The Alawites are a religious minority that lives mostly on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Elite Alawites have been the dominating force in the Syrian government throughout the Assad family’s rule of the country, though most of the Alawite population lives in poverty.
Despite the fact that much information has circulated about the religious sect in recent years, the Alawites tend to keep many of their core beliefs and practices secret from outsiders. This article will explore the Alawite beliefs and history of the Alawites.
Who Are the Alawites?
The Alawites are a religious minority of Syria. Most Alawites are located on the Mediterranean coast of the country, and specifically in the coastal Latakia region of Syria. Alawites can also be found in areas outside of the Syrian cities of Homs. There are also significant Alawite communities in Turkey’s Hatay Province and Antioch region, and in northern Lebanon.
The Alawites form the main religious group on Syria’s coast, though these areas are also populated by Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Ismailis. The Alawites make up around 10 percent of Syria’s population. They are the second most populous religious group in Syria behind Sunni Muslims, who make up 75 percent of Syria’s population.
The Alawites have been the dominant political power in Syria since the Assad family took power in 1970. Many Muslims in Syria consider the Alawite sect as heretical, especially since the violence that has erupted between the Alawite government and the Sunni Muslim majority. Despite the Alawite presence in Syria’s political elite, most Alawite communities in Syria tend to be impoverished.
There were reportedly 185,000 Alawites living in Turkey in 1970, but the number today is unknown. Both Turkish and Syrian Alawites tend to speak the same dialect of Levantine Arabic, though younger generations of Turkish Alawites living in urban areas tend to speak the Turkish language.
An estimated 40,000 Alawites live in Lebanon, with many living in Tripoli and the village of Ghajar, which is a part of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Beliefs of the Alawites
Throughout their history, the Alawites called themselves the “Ansaris” and “Nusayri.” However, Syrian Alawite intellectuals dropped this name for “Alawi” during the French occupation, in the 1920s. Alawi translates to “those who adhere to the teachings of Ali.”
Modern Alawites have condemned their former name of “Nusayri,” with some considering it an insult. The term is frequently used in hate speech by Sunni Muslims when referring to the Alawites and their role fighting for the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War.
Alawites keep many of their specific practices and beliefs secret to outsiders. However, throughout the 21st century, advancements have been made in understanding Alawite theology. The Alawite’s belief system incorporates ideas from Islamic, Gnostic, neo-Platonic, and Christian practices, even celebrating some Muslim and Christian holidays. Let’s see how Alawite practices look more in depth.
The Profession of Religion for the Alawites
Alawites consider themselves a separate sect apart from Shi’a Muslims and do not practice the central duties of Islam. Rather, they see the Pillars of Islam as symbolic.
While strict Muslims are taught to completely abstain from consuming alcohol, for example, Alawites are allowed to drink and use wine in many of their religious rituals, including a secretive form of Mass that is exclusively performed by Alawite males.
Reincarnation is an important part of the belief system, as Alawites believe themselves to have originated from stars that were sent down from the heavens due to their disobedience. In order to redeem themselves and access heaven, they must go through repeated reincarnations.
Alawites believe that they can reincarnate as Christians or adherents of other religions if they sin, or even take the form of animals that are “haram”, or illicit. Some Alawites believe that their God reincarnated twice. First, as Joshua, the conqueror of Canaan, and second, as the fourth Caliph, Ali.
With regards to that, Alawites celebrate Ali — the cousin and son in law of the Prophet Mohammad — as a divine deity and member of the holy trinity.
History of the Alawites
The Alawites’ belief system derives from the teachings of Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr an-Namīrī. Nusayr declared himself to be the rightful successor after the death of the XI Imam, Hasan-al Askari. He claimed that he was taught some secrets from Askari before his death. Nusayr and his followers were excommunicated from the region by the Shia leaders of the XII Hidden Imam.
While some scholars claim that the Alawites are descendants of the eleventh Imam Hasan-al Askari’s followers, others have speculated that they may descend from ancient Middle Eastern tribes, such as the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites, and Mardaites. Some other tribes descended from settlers who came to the region in the 13th century.
The Alawites were officially organized by Ḥusayn ibn Ḥamdān al-Khaṣībī during the Ḥamdānid dynasty (947 – 1008 AD), at a time when the Alawite sect had significant influence in the city of Aleppo.
