The Alawis, or Alawites (Arabic: علويةAlawīyah), are a ghulat sect of Islam'[12] primarily centred in Syria. The Alawites revere Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib), considered the first Imam of the Twelver school. The group is believed to have been founded by Ibn Nusayr during the 9th century and fully established as a religion. For this reason, Alawites are sometimes called Nusayris (Arabic: نصيريةNuṣayrīyah), although the term has come to be used as a pejorative in the modern era. Another name, Ansari (Arabic: انصاريةAnṣārīyah), is believed to be a mistransliteration of "Nusayri".

According to Mehrdad Izady, Alawites represent 17.2 percent of the Syrian population, an increase from 11.8 percent in 2010[13] and are a significant minority in the Hatay Province of Turkey and northern Lebanon. There is also a population living in the village of Ghajar in the Golan Heights. Alawites form the dominant religious group on the Syrian coast and towns near the coast which are also inhabited by Sunnis, Christians, and Ismailis. They are often confused with the Alevis of Turkey.

Alawites identify as a separate ethnoreligious group. The Quran is only one of their holy books and texts, and their interpretation thereof has very little in common with the Shia Muslim interpretation but in accordance with the early Batiniyya and other Muslim ghulat sects. Alawite theology and rituals break from mainstream Shia Islam in several remarkable ways. For one, the Alawites drink wine as Ali's transubstantiated essence in their rituals;[14] while other Muslims abstain from alcohol, Alawites are encouraged to drink socially in moderation. Finally, they also believe in reincarnation. [15]

Alawites have historically kept their beliefs secret from outsiders and non-initiated Alawites, so rumours about them have arisen. Arabic accounts of their beliefs tend to be partisan (either positively or negatively).[16] However, since the early 2000s, Western scholarship on the Alawite religion has made significant advances.[17] At the core of Alawite belief is a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. These aspects, or emanations, appear cyclically in human form throughout history.

The establishment of the French Mandate of Syria marked a turning point in Alawi history. It gave the French the power to recruit Syrian civilians into their armed forces for an indefinite period and created exclusive areas for minorities, including an Alawite State. The Alawite State was later dismantled, but the Alawites continued to be a significant part of the Syrian Armed Forces. Since Hafez al-Assad took power through the 1970 Corrective Movement, the government has been dominated by a political elite led by the Alawite Al-Assad family. During the Islamist uprising in Syria in the 1970s and 1980s, the establishment came under pressure. Even greater pressure has resulted from the Syrian Civil War.

Zulfiqar with inscription
Zulfiqar, the stylised representation of the sword of Ali, is a crucial symbol for both Alawites and orthodox Shia Muslims
Total population
4,600,000 (2018 estimate)[1]
Ibn Nuṣayr[2] and Al-Khaṣībī[3]
Regions with significant populations
 Syria3.0 million[4]
 Turkey1 million[5]
Lebanon/Golan Heights3,900 live in Ghajar with Israeli citizenship
 Australia2% of Lebanese-born people in Australia[11]
Arabic, Turkish


In older sources, Alawis are often called "Ansaris". According to Samuel Lyde, who lived among the Alawites during the mid-19th century, this was a term they used among themselves. Other sources indicate that "Ansari" is simply a Western error in the transliteration of "Nusayri".[18][19] However, the term "Nusayri" had fallen out of currency by the 1920s, as a movement led by intellectuals within the community during the French Mandate sought to replace it with the modern term "Alawi".

They characterised the older name (which implied "a separate ethnic and religious identity") as an "invention of the sect's enemies", ostensibly favouring an emphasis on "connection with mainstream Islam"—particularly the Shia branch.[20] As such, "Nusayri" is now generally regarded as antiquated, and has even come to have insulting and abusive connotations. The term is frequently employed as hate speech by Sunni fundamentalists fighting against Bashar al-Assad's government in the Syrian civil war, who use its emphasis on Ibn Nusayr in order to insinuate that Alawi beliefs are "man-made" and not divinely inspired.[21]

Recent research has shown that the Alawi appellation was used by the sect's adherents since the 11th century. The following quote from Alkan (2012) illustrates this point:

"In actual fact, the name 'Alawī' appears as early as in an 11th century Nuṣayrī tract (…). Moreover, the term 'Alawī' was already used at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1903 the Belgian-born Jesuit and Orientalist Henri Lammens (d. 1937) visited a certain Ḥaydarī-Nuṣayrī sheikh Abdullah in a village near Antakya and mentions that the latter preferred the name 'Alawī' for his people. Lastly, it is interesting to note that in the above-mentioned petitions of 1892 and 1909 the Nuṣayrīs called themselves the 'Arab Alawī people' (ʿArab ʿAlevī ṭāʾifesi) 'our ʿAlawī Nuṣayrī people' (ṭāʾifatunā al-Nuṣayriyya al-ʿAlawiyya) or 'signed with Alawī people' (ʿAlevī ṭāʾifesi imżāsıyla). This early self-designation is, in my opinion, of triple importance. Firstly, it shows that the word 'Alawī' was always used by these people, as ʿAlawī authors emphasize; secondly, it hints at the reformation of the Nuṣayrīs, launched by some of their sheikhs in the 19th century and their attempt to be accepted as part of Islam; and thirdly, it challenges the claims that the change of the identity and name from 'Nuṣayrī' to 'ʿAlawī' took place around 1920, in the beginning of the French mandate in Syria (1919–1938)."[22]

The Alawites are distinct from the Alevi religious sect in Turkey, although the terms share a common etymology and pronunciation.[23][24]



Alawite falconer
Alawite falconer photographed by Frank Hurley in Baniyas, Syria during World War II

