2. The Nusayris – Middle Period

1. The Nusayris – Ancient Period
December 10, 2015
3. The Nusayris Under the French Mandate
December 10, 2015

BACK Return to Table of contents


The Nusayris

Middle Period


The Nusayri centre in Baghdad was eventually destroyed, together with other institutions, when the armies of Mongol Hulago ransacked Baghdad in 1258. The centre in Aleppo, after al Khasibi died, continued under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Ali al Jilli, who was in turn succeeded by the prominent Nusayri, Abu Sa’id al Maymun ibn Qasim al Tabarani (d. 426/1034). Born in Tiberius, Palestine, in 968 (hence Tabarani), al Tabarani was more prolific writer than al Khasibi and a distinguished Nusayri leader. Among his books was Kitab Majmu’ al Ayad (Book of feast), which describes, among other festivals, the celebration of Christmas and Nawruz (Persian New Year).[1]


Constant warfare and turmoil forced al Tabarani to move his headquarters in 1031 in Latakia, where three years later he died and was buried. During his stay in Latakia, a conflict over religious matters arose between his sect and the Ishaqiyyah, whom we have already mentioned as an extremist Shia sect sharing with the Nusayris the concepts of the apotheosis of Ali. The Ishaqiyyah derive their name from Abu Yaqub Ishaq (Isaac), nicknamed al Ahmar (the red one), who, like Muhammad ibn Nusayr, was a follower of the eleventh Imam, al Hasan al Askari. Like ibn Nusayr, Ishaq al Ahmar claimed to be the “door” to al Askari, and he made additions to the dogma regarding the Imams.[2]


In the time of al Tabarani, a certain leader of the Ishaqiyyah, Ismail ibn Khallad of Balbak, nicknamed Abu Dhuhaybah (from Dhahab, gold) because of his wealth, made Jabal, south of Latakia, the headquarters of his sect. According to al Tawil, there were no real doctrinal differences between al Tabarani and Abu Dhuhayba,” the Nusayriyyah and the Ishaqiyyah shared the extreme beliefs related by al Shahrastani. However, al Tawil says that while al Tabarani was known for his piety and poverty, Abu Dhuhaybah was known for his wealth.[3]


Taking advantage of the piety of al Tabarani, the ambitious Abu Dhuhaybah moved his headquarters to Latakia, probably in the same year as al Tabarani. We are informed by al Tawil that at Latakia, Abu Dhuhaybah began to antagonize and pressure the Nusayris. Had it not been for the Nusayri people of the Banu Hilal, who rushed to help their brethren, Abu Dhuhaybah would have destroyed the Nusayris. When the Banu Hilal arrived at Latakia, Abu Dhuhaybah escaped to Antioch. The Nusayri Diyab Abu Ghanim chief of the Banu Zughba, chased Abu Dhuhaybah from place to place with eighty horsemen until finally they found him near Latakia. Abu Ghanim took him by surprise, kicked him with his stirrup, and killed him. Abu Dhuhaybah was buried in Latakia, where his tomb is well known amongst the people of the city as the tomb of Sheikh Qarash.[4]


Al Tabarani is so esteemed by the Nusayris that the third chapter of Kitab al Majmu’ is entitled “The Canonisation of Abu Sa’id.” This canonisation, a kind of a holy supplication addressed to their god, Ali ibn Abi Talib, also “calls to mind the presence of the most illustrious, the most valiant, the lusty, the God-fearing possessor of divine knowledge, Abu Sa’id, who avenged himself with his own hand on the hand of Abu Dhuhaybah, may the curse of Allah rest upon him.”[5]


Al Tabarani was the last religious leader to keep the whole Nusayri community united. From al Tawil we learn that after al Tabarani’s death, the Nusayri community split into different factions ruled by independent sheikhs.[6] They remain today as they have been for centuries: a tribalistic people with a closed society. Like other persecuted minority religious groups (e.g., the Mormons in the United States in the nineteenth century), they sought a haven from their oppressors, settling in the fastness of the rugged mountain of Bargylus or al Lukam, which bears their name, Jabal al Nusayriyyah. As noted earlier, al Khasibi was highly favoured by the Shia Hamdanis, princes who ruled Aleppo from 944 to 1003; since they were Shia, it was expected that they should support and sanction his teachings. Yet there is no evidence that the Nusayris gained any power within the Hamdani state. As extremist Shia, the Nusayris were most likely detested by the Hamdanis, moderate Twelver Shia who rejected the deification of Ali and the Imams. It is because of their extreme Shia belief that the Nusayris retreated to the mountain regions of the north western Syria, where they could live in isolation, unmolested.


