I have been following the news in Syria. Like most people I have had little understanding of the forces that have been driving such extreme violence. Recently I have been coming across some references that have made me think of Syria in similar terms as the situation in Rwanda in the 1990’s.
I was reading an article, can’t recall now where it was from, in which a young Syrian Alawi was telling how he was glad that the government gave them weapons to attack the Sunnis because, “It’s only a matter of time before they try to kill us all.”
The conflict seems to involve over 1100 years of sectarian hatred and sporadic violence or even attempted genocide.
Recently the LA Times reported:
The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, said security forces were targeting “homes and anyone who moves in the neighborhood” with mortar, artillery and other heavy weapons fire.
“There are no words to describe the situation today,” said an activist reached in Bab Amro who did not want his name published for safety reasons. “The shelling has not stopped since 6 a.m. Whole families are being killed under the rubble of their houses. … The apartment I’m in right now had a shell dropped on the floor above us and five shells around the building.”
Violence has escalated in Syria as the government sends tanks and troops to subdue restive neighborhoods and a growing number of military defectors join the ranks of the opposition. Some civilians have also taken up arms to defend their communities, raising the chances that the country could slide into civil war.
Violence and intimidation have been Damascus’ high cards, but provoking the Sunni Islamist boogeyman has long been the option of last resort for Bashar, an Alawi president who gains most of his support from Syrian Christians, Druze and Alawis who fear a Sunni takeover of the country. The men and women who pour into the streets know this full well and have been well disciplined not to retaliate against the Alawi community, even as armed Alawi militias have entered a number of cities to shoot up the demonstrators.
Ah! Now we are getting somewhere! This sent me to Wikipedia–
The Alawis, also known as Alawites, Nusayris and Ansaris (‘Alawīyyah Arabic: علوية, Nuṣayrī Arabic: نصيريون, andal-Anṣāriyyah) are a prominent mystical and syncretic religious group who are a branch of Shia Islam centred inSyria.
It turns out that Alawis have been targeted for over a thousand years by the majority Sunnis, with various unsuccessful attempts to wipe them out. Through most of this time they have been considered, officially, apostates and therefore subject to death. Only in the past century have Alawis been considered to be Muslims at all by the majority Sunnis.
An interesting discussion of the Alawi between young Muslims will be found here.
What beliefs set Alawi apart from other Muslims? Traditionally, the group has been very secretive. They are considered to be mystical and much of their “knowledge” is not known outside of the inner circle of initiates. While in the past 30 years there has been a deliberate effort by Alawi leaders to make the group appear more “Islamic”, for over 1100 years they have diverged quite distinctly from mainstream Islam.
Orthodox Alawi do not believe in the importance of prayer, they have not (until recently) participated in the Haj, they have not believed in temples or mosques as special places of worship. They include Jesus, some apostles and the Muslim Imams up to the 3rd, Ali, as prophets, maybe even incarnations of the deity. They have embraced several Christian practices including celebration of Christmas and the Holy Sacrament.
According to some sources, Alawis have integrated doctrines from other religions (Syncretism), in particular from Ismaili Islam and Christianity. According to scholar Cyril Glasse, it is thought that “as a small, historically beleaguered ethnic group”, the Alawi “absorbed elements” from the different religions that influenced their area from Hellenistic times onward, while maintaining their own beliefs, and “pretended to adhere to the dominant religion of the age.” Alawites are reported to celebrate certain Christian festivals, “in their own way”, including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and their religious ceremonies make use of bread and wine. According to Matti Moosa, a “leading scholar of the Nusayris”,
The Christian elements in the Alawite sect are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurban, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to his disciples, and, most important, the celebration of the Quddas (although Shia scholars dispute these allegations) (a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, who preached the gospel sermon originating the Church (Matthew 16:18, Acts 2), who is perceived as the embodiment of true Islam).
As I mentioned- these unique beliefs seem to have become more streamlined recently-
Some sources have suggested that the non-Muslim nature of many of the historical Alawi beliefs notwithstanding, Alawi beliefs may have changed in recent decades. In the early 1970s a booklet entitledal-`Alawiyyun Shi’atu Ahl al-Bait (The Alawis are Followers of the Household of the Prophet), was issued in which doctrines of the Imami Shi’ah were described as ‘Alawi, and which was “signed by of numerous `Alawi` men of religion”. This book and Musa Sadr’s proclamation have led one scholar to wonder whether “a mass conversion from Nusairism to Shi’ah Islam” has taken place. Another scholar suggests that factors such as the high profile of Alawi in Syria, the strong aversion of the Muslim majority to apostasy, and the relative lack of importance of religious doctrine to Alawi identity may have induced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his successor son to press their fellow Alawi “to behave like ‘regular Muslims’, shedding or at least concealing their distinctive aspects.”
In the 19th century, however, an Alawite named Sulaiman al-Adni converted to Christianity and in 1863, compiled a book called Al-Bakurah as-Suliamaniya fi Kashf Asrar ad-Diyanah an-Nusairiyah (The First Fruits of Sulaiman in Revealing the Secrets of the Nusairi Religion). This book was embraced immediately by the English Freemasons as a “proof” of the Eastern origin of Freemasonry.
The only copy I could find of the book was published by the Freemasons. I’ve included it below, in text format more for curiosity than any religious meaning.
In the next few posts I hope to explore some of Islam’s more distinct, mystical and less known off-spring. In the meantime, I would love to hear from any out there who have a better understanding of this topic than I do.