The Druze, a secretive religious sect that is spread throughout Syria, Israel, and Lebanon, is a prominent religious minority in the Levant.
Despite their proclivity to live in tight-knit communities on the periphery of Arab and Israeli society, they are deeply loyal to the countries they reside in.
In this article, we will explore the beliefs of the Druze people and their history in the Middle East.
Who Are the Druze?
There are around one million Druze as of 2020, with the overwhelming majority living in Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. Adherents to the Druze faith are not permitted to share the belief system with outsiders, so not much detail is known about Druze beliefs.
The Druze faith was largely derived from the Ismaili Islam of the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt during the 11th century. the religion combines Muslim, Jewish, and Christian influences, as well as many concepts from Ancient Greek philosophy.
History of the Druze
Druze traditions date back to the 11th century, incorporating ideas from Hinduism, Islam, and Greek philosophy. The Druze belief system originally derived from the Isma’ili school of Shia Islam, which was the primary state religion of Egypt from the 10th to 12th centuries.
The Druze religion is thought to have originated in Egypt around the year 1017 A.D. when the region was controlled by the Fatimid Caliphate. The Isma’ili school of Shia Islam was a growing religious force in the region during this period. Inherent in the Isma’ili belief system was the returning of the “Mahdi,” a divine messenger of God who would one day return to Earth.
The sixth Caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate, Al-Hakim bi-Amrih Alla, declared himself the Mahdi. He was initially met with opposition from Muslims of the region and attempts by the preacher al-Akhram to propagate Al-Hakim as the Mahdi was unsuccessful.
Hamza ibn ‘Alī took over as the primary propagator of Al-Hakim’s status as Mahdi. With the help of many prominent preachers and theologians from Cairo, he began to slowly build a loyal group of followers called the “unitarians.” Gradually many Isma’ili leaders throughout the region began accepting Al-Hakim as the Mahdi. Hamza laid down many of the foundations of the Druze religion and wrote many of its sacred texts.
A disciple of Hamza named al-Darazi began to follow his own ambitions as a leader of the movement and began to act independently of Hamza. He was able to fragment the movement by winning over many of Hamza’s loyal followers. Al-Darazi was killed in 1020, and despite his attempts at fracturing the growing movement, his name would be adopted as the name of the religion, “Druze.”
During the last year of his life, Caliph Al-Hakim was known for erratic, strange behavior, which gave the Druze a reputation for being bizarre and cult-like. Al-Hakim was a brutal ruler, who ordered the killing of thousands of Jews and Christians throughout the region.
Al-Hakim disappeared in 1021 under mysterious circumstances, with some believing he was assassinated.
Following Al-Hakim’s disappearance the Druze came under considerable persecution by the new government of the region and went into hiding near Mount Hermon in Syria, and then steadily began to make their primary base of operations in the mountainous regions south of Beirut in Lebanon.
In 1043 Druze leaders made the fateful decision to close off the religion to conversion, meaning one could only be born into the religion by blood. However, before 1043 preachers and missionaries had made great progress in spreading the Druze doctrine throughout the region. During this period Druze preachers spread the religion well beyond Egypt, making some conversions as far as India.
Throughout the early 11th century in Syria, many Arab tribes converted to the Druze religion, including the Tannūkh of the Lakhm tribe, the ‘Abdallāhs of the Gharb region, the Sulaymāns of Wādī al-Taym and the Turābs of Galilee. The Tannūkh, who were a branch of the Lakhm tribe, was the first Arab tribe in Syria to adhere to the Druze religion. Since the 7th century, the Tannūkh resided in northern Syria, western Lebanon, and the region surrounding the city of Beirut.
These tribes converted to Islam during the Arabic conquests of the 7th century and eventually began to adhere to the Druze faith during the early 11th century.
During the Middle Ages the two most prominent families of the Tannūkh tribe, the Arslāns, and Buhturs, would take turns leading the Syrian Druze community. The Arslāns were located predominantly in Beirut and in the mountainous regions surrounding the town.
They actively defended Arab territory in the region against the Crusaders throughout the 12th century. When much of the Arslān family was killed by a Frankish attack on Beirut and its surrounding areas, the Buhtur family took over the leadership of the Druze community.
The Seljuk Turkish governor of Damascus sent the Arab Ma’n clan to the region south of Mount Lebanon to help defend the Tannūkh Druze, as they had been greatly weakened by the fight against the Franks.
