Syrian Alawites: Their history, their future
The conflict in Syria has taken a critical turn. Alawites, who have long rallied behind their co-religionist president, now want to execute his cousin for killing an Alawite army officer August 7 in an apparent road rage incident. It is rare for them to speak against the ruling regime publicly, but activists are now voicing their protest.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, one-third of young Alawite men have died, mothers are hiding their sons and many men are fleeing the country. It seems that solidarity between Bashar Assad and the Alawites is weakening. Although Assad keeps the sectarian threat boiling, his fall would mean a hell for the Alawites by Sunni extremists, and many Alawites no longer doubt they are fighting a losing war.
With the Islamic State group advancing closer to the Alawite heartland, the next genocide will be of the Alawites, regardless of whether they stand with Assad. Their faith will bring them a worse nightmare than that of the Yazidis: Alawites are not only considered heretic, but also an enemy on the battlefield.
According to common understanding, Alawites became a Shia offshoot a thousand years ago. However, some scholars find this a problematic claim. A deeper understanding of the nature of this secretive faith will shed light on the complexity of the sectarian insecurity and manipulation that Assad has been using to sustain his power by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians since 2011.
The sect was originally called Nusayri, named after Muhammad ibn Nusayr (A.D. 859) who, after the death of the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari, claimed he was the imam’s intimate messenger. The core of Nusayrism is the concept of God in triad, with God himself being manifested through Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Nusayris believe that God is Ali in the flesh, who created Muhammad from his spirit, who in turn created Salman al-Farisi, a Persian companion and evangelist. These three form a triad — Mana (Meaning), Ism (Name/Veil) and Bab (Gate).
Nusayrism is also cyclical. Nusayris believe that there have been seven times that God manifested in seven different trinities. The first was of Abel, Adam and Gabriel; the last in Ali, Muhammad and Salman. In all, the meanings, or manifestations, of God seem to be subordinate figures while the name/veil appear to be superior ones: Jesus is the name but God manifestation is actually Simon Peter; Muhammad is the name but God is manifested through Ali.
With this trinity concept, it is tempting to conclude that Nusayrism derives from Christianity. Nusayriyya is similar to Nasara, which means “Christian” in Arabic. Some scholars and observers have even accused Alawism of being a secret Christian proclivity because Alawites celebrate some Christian holidays and honor many Christian saints. In 1903, Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens believed that Nusayris were actually lost Christians.
For Nusayris, salvation goes through a succession of divine emanations. This shows its root in Gnosticism’s cosmogonies, which pre-date Islam. The concepts of transmigration of the soul and reincarnation after death were most likely borrowed from Hinduism through Manichaeism. Greek influences can be seen in the way Nusayris believe each soul is a star, the sinful will be reincarnated as inferior beings through nine levels of human existence and nobility. This mysterious religious cocktail then added elements from Zoroastrianism, Phoenician paganism and Mazdakism, thrown in for good measure.
Nusayris’ religious duties are also interpreted on the basis of gnostic cosmogony. Because people sin, they are no longer splendid stars and must redeem themselves by knowing God through ma’rifa — inner knowledge from one’s own direct experience of reality, something not possible through books. Consequently, traditional ritual and literal reading of scripture are not essential and can even lead to perdition.
With “inner knowledge” as a goal, the pillars of Islam are radically reinterpreted with “inner meaning.” For example, the five daily prayers are understood to be five members of the holy family, including Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter), despite the paradox that Nusayris regard women to be inferior and therefore unable to be reincarnated. Ramadan is allegorized and applied to speech, such as taking a vow of silence rather than abstaining from food.
It is very likely that the Shia principle of taqiyya (religious dissimulation) was the base for this interpretation. For Nusayris, revealing religious secrets to outsiders can lead to severe punishment. Their holy books and rituals are restricted to a few people who pledge to keep the secrets of the faith (Kitman); they are called Khassah while the ignorant majority are Ammah. The syncretic and mythical belief is a secret, even to its own believers.