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An Early Nineteenth Century Interesting Account of The Alawites also Known as Nusayris

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi 

May 19, 2020 

In the course of researching further the early Western literature and scholarship on the Alawites and their religion, I came across a rather brief and interesting account of the Alawites (then dubbed Nusayris) written in French and included in a work entitled 'Memoir on the Three Most Famous Sects of Muslimism: The Wahhabis, Nusayris and Ismailis', which was published in 1818. These accounts had first been published in 1809 and 1810 and were revised and expanded for the 1818 compilation. The work was written by an individual whose name was abbreviated to 'M.R***' but this person was in fact Jean-Baptiste-Louis-Jacques Rousseau, a French scholar of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who was a correspondent for the Royal Institute and Association of the Academy of Sciences, Fine Writings and Arts of Marseille.

The account of the Alawites here portrays them as a superstitious people adhering to doctrines outside the fold of orthodox Muslims, such as belief in the divinity of Ali and metempsychosis, while ignoring conventional Muslim dietary prohibitions and ritual prescriptions. The Alawites are depicted as being at odds with the Ismailis and the Muslims but on good terms with the Christians. In addition, there is some description of their political status within the Ottoman Empire. The Alawites are portrayed as liable to mistreatment by Ottoman officials in the judicial real, but willing to accept Ottoman authority in some form so long as they are not molested too often. 

The account contains errors (such as giving an incorrect etymology for Nusayri and getting the name of Salman the Persian wrong) but it is worth producing here as an early Western overview of the Alawite sect. I have translated the account from the original French and have generally kept to the French-style transliterations for the purpose of authenticity. Note that for the endnotes, those in bold-type are notes in the original book. The other endnotes are my own.


The Nusayris

If we are to believe the Arab authors who have written the history of the sect of the Nusayris, it would be constituted- as per that of the Batini- of a great number of vagabond people given to all the vices, who joined in the body of a nation under the leadership of a certain Ibn Muljem,[i] and derived their outlandish doctrine from the books of the Sabeans, Samaritans, Brahmans and Magians. It is also to assert that this sect was born in the Hejaz, and that over the course of time it was propagated all the way to Syria, the only place- perhaps- where one can find until today some considerable remains of it. The same authors also observe that the denomination under which they are known, comes from the Arabic word 'nusayr'- defender, supporter, which has been arrogated to the sect for having accorded hospitality to some colonies of foreign migrants who fled the persecutions of Islamism. [ii]

The Nusayris, who are vulgarly called Ghelat[iii]- meaning, outrageous, outlandish[iv]- differ entirely in terms of their religious opinions from the orthodox Mahometans,[v] and are very close, in this regard, to the Ismailis. They affirm, like the latter, the divinity of Ali, and metempsychosis. Ali, they say, must be worshipped in the sky as a god, and on earth, as the greatest of the prophets. His total power manifests itself in the beings: Mahomet[vi] is the veil who tempers the rays of his glory, and Suleiman-il-Farsi[vii][viii] the guide who directs the spirits towards his sanctuary. They believe that the soul, after having occupied for a certain time the body that was assigned to it for an abode, passes into that of some animal, and successively into a plant or a mineral, a star or a meteor, to reappear finally within a new human form, and to undergo ad infinitum the same circle of transmigrations. As per this principle, they treat as chimeras the pleasures and pains of the future life, and only acknowledge those of the material and visible world to which they limit their existence. It is claimed that polygamy is not allowed for them, but on the other hand, they have, like many peoples of Mt. Lebanon, the abominable custom of coming together- often men and women- in night assemblies, in order to surrender themselves, in the darkness, to the excess of the most shameful debauchery. In addition, they only observe a very small number of the precepts of the Quran, which they have altered and interpreted in their manner.

Fasting, ablutions, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the prayer itself, are not for them obligatory practices. And one sees them eating and drinking of all that which is forbidden by Muslim law. They have above all a great passion for wine, with which they make spaces of libations in certain festivals they celebrate once a year. Some people who claim to have been eye witnesses to these ridiculous ceremonies, report that the Nusayris come together under some rotundas, and there, sitting around a large basin filled with wine and crowned with burning candles, they sing some mysterious hymns, then embrace each other, rise up tumultuously and overturn the basin to collect and drink, in the palm of their hand, the liquid that they have spread.

