1. The Nusayris – Ancient Period

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The Nusayri (Alawi)

Ancient Period


Of all the ghulat sects or extremists Shi’i sects mentioned thus far, the Nusayri have attracted the most attention from contemporary writers of both east and west, largely because they now control the government of Syria. In 1970, a Nusayri general, Hafiz al-Asad, assumed military power in Syria, and on 22 February 1971, he became the first Nusayri president in the country’s history. Al-Asad comes from the Numaylatiyya division of the Mutawira, one of the major Nusayri tribes in Syria. Other key positions in the present Syrian government are also occupied by Nusayri officers.[1]

The Nusayri have been known throughout history by the name al-Nusayriyyah (Nusayri), but prefer to be called Alawi (followers of Ali). When the French mandate over Syria went into effect in 1920, the French authorities created a separate Nusayri territory with its own commissioner, under the authority of the French high commissioner in Beirut. On 1 July 1922, when this Nusayri territory became a state, it was named Dowlah al-Alawiyyin (the Alawi’s state); it had a seventeen-member representative counsel, with the Nusayri’s holding twelve seats and Sunnis (who make up the majority) and other minorities holding five. In 1930, the political institution of this state was defined by the Organic law and it became formally known as the Government of Latakia.

The Nusayri writer Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil (d. 1932), who wrote a history of his sect, thanked God that after four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Syria, the Nusayri’s, who have been contemptuously called by this name since 1516, finally had their lawful name, Alawi, restored.[2] The fact is, however, that the sect has always been known as Nusayri, a name that has had a religious connotation since the ninth century. Moreover, it should be pointed out that Alawi is a general term frequently applied to all Shi’is who follow Ali and believe him to be the heir and successor of the Rasul of Allah (saw) in leading the Muslim community.

The original habitat of the Nusayri is the massive mountain range in the northern Syria that bears their name: Jabal al-Nusayriyyah (Nusayriyyah Mountain), the Bargylus of the Romans.[3] The ancient Syrians called them Ukomo (Black), following their Syrians’ practice, the Arabs called them Jabal al-Lukam (black mountain). The southern peaks of this range are called Jabal al-Summaq (Sumac Mountains) and Jabal Amil. The Nusayriyyah Mountains stretches from al-Nahr al-Kabir (the great river, the ancient Eleutherus) on the south to a point north of the Orontes (al-Asi) River and Antioch. The range extends from Mount Lebanon along the Mediterranean, facing the island of Cyprus. The Nusayri are not confined to this mountain region, however. They are also found in great numbers in the Syrian provinces of Latika, Hims, amd Hama; in the Lebanese district of Akkar, south of Latakia; and in the Turkish provinces of Hatay (formerly the Syrian province of Alexandretta, or al-Iskandarun), Seyhan (Adana), Tarsus, Antioch. A small number of Nusayri live in Wadi al-Taym, south of Mount Hermon, in two villages north of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Jordan, and in Banyas (the ancient Caesarea Philippi).[4] About thirteen Nusayri families live in Ana, a town in western Iraq near the Syrian border. Groups of Nusayri live in Damascus, Aleppo, and Salamiyya, south of Hama; in al-Karak, Jordan; in Istanbul, Turkey; in Yemen; and in Brazil.[5] Until the thirteen century, a number of Nusayri lived in Sinjar, north of the city of Mosul, Iraq. These Nusayri from Sinjar, led by their Amir Hasan Yusuf Makzum (d. 1240), left Syria to help their coreligionists in their struggle against their oppressors, the Kurds and the Ismaili. One of these tribes was Mutawira, to which President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria belongs.[6]

With the passage of time, the religious concepts of followers of al-Makzum evolved in new directions, especially regarding Ali ibn Abi Talib, the centre of worship of all the Nusayris. Some of al-Makzum’s followers came to be known as Kalazis after one of their religious leaders, Muhammad ibn Kalazu. They also became known as Qamris (moon-worshipers, from the Arabic qamar, moon) because they believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib dwells in the moon; the Shamsis (sun-worshipers), also called Shamalis, derived their name from the word shams (sun), because they believe that the sun, not the moon, is the abode of Ali ibn Abi Talib. Thus, from a purely religious point of view, the Nusayri are divided into two sects whose beliefs, apart from their association with the sun or the moon with the worship of Ali, are substantially the same. We shall have more to say about these two sects in our discussion, in later chapters of the religion of the Nusayris.

As an oppressed minority, the Nusayris found a haven for centuries in the fastness of their mountains. They avoided the urban centres of Syria; in the nineteenth century, they were not found even in Latakia, Beirut, or Damascus. They were very suspicious of other Syrian peoples and were ready to attack at the least provocation. Rev. Samuel Lyde (d. 1860), who lived amongst the Nusayri for six years (1853-1859), writes that, oppressed by the Ottoman government and overburdened by many taxes, the Nusayri usually took revenge on the Muslim people of the plains, whom they hated, plundering and killing without mercy.[7]

The constant internal feud among their many tribes and clans reduced them to a state of barbarism and rendered their country a wasteland. We learn from Lyde that violence, bloodshed, treachery, and murder became a way of life with the Nusayris. He states that because of violence, the gradual ruin of the villages, and the increasing desolation and depopulation of their country, by the middle of the nineteenth century the province of Latakia, which once had been heavily populated by the Nusayris, had only a very small number of them left.[8] These chaotic conditions must have impelled the remaining Nusayri farmers to move close to the urban centres of Syria to work for landowners who lived mostly in the cities. Some of the Nusayris moved to the plains of Akkar to the south and Latakia to the west, while others spread in the interior of Syria, especially the province of Hama.

