History / Spiritual / Sufism

Syrian Alawites fate shows if Arab Spring turns in Caliphate Winter


Today’s coverage of the Syria conflict in the media gives me the same creeps as their Euro lies – simplistic misguided propaganda. I traveled the Middle East and the little I know about this area, one thing I am sure of – we have to consider at least two thousand years  ethnic differences and religious history to understand what happens in Syria today. Syria is not a backward country, this area is arguable the cradle of civilization and certainly also Christianity. It is widely ignored in the media, that If Assad falls, many fear a backlash for Alawites, outnumbered six to one by the Sunnis in a Syrian population of 23 million, and also for large minorities of Christians and ethnic Kurds.  So it is of interest to understand religious subtleties of this area in which history and culture was invented.

For starters the current ruling minority in Syria, the Alawis also known as Alawites, Nusayris and Ansaris is often confused with the Alevis (Alevites) which is predominately a Kurdish religion. The Kurds (a nation without state) play also a role in Syria. The Kurds live  the eastern Taurus and the Zagros mountain ranges. Seven states meet in and near that area: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Georgia, Armenia and Azebaijan. In this highland area called Kurdistan (German speakers may remember Karl May) they have lived for thousands of years. Their main centre lies between Lake Van in Turkey and Lake Urmia in Iran.

Alawism and Alevism are usually both relatively unintelligible narrowed to just another Shiite Islam sect.  The Alevis are, however, predominantly in Kurdish East-Turkey, and have in common with the Alawis that both are considered as an extrem variant of the Shiite Islam of Iran, who revere Ali Ibn Abi Talib and the Twelve Imams of his house. It is fair to say, that Alawites have been disliked if not hated by Syrian Sunnis and Alevis by Turkish Sunnis alike. Alawites and Alevis have had a bad (his)story for thousand years with the Sunnis and were both subject to Genocides. After the revival of Islamist in Turkey  the Alevis (who aligned with secular Atatürk) have been prosecuted and still encounter sporadic violence in Turkey similar to Christians until today. It is unclear if Kurds are Alevis or the other way around. Todays young Kurds a mostly political left.

But if one looks closer, more differences to Shiite Islam than similarities in both religions can be found. The Syrian Alawis are a more a mystical and syncretistic religious group which behaves as a Christian Gnostic offshoot in disguise more politically aligned to Islam than by creed and rituals, The Turkish Alevis behave more like a Sufi Islam offshoot, but are basically a non-monotheistic „Angle Cult“. Most likely the base of this „Angle Cult“, was brought from Western Siberia by the Indo-Europeans in the third and second millennium BC to Northern India, Europe and the Middle East and has not surprisingly quite some similarity with Hinduism.

Syrian Alawis

In Syria, the Alawis claim to represent the furthest extension of Twelver Shi’ism.The Alawis take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, who was the first Shi’a Imam and the fourth and last “Rightly Guided Caliph” of Sunni Islam. Until fairly recently, Alawis were referred to as “Nusairis”, but this name is considered derogatory from them. The origin of the Alawis is disputed. The Alawis themselves trace their origins to the eleventh Imam, Hassan al-‘Askari (d. 873). The Alavis have been perfected by al-Khasibi, who travelled extensively in Persia and Iraq even founded a branch in Baghdad. He finally settled and died in Aleppo about 969 and in 1032 his grandson and pupil al-Tabarani moved to Latakia (close to Antioch, which was then controlled by the Byzantine Empire. Al-Tabarani  converted the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range and the plain of Cilicia to the Alawi faith, so their ancestral heartlands in Syria are in the agriculturally poor Nusayri Mountain range in the coastal part of north-west Syria, but with sizeable communities on the inland plains of Homs and Hama.Alawite-map1 Poor peasants until the twentieth century, they changed ploughshares into swords, first becoming military officers, then using the instruments of war to seize the state. Tribal affiliation, kinship, and ideology forced to be secular against vicious religious opposition defines Syria’s yet ruling elite. The old controversy over the origins of the Alawis has been forgotten, and the contemporary Alawi enigma is this: the Alawis are heirs to a distinctive and secretive religious tradition, which is at the root of their dilemma in modern Syria. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scholars acquired and published some of the esoteric texts of the Alawis, and these texts still provide most of what is known about Alawi doctrine. The picture that emerged from these documents was of a highly eclectic creed, embracing elements of uncertain origin. Some of its features were indisputably Shi’ite, and included the veneration of Ali and the twelve Imams. But in the instance of Ali, this veneration carried over into actual deification, which is a touchstone of Alawi belief. Astral gnosticism and metemspychosis (transmigration of souls) also figured in Alawi cosmology. These religious truths were guarded by a caste of religious shaykhs. The mass of uninitiated Alawis knew only the exoteric features of their faith. Alawi doctrine attracted much interest among French missionaries and orientalists, some of whom were convinced that the Alawis were lost Christians.  From 1922 to 1936, the Alawis even had a separate state of their own, under French mandate.

The history has been rich in irony. Exchanging insult to injury, Alawis have bent Shiite Islam beyond recognition under Arab rule. Politically the Alawis, having been denied their own state by the Sunni nationalists, had taken all of Syria instead. In February 1971, Hafiz al-Asad became the first Alawi president of Syria. Then came the Sunni violence of 1973 and the reiterated charge that the Alawis were not Muslims. In June 1977, Ali Shariati was laid to rest in Damascus and this motley assortment of Iranian émigrés and dissidents came to power in Iran later. A sense of shared fate, not shared faith, have bound now these two regimes together until today and brought them in the crosshairs of  the radical Muslim brotherhood and Salafists and the supporting Wester powers.

The mountainous areas of Syria have always been a safe haven for minority groups seeking security. Three Islamic sects found refuge there: the infamous Assassins (Nizari Isma’ilis) and the Druze who were direct offshoots of the Isma’ili Sevener Fatimids of Egypt, and the ‘Alawis who were based on extreme Twelver Shi’a thought mixed with syncretic Christian and pagan influences;

  • Secrecy: ‘Alawites have tried to keep their inner teaching and rituals secret, somewhat like the masons or Mormons. One of their rituals is a communion, including drinking wine. Like Catholics, they believe that the wine is transubstantiated into deity, Allah.
  • The Five Pillars of Islam: the creed, prayer, alms, pilgrimage, fasting during Ramadan, are believed only as symbols and there is no need to practice them. They have two other pillars:
  • Jihad, or holy struggle/war, was also considered the sixth pillar by the Kharijites.
  • Worship of ‘Ali, (called Waliya), is the seventh pillar. This involves not only devotion to ‘Ali, but also struggle against ‘Ali’s enemies.
  • A “Trinity”: Almost all Shi’ites (Zaydis excepted) believe ‘Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, was the rightful first caliph. However, ‘Alawites go further and believe ‘Ali is a member of an appearance of a “Trinity” of Allah together with Saliman al Farisi. Muslims sees any Trinity – including the Christian – as heresy. Like the other Isma’ilis, Alawites believe Allah has appeared in a threeness at least seven times. The last appearance was Mohammed, ‘Ali and Saliman al-Farisi. “al-Farisi” means “the Persian”.

Seven Cycles: ‘Alawites believe Allah appeared in seven cycles of three parts.

Revealed

Hidden

Gate

Adam

Abel

Noah

Seth

Jacob

Joseph

Moses

Joshua

Solomon

Asaph/’Asaf

Jesus

Peter

Mohammed

‘Ali

Saliman al Farisi

Note that Noah and Seth are together, even though Seth is an Egyptian god.

  • Reincarnation: People who deny ‘Ali will be punished by being reincarnated into animals.
  • Attending Mosque is not important to most ‘Alawites.
  • Holidays: Like both Sunnis and Shi’ites, they celebrate the sacrificial feast Id al-Azha. Like other Shi’ites, they celebrate the festivals of Idr i-Fitr, Idr i-Kabir, and Ashura. They also celebrate Christmas and Epiphany. They also celebrate Nawruz, which is the New Year of the Zoroastrians. Other Shi’ites celebrate this also, teaching this was the day Mohammed gave the Caliphate to ‘Ali.
  • Astrology: While Mohammed was against astrology, ‘Alawites use astrology; perhaps they were influenced by Zoroastrians here. They believe the stars in the Milky Way are actually the deified souls of believers.