The Nusayris also have some sacrifices of propitiation, but, as we have observed already, the prayer is almost not in usage among them. However, sometimes, they invoke the name of God or that of Ali, and greet the Sun and Moon, when these celestial objects rise and set. There are among them (because they are divided into multiple castes like the Indians) those who devote a cult particular to certain vegetables or quadrupeds, or even natural parts[ix] of the woman. Another of their customs that we must not pass over because of its uniqueness, is that when they find themselves assembled to celebrate some festival, the oldest among them brings a goat that they begin to rock during a couple of hours in a mat, then they pluck its hair, butcher it and eat it while cursing the names of Abou Bakr, Omar and Othman.[x] 

The Nusayris are infinitely superior in number, force and wealth to the Ismailis, their neighbors, whom they thoroughly detest as they do not cease to worry about all sorts of depredations and encroachments on territory. In addition, less concerned than these people in the practice of their religion, they have a large number of chapels and places of pilgrimage, sheltered from every insult on the part of the Turks, who would not dare to torment them within their own country. In a number of these chapels, ordinarily surrounded by forests, is a little rotunda where they go to honor, at certain times of the year, the jaw of a donkey: a ridiculous veneration that comes from the fact that they assert that it was this animal that ate the leaf of kolkas,[xi] on which the precepts of their religion had been originally traced out. 

The nation of the Nusayris is composed of several tribes: the most remarkable are those of Reslan, Melih and Schemsi,[xii] all closely joined by the links of blood and religion. These different associations of families who live under the authority of a single Scheikh, inhabit the part of the mountains of Semmak called Safita, from the name of their principal town, situated eight or nine leagues from Tripoly. It is an old fortress surrounded by more than 250 houses, which serves as residence for this Scheikh, who enjoys by hereditary right some prerogatives attached to the tile he bears. He is called Sakr-il-mahfoudh,[xiii] is powerful, liberal, beloved of his subjects and recognized by the Turkish government, which renews for him each year his endowment, in return for the agreed contributions that it receives. 

The country of the Nusayris is divided into several districts. It is not very fertile in general, but the inhabitants by their industry make up for the things that stingy nature holds back from them. The smallest spot of land susceptible to cultivation on the rocks or in the countryside areas, cannot escape their activity. They usually sow corn, barley, maize, sesame, all sorts of vegetables, and thus strive to fertilize it through care and work. The bottom of the valleys teems with orchards planted by their laboring hands.

Nurseries of fig trees, mulberry trees and orange trees mingle agreeably, and some abundant vineyards crown the hills heated by the rays of the Sun. The soil also produces cotton, silk, gallnuts, madder, saltwort, and some other drugs or roots, but it only nourishes a very few number of cattle. 

The Nusayris depend on four different governorates, previously separated, but today united under the jurisdiction of one pacha.[xiv] These governorates are those of Damascus, Hama, Tripoly and Lattakia, which encompass, so to speak, all their territory. They possess more than 800 villages, some situated on the tilting of the mountains or in the valleys, others among the rocks, in the middle of the woods or in the fields. The scheikhSakr-il-mahfoudh has an absolute authority over them, but this authority is only temporal. A certain Scheikh-Khalil rules their consciences, and enjoys, in this regard, some religious homage of the entire sect. This person, elevated some 15 years ago as a prophet, does not have a fixed residence or guaranteed income. Content with his spiritual power, he wanders night and day in the villages and countryside areas, uplifting a superstitious and ignorant people through his ridiculous sermons and his holy trickeries. 

The Nusayris constitute a mild, active, laborious people, suspicious towards foreigners, and given to mechanical skills, but plunged into the darkness of ignorance and superstition. They detest the Muslims, consider the Ismailis to be outlandish and heretics, and prefer the Christians, whom they like, over these two nations. It is not known on what basis this preference is founded. But it is notable that most of the teachers of Islamism denounce them for having borrowed from the latter the dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ in order to apply it to the person of Ali. D'Herbelot who speaks very vaguely of these sectarians, makes the same remark in the article Nossairioun in his Bibliothequeorientale.[xv] 

We will add that the Nusayris, as strongly attached to their mountains as they are to their religion, only very rarely venture out and unless there is an urgent necessity, above all, when they need to procure cattle for themselves, of which they are rather poor, as we have noted. As for other objects of consumption that nature has refused to them, or they lack because they are unable to procure them for themselves by themselves, they buy them from the Turks or from Christians, who often go to them in order to sell silk, cotton, and oil of dried fruits. Moreover, if they sometimes undertake journeys, it is only to go to Tripoly,[xvi] Hama, or Latakia, where they find everything in abundance. Although they try then to pass off as genuine Muslims, the avid surveillance of these people is not always fooled by their deception. If they end up being recognized, the pachas never miss the pretext to make them undergo some cruelties. When one of them is accused of some crime- real or supposed, these same pachas- skillful at profiting from their superstition- condemn him to be hanged, a kind of punishment excessively feared by the Nusayris, on account of the opinion which they have that the soul, not being able to escape by the mouth, is exposed to being dirtied in taking the opposite way out. In order to spare their brother such a misfortune, they obtain, at the price of money, his impalement. The unfortunate then passes away, the conscience quiet, and the Turkish greed is satisfied.