Although Nusayris were despised by their Muslim and Christian neighbours, the landholders needed the services of the Nusayri farmers, who, because they were desperate, were subservient and hardworking, and posed no threat to their employer’s interests. This explains the settlement of the Nusayris in the villages in the northern part of the province of Hama. This migration, however, was only a trickle, because Syria, like other countries of the Middle East, was predominantly rural in nature, and the Nusayris could not make an adequate living in the urban centres of the country. Things have changed in the recent years; Syria has become greatly urbanized, and movement from the countryside to the urban centres has rapidly increased. When Hafiz al-Asad rose to power in the 1970, the Nusayris began to flock to the urban centres of Syria, seeking employment and education, now available thanks to the encouragement and assistance of the predominantly Nusayri government of Syria.[9]

The origin of the Nusayris is the subject of speculation among historians. Some believe that Nusayris are descendants of the Nazerini mentioned by Pliny in his History (5:23), when he wrote: “Hollow Syria contains the town of Qalat al-Mudiq separated by the river Marsyas from the tetrarchy of the Nazerini.”[10]

In his Syriac Chronography, the Syrian Maphrian of the East, Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), includes a chapter entitled “The History of Those who are Called Nusiraye.”[11] He ascribes the name Nusiraye to an old man who appeared in the year 891 A.D in the country of Aqula (al-Kufah, in southern Iraq), in the village called Nasariah. In his Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal (a compendium of the history of dynasties), written in Arabic, Bar Hebraeus mentions a village called Nasrana, from which came a certain Abu al-Faraj ibn Uthman, who belonged to the extremist sect of al-Qaramitah (Carmatians). And in a third place, Bar Hebraeus mentions the Nusayriyyah as an extremist Shi’i sect.[12] Silvestre de Sacy, who produced Bar Hebraeus’ statements about Nasariah and Nasrana, seems at first to be convinced that the name of the Nusayris derives from the village of Nasariah or Nasrana, where their alleged founder lived. But after further contemplation, de Sacy seems uncertain of this explanation.[13]

Other writers, like Wolff, maintain that the name Nusayris is a diminutive of the Arabic word Nasarah (Christians), and the Nusayris means “little Christians.” Wolff reasons that the adversaries of the Nusayris contemptuously called them by this name because of their many Christian’s rituals and practices.[14] Ernest Renan likewise maintains that Nusayris is a diminutive of Nasarah.[15]

The Nusayri writer Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil maintains that the name Nusayris derives from Jabal al-Nusayriyyah (the Nusayriyyah Mountain), where they live.[16] Another writer Hashim Uthman, avers that the name of this mountain is Nazare, and it was so called by the crusaders when they invaded Syria in the eleventh century.[17] This is not so, in 1099, when the crusaders marched through Syria on their way to Jerusalem, they found Nusayris already living in the mountains called Jabal al-Nusayriyyah, side by side with the Isma’ilis and the Druzes.[18] According to a Druze source, the Nusayris were once part of the Druze sect, later splitting off from it. The Druze catechism, probably originated in the eleventh century, speaks of the Nusayris as having been one with the Unitarian Druzes before separating themselves through the effort of a certain rector called al-Nusayri. Question forty four of the catechism asks: “How did the Nusayris separate themselves from the Muwahhidun [Unitarians, as the Druzes called themselves] and abandon the Unitarian religion?” Answer: “They became separated when al-Nusayri called them to do so. Al-Nusayri claimed to be the servant of our Lord, the commander of the faithful [Ali]. He denied the divinity of our lord al-Hakim (reigned 996-1021), the Fatimid Khalifah defied by the Druzes] and professed the divinity of Ali ibn Abi Talib. He said that the Deity has manifested himself successively in the twelve Imams of the family of the Rasul of Allah (saw), and that he has disappeared after he manifested himself in the Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Qa’im [twelfth Imam].”[19] From this statement we learn that the name of the sect dates back to the late tenth or early eleventh century, and that the founder of the sect was a certain Nusayri, who, despite the discrepancy of the dates, was most likely Muhammad al- Nusayr.

The Nusayr, accepted among contemporary historians as the source of the name Nusayris, was a Persian by origin whose full name was Muhammad ibn al- Nusayr al-Namiri al-Bakri al-Abdi (d. 270/883), but who was known also by his agnomen, Abu Shu’ayb. It is said that Muhammad ibn Nusayr, may have been born in Khuzistan or al-Basrah, Iraq. Through his association with the Arab tribe of the Banu al-Namir, he came to be known as al-Namiri. He lived in the city of Samarra, Iraq, where the eleventh Imam al-Askari lived at the same time.[20] According to Louis Massignon, the members of the sect used the name Nusayris from the time of al-Khasibi (d. 346/957), having been previously been called Namiriyyah.[21]

In Kitab al-Mashyakhah (Manual for the shaykhs), Muhammad ibn Nusayr is described as the “door” to the eleventh Shi’i Imam, al-Hasan al-Askari (d. 873). A substantial portion of this manuscript was translated by Rev. Samuel Lyde and incorporated in to his book, Asian Mystery (London, 1860).[22]