ETHNIC CONTEXT

In the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the mountain ranges of north-western Syria that overlook the Mediterranean Sea, the ‘Alawi community has maintained itself for over one thousand years, fiercely clinging to its syncretistic secret religion. The ‘Alawis have survived as a distinct group in spite of repeated persecution and the threat of extinction by the Sunni majority and rulers who considered them pagans, “disloyal Persians” and heretics who were not even eligible for the status of a dhimmi religion.Syria-Religion-MapAround the turn of the last century, some Western scholars believed Alawis to be descended from ancient Middle Eastern peoples such as Canaanites and Hittites. They are an Arabic speaking ethno-religious community, who also lived until 1948 concentrated in the Latakiah province of Syria and in the adjacent districts of northern Lebanon and southern Turkey. In recent years many ‘Alawis have moved to the large cities of Syria. A small number still survive in Wadi al-Taym south of Mt Hermon.

World wide they number 2.2 million people, of whom 1.6 million live in Syria where they constitute 13% of the population and are the largest minority group. The second largest group is that of southern Turkey (0.5 million).The ‘Alawis are a tribal people (divided into four main tribes) with a closed society. They see themselves  chosen people of God, the only ones to have seen the light in a world of darkness.

RELIGIOUS CONTEXT

The ‘Alawi religion is secret and just revealed by an convert to Christianity, Sulyman al-Adani (taken from the book Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects By Matti Moosa).  Its doctrine is based on the myth of the creation and fall of lights souls that are imprisoned in bodies of flesh and blood. The Alawites see themselves as descendants of Ali. He is a manifestation of the highest, nameless God of mythological realm.

Many common points with Christianity are visible, for example in the feast calendar, the names of Holy, supporting theories that suggest a relationship of the Alawites to the Christians. However the Gnostic similarities are much stronger. Other sources assume that the term “Nusairier“, from which to derive is root “nsr”, meaning “the star watcher” or “keep the cult”. The self-designation of the Mandeans (Nasoraya), and the names of various pre-Christian and Judah-Christian sects are derived from this root. Here is an article “The many life of Christianity”  about the Christian Development Tree including heresies stamped out in “Jesus Wars”.

One has to rembemer that Syria long before the rise of  Islam (and even Jesus birth) hosted not only Christianity (including what was later labeled as heresies) , but also the oldest shools of Gnosticism. It was the birthplace of the Gnostic movement also. Notable  Simon Magus, Menander, Ebionites, Encratites, Ophites, Naassenes, the Gnostics of the “Acts of Thomas”, and many others heveavily influenced by Persians.SyriaImpl timeline-simplified-religion

Their religion seems therefore a syncretistic mixture of extreme Shi’a (who sees Ali as highest God), ancient (Persian) pagan, gnostic and Christian elements. They do not keep the five pillars of Islam, and their festivals include Persian and especially to Christian elements as the celebration of festivals, the private and public confession of sins, the partaking of a ceremonial meal resembling the Lord’s Supper and a ceremony similar to the Christian mass and finally a trinitarian manifestation of God, which runs completely against orthodox Muslim belief (which considers also Christian trinity as heresy). The following quotes are from Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, 1988 :

It would be easy to dismiss the members of these sects as heterodox Shiites who have deviated from orthodox Islam, but the fact remains that they maintain many religious beliefs and rituals not only alien but blasphemous to orthodox Islam. Thorough investigation surprisingly reveals a Christian origin for some of these beliefs.

 The study of their religious tenets reveals a syncretism of Islamic Shiism, Sufism, and Christianity, along with traces of animistic and heathen superstitions. But one should be careful not to confuse these sects with the greater body of Shiites, especially the Twelvers, who do not deify Ali.

There is a great deal of fluidity and divergence in the religious practices of the Ghulat sects, due perhaps to the ignorance of their religious leaders, their lack of substantial body of religious literature, and the utter secrecy with which they guard their beliefs. Nevertheless, the investigation of these beliefs shows that they derive partly from heathenism, partly from Shiite Islam, and partly from Christianity

The ‘Alawis believe in the absolute unity and transcendence of God who is undefinable and unknowable. God however reveals himself periodically to man in a Trinitarian form. This has happened seven times in history, the last and final revelation being in ‘Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi. (Salman was a Persian disciple and close companion of Muhammad). Alawis adopted the name partly to indicate that through their devotion to Ali they belonged within the Shi’a.

Alawis subscribe to the idea of a Divine Triad, expressed in seven emanations of the Godhead, each embodied in three persons.The first person of this Trinity (‘Ali) represents the Meaning of the Deity (Ma’na) which is the inner essence of God. The second person (Muhammad) is the Name or the Veil of Deity (Ism, Hijab) – its outward manifestation. The third person (Salman) is the Gate (Bab) of the Deity, through whom the true believer can gain an entrance to the mystery Muhammad emanated from the light of ‘Ali’s essence, and ‘Ali taught him the Quran. Muhammad’s role  was to create and sustain the universe, and  to reveal ‘Ali to mankind. Muhammad is thus like the Gnostic demiurge.Salman in turn emanated from Muhammad and also appeared as the angel Gabriel to guide Muhammad into the Quran. He is also called the Holy Spirit and the Universal Soul, the third person in the ‘Alawi Trinity.

The ‘Alawi profession of faith states: “I testify that there is no God but ‘Ali ibn-Talib the one to be worshipped, no Veil but the Lord Muhammad worthy to be praised, and no Gate but the Lord Salman al-Farisi the object of love”.

The mystery of the Trinity is the centre of ‘Alawi worship and rituals. It is symbolised by the three letters AMS (Arabic ‘Ain, Mim, Sin) standing for ‘Ali, Muhammad and Salman. Meditating on the relationship between the three persons of this Trinity is part of ‘Alawi religious practice.

Out of the Bab emanated the five Lords of the Elements and below them are five further spiritual ranks and in addition, the ‘Alawis also revere many prophets and apostles. The total number of hierarchies, apostles and prophets is said to be 124,000.

Light is the very essence of God, so the ‘Alawis worship the sun and the moon seeing them as the abodes of ‘Ali, Muhammad and Salman and and an ancient Aramaic community of upper Mesopotamia (Harran) who worshipped the sun, moon and the five planets. The Persian Nawruz (New Year, held in Spring and symbolising the change from cold to heat), and the Mihrajan (signifying the change from heat to cold in the Autumn), are also celebrated by the ‘Alawis revealing the strong Persian links of their religion.

The main ‘Alawi Holy Book is the “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 Ta’lim al-Diyana al-Nusayriyyah, the ‘Alawi chatechism.

The ‘Alawis believe in the transmigration of souls (metempshychosis, reincarnation). Unbelievers (Muslims, Christians, Jews) return as animals, whilst ‘Alawis are reincarnated in other ‘Alawis and eventually can reach the state of luminous stars.

SOCIOLOGICAL CONTEXT

An important ‘Alawi principle is that of Taqiya – religious dissimulation, practiced also by Shi’as and the Druze. ‘Alawis may pretend to adhere outwardly to the majority religion in order to ensure their own survival. This also means keeping the ‘Alawi religion and its principles hidden from outsiders and may explain how the present themselves them often so eagerly as Muslims. Alawites swear by the initiation to keep secret the teachings of his religion. The ‘Alawi community is organised as a secret society, revealing its teachings only to the fully initiated who pledge themselves to keep them secret.

The ‘Alawi community is divided into the “Khassah”, the initiated religious leaders who learn the mysteries of the religion, and the ignorant majority called “‘Ammah”. All Khassah must pledge to keep the secrets of the faith (Kitman) and it’s obligations. The ignorant ‘Ammah are expected only to keep general moral rules, be loyal to the community’s spiritual leaders, celebrate the ‘Alawi feasts and make pilgrimages to the tombs of various holy men, amongst them al-Khidr (Elijah, St. George) and other saints venerated also by Muslims and Christians.

Religious knowledge is the exclusive privilege of the men, so only males are initiated. ‘Alawis believe that women were created from devils. ‘Alawi society is still strongly tribal and patriarchal. Feuding was the norm until the beginning of this century, and marauding into the territories of neighbouring non-‘Alawi communities was common.

CHRISTANITY AND ALAWIS

There are many nominal Christian and heretical Christian elements in ‘Alawi religion. They include the concept of the Trinity, the celebration of the mass, the keeping of Christmas and other Christian holy days. Christian names such as Matthew, Gabriel, Catherine and Helen are common.

