I know it’s been forever since I posted. I have been working on this bloody article since April. Finally, I realized that it wasn’t a dissertation, but a blog. The main point is that we have ignored how much Alawite theology and history informs the state of Syria today. Every time I started on this, I would read another article. I followed the trail all over. But you don’t need to know the history of the Ba’ath party or the Muslim Brotherhood and probably not the Gnostic elements in the religion. So, here it is for the six or so of you faithful readers. If you think it has merit, please pass it on.
Born on September 11, 1965, Bashar Hafez al-Assad is the second son of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and his wife, Anisa. [i] Bashar received his early education in Damascus and studied medicine at the University of Damascus, graduating as an ophthalmologist in 1988. He then served as an army doctor at a Damascus military hospital and in 1992 moved to London to continue his studies.[ii] His older brother, Bassel, was intended to be the successor to their father. However, when Bassel died in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was brought in to take his place.
Fluent in Arabic, French and English, Bashar seemed to be a positive change from the iron rule of his father. However, events have proven that, if anything, he is more oppressive.
I’m not going into the labyrinthine recent history of Syria. It was part of the French Mandate, then part of Egypt under Nassar. The Assad family came into power only in 1980, when Hafez emerged as the leader after a coup. What interests me most is the religion that the Assads are associated with, Alawite. Without the support of others of the religion and without the accommodating nature of its beliefs, it’s doubtful that the family could have taken control of Syria.
I’ve seen very little in the mass media or in on-line comments about the Alawites, or Nusaryi as they were traditionally called. The more I’ve learned about their beliefs, the better I understand why Assad is still in power and why there was an uprising against him in the first place.
The Nusaryi religion is a syncretic mystery sect. It is syncretic because it draws from a number of other faiths, including Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic. It was also influenced by gnostic traditions in Iraq, where the sect began.[iii] The mystery part comes from the oaths members take never to reveal the dogma or rituals of the religion. The little that is known of these come from apostates who gave Nusaryi books to outsiders.[iv]
The Alawite/Nusaryi sect began in Bagdad in the early days of Islam. It developed from Twelver Shi’ism, probably in the 10th century.[v] But, unlike other forms of Shi’ism, it was also heavily influenced by other religions in the area.
“First, from paganism the Alawis adopted the idea of a divine triad, of its successive manifestation in the seven cycles of world history, and of the transmigration of souls. God revealed Himself to the worlds seven different times: each time with two persons who, with God, made a holy trinity. The Alawis also believe that at first all Alawis were stars in the world of light, into which a virtuous Alawi is transformed upon death. A sinning Alawi becomes a Jew, Muslim or Christian. Second, from Shi’a, Islam the Alawis took over the belief in a system of successive divine emanations and the cult of Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and his son-in-law). Unlike other Shi’ites, the Alawis believe that Ali was the incarnation of God Himself in a divine triad: Ali is the Ma’na (meaning or essence); Muhammad, whom Ali created in his own light, is the Ism (name), and Salman al-Farsi (the Persian; one of the Companions of the Prophet) is al-Bab ( the gate). This is the most distinguishing feature of the Alawi religion, namely the centrality of Ali, whom the Alawis deify. Third, in common with Isma’ili Shi’ites, the Alawis subscribe to the idea of an esoteric religious knowledge hidden from the masses and revealed to only a few who are initiated into the secrets in a lengthy and complex initiation. In fact, both the Isma’ili and the Alawis are known in Arabic as al-batiniyah, referring to the undisclosed tenets of their religion.”
They also have drawn some of their ritual from Christianity. They celebrate Christmas and sacramental wine is an important part of their ceremonies, particularly that of initiation.[vi]
There are two important aspects of the Alawite religion. The first is that the beliefs and rituals are intensely secret. No women and only a few of the men are admitted to the full mystical dogma of the sect.[vii] The second is that they were persecuted by both Sunni and Shi’ite rulers throughout their existence. These things combined to create the most important tenet of the Alawite religion; one can and should lie about one’s faith. This, known as taqiya, led naturally to dissimulating about everything else. Alawites are not Muslims and most Muslims consider them heretics, at best. But they are able to perform Sunni or Shi’ite rituals with no compunction when called upon. There is an Alawite saying. “However a man dresses does not change him. So we remain always Nusayris, even though we externally adopt the practices of our neighbors. Whoever does not dissimulate is a fool, for no intelligent person goes naked in the market.”[viii]
In 1940, as part of a new pan-Arab movement, a group of thirteen Nusaryi sheiks sent a letter to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, asking for a fatwa, or decree, stating that they were Muslim. The letter stated the basic tenets of the faith and assured the Mufti that they followed all of these. Amazingly, the Mufti and his advisors granted this. Why they did is difficult to say, since they presumably knew of the practice of taqiya. From this time, the Nusaryi officially were known as Alawite.[ix]
This demonstrates how Assad can with apparent sincerity tell the world that he has no chemical weapons. Then he says, whoops, has some but he’ll turn them over to the UN. Oh dear, he found a few more but he won’t use them. And, of course, he would never drop chlorine bombs on his own people. But, the people he’s bombing are Syrians, often Sunni or Christian or Druze. I presume he would never attack fellow Alawites. At least, that’s what he says.
