Alawite revivalism in Syria

Hussein Abou Saleh, Sciences Po University, Paris                       

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.

The Syrian Alawite community has long defined itself as part of the Twelver Shiite Imamate.[1] Yet its relationship with the broader Shiite community has been marked by fluctuations. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the rapprochement between the communities’ religious leaders has widened, creating a platform for cooperation and sharing religious knowledge. More recently, with Shiite-centered paramilitary groups pouring into Syria to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, this relationship has taken a new dynamic. Furthermore, the emergence of a new class of Alawite religious leaders reasserting their belonging to the Imamate jurisprudence and challenging previous historical laxness towards abiding by Islamic rituals have added multi-layered of complexities to this relationship.

Numerous scholarly publications have contributed to the formation of pre-conceived notions about the Alawites as the minority-ruling sect of Syria,[2] or as “constituting their own brand of Shiite Islam.”[3] Historically speaking, the Ottomans begun addressing them “as full-fledged Muslims (albeit those in need of Orthodox tutelage)” at the end of the nineteenth century.[4] Yet defining the Alawite community as unorthodox is “the result of interpretation, power, rhetoric and persuasion, which again, reflect particular interests adopted by different actors.”[5] In other words, it tells less about the validity or authenticity of their Islamic beliefs and more about the power relations between communal groups. Analysts have, to a large degree, employed two lenses when studying the Alawite community, the political or theological. While the former sees the community as over represented in the upper echelons of the Syrian political and security apparatus,[6] the latter focuses on analyzing their private books. In this essay, I seek to focus on the recent socio-religious dynamics of the Alawite community in Syria and its evolutionary paths.

The Alawite community is reasserting its belonging to the Imamate’s articulation of faith. With the increase of religiosity among the Sunnites and the Shiites, Alawite clerics are increasingly encouraging their constituents to abide by normative Islamic rituals. The community’s historical laxness toward abiding by the normative Ja’afari fiqh (jurisprudence) and the ibadat (Islamic rituals) is being challenged by the efforts of imams, who are preaching to the Alawite youth about the necessity to thwart accusations of being “not Muslim enough” through abiding by the ibadat, like prayers and fasting during Ramadan. In parallel, they stress that it is an obligation for all Muslims, including the Alawites, to abide by the normative Islamic rituals.

The Alawite revivalist movement

Proponents of the revivalist movement underline various reasons, inter alia, the Alawite clerics’ historical overemphasis on the Sufi elements of their religious teachings, which came at the expense of studying the Islamic sharia according to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence (Khayr 1991, 68). As said by a cleric, “ Alawism is first and foremost a religious identity. Those who wish to strip it off its religious contents by stressing its cultural components (e.g drinking mate) are nowhere representatives of the Alawite community. Rather they are individuals who have eschewed an aggressive form of secularism.

Many contemporary Alawite clerics legitimize their discourse by referencing a specific historical period during the French Mandate Syria when community leaders tried to create an Alawite religious revivalist movement, haraka nahdawiya.[7] This offered leaders an opportunity to reshape how Alawism was envisioned. As Pierret notes, a reformist trend emerged within the Alawite community that “aimed to rationalize the Alawi faith by drawing from the –incomparably more elaborated – Twelver scholarly traditions.”[8] He attributes the revivalist movement to three factors: the establishment of separate religious courts for the Alawites in 1922, the consequent adoption of the Ja’afari law, and the marginalization of the secessionist Alawite leaders in 1930’s.[9]

This movement gained its momentum from the rapprochement in the 1940’s between Shiite clerics of Iraq and Lebanon, and the Alawite clerics. The combined efforts of Alawite and Shiite clerics facilitated this trend of reformism that sought to redraw the boundaries of the moral and the religious contents of their collectivity.[10] Its premise is based on shifting how to acquire the religious knowledge by promoting the supremacy of the Islamic jurisprudence and defining it as the backbone of their teachings at the expense of any orally oriented Alawite religious tradition. In effect, the latter is relegated to a secondary role in defining the collective boundaries of the Alawite community. This shifts the status of the Alawite community from being defined by others as an “unorthodox” faith, lying at the periphery (or even outside) of the Muslim collective consciousness, into its center. Thus, it offers them the opportunity to be at equal par with other Muslims as it seeks not only Alawite empowerment but also healing from the collective traumas embedded within a discourse of collective victimization.

As a result of this reformist trend, new Alawite knowledge was produced, which analysts and scholars have dismissed as “apologetic.”[11] For brevity, I present the reformist arguments concisely. The reformist trend argues that the deviation from the original teachings of Alawism had been the byproduct of different internal and external factors, inter alia, historical persecutions, seclusion in the mountains to ensure their communal survival, persistent need to practice taqiya (dissimulation), and ideological/doctrinal rigidity of their traditional religious men. The reformists stressed that the perceived deviation from “authentic” Alawism is not ingrained in their religious teachings. Rather, the need to refine their nahj (doctrine) stemmed from external factors that influenced how traditional religious teachers understood it. They continue that attempts of the “Others” to systematically assault and undermine the Alawites position in their Ja’farites religious school produced a form of Alawism that has departed from the original teachings of Alawism that is, in essence, fiqh-based.[12] The reformists also argue that for the past four decades secularism has deeply affected Alawites more than other communities.