In his book Kitab al-Dala’il wa l-Masa’il, still in this manuscript form, an early Nusayri writer, al-Maymun ibn Qasim al-Tabarani (d. 426/1034), relates a tradition in which the eleventh Imam al-Askari is reported to have said: “Muhammad ibn Nusayr is my light, my door, and my proof against mankind. Whatever he related of me is true.”[23]

In his Munazarah (debate), the Nusayri Shaykh Yusuf ibn al-Ajuz al-Halabi, known as al-Nashshabi, states that Muhammad ibn Nusayr is “the door of God after whom there is no other door. He became the door after ghaybah (occultation) of our Lord Muhammad [the Mahdi, the last of the twelve Imams].”[24]

Muhammad ibn Nusayr also appears as the door to the Imam al-Hasan al-Askari in Kitab al-Majmu, the most important source of information about the doctrine of the Nusayris. Sulayman al-Adani, a Nusayri convert to Christianity burned alive for his apostasy by leaders of his sect, first presented this work in his Kitab al-Bakhurah al-Sulaymaniyyah (published in Beirut without a date, although many writers give 1863 as the date of its publication). Kitab al-Majmu contains sixteen chapters delineating the various doctrines of the Nusayris. Commenting on the fourth chapter, al-Adani leaves no room for doubt that the religion of the Nusayris originated with Muhammad ibn Nusayr.[25] The identification of the Nusayris with Muhammad ibn Nusayr is also affirmed by Shaykh Isa Suud, a former Nusayri judge of Latakia. Writing in 1930, Suud states that the name of the Nusayris derives from Abu Shuayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr, the “door” to the Imam al-Askari. However, Suud attempts to project the Nusayris as a genuine Shi’i sect originating with Imam Ali.[26]

Writers from Ibn Nusayr’s own era have noted that his teachings put him outside the mainstream of Shi’i belief, however. According to the tenth century (Shi’i) writer Sad ibn Abd Allah al-Qummi al-Ashari, Ibn Nusayr claimed not only that he was a prophet but that the tenth Imam, Ali al-Hadi, had appointed him as an apostle, entrusting him with the delivery of the message of the divine authority of the Imams. Al-Ashari also states that after the death of Ali al-Hadi in 868, Ibn Nusayr became associated with his son, the eleventh Imam al-Askari, and preached al-Askari’s divinity. Ibn Nusayr also allowed marriage between relatives forbidden to marry under Islamic law, and considered homosexuality not only to be lawful, but one of the pleasures permitted by Allah, an attitude al-Ashari deplored.[27] Another tenth-century Shi’i writer, Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Nawbakhti, seems to have used al-Ashari’s book as a source, for he gives the same account, adding only that Ibn Nusayr also preached metempsychosis [reincarnation].[28] Yet a tenth century Shi’i, Abu Amr al-Kashshi, notes in his Marifah Akhbar al-Rijal the existence of a sect proclaiming the Prophet-Hood of Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Namiri, who in turn preached the divinity of the Imam al-Askari. This was against al-Askari’s wishes; al-Kashshi produced a letter written by al-Askari to a follower, totally renouncing Ibn Nusayr and his teachings.[29]

Al-Kashshi’s statement is significant, for it indicates that by the end of the tenth century, there was a well-established sect (although al-Kashshi does not give its name) that followed Ibn Nusayr as a prophet. The modern Iraqi writer Kamil Mustafa al-Shaybi confirms this, asserting that the a group of Shi’is broke away in the time of the tenth Imam Ali al-Hadi, upholding Ali al-Hadi’s Imamate and proclaiming Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Namiri as a prophet. Al-Shaybi calls Ibn Nusayr the founder of the Nusayri sect. He says Ibn Nusayr preached the divinity of the Imams, but was lax in the application of the religious duties.[30]

Another Shi’i writer, Abu Ja’far al-Tusi (d. 460/1067), states in his al-Ghaybah that when the eleventh Imam died, Muhammad ibn Nusayr claimed that he had become the “door” to the twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi.[31] The same assertion is repeated by Abu Mansur al-Tabarsi (d. 729/1325) in his Ihtijaj,[32] and by Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli (d. 726/1325) in his al-Rijal.[33]

The contemporary Shi’i writer Shaykh Muhammad Hasan al-Zayn al-Amili discusses the Nusayris as a sect in his book al-Shi’ah fi al-Tarikh. He states that al-Nusayriyyah are the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, himself a follower of the Imam al-Hasan al-Askari. Upon the death of al-Askari, Ibn Nusayr claimed to be the agent of the son of al-Askari, the twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi. Al-Amili also mentions that al-Askari renounced and condemned Ibn Nusayr in his lifetime.[34]

It is significant that al-Amili uses the term al-Nusayriyyah, the traditional way of the sect, rather than al-Alawiyyun which is a recent appellation. The Shi’i sources cited above, however, refer to this sect not as al-Nusayriyyah but as al-Namiriyyah, a name taken from al-Namiri, one of the popular eponyms of Muhammad ibn Nusayr. Turning to Sunni sources, we find that some writers like Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari (d. 234/935) in his al-Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, and Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429/1037) in his al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, used the term Namiriyyah for this sect.[35] The Sunni writer al-Shahrastani (d. 548/1153), however, uses the name Nusayriyyah to distinguish this sect from another heterodox sect, the Ishaqiyyah, founded by Ishaq al-Ahmar.[36]

