Alawis

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The Alawis or Alawites - in Arabic ﺍﻟﻌﻠﻮﻴﻮﻦ (al'alawiyun) - are a Muslim sect, most of whose members are found in Syria, where they number nearly two million and constitute around 10% of the population, though there are also several hundred thousand Alawis in Lebanon and in Turkey. The name probably derives from the Arabic ﻋﻠﻮﻰ ('alawi, higher, superior, supreme) and refers to the especially exalted status accorded by Alawis to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad - see further below. The Alawis are sometimes referred to as Nusayris - in Arabic ﺍﻟﻨﺼﻴﺮﻴﻮﻥ (alnusayriyun) - after their founder Muhammad ibn Nusayri (died 874), who was a pupil of the eleventh Imam, Hassan al Askari (846-873). Ibn Nusayri lived in Iraq and Persia, and his teaching was brought to Syria in the century after his death by Husayn ibn Hamdan al Khasibi (died 957).

Although Alawis are usually considered to be a branch of Shia Islam and have much in common with mainstream Shias, there are many mystical elements as well as elements from non-Islamic religions (such as Christianity) in their beliefs and practices. Alawis accept, for example, the teaching of ibn Nusayri, their founder, that God has revealed himself to mankind in a series of emanations, the highest and most perfect of these being Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, who is thus accorded a less exalted status than Ali. Unlike other Muslims, Alawis do not fast during the month of Ramadan or make the pilgrimage to Mecca; they do not have mosques but hold their religious services in private houses; and they even celebrate certain Christian festivals such as Christmas and Pentecost. The presence of these and other non-Islamic elements in Alawi belief and practice has led some Sunni Muslims to regard the Alawis as heretics.

The Alawis have a long history as a persecuted minority: during the twelfth century, for example, they were harshly treated by the Sunni Ayyubids and from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries they suffered under the Ottoman sultans, against whom they rebelled on many occasions. However, after Syria was granted independence by the French in 1946, Alawis began to occupy positions of influence in the army and in the Ba'ath party, and in 1960 they gained power in Syria: Hafez al Assad, Syrian president from 1971 to 2000, was an Alawi, as is his son, Bashar al Assad, the current (2015) president.

The words Alawis and Alawites, which are sometimes spelt, especially in francophone areas, Alaouis and Alaouites, are pronounced with the stress on the first syllable: IPA: /'æləwɪz/ and IPA: /'æləwiːts/ or IPA: /'æləwaɪts/.

N.B. The word Alawi may also be used to refer to a member of the Alawi (or Alaouite) dynasty, which has ruled Morocco from 1631 to the present day.