A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic
A HISTORY OF THE ALAWIS – Book Sample
Introduction – A HISTORY OF THE ALAWIS
The ‘Alawis are doubtless one of the most conspicuous, talked-about confessional groups in the Middle East today. Considered a branch of Imami Shi‘ism and referred to in much of the classical literature as “Nusayris,” the ‘Alawis represent perhaps 11 percent of the population in Syria (approximately two million people), with important regional concentrations in the province of Antioch (Hatay) as well as in Adana and Mersin in southern Turkey,1 and in the ‘Akkar district and the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
There is also a single ‘Alawi village in southern Lebanon, Ghajar, half of which was sectored off and has remained under Israeli occupation even after the IDF’s withdrawal from most of the country in 2000. Whatever Ghajar’s eventual status (as of September 2015 it is still occupied), a small population of ‘Alawis can thus also be said to have come under de facto Israeli sovereignty.
But it is above all their role in the modern history of Syria that has attracted attention: long deprecated as a heterodox mountain “sect” living on the geographic and social margins of the state, the rise of a new class of ‘Alawi officers in the army of independent Syria, their dominant position within the Ba‘th Party and the outright seizure of power by the ‘Alawi general Hafiz al-Asad in 1970, his lengthy reign as president followed by that of his son Bashar in 2000, and the disproportionate role since played by ‘Alawis in the state, especially marked since Syria’s descent into civil war and sectarian chaos in 2011, have all served to put the spotlight on the putative origins, development, and political identity of the community as such.
Despite (or rather because of) the current interest they have generated, however, the older history of the ‘Alawis is often treated in essentialist terms and reduced to a single overarching theme of religious deviance, marginality, and oppression. Whether in Western or Arab Gulf media, hardly any report on Syria today fails to specify that ‘Alawism is a “minority” regarded by other Muslims as heretical, and that the entire community has therefore been “historically persecuted.”
According to this metanarrative, which is also shared by a good number of academics, a fatwa that was given by the well-known fundamentalist scholar Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century and which calls for their extermination would also sum up their actual lived experience under Muslim rule, such that they survived only by remaining holed up in their “mountain refuge” of northwestern Syria, before emerging from isolation in the French mandate period and ultimately “capturing power” over the whole country.
The concealment, self-defense, and clannishness of the ceaselessly persecuted sect would thus go a long way toward explaining the current regime’s nature. Ironically, Asad proponents have begun to play on this view themselves and stoke fears among the ‘Alawis and other groups of the Sunni majority’s unbridled historical hatred, as a means of enforcing loyalty to the regime.2
The problem with the notion of “historical persecution” and other such blanket assessments is that they are not borne out by the historical evidence. In basing their perception on fatwas, theological treatises, and narrative chronicles, historians have always tended to concentrate on the ‘Alawis’ normative separation from the rest of society and on episodic, inherently rare cases of communal conflict.
The focus on confessional difference—part of a wider pattern of interpretation which assumes that religion is really the only thing that matters in the Middle East—is not only unsatisfying in scholarly terms but also indefensible in light of the sectarianist myths being mobilized on all sides of the civil war in Syria. Numerous sources exist that point to the ‘Alawis’ integration within wider Syrian society throughout history.
In particular, a wealth of Mamluk administration manuals, Ottoman and Turkish archival documents, and the ‘Alawis’ own prosopographical literature challenge the notion that the ‘Alawi “community,” if there even was one such thing, was cut off from the world around it, differentiated from other rural populations, or subjected to systematic discrimination. This study aims to provide a less essentializing, more material account of ‘Alawi history by focusing not on its confessional underpinnings but on the origins and spread of the ‘Alawi mission in Syria, on the ‘Alawis’ specific situation under successive Muslim empires and their relations with other communities, and on regional and class differences within ‘Alawi society itself. It proposes a “secular” approach to this history in the double sense of the word (as in French séculier and séculaire):
by privileging the socioeconomic, political, and administrative context of modern ‘Alawism’s development over its purely religious traits, and by adopting a longue-durée, multicentury perspective in order to take stock of the necessarily profound transformation of ‘Alawi communal identity over time.