Al-Shahrastani states that these two sects asserted that a spiritual appearance in a material body cannot be denied, since Gabriel appeared in a figure of a man, and Satan in a figure of an animal. In the same way, they argued, God appeared in the form of persons. After the Rasul of Allah (saw) (Muhammad), they believed, that there is no person more illustrious than Ali (ra), and after him, his sons (the Imams); the Divine truth appeared in their form, spoke by their tongue, and handled with their hands. For this reason the Nusayris and the Ishaqis both ascribe divinity to the Imams. Al-Shahrastani notes, however, that while the Nusayris stress the divine being of the Imams, the Ishaqis emphasise that, being divine, Ali should be a partner to Muhammad in the divine office of the Prophet-Hood.[37]

Like al-Shahrastani, the Andalusian writer Abu Muhammad Ali ibn Hazm (d. 456/1065), uses the name Nusayriyyah for the sect under discussion. Ibn Hazm seems to be familiar with the Nusayriyyah as a sect whose members triumphed over the Jordanian army in Syria and captured Tiberius “In this our time.” He quotes the Nusayris as saying that Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam, the murderer of Imam Ali, will be the most excellent and noblest of all the people the earth in the next life because, by killing Ali, he released his divinity from the darkness of his body. Ibn Hazm asserts that such belief is sheer lunacy and utter blasphemy.[38]

From the foregoing evidence, we may deduce that the name al-Nusayriyyah was not used as the proper name of this sect until the tenth century, and prior to that time the sect was referred to as al-Namiriyyah. In the thirteenth century Bar Hebraeus, already quoted, and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), who issued a juristic opinion against the Nusayris as a heterodox sect, spoke of al-Nusayriyyah as a sect. however, both Bar Hebraeus and Ibn Taymiyyah (ar) seem to have confused the Nusayris with another heterodox Shi’i group, the Qaramitah (Carmatians).[39] A contemporary of Ibn Taymiyyah, Abu al-Fida’ (d. 1331), also seems to have confused the Nusayris with the Qaramitah.[40]

Modern writers offer no additional information about the origin of the Nusayris. They seem to reach the same conclusion held by ancient writers: that the Nusayris are Ghulat (extremist Shi’is) whose sect was founded by Muhammad ibn Nusayr in the ninth century. Thus, the Nusayris are one of the oldest of the Ghulat Shi’i sects, and the name Alawiyyun, which they apply to themselves at present, is quite recent, dating back (only) to the 1920s.[41]

Most of our information of Ibn Nusayr and his teachings derives from what others wrote about him, for he left no written record or formulation of his creed. What is clearly known is that he lived in the city of Samarra, Iraq, and was the contemporary of Imam al-Hasan al-Askari, and that after the concealment of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi, Ibn Nusayr claimed to be the Imam and declared that his love for Ahl-Bayt (the family of the Rasul of Allah) led him to deify the Imams. After his death, Ibn Nusayr was succeeded as the “door” to the Imams by Muhammad ibn Jundub, about whom much is not known. Ibn Jundub was succeeded by Abu Muhammad Abd Allah al-Jannan al-Jumbulani (d. 287/900), also known as al-Farisi (the Persian), from the town of Junbula, between al-Kufah and Wasit in the southern Iraq. From a reference in Kitab al-Mashyakhah, we learn that al-Jumbulani was ascetic and the teacher of al-Khasibi, a very important figure in the history of the Nusayri sect. Al-Jumbulani founded a new Sufi order, al-Jumbulaniyyah, named after him. He went to Egypt, where he met al-Khasibi, who became his follower. He then returned to Junbula accompanied by al-Khasibi, to whom he taught Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, and other sciences known at the time.[42]

After the death of al-Jumbulani, the leadership of the Nusayri sect was assumed by Abu Abd Allah al-Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi (d. 346/957), who is highly honoured by the Nusayris for unifying the sect and consolidating their teachings. The Nusayri writer Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil describes al-Khasibi as “the great Alawi.”[43] An active missionary, al-Khasibi established two Nusayri religions centres in Baghdad and Aleppo and left several books, including Kitab al-Hidayah al-Kubrah (the book of great guidance).[44] He is considered one of the leading Nusayri jurists who received “divine” knowledge through a chain of authorities dating back to Ali (ra). Al-Khasibi is further credited with propagating the Nusayri religion in all lands.[45]

Al-Khasibi’s importance pervades Nusayri rituals and texts. In the third Nusayri Quddas (mass), called the Quddas al-Adhan (the mass of calling people to prayer), the mu’adhin, after proclaiming that his religion (the Nusayri religion) has been established for eternity, that there is no god but God who is Ali, and that there is no Bab (door) but Salman al-Farisi, goes on to say that “there is no lord but my lord, our Shaykh al-Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi. He is the ship of safety, the very essence of life. Come to prayer; come to success, O faithful ones.”[46]

Likewise, the ninety-eighth question of the Nusayris Kitab Ta’lim al-Diyanah al-Nusayriyyah [catechism] asks: “Which of the shaykhs spread our faith in all lands?” The answer is, “Abu Abd Allah al-Husayn ibn Hamdan [al-Khasibi].”[47]

