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.
The Alevis are a religious community on the periphery of Shia Islam. The name “Alevi” means “Adherents of ʿAli,” alluding to Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who enjoys extraordinary veneration among Alevis. Alevism was developed in Central Anatolia during the 13th century by itinerant Muslim mystics. It includes elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and aspects of mainstream Shia Islam, which influenced it through cultural contacts with Safavid Iran. Alevism never was a unified and homogeneous community but has always had a variety of sub-groups. For centuries Alevis practiced their rites in secret, which created suspicion and rumor among Sunnite Muslims. Today’s Alevis still have to struggle with this distrust, and are often regarded as heretics by the Sunnites. The designation “Alevi” came into use in the early 20th century as a collective term for a number of religious groups such as Bektaşi, Tahtacı, and Abdal, and today is used instead of the former, pejorative term Kızılbaş (“Red-Heads”). The Alevis are the largest religious minority group in the Republic of Turkey, where their estimated number is around 15 million. Large Alevi groups also reside in the Balkan states as well as in Central and Western Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. Roughly two-thirds of the Alevis are Turkish speakers. The other third speak Kurdish and Zazaki. In the 1980s, the community underwent the so-called “Alevi revival,” a process of exposure and openness that can be partly explained as a reaction against the re-Islamization of Turkish society. Today Alevis perform their rites and express their beliefs openly. Although they share certain features with them, the Alevis should not be confused with the Alawis (Nusayris), who live in southern Turkey and Syria and who are all Arabic speakers.