The Alawi creed originated in Iraq during the ninth century. Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Bakri al-Numari (d. 883) was a disciple of the eleventh Shi’a Imam Hasan al-Askari (d. 873) but was reportedly denounced by the Imam for his unorthodox views. He did establish a wide following, however, and the community grew enough to develop into a faith and to train theologians. By the eleventh century, there were two Alawi centers; one in Baghdad, Iraq and one in Latakia, Syria. The Baghdad center was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258.
Alawi Muslims practice an esoteric form of Shi’a Islam. This complex faith includes an emphasis on a trinity (Muhammad, his nephew and eventual successor Ali, and Salman al-Farisi, an early Persian convert to Islam), a belief in reincarnation, and the celebration of a “mass” involving wine and bread. Alawis have their own unique religious texts, and recognize numerous Muslim, Christian, and Persian holidays.
As a result of their beliefs, Alawis were considered to be heretical since their inception by most Sunni and Shi’a practitioners and recognized scholars. Their marginalization was formalized through a series of fatwas issued by Ibn Taymiyya in the 14th century that declared Alawis “more heretical than the Jews and the Christians and even more heretical than many of the polytheists and their harm to Muhammad’s community is greater than the harm of the infidel fighters such as the Mongols, the Crusaders, and others.”
The fate of the Alawis took a dramatic turn in the 20th century beginning with the period of the French Mandate in Syria (1920-46). Employing a strategy of divide and rule, the French created a separate jurisdiction for the Alawis as part of a larger strategy to counter efforts by the majority Sunni populations to strengthen Arab nationalism. One of the early actions that the Alawis pursued from this position of relative strength was to change their name from Nusayri (imposed upon them by opponents and signaling their outsider status) to Alawi (people of Ali and a clear association with other Shi’a Muslims). They also began to promote themselves as a credible sect of Shi’a Islam through a series of declarations and pronouncements.
The most dramatic turn of all, however, took place in 1936 when the Sunni cleric Muhammad Amin al-Husayni (a pan-Arab nationalist and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) issued a fatwa declaring the Alawis as Muslim. The timing of this declaration coincided with negotiations among factions of Alawis regarding whether to remain as a jurisdiction within Syria or to work to establish a separate independent state. It is unclear whether the fatwa impacted these negotiations in a significant way, but the Alawis remained as a specially designated jurisdiction within Syria until this status was withdrawn by Sunni leaders in the early years of independence.
There were two more fatwas issued in support of the Alawis as legitimate Muslims, and these were issued by Shi’a clerics to specifically affirm that Alawis were credible within this main arm of the faith. The last fatwa was issued in 1973 by Imam Musa al-Sadr who established the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council in Tyre, Lebanon in 1969 and was one of the most well respected religious leaders in the region. Sadr issued the fatwa in support of the legitimacy of Hafez al-Assad’s role as President which was being challenged by members of the who claimed that he could not serve as President due to the clause in the Constitution asserting that the President be a Muslim. Sadr reasserted earlier pronouncements that Alawis and Shi’a Muslims are “one” and that claims to the contrary were in keeping with the long line of persecution suffered by Shi’a Muslims throughout history.
Alawis comprise roughly 11% of the population in modern Syria and prior to the French mandate they were primarily concentrated near Latakia where the majority served as peasants to wealthy Sunni and Christian landowners. The French provided opportunities for them to fill the ranks of the military and many Alawis experienced military service as a pathway toward increased social and economic mobility. At the time of independence, Alawis controlled the rank and file of the military and had significant representation in the officer corps. Hafez al-Assad seized power as a military officer in a bloodless coup in 1970 and served as President until his death in 2000 when he was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. Today the Alawis of Syria are the only ruling Muslim religious minority in the region.
M. Kramer, “Syria’s Alawis and Shiism,” in Shiism, Resistance and Revolution, ed. M. Kramer (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 237–54.
Yvette Talhamy,“The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies, 46:2 (2010), pp. 175-194.