The origin of the genetics of Alawites is disputed. Local folklore suggests that they are descendants of the followers of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (d. 873) and his pupil, Ibn Nusayr (d. 868).[25] During the 19th and 20th centuries, some Western scholars believed that Alawites were descended from ancient Middle Eastern peoples such as the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites,[26][27] and Mardaites.[28] Many prominent Alawite tribes are also descended from 13th century settlers from Sinjar.[29]

In his Natural History, Book V, Pliny the Elder said:

We must now speak of the interior of Syria. Coele Syria has the town of Apamea, divided by the river Marsyas from the Tetrarchy of the Nazerini.
— Pliny the Elder, [30]

The "Tetrarchy of the Nazerini" refers to the western region, between of the Orontes and the sea, which consists of a small mountain range called An-Nusayriyah Mountains bordered with a valley running from south-east to north-west known as "Al-Ghab plain"; the region was populated by a portion of Syrians, who were called Nazerini.[31] However, scholars are reluctant to link between Nazerini and Nazarenes.[32] Yet, the term "Nazerini" can be possibly connected to words which include the Semitic triliteral root n-ṣ-r such as the subject naṣer in Eastern Aramaic which means "keeper of wellness".[33]

Ibn Nusayr and his followers are considered the founders of the sect. After the death of the Eleventh Imam, al-Askari, problems emerged in the Shia Community concerning his succession, and then Ibn Nusayr claimed to be the Bab and Ism of the deceased Imam and that he received his secret teachings. Ibn Nusayr and his followers development seems to be one of many other early Ghulat mystical Islamic sects, and were apparently excomunicated by the Shia representatives of the 12th Hidden Imam.[34] The Alawi sect later was organised during the Hamdanid dynasty by a follower of Muhammad Ibn Nusayr known as Al-Khaṣībī, who died in Aleppo about 969 AD, after a rivalty with the sect Ishaqiyya, who claimed also to have the doctrine of Ibn Nusayr.[35] In 1032 Al-Khaṣībī's grandson and pupil, al-Tabarani, moved to Latakia (then controlled by the Byzantine Empire). Al-Tabarani influenced the Alawite faith through his writings and by converting the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range.[35]

According to Bar Hebraeus, many Alawites were killed when the Crusaders initially entered Syria in 1097; however, they tolerated them when they concluded they were not a truly Islamic sect.[36] Two prominent Alawite leaders in the following centuries, credited with uplifting the group, were Shaykhs al-Makzun (d. 1240) and al-Tubani (d. 1300), both originally from Mount Sinjar in modern Iraq.[36]

In the 14th century, the Alawites were forced by Mamluk ruler Baibars to build mosques in their settlements, to which they responded with token gestures described by the Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta.[37][38] During the reign of Selim I, of the Ottoman Empire, the Alawites would again experience significant persecution;[39] especially in Aleppo when a massacre occurred in the Great Mosque of Aleppo on 24 April 1517. The massacre was known as "Massacre of the Telal" (Arabic: مجزرة التلل‎) in which the corpses of thousands of victims accumulated as a Tell located west of the castle.[40] The horrors of the massacre which caused the immigration of the survivors to the coastal region are documented at the National and University Library in Strasbourg, the manuscript is reserved as a letter sent by an Ottoman commander to Sultan Selim I:[41]

By executing the orders of his majesty, the decisions and recommendations were implemented, and all the Syrian villages, especially the villages of Nusayris, were destroyed until the jungle of the bridge (Jisr al-Shughur) and the gate of the Eagle (probably Bab al-Nasr), to Shaizar and Wadi Khaled (in Akkar District), until the victory was written for us. And the religion of Islam, the "Ottoman" of course, settled in the Levant; and these Syrians were left homeless and would not live on the land of the great Sultan Selim; their remnants have been eaten by the monsters of the mountains and crocodiles of the jungle (Al-Ghab plain), long live our Sultan on soft lands, God bless the right .. God curse them in every book, and the light of God perpetuates on you.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire oppressed the Alawites,[42] attempting to convert them to Sunni Islam.[43] The Alawis rose up against the Ottomans on several occasions, and maintained their autonomy in their mountains.[44]

In his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence wrote:

The sect, vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever. Their villages lay in patches down the main hills to the Tripoli gap. They spoke Arabic, but had lived there since the beginning of Greek letters in Syria. Usually they stood aside from affairs, and left the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.[45]

During the 18th century, the Ottomans employed a number of Alawite leaders as tax collectors under the iltizam system. Between 1809 and 1813, Mustafa Agha Barbar, the governor of Tripoli, attacked the Kalbiyya Alawites with "marked savagery."[46] Some Alawites supported Ottoman involvement in the Egyptian-Ottoman Wars of 1831–1833 and 1839–1841,[47] and had careers in the Ottoman army or as Ottoman governors.[48]

By the mid-19th century, the Alawite people, customs and way of life were described by Samuel Lyde, an English missionary among them, as suffering from nothing except a gloomy plight.[49]

Early in the 20th century the mainly-Sunni Ottoman leaders were bankrupt and losing the political power, and the Alawites were poor peasants.[50][51] Alawites were not allowed to testify in court until after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.[52]

French Mandate period

"Alawite state of Latakia", supported by French colonial power.

After the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon were placed by the League of Nations under the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. On 15 December 1918 Alawite leader Saleh al-Ali called for a meeting of Alawite leaders in the town of Al-Shaykh Badr, urging them to revolt and expel the French from Syria.