Classical Perceptions of ‘alawism, nomenclaturist, and dissimulation
In terms of doctrine, ‘Alawism or Nusayrism is a secret mystical revelation of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and the “imamate” (i.e., the belief, common to all Shi‘is, that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his lineage were the Prophet Muhammad’s only legitimate successors), passed down from Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, a scholar and companion of the last two visible Shi‘i Imams in the ninth century.
Because of the concealed, esoteric nature of the teaching, which, much like in a Sufi order, is transmitted only to select initiates, pious ‘Alawis have naturally been loath to divulge the details of their faith and cult to outsiders, and it has thus become a common cliché to present ‘Alawism as obscure, mysterious, and insufficiently studied.3 In fact, its very fascination has spawned a huge literature in modern times that belies its supposed obscurity.
Some of the first European travelers to the region did not actually meet any ‘Alawis and were content simply to rely on their local interlocutors for their breathless depictions of the sect; even renowned orientalist scholars have repeated outrageous claims to the effect that the ‘Alawis are pagans, that they worship the sun, dogs, and female genitalia or partake in night-time sex orgies as part of their cultic practices—things that have of course formed part of the standard register of accusations against sectarian groups, both Christian and Muslim, throughout history.
At the same time, the increasing presence of Europeans in the Middle East and the expansion of oriental studies at Western universities in the nineteenth century also produced a large number of sober, text-critical or empirical studies that early served to establish ‘Alawism as a privileged subject of academic inquiry.
Classical scholarship on ‘Alawism, much like on other Eastern religions, has concentrated for the most part on its hypothetical origins and allegorical teaching. Joseph Simon Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis (1717–28), a compendium of oriental texts translated into Latin, which contains a somewhat deprecatory account of the sect’s beginnings, long served as the basis of European knowledge about the ‘Alawis;4 among the first critical examinations of the community, however, is that offered by Carsten Niebuhr (d. 1815), a member of a Danish-funded expedition to Arabia and the Far East in the 1760s.
Niebuhr’s account is based on information obtained from sympa- thetic local contacts as well as on a Nusayri treatise apparently seized by the Ottoman authorities, and it already contains in essence what is known about the religion today.
Niebuhr stands out among early writers for his attempt to explain ‘Alawism rationally, noting that the “Nusayris” prefer to refer to themselves as “Mûmen” (believers), accurately summarizing their belief structure, and suggesting that accusations regarding their supposed worship of the sun and other celestial bodies might result from a misinterpretation of their catalog of symbolic names and terms.5 Subsequent orientalists and missionaries explored at great length the sect’s possible grounding in Neo- platonism, Gnosticism, and Eastern Christianity.
Studies by Olaus Gerhard Tychsen (1784, 1793) and Heinrich Gottlob Paulus (1792), for example, debated whether the Nusayris were to be identified with the Mandaeans, whose syncretic beliefs and similar-sounding alternate name of “Nazoraeans” proved a source of lasting confusion;6 a number of later authors followed Ernest Renan (d. 1892) in assuming that “Nusayri” was the Arabic diminutive of “Nasara” (Christians) and that the ‘Alawis were hence a long-lost Christian sect.7 Though easily disproven, this notion does bespeak the fact that Nusayri thought had several features in common with early Christian Gnosticism and that on a popular level, the ‘Alawis of the Syrian highlands often participated in or even adopted the religious holidays of their Christian neighbors. Even today, the degree of Christianity’s and other religions’ possible influences on ‘Alawism continues to be a subject of much interest and debate among specialized scholars.8
The fascination with ‘Alawism’s roots and doctrines has also brought attention to bear on two aspects of ‘Alawi identity of concern here, namely, the lack of a uniform historical term for the group, and the supposed prac- tice of taqiyya or dissimulation. The name “Nusayri” is first encountered in medieval Muslim heresiographies and has never been used by ‘Alawi scholars in their own writings.
