Like the Shia, Imam Ali’s death for many minority traditions – particularly the Alawites – was the loss of a more spiritual and internalised approach to Islam. Imam Ali was renowned for his gentleness, concern that Muslims develop themselves spiritually and for his scholarship.
The Alawites, like the Shia, formalise a system of leadership that effectively sees the succession of the Prophet (PBUH) in both spiritual and theological terms; they both believe that Islamic scholarship effectively moved to Imam Ali and his sons, then passed onto other imams over the progression of time, in short, the ‘Twelvers’.
It is important to note that scholarship on the Alawites is scarce and grossly misrepresents Alawite beliefs and practices. Some of this can be attributed to the Alawite community’s secretiveness due to a history of persecution. The Alawites are also often confused with the Alevis, despite significant and important differences. Additionally, Alawites have a complexity of thought and belief, which aims to achieve a highly historicised balance between the spiritual and the material (Islamic law).
The Alawites are an Arabic-speaking, ethno-religious Muslim tradition, centred in north-west Syria and its surrounding plains. Historically, they were a largely rural community. However, since the 1970s they have had significant populations in urban areas. Smaller populations also exist today in Lebanon, southern Turkey and Iraq. It is generally believed that Alawites constitute 12–13% of the Syrian population.
Most scholarship on Islam and the Alawites cite Ibn Nusayr (pupil of the 11th Imam) as the founder of the Alawites during the 8th and 9th centuries. Alawites themselves, however, strongly reject this. The Alawites believe that their branch of Islam was founded at the time of the Prophet (PBUH), by the Prophet’s (PBUH) declaration that Imam Ali would be the rightful heir to his leadership.
The first wave of Alawite migration to Australia was in the 1960s when they resettled for economic reasons. Later, in the 1970s, Alawis began migrating to Australia as refugees due to a series of civil wars in the Middle East. It is estimated that today Victoria is home to about 13,000 Alawis, and New South Wales to approximately 30,000.
Centuries of persecution of the Alawites by the Sunni majority in Syria is the foundation for the secretive and guarded nature of the Alawites.
This is why, even in this day and age, so little is actually known about the Alawites to outsiders and why so many myths about Alawite beliefs and practices continue to be widely circulated today.
The Alawites first fled to Syria from Iraq in the 10th century, in response to ongoing religious vilification. In the 11th century, they were forced out into the mountains of north-western Syria, which has remained their heartland right up to today. Throughout the centuries, several important Sunni fatwas (or Islamic clerical judgements) have declared that the Alawites are not Muslim. Three of these were issued in the 14th century by Ibn Taymiyya, a renowned, ultra-fundamentalist Sunni scholar, considered to be the leading forerunner of Wahhabism which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. Ibn Taymiyyah declared Alawites “greater infidels than Christians, Jews or idolaters” and called for a holy war against them. This was followed by a period of major repression by the Mamluks (CE 1250–1517) who ruled the region. Geographically isolated, Alawites maintained their religious identity in the face of continuous attacks and invasions.
After centuries of marginalisation, between 1832 and 1973 the Alawites began to make gradual progress towards integration into the wider Syrian society. However, this remained a rocky road, with sectarian hostility erupting periodically and continued discrimination during the Ottoman Empire which appeared particularly preoccupied with homogenising Muslim thought and practice. This period included more fatwas against them that justified their repression, destruction of their property, perpetration of violence against them, forced conversion, as well as being forced to build mosques and the like. The Alawites have been accused of heresy, heterodoxy, rebellion, betrayal and immorality. The systemic abuse against them continued with fervour until the end of the Ottoman dynasty, and even to varying degrees up to the present day.
