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Also known as Nusayris, the Alawis are a branch of Isma'ilism which has gone so far along its own path that many Muslims no longer even regard it as a form of Islam. The term Alawis actually just means "followers of Ali," which is used in some countries to refer to all Shi'a in general. Some think that they worship Ali as God, but that isn't entirely accurate.

Today they can be found almost entirely in Syria, where they number around 1,350,000 and constitute Syria's largest religious minority. For a long time the ethnic minority group which comprises the Alawis held to pre-Islamic beliefs, but after years of Isma'ili influence they gradually moved closer to Islam. Yet they also added in Christian elements to their developing religious beliefs through the influence of the Byzantines and Crusades. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany, and use sacramental wine in some ceremonies.

Their origins can be traced to the eleventh Shi'a Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (d.873) and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). Another common name for the Alawis is the Nusayris, which is derived from Nusayr.

During the Ottoman empire, they were consistently persecuted and had heavy taxes imposed upon them. After Alawi President Hafiz al-Asad and his followers came to power in 1970, however, the well being of the Alawis improved considerably. Despite this, they have no single leader or powerful ruling family because they are split by sectional rivalries. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.

There are three Alawi doctrines which cause them to be rejected by most Muslims as a valid form of Islam. The first is the belief in incarnation - the idea that God can be made flesh, for example in the case of Ali. Ali is believed to have created Muhammad, who in turn created Salman, an early Shi'ite saint. These three form a Trinity.

Thus, Ali is the "Meaning"; Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, is the "Name"; and Salman is the "Gate." Alawi catechesis is expressed in the formula: "I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning." An Alawi prays in a manner patterned after the shahada: "I testify that there is no God but Ali," which gives rise to the idea that they worship Ali as God.

The second heretical belief for Muslims is the rejection of the Qur'an and all the traditional prayers which are associated with Sunni teachings. The five pillars of Islam are followed, but they are interpreted in a wholly allegorical sense to fit community tenets.

The third heretical belief is in reincarnation - although oddly enough, women do not have souls and are not reincarnated. Because of this, none of the secrets of Alawi doctrines are taught to them. Every person reincarnates several times, and faithful Alawis believe they must undergo transformation seven times before they can return to take their place among the stars, where Ali is the prince. If not faithful enough, they are can be reborn as Christians, where they must remain until atonement is complete. Infidels, unfortunately, are reborn as animals.

Although Sunni Muslims do not regard them as Muslims, Alawis consider themselves to be Muslims. The Syrian Constitution requires that the President of the Republic be a Muslim and there was doubt as to whether or not Hafiz al-Asad fulfilled that condition. But the leader of the Twelver Shi'as in Lebanon, "Imam" Musa Sadr, endorsed their claim to being Muslims.

Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu. Most tenets of their faith are secret, however, because the Alawis have refused to discuss them with outsiders. In fact, even most Alawis don't know everything and only a select few are taught everything after a long process of initiation and discipleship.


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