Alawite religious leaders saw the historical laxness towards religious observance of Islamic rituals and the lack of the tradition of building mosques as a heavy burden on the community, limiting their integration within the imaginary collective Islamic community. Thus, the need to bridge “this cultural distance from learned tradition” emerged as representative of the collective aspirations of the Alawite community.[13] At the same time, placing themselves parallel to the Shiites of Lebanon, who were equally marginalized, widened the scope of their imaginary, and opened up the prospect for the creation of porous boundaries. This enabled the emergence of a new Alawite collective identity, defined by its clarity, its openness toward the others in general, and Shiism in particular.

Seeking knowledge in Islamic religious institutions.

Champions of the religious revivalist movement look at Islamic centers of religious learning (whether Shiite seminaries, hawza or Sunni faculties) as the steppingstone for producing a class of Alawite ‘ulama immersed in institutionalized Islamic religious knowledge. Equally important, they seek to produce a generation of pious Alawites that have solid knowledge about the Islamic faith and their religious obligations. For such a community of pious Alawites to be formed, the apathy towards abiding by the sharia needed to relegate, at its expense, the envisioned “authentic” Alawism comes to substitute it, defined with its observance to Sharia norms as encapsulated in the Ja’afari Imamate jurisprudence. As an Alawite cleric told me, “many Alawite clerics have wrongly advocated that those who know the tariqas are absolved of the taklif shar’i (the mandatory observance of Sharia) […]. And this is the real problem.” [14]

Their discourse formed the springboard for many Alawites to go and study in institutions of Islamic religious knowledge, both Sunni sharia faculties and Shiite hawza. Asking one of my interviewee, a young Alawite studying in a Shiite religious seminary and planning to come back to his town for tabligh, “ the reason why I pushed myself to come to here is due to the negative views that the Sunni and the Shiites have against the Alawites. I was told that ‘the Alawites are far away from Islam, and too lax when it comes to abiding by Islamic norms.’ I told them, ‘I am here because of this. And I aim to build a generation of pious Alawites that follow properly their own fiqh, the Ja’farites Imamate.’” [15]

Sending Alawites religious emissary to study Islamic jurisprudence in Islamic religious institutions can be traced back to 1949 when a handful number of Alawite went to learn jurisprudence at al-Azhar in Cairo. About two years later, with the help of a Shia cleric from Lebanon, a religious emissary of Alawites students went into the holy city of Najaf, a major religious center, to learn the teachings of the Imamate jurisprudence.[16] This tablighat (proselytizing) emissary was meant to plant the seeds for a reformist movement among the Alawites and to instruct them on the religious teachings of “authentic Alawism.”[17] Yet their efforts reached a dead-end after the Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim, under the pretext of strained economic and political situations, reneged on his promise to continue his financial support for their studies.[18] However, the decision was likely due to the students’ inability to adapt to the strict religious and cultural codes in the Shiite religious seminaries in Najaf and the pervasive inquiries of the Shiite students about the Alawites’ religious backgrounds.[19]

Contemporaneous Alawite revivalism:

This has continued until this time. One Alawite cleric who studied in a Shiite hawza between 1975 and 1981 said, “ the role of a traditional Alawite cleric is very influential in building a moral society. His role compliments the roles of the Hawza only if he’s a graduate of a hawza. Having a certified religious degree is what validates his credentials. To be an Alawite sheikh, you need to be a graduate of a Hawza. If he failed to graduate, or he dropped out then he can’t be called an Alawite sheikh.”[20]

The emergence of a new class of Alawite clerics from religious institutions seeks to weaken the monopoly of the traditional clerics over the religious knowledge. This burgeoning force embodies the narrative of the revivalist moment. These new clerics seek to fully immerse themselves in what they perceive as a superior religious tradition, the Ja’fari jurisprudence. They stress that the shortcomings of the traditional Alawite clerics stem from their lack of emphasis of all issues related to Islamic jurisprudence.[21] By emphasizing the Sharia over the tariqas, this new movement seeks to “re-calibrate” the Alawite beliefs to be in accordance with Islamic “orthodoxy” and to make Alawites on par with other Muslim leaders in terms of religious observance. In effect, the new class seeks to re-construct Alawism by tapping into a different religious epistemology than the traditional Alawism.