When French authorities heard about the meeting, they sent a force to arrest Saleh al-Ali. He and his men ambushed and defeated the French forces at Al-Shaykh Badr, inflicting more than 35 casualties.[53] After this victory al-Ali began organising his Alawite rebels into a disciplined force, with its own general command and military ranks.

The Al-Shaykh Badr skirmish began the Syrian Revolt of 1919.[53][54] Al-Ali responded to French attacks by laying siege to (and occupying) al-Qadmus, from which the French had conducted their military operations against him.[53] In November, General Henri Gouraud mounted a campaign against Saleh al-Ali's forces in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains. His forces entered al-Ali's village of Al-Shaykh Badr, arresting many Alawi leaders; however, Al-Ali fled to the north. When a large French force overran his positions, he went underground.[53]

However, despite these instances of opposition, the Alawites greatly favoured French rule and sought its continuation beyond the mandate period.[55]

Alawite State

French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon map en
Map of French Mandate states in 1921–22 (Alawite State in purple)

When the French began to occupy Syria in 1920,[56] an Alawite State was created in the coastal and mountain country comprising most Alawite villages; the French justified this by citing differences between the "backwards" mountain people and the mainstream Sunnis. The division also intended to protect the Alawite people from more-powerful majorities, such as the Sunnis.

The French also created microstates, such as Greater Lebanon for the Maronite Christians and Jabal al-Druze for the Druze. Aleppo and Damascus were also separate states.[57] Under the Mandate many Alawite chieftains supported a separate Alawite nation, and tried to convert their autonomy into independence.

The French encouraged Alawites to join their military forces, in part to provide a counterweight to the Sunni majority (which was more hostile to their rule). According to a 1935 letter by the French minister of war, the French considered the Alawites and the Druze the only "warlike races" in the Mandate territories.[58]

The region was home to a mostly-rural, heterogeneous population. The landowning families and 80 percent of the population of the port city of Latakia were Sunni Muslim; however, in rural areas 62 percent of the population were Alawite peasants. There was considerable Alawite separatist sentiment in the region,[59] evidenced by a 1936 letter signed by 80 Alawi leaders addressed to the French Prime Minister which said that the "Alawite people rejected attachment to Syria and wished to stay under French protection". Among the signatories was Sulayman Ali al-Assad, father of Hafez al-Assad.[59] Even during this time of increased Alawite rights, the situation was still so bad for the group that many women had to leave their homes to work for urban Sunnis.[60]

In May 1930, the Alawite State was renamed the Government of Latakia in one of the few concessions by the French to Arab nationalists before 1936.[59][59] Nevertheless, on 3 December 1936 the Alawite State was re-incorporated into Syria as a concession by the French to the National Bloc (the party in power in the semi-autonomous Syrian government). The law went into effect in 1937.[61]

Gleaning Alawite woman
Alawite woman gleaning in 1938

In 1939, the Sanjak of Alexandretta (now Hatay) contained a large number of Alawites. The Hatayan land was given to Turkey by the French after a League of Nations plebiscite in the province. This development greatly angered most Syrians; to add to Alawi contempt, in 1938 the Turkish military went into İskenderun and expelled most of the Arab and Armenian population.[62] Before this, the Alawite Arabs and Armenians comprised most of the province's population.[62] Zaki al-Arsuzi, a young Alawite leader from Iskandarun province in the Sanjak of Alexandretta who led the resistance to the province's annexation by the Turks, later became a co-founder of the Ba'ath Party with Eastern Orthodox Christian schoolteacher Michel Aflaq and Sunni politician Salah ad-Din al-Bitar.

After World War II, Sulayman al-Murshid played a major role in uniting the Alawite province with Syria. He was executed by the Syrian government in Damascus on 12 December 1946, only three days after a political trial.

After Syrian independence

Syria became independent on 17 April 1946. In 1949, after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Syria experienced a number of military coups and the rise of the Ba'ath Party.

In 1958, Syria and Egypt were united by a political agreement into the United Arab Republic. The UAR lasted for three years, breaking apart in 1961 when a group of army officers seized power and declared Syria independent.

A succession of coups ensued until, in 1963, a secretive military committee (including Alawite officers Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid) helped the Ba'ath Party seize power. In 1966 Alawite-affiliated military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the Ba’ath Party old guard followers of Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and Sunni Muslim Salah ad-Din al-Bitar, calling Zaki al-Arsuzi the "Socrates" of the reconstituted Ba'ath Party.

In 1970 Air Force General Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, took power and instigated a "Corrective Movement" in the Ba'ath Party. The coup of 1970 ended the political instability which had existed since independence.[63] Robert D. Kaplan compared Hafez al-Assad's coming to power to "an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries".[56] In 1971 al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time permitted only for Sunni Muslims. In 1973 a new constitution was adopted, replacing Islam as the state religion with a mandate that the president's religion be Islam, and protests erupted.[64] In 1974, to satisfy this constitutional requirement, Musa as-Sadr (a leader of the Twelvers of Lebanon and founder of the Amal Movement, who had unsuccessfully sought to unite Lebanese Alawites and Shiites under the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council)[65] issued a fatwa that Alawites were a community of Twelver Shiite Muslims.[66] Under the authoritarian, secular Assad government, religious minorities were tolerated more than before but political dissidents were not. In 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an anti-government Islamist insurgency, Hafez Assad staged a military offensive against them known as the Hama massacre.

Syrian Civil War

During the Syrian Civil War, the Alawites have suffered as a result of their support for the Assad government against the mainly Sunni opposition, with up to a third of young Alawite men killed in the increasingly sectarian conflict.[67] Many Alawites fear a negative outcome for the government in the conflict would result in an existential threat to their community.[68] In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.[69] In April 2017, a pro-opposition source claimed 150,000 young Alawites had died.[70]


Celebrating Alawites
Alawites celebrating at a festival in Baniyas, Syria during World War II.

