A Brief History
On December 11, 2012, an Alawite village in Syria, Aqrab, was the scene of horrific tragedy as terrorist bombs went off and killed about 125 people and injured an additional 200. Known as the Aqrab Massacre, this sad series of events were but a smaller part in the ongoing Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. Other estimates of fatalities in the Massacre range up to 300 dead. In the West, the Islamic religion is often portrayed as a monolithic entity, and when differences in Islamic theology are recognized it is usually in the context of the conflict between the major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, but there is much more to Islam than just those 2 branches, just as there are many branches of Christian religions, varieties of Buddhism, and sects of Judaism.
The Alawite sect of Islam is somewhat secretive, historically keeping their beliefs and practices to themselves and reluctant to share their beliefs and practices with those outside of their own society. Mainly centered in Syria, the Alawites comprise a considerable minority of Syria’s population, over 17% (3 million people). An additional 1.6 million or so Alawites live in the region, including 1 million in Turkey and an enclave of about 70,000 in Germany.
Some of the distinguishing aspects of Alawite beliefs include freely drinking alcoholic beverages, unlike many other Muslims, and a belief in reincarnation. Another characteristic belief is in a “Triad,” the divinity of God expressed in 3 aspects or “emanations.” Alawites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib (usually known simply as “Ali”), perhaps the first Imam of the “Twelver School.” Reportedly founded by Ibn Nusayr during the 9th century, the followers of Nusayr were known usually as “Nusayris” until the name evolved to “Alawis” or “Alawite” in the 1920’s. Another alternate moniker of the Alawites is “Ansaris,” possibly a corruption of the original name, Nusayris. Originally comprised of nomadic Bedouin Aram people in the Mesopotamian region, the core of the Alawite population ended up in Syria. Their tendency to protect the secrets of their beliefs and rituals have created rumors and mistrust about this group of believers and resentment on the part of other Islamic branches, as well as general ignorance by Westerners, a situation that has been changing with increased scholarship concerning this branch of Islam in the West in recent decades.
Just as Christians have fought numerous wars and battles over differences in their beliefs, notably the Protestant vs. Catholic wars and conflicts, and the Christian religion has various sects with widely differing beliefs, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to Mormonism to Seventh Day Adventists to Jehovah’s Witnesses and on and on, so does Islam and modern day Islam continues to be plagued by violent conflict between branches of the Islamic faith. The tendency to lump people into large groups and ascribe a general “character” to that group is often a gross misunderstanding of the real human dynamic involved. Islam is far from a monolithic bloc of clone like believers with a single agenda but is in fact a diverse group of believers with certain similar beliefs.
Religion has historically unified people and driven people apart, a seeming contradiction. People seem to dwell on the differences between religions and sects instead of concentrating on the similarities. Is this conflict inevitable? Can people ever resolve religious differences into mutual respect and tolerance? Is religion more of a unifier or a divider of people? In the 21st Century, an age of incredible scientific advancements, ancient religious beliefs still divide people all over the world. Can science and religion be brought into harmony or does one or the other have to go? Feel free to let us know your thoughts on these incredibly divisive subjects.
Question for students (and subscribers): How many branches of Islam are you aware of? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Aslan, Reza. No god but God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011.
Goldsmith, Leon. Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace. Hurst, 2015.
Winter, Stefan. A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic. Princeton University Press, 2016.