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Lesson Plan: The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs

Lynda Clarke
Associate Professor of Religion and Islam
Concordia University, Montréal

Courses: Introduction to Islam; Shiite Islam; courses in Political Science, Anthropology, or History dealing with the Middle East
Syllabus Section: The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs. For an anthropology course: The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs, Heritage and Transformation of a Secret Religion.
Intended Audience: Undergraduate college students

Introduction and History of Nuṣayrism

The Nuṣayrīs, presently called ʿAlawīs, are a branch of the Shīʿī division of Islam. Shīʿīs hold that ʿAlī ibn Abī ṭālib, the Prophet Muhammad's full cousin and son-in-law, should have succeeded Muhammad instead of the first three caliphs revered by adherents to the Sunnī division of Islam. For this reason, the group is known as "Shīʿah," the "partisans" of ʿAlī. Shīʿīs believe that ʿAlī and his descendants had a divine right to rule not only by virtue of their blood relation to Muhammad, but also because God had made them ideal leaders or imams, with perfect religious knowledge and other special qualities. The desire of the Shīʿīs that ʿAlī and his line should rule was not realized, and they became a minority within Islam, presently constituting between 10 and 15 percent of Muslims worldwide.

The Shīʿī minority itself split into numerous branches over the generations as disagreements arose over which descendant should be the next imam and their nature and stature. Nuṣayrism, along with Zaydism, Ismāʿīlism, and Twelver Shīʿism, is one of the branches that survives today. Nuṣayrī ideas about the imamate are similar in some ways to those of the Twelvers, who constitute the vast majority of Shīʿīs today; most notably, both believe in a line of twelve imams ending with a messianic figure called the Mahdi. Nuṣayrīs differ from the Twelvers in that they emphasize that ʿAlī and the other imams are manifestations of the divine, and they also regard certain personalities who were close to the imams as "Gates" (Bāb) to their reality.

Views of the imams as divine or semi-divine figures and other esoteric notions such as that of a Gate had been circulating in Shīʿī circles before Ibn Nuṣayr, the founder of Nuṣayrism who claimed to be the Gate to the tenth and eleventh imams, appeared in Iraq in the ninth century. Nuṣayrism is descended from this group of movements, called in Twelver Shīʿī and other Muslim sources ghulāt, or "exaggerators." Nuṣayrism survived due to the activities of a series of determined expositors and missionaries living in the tenth and eleventh centuries who elaborated its doctrine and ritual and managed to establish the religion among a population living in the mountainous area stretching along the coast of Syria north from present-day Lebanon. This area remains the stronghold of the few million ʿAlawīs living today, although they are now also settled in other parts of Syria, with smaller concentrations in Turkey and Lebanon.

Nuṣayrism extends the tendency of Shīʿism to acknowledge inner, hidden meaning to profound esotericism. The outer dimensions (ẓāhir) of the Qurʾān, prophets, imams, and rituals are deemed inferior to their inner significance (bāṭin). The core of Nuṣayrī belief is the divinity of ʿAlī, who is called the Meaning (ma'ná). Muhammad is presented as the Name (ism), an aspect of the Meaning emanating from it that is more comprehensible but also tends to veil the bāṭin, while access to true knowledge about these two is provided by Salmān, a close associate of ʿAlī who is his Gate. The whole of creation is a series of emanations corresponding to further ranks of enlightened personalities, from the "Orphans" or "Incomparables" (yatīm), consisting of five close associates of ʿAlī, to lower levels whose members are said to number in the thousands. According to Nuṣayrī belief, this cosmic structure has been manifested through different personalities in seven different cycles of time, for instance in the time of Jesus with Simon Peter appearing as the ma'ná, Jesus himself as the ism, and a figure called "Rūzbih" filling the position of a Gate. The reality behind such personalities, however, is ever the same, with the Meaning manifested finally and most completely in ʿAlī.

Knowledge of the inner meanings of Nuṣayrism, which is believed to lead to salvation through Gnosis (maʿrifah), is imparted only to males born into the sect who choose to be initiated. As a result, many or most ʿAlawīs are actually not aware of the details of their religion; ʿAlawī identity rests rather on the solidarity of a small and often beleaguered minority. Study of Nuṣayrism is further complicated by a rule of secrecy, called taqīyah. Because initiates can never reveal what they learn to outsiders, public information about Nuṣayrī doctrine is based on a limited number of manuscripts that have come to light in spite of secrecy, some through being published by anonymous persons aiming to expose the sect as heretical. The texts show that Nuṣayrī scholars considered their creed to be the true Shīʿism, since it is based on real understanding ofʿAlī. They also consider their creed to be the purest tawḥīd or Islamic monotheism, since it states that everything emanates from God, just as light emanates from a source that is utterly unlike and beyond it. Thus it is insisted that ʿAlī is not an incarnation of God, but rather the highest level of his emanation through which he may be known.