Alawites and their beliefs have been described as “secretive”[71][19][72][73][16] (Yaron Friedman, for example, in his scholarly work on the sect, has written that the Alawi religious material quoted in his book came only from “public libraries and printed books” since the “sacred writings” of the Alawi “are kept secret”[Note 1]); some tenets of the faith are kept secret from most Alawi and known only to a select few,[42][74] they have therefore been described as a mystical sect.[75]

Alawite beliefs have never been confirmed by their modern religious authorities.[76] Alawites tend to conceal their beliefs (taqiyya) due to historical persecution.[19]

Theology and practices

Alawis are self-described as a community of "true believers". Alawites "celebrate Mass, including consecration of bread and wine."[77]

Alawite doctrine incorporates Islamic, Gnostic, neo-Platonic, Christian and other elements and has, therefore, been described as syncretic.[17][78]

According to an article appeared on The Telegraph, the 1995 edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World allegedly describes them as "extremist" Shi’ia whose "religious system separates them from Sunni Muslims," but also states that they "celebrate Mass, including consecration of bread and wine."[19]


Alawites hold that they were originally stars or divine lights that were cast out of heaven through disobedience and must undergo repeated reincarnation (or metempsychosis[79]) before returning to heaven.[72][80] They can be reincarnated as Christians or others through sin and as animals if they become infidels.[72][81] In addition, they believe that God might have incarnated twice; the first incarnation was Joshua who conquered Canaan, and the second was the fourth Caliph, Ali.[82]

Other beliefs

Other beliefs and practices include: the consecration of wine in a secret form of Mass performed only by males; frequently being given Christian names; entombing the dead in sarcophagi above ground; observing Kha b-Nisan (Nowruz or Akitu), Epiphany, Christmas[83] and the feast days of John Chrysostom and Mary Magdalene;[84] the only religious structures they have are the shrines of tombs;[85] the book Kitab al Majmu, which is allegedly a central source of Alawite doctrine;[86][87][88][89]

Alawite man in Latakia, early 20th century

They also believe in intercession of certain legendary saints such as Khidr (Saint George) and Simeon Stylites.[90]


Yaron Friedman and many researches of Alawi doctrine write that the founder of the religion, Ibn Nusayr, did not necessarily believe he was representative of a splinter, rebel group of the Shias, but rather believed he held the true doctrine of the Shias, and most of the aspects who are similar to Christianity are considered more a coincidence and not a direct influence from it, as well as other external doctrines who were actually popular among Shia Esoteric groups in Basra in the 8th century. According to Friedman and other scholars, the Alawi movement started as many other mystical ghulat sects with an explicit concentration in an allegorical and esoteric meaning of the Quran and other mystical practices, and not as a pure syncretic sect, thought later they embraced some other practices as they believed all religions had the same Batin core.[91]

Journalist Robert F. Worth argues that the idea that the Alawi religion as a branch of Islam is a rewriting of history made necessary by the French colonialists abandonment of the Alawi and departure from Syria. Worth describes the “first ... authentic source for outsiders about the religion” (written by Soleyman of Adana – a 19th-century Alawi convert to Christianity who broke his oath of secrecy on the religion) explaining that the Alawi (according to Soleyman) deified Ali, venerated Christ, Muhammad, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, and held themselves apart from Muslims and Christians, whom they considered heretics.[92]

In 1936, six Alawi notables fearing persecution of their religion, petitioned the French colonialists not to merge their Alawi enclave with the rest of Syria, insisting that “the spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion.”[93] According to Worth, later fatwas declaring Alawi to be part of the Shia community were by Shia clerics “eager for Syrian Patronage” from Syria's Alawi president Hafez al-Assad who was eager for Islamic legitimacy in the face of the hostility of Syria's Muslim majority.[93]

Yaron Friedman does not suggest that Alawi did not consider themselves Muslims but does state that,

The modern period has witnessed tremendous changes in the definition of the ʿAlawīs and the attitude towards them in the Muslim world. ... In order to end their long isolation, the name of the sect was changed in the 1920s from Nusạyriyya to ʿAlawiyya'. By taking this step, leaders of the sect expressed not only their link to Shīʿism, but to Islam in general.[94]

According to Peter Theo Curtis, the Alawi religion underwent a process of "Sunnification" during the years under Hafez Al Assad's rule, so that Alawites became not Shia, but effectively Sunni. Public manifestation or “even mentioning of any Alawite religious activities” was banned, as was any Alawite religious organizations or “any formation of a unified religious council” or a higher Alawite religious authority. “Sunni-style” mosques were built in every Alawite village, and Alawi were encouraged to perform Hajj.[95]

Opinions on position within Islam

The Sunni Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini issued a fatwa recognizing them as part of the Muslim community in the interest of Arab nationalism.[96][97]

However, Athari Sunni scholars such as the Syrian historian Ibn Kathir have categorised Alawites as kuffar (infidels) and mushrikeen (polytheists), in their writings;[42][98][99] with Ibn Taymiyya arguably being the most virulent anti-Alawite in his fatwas[100] accusing them of aiding the Crusader and Mongol enemies of the Muslims.[101] Other Sunni scholars, such as Al-Ghazali, also approved of violence against Alawites, whom he considered as non-Muslims.[102] Benjamin Disraeli, in his novel Tancred, also expressed the view that Alawites are not Muslims.[103]

