What is a alawi?

In the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the mountain ranges of north-western Syria that overlook the Mediterranean Sea, the 'Alawi community has maintained itself for over one thousand years, fiercely clinging to its syncretistic secret religion. The 'Alawis have survived as a distinct group in spite of repeated persecution and the threat of extinction by the Sunni majority and rulers who considered them pagans and heretics who were not eligible for the status of a protected religion.

Also known as Nusayris, they are an Arabic speaking ethno-religious community, who also live in the Latakiah province of Syria and in the adjacent districts of northern Lebanon and southern Turkey. In recent years many 'Alawis have moved to the large cities of Syria. A small number still survive in Wadi al-Taym south of Mt Hermon.

World wide they number 2.2 million people, of whom 1.6 million live in Syria where they constitute 13% of the population and are the largest minority group. The second largest group is that of southern Turkey (0.5 million), where they are known as Alevis - a Turkish cover name for all extreme Shi'a groups.

Their religion is secret and seems to be a syncretistic mixture of extreme Shi'a (Ghulat), ancient pagan, gnostic and Christian elements. They are sometimes classified as a branch of Twelver Shi'ism, but are actually an independent religion. They do not keep the five pillars of Islam, and they have no mosques but meet in private houses for their religious observances. Their festivals include Persian and Christian holy days. They have a ceremony similar to the Christian mass and believe in a trinitarian manifestation of God.

The 'Alawis are a tribal people (divided into four main tribes) with a closed society. They see themselves as a persecuted and despised people, who actually are the chosen people of God, the only ones to have seen the light in a world of darkness.

Their worst enemies were the Sunni majority who opressed and persecuted them cruelly over the centuries because they were labelled as heretics and pagans. The stories of their sufferings are transmitted from generation to generation creating a latent hatred for the Sunnis.

For centuries they were kept on the margins of Syrian society in a state of depressed poverty which forced some families to sell their daughters into servitude to rich Sunni families in the cities. They were mainly farmers who grew vines, wheat, tobacco and cotton in the hills.

The 'Alawis came to power in Syria in 1960 following a series of political upheavals. In 1971 Hafez Assad, an 'Alawi, was nominated president of Syria and has been in power ever since, giving the 'Alawis more power than they have ever had before. Much of his policy, especially his alliance with Shi'a Iran, can only be understood when we realise his 'Alawi background. Hafez Assad has passed on and his son now rules.