There are an estimated 5 to 12 million Alevis in Turkey. They are followers of a belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi'a and Sunni Islam and draws on the traditions of other religions found in Anatolia as well. The Turkish Government considers Alevism a heterodox Muslim sect; however, some Turkish Alevis and radical Sunnis maintained Alevis were not Muslims. Many Alevis alleged discrimination in the Turkish Government's failure to include any of their doctrines or beliefs in religious instruction classes. Alevis also charged that there was a Sunni bias in the Diyanet since the directorate viewed Alevis as a cultural rather than a religious group and did not fund their activities. During a September 2003 visit to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan told reporters that "Alevism is not a religion" and said Alevi Cem houses are "culture houses" rather than "temples."
The Alawis, who number about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria's largest religious minority. Historically they have been called Nusayris, Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population; the city of Latakia itself is largely Sunni.
The Alawi sect, which integrates doctrines from other religions -- in particular from Christianity -- arose from a split within the Ismailite sect. The Alawis appear to be descendants of people who lived in this region at the time of Alexander the Great. When Christianity flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the Alawis, isolated in their little communities, clung to their own preIslamic religion. After hundreds of years of Ismaili influence, the Alawis moved closer to Islam. However, contacts with the Byzantines and the Crusaders added Christian elements to the Alawis' new creeds and practices. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany.
For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936.
For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria's most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. However, after Alawi President Assad and his retinue came to power in 1970, the well being of the Alawis improved considerably.
Split by sectional rivalries, the Alawis have no single, powerful ruling family, but since independence many individual Alawis have attained power and prestige as military officers. Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.
Alawis claim they are Muslims, but conservative Sunnis do not always recognize them as such. Like Ismaili Shias, Alawis believe in a system of divine incarnation. Unlike Ismailis, Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of the deity in the divine triad. As such, Ali is the "Meaning;" Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, is the "Name;" and Salman the Persian 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."
According to Alawi belief, all persons at first were stars in the world of light but fell from the firmament through disobedience. Faithful Alawis believe they must be transformed seven times before returning to take a place among the stars, where Ali is the prince. If blameworthy, they are sometimes reborn as Christians, among whom they remain until atonement is complete. Infidels are reborn as animals.
Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. Alawis study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam, which they interpret in a wholly allegorical sense to fit community tenets.
Alawis do not set aside a particular building for worship. In the past, Sunni government officials forced them to build mosques, but these were invariably abandoned. Only the men take part in worship.
Alawis are sometimes pejoratively referred to as Mutazila, but they are distinct from this early Islamic sect. The Mu`tazilites were people following the Mu`tazila religious sect that emerged at the last period of the Ummayad dynasty. It became popular in the reign of the Abbasids. The name, Mutazila or Mutazalite means the Withdrawers or Secessionists. The Mutazila come from the Khawarij, who make takfir of the main body of believers. Some then split from their original allegiance and set up a further correctness -- Mutazili "those who decided to go alone". The Khawariji were the very first sect to split away from the main body of the Muslims. The mutazila allowed for civil disobedience, but not for open rebellion as had the Kharijites. The Mutazila argued for the metaphorical nature of the Koran and the supremacy of reason over the text.
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