Christian feast days such as Christmas, Epiphany (the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist), Pentecost and Palm Sunday are celebrated. Also the feasts of Saint John the Baptist, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Barbara and Saint Mary Magdalene.

The ‘Alawis also celebrate a ceremony resembling the mass (Quddass), where wine and bread are consecrated and partaken of by the male initiates. The wine especially is considered to be the very essence of God (‘Ali), transsubstantiated by the mass and offered to the believer.

As with the Druze and other similar closed and secret sects, the ‘Alawis are bound by gnostic principalities and powers who will not easily be shaken. Whilst there are superficial similarities to Christian doctrines, concepts and practices, one must be careful to realise the differences. Christians have a loving personal God with whom Christians can have a relationship as opposed to the Gnostic abstract and unknowable God or the Islam with its master slave relation. Of course the concept of incarnation, where God not only manifested himself in human flesh, but actually was made flesh and dwelt amongst us in Jesus Christ is unknown to Alawis.

ALAWIS AND ISLAM

Like Twelver Shi’ites, the ‘Alawis believe in the twelve Imams from ‘Ali down to Muhammad the Mahdi, each of whom had a Gate (Bab) who served as the pathway leading believers to the Imam. The twelfth Imam disappeared leaving no Bab. This position was then claimed by ibn-Nusayr the founder of the ‘Alawi faith. The Imams are seen as pre- existent heavenly spirits around God’s throne who later descended to earth in physical bodies to lead humans in praise back to God.

The ‘Alawi feasts include the general Muslim feasts of ‘Id al-Fitr ( but without the fast of Ramadan) and ‘Id al-Adha (without the pilgrimage to Mecca). From Shi’a Islam they celebrate ‘Id al-Ghadir that commemorates ‘Ali’s nomination as successor to Muhammad, and the ‘Ashura that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, ‘Ali’s son, at Karbala.

The Alawites are considered relatively liberal. To pray like other Muslims five times a day, and a pilgrimage to Mecca once in life, is not considered as absolute obligation. One can not accept the Alawite faith, one can only be born Alawites. The most obvious difference between Alawites and Shiite Muslims, is that Alawis believe the Sunni Caliph and Shiite Imam Ali is an incarnation of one of the persons of God and wholly divine, along with Jesus Christ, Muhammad and many other eastern holy men. Some Sunnis and Shiites do not even recognize the Alawites as Muslims, since the Alawites do not recognize Sharia law. With they Isma’ilis, share many ideas of exoteric and esoteric beliefs. Some Alawis disregard the basic Muslim ritual duties.  But there are some branches which even go to Qom in Iran to study in Shia religious schools. A fatwa by Imam Musa al Sadr declares Alawis Shi’a Muslims.

ALWIS AND GNOSTICS

Like these other groups, the ‘Alawi religion has a strong gnostic base and is characterised by Syrio-Babylonian, Hellenistic, Persian and Christian influences. The ‘Alawi Nusayriyah are one of several groups of extremist Shi’a sects known as the Ghulat (exaggerators). While most Shi’a groups revere ‘Ali and his family, the Ghulat have gone beyond veneration, considering ‘Ali to be the very manifestation God. That is a tough call for the strict monothestic Islam.

The ‘Alawis may be descendants of an ancient community that kept its own pagan basis and consecutively added to it elements of the new majority religions – Christianity in the Roman-Byzantine period and Shi’a Islam after the Muslim conquest. This local ethnic group was especially receptive to the gnostic ideas of the Ghulat and also absorbed Arabic and Persian tribes with similar beliefs who migrated to their mountains.

The founder of the ‘Alawi sect was Abu Shu’ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr (d.874), the “Gate” (Bab) to the eleventh Twelver Shi’a Imam Hasan al-‘Askari. He deified ‘Ali and his successors in his teachings which started in Persia and Iraq but was brought to Syria by al-Khasibi (d. 957) in the second part of the tenth century. There it took root and survived whilst other centers of the sect disappeared. Alawis adopted the name partly to indicate that through their devotion to Ali they belonged within the Shi’a.

Many of the Byzantines and Persians who turned to Islam after the Arab conquest, strongly resented the Arab dominance under which they were relegated to dhimni  status. They regained sort of cultural superiority over the Arabs that led them to accept  extreme Shi’a (as well as Sufi) teaching, mixing it with their own ancient religious and philosophical systems.

In the ‘Alawi religion there is a definite stress on the superiority of Persia in a golden age before Islam. ‘Ali is said to have manifested himself in the person of two Persian Kings before reappearing as an Arab. Before leaving, he deposited with the Persian Kings the divine wisdom and revelation of himself which the Persians (as Shi’as) have faithfully preserved, whilst the Arabs (as Sunnis) have lost. Most ‘Alawi religious leaders and writers were of Persian origin.

Ibn-Nusayr, the founder, was followed by ibn-Jundub and al-Junbulani as leaders. Then came al-Khasibi who is the highly respected unifier and consolidator of this religion. Al-Khasibi (d.957) taught for a while at the courts of the Shi’a Hamdanids of Aleppo and the Shi’a Buyids of Baghdad. When these Twelver Shi’a states were taken over by the Sunni Seljuk Turks, he moved to Latakia which became the ‘Alawi centre.shia_islam

During the Crusades, the ‘Alawis were accused of favouring the Franks, and were punished for it by the victorious Sunni Ayyubis and Mamluks (warror slaves) of Egypt. In 1220 the ‘Alawis were almost eliminated by the Sunni Kurds migrating from the north-east and by the Isma’ilis attacking from the south. After 1090 AD under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah, Alamut became the site of intense activity for the Shi’a Nizari Ismai’li, along with a smaller subgroup known as the Assassins (who used assassinations as mean of politics).

They had another brief respite for Alawis (and Nestorians) during the Mongol invasion of Persia and Syria dismantling the ardent Nizari Ismaili state. Hukegu had to successively destroy these castles – most famous 1256 AD Alamut (Eagles Nest), where Al Tusi was imprisioned. Only after their destruction could the invading Mongols proceed to remove the Abbasid caliph from Baghdad and advance their conquest westward.

But later the victorious Mameluk armies of Sultan Baybars destroyed their castles and forced them to build mosques and to conform to orthodox Sunni Islam but they again fled to the mountains to escape persecution in a deep and bitter conflict with the dominant Sunni culture on the plain ever since. Most Alawis were tribal mountain folks until the twentieth century..

The Mamluk rule lasted till 1516, when the Ottoman Turks crushed the Mamluks and added Syria and Egypt to their Sunni Empire. During the takeover they massacred thousands of ‘Alawi leaders. In the centuries long conflict between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’a Safavids of Persia, the ‘Alawis were suspected of favouring the Persians and as a result they were again cruelly persecuted and not given independent religious status and were exploited by the Sunni. The ‘Alawis rebelled against the Ottomans in 1806, 1811 and 1852

Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, France administered Syria until its independence in 1946. The French created a separate autonomous ‘Alawi region which was given independent status in 1922. The economic conditions where improved and education introduced.The country lacked political stability, however, and experienced a series of military coups during its first decades.

Syria united with Egypt in February 1958 to form the United Arab Republic, but in September 1961 the two entities separated and the Syrian Arab Republic was reestablished. Alawites cooperated with the occupying forces during the French mandate rule at the beginning of the 20th century in Syria. Large numbers of peasant Alawis joined Les Troupes Speciales under French rule but then moved en mass to the Ba’ath. They gained again political weight for the first time in 1963 in Syria by the seizure of power by the Baath party, because a lot of the leaders in the party and army were Alawites. In November 1970, Hafiz al-ASAD, a member of the Socialist Ba’th Party and the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a bloodless coup and brought political stability to the country. I traveled as young student in the summer 1971 all over Syria. Despite of a car accident, which brought a Kafkaesk encounter with theHafiz al-Assad state, I remember the people in Damascus (and Beirut) as pleasant. The general setting was quite cosmopolitan in which young upwardly mobile members of the military and the Ba’ath saw that the best opportunity in secular Arab nationalism. The rapid growth of an Alawi middle and professional class from the mid-twentieth century, where none existed before, transformed the Alawite community from a backward tribe they still were 1948 into a coherent and economically powerful and arguably the best educated group. As always in this area, however, family and tribe still count in patronage networks.

