‘They have no religion’. This is the most common accusation labelled against the Alawis of Syria. Scorned by sectarian Sunnis and sometimes by orthodox Shi’a, the Alawis are seen as heretics. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat called them pagans. In reality, the Alawis have a complex, subtle and elegant religious system. When they are not being denounced for their heresy, the Alawis are confused with the Alevis, a mystical community located almost exclusively in Turkey that combines Shi’ism with elements of Sufism.

The Alawis of Syria were previously known as Nusayris, after ibn Nusayr, the founder of the sect. Ibn Nusayr emerged from Abbassid Iraq in the latter part of the ninth century. This was a period of ideological crisis. The Abbasid Caliphate was threatened by the Qarmations, an extremist Shi’a-Ismaili group bent on creating a utopian republic, as well as by the Zanj slave uprising. The religious atmosphere was thick with ghullat (‘exaggeration’ or ‘extremism’) theories ascribing divine characteristics to the members of the Prophet’s family. The ghullu enthusiasts were the first to come up with the notion of the occultation or absence of an Imam who will return at the end of days to establish justice as the Mehdi. All of this was anathema to the Abbasids, who did their utmost to suppress these tendencies.

Books mentioned in this review:

Yaron Friedman, The Nusayri-Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria, Brill, Leiden, 2009.

Samuel Lyde, The Asian Mystery illustrated in the History, Religion and Present State of the Ansaireeh or Nusairis of Syria, Hardpress Publishing, Lenox, MA, 2013 (first published in 1860).

Samar Yazbek, Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, Haus Publishing, London, 2012.

In orthodox Shi’a texts, ibn Nusayr is a cursed imposter. In Alawi accounts, he is a trusted confidante of the Imams, the spiritual and political successors to Prophet Muhammad in Shi’a theology. When, in a ghullu version of the Sufi shataha, or ecstatic declaration of unity with God, ibn Nusayr publicly declared the divinity of Ali al-Hadi, the tenth Imam, he found himself cursed by both Imam and establishment. Unperturbed, he explained the Imam’s denunciation as a necessary act of taqiyya, or dissembling, and in fact a sign of favour. After the final Imam’s occultation, ibn Nusayr’s followers considered him successor to the Imam al-Mahdi, and called themselves muwahhidun, or ‘unitarians’, the unifiers of zahir and batin, of exoteric and esoteric knowledge, and therefore the only true Muslims.

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