Jesus Christ occupies a prominent place in al-Khasibi’s teaching. Al-Khasibi held that Christ was each of the Old Testaments prophets beginning with Adam, the Islamic figure al-Khidr, and Muhammad. In brief, Christ was every one of the prophets who came to this world. Christ was likewise Socrates, Pluto, Galen, Nero, and many Persian and pre-Islamic Arab sages, including Luai, Kilab, Abd Manaf, and Hashim, ancestors of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Moreover, al-Khasibi taught that mothers of the former prophets and their wives, except for the wives of Nuh and Lut, were incarnations of Salman al-Farsi, as were Queen of Sheba and the wife of Potiphar. Salman al-Farsi also appeared, according to al-Khasibi, in animate objects and beasts, like the one supposed to have killed Joseph, the son of Jacob. He appeared as an ant, in winged form as a crow, and in other forms. Al-Khasibi further taught that Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) was incarnate in Abel, Seth, Joseph, Joshua, Asaf, Simon, Peter, Aristotle, and Hermes, and in certain wild animals, including the dog of the companions of Ahl al-Kahf (people of the cave), the camel of Salih, and the sacrificial cow of Moses.[48]

From Sulayman al-Adani, a Nusayri convert to Christianity, we learn that as an active missionary, al-Khasibi had fifty one disciples, of whom the most famous were Muhammad ibn Ali al-Jilli, Ali ibn Isa al-Jisri, and al-Qutni. Al-Adani states that any Nusayri who traces his genealogy to one of these men is considered a “brother” of al-Khasibi.[49] It is from this al-Khasibi that the Nusayris also call themselves [Ta’ifat] al-Khasibiyyah (the Khasibiyya sect).[50] They call their religion Diyanat al-Khasibi (the religion of al-Khasibi).[51] Question ninety nine of their catechism asks: “Why do we bear the name of Khasibiyyah?” the answer is, “Because we follow the teaching of our shaykh, Abu Abd Allah ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi.”[52] We have seen earlier that according to Massignon, the sect was also called Nusayri in the time of al-Khasibi.

To spread his teaching, al-Khasibi travelled extensively in Persia and Syria and settled in Aleppo, which in the tenth century was under the Shi’i dynasty of the Hamdanis. According to Nusayri authorities, al-Khasibi won the favour of the Hamdani ruler Sayf al-Dawlah (reigned 944-967), who helped him to propagate his teachings. In Aleppo he wrote Kitab al-Hidayah al-Kubrah, dedicated to Sayf al-Dawlah. Making Aleppo the centre of activity, al-Khasibi sent his disciples to Persia, Iraq, Egypt, and surrounding areas to spread his teachings. His disciples in Iraq were the Shi’i Buwayhids, who ruled Baghdad from 945 to 1055, when they were overthrown by the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Tughril. The Shi’i Fatimid sultans of Egypt were also among his disciples. To his disciples, al-Khasibi was erudite and deeply religious. Because of his extensive religious knowledge, he was called Shaykh al-Din (the spiritual authority of religion). After a long and eventful life, al-Khasibi dies in Aleppo, where his tomb is inscribed with the name Shaykh Yabraq. It has become a holy shrine visited by many people.[53]

According to Sulayman al-Adani, the Nusayri religion began with Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who was succeeded by Ibn Jundub, who, in turn, was succeeded by al-Jumbulani who was succeeded by al-Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi, so esteemed by the Nusayris that they consider him “superior to all his successors.”[54] He is the one who perfected their prayers and taught far and wide in many countries. But, al-Adani goes on to say, al-Khasibi was not successful in winning converts to his religious ideas.

To show his disappointment with the Syrians, who did not respond to his preaching, he satirized them in some of his poems, saying, “I dislike staying in the land of al-Sham (Syria), may the curse of the lord of all creatures rest upon them.”[55] From Syria al-Khasibi journeyed to Baghdad, where he taught in public, but the governor of the city arrested him and threw him in prison. He managed to escape by night, claiming that Christ had delivered him from his captors, and that Christ was none other than Muhammad. According to Bar Hebraeus in his Chronography, al-Khasibi (who is not mentioned by a name) escaped through the efforts of the jailer’s maid, who felt sorry for him. When the jailer was deep in sleep, she stole the keys of the cell for him, opened the gate, let al-Khasibi out, and returned the keys to their place. When the jailer awoke and saw the prisoner had escaped, he spread the rumour that an Angel delivered him, in order to escape the governor’s wrath. When al-Khasibi heard the tale of this “miracle,” he became more resolute than ever in spreading his teachings.[56]

Bar Hebraeus repeats this same story in his Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal (History of dynasties), relating it this time as the tale of a certain poor man who came from Khuzistan [Arabistan] in south west Iran. This man went to Sawad al-Kufah in southern Iraq and, according to Bar Hebraeus, founded the Qaramitah (Carmatians), another extremist Shi’i group.[57] Apparently the stories told by Bar Hebraeus in his Chronography about the founder of the Nusayris and in Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal about the founder of the Qaramitah are related to stories related by either Jirjis ibn al-Amid, called al-Makin (d. 1273), or Abu al-Fida’ (d. 1331) regarding the founder of the Qaramitah.[58] From the accounts of these writers, we may gain the impression that the Qaramitah and the Nusayris are one and the same sect. De Sacy concludes that the Qaramitah are no different from the Nusayris because both sects are closely related with the Isma’ilis, and because information in Druze books about the doctrines are identical with those of the Isma’ilis.[59] There is a great deal of truth in De Sacy’s statement that the Nusayris were related to the Isma’ilis. Such a relationship is suggested by the effort made to unite the Nusayris and the Isma’ilis. The Nusayri writer Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil states that after the death of al-Jumbulani in 287/900, the Isma’ilis and the Nusayris, whom he calls Alawis, called an important religious meeting in the city of Ana near the Iraqi-Syrian border, attended by two representatives each from Baghdad, Ana, Aleppo, Latakia, and Jabal al-Nusayriyyah. The purpose of the meeting was to unite the Alawis (Nusayris) with the Isma’ilis, but its result, says al-Tawil, was more disagreement and greater alienation between the two sects.[60] From this account we may infer that, since the Isma’ilis were the older sect, the Nusayris were an offshoot of the Isma’ilis.