However, the fragmentation of Sunni Ottoman authority opened up opportunities for Alawite involvement in politics and society on a larger scale. Their fortunes began to change when Syria was under French colonial rule in the early 20th century. By promoting separate identities and creating autonomous zones in Syria along ethnic and religious lines, the French aimed to maximise their control – using Muslim and Christian minorities as their main allies against Arab nationalism among the Sunni elite. During this time, many local leaders supported the creation of a separate Alawite nation, which was founded in 1922 yet only lasted for a short time. In return, Alawites helped maintain French rule in the region through military service, especially by marginalised and exploited Alawite peasants. However, France’s colonial behaviour and Syrian aspirations for independence gradually mobilised Alawites alongside their Syrian counterparts, and Alawites became central to the anti-colonial movement which eventually saw the French leave in 1946. As a result, Alawites made up most of the military’s non-commissioned officer corps, forming the backbone of the political apparatus which would emerge in the coming years.
By the 1960s, growing Alawite involvement in Syrian society began to trigger sectarian prejudice among the Sunni community, thus reviving Alawite fears of Sunni intolerance and persecution. The rioting by Sunnis in response to the secular character of the new Syrian constitution in 1973 further entrenched the Alawites’ fears for their safety and their belief that their Sunni counterparts would never accept them as equal Muslims. However, under the Baath Arab Socialist Party, the push towards a secular pan-Arab nationalism saw minorities, including the Alawites, begin to thrive in Syria. The sectarian tensions in Syria today are the result of a longstanding combination of socio-economic and political issues. When the pro-democracy protests – which started in Tunisia – arrived in Syria in 2010, they appeared to be a nationalist movement, above any sectarian or ethnic division. However, soon the national unity fell apart, and age-old sectarian rivalries were encouraged and fuelled by different political forces.
Alawites believe in the five pillars of Islam:
1. Shahada – Unity of God or Indivisibility of God (tawheed) and that the Prophet is his Messenger;
2. Salat – Prayer;
3. Zakat – Almsgiving;
4. Sawm – Fasting for the holy month of Ramadan (always for 30 days);
5. Hajj or Pilgrimage to Mecca.
However, like the Shias, they place these fundamentals in a more complex system of ‘5 and 5 pillars’.
Alawites maintain the belief in Prophethood (from Adam to Muhammad, the latter being the final messenger of God), the four Holy Books (the Qur’an being the final holy book, and the source of truth), the Angels, and the Day of Judgement.
Like all other Muslims, the Alawites rely on the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the consensus of scholars, and analogical deduction or human reasoning/intelligence in the formulation and practice of Islam. In addition to the four established Sunni jurisprudence schools (of Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi and Shafi’i), the Alawites also rely on and give precedence to the Jafari (6th Imam of the Shia’s 12 Imams) school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Above all else, the Alawites consider themselves as followers of a religion of peace and respect all other faiths.
Apart from commemorating certain Islamic events and festivals, Alawites also celebrate the birth of Jesus as part of honouring Jesus as a Prophet of God – although not at the same time as Christians and not in the same way; generally the date falls at the same time as the Orthodox Christian celebrations and commemoration is done through prayer only.
This is a complex question that is not adequately addressed by the actual beliefs and practices of Alawites. There are three already cited dynamics that apply to the Alawites: firstly, the tension and push within Islam itself for consistency and standardisation have left Muslim minority groups vulnerable to intolerance; secondly, because they are considered a sub-group of the Shia community, they have been particularly vulnerable to Shia and Sunni tensions; and lastly, political conflicts over land and power have been framed as theological or sectarian conflicts.
There are two other factors that may also be of relevance:
The Alawites are often accused of heresy because they are considered syncretic; this is certainly a common assertion about them in current scholarship. To be syncretic is to meld together different beliefs, practices and ideals from different sources – in this case, different religions. Syncretism is generally considered unacceptable by mainstream Muslims and as leading to blasphemous beliefs and heretical practices. This has often led to their misidentification as being Phoenician, Christian or Zoroastrianism-inspired. However, the Alawites are not syncretic in the way that one usually understands it.
Like all Muslims, Alawites believe in Islam’s insistence that it is not a new religion or new message but part of a longstanding narrative from God to humanity through many Prophets – starting with Judaism, moving through Christianity and then completing with Islam. The Alawites then pursue religious truths in other religions to add to their own Islamic understanding, teachings and practices. The Alawites, however, only integrate “Islamically consistent truths” and only because the “holy Qur’an has compelled them to do so”. An example of this is where Alawites sometime celebrate or commemorate both Islamic and non-Islamic events and festivals. Alawites, for instance, celebrate the birth of Jesus as part of honouring Jesus as a Prophet of God, not the son of God – although not at the same time as Christians and not in the same way; generally the date falls at the same time as the Orthodox Christian celebrations and is done through prayer only.