On the other hand, the ‘Alawi populace did in many cases identify themselves vis-à-vis others as Nusayris (or, in the contracted colloquial pronunciation of the Arabic plural, an-Nusayriyya, which was then consecrated in European travel reports as “Ansarie,” “Ansairy,” etc.), so that one can presume that, as with other heterodox groups, they eventually appropriated a term that had originally been applied to them by others in a pejorative sense.9 The name “‘Alawi,” while serving occasionally in medi- eval times to distinguish Imami from Ismaili Shi‘is (see chapter 1), was not adopted until the very end of Ottoman rule; by way of self-identification, Syrian ‘Alawis were more liable to refer to themselves as fellahin (“peasantry”) or as followers of the “Khasibi” path, in distinction to other currents within the early Shi‘i movement.
The use of the term to designate and construct a single overarching sectarian community for the first time, typified in the publication of Muhammad Amin Ghalib al-Tawil’s Tarikh al-‘Alawiyyin in 1924,10 to date the only complete history of the ‘Alawis per se, as will be ar- gued in chapter 6, was in itself a historical process proper to the dislocation of the Ottoman Empire.
The other aspect of ‘Alawism that has received considerable, often undue, attention in Western studies is the practice of dissimulation, known in Islamic terminology as taqiyya, by which ‘Alawis as well as members of other sectarian minorities could conceal or at least downplay their identity in order to avoid discrimination.
The principle of taqiyya is firmly anchored in Islamic jurisprudence but has historically played a particular role in Shi‘ism and certain Sufi rites, where it can also have the meaning of keeping the mystery of one’s secret knowledge hidden from outsiders.11
Nusayri initiates thus certainly practiced taqiyya as regards their religious precepts, but their Sunni disparagers as well as Western observers have often claimed that this extended to lying about their identity too: “It is their principle to adhere to no certain religion,” the seventeenth-century English voyager Henry Maundrell remarked, “but chameleonlike, they put on the color of that religion, whatever it be, which is reflected upon them from the persons with whom they happen to converse.”12 Not insisting on the nonconformist elements of their faith, or on questions of religion in general, will have come naturally to members of heterodox minorities when traveling or dealing with the authorities over
The term ‘Alawi will be used when discussing the community and its history in a general sense, but the term Nusayri will also be used without prejudice when referring more precisely to its religious doctrines or when quoting from primary sources.
“Nusayri” has gained some acceptance in Syria and Lebanon when used in a historical context; more worldly matters; on the other hand, in a time when different segments of society were even more clearly distinguishable by dress and dialect13 than today, it is highly unlikely that ‘Alawis and other mountaineers were not immediately recognizable for what they were.
Mamluk chancery manuals and Ottoman administrative documents, as will be seen, demonstrate that the authorities usually had a precise, well-informed idea of their taxable subjects’ sectarian identities, if only very little concern with their actual confessional beliefs. The capture and execution of certain ‘Alawis in Latakia in the early nineteenth century (see chapter 5) belie the notion that they could merely hide their identity. Taqiyya was, historically speaking, simply never a factor in their interaction with the state or with members of other communities.
sources and argument
This study is predicated on the understanding that most literary sources, including the ‘Alawis’ own theological writings as well as Sunni heresiog- raphies, fatwas, medieval chronicles, and essentially any text that names the ‘Alawis (Nusayris) as such, will concentrate on their religious identity and therefore overemphasize their otherness and irreconcilability with the rest of Muslim or Syrian society.
The result is that almost all previous studies of the ‘Alawi past either have been too concerned with theology or have provided only histoire événementielle, emplotting a handful of references to seemingly ubiquitous, but in fact very rare, instances of sectarian strife, discrimination, and violence of the sort favored in the narrative chronicles, to produce a story of apparently unremitting conflict.
The following chapters, on the other hand, will concentrate precisely on the less conspicuous—but ulti- mately more typical—historical evidence of mundane, uneventful, everyday interaction between the ‘Alawis, their neighbors, and the state authorities.
In particular, they will bring to light a wealth of administrative documents from both Istanbul and Tripoli that, among other reasons because they do not support the usual narrative of persecution, have never been used before: tax cadastres and executive orders which show that both the Mamluks and Ottomans recognized and integrated the ‘Alawis as a taxpaying category of subjects; tax farm contracts from the shar‘iyya court archives in Tripoli which show that the region was dominated by an autonomous class of Ottoman- ‘Alawi landed gentry that owed its success to the development of commercial tobacco farming in the eighteenth century; records of school construction by the state and other social disciplining efforts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and a new series of documents from the military archives
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