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The Druze are a religious group who are viewed by some as Muslims, but are viewed as entirely distinct by most major Islamic branches. One of the major distinctions between this group and other Islamic branches is that the Druze believe the Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah to be a manifestation of God, and believe that he will return as the Mahdi redeemer.
Many Druze view themselves as part of a fascinating Biblical narrative, tying them to the father-in-law of Moses. Although Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro or Shoaib, was not a Jew himself, he assisted Moses’ Jews, and accepted the One God of Moses, before returning to his own Kenite people. Many Druze view themselves as the descendants of Jethro, and often a loose collaboration with the Jews is undertaken on this basis.
In the 11th century a preacher from the Ismaili branch of Islam, Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi, began to teach that al-Hakim was divine. The Caliph eventually rebuked ad-Darazi, and he vanished. His ideological successor was Hamza ibn-‘Ali ibn-Ahmad, who continued to preach the divinity of al-Hakim, and eventually formed the Druze. Rather than trying to convert people en masse, they instead tried to create a united from of Muslims, connecting them by their similar beliefs, rather than highlighting their differences.
When al-Hakim vanished, the Druze continued to teach his divinity, proposing that he had been occluded by God in preparation for his return as the Mahdi, at which time he would refresh and redeem Islam. They then focused most of their attention on strengthening Islam. In the face of some persecution, the Druze practiced taqiyya, in which they could conceal their beliefs to integrate with differing groups, while at the same time continuing their religious practice in secret.
For the next centuries, the Druze continued to operate, mostly beneath the radar of the general populace. At different times in history, they have been considered heretical by other branches of Islam, and have been persecuted accordingly. At the same time, the Druze have sometimes come into conflict with Christians sharing the same regions as them, particularly Maronite Christians in Lebanon.
The Druze have official status in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, where they are governed by their own religious courts. In Israel, they occupy a somewhat unique position. At the request of leaders of the community, they are not formally recognized as an Arab group, and are instead viewed as distinct. The Druze serve in the Israeli military, and a high proportion serve prominently as politicians. Much of the special position they hold in Israel is a result of what is sometimes referred to as the Covenant of Blood, in reference to the many Druze who have fought and died in Israel’s wars since the nation’s formation.
The majority of Druze are secular, with little or no connection to the beliefs of the religious members. Religious Druze make up just around one-fifth of the total population, and wear distinct garments. Marriage between Druze and non-Druze is discouraged, even among the secular population, and the entire group tends to keep itself somewhat distant from the populations in which they exist.