Introduction / History
In the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the mountain ranges of northwestern 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 and heretics who were not eligible for the status of a protected religion.
"Alawi" is the term that Alawis usually apply to themselves; but until 1920 they were known to the outside world as "Nusayris" or "Ansaris". The change in name, imposed by the French upon their seizure of control in Syria, has significance. Whereas "Nusayri" emphasizes the group's differences from Islam, "Alawi" suggests an adherent of Ali and accentuates the religion's similarities to Shi'a Islam. Consequently, opponents of the Assad regime habitually use the former term; supporters of the regime use the latter.
Three-quarters of the Syrian Alawis live in the northwestern province of Latakia, where they make up almost two-thirds of the population.
The mountainous areas of Syria have always been a safe haven for minority groups seeking security. Three Islamic sects found refuge there: the 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 extremer Twelver Shi'a thought mixed with syncretic Christian and traditional influences. The Alawi 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 of God.
The Alawis are a tribal people, divided into four main tribe. They are a closed society and they see themselves as a persecuted and despised people, who actually are the chosen people of God, the only ones to have seen the light in a world of darkness. While maintaining their beliefs they pretend to adhere to the dominant religion present in order to escape persecution.
What are their lives like?
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". Any male over eighteen can try and receive initiation if he passes certain tests. He is then attached to a spiritual guide and can gradually ascend to higher degrees of initiation (Najib, Natik, Imam). 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.
What are their beliefs?
The Alawis believe that all people were stars in the world of light, but fell from there due to disobedience. They believe they must be reincarnated seven times before they once again return to the stars where Ali is prince. If they are sinful, they will be reborn as Christians until their atonement is complete. Infidels will be reborn as animals. The actual Alawi beliefs and practices are based on their book, the "Kitab al-Majmu".
What are their needs?
A visitor will not encounter an Alawite who will discuss the particulars of his beliefs. In fact, an Alawite would tell the visitor he is a Muslim, since he sees himself as one. The common Alawite person does not even know his group's teachings, because they are so secret. According to Christian workers assigned to the Fertile Crescent, very few of the Alawites knows Christ personally. There is a great need for more workers who will commit themselves to getting Bibles and other Christian literature into the Alawites' hands and to sharing the Good News in other ways.