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According to some scholars, this term comes from the Arab word alawi, which means "descendant of Ali"; others contend that it comes from the Turkish alev, which means "flame." The Alawite cult seems to be of remote Ismaʿili origin, when in the ninth century the Abbasid Dynasty began to decline in Syria and southern Turkey. Its leader, Muhammad ibn Nusair al-Namir, was a Persian contemporary of the Eleventh Shiʿite Imam, Hasan al-Askari, preacher of an extremist faith in Ali. The Alawites, or Nusaris, practiced an initiatory religion that resembled early Gnostic Christianity and Babylonian rites. The Alawite calendar included Sunni, Shiʿite, and Christian holidays. The Alawite faith was characterized by its secret nature: The basic tenets of the faith were in the keeping of a small group of the devout, belonging to the Majlis al-Shuyur (Community Council). Attached to a principle of the Trinity identical to that of Christianity, the Alawite faith identified each of its members with a heavenly body, such as the Sun or the Moon, or with an animal.

Historically, the Alawites were divided into five sects—Khamaria, Shamsia, Ghabiya, Murchidiya, and Haidaria; and were grouped into six main tribes—Khayyatium, Shamsin, Raslan, Khalbiyya, Haddadium (Haddadin), and Matura-Nomilatia (Matawira). Treated for decades like traitors or apostates, the Alawite tribes went to live by themselves, isolated from the rest of Syria. They developed, accordingly, a systematic practice of hermeticism and of taqiya, which allowed them to say they were close to one or another current, so as to protect themselves from any inquisition, an attitude that engendered suspicion and incredulity in the Muslim community. In 1920 France, which had a mandate over Syria, decided on the creation of an autonomous Alawite territory, and in 1952 the Islamic Jafarite Association gained the Alawites recognition by the Syrian state as Shiʿite Muslims.

SEE ALSO Shiʿite; Taqiya.