Alawis – The Secretive Ruling Sect in Syria

Compliments of the New York Review of Books

Preface, September 2013
In February, 1968 I was in London, and then visited Paris. When I arrived at Le Bourget airport, I learned the flight was delayed by London fog. An Air France ground agent rushed over to me to say that I must rush to catch my flight to Damascus. I had no routing to Damascus and the last place I wanted to land was in the Baathist regime. If one arrived by mistake, the police eliminated any mistakes to avoid their suffering any consequences. I declined the opportunity for Levant adventure.

by Leonard P. Liggio

When the Crusaders arrived at Antioch and Jerusalem in 1099, they not only had traversed the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) with its Greek liturgy and theology, but encountered the about twenty other Christian rites and traditions in the other three Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria (in addition to Rome and Constantinople).

Although the Greek and Latin churches had clashed in Constantinople in 1054, they did not consider themselves separated until the Ottoman Sultans imposed separation on the Patriarchate of Constantinople following the city’s fall in 1453. Indeed, the First Crusade was launched at the appeal of the Byzantine Emperor after a major defeat by the Seljuk Turks, recent converts to Islam who transgressed Islam’s toleration of Christians, especially by the Fatimid Sultans.

From the great variety of religious traditions the Crusaders drew military retainers as infantry to support the few European knights (the mass of pilgrims who trekked on the First Crusade returned to Europe after achieving their goal of Jerusalem). The three new orders of knight-monks protecting the pilgrimage routes (Knights of St. John (Malta), Templers, and Teutonic knights) drew on local Christian groups for infantry.)

Additionally, the Europeans encountered religious sects which were not part of Sunni Islam, and which sought to appear closer to the Crusaders – the Alawis and the Druze. They seem to have a relation to Shiism, and then and now lived in remote mountain regions for self-protection. Since the current rulers of Syria are Alawis, it is worth examining them. I will draw on the review, “Storm Over Syria,” in The New York Review of Books (June 9, 2011) by Malise Ruthven, author of Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction.

Being geographically separated from the main sites of Shiism, the Alawis developed their unique doctrines. Their founder came from Iraq in the ninth century and they took refuge in the mountains north of the port of Latakia. To quote Ruthven:

“they evolved a highly secretive syncretistic theology containing an amalgam of Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian elements. Their leading theologian … proclaimed the divinity of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom other Shiites revere but do not worship. Like many Shiites influenced by ancient Gnostic teachings that predate Islam, they believe that the way to salvation and knowledge lies through a succession of emanations. Acknowledging a line of prophets or avatars beginning with Adam and culminating in Christ and Muhammad, they include several figures from classical antiquity in their list, such as Socrates, Plato, Galen, and some of the pre-Islamic  Persian masters. …Like other sectarian groups they protected their tradition by a strategy known as taqiyya – the right to hide one’s true beliefs from the outsiders in order to avoid persecution.”

The Alawis’ theology elevates a kind of trinity of Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi “the Persian companion of Muhammad who in several Islamic traditions forms a link between the Arabs and the wisdom of ancient Persia.” Alawis’ rituals “include a ceremony known as Qurban – almost identical to the mass –where wine is consecrated  and imbibed in the Christian manner.” Ruthven quotes from the seminal study by Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites (1988):

“The Christian elements in the (Alawis’) religion are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurban, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to His disciples, and most important, the celebration of the Quaddas (a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, founder of the Church, who is seen, paradoxically, as the embodiment of true Islam.”

(Simon Peter ben Jonah was the first bishop of Antioch, the Roman capital of Syria and the Roman East, the city in which the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, before going to Rome.)

The Ottoman Caliphs viewed Alawis as infidels and agents of the Shiite Persians, and thus were denied recognition as a millet, an official religious self-governing body under the Ottomans. The French Republic took control of Syria and Lebanon as Mandates of the League of Nations and created a Troupes Speciales du Levant. The Alawi minority took advantage to join the military in large numbers.

When Syria gained independence in 1946 Alawi officers also joined the secular Baath (Arab Renaissance) Party founded by the Christian Michel Aflaq aiming to unity among all Arabs regardless of sects. Alawis, Christians, and Druzes joined the Baath party to escape Sunni domination. Sunnis represent 70% of Syrian population, Alawis 12%, while Christians and Druzes the remainder. Viewing Nasser’s Arab Socialism as Sunni hegemony, the Baath Party seized power in Syria in 1963 making Hafez al-Assad air force commander.

Assad became Syrian president in 1970 after an aborted Baath threat to aid the Palestinians to overthrow the Hashemite king of Jordon. (The Baath Party at the time had gained control of Iraq, and as a Sunni, although secular, movement were bitter enemies of the Syrian Baath Party which allied with the Shiite Iranians against Iraq.) When Hafez al-Assad died in June, 2000 he was succeeded by his physician son, Bashir.

 

 

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