It was in this self-imposed isolation that the Nusayris finally developed their own syncretic religion system. As a society they developed what may be called inferiority complex, regarding themselves as a forlorn and despised people. Yet, like the children of Israel, they claimed to be a “chosen people.”[7] They were in constant fear of the Sunnis, whom they considered their worst oppressors. Munir al Sharif, who has studied the life and conditions of the Nusayris (whom he calls Alawis), states that they transmit from generation to generation the stories of the Sunni persecution of their people. Therefore, says al Sharif, if an Alawi (Nusayri) knows that you are a Sunni, he will not be as candid with you as he will be with a Christian, for the latter, like he, is weak and oppressed.[8]


This history of persecution made the Nusayris hate the Sunnis and pray for the destruction of Muslim Rulers. To the Nusayris, the Muslims are an accursed people; they believe that when Muslim chiefs die, their souls assume the bodily form of asses.[9] The Nusayris’ hatred of the Muslims and the fact that they are considered heretics, caused the prominent Sunni learned man, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), to issue a juristic opinion not only condemning the Nusayris as infidels who should be totally shunned by the Muslims, but also declaring that their property and blood may be lawfully taken by the Muslims unless they show repentance.[10]


When the Crusaders swept through Syria in 1097, so we are told by Ba Hebraeus, they went to Mount Lebanon and killed a great number of Nusayris.[11] But it seems that when the Crusaders learned that the Nusayris were not a truly Muslim sect, they became tolerant towards them. This explains Ibn Taymiyyah’s statement that the Syrian coast, where the Nusayris lived, was captured by the Crusaders with their cooperation.[12] For the services they rendered to the Crusaders, the Nusayris were able to regain some of their castles, which had been captured by the Ismailis in 1071.[13] The Ismailis remained in power in the Southern part of the Nusayri territory, however. It is strange that we do not hear as much about the Nusayris in Muslim chronicles as we do about the more powerful Ismailis and Qaramitah. Perhaps because the Nusayris had religious beliefs in common with the Ismailis and had lived among the Qaramitah, Muslim authors confused them with these sects.[14] The fact remains that the Nusayris remained subject to the Muslims, Crusaders, and Assassins [Ismailis], who were the absolute rulers of several castles, including those of Qadmus and Maysaf in the southern part of the Nusayris’ country. Meantime, the Kurds, who had moved into Nusayri territory, allied themselves with the Ismailis and began to challenge the very existence of the Nusayris. Faced with both Kurds and Ismailis, the Nusayris delegated two men, Sheikh Muhammad of Banyas and Sheikh Ali al Khayyat, to ask Sheikh Hasan al Makzum (d. 1220), Prince of Sinjar in northern Iraq to rush to their aid. Al Makzum responded. In 617/1120, he marched with a force of twenty-five thousand men against the Nusayri territory but his campaign ended in failure. Learning that al Makzum had arrived in the Nusayri territory, the Kurds and their allies congregated at Maysaf, and attacked his forces at night, defeating them. Al Makzum returned to Sinjar.


Three years later, with a much large force, and accompanied by woman and children, al Makzum returned and marched once more into Nusayri territory. This time, the Ismailis deserted the Kurds and joined the Nusayris. Relieved by this defection by his side, al Makzum drove the Kurds to Akkar in the south and returned to the citadel of Abu Qubays, which he used as headquarters. The people who accompanied al Makzum became the ancestors of the Nusayri tribe of Haddadiyah, Matawirah, Muhalibah, Darawisah, Numaylatiyyah and the Banu Ali.[15] [Syrian President Hafiz al Asad, who belongs to the Numaylatiyyah branch of the Matawirah tribe, is, then, of Iraqi origin.]


