Alawites (Syria)

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Alawite territory during French mandate

Syrian Alawites (Arabic: عَلَویون) or Nuṣayrīyya (Arabic: نُصَیریّه) or Anṣārīyya (Arabic: أنصاریة) is a Shiite sect in Syria. In some historical sources and books of sects and creeds, they are referred to as Ghalis (people who exaggerate about the Imams). The sect was formed in the 3rd/9th century. The Nusayriyya originally resided in the north of Syria. In different historical periods, the Syrian Alawites were constantly oppressed by the Sunni governments in Syria, because they were Shi'as as well as Ghalis. In addition to Syria, the Nusayriyya also live in southern Turkey, northern Lebanon, and in Palestine. They took over the power in the 14th/20th and 15th/21st centuries after centuries of oppression and miseries. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, is a member of the Alawites.


The majority of historians and authors of sects and creeds trace the origination of the Nusaryriyya back to the 3rd/9th centuries. It came to existence in Iraq in the period of Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a) or the Minor Occultation. The sect is attributed to Muhammad b. Nusayr, a close companion of Imam al-Hadi (a), and according to other sources, a companion of Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a) as well.

Muhammad b. Nusayr

According to sources of rijal, Muhammad b. Nusayr exhibited deviations which led to his dismissal by Imam al-Hadi (a). The situation continued in the period of Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a). His deviations in the period of Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a) were mainly concerned with exaggerations about the Imams (a). In the period of the Minor Occultation, the founder of the Nusayriyya claimed that he was a special deputy of Imam al-Mahdi (a). Thus, he claimed that Muhammad b. 'Uthman was the second of the Four Deputies of Imam al-Mahdi (a). This led to his dismissal by the close companions of the Imam (a). After the dismissal, Ibn Nusayr claimed the position of prophethood and then Godhood. He believed in reincarnation and exaggerated about Imam al-Hadi (a) claiming that the Imam (a) was God.

Ibn Nusayr was succeeded by Muhammad b. Jundab. There is no historical information about him. Ibn Jundab was succeeded by Muhammad Jinan Junbalani who later established Junbalaniyya school in Sufism.

Junbalani went to Egypt where he met Husayn b. Hamdan al-Khusaybi and admitted him as a student. Thus, Junbalani was succeeded by al-Khusaybi in 287/900 in Iraq and became the head of the Alawites.

Al-Khusaybi migrated from Iraq to Aleppo and continued his mission in the period of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamdani. Al-Khusaybi established the Nusayriyya in Syria by integrating the Nusayri doctrines into Sufism and by the support he received from the Hamdanid government, and in particular, the government of Sayf al-Dawla. Thus, he moved the Nusayriyya from Iraq to northern areas of Syria.

In the Hamdanid Period

The Hamdanids ruled Syria in the late 3rd/9th and the whole 4th/10th centuries, and the center of their government was at first Mosul and then Aleppo. The Hamdanid government was an Imami Shiite one which played a crucial role in the propagation of Shiism in Syria. The Shiite tendencies of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamdani paved the path for the spread of the Nusayriyya in Syria. According to some accounts, Sayf al-Dawla gave a special position to the Alawites in his government. The Alawites believe that Sayf al-Dawla helped al-Khusaybi in the propagation of the Nusayriyya sect, and in exchange, al-Khusaybi dedicated his best-known book, al-Hidayat al-Kubra, to Sayf al-Dawla.

After Sayf al-Dawla, Shiism turned into a more serious sect in the Hamdanid realm. For example, Sa'd al-Dawla and Sa'id al-Dawla employed a number of Shiite judges in their judiciary systems.

In the Period of Anti-Shiite Governments

In the Period of Syrian Seljuks

Although the establishment of the Seljuk government in Syria in 487/1094 was a serious resistance to Crusaders, the first Anti-Shiite actions were also carried out in this period in the northern areas of Syria. The Seljuks, who were biased Sunni Turks, had a negative opinion of Shiism and Shiite sects in Syria, including the Isma'iliyya and the Alawites.

The anti-Shiite actions of the Seljuks were done in Aleppo while the city was still dominated by Shiite populations and some of the Shi'as still held high-ranking governmental positions, such as judgeship. The pressures by the Seljuks on the Alawites were so high that some researchers take it to be the main reason for the migration of the Alawites from Aleppo to Latakia.

The event of Ra's Masin in which a great number of the Alawites and their seniors were killed by the Seljuk Turks counts as one of the greatest elegies of the Alawites in this period. Along with such violent actions, the Seljuks also did cultural activities against the Shi'as. Not only did the Seljuks obstructed any cultural activities by the Alawites, they established Sunni seminary schools to spread an anti-Shiite atmosphere. The oppression of the Alawites by the Seljuks in Syria continued until 521/1127 when the Seljuk dynasty was toppled down by Imam al-Din Zangi.

In the Zangid Period

When the Seljuk dynasty in Syria was defeated by Imad al-Din Zangi in 521/1127 in Aleppo, the Zengid dynasty began to rule Syria and northern Iraq. Not only did not the change of government decrease pressures on the Alawites, it increased anti-Shiite actions to some extent. Nur al-Din Muhammad Zangi who succeeded his father, Imad al-Din, was known as the most biased anti-Shiite ruler in Aleppo and northern Syria.

He strongly oppressed the Shiite rituals since 541/1146. For example, he banned the recitation of Hayya 'ala khayr al-'amal (Arabic: حي علی خیر العمل) in adhan. The action was followed by Shiite reactions and led to clashes with Sunni groups.

The Zengid bias actions led to quarrels between sects and the continued displacement of the Alawites. On some occasions, the Zengid rulers encouraged skirmishes between the Shi'as and the Sunnis in order to undermine the Shi'as, and this led to the murder of a great number of the Shi'as.

The Zengid oppression lasted until the invasion of Salah al-Din b. Ayyub (Saladin) to conquer Aleppo. However, Malik Salih, Nur al-Din's son, who had first adopted his father's policy against the Shi'as, took resort to the Shi'as after the Ayyubid invasion and siege of Aleppo in 570/1174-5 in order to resist the Ayyubids. The Shi'as pledged to support him on the condition that he removes the restrictions on their religious freedom.

Thus, as a result of Saladin's attack, restrictions against the Shi'as were lifted and a unity took shape between Shiite and Sunni residents of Aleppo. However, this period did not last long, since Saladin eventually conquered Aleppo in 571/1175-6.

In the Period of the Ayyubids

When the Isma'ili Fatimid caliphate was toppled down by Saladin, he departed to Syria and conquered its northern and central areas. The Alawites played a crucial role in Saladin's conquests of these areas because of their knowledge of the mountainous roads and ways. The contributions of the Alawites in Saladin's victories in his battles against the Romans overshadowed his biased religious policies for the Alawites, such that he is highly regarded of in Alawite sources, although his biased actions are also referred to.

After his conquests, Saladin always attacked Imami Shi'as, and in particular, the Alawites, in Aleppo and the coasts of Syria. His biases against the Imami Shi'as led to cultural and social actions and even military actions against the Alawites. Thus, some researchers believe that the history of Aleppo and Syria after the 2nd/8th century did not see a ruler more biased than Saladin.

In the Period of the Mamluk Dynasty

In period of the Mamluk dynasty, the Alawites faced a great deal of oppression just like the earlier Sunni governments. According to some scholars, the Mamluks were harder on the Shi'as and the Alawites than other governments in Syria. It should not be overlooked that Ibn Taymiyya had a role in increasing the oppression in early 8th/14th century. In a fatwa he issued in 705/1305, Ibn Taymiyya announced that different Shiite sects, including the Nusayriyya, were permitted to be killed, and then he stated that it is the greatest Sharia obligation to wage a jihad against them and execute the Islamic rulings about them.

After the fatwa, the army of Mamluks attacked the residential areas of the Alawites in Muharram, 705/August 1305 under the commandership of the regent, Aqrash Afram, killing the Alawites and plundered their residences. The event is referred to in the Alawite sources as the "slaughter of the Alawites". The Alawites underwent most tragedies after the invasion of the territories of the Mamluks by Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty. In these attacks, 20,000 people were killed in Aleppo in 802/1399-400 and the areas in the north of Syria were ruined and the decline of the Alawites was thus accomplished.

In the Period of the Ottoman Empire

The conditions of the Alawites under the Ottoman empire should be considered both in the period of "Selim I" and in the period in which the Ottomans slowed down their conquests in Europe and focused on eastern Anatolia and the southern parts of their empire. The Ottomans decided to topple the Mamluk dynasty and conquer Syria and Egypt because of the increasing tension between them and their neighboring rival, the Safavids, which culminated in the Battle of Chaldiran and a remarkable defeat of the Safavids and the suspicious supports of the Safavids by heads of the Mamluks.

The Mass Murder of the Alawites by Selim I

"Selim I" attached Syria in 1516 and toppled down the Mamluk dynasty and then he soon conquered the whole Syria and Egypt. Before his conquest of Egypt, he resided in Aleppo for a while. In that period, a remarkable minority of Alawites lived in Aleppo. Selim believed that the existence of the Alawites was a threat to his power in Syria and worried that they support, and cooperate with, the Safavids. Thus, he committed a violent mass murder of the Alawites on the basis of fatwas issued by Sunni scholars of Aleppo according to which the Alawites were unbelievers and thus it was obligatory to fight them.

Before the mass murder, he gathered about 9400 Alawite seniors and prominent figures under the pretext of negotiations. He then beheaded all of them on the basis of the fatwa, and then he issued the order of the mass murder of all the Alawites in the whole Syria. According to some historical accounts, 40,000 Alawites were killed at the command of Selim I. Many Alawites fled to mountains of Nusayriyya and lived in total isolation, cultural and social decline, and poverty for about 4 centuries.

Midhat Pasha and the End of the Long-Term Decline of the Alawites

The period of the Alawite decline continued until the late 19th century. However, their condition began to improve after the emergence of Midhat Pasha, the prime minister of two Ottoman kings, "Abdulaziz I" and "Abdulhamid II", who was an Ottoman enlightened intellectual. The Alawites who underwent intense deprivations for centuries attracted the attention of Midhat Pasha. He tried to help the Alawites out of their isolations and give back the rights they were denied. Although Midhat Pasha could not fulfil all his promises in less than two years of his rule over Syria, his actions reawakened the Alawites and made them aware of their social and human rights.

The Alawites in the 20th and 21st Centuries

After the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the World War I and the entrance of the allies in Syria, including the residential areas of the Alawites, came under the French control.

Alawites under the French Mandate

The flag of Alawites during the French mandate

In 1920, France recognized the area of Nusayriyya mountains as an independent from other areas the formation of Latakia's Alawite government. In 1922, the Alawite lands came to be known as the "Alawite government" and General Bayut was appointed as its ruler. Independent judicial courts were then founded which adjudicated the cases on the basis of the Ja'fari fiqh.

The Establishment of the Independent Alawite State

In 1925, the independence of the Alawites became more official when the French government announced the order of the full autonomy of the Alawite state. The autonomous Alawite state lasted until 1936. In this period, the political, economic, cultural, and social structures of the Alawite community underwent significant developments, and their isolated community turned into a dynamic one playing a crucial role in the region, especially in political affairs. Because of protests by Syrian nationalists and political parties opposing the autonomy of the Alawite state, the state was dissolved by France and the Alawite areas were annexed to Syria again.

Alawite Youths in the Syrian Army

When the Alawite areas were annexed to Syria, Alawite youths attended army academies and began to have good-ranking positions in the army. Since the young Alawite officers had experienced poverty, deprivations, and oppression and had lived in non-urban areas could encourage Alawite and non-Alawite farmers, who were dissatisfied with the status quo, to rise against traditional lords in order to push agendas such as land reforms.

Infiltration in the Syrian Government

Uprisings against the lords became more serious when the Ba'ath party of Syria emerged and people, including the peasants and people from distant areas, were attracted to the Ba'ath party and began to fight the noble class. In this period, the ties between the Syrian army which was mainly controlled by Alawite officers and the Ba'ath party became stronger. In 1960s, the Ba'ath party took over the power in Syria with the support of the army.

Eventually, Hafez al-Assad took over the power in 1971 after coup and became the Syrian president. He was an Alawite commander of the Syrian army and a moderate member of the Ba'ath party. Before the coup, he was appointed as the defense minister, the commander of the air force, the prime minister, and the secretary general of the Ba'ath party. After his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad became the Syrian president.

When a number of Takfiri terrorist groups appeared in Syria since 2012 and occupied different areas of the country, Syrian Alawites have since then been one of the main targets of their attacks.

Geographical Distribution and the Population

Throughout the history, the Alawites lived in the coasts of ُSyria spreading from the north to Antioch and from the south to Lebanese mountains as well as in Aleppo. In general, the Alawites lived in the following cities and areas in the past: Aleppo and its suburbs, Iskenderun, Antioch, Latakia, Zion, Jabaleh, Baniyas, Ümraniye, Tartus, and Nusayriyya mountains. In the contemporary period, they live in four Syrian governorates.

  • Latakia governorate: the four parts: Lattakia, Zion, Jabaleh, and Qardaha.
  • Tartus governorate: in Tartus, Baniyas (Murqub), Al-Shaykh Badr, Duraykish, and Safita (al-Hisn).
  • Hama governorate, the district of Msayaf (al-Umraniya).
  • Homs governorate, the district of Talkalakh.

Moreover, part of the Alawite population is scattered in other areas of Syria, such as Quneitra, al-Maydan district of Damascus, and Aleppo. Also, a small number of the Syrian Alawites live in the border governorate of Adana, Tartus, and Antioch in Turkey, the Akkar District of Lebanon, Wadi al-Taym, the south of Mount Hermon in northern Nablus, and the west bank of Jordan River.

The Population of the Syrian Alawites

There is a disagreement about the Alawite population in Syria. According to some statistics, they constitute 12 to 14 percent of the whole Syrian population; thus, their population should be about 4 million. According to other sources, they constitute 9 to 15 percent of the whole Syrian population. However, according to the official census until 1985, they constituted 11.5 percent of the whole population of Syria, and according to statistics of US centers as well as Alawite sources, they constituted up to 20 percent of the population.

If other Shiite sects, such as Isma'iliyya, Twelvers Shi'as, and Druze are also counted, the whole Shiite population of Syria will amount to about 25 percent. However, according to some other sources, the whole Shiite population of Syria until 2006 is 13 percent of the whole Syrian population.

Alawi Branches

Syrian Alawites have branched into some sects: Ja'fariyya, Shumaliyya, Kulaziyya, Haydariyya, Junbalaniyya (Khusaybiyya).

  • Ja'fariyya: this Alawite sect has the same beliefs as the Imamiyya or Twelver Shi'as. According to some sources, their population in Syria until 2006 was between 200,000 and 500,000.
  • Shumaliyya: the Shumaliyya or Shamsiyya is an Alawite branch living in the coasts of Lattakia. Among other things, they believe that Amir al-Mu'minin (a) will reappear in the heart of the sun.
  • Kulaziyya: the Kulaziyya or Qamariyya or Janubiyya is an Alawite sect living in the mountains. They are attributed to Shaykh Muhammad Kulazi. They believe that Imam 'Ali (a) lives on the moon. They take him to be the essence of the moon who is now hidden from the eyes. They believe that he will be visible when one's soul separates from his body. After the Islamic Revolution of Iran, this sect received the cultural and religious support of the Islamic Republic of Iran and abandoned its exaggerative beliefs, tending to more moderate Shiite views.
  • Haydariyya: it is attributed to Haydar which is a title of Imam 'Ali (a). The Haydariyya consists of two sects of the Qalandariyya Tariqa (mystical path): one of them is attributed to Qutb al-Din Haydar Zawa'i (d. 618/1221-2) and the other is attributed to Mir Qutb al-Din Haydar Tuni (d. 830/1426-7). Thus, Haydariyya turned into a branch of the Alawites with a restrained commitment to the Sharia. This sect was also supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran and as a result, its commitment to the Sharia and Islamic rulings increased.
  • Junbalaniyya: this sect was established by Abu Muhammad 'Abd Allah Junbalani (d. 287/900), known as Janan. In the 15th/21st century, the sect continues to exist in Syria as well as Iraq and Iran with eclectic beliefs from the Shi'as, the Sunni, the Sufis, and the Ghalis (people who exaggerate about the Imams (a)).
  • Murshidiyya: this is newly emerged religious sect which has branched from the Alawites in the 20th century. The sect is led by an Alawite called "Salman Murshid". He abandoned the main Alawite beliefs and turned to personal divinity which is a sort of polytheism. Thus, they do not consider themselves as Alawites, just as the Alawites do not consider the Murshidiyya to be Alawites. The followers of the sect are about 300,000 who mainly live in the governorates of Lattakia, Tartus, Homs, and the areas near Damascus such as Jobar and Mamuniya.


Historically as well as by the sources of sects and creeds, the Nusayriyya have been classified as exaggerating (Ghali) Shiite sects. Most sources take the Nusayriyya to be Ghali sects of the Imamiyya which branched in the period of the Minor Occultation.

The most essential beliefs of the Nusayriyya throughout their history include the immanence of God in Imam 'Ali (a), 'Ali's (a) divinity, abolishment of religious obligations and the permission of religious bans. They believe that the Prophet Muhammad (s) has announced Ahl al-Bayt (a) as the religious authority of all Muslims. They also believe in tabarra (aversion) to the enemies of Ahl al-Bayt (a).

The remarkable deviations of the Alawites from the mainstream Imamiyya are linked to their particular historical and geographical conditions and the beliefs in which they grew. These conditions include the oppression of unjust governments and the religious biases of Sunni governments of Syria, their residence in the borders between Muslims and Crusaders, the constant invasions of the Crusaders on them, their geographical isolation, and their disconnection from the Imami centers. Thus, they were influenced from Sufism, Isma'iliyya, and Christianity. However, some reports in books of sects and creeds about the Syrian Alawites were only groundless accusations out of the prejudices of their authors.

On the contrary, many Alawite groups express their commitment to Islamic rulings and Sharia, rejecting the permissibility of all bans and the belief in immanence and reincarnation (Tanasukh). The change has been so drastic that some people believe that the Alevism has been transformed, because what counts as Alawite beliefs today bears no similarity to what is reported in older sources about the Nusayriyya.

The Views of Contemporary Alawi Scholars about the Alawite Beliefs

Munir Sharif, a contemporary Alawi scholar, has cited a statement by about 80 Alawi scholars in his book (which counts as a significant source about Alevism) in which the beliefs of the Alawites are mentioned. There is no different between these beliefs and those of the Twelver Shi'as both with respect to the Principles of the Religion and the Ancillaries of the Religion. This is an important document about the Alawite beliefs. Other contemporary Alawite authors, such as Muhammad Amin Ghalib Tawil, Shaykh 'Isa Sa'ud, and Shaykh 'Ali 'Aziz Ibrahim also hold that the majority of the Alawites do not believe in immanence and reincarnation, and Sufi Alawites believe in Tajalli (manifestation), rather than immanence (hulul). They believe that the exaggerative tendencies of the Nusayriyya abou the Imams (a) were because of their isolation, deprivation, and ignorance.

The Views of the Shiite Authorities about the Syrian Alawites

Shiite authorities, including Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Safi Gulpayigani, Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi, Ayatollah Nuri Hamadani, Ayatollah Musawi Ardabili, and Al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah have considered the Syrian Alawites as Twelver Shi'as in reply to questions in this regard. The question has cited the statement by the Alawites in their 1972 conference in Latakia, in which they expressed their views which agree with those of the Imami Shi'as.

Ayatollah Ja'far Subhani holds that beliefs attributed to the Nusayriyya, such as immanence, exaggeration about the Imams (a), reincarnations, the prophethood of Muhammad b. Nusayr, Imam 'Ali's (a) and Muhammad (s) sharing the prophethood, incest marriage, and the like are just accusations without any reliable sources and evidence. He takes the greatest accusation against the Alawites to be the exaggeration about Imam 'Ali (a).

Rabbani Gulpayigani also believes that what old and contemporary sources say about Alawites are not reliable, because they are biased.

Lebanese scholars and authorities, such as 'Allama Sharaf al-Din, Imam Musa Sadr, Muhammad Jawad Mughniya, Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, and Shaykh 'Abd al-Amir Qablan consider the Syrian Alawites to be Imami Shi'as and supported them.

See Also