier than age 19, and involves tremendous study and the passing of trials and tests.

The 'Alawis believe that God has appeared on the earth seven times, the most recent being in the form of the greatly revered Imam Ali.

The most authoritative book for the 'Alawi faith is not the Muslim holy book of the Quran, which they interpret largely allegorically, unlike virtually all other Muslims, who consider it to be the direct words of Allah transmitted through the Prophet Muhammed. Rather, the 'Alawis' holy book is the Kitab al-Majmu, which has 16 surahs (chapters) and almost certainly was compiled over many years by many writers. 'Alawi ritual and belief appears to involve the worship of sacred springs and trees, etc., probably descending from their ancient Phoenician pagan heritage. They also worship stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies, believing as they do that they began their existences as beams of light not unlike the heavenly bodies. Through successive reincarnations, 'Alawis believe humans may eventually return their souls to the heavens, becoming celestial bodies once again, healing the rift with God created by their doubting his divinity at the beginning of time.

The 'Alawis do not worship in mosques in a symbolic protest and recognition of the fact that their highly revered Imam Ali was killed in a mosque. Most 'Alawis gather in friends' houses for prayers. There is no prohibition against drinking alcohol among the 'Alawis. In addition, they do not, generally, adhere to the controversial topic among Islamic scholars as to the meaning of Allah's command that the wives of and daughters of the Prophet cover their heads and chests.

Other aspects of their beliefs relate to objects of light, including the belief by one 'Alawi sect, known as the Shamsis, that the Imam Ali lives in the sun; the Qamaris believe he lives on the moon. The Alawis believe in reincarnation and the existence of more than the world they currently inhabit. They believe that after death, 'Alawis that practiced goodness are reborn into another human form: the wicked are reborn as animals seen as unclean or predatory.

Major holidays. As the 'Alawis keep their faith so secret, it is difficult to discover their major holy days. It is said they do not observe the Muslim month-long fast of Ramadan or make a pilgrimage to Mecca (some believe doing so constitutes a form of idol worship), though the traditional Persian new year festival, known as Nowruz, is widely celebrated. There is good evidence they do celebrate something very similar to the Catholic mass and partake in the ritual of the Eucharist though the wine they drink is not meant to represent the blood of the Christian prophet Jesus but that of the Imam Ali. They may celebrate some Christian holy days such as Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany.

Living conditions. 'Alawis have traditionally been very poor. Living in marginal mountain villages, most families grow wheat and raise goats to provide their bread, bulghur (cracked wheat), yogurt, and butter. Wealthier families might have grapevines, fruit trees, and sheep. Since Hafiz al-Asad, an 'Alawi, ascended to the presidency of Syria, conditions have improved for his people. After his death in 2000 his son Bashar took over the country, with few expecting him to do other than follow his father's policies of preferences to the 'Alawis. In 1970, for example, only 10% of houses in the Latakia province had piped-in drinking water; in 2004, more than 90% did. Roads have been built to every village. Communications and technology have improved and Internet cafes are spreading in the major cities, though the state keeps close watch on their use. In 2007 Syria had 119 Internet providers and 1.5 million regular users. Its country domain code Government power projects have supplied electricity to even the most remote corners of Syria. However, high inflation rates and a struggling economy eat away at the gains made in the 'Alawis' standard of living. Also, any change in government (if an 'Alawi is no longer in power) could, and probably would, return the 'Alawis to their former days of hardship and poverty.

Education. Through much of their history, 'Alawis were illiterate mountain dwellers. There were no schools in the mountain villages until the 1930s, when the French started some elementary schools there. After the Ba'ath Party takeover in 1963 with 'Alawi Hafiz al-Asad at the helm, 'Alawis poured into the educational system. By 1985, under the first al-Asad regime, 'Alawis were strongly represented in Syrian professions and upper-level government. Under the second al-Asad's Democratic Socialist regime, education has been made available to everyone at all levels of society. Between 40% and 62% of 'Alawi girls now attend school, a significant increase from earlier times.

Work. Before the Ba'ath Party takeover in 1963 when the 'Alawis came into power, many 'Alawis joined the military because it was the only opportunity for employment readily available to them in the Sunni-dominated society. It is these 'Alawis who joined forces to overthrow the government in 1963. The 'Alawis continue to be the largest ethno religious group in the Syrian military. Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, the only industry in the 'Alawi mountain area was tobacco, and it employed just a few dozen workers. By the mid-1980s, however, under President al-Asad's Democratic Socialist reform program, 40,000 'Alawi workers were employed in public sector companies in food processing and the manufacture of aluminum, cement, textiles, and carpets. Under the second al-Asad administration, tentative steps toward economic liberalization have been instituted and in 2007 the country experienced a real economic growth rate of 3.5%.

Social problems. 'Alawis continue to be looked down upon by the Sunni Muslim majority. Their current good fortunes are largely due to the fact that an 'Alawi, Bashar al-Asad, is president of Syria. Any change in government resulting in a loss of 'Alawi power would probably reverse their situation and send them back to the struggling, persecuted poverty that they knew for so many centuries. In Turkey, where 'Alawis hold no political power, their situation is worse. The Turkish state does not even recognize them as a distinct ethno religious group from the Kurds.

Gender Issues. 'Alawi society is patriarchal in ways not dissimilar to most non-Western cultures around the world. Religiously, there are gender practices and rituals worth noting: for example, women are excluded from the priestly classes and are not allowed to participate in rituals intended to return the 'Alawis to their former existence as beacons of semidivine lights in the presence of God. This is justified by the belief that women are born of the devil. Some extreme 'Alawis even consider that women have no souls. On the other hand, Syria is a secular, quasi-socialist state where strict interpretations of Islam common in other parts of the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf and the Maghrib (western part of North Africa), are not adhered to. In this sense, women enjoy greater personal freedoms in Syria. They are highly visible in the public sphere, most do not cover their heads and, like all 'Alawis, are free to drink alcohol.


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—revised by J. Henry

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