While there is no evidence that the Nusayris and the Qaramitah are identical, they do share common practices, such as prostrating themselves fifty times a day while praying, holding one fifth of their property at the disposal of their Brethren, and celebrating the feasts of the Mihrajan and Nawruz.[61] It is noteworthy; however, that Shaykh Isa Suud, former Nusayri judge of Latakia, rejects the stories about al-Khasibi and the association of the Nusayris with the Qaramitah. He blames these stories on the authors, who, “because of ignorance of true history of the Nusayris, wrote such fables, which have no shadow of reality.” However, Suud produces poetry composed by al-Khasibi while in prison in Baghdad, lamenting the fact that he was thrown into jail because he was accused of being a Qarmati (Carmatian), which indicates that there is some truth in associating al-Khasibi with the Qaramitah.[62]

Among his many accomplishments, al-Khasibi established two religious centres — one in Baghdad, which he entrusted to his representative, Ali Jisri (whose epithet derives from Jisri [bridge] because of his position as a supervisor of bridges in Baghdad), and the other in Aleppo, operating by his agent, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Jilli, from Jilliyya, near Antioch.

According to Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil, al-Khasibi’s main goal was to win people over from all creeds to the Jumbulaniyyah order, founded by his master, al-Jumbulani. Al-Tawil goes on to say that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Byzantines, and Turks joined the Jumbulaniyyah order and formed the sect now called the Alawis, or Nusayris. Certainly this is a very significant testimony about the origin of the Nusayri sect, especially in that it comes from a member of the sect. Also noteworthy is al-Tawil’s statement that al-Jumbulani was born 235/849 and died in 287/900. We can be quite sure that the Nusayris were already an establishment sect in the ninth century,[63] but they were known as Namiriyyah and Jumbulaniyyah rather than Nusayris. In the tenth century, they were called Khasibiyyah, after al-Khasibi, as well as Nusayris.


NEXT⇒ The Nusayris – Middle Period 

[1] Hanna Batatu, “Some Observations on The Social Roots Of Syria’s Ruling Military Group And The Causes for its dominance,” The Middle East Journal 35, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 331-32.

[2] Muhammad Ghalib al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1981), 446-49; and Col. Paul Jacquor, L’État des Alaouites Terre d’art, de souvenirs et de mytère (Beirut: Emp. Catholique, 1929), 15-16.

[3] Pliny, Natural History, Book 5-17

[4] For thorough description of the Nusayri habitat, see Lyde, The Asian Mystery (London, Longman, 1860), 1-24. This is the first major work in the English on the Nusayri. Lyde lived for many years among the Nusayri and his knowledge about them is first hand. In his preface, he states that he attempted with the sect of the Ansayri (Nusayri) what De Sacy had already affected with that of the Druzes. For a lengthy review of Lyde’s book see Charles Henry Brigham, “the Asian Mystery.” North American Review 93, no. 193 (October 1861): 342-66.

[5] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 521-24; Hashim Uthman, al-Alawiyyun bayna al-Usturah wa al-Haqiqah (Beirut: Muassasah al-Alami, 1980), 39-43; and Peter Gubser, “Minorities in Power: The Alawites of Syria,” in The Political Role of Minority Groups in the Middle East, ed. R.D. McLaurin (New York: Praeger, 1979), 17-18.

[6] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 416; Munir al-Sharif, al-Alawiyyun: Man Hum Wa Ayna Hum (Damascus: al-Maktaba al-Kubra li al-Talif wa al-Nashr, 1946), 69-71; Abu Musa al-Hariri al-Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun (Beirut: n.p., 1980), 196; and Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Madhahib al-Islamiyyin (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm al-Malayin, 1973), 2:497-98. Al-Makzum al-Sinjari was a prominent Nusayri mystical poet. For his poetry see Asad Ahmad Ali, Marifat Allah wa al-Makzum al-Sinjari, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dar al Raid al Arabi, 1972).

[7] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 23 and 193-232.

[8] Jacques Weulersse, Le pays des Alouites (Tour: Arrault, 1940), 1:121.

[9] Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,”20.

[10] CF. Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 55-56; and the sources the author cites.

[11] Bar Hebraeus, Chronography, 1:150.

[12] Bar Hebraeus Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal, 97, 150. CF. Abu al-Fida, Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Akhbar al-Bashar (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr and Dar al-Bihar, 1959), 3:70; and Jamal al-Din Abu al-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyam, 1369/1948), 104.

[13] Antoine Isaac Silvetre de Sacy, Exposé de la Religion des Druzes, (Paris: L’Ilm-premirie Royale, 1838) 2:565 and 567.

[14] Wolff, “Auszüge aus dem Katechismus der Nossairier,” Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft (1849). 3:302. The Arabic original of this Nusayri catechism, entitled Kitab Ta’lim al-Diyana al-Nusayriyyah, is found in Arab MS. 6182, Bibliothèque Nationale. For an abridged English translation of the same, see Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 270-80.