Historically, Twelver Shia scholars (such as Shaykh Tusi) didn't consider Alawites as Shia Muslims while condemning their heretical beliefs.[104] Ibn Taymiyyah also pointed out that Alawites were not Shi'ites.[105]

According to Matti Moosa,

The Christian elements in the Nusayri religion are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurbana, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to his disciples, and, most important, the celebration of the Quddas (a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, founder of the Church, who is seen, paradoxically, as the embodiment of true Islam).[106]

Barry Rubin has suggested that Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor Bashar al-Assad pressed their fellow Alawites "to behave like 'regular Muslims', shedding (or at least concealing) their distinctive aspects".[107] During the early 1970s a booklet, al-`Alawiyyun Shi'atu Ahl al-Bait ("The Alawites are Followers of the Household of the Prophet") was published, which was "signed by numerous 'Alawi' men of religion", described the doctrines of the Imami Shia as Alawite.[108] Additionally, there has been a recent movement to unite Alawism and the other branches of Twelver Islam through educational exchange programs in Syria and Qom.[109]

Alawi women in Syria, early 20th century

Some sources have discussed the "Sunnification" of Alawites under the al-Assad regime.[110] Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, writes that Hafiz al-Assad "tried to turn Alawites into 'good' (read Sunnified) Muslims in exchange for preserving a modicum of secularism and tolerance in society". On the other hand, Al-Assad "declared the Alawites to be nothing but Twelver Shiites".[110] In a paper, "Islamic Education in Syria", Landis wrote that "no mention" is made in Syrian textbooks (controlled by the Al-Assad regime) of Alawites, Druze, Ismailis or Shia Islam; Islam was presented as a monolithic religion.[111]

Ali Sulayman al-Ahmad, chief judge of the Baathist Syrian state, has said:

We are Alawi Muslims. Our book is the Qur'an. Our prophet is Muhammad. The Ka`ba is our qibla, and our Dīn (religion) is Islam.[76]


Alawite Distribution in the Levant
Map showing the distribution (2012) of Alawites in the Northern Levant.


Alawites have traditionally lived in the Coastal Mountain Range along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Latakia and Tartus are the region's principal cities. They are also concentrated in the plains around Hama and Homs. Alawites also live in Syria's major cities, and are estimated at about 12 percent of the country's population[73][112][113] (2.6 million, out of a total population of 22 million).[114]

There are four Alawite confederations — Kalbiyya, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah — each divided into tribes based on their geographical origins or their main religious leader,[42][115] such as Ḥaidarīya of Alī Ḥaidar, and Kalāziyya of Sheikh Muḥammad ibn Yūnus from the village Kalāzū near Antakya.[116] Those Alawites are concentrated in the Latakia region of Syria, extending north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey, and in and around Homs and Hama.[117]

Before 1953 Alawites held specifically-reserved seats in the Syrian Parliament, in common with all other religious communities. After that (including the 1960 census) there were only general Muslim and Christian categories, without mention of subgroups, to reduce sectarianism (taifiyya).


Alawite children in Antioch
Alawite children in Antioch (now in Turkey), 1938

To avoid confusion with the Alevis, the Alawites call themselves Arap Alevileri ("Arab Alevis") in Turkish. The term Nusayrī, previously used in theological texts, has been revived in recent studies. In Çukurova, Alawites are known as Fellah and Arabuşağı (although the latter is considered offensive) by the Sunni population. A quasi-official name used during the 1930s by Turkish authorities was Eti Türkleri ("Hittite Turks"), to conceal their Arabic origins. Although this term is obsolete, it is still used by some older people as a euphemism.

The exact number of Alawites in Turkey is unknown; there were 700,000 in 1970,[118] suggesting about 1,500,000 in 2009. As Muslims, they are not recorded separately from Sunnis. In the 1965 census (the last Turkish census where informants were asked their mother tongue), 700,000 people in the three provinces declared their mother tongue as Arabic; however, Arabic-speaking Sunnis and Christians were also included in this figure. Turkish Alawites traditionally speak the same dialect of Levantine Arabic as Syrian Alawites. Arabic is preserved in rural communities and in Samandağ. Younger people in the cities of Çukurova and İskenderun tend to speak Turkish. The Turkish spoken by Alawites is distinguished by its accents and vocabulary. Knowledge of the Arabic alphabet is confined to religious leaders and men who have worked or studied in Arab countries.

Alawites demonstrate considerable social mobility. Until the 1960s, they were bound to Sunni aghas (landholders) around Antakya and were poor. Alawites are prominent in the sectors of transportation and commerce and a large, professional middle class has emerged. Male exogamy has increased, particularly by those who attend universities or live in other parts of Turkey. These marriages are tolerated; however, female exogamy (as in other patrilineal groups) is discouraged.

Alawites, like Alevis, have strong leftist political beliefs. However, some people in rural areas (usually members of notable Alawite families) may support secular, conservative parties such as the Democratic Party. Most Alawites feel oppressed by the policies of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı).[119][120]


There are an estimated 40,000[6][121] Alawites in Lebanon, where they have lived since at least the 16th century.[122] They are one of the 18 official Lebanese sects; due to the efforts of their leader, Ali Eid, the Taif Agreement of 1989 gave them two reserved seats in Parliament. Lebanese Alawites live primarily in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli and in 10 villages in the Akkar District, and are represented by the Arab Democratic Party.[123][124][125] Their Mufti is Sheikh Assad Assi.[126] The Bab al-Tabbaneh–Jabal Mohsen conflict between pro-Syrian Alawites and anti-Syrian Sunnis has affected Tripoli for decades.[127]

There are also about 3,900 Alawites living in the village of Ghajar, which is located on the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In 1932 the residents of Ghajar were given the option of choosing their nationality, and overwhelmingly chose to be a part of Syria, which has a sizable Alawite minority.[128] Before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the residents of Ghajar were counted in the 1960 Syrian census.[129] Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, and after implementing Israeli civil law in 1981, the Alawite community chose to become Israeli citizens.[130]


Alawites in Syria speak a special dialect (part of Levantine Arabic) famous for the usage of letter (qāf). Lots of terms such as "qrd" (Akkadian: qar(r)ādu), means "hero" or "powerful one" in the Ugaritic language, are still being used especially by rural Alawites.[131] Due to foreign occupation of Syria, the same dialect is characterized by multiple borrowings, mainly from Turkish;[132] then French, especially terms used for imported inventions such as television, radio, elevator, etc.


