A mystic sect of Shi’a Islam with esoteric beliefs and a political legacy in Syria.
Alawism, also known as Nusayrism, is a religious group primarily found in Syria, with significant populations in Turkey and Lebanon, and smaller communities globally. This sect diverged from mainstream Shi’a Islam in the 9th century, founded by Ibn Nusayr and further developed by Al-Khasibi. Alawites hold Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, in the highest regard, viewing him as the divine manifestation of God.
The Alawites’ beliefs and practices distinguish them significantly from both Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Central to Alawite theology is the concept of a divine trinity, which is interpreted through esoteric beliefs involving reincarnation and the symbolic reading of Quranic verses. This sect believes in the transmigration of souls and venerates a trinity comprising Ali, Muhammad, and Salman the Persian as manifestations of the divine. Their religious practices include the celebration of Christian and Zoroastrian holidays, alongside Islamic ones, and they permit the consumption of alcohol, diverging from mainstream Islamic prohibitions.
Historically, the Alawites have faced persecution and marginalization due to their distinct beliefs. During the Ottoman Empire, they were often treated with suspicion and hostility, lacking the protection afforded to recognized religious minorities. The establishment of the French Mandate in Syria after World War I marked a turning point, granting them political autonomy and military support, which laid the groundwork for their future prominence in Syrian politics.
Alawites have played a significant role in Syria’s political landscape, especially since Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970. The Assad family, belonging to the Alawite faith, has maintained its grip on the presidency and key military and security positions, thus ensuring the sect’s influence over Syrian affairs. Despite the political dominance, the Alawites’ religious practices and beliefs have remained somewhat insular, with detailed doctrines being closely guarded secrets.
The Alawite faith, with its rich history and unique theological principles, continues to be a significant factor in the cultural and political dynamics of the Levant. While they have achieved a level of political power in Syria, their beliefs have kept them at odds with the majority Sunni population, illustrating the complex interplay of religion and politics in the region.