An offshoot of Ismaʿilism.
Historically both the Druze and the Alawis are off-shoots of Ismaʿilism, which was an earlier split from the Shiʿite Imamis. The Shiʿia are distinguishable in important respects from the majority of Muslims, namely the orthodox Sunnis, who believe and accept the sunna (sayings and doings) of the prophet Muhammad, side by side with the Qurʾan, as their main source of inspiration. Although the Sunnis generally have endorsed the caliphate as the legitimate head of political and religious power, the Shiʿite Imamis have by and large rejected the caliph's claim to leadership, recognizing instead Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the fourth caliph and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as their first imam, or politicoreligious leader, and his two sons Hasan and Husayn as, respectively, the second and third imams. Starting with Ali, the Shiʿia leadership progressed through a line of twelve imams, the last of which mysteriously vanished in 878. As such, the twelfth imam is known as the hidden imam.
The Ismaʿilis broke with the Shiʿite Imamis over the issue of the succession to the sixth imam Ismaʿil (d. 760), from whom they claimed to be the legitimate descendants. What historically distinguished the Ismaʿilis from the other more orthodox Shiʿia was their secrecy and their belief in the inner and allegorical meanings of the Qurʾan. The mainstream Shiʿia, by contrast, held the view of the infallible imam who can guide the community to the right path and who possesses that unique power to interpret the scriptures. Both the Druze and Alawis maintain doctrines close to Ismaʿilism.
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. An accepted reference on their initial rites and doctrines was published in Aleppo in 1859 as Kitab al-Majmu. According to its author, Sulayman al-Adhani, the Nusayris, like other sects of the Syrian mountains on the Mediterranean, primarily believed in the transmigration of souls. He also argues that the term Nusayri is traceable to Abu Shuʿayb Muhammad (ibn Nusayr al-Abdi al-Bakri al-Namri), who in turn acted as the bab (communicator) of Hasan al-Askari (d. 874), the eleventh Shiʿite imam.
It remains uncertain, however, whether any of the historical genealogy and doctrine propounded in the Kitab is still held by the majority of Alawis today. Since the French mandate over Syria (1920–1946), the term Nusayri has 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 Shiʿias. In 1936 a body of Alawi ulama officially declared that "the Alawis are nothing but partisans of the imam Ali . . . the cousin, son-inlaw, and executor (wasi) of the Messenger." That position was reiterated in a similar ulama declaration in 1973, three years after Syrian president Hafiz alAsad (r. 1970–2000), himself an Alawi, came to power.
Today most Alawis 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 10 percent of the population, have they gained a political status. Although some had been members of the original Syrian army after the French mandate, and more took positions with al-Baʿth in 1963, it was only under President Asad that their power consolidated. Out of the thirty-one officers whom Asad handpicked 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 socioeconomic status of the Alawis within the Syrian community at large, however, does not seem to have improved much in the last few decades.
see also asad, hafiz al-; ismaʿili shiʿism; shiʿism.
Batatu, Hanna. Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Updated by Zouhair Ghazzal