The two tribes quickly intermarried and formed strong family ties. Other Druze families, including the Nakad and Talhuq families, increasingly moved to the region as well. This Druze community found itself in the precarious situation of being on the border between Ayyubid Muslim-controlled Damascus and Frankish-controlled Beirut.
During the 14th century, power struggle in the region between the Mughals and Mamluks, the Druze sided with the Mamluks. The Druze community played a significant role in the battles against Tamburlaine in 1401 A.D. and in the Mamluk invasion of Frankish Cyprus in 1425. These Druze communities enjoyed great prosperity under the control of the Mamluks, as Beirut increasingly became a flourishing city in the region.
The Ottoman Turks took over the region from the Mamluks during the 16th century. The Ottoman invaders experienced stiff resistance from the Ma’n Druze in the Shūf region south of Beirut.
Emir Fakhr al-Dīn II
Emir Fakhr al-Dīn II proved to be a skilled diplomat, which greatly helped him maintain his territory in the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman-loyal governors of Damascus and Tripoli began to threaten his control in the region, he made a strategic alliance with the governor of Aleppo. He also formed close trade alliances with European Mediterranean countries. Beirut, Sidon, and Acre became prominent port cities during his reign.
After a visit to Tuscany, Fakhr al-Dīn brought back many new European inventions and technologies to the region, which helped him make progress in modernizing his urban centers and making agriculture projects more efficient. He also introduced the European feudal system of landlords and peasants to his population.
Despite Fakhr al-Dīn’s adherence to the Druze faith, his rule was especially secular and religiously tolerant. During his rule, both the Druze and the Christian Maronites coexisted peacefully in the Mount Lebanon area. Throughout this economically prosperous period, Druze landlords increasingly invited Christians to settle on their lands, and many quickly rose up through the socioeconomic ladder.
Fakhr al-Dīn’s territory quickly became one of the most prosperous in the Levant, and the Ottoman government increasingly felt threatened by the possibility of an independence movement taking hold in the region. The Ottoman military sent a large force to the region to overthrow Fakhr, who chose to abdicate his power. He was condemned to death in Constantinople in 1635.
The rule of Fakhr al-Dīn II not only marked the golden age for the Druze faith in the Levant but also laid the foundation for the modern Lebanese state. The fall of Fakhr al-Dīn II marked a steady decline of Druze’s influence and economic prosperity in the region.
Internal Power Struggle
The Druze community was greatly weakened by the loss of Fakhr al-Dīn, and upon the last Ma’n emir’s death in 1697 a violent power struggle ensued between the Qaysite and Yemenite families. This unrest culminated with a Qaysite victory at the 1711 Battle of Ayn Dara, which prompted a mass exodus of Yamanites from the Shūf region south of Beirut.
Most of these migrants moved into the Mountains of Hawrān in modern-day Syria, which would later be called the Mountain of the Druze.
The victorious Qaysite family then split due to internal unrest into the Yazbakis and Jumblattis. These two opposing factions are the two main Druze political parties in Lebanon today. The Shihab family used this internal unrest to come to power in the Shūf region, and greatly diminished Druze influence in Lebanon by converting to Christianity in 1764.
Bashir Shihab II rose to power as a Maronite emir during the late 18th century and immediately set out to weaken the Yazbaki and Jumblatti Druze factions in the region. In 1825 his forces defeated Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt, who was exiled from the region and later executed in the city of Acre.
Bashir Shihab then made an alliance with the governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Basha. In 1830 Shihab assisted Basha in the Egyptian occupation of modern-day Syria, which caused Egypt to allow Shihab to retain uncontested control of Lebanon.
This relationship began to sour when the Egyptian government began imposing heavy taxes on the Lebanese Druze and forcing conscription of the Lebanese population into the Egyptian military. This prompted a revolt across both the Lebanese and Syrian populations against the regimes of Shihab and Basha.
This brought Druze-Maronite tensions to an all-time high, as the Druze population increasingly felt persecuted by Shihab’s Maronite government. Due to the growing unrest that threatened stability in the region, the Ottoman army invaded Syria in 1840 and forced Shihab into exile.
The Ottoman government took advantage of the exile of Shihab and seized direct control of Lebanon. As a violent civil war broke out between the Druze and Maronites in 1841, the Ottoman government divided Lebanon into two administrative districts for the two factions.
However, the drawn borders of the districts left many Maronites in the Druze district, and vice-versa. This further exacerbated the conflict, as Maronite farmers increasingly rebelled against the Druze landowners. The civil war took on another dimension during the late 1850s when the British began to send aid to the Druze, while the French increasingly backed the Maronites.