After subduing the Kurds and the Ismailis, al Makzum began to regulate affairs of the Nusayris. He was a pious man and a poet, whose poetry is characterised by religious symbolism. He died in 638/1240 and is buried at Kfarsusa, near Damascus.[16] The followers of al Makzum who hailed from Jabal Sinjar form the Kalazis, or Qamaris sect, of the Nusayris.


In 1258, the Mongol hordes, commanded by Hulago, ransacked Baghdad. A Mongol army commanded by a Christian general, Kitbughah, swept through northern Syria, capturing the major cities, including Hama and Aleppo.[17] Ibn Taymiyyah accuses the Nusayris of helping the Mongols conquer Syria and handing over the fortresses to the enemies of Islam.[18] When the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan al Zahir Baybar (reigned 1223-77) finally defeated the joint army of the Mongols and the Franks at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, on 3 September 1260, the Nusayris, according to Ibn Taymiyyah, considered the triumph of the Muslims over the Mongols and the Christians (Franks) the greatest calamity.[19] The collaboration of the Nusayris with the Mongols and the Franks against Baybars explains why, after his victory, Baybars marched against the country of the Nusayris, destroying their castles. He also forced them to build mosques, but never worshipped in them and left them to decay.[20] The Maghribi traveller Ibn Battuta (d. 1377), who was in Syria in 1326 noticed that the mosques that Baybars had forced the Nusayris to build were not only desolate, but had also been used as stables for cattle and sheep. Ibn Battuta said that if a stranger were to come to the Nusayris, enter a mosque, and call to prayer, they would say to him, “Don’t bray, your fodder will come to you.”[21] This shows that, like the other extremist Shia we have discussed, the Nusayris had total disregard for Muslim religious duties.


The most prominent leader of the Nusayris after al Makzum was Sheikh Imarat al Dawlah Hatim al Tubani (d. 700/1300), from the Haddadin clan, originally from Sinjar. In his time, the Ismailis sought reconciliation and unity with the Nusayris because, as al Tawil states, there is only one point of difference between the Ismailis and Nusayris: the number of Imams they accepted. While the Ismailis acknowledge the authority of only the first seven Imams, stopping with Ismail, the son of Ja’far al Sadiq, the Nusayris uphold the authority of the twelve Imams, ending with the disappearing Imam, Muhammad — the Mahdi.[22] In all other matters of dogma, the Nusayris were no different from the Ismailis, which supports what has been previously been said, that the Nusayris are an offshoot of the Ismailis.[23]


The leaders of the Nusayris and the Ismailis met in 690/1291 at Safita, south-east of Tartus, but resolved nothing.[24] As we have already seen, efforts to unite the two sects had begun at the meeting of Ana (287/900), which likewise ended in failure.


The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 brought the end to the Abbasid state khilafah, creating a political vacuum which the Mongols could not fill. As long as the Abbasid Khalifah was still in power, he was looked upon as a symbol of Islam, at least in its Sunni form. But the power of the Muslims suffered a setback when Hulago, influenced by his Christian wife, favoured the Christians in Baghdad and Damascus. From Ibn al Futi al Baghdadi (d. 1323) we learn that when Hulago stormed and ravaged Baghdad, putting its inhabitants to the sword, he spared the Christians and appointed guards to protect their homes. For this reason many Muslims sought refuge with the Christians.[25] According to Imad al Din Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), Hulago, before his defeat in Ayn al Jalut, allowed the Christians to oppress the Muslims and celebrate their religious ceremonies openly.[26] He also favoured the Jews, bringing some from Tiflis and appointing them as executers of Muslims bequests.[27]


Obviously, the Mongols’ toleration of these minorities was meant to win over the weaker people, who will be more willing to serve the interest of the conqueror.[28] This state of affairs changed, however, when the seventh Mongol Khan after Hulago, Ghazan Mahmud (reigned 1295-1304) embraced Islam. His inclination towards Shi’ism is revealed by the fact that he appointed a Shia as governor of Iraq. He also visited the Shia holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala’.[29]


We have given this brief account to show that the Mongol rulers favoured one sect over another, creating religious conflict, political rivalry, and intrigue among those men that they appointed as their ministers. Naturally, there was a great deal of violence and bloodshed.