Traditional Alawism lacks a strong scriptural tradition.[22] However, this shift into a strong scriptural tradition serves the process of legitimizing Alawism as part of the final form of Ja’fari jurisprudence. Consequently, Alawite religious knowledge will be equal with the learned traditions of Sunni and Shiite Islam. The newly formed Alawite identity will be intimately linked to Islamic religious institutions in general and Shiite centers of religious learning in particular. The formation of a pious Alawite subjectivity requires daily acts of resistance against a historically secular ethos. Yet this ethos need not be constructed to alienate the surrounding secular environment and society. Rather, it needs to be “visionary, and not sidamiyyan (confrontational).”[23]

Local initiatives to raise religious awareness among the Alawites have ensued. A local Alawite imam, who works also as high school teacher, organizes halkat tadrissiyah (study circles) for the youths in his mosque during the summer for about four hours per day, and during the Islamic months of Shaaban and Ramadan. The first class is about memorizing the Quran and its tafsir (exegesis). The second lesson is about ahl al bayt (the family of the prophet) and their values and what they endured. The third lesson is about how to pray. Explaining his approach in his mosque, he states,

“I wear a suit with no tie in the mosque, and as you can notice I have a very trimmed beard. The pupils see that the sheikh is not distinct from their schoolteachers, so the mosque becomes like any class in a school. All the classes are given in a way not to antagonize the students against any community.”[24]

This imam seeks to challenge Alawites’ lenient attitudes toward Islamic rituals, which he attributes to the staunchly secular nature of the ruling Baath party of Syria. In his words,

“What really drives us on a personal level to push for an Alawite revivalism is seeing our youths being overtaken by secularism. In other words, when I see my daughter watching a Saudi cartoon TV show on a Saudi channel in which the girl is wearing a veil, and reciting the Quran, I want to make sure that my daughter knows that she’s not different than this girl in terms of the same Islamic religious obligations.”[25]


Alawite clerics are emphatically reasserting their belonging to the Imamate jurisprudence. The emergence of a new class of clerics immersed in Islamic jurisprudence is challenging the monopoly of the traditional clerics over the access of religious knowledge. Furthermore, their local initiatives to teach Alawite youth awareness about their religious obligations are creating a sense of empowerment and an assertive Alawite identity that is based more on religious rather than ethno-cultural grounds.

[1] Friedman, Yaron. The Nuṣayrī-ʻAlawīs an introduction to the religion, history, and identity of the leading minority in Syria. Boston: Brill, 2010: 28

[2] See Zisser, Eyal. The ‘Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect. In: O. Bengio and G. Ben-Dor, ed., Minorities and the State in the Arab World, 1st ed. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999:129-141.

[3] Grehan, James. Twilight of the saints: everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 33.

[4] ibid

[5] Desplat, Patrick. “The Articulation of Religious Identities and their Boundaries in Ethiopia: Labeling Difference and Processes of Contextualization in Islam.” Journal of Religion in Africa35, no. 4 (2005): 484

[6] See Nikolas Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Baath Party, 4th ed. (I.B. Tauris, 2011)

[7] See Firro, Kais M. “The Ἁlawīs in Modern Syria: From Nuṣayrīya to Islam via Ἁlawīya.” Der Islam82, no. 1 (2005): 1-31.

[8] Pierret, Thomas, “Karbala in the Umayyad Mosque: Sunni Panic at the ‘Shiitization’ of Syria in the 2000s”, in “The dynamics of Sunni-Shia relationships: doctrine, transnationalism, intellectuals and the media.” edited by Maréchal, Brigitte, and Sami Zemni, 99-116. London: Hurst, 2013: 101

[9] ibid

[10] al-Mohajer, Sheikh Ja’far. [al-Mohajer al-Amili Al-sheikh Habib al-Ibrahim: his biography, his works, his publications, and his poetry]. Mo’assasat Tourath al-Shi’a, 2009

[11] Douwes, Dick, “Going Public: Minority Muslim Communities and Public Space in Syria (Prior to the Revolt)”, in “Religion beyond its private role in modern society” edited by Wim Hofstee and Arie Van Der Kooij, 71-83, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013: 47

[12] For a quick summary, see Firro, Kais M. The Ἁlawīs in Modern Syria: From Nuṣayrīya to Islam via Ἁlawīya. Der Islam, 82(1), 2005:1-31.

[13] Grehan, James. Twilight of the saints: everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 57 (e-book)

[14] Interview with a Syrian Alawite cleric #1

[15] Interview with a Syrian Alawite studying Islamic jurisprudence in a Hawza

[16] al-Mohajer, Sheikh Ja’far. [al-Mohajer al-Amili Al-sheikh Habib al-Ibrahim: his biography, his works, his publications, and his poetry]. 2009: 95

[17] ibid

[18] al-Mohajer, J.(2009). [al-Mohajer al-Amili Al-sheikh Habib al-Ibrahim: his biography, his works, his publications, his poetry]: 101,103, 104

[19] ibid

[20] Interview with a Syrian Alawite cleric #2(a graduate of Hawza)

[21] Interview with a Syrian Alawite cleric #3 (a graduate of Hawza)

[22] Doues, D. (2017). In: Religion beyond its private role in modern society: 72

[23] Interview with a Syrian Alawite cleric #2

[24] Interview with a Syrian Alawite Imam

[25] ibid