- Stephan ProcházkaStephan ProcházkaInstitute of Oriental Studies, University of Vienna
The ʿAlawis are adherents of an Islamic sect, the origin of which can be traced back to 9th-century Iraq. They are an offshoot of early Shiah Islam with ancient Iranian, Christian, and Gnostic influences. Outsiders often call them “Nusayri,” after the sect’s founder Ibn Nusayr. Practically all ʿAlawis are Arabs. Their total number is about four million, among which some 2.5 million reside in Syria, where they constitute roughly 12 percent of the population. Many ʿAlawi beliefs and rites are still kept secret by the community, being revealed only to initiate male members. One key element in their faith is the belief in a divine triad that has manifested itself to the ʿAlawi community in seven cycles. Other characteristics are an extraordinary veneration for Muhammad’s son-in-law ʿAli, the belief in the transmigration of the soul, and a very large number of holy shrines, which are frequent in all regions settled by ʿAlawis. Because of the esoteric nature of the ʿAlawi religion and the scarcity of authentic written sources, many details of their creed are subjects of vigorous public and scholarly discussion.
For many centuries, the ʿAlawis were an economically weak, socially marginalized, and persecuted group whose heartland was western Syria. The public rise of the community began with the establishment of the French mandate over Syria after World War I and reached its zenith when the ʿAlawi Hafiz al-Assad became president of Syria in 1971. Since then, the disproportionate political and economic influence of the ʿAlawis in Syria has fueled confessional conflicts with the Sunni majority, which culminated in the civil war that began in 2011.