Despite the conviction of the Nuṣayrīs that they are Muslims, certain aspects of their religious beliefs and practices have historically placed them outside the Islamic mainstream. These include veneration of ʿAlī, belief in transmigration of souls, celebration of non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas and the Persian New Year (Nawrūz), and neglect of Islamic rituals, including prayer and pilgrimage, in favor of spiritual understandings. Nuṣayrīs were often deemed heretics, especially by the Sunnī powers who ruled them for most of their history. In the early twentieth century, the community began to emphasize its connection with Twelver Shīʿism in order to escape discrimination and find a place in the emerging nation-state of Syria. This redefinition involved a change in the name of the group to ʿAlawī, intended to place them in the mainstream of Islam by implying that their respect for ʿAlī ibn Abī ṭālib is essentially the same as that of the more moderate Twelvers.

The further history of the Syrian ʿAlawīs takes place at the intersection of religion and politics. In the second half of the twentieth century, the ʿAlawīs rose to prominence in Syria through their participation in the military, until the ʿAlawī Hafez al-Assad finally came to power in a coup in 1970, succeeded in 2000 by his son Bashar. The dominance of a heterodox sect comprising less than 15 percent of the population has offended the sensibilities of some in the Sunnī majority, despite the efforts of the Assad regimes to promote a secular, Arab-nationalist Syrian identity. The "heretical" background of the rulers was a factor in the regime's conflict with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was finally broken by Assad at a great cost of life in 1982. The Syrian uprising against totalitarianism that began in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring has taken on a sectarian tone as Sunnī-majority states support the opposition in order to counter the influence of Iran, and as local and foreign jihadists seek to strike through Syria at what is perceived to be the worldwide menace of Shīʿism. The regime, for its part, has found its allies in Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah; this cooperation, however, is based on political necessity rather than Shīʿī sectarian feeling.

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

The article by Matti Moosa on the ʿAlawīyah in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World provides an overview of the group, including its history; the shorter entry under Alawi in The Islamic World: Past and Present offers some different information and may be used as a complementary reading. Matti Moosa's Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987) is largely devoted to the Nuṣayrīs and takes account of the previous works of Orientalists. Neither this nor two more recent works drawing on the anonymously published material mentioned above, Meʼir M. Bar-Asher and Aryeh Kofsky's, The Nusayrī-ʿAlawī Religion: An Enquiry into Its Theology and Liturgy (Leiden: Brill, 2002) and Yaron Friedman's The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs: An Introduction to the Religion, History, and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria (Leiden: Brill, 2010) are very accessible to students. Parts of these books present specific topics and translated excerpts from Nuṣayrī texts, which may be assigned to provide support for a broader lecture.

Students should be alerted to ongoing debate over the influence of Persian, Greek, Christian, and other cultures on Nuṣayrism. Yvette Talhamy has authored a series of articles on the ʿAlawī community from late Ottoman times to the twenty-first century, including "Conscription among the Nusayris (ʿAlawis) in the Nineteenth Century," in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): 23–40. The transition from a Nuṣayrī toʿAlawī identity is covered in Martin Kramer's chapter "Syria's Alawis and Shi'ism," in Shi'ism, Resistance, and Revolution, ed. Martin Kramer (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 237–54; Kais Firro's article "The ʿAlawīs in Modern Syria: From Nuṣayrīya to Islam via ʿAlawīya," in Der Islam, 82, no. 1 (July 2005): 1–31; and Talhamy's "The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria," Middle Eastern Studies 46, no. 2 (March 2010): 175–94. Kramer's essay is the most accessible.

Virtually nothing is known of present-day ʿAlawī belief, either among the hereditary lines of shaykhs who traditionally transmitted the inner religion or the mass of the population. It should be made clear to students that the relation of the material they are studying to present-day ʿAlawī belief is uncertain and may pertain partly or largely to the past. Joshua Landis's "Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism" in Teaching Islam: Textbooks and Religion in the Middle East, ed. Eleanor Doumato and Gregory Starrett (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2007), pp. 177–96, discusses a uniform version of Islam promoted by the Assad regimes, including among the ʿAlawī population, and its effect on ʿAlawī identity. One recent illustrated work describes ʿAlawī shrines and related rituals outside of Syria: Gisela Procházka-Eisl and Stephan Procházka's The Plain of Saints and Prophets: the Nusayri-Alawi Community of Cilicia (Southern Turkey) and Its Sacred Places (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010).

Questions for Discussion

  • Nuṣayrism is in some ways similar to Ismāʿīlism and its offshoot, the Druze. Look for similarities and differences using material available through the links.
  • What practical problems are encountered in studying a secret religion such as that of the Nuṣayrīs or ʿAlawīs? Might studying and writing about a secret religion, or the Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī religion in particular, raise ethical problems?
  • Search the Internet for Muslim opinion about the ʿAlawīs and Nuṣayrīs. How are ʿAlawīs viewed? Try to discern the source of comments, such as whether they are being made by Shīʿīs or Sunnīs, and keep in mind that some comments are likely to be uninformed. For example, the ʿAlawīs are sometimes confused with the Alevis, a different group concentrated in Turkey. [Students can undertake their own searches and report on them in class, or the instructor can project selected material. The lack of both ʿAlawī sites on the Internet and comments by persons identifying themselves as ʿAlawī is also a good launching point for discussion.]
  • It seems that very few ʿAlawīs are initiated into their own religion or know much about it. In these circumstances, what could being an ʿAlawī mean?

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