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Confusion About Syria’s Alawites

Submitted by on March 29, 2011 – 4:18 pm 8 Comments |  
Alawite MapNews stories about the recent demonstrations and reprisals in Syria routinely mention that the country’s government is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, but rarely describe Alawite beliefs and practices. Many mention only that the Alawites form a minority in primarily Sunni Syria, sometimes noting that the Alawite faith stems from Shi’ite Islam. A March 25, 2011 Guardian lesson on the “20 Things You Need to Know about Syria” adds that the Alawites are “a secretive religious sect usually regarded as an offshoot of Shia Islam.” In fact, all accounts agree that the Alawite sect grew out of Shi’ite Islam. What is highly controversial is whether Alawites today are Shi’ite Muslims, or indeed, any kind of Muslims at all. Hard-line Sunni fundamentalists often insist that Alawites are not just unbelievers, but are guilty of the unforgivable sin of shirk (polytheism or idolatry).

The controversies surrounding the Alawites focus on their theology. One school of Islamic thought holds that the faith is an unusual variant of Shiite Islam, yet still falls within the bounds of respectability. Those who emphasize the Muslim nature of the Alawites maintain that their aberrant practices have been exaggerated, and, more importantly, that they have been moving in the direction of orthodoxy over the past several decades. Others, however, stress the sect’s historically divergent beliefs and cast doubt on the recent transformation, regarding it largely as an example of taqiyya, or the practice of concealing one’s true faith to avoid persecution.

The Wikipedia article on the Alawite sect lays out the basic arguments about its status in Islam. Those who stress its heterodox nature emphasize the Alawite tenet that the “esoteric, allegorical” meanings of the Qur’an override its literal readings.  They likewise point out that Alawites “celebrate certain Christian festivals ‘in their own way,’ including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and their religious ceremonies make use of bread and wine.” The article avoids mention, however, of the more irregular aspects often purported to Alawite belief, which are recounted in a number of websites devoted to orthodox Islam. As TurnToIslam frames it:

“Alawi doctrine is a mixture of Islamic, Gnostic and Christian beliefs. Some Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. The Alawis possess a range of distinctive doctrines which have led them to be treated as heretics and non-Muslims.”

The article goes on to enumerate these supposedly “distinctive doctrines,” including “rejection of the Qur’an,” “rejection of the five pillars of Islam,” “belief in incarnation,” “disbelief in resurrection,” and faith in astrology. It further maintains:

“The Alawis believe that all persons were stars in the world of light but fell from here due to disobedience. They believe they must be reincarnated seven times before they once again return to the stars where Ali is prince. A good Alawi will assume a better form after his death than a bad Alawi. The Alawis claim that the Milky Way is in fact the deified souls of the true believers. The less pious souls require more transformations. If an Alawi is sinful, he will be reborn as a Chrsitian [sic] until his atonement is complete. A bad Alawi will definitely assume a better form than a non-Alawi. Infidels will be reborn as animals.”

A number of English-language Islamic discussion boards have tackled the topic of Alawite standing within the faith (for instance, see the 2006 debate on ShiaChat). Appraisals are sometimes harsh. A denunciation of the Syrian-born critic of Islam Wafa Sultan in IslamicAwakening, for example, notes that her Alawite background “should explain everything – she was a Kafir from the beginning, never a Muslim.”

Whether or not most Alawites currently hold such decidedly non-Islamic tenets as reincarnation and “star-birth,” the crucial point here is that if significant numbers of Sunni fundamentalists believe this to be the case, the community could find itself in danger were the current Alawite-dominated government to fall. Extremists have targeted highly heterodox sects of Islam in many other parts of the world, and there is no reason to imagine they would not do so in Syria if opportunities arose. The repressive nature of the current Alawite-dominated regime, along with the periodic massacres** that it has perpetrated, would add fuel to the fire.

Some observers think that Syria’s government is incapable of riding out the current unrest. The New York Times reported on March 28, 2011 that a Western diplomat in Damascus, “speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol,” had flatly pronounced “it’s over; it’s just a question of time.” But considering the broader context outlined above, such a judgment may be premature. Not just the al-Assad clan but the entire Alawite Syrian political establishment has every incentive do everything possible to retain power. A relatively gentle Egyptian- or Tunisian-style political transformation, in other words, seems highly unlikely.

In this context, the demographic strength of the Alawites merits attention. The Guardian claims that the Alawis form a “tiny minority” of Syria’s population, yet the community numbers well over one million, or more than five percent of the country’s total population. Some sources posit much larger figures; the Wikipedia claims that “they were never estimated to be less than 20% of the Syrian population (which would be about 4 million people if true today).”* As many as 150,000 Alawites live in Lebanon, while Turkey may be home to 400,000 more. The sect might thus be regarded as small, but it is hardly “tiny.”

Syria’s Alawite community is concentrated in the geographically distinctive western coastal region, with a secondary concentration in Damascus. The Alawite region, unsurprisingly, has been a bulwark of the Assad regime. Yet recent anti-government protests in the coastal metropolis of Latakia—a mixed Sunni, Christian, and Alawite city—have been intense, and have been accompanied by bloodshed. A March 29 report from The Australian claimed that the city took on the appearance of a “ghost-town” after “unknown people in cars and on rooftops began shooting randomly at people…” According to the official Syrian news agency, most of the 200-odd people wounded in the attacks were government security personnel. Syrian officials blamed followers of the Qatar-based, media-savvy cleric, Youssef al-Qaradawi, as well as Palestinians from a nearby refugee camp. But many observers are skeptical. As The Australian reported:

“There is talk of possible attempts to divide residents who are members of the President’s minority Muslim Alawite sect—an offshoot of Shia Islam—and majority Sunni Muslims. One witness said groups of people had driven around Alawite-dominated villages on the city’s outskirts, spreading rumours that the Sunnis were about to attack them. ‘Then they drove to Sunni areas and told them the opposite.’”

