Alawites are a Middle-eastern religious group prominent in Syria, who backed the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.
Alawites call themselves Alawi The term Alawite is of relative recent origin and historically they have been called Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. To avoid confusion, this article uses the modern term.
Origin of Alawites is in dispute. According to some sources they were originally Nusayri, a sect that broke ties with Ismailis in the 9th century. In 857, Muhammadu ibn Nusair declared himself as the Bab or representative to the 10th Imam among the Shi'tes.
In the 10th century, Alawites were established during the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo but they were driven out when the dynasty fell at 1004. 1097 Crusaders initially attacked them but later allied them against the Ismailis. In 1120 Alawites were defeated by Ismailis and Kurds but three years later they fought Kurds successfully. In 1297 Ismailis and Alawites tried to negotiate a merge, but it came to nothing.
Alawites were actively persecuted under Mameluke rule from 1260 onwards. When Ottoman Empire took over in 1516, they killed over 90,000 Alawite Shia's and continued the practice. Afterwards Alawites were regarded as outcasts and the empire sent Turks to settle their lands. Reportedly some of the Turks converted to become Alawites. After Alawites attacked Ismaili village of Masyaf in 1832, Pasha of Damascus sent troops against them.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon came under French mandate. French gave autonomy to Alawites and other minority groups and accepted Alawites into their colonial troops. In 1920-1936 Alawites tried unsuccessfully found their own country Alaouites. When in April 27 1924 group of Alawites killed some Christian nuns, French troops marched against them.
In 1939 a portion of northwest Syria, that contained a number of Alawite communities, was given to Turkey by the French, greatly angering the Alawite community. After the World War Two, Alawite followers of Sliman Murshad tried to resist Syrian nationalist troops but he was captured and hanged in 1949.
Syria became independent in 1947 and the country endured a succession of military coups, rise of Ba'ath Party and inclusion to United Arab Republic. In 1966, Alawite-oriented military officers successfully rebelled and came to dominate the Syrian Ba'ath party. In 1970 then-Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad took power and instigated a "correctionist movement" in the Ba'th Party. 1971 he became a president of Syria. Alawite status was significantly improved and in 1974 Imam Musa al-Sadr, leader of Twelver Shiites proclaimed that he accepted them as Shiite a muslims.
After the death of Hafez a-Assad his son Bashar al-Assad has maintained the Alawite power.
Theologically Alawites descend from Twelver Shiites. They revere Ali (hence the name Alawi, "followers of Ali"), the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, as the second most important prophet, secondary only to Mohammed himself. Third part of the so-called trinity is Mohammed's companion Salman al-Farsi.
Alawites recognize 5 of 7 Pillars of Islam - the creed, alms, pilgrimage to Mecca, the prayer and fasting in Ramadan - but do not consider them duties, only symbols. The other two pillars are Jihad and waliya (devotion to Ali and struggle against his enemies). In addition to Shite celebrations, they also celebrate Christmas, Epiphany and Nawruz (Zoroastrian new year) and regard astrology as important. Those who deny Ali are reincarnated as animals.
However, there appears to be deeper religious secrets that are revealed and practiced only by the inner circle, which has caused a number of rumors about their practices. Various sources claim that their rites include remnants of Phoenician sacrificial rituals, that they claim that women have no souls and that they drink wine (possibly a form of communion).
Many Muslims consider Alawites a sect of Shi'a Muslims. However, due to their different beliefs and practices, other Muslim groups - like Wahhabites and Muslim Brotherhood - regard them as heretics at best or no Muslims at all. Alawites consider themselves as moderate shia but the religious schism has caused problems with Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
Alawites have five subsects; Ghaibiyya, Haidariyya, Murshids (after Sliman Murshid), Shamsiyya (Sun Sect) and Qamari (Moon Sect). Sects are oriented by tribe.
In Syria, Alawites live in mountains near the city of Latakia, in cities of Hama and Homs and, due to Hassad's influences, in Damascus. Estimates about their exact numbers range from 1.5 to 1.8 million or about 12% of the Syrian population.
There are also other groups of Alawites who live in Lebanon and southern Turkey (called Alehvis.