Under Sunni-dominated Syria, the Alawi minority faced discrimination as heretics and most Sunnis still accuse the Alawites of heresy.  Once Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi, seized power in 1970, group members rapidly but also Christians gained privileged status.  Assad surrounded himself with Alawis, especially stocking them in key state security roles.  The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization favored by by the West in the Arab spring, targeted Alawis for violence during the 1970s, but the regime crushed it 1982.

Alawis maintained their privileged status when Assad’s son Bashar assumed the presidency following his death in 2000.  It is important to note that whilst government is dominated by Alawi leaders, there are also Alawis among the opposition.  However, the Syrian Alawites see the rise of the Sunni Islamist movement and the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Sunnis with anxiety. I do not blame them. If you read an internal Islamic discussion about Alawis today, however 50 percent will say they Alawis are Muslims (mostly Alawis) and the other 50% (mostly Sunnis) tell exactly the opposite. One example of a Sunni comment by far not the most radical:

“Thursday, 6 December, 2012 at 11:53

salam alaykum,

  • humans need faith (imam) belonging – not national belonging; all scholars, whether muslim or not, agree that ‘nationalism’ is a constructed (taught) identity, while faith (imam) is rooted in our hearts – felt identity.
  • humans need a caliph – not a president; a caliph is the best in faith (imam) practice, (very) highly educated, respected family lineage AND have a practical skill (craft) – he is independent. a president just must have your votes, nothing else.
  • humans need a caliphate – not a state.
  • humans need sharia – not demo(N)cracy; ‘voting is the most non-democratic way of deciding’ – said a western friend of mine.
  • – for 1400 years muslims mastered the knowledge of dunia and of the books, with the blessings of Allah (swt). when muslims (arabs) got poisoned by kafirs with ideas about ‘nationalism’ and ‘state’ (and money), the blessed ottoman empire weakened. . time is now, time is here, mahdi is coming, insha-allah.”

Turkish Alevis

Alevisms origin is similar controversial. By theological and scientific research it has become clear over the years that we can not assume a general theology, because it varies widely. Here are a few rituals that have a deep theological significance for Alevites:

  • light candles on the graves of deceased Saints
  • kissing the doors of Holy spaces or grave borders
  • do not step on the threshold of Holy spaces
  • looking for prayers done by healers or shamans
  • Prayers on pieces of cloth or paper writing and bind to trees, which are regarded as particularly sacred.

One can see hardly any similarities with the theology of Islam. It should be remembered that the most Alevites have taken the name of Islam to find protection from the Ottoman Empire, Arabs and Persians (a so-called protection name). The name Alevites was taken because of these protection measures, the previous names of the Kurdish Alevites were as follows; Haq al, Ezdan, Yarisdan.

HISTORICAL  CONTEXT

The cult of the Angels is the Kurdish religion par excellence and one can find the most important municipalities of the cult in the Kurdish regions: in Eastern Turkey, the Iran (in the area of Kermanshah), in the northern Iraq (in the region of Mosul and Sinjar Jebel) and in the North of Syria, Aleppo and Qameshli. There are also large exile communities in Germany, the United States and even in Australia. While it is possible to declare the origins of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism and even of Judaism, the origins of the cult of the angels are in the dark. Paradoxically the cult of angels which was open as a universal religion was modified in the sense of a stronger demarcation. In the cult of the Angels, every believer had to be respected, no matter what was his faith because he was a believer. And his religion deserves respect and could be included at the end of even partially or completely in the original cult.

ALEVIS AND SUFI  SLAM

Its Islam roots go back to Shah Ismail (Azerbaijan, Iran). Although Alevis are often influenced by Sufism, viewed as followers of Shiism. The Sufis, being the “monkish and catholic” branch of Islam have high regards for Jesus,  depicting him as “the monk of the monk.”. The Alevites have little to do with orthodox Islam,: they are followers of the cult of the Angels. Their religion is characterized especially by humanism and liberal social behaviours that are far removed from those of traditional Islam. So they equate men and women. They follow not the fast of Ramadan. The majority of the Kurdish Alevites belong now to the Sufi Bektashi (or Baktâshi), and meet on the occasion of major events in Hacibektas, a city in Central Anatolia, in honor of Hacibektas, the founder of the faith and one of the most important one (spirit avatar).

RELIGIOUS CONTEXT

The Alevis should be understood primarily as an Angel cult. There are still three variations of the cult of the Angels: Alevism, Yezidism and Yarsanism. While these religions were kept secret until a short time ago for reasons of security and survival, they are exercised far more open today. They are examined by scholars and in the context of any major religions. Religious rites are often accompanied by dancing and mystical music, held on “Meeting places”, the Cem, which are no mosques, are called in the presence of religious leaders, Dede, or SAM. Since they have no holy books, they value Torah and the Koran, and the Gospel. You believe in five angels, 12 Messenger of God and 40 prophets as a mediator between God and man. Known as the “Red heads” (Kizibasch), they are found especially in Anatolia, in the provinces of Diyarbekir, OASIS and Kharpout.

Followers of the cult believe in a universal spirit that had created the material universe, after he had created himself. Then he gave birth to seven angelic creatures, luminaries who were responsible to protect the universe from the seven powers of darkness. The followers of faith believed in transmigration of souls and multiple rebirths. This transmigration of souls also applies to the universal mind in the form of seven avatars, which include also minor avatars just like in some Gnostic belief systems.

ETHNIC  CONTEXT

Etymologically, you could search for the origin of the Alevism in Islam, because the word Elewi is thus the Kurdish version of the Arabic word Alawi (trailer) of Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad). What is Alevism and wherever it goes, is discussed by all sides and unfortunately much divided. The older ones are think that the Alevism belongs to Islam and even the origin would be. Another view is that the Alevism is an independent religion, but has influenced by Islam. There is still another opinion that considers the Alevism as ethic system and a life philosophy.

According to latest estimates, the Kurdish and non-Kurdish Alevis should make up more than 25% of the Turkish population. A claim that is difficult to verify because the Alevites show often greatest restraint: the times are yet not so long ago, as the Ottoman Empire (officially Sunni), which controlled the whole Middle East, condemned the Alevism and caused true massacres among its followers. Today, things have somewhat changed, but Alevites are still in disrepute in the leading circles of the Sunnis.

ALEVIS AND ORTODOX ISLAM

Roughly speaking two categories of religion have formed in the course of human history,

  • the so-called indigenous religions often lumped together with polytheistic religions (like Hinduism)and dualistic beliefs (like Gnostic) as pagan religions and
  • the monotheistic (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) religions including Pantheism beliefs that hold the universe itself is God (like Taoism).

You would have to categorize Alevism as indigenous beliefs, which has little to do with the monotheistic religions. Many people associate with religion, the monotheistic religions. Accordingly, the Alevis are asked always for a God and Prophet. But you should be aware that there are still indigenous beliefs such as Alevism.

Let us look at the time that initial thesis the Alevism belong to Islam. Who compares Alevism with Islam, must consider the so-called five pillars of Islamic practice of faith:

  • Creed (Profession of faith)
  • Ritual prayers five times daily
  • Fasting during Ramadan
  • Charity (give alms
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Here, there are enormous differences between Islam and Alevism.

  • Profession of faith: many of the Alevis have a very open defined pantheistic notion of God such as: “God is all things of the universe.” Or: “God is a undefined force or power”. Many of them interpret hence the Muslim creed, which States: “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God”, very differently and it is much more important in which way a man is dealing with his fellow as about the correct theology.
  • Ritual prayer: there is hardly an Alevis who prays five times a day in the mosque and also the Friday prayer is little visited. Alevites meet in special meetings to the worship and the common prayer and enter into a deeper spiritual relationship to the conductor and to God. Participate can only those who are clear of (have confessed) personal sins and disputes. No ablution is carried out and the most Alevis say that the inner cleaning is important as the exterior.
  • Fasting: The most Alewis do not take part in the 30-day fasting during the month of Ramadan. The first 12 days of the Muslim month of Muharrem which begins 20 days after the feast of the sacrifice are their most important lent. There is even a fast from February 13-15.
  • Charity: there is no fixed sum or percentage that Alevites should give as alms. It is generally as given food or a sacrifice of sheep consumed together with guests. It is given also money for the poor or to organizations or centers of Alevites to support religious, cultural activities or to promote education.
  • Pilgrimage: the pilgrimage to Mecca is not performed by the Alevites. You can visit the tombs of Alevi Saints but quite often.