After taking hold in Aleppo, the Alawites religion spread to Sarmin, Salamiyah, Homs, and Hama. It also spread to villages to the west, such as Baarin, Deir Shamil, and Deir Mama, the Wadi al-Uyun valley, and the Mountains surrounding Tartus and Safita.
– The Spread of the Alawite Teachings
The Alawite teachings became more concrete and defined under the Alawite missionary Abu Sa’id Maymun al-Tabarani, who was al- Khasibi’s grandson. After moving to Latakia (modern day coastal Syria), in the Byzantine Empire, al-Tabarani began converting rural peoples living in the mountains of coastal Syria, published numerous writings, created the Alawite calendar, and made the Alawite belief system more structured.
During the Mamluk period, from the 13th to the 16th century, the southern region of the Syrian coastal mountains saw a significant growth in its Alawite population. Some evidence has pointed to the killing of Alawites by the Crusaders in 1097 AD.
When they learned that the Alawites were not Muslims, they became much more tolerant, and even allowed Alawites to join some ranks of the Crusader armies.
The Alawites were heavily persecuted on a regular basis under the rule of the Ottomans. During the reign of Selim I, the Alawite population living in Aleppo culminated in a massacre in the Great Mosque of Aleppo in 1517. The massacre, called the “Massacre of the Telal,” resulted in thousands of dead Alawites.
This massacre caused much of the city’s Alawite population to flee to the coastal region. The Alawites fell under constant persecution by the Ottoman Empire even in subsequent centuries. For their part, the Turks continuously tried to convert them to Sunni Islam. Most Alawite communities tried to stay isolated in the coastal mountains to avoid this kind of persecution.
– The Alawites in the 19th Century
Throughout the 19th century, the leaders of Alawite communities were often employed as tax collectors by the Ottoman government. From 1809 to 1813, the Alawites were attacked by Mustafa Afha Barber of Tripoli with immense brutality.
Many Alawites participated in the Ottoman military during the Egyptian-Ottoman wars of the 1830s. This included the Alawite revolt of 1834 and 1835, where communities throughout Syria rose up against Egyptian rule. Let’s take a look at a significant episode in more detail.
– The 1834 Clashes Between Egypt and the Alawites
In 1834, 4,000 Alawites attacked a column of Egyptian soldiers in route to Latakia from Aleppo, delivering a large amount of casualties. The clash resulted in an Egyptian retreat. The Alawites then continued on to Latakia where they destroyed government buildings, captured tax money, and released Ottoman-aligned prisoners.
The commander of the Egyptian artillery corps, Salim Beg, responded by attacking Alawite communities in the mountains with immense brutality. Livestock and Alawite men were captured, villages were burned, and Alawite leaders were executed.
As the Egyptian military sent even more reinforcements to the mountains, the Alawites had initial defensive success, capturing and executing 500 Egyptian Druze soldiers. Eventually, though, the Alawite defenders were overrun by Egyptian troops, and many Alawite men were captured and conscripted into the Egyptian military.
The Egyptians burned and pillaged numerous Alawite villages. The revolt lasted for a total length of eight months, during which the Ottoman government sent no aid to the Alawite fighters.
– The Fall of the Alawites
Between 1840 and 1880, there was enormous tension between Alawite tribes and the Ottoman government. In 1854, the governor of Latakia was killed by Qardaha-based Alawites. This killing led to more Alawite violence against the Ottoman government, which often responded brutally.
By the 1870s, there were several reported instances of heads of Alawite bandits being displayed on Ottoman roads, serving as a warning against future resistance. Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Alawites had become a destitute, poor society that had no influence in local politics.
Following the end of World War I, the regions of Syria and Lebanon where Alawites lived were placed under the French mandate. In December 1918, Alawite leaders met in the town of Al-Shaykh Badr, where they discussed putting up armed resistance to expel the French from Syria.
French authorities found out about the meeting and sent troops to arrest the Alawite leader Saleh al-Ali. Al-Ali and his Alawite troops ambushed the French, inflicting over 35 casualties and causing them to flee. Al-Ali then began to organize an Alawite military force to put up further armed resistance against the French.
– The French Occupation
Numerous anti-French revolts continued across Syria following Al-Ali’s successful ambush. The Alawites successfully besieged and occupied the town of al-Qadmus. However, in November of 1919, the French General Henri Gourard launched a successful campaign against the Alawites, eventually entering Al-Ali’s village and forcing him to flee.