In this environment of religious and political turmoil, some men, driven by ambition, founded new religious sects; others claimed to be the Mahdi [the Shia messiah], appearing after his long concealment to restore justice to the world. Ibn Kathir, in a discussion of the Nusayris’ attack against the city of Jabalah in the year717/1217, relates a story of a certain Nusayri man who claimed to be the Mahdi.


At this time according to Ibn Kathir, the Nusayris were in rebellion. Leading the rebels was a man who had at various times claimed to be Muhammad — the Mahdi, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and even Muhammad ibn Abdullah (the Prophet of Islam). He declared that the Muslims were infidels, and the Nusayris are the true believers. He deceived many people, who followed him in attacking and pillaging the town of Jabalah. As they left the ravaged town they cursed the two Khulafa’ Abu Bakr and Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhuma, and shouted, “There is no God but Ali, no veil but Muhammad, and no door but Salman.” In their distress, the inhabitants of Jabalah cried out for help, but no help came. Ibn Kathir goes on to say this Mahdi pretender ordered his men to ravage Muslim places of worship and turn them into taverns selling wine. Whenever the Nusayris captured a Muslim, they commanded him to say, “There is no God but Ali. Worship your God Ali, who causes people to live and die, in order to spare your blood.”[30]


Ibn Battuta, who arrived in Syria in 1326, gives a similar account of this Mahdi pretender. He states that an unknown man arose to prominence among the Nusayris pretending to be the Mahdi. Promising to rule the sect, he divided the land of Syria among his many followers, assigning them to conquer different parts of the country. When he commanded them to go forth, he gave them olive branches, saying, “By these conquer, for they are your authorisation.” He ordered his followers to attack the Muslims, beginning with the town of Jabalah. They stormed the town while the inhabitants were at Friday prayers, entering the houses and ravishing the women. Some of the rebels were killed by the Nusayris, however.


When news of this Mahdi pretender reached al Malik al Nasir [Sultan of Egypt, 1310-40], who also controlled Syria, he ordered that the Nusayris who had killed the followers of the Mahdi pretender should themselves be put to death. But the Muslims explained that the Nusayri farmers were employed to till the land, and if they were killed, the Muslims would have no one to raise crops for them. So al Malik al Nasir revoked his order.[31]


The accounts of Ibn Kathir rahimahu Llah and Ibn Battuta rahimahu Llah are significant because they reveal that the Nusayris are Ghulat who deify Ali, believing the Prophet of Islam salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is just a “veil” of Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu, who considers Sunni Muslims to be their adversaries. Ibn Kathir, especially, implies that the Nusayris are not Muslims, but rather enemies of Islam. We shall elaborate on this point later.


From 1317, when the Nusayri Mahdi pretender appeared, until 1516, when the Ottoman Sultan Salim I, nicknamed “The Grim” (d. 1520), defeated the last of the Mamluk sultans, Qansawh, at Marj Dabiq near Aleppo, the Nusayris’ country remained under the control of the Mamluks. The most important occurrence affecting the countries of the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, during this period was the conquest of the region by another Mongol, Timur Lang (Tamerlane, d. 1405).


In 1392, Timur conquered Iraq and parts of Syria and Turkey. Turning back to Syria, he occupied Damascus and Aleppo in 1401. The conquered people practiced a wide range of religious belief; the Muslims, who formed the majority, including Sunnis, Shia’s, and Sufis. To consolidate his position, Timur exploited their differences to his advantage.[32]


Since Sufism and the Sufi orders were prevalent in the fourteenth century, Timur established strong relations with such paragons of Sufism as the Sheikhs Shams al Din al Fakhuri, Abu Bakr al Khawafi, and Muhammad Barak, who were considered saints in their time.[33] On their part, the Sufis supported Timur, praising his actions as miracles worked by divine inspiration.[34]


Timur also attempted to win over the Shia’s. As a gesture of his support for them, he occupied Damascus to avenge the killing of the Imam Hussain in 680 by the lieutenants of the Umayyad Khalifah Yazid, on the premise that Damascus was the capital of the Umayyads.[35] Timur is thought by some, including the Nusayri writer al Tawil, to have been a Shia. Al Tawil maintains that Timur composed verses containing ideas conforming to those of the Jumbulaniyyah tariqah, a Nusayri order.[36] Whether or not Timur was a devout Shia or had proclivities toward Shi’ism, the fact remains that he favoured and supported the Shia’s, who gained upper hand in the Islamic countries under his control.[37]


