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What Is an Alawi?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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An Alawi is an Arabic person living primarily in the Jubal al-Nusayriyah Mountains in northwestern Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. Alawis comprise a sect similar to Shiite Islam. Also called Nasayris, they are a politically powerful religious minority in Syria. Arab speaking, Alawis also inhabit northern Lebanon and Turkey. Worldwide there are over two million Alawis.

Historically, Alawites have lived in the Jubal al-Nusayriyah Mountains since around 300 BC. After Syria became independent following World War II, Alawite provinces united with Syria. A closed tribal society, Alawis for a long period in their history worked as indentured servants and tenant-farmers for Sunni landowners.

Alawis lived in poverty outside the mainstream of Syrian culture for hundreds of years. Although there is no single ruling family among Alawite tribes, individual Alawi have gained positions of power in the military as officers. Following political upheavals in the 1960s, Alawis finally secured a foothold in government power.

The Alawis’ religion has always been problematic for them. As Syria’s largest religious minority, they were persecuted by the Ottomans until the French gave them limited freedom regarding their religious practices and other affairs. Freedoms were curtailed again in 1936. Many Alawis call themselves Muslim, but most majority Sunnis do not accept them as true Muslims.

Alawite religion is secret, and their faith it not discussed with outsiders. It is believed to be a blend of extreme Shi΄a, also called Ghulat, ancient pagan, Gnostic, and Christian elements. Although Alawi religion is sometimes thought to be a sect of Shi΄ism, it is a distinct religion.

There are no mosques in the Alawite religion. They keep both Persian and Christian Holy days, celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. An Alawi attends a ceremony similar to a Catholic mass and believes in a triune God. Although Alawis do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam, they interpret them allegorically so as to make them conform to their own beliefs.

Alawis believe that every person began as a star in the world of light, but fell to earth because of disobedience and became human. Each person must be reborn seven times before reclaiming his place among the stars. Sometimes a person is reborn as a Christian until their atonement is complete. Persons outside the faith return as animals.

In 1971, Hafez al-Assad became Syria’s first Alawi president. This has lessened some of the religious worries of Alawis and may also account for the administration's policy of maintaining an alliance with Shi΄a Iran.

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Discussion Comments
By anon336579 — On May 29, 2013

Alawis are not Muslims whatsoever. They can call themselves what ever they wish to call themselves. They celebrate Christmas, Easter and a lot of other holidays that are not Islamic. They also believe in reincarnation and that women do not have souls. The majority do not even know what they practice. They believe Ali (ra) created Muhammad (saw) in his own light. They are not Muslim.

By anon333811 — On May 07, 2013

re: the southern baptist: christian -- alawite:muslim comment above, I think a more accurate comparison would be alawite: muslim -- mormon: christian, largely because of the secrecy and the addition of very odd, non-mainstream beliefs.

By anon319043 — On Feb 10, 2013

The Southern Baptists in the USA have a similar relationship to Christianity as the Alawi have to Islam.

By live2shop — On Nov 06, 2011

Even though they were persecuted in past history, they have now attained a more powerful position in Syria. Their beliefs are really quite different than the Sunni Muslims, so I'm not surprised that the Sunni don't recognize them as Muslims.

Many aspects of their religion apparently are secret and since they are a closed society, they probably don't welcome visitors. I would like to find out more about these people and how they came to be such an isolated group.

By Clairdelune — On Nov 05, 2011

Here is another religious tribal groups that I have never heard of. They must have been influenced by many different religious groups way back in time to have a religion that incorporates ideas from so many different sects.

It seems that they were influenced a lot by the Christian faith. Also, beliefs about creation and death seem to come from before the time of organized religion.

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