A 2006 study concluded that Alawites of Adana region had 33% of Haplogroup R1b, 2% of Haplogroup R1a, 1% of Haplogroup T-M184,[133]. Another study in 2009 found that Alawites had 26.7% of Haplogroup J-M267.[134]

See also

Further reading

  • Bar-Asher, Meir M. (2003). "NOṢAYRIS". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  • Kazimi, Nibras. Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy, Hoover Institution Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8179-1075-4.
  • Friedman, Yaron (2010). The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs : An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria (PDF). Leiden, Boston: Brill. ISBN 978 90 04 178922. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  • Procházka-Eisl, Gisela; Procházka, Stephan (11 August 2010). The Plain of Saints and Prophets: The Nusayri-Alawi Community of Cilicia ... Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-447-06178-0. Retrieved 6 July 2012. RFWRfO2016
  • Worth, Robert F. (2016). A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS. Pan Macmillan. p. 82. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  • Winter, Stefan. 2016. A history of the 'Alawis: From medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic. Princeton University Press.


  1. ^ Since the sacred writings of the Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs are kept secret by the members of the sect because of their sensitivity, it is important to note that the religious material used in this volume is only that which is accessible in public libraries and printed books.[74]


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Adra massacre

The Adra massacre was the killing of at least 32 Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ismailite civilians in the industrial town of Adra, Syria in December 2013, during the Syrian Civil War. According to the government and activists it was conducted by the al-Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department condemned massacres in Syria and condemned 'the latest report of a massacre of civilians in Adra.'On 11 December, the rebel Islamic Front, Jaish al-Islam and Al-Nusra Front groups infiltrated the industrial area of the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, attacking buildings housing workers and their families. The fighters were reported to have targeted Alawites, Druze, Christians and Shiites, killing them for sectarian motives. Some people were shot while others were beheaded. The killings lasted into the next day. 15–19 minority civilian deaths were documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, amidst claims that as many as 40 were killed and many families abducted. 18 pro-government militia were also killed, including five Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) members. Several rebels died when a Shiite man detonated a hand grenade, killing himself, the rebels and members of his family, after the rebels attempted to kill them.On 13 December, the military surrounded Adra and started an operation to push out rebel fighters from the area, making advances in the town during the day. As of the next day, the operation was still continuing.By 15 December, the number of minority civilians confirmed killed in the rebel attack on Adra had risen to 32. Dozens of others were missing. The Syrian military claimed more than 80 people were killed by Islamic rebels, while the Syrian Foreign Ministry put out a figure of more than 100 dead.On 30 December, reports said that the Syrian army evacuated around 5,000 people from Adra, while on 31 December, the government news agency reported that more people were evacuated, bringing the total number of evacuees to more than 6,000.By mid-January, the Syrian government had reportedly regained control of the industrial area of Adra. In late September 2014, the Army recaptured the town.


Abu ʿAbd-Allāh al-Ḥusayn ibn Ḥamdān al-Jonbalānī al-Khaṣībī (Arabic: الحسين بن حمدان الخصيبي‎), mostly known as al-Khaṣībī (??–969) (Arabic: الخصيبي‎) was originally from a village called Jonbalā, between Kufa and Wasit in Iraq, which was the center of the Qarmatians. He was a member of a well-educated family with close ties to eleventh Twelver Imam Hasan al‐Askari and a scholar of the Islamic sect known as the ʿAlawiyyah or Nusayriyya, a branch of the Twelvers, which is now present in Syria, Southern Turkey and Northern Lebanon.

For a time, al-Khaṣībī was imprisoned in Baghdad, due to accusations of being a Qarmatian. According to the Alawites, after settling in Aleppo, under the rule of the Shīʿite Hamdanid dynasty, he gained the support and aid of its ruler, Sayf al‐Dawla, in spreading his teachings. He later dedicated his book Kitab al‐Hidaya al‐Kubra to his patron. He died in Aleppo and his tomb, which became a holy shrine, is inscribed with the name Shaykh Yabraq.He taught several unique beliefs. One such belief was that Jesus was every one of the prophets from Adam to Muhammad, as well as other figures such as Socrates, Plato and some ancestors of Muhammad. Similarly, other historical figures were the incarnations of Ali and Salman al‐Farisi.He and his works were praised by the influential Iranian Shiʿite scholar Muhammad Baqir Majlisi.

Al-Qahira, Syria

Al-Qahira (Arabic: الصفا‎, also known as al-Safa) is a village in northern Syria located in the Ziyarah Subdistrict of the al-Suqaylabiyah District in Hama Governorate. According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), al-Qahira had a population of 2,947 in the 2004 census. Its inhabitants are predominantly Alawites, including members of the Murshidiyyun sect.