Timur’s march against Syria led the Nusayris to appeal to the pro Shia conqueror to avenge them against their enemies, the Sunnis. We are informed by al Tawil that before Timur stormed Damascus, an Alawi woman, Durr al Sadaf, the daughter of Sad al Ansar (one of the men of the Mamluk Sultan al Zahir), accompanied by forty Alawi virgins, tearfully asked Timur to avenge the family of the Rasul of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam particularly the daughters, including al Hussain’s sister Zainab, who was taken as captive after his murder to the Umayyad Khalifah Yazid in Damascus.[38]


Timur promised Durr al Sadaf that he would avenge the family of the Rasul of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. She accompanied him to Damascus with forty virgins, who sang songs against the Umayyads. When Timur entered Damascus, he offered amnesty to its inhabitants and asked them to find him a woman among the dignitaries of the city to be his wife. When a maiden was found, he ordered that she be marched naked through the city. When the people refused, Timur said to them, “Who, then, gave you the right to bring the daughter of the Rasul of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam uncovered to your city?” Then he ordered them to be killed.[39] What he meant was, who had given the right to bring the wives and sister of al Hussain, the grandson of the Rasul of Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, naked through the street of Damascus?


Timur’s authority in Syria did not last, however. The country fell under the rule of the Mamluks, whose power was finally in turn by the Ottoman Sultan Salim I in 1516, when Syria became an Ottoman province. The Ottoman occupation of Syria brought misfortunes to the Nusayris, who had to face oppression by the powerful Sunni enemy.


The beginning of the sixteenth century witnessed the rise of two powers, the Safawids of Persia under Shah Ismail, and the Ottomans under Salim I. The two suzerains held opposing religious views. Shah Ismail was avowed Shia who had established Shi’ism as the religion of the state, by the sword. The Ottoman Sultan Salim was a devout Sunni who feared and loathed the fanatical Shi’ism of the Persians. The tension between the two rulers was exacerbated by the great number of Shia Kizilbash in Turkey who were the followers of the Safawid order in Persia. The ambitious Shah Ismail intended to extend his hegemony to Turkey and, by using his followers in that country, to make it a Shia satellite of Persia. The animosity between Shah Ismail and Sultan Salim I broke into open hostilities which culminated at Chaldiran in 1514, with the defeat of Shah Ismail.


As the extremist Shia, the Nusayris obviously were on the side of the Safawid. The Ottoman Sultan, who was extremely suspicious of all Shia’s, naturally extended this suspicion to the Nusayris. Ottoman archives indicate that the Ottoman government took some preventive measures against the Nusayris because of their sympathies towards the Persians.[40]


After he defeated the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Muhammad Qansawh al Ghawri at Marj Dabiq (1516) and entered Aleppo, Sultan Salim I summoned some Sunni religious men and obtained from them a fatwa (juristic opinion) to fight the “infidels Alawis,” or Shia’s. He also summoned the Shia leaders to his presence, promising to confirm their authority over the town people. It is estimated that 9,400 Shia men assembled in Aleppo; all were maliciously murdered by the order of the Ottoman Sultan on the sanction of the Sunni religious leaders.[41]


Many Shia’s did escape to Nusayris mountains, where it was difficult for Salim’s army to wage war against them. The Turks called these Shia’s who escaped to the mountain Surek (exiles), which was later distorted to Surak [the plural form being Swarik]. The part of the Mountain range where they settled is now called the Saruk Mountain, and some Nusayris now living in the administrative districts of Sihyun (Zion), Umraniyya, and Safita, are called Saruk.[42]