The despotism of the pachas, superstition, ignorance and a harsh life have not suffocated, in the soul of the Nusayris, every sentiment of independence and all energy. More than once they have revolted against the governor of Tripoly, when he wanted to increase the impositions on which they are taxed. It is not long ago that the one of Damascus, on the pretext of exacting vengeance for the vicious acts of violence they had committed against the Ismailis in the invasion of Mesiade, had them attacked suddenly by the elite of his troops. But they defended themselves courageously, and the exploits of the Turkish army confined themselves to the pillaging and burning of three or four of their villages. 

Surrounded by their mountains that are equally battlements elevated by nature, and always ready to arm themselves for the cause of their religion, these sectarians present to the Turks no hope to destroy them. They do not however stop appearing to be submissive to them, and provided they are not molested too often by the pachas, perhaps they will never endeavor to escape Ottoman domination entirely.


[i] Ibn Muljam is the reputed assassin of Ali. However, the account here seems to be somewhat confused. The standard Arabic source accounts, though describing the Nusayri sect as one of the Batiniya sects, trace the lineage of the Nusayri sect to Muhammad bin Nusayr. That said, the allegation is made that the Nusayris revere Ibn Muljam. For example, a footnote to Sharh Hadith Jibra'il li-Ibn Taymiyya makes the follow claim: 'The Nusayris: a Batini sect...and their creed arises on deification of Ali bin Abi Talib (may God be pleased with him), permitting the forbidden things, asserting transmigration [tanasukh] of souls, denying the resurrection of the dead, and sanctifying Abd al-Rahman bin Muljam the killer of Ali because as they say, he freed the godhead from the human form, and they and the rest of the Batini sects are greater disbelievers than the Jews, Christians and many of the idolaters, as the author (may God have mercy on him) has indicated, and the Nusayris, like the rest of the Batini sects, have been an aid for the enemies of Islam from the Tatars, Crusaders and colonialists against the Muslims.' 

[ii] In translation I decided to retain the form of the original French word used here: L'islamisme. But this should not be confused with the modern-day use of the term 'Islamism' in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamic movements. As for this purported etymology of the word Nusayri, it is interesting but definitely not the standard account.

[iii] Arabic: غلاة. Often translated as 'extremists.'

[iv] This designation is given by the orthodox Muslims to the Schias in general, or partisans of Ali.

[v] Another term for Muslims.

[vi] Muhammad.

[vii] This Suleiman, native of Persia and companion of Mahomet, is considered by the Muslims to be in the number of their saints. It is claimed that he was originally Christian and that he had travelled a lot. The charitable donations he made to the poor and his zeal for the propagation of Islamism after he converted led to his being regarded as the father of the unfortunate, and the strongest support of the faith. He died in Madain, in year 35 of the Hijra. His tomb can still be seen today near the ruins of this down, and in the vicinity of the monument known by the name of Tak-Kesra, or Arch of Cosroes.

[viii] This is an error: in fact he is called Salman the Persian (Arabic: Salman al-Farisi).

[ix] Euphemism for the genitalia.

[x] The first three Rashidun caliphs.

[xi] This is a type of potato indigenous to Palestine, which consists of very large oblong and thick leaves.

[xii] Adorers of the Sun.

[xiii] His name in Arabic: صقرالمحفوض (Saqr al-Mahfoudh). He was an Alawite leader of the Safita area. Cf. The following account that mentions Saqr al-Mahfoudh:

'The Alawites are divided into multiple tribes, in addition to their division according to the living situation into Alawites of the coast and Alawites of the mountain. And the difference is that the people of the coast are open in contrast to the mountain people who are more conservative and clinging to independence. As for the tribes they are divided into the tribes of al-Hadadin, al-Matura, al-Khayatin and al-Kalabiya. And within each of these tribes are sorts of sub-tribes, and they called tribes or households, and above this there is a division between north and south, or what they called the al-Kalaziya and the al-Haydariya without the reasons or reality of this latter division being known.

This section also deals with the Egyptian confrontation, before it and after it, as the Shamis family derived from the al-Hadadin tribe assumed leadership of the Alawites in the political field, and their leader Saqr al-Mahfoudh monopolized rule of the area, and subsequently his children (they possessed more than 100 villages), and in accordance with a regime of compliance the family embraced harvests of silk and tobacco, such that the Ottoman state granted its leader the title of Agha. Subsequently the Ottomans feared the growth of the influence of the al-Mahfoudh family, so they divided their areas into three areas. And despite the growth of the power of the Alawites, they did not succeed in transformation into a sect on the example of the Druze, as the internal divisions did not grant them the feature of the monolith sect.'

[xiv] Pasha.

[xv] BarthélemyD'Herbelot: a 17th century French orientalist. His work Bibliothequeorientale was a dictionary-style encyclopedia.

[xvi] Tripoli in Lebanon. 

Original Headline: An Early Nineteenth Century Account of the Alawites 

Source: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi 


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