[15] Ernest Renan, Mission de Phénicie (Paris: Impremarie, Impériale, 1864), 114; and Dussaud, hisoire et Religion des Nosairis, 9. For further information on the etymology of the name of the Nusayris, see Massignon, “Nusairi,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden and London: E.J. Brill, 1936), 3:963.

[16] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 446-47.

[17] See Uthman, al-Alawiyyun, 35-36; and Muhammad Kurd Ali, Kitat al-Sham (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm li al-Malayin, 19771), 6:260, whose idea about the origin of the term Nusayris was misunderstood by Uthman.

[18] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 68.

[19] See the Druze Catechism (Formulary) in Arab MS. 5188, fols. 51-52, Bibliothèque Nationale. Other copies are found in Arab MMS. 1445, 1446, and 1447, Bibliothèque Nationale; and De Sacy, Exposé, 2:260.

[20] Sulayman al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakura al-Sulaymaniyya fi Kashf Asrar al-Diyana al-Nusayriyyah (Beirut: n.p., n.d.), although the book contains no date of publication, many authors accept the year 1863 as the date of its publication. For the English translation of the same, see Edward Salisbury, “Notes on the Book of Sulayman’s First Ripe Fruit Disclosing the Mysteries of the Nosairian Religion,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 8 (1864): 227-308; the Reference here is to page 242. See also, Rev. Louis Cheihho, “Jawla fi al-Dawla al-Alawiyyah,” al-Mashriq 22, No. 7 (Beirut, 1924): 481-95; Abd al-Husayn Mahdi al-Askari, al-Alawiyyun aw al-Nusayriyyah (n.p., 1980), 31, n.1; Taqi Sharaf al-Din, al-Nusayriyyah: Dirasah Tahliliyya (Beitut,: n.p., 1983), 111; Badawi, Madhahib al-Islamiyyin, 2:441; and al-Hariri, al-Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun, 27-30

[21] Louis Massignon, “Les Nusairis,” Opera Minora (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1963), 1:619; and idem, “Nusairi,” 963.

[22] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 58-59 and 235. Lyde states that the copy of Kitab al-Mashyakhah (Manual for Shaykhs) in his possession contains 188 pages transcribe in the handwriting of a certain shaykh Muhammad of the village of Bishargo, which he has transcribed from an old copy in the year 1239/1824. It contains all of the chief parts of the religion of the Nusayris. The first reference of this manuscript was made by Joseph Catafago, dragoman of the Prussian Vonsulate in Beirut; for his description of it, see the journal Asiatic (July 1848), 72-78.

[23] R. Strothmann, “Seelenwanderung bei den Nusairi,” Oriens 12 (1959): 104. In this article, Strothmann published Arabic excerpts from two books, Kitab al-Ma’arif and Kitab al-Dala’il wa al-Masa’il, by the Nusayri writer Maymun Abu al-Qasim al-Tabarani (d. 1034), using as his source a rare manuscript. See MS. Orient 304, fol. 81, Humburger Staats-und Universität-Bibliothek.

[24] Al-Shaykh Yusuf ibn al-Ajuz (known as al-Nashshabi), Munazrah (debate) in Arab MS. 1450, fols. 68-155, Bibliothèque Nationale. The reference here is to fols. 118-119; and al-jisri, Risalat al-Tawhid. Arab MS 1450, fol.44.

[25] Kitab al-Majmu contains sixteen Surah’s (chapters) incorporated by Sulayman al-Adani in his Kitab al-Bakhurah.  The reference here is to page 15 in al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah. See also page 16. Kitab al-Majmu was published with a French translation by René Dussaud in his Histoire et Religion des Nosairis, 161-98. The Arabic text of the same is found in Abu Musa al-Hariri’s al-Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun, 234-55, and in al-Husayni Abd Allah, al-Judhur al-Tarikhiyyah li al-Nusayriyyah al-Alawiyyah (Dubai: Dar al-I’tisam, 1980), 145-74. Because of his conversion to Christianity, al-Adani was lured by his own people to the city of Latakia, where he was burned to death. See Farid Wajdi, Da’irat Ma’arif al-Qarn al-Ishrin, 2nd ed. (Cairo: Matbat Da’irat Marif al-Qarn al-Ishrin, 1925), 10:252.

[26] Shaykh Isa Suud, “Ma Aghfalahu al-Tarikh: al-Alawiyyun wa al-Nusayriyyah,” Mujallat al-Amani, nos. 1-3 (October-November and December 1930), nos. 6-7 (March-April 1931), and no. 8 (May 1931). This article is reproduced in Uthman, al-Alawiyyun, 153-73; see especially pages 157 and 161. CF. Mustafa Ghalib, al-Harakat al-Batiniyyah fi al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1982), 272.

[27] Sa’ad ibn Abd Allah al-Ashari, al-Maqalat wa l-Firaq, 100-1.

[28] Al-Nawbakhti, Firaq al-Shi’ah, 102-3.

[29] Abu Amr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Kashshi, Marifat Akhbar al-Rijal, ed. Ahmad al-Husayni (Karbala: Muassasat al-Alami, n.d.), 438.

[30] Al-Shaybi, al-Fikr al-Shii, 18.

[31] Abu Jafar al-Tusi, al-Ghaybah, 244.

[32] Abu Mansur Ahmad ibn Ali al-Tabrasi, al-Ihtijaj, 2:290-91.