The conflict officially ended when the Ottoman government decided to combine the two districts under the control of a non-Lebanese Christian ruler. This began a gradual socioeconomic ascendancy of Christian Maronites through Lebanese society. Despite this threat to Druze prosperity in the region, the Druze responded peacefully, and a healthy coexistence between the two groups enveloped the Mount Lebanon region.
European Protestant missionaries increasingly made a presence in Lebanon, and Christianity began to flourish in the country. During this period the Druze also flourished, making great contributions to Lebanese literature, art, and science.
The World Wars
In 1914 the Ottoman government joined the Central Powers in World War I. Throughout the conflict, the Lebanese population was ravaged by famine and land confiscations by the Ottoman government. The Druze increasingly fled to western Syria during the war.
Following the Allied victory of the conflict, the overwhelming majority of the Druze population hoped for Arab leadership in the region and protested British and French occupation of Lebanon and Syria. However, following the Arab defeat at the 1920 Battle of Maysalūn, the two countries became part of the French Mandate. The French Mandate heavily favored the Christian Maronite population, as they were increasingly given political power over the Druze.
In 1923 the French governor of the Jabal ad-Durūz province in Southern Syria began passing many administrative reforms that targeted the Druze population. As reactionary unrest began to envelop the region throughout 1925, many Druze leaders were arrested, which caused a Druze armed rebellion across Syria. The Druze initially won victories against the French occupational forces, which caused many Syrian nationalists to join their ranks.
The revolt quickly took control of Damascus and the city was bombed by the French. However, the rebels retained control of the city and spread their movement into southern Lebanon. The French gradually began defeating the rebels, and by 1927 the rebellion ended.
Following the quelling of the rebellion, the French put southern Syria under more strict control, as officials were appointed by the French government instead of being elected by the population.
Throughout the interwar period, the Druze increasingly made a presence in Lebanese nationalist movements. During the early French defeats of the Second World War, the Lebanese government wrote its own constitution despite threats from French authorities.
Throughout 1943 leaders of the Lebanese government, including many Druze, were arrested by French authorities. However, widespread protests throughout the country and British diplomatic pressure forced the French to release the prisoners. Lebanon formally declared its independence on November 22, 1943.
Beliefs and Practices of the Druze
Despite Druze being their official name, most Druze communities prefer the name “Muwahhidun”, which translates to “unitarians.” This is because the name Druze has historically been used as an insult by enemies of the Druze. The name Druze is derived from the name of Muhammad al-Darazi, who was largely condemned by the Druze community.
The Druze community is very secretive, though in the past few decades tremendous progress has been made in learning about their beliefs and practices.
Even many in the Druze community are forbidden to read the six holy books of the religion. The “uqqual” (the enlightened) are the members of a community that are allowed to read the holy books, acting as an intermediary between God and the rest of their community.
Those besides the uqqual, the “juhhal”, (the unenlightened) are given moral guidelines to live by instead of the direct scripture from the holy books.
The Druze believe that God is above all attributes and is considered wise, just, and pure solely by his own essence. The Druze have several prophets from various religions, including both Jesus and the Prophet Muhammed, as well as Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates.
Despite the Druze religion’s roots in the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, the Druze do not consider themselves Muslims. They do not adhere to the five pillars of Islam and do not follow religious Muslim holidays.
Reincarnation is a core component of the Druze belief system, as they believe that the soul cannot exist without being in a physical body. Unlike Hindu and Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation, the soul can only exist in human bodies and cannot exist in animals or other non-human beings. The Druze also believe that during reincarnation the person retains their gender.
People are reincarnated continuously until they reach purification when they are united with the “Cosmic Mind” and achieve eternal happiness. The Druze believe that someone is sent to hell when they are unable to reach this purification.
They have often blended in with other religious groups to avoid persecution and maintain secrecy using the custom of “taqiyya,” or blending in with the majority religion of a region.
Many Druze people living under Muslim regimes have claimed to be Muslim, and there have been occurrences of Druze stating they were Christian to missionaries from Europe. In recent years throughout the 21st century, the Druze have been specifically targeted by Islamic extremists.
The Druze are a tight-knit group and rarely marry outside of their ethnoreligious group, with some conservative Druze stating that if a Druze marries outside of the religion they relinquish their status as a Druze. While divorce within Druze communities is generally frowned upon, it is usually allowed.