Conclusion

It is clear to see that the naive and not so naive support (for instance to destabilize Shiite Iran) of the West lends to the predominately Sunni side may be a similar bad move like the support of the Taliban thirty years ago in Afghanistan had been. A government run with Muslim brotherhood and Salafists majority will hurt the urban and well educated minorities and the Arab Spring may turn in a caliphate Winter at best. And a Sunni-Alawite bloodbath or at least civil prosecution in Syria could lead to something similar happening in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Lebanon. We see already the effect of the Western “Arab Spring support 2011 against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, which plunged Libya  into chaos. His weapons became available and the Tuareg — who fought on his payroll — seized them before they fled and now took up arms against the Malian government.

Update Jan. 30. Aleppo Khan Al-Wazeer before & after #FSA decided to liberate

Update Jan. 30. Aleppo Khan Al-Wazeer before & after #FSA decided to liberate

The result of the naivite in Syria could also be a sectarian war that might last for generations. The best option would have been a military coup led by an Alawite general who would free political prisoners, initiate real and major reforms, imprison those guilty of corruption and murder in the current government, and bring a transformation to democracy making the downfall of the Assad regime even more important and pressing. Otherwise, both Syria and the region will pay a high price, with the victims being mostly innocent victims of communal and religious hatred on both sides. It is vital that those in the West understand there is limited time and that a successful revolution in Syria followed by national conciliation is in everyone’s interest. What we see with the constitution in Egypt is not encouraging. In Syria it becomes more and more clear that the activists in the FSA are hostages of the Saudi (and US) supported terrorists.

Note dated August 2014:  My worst fears became true. I feel for the people and children in despair in a now dismantled but formals functioning state, as terrible it looked by Western universal values. Better said, values the West once had. I could scream at the Western propaganda bullhorns, as they prepare the ground for yet another war, now in Syria for resources and more weapon sales. I could scream to the uninformed people who buy the corporate narrative to cover their tracks. Presumably fighting ISIS, which did the dirty work of big money, to once again redraw colonial borderlines. Christianity and all other minorities are now extinguished. The country and all its 2000 years old heritage has gone up in flames. The second conquest of Syria after the 7th century to the region known as the Bilad al-Sham, the Levant, or Greater Syria to conquer and finally destroy an important culture. Actually the roots of civilized mankind.

Appendix: Syrian Numbers

Ethnic groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%

Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, Alawite, Druze, and other sects 16%, Christian (various sects) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo)

Languages: Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, ; French, English somewhat

Literacy: 79.6% — Male: 86%, Female: 73.6%

Sources:

Selected writings

Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, 1988 

Pagan, Christian, and Islamic Elements in the Beliefs of the Ghulat (excerpt chapter 37)

References have been made throughout this study to pagan, Christian, and Islamic elements in the beliefs of contemporary extremist Shiite sects, and especially to such Christian elements as the celebration of festivals, the private and public confession of sins, and the partaking of a ceremonial meal resembling the Lord’s Supper. In this chapter we shall discuss the sources of these elements and show how they found their way into the worship and rituals of extremist Shiite sects, particularly the Kizilbash Kurds of Turkey.

It would be easy to dismiss the members of these sects as heterodox Shiites who have deviated from orthodox Islam, but the fact remains that they maintain many religious beliefs and rituals not only alien but blasphemous to orthodox Islam. Thorough investigation surprisingly reveals a Christian origin for some of these beliefs. Al-Sarraf, who discussed the confession of sins and the ceremonial meal observed by the Shabak, states that these practices are of Christian origin, but fails to explain how such non-Islamic rituals came to be practiced by the Shabak. Although he avers that these rituals are common among such other groups as the Bektashis, Kizilbash, Nusayris, and Ahl-i Haqq (Ali Ilahis), he admits to puzzlement as to how they found their way into the worship of these extremist Shiites (1).

We have pointed out throughout this study that the contemporary Ghulat are mostly of Turkoman, Persian, Kurdish, or Arab origin. Despite their common belief in the deification of Ali, their names, languages, and locations vary widely. The Ahl-i Haqq are found mainly in Western Iran; the Shabak, Bajwan, Ibrahimiyya, and Sarliyya-Kakaiyya [420] live in Iraq; the Nusayris live in Syria and Lebanon; and the Bektashis, Kizilbash (Alevis), Çepnis, and Takhtajis in Turkey (2). Generally, the names of these sects indicate a religious rather than an ethnological identity. The study of their religious tenets reveals a syncretism of Islamic Shiism, Sufism, and Christianity, along with traces of animistic and heathen superstitions. But one should be careful not to confuse these sects with the greater body of Shiites, especially the Twelvers, who do not deify Ali. These sects are extremists whose apotheosis of Ali is the cornerstone of their belief. Their belief in a trinity of God, Muhammad, and Ali (or Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi in the case of the Nusayris) and in metempsychosis also separates them from Twelver Shiism and from orthodox Islam.

There is a great deal of fluidity and divergence in the religious practices of the Ghulat sects, due perhaps to the ignorance of their religious leaders, their lack of substantial body of religious literature, and the utter secrecy with which they guard their beliefs. Nevertheless, the investigation of these beliefs shows that they derive partly from heathenism, partly from Shiite Islam, and partly from Christianity.

Writers have observed idolatrous practices among these groups, especially the Kizilbash. Dunmore writes that whenever the Kizilbash find a piece of black wood, they worship it, saying it is a relic of some holy man or of a horse (3). Herrick considers them heathens because they revere their religious leaders to the point of worship. He reports some of these idolatrous practices, for example, their practice of bowing before wands cut from a certain tree and kept in the house of their shaykh, or religious leader (4). In this sense the Kizilbash are no different from the Ahl-i Haqq, who deify their shaykhs (5). J. G. Taylor speaks of a rock that is the object of idolatrous worship by some Kizilbash in the district of Dersim (Tunceli), in the upper Euphrates valley. He also reports that some Kizilbash worship fire, the sun at its rising and setting, and the sources of rivers, practices he believes are remnants of old Armenian paganism (6). Taylor thus implies that the Kizilbash Kurds of Dersim are of Armenian origin; this, as shall be seen shortly, has a great bearing on the presence of Christian elements in the worship of extremist Shiite groups. Similar traces of paganism among the Kizilbash have also been observed by Grenard, who reports that they worship the sun and the moon, and subscribe to the cults of the goddesses Anahit, Artemis, Aphrodite, Astarte (Ishtar), and others (7). This has also been observed by G. E. White, who points out that in ancient Anatolia, the female principle in the divine nature was primary, while the male principle was secondary, accounting for the worship of goddeseses (8). Devil worship is reported among a [421] branch of the Ahl-i Haqq as well as among the Yezidis of northern Iraq. It may be more accurate, however, to say that the Ahl-i Haqq and Yezidis do not worship Satan as a deity, but honor him from fear of his evil power. Like the Yezidis, some Ahl-i Haqq honor Taus Malak, the peacock angel that they believe guards the gates of paradise; they are therefore known as the Tausis, or peacock sect (9). Pantheistic beliefs are also reported among some of the Ahl-i Haqq. S. G. Wilson, a longtime missionary in Persia, states that some Ahl-i Haqq (whom he calls Ali Ilahis) maintain that “not only prophets and Imams, but also all of God’s creation (including angels), emanate from Him and are an integral part of His essence. This belief is closely associated with the doctrine of metempsychosis and the ultimate absorption of all things in the infinite” (10). Although specific pagan practices are not reported among the extremist Shiites of northern Iraq, it is certain that the Shabak share with their neighbors the Yezidis a veneration for some holy shrines (the shrine of Hasan Fardosh in the village of al-Darawish, east of Mosul, Iraq, for one) in addition to celebrating of some Yezidi festivals (11). The Ghulat also believe in the transmigration of souls, a doctrine which has a major place in the belief systems of the Ahl-i Haqq (Ali Ilahis), the Kakaiyya, and the Nusayris.

