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.