The Druze are bound to much less ceremony and obligations than other religions. There are no specified holy days or other obligations, as the Druze believe that they should be connected with God at all times. The Druze usually meet on Thursday nights for weekly religious services.
The most prominent religious sanctuary for the Druze is the Khalwat-al Bayada located near Hasbaya, Lebanon. The sanctuary has great historical significance for the religion, as it is where Ad-Darazi began preaching the Druze faith. Visitors must be granted permission from Lebanese Druze leaders before entering the sanctuary.
Druze in the Middle East Today
There are around 800,000 Druze living in the Middle East today, mostly residing in Syria and Lebanon. There are also smaller communities in Israel and Jordan. The most densely populated Druze areas include southern Mount Lebanon, Mount Huran, Mount Hermon, the Idlib area, the Galilean hills, and Mount Carmel.
Their location in these mountainous regions on the outskirts of Arab society has not only offered them considerable protection from forced conversion and military conquest but also helped them remain relatively secretive to outsiders.
The Druze make up around 5.5 percent of Syria’s population and have played a role in many of the country’s military affairs throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Druze played a significant role in the 1925-1927 revolt against French colonial authorities, which earned them significant prestige in the Syrian military upon the country’s independence.
However, this power in the military greatly declined when the Alawite Assad family took power of the country in the early 1970s, though since 2011 most Druze have sided with the Assad government during the Syrian Civil War.
The Druze make up 3 percent of Lebanon’s population. Even though the Druze do not consider themselves Muslims, they are classified as one of the country’s five Muslim communities by the Lebanese government.
Israel has a tight-knit community of Druze that makes up around 1.6 percent of the country’s population. They mostly reside in the northernmost parts of the country and are largely looked at favorably by Israel’s Jewish population.
This friendly relationship between the Druze and Jews in Israel largely stems from their role in the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, when most Druze communities sided with Israel in fighting their Arab neighbors. Druze communities were often armed by the Israeli Defense Force, though they much preferred to maintain peaceful neutrality between Jews and Arabs.
Many Israeli Druze are conscripted into the military, making them the only Arabs in the IDF. For four decades there was a Druze infantry unit in the Israeli military called the Herev, though this unit was dissolved in 2015 in order to fully assimilate the Druze throughout the IDF. Israel has gone to great lengths to separate the Druze national identity from the Arab world and assimilate them into the Israeli population.
In 2018 mass protests broke out throughout Israel’s Druze communities due to the Israeli government’s passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law, which declared Israel as a solely Jewish nation. Though this law was only declarative, it removed Arabic from its official languages.
Many religious minorities throughout Israel condemned the law, protesting that the law made the country’s non-Jewish population second-class citizens. The Druze were especially fervent in their protest due to a large number of their people that have shed blood serving in the Israeli armed forces.
The role of women in the religion is conflicted, as many Druze have historically been well educated and were able to own property. However, women lack freedom in religion in many other ways, as they have very little freedom in matters of marriage or sex.
Women must be married by 21 and sexual activity outside of marriage is strictly forbidden. The punishments for women’s sexual activity can be especially severe. Doctors are forbidden from operating on women, as their bodies are considered sacred in the Druze faith.
Druze Communities in the U.S.
A large wave of Druze immigrants moved to the United States in the early 20th century. An estimated 30,000-40,000 Druze live in the United States. The exact number of Druze living in the U.S. is not known because many practices their religion in secret while publicly claiming Christianity as their religion.
Many American Druze have gradually moved away from the strict tenants of their religion, including its prohibition of intermarriage and homosexuality. American Druze leaders have combatted this by establishing Druze religious events throughout the country to solidify the faith of American adherents of the faith.
The largest American Druze communities live in Michigan, Washington, and New England. Other Druze communities are found elsewhere throughout the world, including Australia, Canada, Europe, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and West Africa.
We have covered many aspects of the Druze people and their belief system.
Let’s go over the main ideas:
- Around one million Druze exist today, mostly residing in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.
the Druze emerged during the 11th century in Fatimid Egypt, deriving from preachers of Ismaili Shia Islam.
- Druzism has influences from the Abrahamic religions, as well as Ancient Greek philosophy.
- The Druze are a tight-knit, secretive religious community and are secretive of their belief system.
- The Druze have historically had a strong presence in the militaries of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.
Despite playing important roles throughout Israeli, Lebanese, and Syrian society, the Druze population of the Middle East has largely been left in the periphery of society. However, their rich tight-knit communities and rich history in the region has made them one of the most prominent religious minorities of the modern Middle East.