This ended the Alawite revolt, as the vast majority of the Alawite population began to favor French rule in the region. As the French began to occupy Syria throughout 1920, many ethno-religious groups were given different regions in Syria, which included an Alawite state.
The purpose of giving the Alawites a state was to protect and separate them from the powerful Sunni Muslim majority. During this period, many Alawites tried to diplomatically expand the privileges of the Alawite state, including by asking for the possibility to form an independent nation, but to no avail.
The Alawite State was made up of a large Sunni population in the port city of Latakia, while the rural areas mostly consisted of Alawites. During this period of relative peace and stability, most Alawites were still very poor, with many traveling to Latakia to work for wealthier Sunni Muslims.
Alawites became a significant part of the Syrian Armed Forces during this period. The French actively encouraged Alawite presence in the military to offset the more abundant Sunni Muslims, who tended to be more hostile towards French rule.
– Towards the Syrian Independence
There was a significant Alawite, Arab, and Armenian population in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, a district north of the Alawite state. In 1939, the French assigned it to the Turkish government, which resulted in the expulsion of these dominant groups from the region. There was significant resistance to the Turkish annexation among the region’s Alawites.
Following World War II, Sulayman al-Murshid played an important role in making the Alawite’s province a part of Syria. He was executed in Damascus by the Syrian government in 1946.
Following Syria’s independence in 1946, multiple military coups occurred, and the Ba’ath Party gradually elevated its influence in the Syrian government. In 1963, a small military committee that included two Alawite officers conducted a coup that officially brought the Ba’ath party to power over the Syrian government. In 1966, a group of Alawite-aligned military officers expelled much of the Ba’ath party’s old guard, reinstating a new reincarnation of the party under Zaki al-Arsuzi.
– The Rise of the Assad Family
The Alawites have become dominant in Syrian politics since the Assad family came to power in 1970. In 1970 Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite Air Force General, seized power of the Syrian government in a coup.
Al-Assad had been in effective control of the Syrian military since 1969, but Salah Jadid held executive control of the Syrian government. Al-Assad’s military power overtook Jadid’s political power in a bloodless coup that captured very little attention from the international community.
This coup shocked much of the Syrian population, as the Sunni majority had a monopoly on executive power in the country for centuries. It was unthinkable to many Syrians that a member of the Alawites — considered poverty-stricken outsiders of Syrian society — could rise to supreme power over the country.
In 1971, Assad declared himself president of Syria even though the constitution required the position be held only by Sunni Muslims. Assad converted the Sunni Muslim country into a secular one, which caused widespread unrest through Syria’s Sunni population. While Assad’s regime was marked by relative religious tolerance, Assad brutally put down political dissention against his rule.
During the Muslim revolts and insurgencies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, many Alawites were specifically targeted and killed by insurgents. These revolts culminated in the 1982 Hama Massacre, where the Assad government brutally put down an uprising conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War that began in 2011 has led to the death of a significant number of Alawites, as they have supported the Assad government against Sunni rebel groups. It is estimated that up to a third of the country’s male Alawite population has died fighting in the conflict.
Syrian society is in ruins a decade after the civil war began in 2011. With abysmal unemployment rates and food shortages, the Alawite community, who sacrificed thousands of lives for the Assad regime, has immense feelings of betrayal because of the lack of aid given to them by the Syrian government.
It should be noted that, although the Syrian government is dominated by Alawites, the overwhelming majority of Syria’s Alawite population still lives in poverty, with little economic opportunity. However, Syrian Alawites are still faithful to the government, as they fear for their peoples’ existence if Sunni Muslims take power in the country.
We have explored many parts of the Alawite religious sect. Let’s go over the main components:
- The Alawite people are located predominantly on the Syrian coast.
- Despite being a religious minority in the country, the Syrian government has been controlled by the Alawite dynasty under the rule of the Assad family.
- The Alawites tend to be secretive and don’t share their core beliefs and practices with outsiders.
- The Alawites have had a long history of persecution and oppression under the rulers of Syria, along with clashes with Sunni Muslims.
The Alawites, despite making up a small proportion of the country’s population, continue to be a major religious and political force in Syria. Conversely, despite the presence of Alawites in the ruling elite, most Alawites tend to be poor and lacking access to political power.
The Syrian Civil War that engulfed the region throughout the 2010s has brought immense misery and death to the Alawite population. To this day, many Alawites fear that their peoples’ existence could be in jeopardy if they lose power of the country.