Alawite State

The Alawite State (Arabic: دولة جبل العلويين‎, Dawlat Jabal al-‘Alawiyyīn, French: Alaouites, informally as État des Alaouites or Le territoire des Alaouites) named after the locally-dominant Alawites, was a French mandate territory on the coast of present-day Syria after World War I. The French Mandate from the League of Nations lasted from 1920 to 1946.The use of "Alawite" instead of "Nusayri" was advocated by the French early in the Mandate period, and referred to a member of the Alawi religion. In 1920, the French-named "Alawite Territory" was home to a large population of Alawites.


Aqrab (Arabic: عقرب‎, also spelled Akrab) is a Town in northwestern Syria, administratively part of the Hama Governorate, located southwest of Hama. Nearby localities include Nisaf and Baarin to the west, Awj to the southwest, Qarmas to the south, Taldou and Houla to the southeast, Talaf and the subdistrict (nahiyah) center Hirbnafsah to the east, Bisin and Jidrin to the northeast and al-Bayyadiyah to the northwest.

According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Aqrab had a population of 8,422 in the 2004 census, making it the largest locality in the Hirbnafsah nahiyah. The population of Aqrab is roughly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, with the remainder being Alawites. Many of Aqrab's Sunni inhabitants are of Turkmen descent, while Alawites live mostly in the enclave of Jbeili where they make up about 200 families.In a 1958 United Nations report, it was noted that Aqrab had been owned by feudalists.

Aqrab massacre

Aqrab massacre is a contested event of 10/11 December, 2012, during the Syrian Civil War, in the Alawite sector of the mixed town of Aqrab, Hama Governorate, Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that 125 people were killed or wounded in those events, while other activists put the death toll up to 300. Activists said that they could confirm the deaths of 10 people.


Batiniyya (Arabic: باطنية‎, romanized: Bāṭiniyyah) refers to groups that distinguish between an outer, exoteric (zāhir) and an inner, esoteric (bāṭin) meaning in Islamic scriptures. The term has been used in particular for an allegoristic type of scriptural interpretation developed among some Shia groups, stressing the bāṭin meaning of texts. It has been retained by all branches of Isma'ilism and its Druze offshoots. The Alawites practice a similar system of interpretation. Batiniyya is a common epithet used to designate Isma'ili Islam, which has been accepted by Ismai'lis themselves.Sunni writers have used the term batiniyya polemically in reference to rejection of the evident meaning of scripture in favor of its bāṭin meaning. Al-Ghazali, a medieval Sunni theologian, used the term batiniyya pejoratively for the adherents of Isma'ilism. Some Shia writers have also used the term polemically.

Deir Mama

Deir Mama (Arabic: ديرماما‎) is a village in northwestern Syria, administratively part of the Hama Governorate, located west of Hama. It is situated at the eastern side of the coastal al-Ansariyah mountains. Nearby localities include Masyaf to the south, Deir al-Salib to the southwest and al-Laqbah and Deir Shamil to the north. According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Deir Mama had a population of 2,985 in the 2004 census. The inhabitants of Deir Mama are predominantly Alawites.Deir Mama has two main springs, the southern and northern regions, and the central village spreads between them with one main road. Deir Mama's history goes back to the Roman era; it was the only village in Masyaf region that was not under feudal rule, unlike the neighboring villages. Deir Mama's residents have included intellectuals, including one reputed novelist and theater writer Mamdouh Adwan. Alawites and Christians share a shrine that each group worships. Alawites refer to it as Sheikh Sobeh while Christians call it Saint Mama. Deir Mama is famous for making the traditional Arak liquor and natural silk handicraft.

Fadwa Souleimane

Fadwa Souleimane (also transcribed as Fadwa Soliman or Fadwa Suleiman; 17 May 1970 – 17 August 2017) was a Syrian actress of an Alawite descent who led a Sunni-majority protest against Bashar al-Assad's government in Homs. She became one of the most recognized faces of the Syrian Civil War.

Islam in Syria

Islam in Syria is the most practiced religion in Syria, constituting approximately 71% of the population and forming a majority in all districts of the country. The Muslims in Syria follow various different sects of Islam and are from various ethnic and linguistic groups.

The Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims in the country (60% of Syria's total population). The Alawites are the predominant non-Sunni group (11% of the country's population), followed by Shia Ismailis (3%) and orthodox Shia Twelvers (2%). There are also some Kurdish and Turkmen Alevi in northern Syria. Christians, the main non-Muslim group in the country, comprise 15-20%.The Sunnis are mainly of the Hanafi madhhab with pockets of Shafi'i and Hanbali. Several large Sufi orders are active in the country, including the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya. Although not traditionally considered as Muslims, the Druze make up 4% of the total population.

Kitab al-Majmu

Kitab al-Majmu‘ (Arabic: كتاب المجموع‎ "The Book of the Collection") is a book which is claimed by some Sunni Muslims and former Alawites to be the main source of teaching of the ‘Alawi sect of Islam. They claim the book is not openly published and instead is passed down from initiated Master to Apprentice; however, the book has been published by Western scholars, and both the original Arabic and French translation are available on the Internet Archive. The Alawis, however, reject this book as baseless and state that their main source of teaching is Nahj al-Balagha. According to Matti Moosa:

Kitab al-Majmu contains sixteen suras (chapters) incorporated by Sulayman al-Adani in his Kitab al-Bakura... Kitab al-Majmu was published with a French translation by René Dussaud in his Histoire et Religion des Nosairis, 161-98. The Arabic text of the same is found in Abu Musa al-Hariri's al-Alawiyyun al-Alawiyya (Dubai: Dar al-Itisam, 1980), 145-74.An English translation by Edward E. Salisbury was published in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 1866.The man who revealed the alleged book was Sulayman al-Adani, an Alawite convert to Christianity.It is also known as al-Dustoor, and has been attributed to an 11th-century Alawite missionary, al-Maymoun al-Tabarani.Yaron Friedman suggests that Kitab al-Majmu was influenced by Jewish esoteric traditions found in the Sefer Yetzirah; Friedman in particular points to the similarity of the texts in their letter mysticism, comparing Sefer Yetzirah's "great secret" (sod gadol) of aleph-mem-shīn to Kitab al-Majmu's secret (sirr) of ʿayn-mīm-sīn.Contemporary Alawis insist that the Kitab al-Majmu is fabricated, some even suggesting that it is a forgery created by 19th century Christian missionaries.