A focus on spiritualism is not unusual among Muslims. As previously stated, spiritual or mystical Islam, Sufism, has a strong hold in mainstream Sunni Islam and can be dated back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH). Nonetheless, it is the focus on the esoteric and internalisation of the faith that appears to have attracted the intolerance of fellow Muslims.
The Alawites have a complex spiritual system of beliefs that extends beyond Islam. It includes recognition of spiritual/veiled truths in other religions, where these truths are consistent with Islamic spiritual meaning. This complexity of thought, combined with a very long history of persecution, has meant that Alawites are very guarded about some of their teachings. As demonstrated under the “Myths” section below, Alawites’ spiritual beliefs are easily perverted and misrepresented as heretical.
The Alawites believe that the manifest meaning of the Qur’an and its laws is a veil that covers truer, deeper meanings. The Alawites strongly believe that the Qur’an instructs Muslims very clearly to hold a balance between the spiritual and material worlds, between material (manifest) and spiritual (hidden/veiled) meaning and worship.
This strong commitment to the state of the spirit and hidden (or as yet ‘unrealised’ or ‘unrevealed’) meaning within the Qur’an and other sacred books (such as the Bible) is uncommon among the Muslim mainstream, but it is not uncommon in Islam. In fact, Sufism and the various Sufi traditions that exist across the Middle East have precisely this approach to Islam. Like Alawites, Sufis have also faced substantial persecution for heresy.
Alawites also assert that the Qur’an uses analogies and works on symbolic meaning. They believe that an understanding of the Qur’an’s esoteric meaning is essential to being a true Muslim.
As a protective mechanism, religious leaders generally provide education on Islam to all young Alawite youth (including girls).This includes a thorough education in Islam, plus information on Alawism, some of which is included in this guide. Although often accused of providing secret information to only initiated men, it is more correct to say that Alawite imams have students whom they assist to develop their spiritual and esoteric capacities. This practice, again while unusual among mainstream Muslims, is very common and continues to this day among Sufi Muslims and other religions, including spiritual/mystical strands of Christianity and Buddhism.
MYTH: Alawites worship Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph, because he is a manifestation of the Divine.
FACT: The Alawites have been much maligned for their alleged deification of Imam Ali. This is a myth. An Alawite might respond to this claim by expressing one of their teachings: ‘Ali deserves obedience, but worship belongs only to God’.
MYTH: The Alawite version of the basic Muslim declaration is: 'I testify that there is no God but Ali', indicating that they see Imam Ali as being the divine incarnation of God. He then created Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from his own light, who created Suleiman.”
FACT: Like all Muslims, Alawites consider the notion of the trinity, that is, the divisibility of God as a form of “shirk” (i.e. placing partners to God’s power) and blasphemy. Alawites, like all Muslims, believe deeply in the unity of God. While Imam Ali is held in high esteem and added to human learning and knowledge following the death of the Prophet (PBUH), Alawites do not believe he created or is indeed greater than Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). Suleiman is said to have been favoured by the Prophet (PBUH) and was brought into this family. Suleiman is therefore, like all those close to the Prophet (PBUH), held in high esteem by the Alawites.
MYTH: Alawites consider women inferior and exclude them from sacred observances and initiation. They are considered by Alawites to have been created by the devil or to have no soul.
FACT: References to the inferior spiritual status of women are myth. Like all Muslims, Alawites observe all Qur’anic prescriptions on women; therefore women are held as spiritual equals to men.
MYTH: Wine is allowed, and is a part of religious rituals, much like Mass in Christianity.
FACT: Wine is strictly forbidden and clearly proscribed by Islam.
The first five tenets, called the ‘fundamentals’, relate to the attributes and actions of God:
The second set of 5 tenets relates to the requirement of human beings in the service of God: