Throughout the Syrian uprising of the last two months, the dominant media
narrative has followed the now-familiar arc of a freedom-seeking populace
mustering the courage to finally confront an autocratic, anti-democratic regime
responsible for decades of repression. Little mentioned is another
element of the unrest, one readily apparent to most veteran Syria watchers:
President Bashar Assad is an Alawite, a minority sect often
described, in the convenient shorthand on which journalists rely, as an
“offshoot of Shi’a Islam.” The Alawites’ creed, however, is so far removed from
any mainstream Islamic orthodoxy that most Muslims worldwide – Sunni and Shi’ite
alike – are apt to describe them either as heretics or as wholly outside the
Islamic faith community, or ummah.
The term Alawite derives from Ali, the
martyred son-in-law of Muhammad venerated by Shi’ite Muslims as the first Imam,
or successor to the prophet. In much of the Islamic world, however, Alawites are
known pejoratively as Nusairis, after Muhammad ibn Nusair, the ninth-century
religious renegade who seems to have been their spiritual forebear.
1,000 years, the Alawites were the most despised and suppressed of Syria’s faith
communities – an isolated, rural people practicing a secret, syncretic religion
rumored to incorporate Christian, Shi’a and pre-Islamic rites. In 1963 Syria’s
Alawite-led Ba’ath Party seized power, an event so religiously and politically
implausible that half a century later, mainstream Arabs and Muslims still
struggle to comprehend it.
“An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable
becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia,” the historian
Daniel Pipes wrote in his book Greater Syria, “an unprecedented development
shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many
LIKE THE Druse, another heterodox sect with distant Islamic
roots, the Alawites adhere to an esoteric creed known only to a small group of
shaykhs, or religious authorities.
In the late 19th century, however, an
Alawite convert to Christianity published a book revealing a deeply syncretic
creed that in every era adopted elements of the region’s dominant faith –
Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy, Sunni and later Shi’a Islam, Crusader Catholicism –
while maintaining its own suspicious insularity.
Ali is no doubt central
to the community’s dogma, so much so that mainstream Shi’ites deride Alawites as
ghulat – “those who exceed” all bounds in their deification of the imam. But the
Alawites’ resemblance to the Shi’ites constitutes the least of their heresies to
Syria’s majority Sunnis.
Far worse is their doctrinal affinity with
Christianity, and with pre-Islamic pagan rites like the Persian New Year,
Alawites “believe in reincarnation, regard the Pillars of Islam
as purely symbolic, do not fast during Ramadan or make pilgrimage to Mecca, have
no mosques or indeed any public worship, celebrate Christmas, Easter and
Epiphany, and traditionally wear crosses like Christians,” according to
University of Haifa linguist John Myhill.
The idea of God’s reincarnation
in human form is central to Alawite belief, Myhill said, explaining that
Alawites believe in “seven cycles,” or reincarnations of God in both revealed
and hidden forms.
For example, Adam (God’s revealed form) returned to
Earth in the hidden guise of Abel, Moses returned as Joshua Ben-Nun, Jesus as
Peter and Muhammad as Ali. Like Christians, Alawites also worship a “holy
trinity” – in their case, Ali, Muhammad and Salman the Persian, a companion of
Muhammad who helped lay siege to Medina during the Islamic Conquest.
THE Ottoman era, Alawites were persecuted as infidels, forced to pay heavy taxes
and mostly worked as indentured servants or tenant farmers for Sunni
The advent of French rule after World War I ushered in a
golden age for the oncedowntrodden sect, which was granted short-lived autonomy
as the “Alawite State” on Syria’s coast in the 1920s and ’30s. Colonial
authorities hoping to stem Sunni nationalism propped up the Alawites and other
Syrian minorities, giving them preferential treatment in the army and laying the
groundwork for today’s Alawite-dominated military.
Hafez Assad – a former
air force pilot and the father and predecessor of the current president – came
to power in 1971, eight years after the coup by his own Ba’ath Party. The
movement was putatively socialist and Arab nationalist, but dominated by young
Alawites eager to end Syria’s centuries-long domination by an urban, Sunni
elite. One of Assad’s first acts was to replace the constitutional requirement
that Syria’s president be Muslim, with a law stipulating that the president’s
religion is Islam – essentially certifying his own Muslim faith.
four decades since, the new Alawite elite have considerably weakened the Sunnis’
once-inviolable commercial dominance, and turned Syria’s military and
intelligence services into its own private domain. The one significant challenge
to Assad the father’s rule – a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the central
city of Hama – was brutally quashed, with security forces killing an estimated
THE FACILE description of the Alawite faith as a
branch of Shi’a Islam is encouraged by the Assad regime’s close ties with the
Shi’a theocracy in Iran, and with Tehran’s Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon,
In Shi’ism, Resistance and Revolution, Middle East scholar
Martin Kramer wrote that the Syria-Iran partnership is purely a marriage of
“Common hatreds and ambitions inspired this expedient
alliance between two incongruous political orders. The Iraqi regime was hateful
to both Iran and Syria.
In Lebanon, Iran realized that it could not
extend support to its clients there without Syrian cooperation,” Kramer wrote.
“A sense of shared fate, not shared faith, bound these two regimes
Indeed, the Islamic Republic has never recognized the Alawites
as Muslims, much less of the Shi’ite variety. Instead, it was Musa al-Sadr, a
Lebanese Shi’ite leader eager to expand his circle of influence, who in 1994
issued a fatwa certifying the Alawites as a branch of “Twelver” Shi’ism, the
dominant Shi’ite branch and the one widely practiced in Iran. (“Twelver” refers
to the 12th, or “hidden” imam, who disappeared 1,100 years ago and whose return
is believed to augur the messianic age.) “When these Twelver clerics –
[ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s closest students and disciples – visited
Damascus, they spoke only the language of politics,” Kramer wrote. “They did not
utter any opinion on the beliefs, doctrines, or rituals of the Alawis, about
which they knew no more than any other outsider. Instead, they spoke of
political solidarity, appealing to all Muslims to set aside their religious
differences, to unite to meet the threats of imperialism, colonialism, and
ACCORDING TO Myhill, Syrian officials’ decades-long anti-Israel
rhetoric is mere bluster to compensate for their perceived heretical creed: “In
order to legitimize their rule among the Sunni majority, they must publicly
project an image of championing Arabism by unrelentingly rejecting Israel and
flirting with Israel’s avowed enemies.”
In practice, he noted, the Assads
have little interest in a renewed confrontation with Israel. Other than the 1973
Yom Kippur War (a bid, he said to “keep up appearances” among Arab neighbors)
and this week’s breach of the Golan border fence (an apparent attempt to
distract the world’s attention from the bloody Syrian uprising), the Assads have
generally kept their side of the border quiet.
“The Alawites’ religious
beliefs suggest that they are pro-Jewish and anti-Sunni,” Myhill wrote this
month for the Begin- Sadat Center. “From Israel’s perspective, it is far better
for the Alawites to maintain power in Syria than for a Sunni regime to take
control there... If a Sunni regime were to rule Syria, any wide-scale
Israeli-Palestinian clash, such as Operation Cast Lead, would likely trigger an
emotional response, pulling Syria into an international war with Israel,
regardless of the consequences.”
Myhill wrote that Syria would not accept
an official peace treaty with Israel under any circumstances, because such an
agreement would spell the end of the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of its own
Sunnis, and those of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
“While an open alliance
between Israel and the Alawite regime is impossible, it is possible for the
leaders of the two countries to develop tacit understandings, whereby they would
essentially coordinate actions to support their countries’ common goal of
combating Sunni hegemony and radicalism,” he wrote.
If Myhill is right –
and should Assad survive the current unrest – then Syria, long a byword for
anti-Israel bluster, could become one of the Jewish state’s most reliable
partners, and all because of its leaders’ esoteric, eccentric and insular creed.