Lebanese Shia Muslims

Lebanese Shia Muslims refers to Lebanese people who are adherents of the Shia branch of Islam in Lebanon, which is the largest Muslim denomination in the country tied with Sunni Muslims. Shia Islam in Lebanon has a history of more than a millennium. According to the CIA World Factbook, Shia Muslims constituted an estimated 28.4% of Lebanon's population in 2017.

Most of its adherents live in the northern and western area of the Beqaa Valley, Southern Lebanon and Beirut. The great majority of Shia Muslims in Lebanon are Twelvers, with an Alawite minority numbering in the tens of thousands in north Lebanon. Few Isma'ilis remain in Lebanon today, though the quasi-Muslim Druze sect, which split from Isma'ilism around a millennium ago, has hundreds of thousands of adherents.

Under the terms of an unwritten agreement known as the National Pact between the various political and religious leaders of Lebanon, Shias are the only sect eligible for the post of Speaker of Parliament.

Lebanese Sunni Muslims

Lebanese Sunni Muslims refers to Lebanese people who are adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam in Lebanon, which is the largest denomination in Lebanon tied with Shia Muslims. Sunni Islam in Lebanon has a history of more than a millennium. According to a CIA study, Lebanese Sunni Muslims constitute an estimated 27% of Lebanon's population.The Lebanese Sunni Muslims are concentrated in west Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Western Beqaa, and in the countryside of the Akkar.Under the terms of an unwritten agreement known as the National Pact between the various political and religious leaders of Lebanon, Sunni notables traditionally held power in the Lebanese state together, and they are still the only sect eligible for the post of Prime Minister.

Maan massacre

The Maan massacre was a reported massacre of Alawites in the village of Ma'an, Syria on 9 February 2014.


Qatana (Arabic: قطنا‎) is a city in southern Syria, administratively part of the Qatana District of Rif Dimashq Governorate. Qatana has an altitude of 879 meters. According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics, the city had a population of 33,996 in the 2004 census. It is the administrative center of the Qatana Subdistrict, which contained 20 localities with a collective population of 147,451 in 2004. Prior to the Syrian Civil War, during which there have been armed confrontations in Qatana, the city had a mixed population of Sunni Muslims (65%), Christians (20%) and Alawites (15%). The Alawites were relatively recent arrivals, who emigrated to the city during the 1970s. In December 2012, it was reported that 28 government checkpoints control this multi-ethnic regime stronghold. On 15 October 2013, there was shelling emanating from Turba checkpoint and the Baath School area.

Saadallah Wannous

Saadallah Wannous (Arabic: سعد الله ونوس‎) (1941 – 15 May 1997) was a Syrian playwright. He was born in the village of Hussein al-Bahr, near Tartous from the Alawites sect, where he received his early education. He studied journalism in Cairo, Egypt and later served as editor of the art and cultural sections of the Syrian paper Al-Baath and the Lebanese As-Safir. He also held for many years the directorship in the Music and Theater Administration of Syria. In the late Sixties, he traveled to Paris where he studied theater and encountered various currents, trends, and schools of European stage. His career as a playwright had begun in the early Sixties with several short (one-act) plays which were characterized by a display of his fundamental theme: the relationship between the individual and society and its authorities.

Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War is an intensely sectarian conflict. The focus of the conflict has been identified by some as a ruling minority Alawite government and allied Shi'a governments such as Iran, pitted against the country's Sunni Muslim majority who are aligned with the Syrian opposition and their Sunni Turkish and Persian Gulf state backers. However Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Syrian Arab Army and many hold high governmental positions. Others identify it as the secular Syrian government, made up of all religious groups pitted against the Islamist opposition. The conflict had drawn in other ethno-religious minorities, including Armenians, Assyrians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds, Yazidi, Mhallami, Arab Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmens and Greeks.

State of Damascus

The State of Damascus (1920–1924; French: État de Damas; Arabic: دولة دمشق‎ Dawlat Dimashq ) was one of the six states established by the French General Henri Gouraud in the French Mandate of Syria which followed the San Remo conference and the defeat of King Faisal's short-lived monarchy in Syria.

The other states were the State of Aleppo (1920), the State of Alawites (1920), the State of Jabal Druze (1921), and The Sanjak of Alexandretta (1921). The State of Greater Lebanon (1920) became later the modern country of Lebanon.

Syrian Coastal Mountain Range

The Coastal Mountain Range (Arabic: سلسلة الجبال الساحلية‎ Silsilat al-Jibāl as-Sāḥilīyah) is a mountain range in northwestern Syria running north-south, parallel to the coastal plain. The mountains have an average width of 32 kilometres (20 mi), and their average peak elevation is just over 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) with the highest peak, Nabi Yunis, reaching 1,562 metres (5,125 ft), east of Latakia. In the north the average height declines to 900 metres (3,000 ft), and to 600 metres (2,000 ft) in the south.

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