*The same Wikipedia article also gives a figure of 1.35 million.

** In 1982, Syria’s former dictator, Hafez al-Assad – father of its current strongman – slaughtered some 10,000 people in the city of Hama in order to suppress an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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  • Brian Cavanaugh

    Very interesting article. I did not realize that this sect feel somewhere in the continuum between more traditional Islam, Christianity and Paganism. I also, had assumed, given the traditional support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, that it was more closely aligned with Iran’s Shia that it appears to be.

    It leaves me wondering why is it that Syria seemed so often in the past to support more traditional Shia (Hezbollah) in Lebanon against the Christian portion of the country, including the alleged assassination of Prime Minister Hariri? Might this have been simply to destabilize it’s neighbor, in order to make itself more powerful, or to put forward the appearance of supporting Islamic forces against non-Islamic forces to deflect attention to its own diversion from traditional Islam and greater similarity to Christianity (and Paganism)?

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this issue. Thanks.

    • Dvdamix

      Syria entered Lebanon in the 70th to help the government against armed Palestinians. Once in Lebanon it changed her strategy and fought against the central government of Lebanon and weakened it by sponsorising leftist armed groups.
      Hezbollah didn’t exist at that time, it began to be important years after the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
      During her hegemony on lebanon, Syria crushed all Maronites leaders and at the beginning of the 90th there were no more free government for Lebanon. Hariri, which is a Muslim Sunna, became PM for more than 10 years, being a Syrian and saoudian staunch ally.
      The opposition of the Syrian occupation was either in prison either in France, only students used to demonstrate against the PAX SIRIANA

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  • Abu Mahdi

    I’m very very shocked and upset when I watch the brutal youtube
    videos of syrian people get beat, sniped, and killed by the syrian
    regime. Lets get to the point.. What’s happening in Syria are crimes
    against all humanity that is planned and committed by the allawite
    regime. They force regular soldiers to shoot to kill protesters and if
    the soldier does not shoot then the overlooking allawite shabaha will
    shoot them in the head to set a fearful example, and that’s why so many
    non-allawite soldiers are defecting (because they don’t want blood on
    their hands). Go see the youtube videos on what the defecting soldiers
    are witnessing & saying. The truth is that the cowardly savage
    allawites kill women, children and innocent unarmed men without remorse.
    Shame on them and they should know in their wicked heart that one day
    they will eventually die and face the punishment from Allah for their
    war crimes! Remember what Allah planned for Kaddafi, his family and his
    brainwashed followers.. Allah is the best planner! May Basher, his
    regime, his worshippers go to hellfire with his pharoah dad insha’Allah.
    Isn’t it bad enough how many innocent civilians the allawate regime
    killed in Hama and now this….They are the lowest form of savages on
    earth. Allahu’Akbar alehum!

    PS. Go youtube the fatwa by Yousof Qaradawi on Kaddifi… In a
    nutshell, if a tyrant start killing his people then the Ummah should
    unite & execute him to stop the bloodshed of the innocent unarmed
    peaceful people. The same fatwa applies to Syria & Yemen… in
    addition to enforcing this fatwa, I believe the whole world should unite
    and pass a resolution calling it “Humans vs. Allawite savages” to stop
    the further bloodshed of innocent civilians… also, excuse me for being
    human and losing my temper when I see allawite savages kill unarmed
    children, women and men on youtube!!!

    • Guest

      If you believe that you believe anything
      Al Qaeda backed by CIA ate trying for regime change in Syria
      Protestors are not shot only armed gangs or people breaking curfew
      Assad is no more violent than Obama
      The American slaves Wahhabi Saudis and qatsris are behind this

      • Me

        Well said

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  • Nur ad Din Zangi

    When Sunni Muslims have upper hand through out History then they forgive all their enemies like Crusaders, Fatamids of Egypt, Hindus and Sikhs of India who killed millions of Muslims during 1947 Partition of India into Pakistan

    but why Sunni Muslims forgive their enemies who killed millions of Muslims and rape millions of Muslim women? I will tell you why because of Hypocrate Muslims inside the ranks of Muslims change the output of the Wars of Muslims

    Allah subhanoo wat’ala is going to change the future rule of Wars for Muslims…..
    Insh Allah and Ameen

    In Future Wars with Crusaders, Alawites, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs will not be taken as Prisoners as Allah give these pig Kafirs enough time to study and observe Islam and Muslims that Law of Allah that if enough time is given to Kafirs and they are invited to Religion of Islam and they rejected Message of Allah then they have to Die either through Earth Quakes or through any other ways which Allah ordered so Punishment on Kafirs not accepting Islam is Over Due…………

    • Syrian chick B)

      this post gave me cancer…- An alawite in lebanon

  • Boris Moscow

    Russia will support Assad not as alawi… we are still soviets! There is only one thing we believe…support all of our friends…anybody tells us we are good guys))) immediately receives money…weapon and a vote in UN

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