On the Shiite side, we may note the exalted position these groups give to the Imam Ali, whom they deify. They consider him part of a trinity along with God and Muhammad or among the Nusayris, with Muhammad and Salman al-Farisi. They exalt Ali above the Prophet Muhammad, who they maintain was the forerunner of Ali. To them Ali is God incarnate. He is the divine being that dwelt in the biblical prophets Abraham, Moses, and David, and even in Christ. As an expression of their worship of Ali, they offer him prayer and sacrifice (12). To the Nusayris Ali is God Himself the Lord of Lords, the creator of mankind and the source of the livelihood of His creation. The author of the Nusayri Kitab al-Mashyakha (Manual for shaykhs) states that Ali/God created Muhammad from the light of His unity and from the power of His eternity. This book contains traditions in which Muhammad himself attests to the divinity of Ali, demonstrating that Ali is superior to Muhammad (13). The extremist Shiites also exalt the Imams, considering them infallible, sinless, and divine.

Such hyperbole is totally foreign to orthodox Islam. In fact, to orthodox Muslims, the majority of the Shiites, and especially the Ghulat, are heretics. The Ghulats’ total disregard for religious duties and obligations moreover, drive them still farther from orthodox Islam. They do not pray or perform the ablution (purification by washing) before prayer. [422] They do not fast during the month of Ramadan or make the pilgrimage to Mecca. They do not recognize the Quran as the only sacred book—they have their own sacred books—or accept Muhammad as a prophet. Some of them prohibit divorce, a practice sanctioned by the Quran. They have a religious hierarchy of elders, or shaykhs, who they believe are the descendants of Ali and are infallible regarding religous matters (14).

The most striking phenomenon about the extremist Shiites is the Christian elements in their belief and rituals; those elements are noted by almost every writer who has come in contact with them. Most of the writers focus on the Bektashis and Kizilbash of Asia Minor and on smaller groups like the Takhtajis and Çepnis; Sir Charles Wilson was the first to classify the Shabak and Bajwan as Kizilbash, who have many things in common with the Ahl-i Haqq of western Iran (15).

Christian elements are prevalent in both the beliefs and the rituals of the extremist Shiite groups. The Nusayris celebrate Christmas and other Christian festivals, and their catechism affirms their belief in the Holy Eucharist. Some extremist Shiites believe that Jesus is the Son of God or even God Himself, although they maintain that He appeared under the name of Ali. They believe that as God is Christ, so Ali is the one who spoke through Moses and the prophets. To them Jesus is also the Word of God and the Savior of men, who intercedes with the Father on behalf of sinful humanity.

Like the Christians, they maintain that God comprises a trinity, although unlike the Christian trinity, the three persons of their trinity do not seem to be equal. Some of them baptize their children, but in the name of Ali. They believe that Mary is the mother of God, and that her conception of Jesus was an act of divine will. Like the Roman Catholics and all the Eastern Churches, they maintain that Mary was a virgin before and after she gave birth to Christ. They celebrate a rite resembling the Lord’s Supper, partaking of a cup of wine which they call the Cup of Love. Those guilty of sin are not allowed to partake of this cup. They confess their sins to their pirs and once a year hold a ceremony of public penance.

The religious hierarchy of the Ghulat is quite similar to that of Christianity. They observe several Christian holidays and honor several Christian saints. Finally, some of them accept the Bible rather than the Quran as a sacred book (16). Nutting, who attended an open prayer meeting of some Kizilbash in Turkey, writes that at the end of their worship, men and women kissed one another in the most modest manner. This practice resembles the Christian kiss of peace, performed during the celebration of the liturgy by the Eastern Churches to this day. Nutting [423] also found other practices among the Kurdish Kizilbash which he believed had a Christian origin. Among these were phrases and concepts contained in their songs and hymns proclaining such Christian truths as the duty of humility and the necessity of forgiving injuries inflicted by others (17).

Before baking their bread, the Kizilbash women around Marsovan, Turkey, mark every loaf with the sign of the cross (18). Christian traits among the Kizilbash of the Hermus valley in the neighborhood of Sardis were noted by Sir William M. Ramsay. He states that while the men of these villages bore Muslim names, the women had such common Christian names as Sophia, Ann, and Maryam. The villagers drank wine and were monogamous. They accepted Christian holy books and were visited by an itinerant religious official, a kind of priest, called a Karabash (one who wears a black headdress). Ramsay’s informant told him that these villagers were Christians with a veneer of Muhammadanism (19).

Their beliefs and practices have led many writers to regard extremist Shiites as crypto-Christian or, as Grenard puts it, “Islamic Protestants” (20). Some writers have maintained that these extremist Shiites are closer to Christianity than to Islam (21). S. G. Wilson states that one of the beliefs of the Ahl-i Haqq of Persia is that as a god incarnate, Ali manifested himself in Christ. Therefore, Ali and Christ are identical; like Christ, Ali becomes the Redeemer. For this reason the Ahl-i Haqq receive Christians as their brethren and listen to the gospel. Wilson further relates that one time, when he attended the celebration of the Persian New Year, a part of the end of the celebration was omitted, and at that point he was invited to read from the Injil (gospel) (22).

E M. Stead relates that once, when he was preaching the gospel to the Ahl-i Haqq in Western Iran, they asked him, “Why do you come to us with this message? We are already near you in belief. You should go to the Muslims, who are far removed in faith” (23). This corroborates the statement of de Gobineau, who wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century that the Muslims of Persia consider the Ahl-i Haqq close to the Christians, for just as the Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate, the Ahl-i Haqq believe that Ali is the manifestation of God (24). Such evidence illustrates how far these deifiers of Ali are from orthodox Islam and how near they are to Christianity. G. E. White, for many years a missionary in Turkey with many friends among the Kizilbash (whom he calls the Shia Turks), rightly states that there is much truth in their claim that “less than the thickness of an onionskin separates [them] from Christians” (25).

Our study of the extremist Shiite sects of northern Iraq shows that their rituals, like those of the Bektashis and Kizilbash, contain [424] unmistakably Christian elements. There is no evidence that these rituals were introduced by the small Christian communities in Iraq (namely, the Assyrians or Nestorians), whose members were converted to Catholicism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were renamed Chaldeans by the Church of Rome. To determine the effect of Christianity on the extremist Shiites of northern Iraq, we should look for evidence instead among the Shiite heterodox groups of Turkey, especially the Bektashis and the Kizilbash. These groups, Turkoman by origin, lived in Anatolia and held the same religious beliefs as the Shabak and related sectaries in Iraq. But how were these extremist Shiites in Turkey influenced by Christian beliefs and rituals?

To answer this question, it is necessary to trace the spread of Christianity among the Turks and Mongols. In the apostolic and post-apostolic eras, Christianity spread into Central Asia and China, taking especial hold among the Turks and Mongols. There is ample evidence in Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources to attest to this historical fact. From Bardaysan (154-222), Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339), and St. Jerome (347-420) to the Syrian Maphrian Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286) and the Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324), we learn about the spread of Christianity among the Scythians, Parthians, Chinese, Turks, and Mongols (26).

It is difficult, however, to determine the extent to which Christianity influenced these people, especially the Turks, among whose beliefs Christian elements persisted even after their conversion to Islam. One could dismiss the whole question by saying that after the Byzantines were defeated at the battle of Malazgirt in 1071 and the hordes of Muslim Turkoman tribes rushed from Persia to Iraq to dwell in Asia Minor, there ensued a mass conversion of the Christian population to Islam. One can also speculate that the Ghazis—zealot Muslim religious warriors motivated by the Islamic tenet of Jihad (holy war) against the Christian “infidels”—were instrumental in spreading Islam in Asia Minor and establishing a number of Muslim Turkish states. There is evidence that the leaders of these Ghazis, the Danishmends, were Armenian converts to Islam (27), which explains the emergence of crypto-Christian communities like the extremist Shiites. On the surface this may be true, and there is no denying that cases of forced conversion among the population of Asia Minor can be cited. But there is no evidence of forcible mass conversion under the Seljuk Turks.

As the Ottomans consolidated their power toward the end of the thirteenth century, a large number of conquered people converted to Islam, and a new army, the Janissaries, was recruited from captured [425] Christian children. Many of the Christians retained their religion and were recognized as independent ethnic or religious communities under the millet system (28). From a purely economic point of view, mass conversion of these rayas (subjects) was not in the interest of the Ottomans, because as soon as the rayas became Muslims they were exempt from the taxes imposed on non-Muslims according to Islamic law. There were, however, Christians who converted to Islam but retained most of their religious practices in secret. They are most likely the same people from Trebizond and the neighboring mountains mentioned by W. J. Hamilton. He calls them “Greek Turks” or “Turkish Greeks” and says that they profess to be Muslims and, observe such Muslim religious duties as circumcision and attending the mosque, but are secretly Christians (29). According to Ramsay, these crypto-Christians “have now ceased to be under the necessity of practicing this sham Mohammedanism” (30).

