Islam in Syria: Who are the Alawites?

(This article is merely informative, it holds no normative opinion or view point pertaining to any religious doctrine)

Islam is known to have two major denominations. The Sunni and the Shiite, who initially split after a dispute about who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the head of the Muslim Ummah. Alawites identify as Shiite Muslims.  Imam Ali- a cousin of the Prophet, a figure also revered by Shiites is very central to the Alawite faith. However because the figure of Imam Ali, is accorded divinity in Alawism, mainstream Muslims (Sunni’s and some Shiite) dismiss the Alawites as a heretical cult.

It is important to note that not much is really known about Alawism. Alawites have historically been an oppressed people (for example during the Ottoman Empire, efforts were made to compel them to convert to Sunni Islam) and are consequently quiet secretive about their faith.

The sect is believed to have been found by Ibn Nusayr in 9th Century. This explains why they are sometimes referred to as Nusayris. Currently Alawites account for 12- 15 percent of the Syrian population. They are also a significant minority in Turkey and Northern Lebanon. Alawites form the dominant religious group on the Syrian Coast.

The main Alawi Holy Book is “Kitab Al-Majmu” compiled by Al-Khasibi and containing 16 Suras. Other sacred books are: Kitab Al-Mashaykha (manual for Sheikhs), Kitab Majmu Al-Ayad (Book of Feasts), and Kitab Taalim Al-Diyana Al-Nusayria. Alawite doctrine is described as syncretic in the sense that it is said to incorporate Islamic, Christian and other religious philosophies into its system of belief.

Co-existing in Syria: Alawites and Sunnis

The majority of the population in Syria is Sunni. As mentioned earlier the Alawites are a religious minority. Nevertheless, the Assad family, which is Alawite, has ruled Syria for the last 40 years. How can this be explained? How does an oppressed minority manage to monopolize political power in such a way?

To answer this question, we take a journey back through time. The First World War has just ended. French authorities in a bid to create a more inclusive Syria, encourage minorities to take up government positions. The Alawites found their place in the Army.

Middle class Sunni families often shunned the military as a career path for their children. The elite in Damascus were not interested in the Army, barely anyone was. The army presented job opportunities for young Alawites. They were recruited en masse. This obviously led to the army being massively Alawite.

This historical fact, set the stage for a coup staged by an Alawite air officer called Hafez Al Assad in 1970. The Birth of the Assad regime. The majority Sunni populace was not too amused with this turn of events. After an Islamic insurgency by the Muslim brotherhood (Sunni) in 1982, Hafez al Assad in a bid to consolidate power, staged an offensive that resulted in the death of many Sunni Muslims. This event is referred to as the Hama Massacre.

Currently within the context of the Syrian war, most Alawites fear that, if the Assad regime falls, they will face reprisals from the country’s majority Sunnis. The rebellion against the Assad regime is predominantly spearheaded by Sunnis. To compound this fear, there have been footage of rebels and extremist groups, such as the Islamic State capturing and executing Alawite soldiers.

Many Sunnis on the other hand see the Alawites as willing accomplices of a brutal regime. Their grievances dates back to the Massacre of Hama some four decades ago during the regime of Hafez al Assad.

Separated into religious factions, the future for Syria’s Muslim populace is a precarious one. Either side may fear reprisals depending on the outcome of the Civil war. Whether this will indeed be the case, will only be revealed with time.


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