When the mountain refuge prevented Sultan Salim I from decimating the Nusayris, he resorted to a peaceful strategy calculated to weaken the Nusayris. He moved more than a million members of Turkish tribes from Anatolia and as far away as Khurasan in Iran, and established them in the castles and the most desirable areas of the Nusayri territory. Soon these Turkish newcomers had spread all over the Nusayri mountains, reaching as far as Latakia and Jabalah. They attacked and ravaged Latakia, driving its inhabitants to the Mediterranean, where some of them drowned. Jabalah faced the same disastrous fate. According to al Tawil, “No traces of the Nusayris were left in Latakia except the graves of their ancestors.”[43] To this day, the Nusayris remember the sufferings inflicted upon them by Sultan Salim I in his effort to eradicate their sect.[44] Salim’s stratagem of stationing Turks in the Nusayri Mountain failed to achieve this objective, however; in fact, many of the Turks from Khurasan, themselves Shia’s, were absorbed by the Nusayri tribes. Because these Turks were first stationed in the Abu Qubay’s castle, also called Qartal, they came to be known as Qaratilah; today they are considered to be the Nusayri tribe.[45]


It should be pointed out here that the Ismailis, whose relations with the Nusayris were most precarious, allied themselves with the Ottomans, perhaps out of fear of persecution. Through fewer in number, they attacked and occupied some of the Nusayri castles in their area. To please the Ottoman conquerors, they adopted the Ottoman dress, including having their veil in conformity with the Ottoman custom.[46]


In 1760, the Nusayris were faced with another misfortune. An English physician was killed in the Nusayris’ mountains, and Nusayri leader refused to deliver the murderer to the Ottoman governor, Sulaiman Pasha. Before the murder, Sulaiman Pasha had imposed heavy taxes on the Nusayris, but had been unable to collect them. Using the murder of the English physician as a pretext, he led a large invasion force into the Nusayri Mountains, killing many of the inhabitants. He captured seventy Nusayri leaders and after killing them, had their heads stuffed with straw.[47] In 1807 a conflict broke between the Nusayris and the Ismailis which resulted in a massacre of the Ismailis. In that year, three hundred Nusayris were at odds with religious leaders, and the Ismaili chief gave them asylum in his territory. A short while later, while some Ismaili men were working in their fields, the Nusayris attacked killing three hundred of them and ravaging their home. The Nusayris were assisted by some of their kinsmen, who had descended from the mountains to join them, a fact indicating that the attack was pre-planned. When the news of the massacre reached the Ottoman governor of Damascus, he marched with a force against the perpetrators and killed them.[48]


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Nusayris district of the Kalbiyyah tribe was particularly notorious for its lawlessness. John Lewis Burckhardt (d. 1817), who was in Syria between 1809 and 1813, states that Berber, the Pasha (governor) of Tripoli, was in the neighbourhood of Latakia, making war against some rebel Anzeyrys (Nusayri).[49] Berber was fighting to avenge the killing of a Frenchman, Captain Boutin, by the lawless Arabs called Arab al Muluk. The murderers escaped to the Kalbiyyah district, and the Kalbiyyah Nusayris, following what they believed to be a duty not to deliver anyone who has sought asylum with them, refused to hand over the murderers to Berber. This led Berber to attack the Kalbiyyah district and punish the residents with the marked savagery. During combat with the Kalbiyyah, he said to behead seven of their men at one time. The dragoman of the English vice-consulate at Latakia told Samuel Lyde that one of his visits to Latakia, Nusayri prisoners were taken out to meet him on the road, where Berber beheaded them and had their heads impaled. Berber, a Sunni Muslim hated the Nusayris, whom he must have considered worse than infidels. This dragoman told Lyde that unlike the Jews and the Christians, the Nusayris were not considered by Muslims as Ahl al Kitab (the people of the book) under the protection of the Muslims, and that according to Islamic law, even their paying of poll-tax in lieu of conversion to Islam is not lawful. They should be put to the sword, and their wives and children should be sold to slavery.[50]


To show the traditional hatred harboured by the Sunni Muslims for the Nusayris, the dragoman added that a certain Sheikh Ibrahim al Maghribi (d. 1827) issued a juristic opinion declaring that it was lawful for a Muslim to kill a Nusayri or confiscate his property. For this reason, the Nusayris curse al Maghribi’s memory.[51]