Rev. Horatio Southgate also refers to these people in describing a visit to the district of Trebizond in 1841. He states that in the city of Trebizond, there are several hundred people of Greek origin called Croomlees who are outwardly Muslims, but secretly Christians. They baptize their children, receive Holy Communion, and welcome priests to their homes, but in public they profess to be Muslims and wear the white turban of the Turks. Southgate also writes that in the vicinity of Trebizond there are many Muslims of Greek descent; indeed, they make up the majority of the Muslim population between Trebizond and Gumuşhane (31).

Vital Cuinet mentions the crypto-Christians of Trebizond in the district of Rize, who, though Muslims by faith, have preserved some Christian rituals, such as baptism (32). Many of these crypto-Christians speak not Turkish but Armenian, indicating their Armenian origin. Southgate states that in the district east of Trebizond live some thousand Muslim families of Armenian origin who still speak the Armenian language (33). The influence of Armenian Christianity on the extremist Shiites, particularly the Kizilbash, will be explored later. Suffice it to say here that incidents of conversion to Islam did exist. The conversion to Islam of the crypto-Christians of Trebizond, however, was recent (the seventeenth century), and they were most likely converted to Sunnite rather than to Shiite Islam (34).

Tracing the history of the transition from Christianity to Islam in Asia Minor is difficult and complex, due mainly to the dearth of information available about the Christian cults in Asia Minor at the time of the Turkish conquest, except for the heterodox Paulicians in Armenia and eastern Anatolia, who shall be discussed later. There is, however, [426] ample evidence of religious interrelations between Christians and Muslims and of the usurpation of many Christian sanctuaries and saints by Muslims (35). Like the orthodox Muslims, the Bektashis, Kizilbash, and Mevlevis appropriated a number of Christian sanctuaries, saints, and burial grounds, but in their dealings with the Christians of Asia Minor they followed a policy of tolerance, in order to win the Christian peasantry to their fold.

It should be remembered that the difference between the Bektashis and Kizilbash is less in their teachings than in their organization (36), and if we realize that the Shabak and other related sects in northern Iraq are of both Bektashi and Kizilbash origin, we can safely state that what applies to the Bektashis and Kizilbash regarding their association with Christianity applies also to the Shabak and related sects. One difference is that while the Bektashis and Kizilbash in Asia Minor continued to revere Christian saints and sanctuaries, the Shabak and related sects, who since the sixteenth century had lived as an isolated group in northern Iraq, lost faith. Their neighbors were either Sunnite Muslims or Yezidis, and the Shabak and related sects found themselves drawn more toward the Yezidis than to the Sunnite Muslims, with whom they had sharp religious differences. This explains their sharing of some shrines and festivities with the Yezidis. From the defeat of the Byzantine army at the battle of Malazgirt (1071) until the rise of the Ottomans to power at the end of the thirteenth century, Christians and Turks lived side by side. The establishment of the Seljuk state of Rum in 1077 may be regarded as the beginning of a long association between Muslim Turks and Christians. The Seljuk sultans of Rum were patrons of the liberal arts, literature, and science, and left behind them the most beautiful architecture in Asia Minor. Many of them were familiar with Christianity and treated their Christian subjects with tolerance (37).

The Seljuks may also have been influenced by the Crusaders from Europe, who in 1096 marched through Asia Minor on their way to the Holy Land to wrest Jerusalem from Muslim hands. In 1190 Frederick Barbarossa captured Konya, the capital of the Seljuks, forcing Konya to furnish him with guides and provisions. Six years later, the Seljuk Sultan Rukn al-Din Sulayman (reigned 1196-1206) coined money in imitation of Christian money. The opponents of the Seljuks, the Danishmends of Malatya (Melitene) and Sivas, even minted coins with the image of Christ on them. Many of the coins minted by Rukn al-Din Sulayman had a portrait of a horseman carrying a mace on his shoulders, in imitation of the coin minted by Roger of Antioch one hundred years earlier (38).

The Seljuk Sultan Ala al-Din Kaykubad I (reigned 1219-1236) became [427] acquainted with Christianity during his eleven years of exile in Constantinople. One of his predecessors, Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhosraw I (reigned 1192-1196 and 1204-1210), who was obliged to take refuge in Lesser Armenia, Trebizond, and Constantinople, fell in love with a Greek woman while in the Byzantine capital, a lady of noble birth, the daughter of Manuel Movrozomas (39). At one time Ghiyath al-Din was accused of apostasy by his more strict Muslim neighbors of Aleppo (40). It is even said that Giyath al-Din’s son Izz al-Din Kaykaus I (reigned 1210-1219), while in Constantinople, was admitted to the Sacraments (41). Many Seljuk sultans married Christian wives and had Christian mothers, some of whom had great influence on the Seljuk court. One of these women was the Georgian Princess Russudana, wife of Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhosraw II (reigned 1236-1245). Kaykhosraw’s II intention to stamp a portrait of his wife on his coin met with public opposition, and he was forced to abandon the idea (42). His partiality toward the Christians also enraged his Muslim subjects. His chief judge accused him of loving and admiring the Byzantine [Christian] way of life. Angered by the audacity of the judge, Ghiyath al-Din had him killed instantly (43).

In the latter part of the thirteenth century, the prevalence of Christian elements among the Turks of Asia Minor caused Anthimus, Patriarch of Constantinople, to believe that Izz al-Din Kaykaus II (1246-1283) had secretly converted to Christianity, and that there were many converts among the Bektashis and the Ismailis. It is not certain whether Izz al-Din Kaykaus II was converted to Christianity, but there is no doubt that his youngest son, Malik Constantine, lived in Constantinople, converted to Christianity, and married a Greek woman (44). At Konya, headquarters of the Mevlevi (Mawlawi) order of dervishes, Christians (both Greek and Armenian) and Jews were treated with tolerance. Scholars and physicians among them were welcomed at the court of the Seljuk sultans, as were their Muslim counterparts. Some Greeks and Armenians converted to Islam for convenience, in order to seek favor with the Sultans or to protect their property, but they continued to adhere to certain Christian practices which eventually became part of the Seljuk tradition. With the state of Lesser Armenia to the east and the Greeks and the Crusaders to the west of their sultanate, and with many Christians living amongst them, the Seljuks could hardly have escaped Christian influence (45).

Such tolerance was perhaps one factor giving rise to the dervish orders of the Mevlevis (Mawlawis) and the Bektashis. The period of the Seljuk state of Rum at Konya, especially during the rule of Ala al-Din Kaykubad I, was marked by great upheavals in art and literature and the fusion of Christian and Muslim cultures. In fact, the rise of the Seljuks of [428] Rum to power coincides with the rise of the state of Lesser Armenia in 1180. For 300 years this state fought on all fronts against the Byzantines, Arabs, and Seljuks.

The impact of Armenian legends and beliefs is most evident among the Kizilbash Kurds and the Ahl-i Haqq, as shall be seen in the following chapter. Under the Seljuk sultans of Rum, especially during the thirteenth century, constant warfare, the mingling of population and ideas, and especially religious tolerance were the major factors in the emergence of the dervish orders, whose religion combined pagan, Christian, and Muslim beliefs (46). It was during this period that numerous holy men and mystics from Bukhara, Khurasan, and other parts of Persia, driven by Mongol pressure at home, left for Anatolia. Most notable among them were the mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, who left Bukhara and arrived in Konya in 1233, and his friend Shams al-Din Tabrizi (d. 1246), who arrived in the same city in 1244. There they founded the Mevlevi Order. Rumi was tolerant toward Christians and even had Christian disciples (47).

The Bektashis were one of the dervish orders which flourished at this time; unlike the Mevlevis (Mawlawis), they began to propagate their beliefs among different people, including the Christian peasantry. Under Ala al-Din I, Konya became the focus of ideas and a culture wholly derived from Persia. Many of these dervishes were probably already Shiites or influenced by Shiite beliefs. There is evidence that in Asia Minor, missionaries from Konya preached Shiism to the common people. The objects of Shiite propaganda were the Takhtajis of Lycia and the Alawi (Kizilbash) Kurds of Diyarbakr. According to Hamd Allah Mustawfi (1340), the inhabitants of Senusa, near Amasia, were fanatic Shiites (48). Other streams of Shiism flowed from neighboring Syria. We have noted earlier that a certain Baba Ishaq, originally from the town of Kfarsud on the Syrian border, preached extreme Shiite beliefs to the Turkoman tribes and instigated an insurrection by these tribes against the Seljuk Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhosraw II (reigned 1236-45) (49).