[33] Al-Hasan ibn Yusuf ibn al-Mutahhar al-Hilli, al-Rijal, (al-Najaf: al-Matba al-Haydariyya, 1961), 245-57.

[34] Shaykh Muhammad Hasan al-Zayn Amili, al-Shi’ah fi al-Tarikh, 2nd ed., (Beirut: Dar al-Athar li al-Tiba’ wa al-Nashr, 1979), 95 and 219-25. For more information see al-Askari, al-Alawiyyun aw al-Nusayriyyah, 33-42.

[35] Al-Ashari, Maqalat, 15; and Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, 252 and 255.

[36] Al-Shahrastani, Kitab al-Milal, printed on the margin of Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al-Fisal, 2:24-26.

[37] Al-Shahrastani, Kitab al-Milal, 24-26; and Abbas al-Azzawi, al-Kaka’iyyah fi al-Tarikh, 64.

[38] Ibn Hazm, Kitab al-Fisal, 4:188.

[39] Bar Hebraeus, Chronography, 1:150; and idem, Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal, 149-50. This fatwa by Ibn Taymiyyah entitled “Fatwa fi al-Nusayriyyah,” was published by Stanislas Guyard, “Le Fatwa d’Ibn Taimiyyah sur Les Nosairis,” Journal Asiatique 17 (August-September, 1871), 158-98. The reference here is to p. 162 of the Arab text. This fatwa is reproduced in several sources especially those of Badawi, Madhahib al-Islamiyyin, 2:449-57; Uthman, al-Alawiyyun bayn al-Usturah wa al-Haqiqah, 52-58; al-Husayni Abd Allah, al-Judhur al-Tarikhiyyah, 28-51; and Mujahid al-Amin, al-Nusayriyyah, (al-Alawiyyun), Aqa’iduhum, Tarikhuhum, Waqi’uhum (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.), 47-66.

[40] Imad al-Din Ismail Abu al-Fida’, Kitab al-Mukhtasar, 3:70.

[41] As an example of the opinions of  contemporary writers we give those of al-Shaybi, al-Sila bayn al-Tasawwuf wa al-Tashayyu, 145-56; and idem, al-Fikr al-Shi’ah, 18 and 36; Muhammad Abu Zahra, Tarikh al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-Arabi, n.d.), 1:67-68; and Mustafa al-Shaka, Islam bi la Madhahib (Beirut: al-Dar al-Misriyya li al-Tiba, 1971), 301-18.

[42] Kitab al-Mashyakhah, in Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 60; al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah, 14; al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 256, 258; and al-Hariri, al-Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun, 30-31.

[43] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 256, 258.

[44] Ibid., and al-Khasibi, Kitab al-Hidayah al-Kubrah appended to Uthman, al-Alawiyyun, 229-96.

[45] Kitab al-Mashyakhah, in Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 60-61; al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah, 14-16, 27, and 47; Kitab Ta’lim al-Diyanah al-Nusayriyyah, question 98 and its answer Arab MS 6182, fol. 16, Bibliothèque Nationale; Wolff, “Auszüge aus dem Katechismus der Nossairien,” 3:303; and Lyde, The Asian Mystery,280.

[46] Joseph Catafago, “Drei Messen der Nosairier,” Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft (1848), 2:388-94. The Arabic version of these masses are also found in Badawi, Madhahib al-Islamiyyin, 2:490-94; al-Askari, al-Alawiyyun wa Nusayriyyah, 105-9; and Victor Langlois, “Religion et Doctrine des Noussaries,” revue d’Orient et d’ I’Algerie et des Colonies in Societe Orientale De France, (Paris: Juin 1856), 3:435-37.

[47] Wolff, “Auszüge aus des Katechismus der Nossairien,” 303-9. For Arabic versions of Kitab Ta’lim al-Diyanah al-Nusayriyyah, see Arab MS. 6182, Bibliogthèque Nationale; Badawi, Madhahib al-Islamiyyin, 474-87; and al-Askari, al-Alawiyyun aw al-Nusayriyyah, 82-96.

[48] Al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah, 17.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Kitab al-Mashyakhah, in Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 62.

[51] Al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah, 90.

[52] Arab MS. 6182, fol, 19, Bibliothèque Nationale; Wolff, “Auszüge aus dem Katechismus der Nossairies,” 308-9; Lyde, The Asian Mytery, 280; Badawi, Madha’ib al-Islamiyyin, 2:487; and al-Askari, al-Alawiyyun aw al-Nusayriyyah, 96.

[53] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 256-60; and Suud, “Ma Aghfalahu al-Tarikh,” in Uthman, al-Alawiyyun, 157.

[54] Al-Adani, Kitab al-Bakhurah, 16.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Bar Hebraeus, Chronography, 150; idem, Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal, 14-50; Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis, 104; Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 63-64; and al-Hariri, al-Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun, 33.

[57] Bar Hebraeus, Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal, 149-50.

[58] Abu al-Fida’, Kitab al-Mukhtasar, 3:70; and De Sacy, Exposé, 2:567.

[59] De Sacy, Exposé, 1:183.

[60] Al-Tawil, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 258.

[61] Abu al-Fida’, Kitab al-Mukhtasar, 3:70; and Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 66.

[62] Shaykh Isa Suud Uthman, al-Alawiyyun, 168-69.

[63] Al-Tiwal, Tarikh al-Alawiyyin, 285, 261.