In many ways, the rise of the Alawite power is much like that of other minorities who took over governments. They were generally reviled and persuted. Living in the mountains near Latakia, they were looked on as illiterate bumpkins. Sunni families in Damascus and other places hired them as maids and laborers, often under servile conditions.[x] Over the centuries, they acquired a reputation for a fierce isolationism. “ In addition to praying for the damnation of their Sunni enemies, Alawis attacked outsiders. They acquired a reputation as fierce and unruly mountain people who resisted paying the taxes they owed the authorities and frequently plundered Sunni villagers on the plains.”[xi]
Under the French Mandate of 1922, the Alawite’s were granted their own state in and around Latakia. Finally finding protection from their Sunni persecutors, they welcomed French colonial oversight. When the Mandate ended in 1946, and the Sunnis regained power, the Alawites joined with other minorities, Druze and Christians, in several attempts to overthrow them. They also began to join the Syrian army, a job considered low class by most Sunni Syrians. [xii]
With the support of the largely Alawite military, Bashar’s father, Hafiz, came to power in November, 1970, in a bloody coup. His consequent oppression of Sunnis led to the rise of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which committed several massacres of Alawites in 1979 and 1980, although they failed in their attempts to assassinate Hafiz.[xiii]
Thanks to his father, who cultivated the Soviets, Bashar al-Assad has a well-armed army that he doesn’t hesitate to turn on his own people. The destruction of Aleppo and other cities is a repeat of the razing by Hafiz of large sections of centers of rebellion.[xiv]
In the years since 1970, the Syrian government has endured many revolts. Most of these it has quashed through force and dissimulation. It is known that Bashar al-Assad buys oil from the (self-named) Islamic State.[xv] Theoretically, he should be opposed to the extremist Sunni group that executes anyone who differs from their narrow view of Islam. One wonders if Bashar is still practicing taqiya to encourage his natural enemy to turn its sights to Iraq in exchange for cash.
With the dramatic brutality of the Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad has moved to the back pages. The beleaguered citizens who have held out against him for almost four years are no longer noticed except when they flee to other countries. In Damascus, Assad still seems to be solidly entrenched, dropping bombs on his people, arresting and torturing those who oppose him and destroying more historical monuments than the Islamic State has managed to do. But, following the dictates of his faith, he has hidden behind dissimilation to misdirect the world’s attention toward the flashier terrorists. It was his behavior and that of his father that allowed the rise of, note only the Islamic State, but also the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet I wonder who will be left when the dust finally settles.
[i] Bashar al-Assad. [Internet]. 2015. The Biography.com website. Available from: http://www.biography.com/people/bashar-al-assad-20878575 [Accessed 28 Jun 2015].
[ii] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Bashar al-Assad”, accessed June 28, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Bashar-al-Assad.
[iii] Yaron Friedman. “al-Husayn ibn Hamdân al-Khasîbî: A Historical Biography of the Founder of the Nusayrî-‘Alawite Sect” Studia islamica No. 93, 2001. p. 92
[iv] Bella Tendler Krieger. Marriage, Birth, and batini tawil: A Study of Nusayri Initiation Based on the Kitab al-Hawi fi ‘ilm al-fatawi of Abu Sa’id Maymun al-Ta barani” Arabica 58, 2011 p. 55
[v][v] For an explanation and history of the Twelvers, see: Andrew Newman. Twelver Shiism: Unity and Diversity in the Life of Islam, 632 to 1722. Edinburgh University Press, 2013
[vi] Krieger, p. 56
[vii] Daniel Pipes. “The Alawi Capture of Syria”. Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1989), 431
[viii] Quoted in Pipes. P. 433
[ix] Paulo Boneschi. “Une fatwà du Grand Muftī de Jérusalem Muḥammad ʾAmīn al-Ḥusaynī sur les ʿAlawītes” . Revue de l’histoire des religions. Vol 122 (1940) pp. 42-54
[x] Mahmud A. Faksh. “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1984) p. 133
[xi] Pipes. 436
[xii] Faksh. p. 143
[xiii] Amy Dockser. “Assad Hangs on”. Harvard International Review, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 1984), p. 29
[xiv] Alysdair Drysdale. “The Asad [sic] Regime and Its Troubles”. MERIP Reports, No. 110, Syria’s Troubles (Nov. – Dec., 1982) p. 8
[xv] Mark Piggot. “Isis Crisis: An Unholy Alliance ‘Islamic State Selling Oil to President Assad’s Regime”. International Business Report. Sept. 13, 2014 There are many more reports of this, including ABC news, the New York Times and Time Magazine.