The rise of the dervish orders may also be attributed partially to the rise of the Ottomans to power near the end of the thirteenth century and their establishment of a theocratic state based on the Islamic Sharia. Although Turkoman in origin, the Ottomans were nevertheless distinct from the rest of the Turks of Asia Minor in character, outlook, and political ambition (50). The Ottomans were the ruling class, and their objective was to build a strong empire. They were political pragmatists, more concerned with their destiny as a military elite than with the religious duty of converting non-Muslims, which motivated the Turkish Ghazis. To the Ottoman rulers the non-Muslims, whether of Greek, [429] Armenian, or any other origin, were taxpayers, and their conversion to Islam would deprive the state of substantial revenue. This is why the Ottomans based their state not on race but on religious denominationalism (the millet system), offering the Christian communities the freedom to manage their own cultural and religious affairs as long as they accepted the status of rayas (subjects) and paid the Jizya (poll-tax) (51).

Most significant, however, is that the Ottomans adopted orthodox Islam according to the Hanafite school as the formal religion of their state. The reason may be that they found in orthodox Islam a workable judicial and administrative system able to meet the needs of the new state. The Islamic Sharia served also as a convenient solution to the problems caused by the many different religious groups in the Ottoman state. Non-Muslisms had to pay the Jizya and Kharaj (land-tax) to receive protection from the state. Thus, the relationship between the non-Muslim subjects and the state was more concerned with economics than with allegiance. The elaborate and intricate judicial system of Islam was based on the Quran and the interpretation of jurists, the Ulama (men learned in religious science). They were the guardians of the Sharia and its application to the lives of the Muslim believers. The chief of these Ulama was Shaykh al-Islam, who advised the Ottoman sultans on the operation and actions of the government, to ensure that they were in conformity with the tenets of the Quran and the Sharia. The juristic opinions of Shaykh al-Islam ranged from determining the fast of Ramadan to the declaration of war on a foreign state. The reverence of the Ulama and their sultans for the Islamic Sharia was boundless, since, according to Islam, its source was God, not man. Hence, to the Ulama, the Sharia was divinely instituted, and no mortal could tamper with it. The Ulama, the upholders of the Sharia, became a separate caste, and along with the ruling class and the military were the backbone of the Ottoman state. One of the results of their adherence to Islamic orthodoxy was that the Ottomans came to employ more and more Arabic words and usages, which caused their language to diverge increasingly from the old Turkish. According to Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924), it was the official language of the Ottomans, but not of the Turkish masses (32). In fact, at one time some sultans wanted to adopt Arabic, the language of the Quran, as their formal tongue. By the fourteenth century, the dichotomy between the Ottomans and the Turkish masses began to widen, and it continued to do so until the fall of the empire in 1918. According to some authorities, from the beginning of their political career in the latter part of the thirteenth century, the Ottomans called themselves only Ottomans, never Turks. They also considered themselves different from the Turks (53). [430] The American missionaries Eli Smith and G. H. O. Dwight, who traveled through Turkey at the beginning of the nineteenth century, observed that the Turkomans were generally called Turks by the Ottomans, who abhorred the name Turk and preferred to be called Musulmans (Muslims) (54).

To the Ottomans, “Turk” was a name that belonged to the people of Turkestan and the nomadic hordes who roamed the steppes of Khurasan. They considered themselves civilized Ottomans, and could not understand why Europeans called them Turks. As a sophisticated ruling class, the Ottomans looked down upon the Turkish peasantry, calling them Eshek Turk (the donkey Turk) and Kaba Turk (stupid Turk) (55). Expressions like “Turk-head” and “Turk-person” were contemptously used by Ottomans when they wanted to denigrate each other (56).

The Turkish peasantry, although Muslim, was little affected by the Ottomans’ Islamic orthodoxy, with its intricate scholastic theology, its religious schools, the juristic opinions of the Ulama, and the Arabic terminology that inundated the Ottoman literary language. To the masses, the Ottomans were as alien, as the Greeks. The strict and complex orthodoxy adopted by the Ottomans appealed little to the Turkish peasant who, although Islamized, was still influenced by the shamanistic origin of his culture. Their God was Tanri, the old pagan deity who symbolized love and beauty. According to Halide Edib, Muslim preachers who threatened the masses with hellfire and the torture of Ifrits (demons) were less popular among the masses than those who talked of Tanri as the symbol of beauty and love. It is against this background that many dervish orders and heterodox sects emerged in Asia Minor, in reaction to strict Islamic orthodoxy. Among these were the Kizilbash, the Mevlevis (Mawlawis), and the Bektashis, whose simple spiritual teaching and emphasis on mystical love and universal brotherhood appealed tremendously to the Turkish masses (57). To them, true religion was the internal enlightenment of the heart, rather than a formal application of ritual. This is why they rejected the religious dogmatism and ritualism of the orthodoxy sponsored by the state.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Bektashis were actively competing with other orders to win the majority of the populace to their fold. There is evidence that they encroached upon the tribal sanctuaries and holy places of other orders. This encroachment extended to Christian sanctuaries, churches, saints, and tombs (58). In order to win the Christian peasantry to their fold, the Bektashis opened their own holy places to the Christians (59) At the beginning of the fifteenth century [431] Badr al-Din, son of the judge of Samawna, led a socio-religious rebellion which was connected with the Bektashi sect. There is evidence that in the wake of this rebellion, Christian converts to Bektashism were enthusiastically welcomed, and the equality of Christians with Muslims in their worship of God was so emphasized that leaders of the rebellion proclaimed that any Turk who denied the truths of the Christian religion was himself irreligious (60). Thus, in time, the simple and illiterate folk of Anatolia, both Christian and Muslim, came to honor the same saints, visit the same shrines, and share common burial grounds. For example, the Haji Bektash lodge near Kirşehir is visited not only by members of the Bektashi order, but also by Christians, who, on entering the shrine, make the sign of the cross. For this reason, local tradition associates the tomb of Haji Bektash with the Greek Saint Charalambo, and the Bektashi dervishes who guard the shrine seem to encourage this association. It is said that many Bektashi dervishes consider Haji Bektash to be the incarnation of St. Charalambo, whom they honor so much that they do not hesitate to kill any Muslim who blasphemes him or Christ (61). The Haji Bektash lodge has also become the religious center for all Bektashis, Kizilbash, and other extremist Shiite sects in Asia Minor. To these extremist Shiites, the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq were too far to visit as a religious duty; they found it more convenient to perform the pilgrimage to the Haji Bektash lodge (62). A similar shrine is in the village of Haydar al-Sultan, near Angora (Ankara), where a Muslim saint is buried. He is identified as Khoja Ahmad (Karaja Ahmad), presumably a disciple of Haji Bektash. His wife Mene was a Christian from Caesarea. Local tradition indicates that this tekke stands on the site of a Christian monastery. The inhabitants of the village are Kizilbash, indicating that the differences between the Bektashis and Kizilbash are minor (63).

Yaron Friedman “The Nusayri-Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History, and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria”, 2010

The book uses recently published  Alawi religious sources and looks at the period from the origins of the sect in the 9th century to the period of political, social, and theological consolidation in the 14th century He claims that Alawi religious views are as fully Muslim as those of any other sect. The book is somewhat misleading because members of this group are the “leading minority in Syria” is late 20th-century phenomenon and not taken in account that the Shiite – Sunni is essentially a religious expression of the Persia – Arab conflict.  While I agree, that  the Ortodox Islam view has just the justification of majority and raw power and have great respect of the spritual and intellectual strength of Sufi Islam and Shia Islam,  I fail to see how Alawism – if one just takes creed not the religious practice of the non-initiated – is within the limits of a strict monotheistic religion as Islam is.

3 thoughts on “Syrian Alawites fate shows if Arab Spring turns in Caliphate Winter

  1. Pingback: Patron of Islam, (5) before Coptic priest and missionary (Egypt)-I | MeInfoBlogger.net

  2. Pingback: Western foreign policy a pattern for genocide. | fallenAngel's 2nd life

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