In 1832, Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt (reigned 1804-1845), invaded Syria to further the ambition of his father, who dreamed about founding an empire in the Middle East. This invasion of Syria clearly affected the Nusayris although, according to al Tawil, Nusayri sources are not in agreement with Ibrahim Pasha. Some of the sources portray him as saint, others as “divine calamity” and the “worst of God’s creations.” Al Tawil says both views are correct, although he does not cite sources by name. It seems that Ibrahim Pasha treated the Nusayri leaders as equal to their common subject. For this reason the leaders hated him, while the commoners loved him.[52] According to Col. Paul Jacquot, many Nusayris refused to support Ibrahim Pasha, which prompted him to disarm them, chase them into the Mountains, destroy the castles, and behead their leaders.[53] Ibrahim Pasha even sought the assistance of the Druzes and the Maronites in order to subjugate the Nusayris. But the Nusayris captured five hundred Druzes from Ibrahim had sent against them and killed all of them on a round rock Wadi al Uyun, near al Murayqib. To this day this rock is called the Blood Rock.[54]


By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Nusayris’ Plight was decidedly serious. Rev. Samuel Lyde, an English missionary who lived among the Nusayris from 1853 to 1859 and established a mission and school in the Kalbiyyah district, offers nothing but gloom about these people, their customs, and their way of life. At the end of his report, Lyde comments that even if the reader thinks that his picture of the Nusayris is a melancholy one, he may be assured that it is not exaggerated.[55]


Oppressed by the local government and exploited by the sheikhs, Nusayris sank to such low point that their communities were rife with violence, robbery, and constant feuds. The Kalbiyyah, among whom Lyde lived, constantly fought with the Muhalibah. On one occasion, the Kalbiyyah attacked the Muhalibah, robbing and killing them; their woman and children accompanied them and participated in the crimes. Lyde says that the women were like demons, encouraging the men and supplying them with water. When the fighting ended, the children would steal anything they would lay their hands on. Lyde says that on the hill near his house, he could see the wife of his servant stretching out her hands to Sultan Jafar al Tayyar, oldest brother of the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, praying for the success and safety of her husband, who was on one such marauding expedition.[56]


In 1857 there was fighting among the Budeh (people from the mountainous part of the Banu Ali district), the Kalbiyyah, and the Amamirah; the Kalbiyyah were victorious. One has only to read the account given by the Nusayri writer al Tawil of the feuds among the Nusayri groups to realise how accurate Lyde is in his assessment of the Nusayris life.[57]


In 1859, the government sought to burn the houses of the Juhaniyyah in Latakia, and murders were committed with the connivance of the government officials. So many were being killed that the population was noticeably decreasing. Brother fought against brother, and both cursed their parents, without fear or shame. The Nusayri chiefs themselves oppressed their own people, exacting double taxes from the weak and powerless. The Sheikhs, says Lyde, could not offer moral exhortation to the people because they were busy collecting taxes from them. Under these abnormal circumstances, “it is, indeed, melancholy to live under such an order of things, in which all the finer and more useful qualities of man are repressed, and the deserving and humane must go to the wall. Hence, the state of society is a perfect hell upon earth.”[58]


The Nusayris rebelled against the Ottoman government in the time of the Wali (governor) Rashid Pasha in 1866, but the rebellion was suppressed; the chief rebels were hanged, and their houses destroyed. Ten years of quiet passed before the Nusayris resumed the rebellion against the government. A force from Beirut, commanded by Akif Pasha, captured the rebels, hanged some, and banished others to Akka.[59]


When Midhat Pasha, the greatest Ottoman reformer, was appointed governor of Syria from 1879-80, he held the opinion that the Nusayris were rebellious who should be subdued by force, even though he had close friends among the Nusayris, like Hawash Bey, the chief of Mutawirah tribe. He changed his mind, however, and, instead of using force, attempted to improve the condition of the Nusayris through reform. He called a meeting in the city of Hama which was attended by five hundred Nusayri dignitaries. He told them that the Nusayris should stop rebelling against the government, pay their taxes and respect the military conscription laws. He also told them that the Syrians (who were mostly Sunnis) believed that the Nusayris were notorious for their bad behaviour, which forced the government to discipline them. Midhat promised the Nusayris that they would open schools in their region, stop oppression by local government officials, and, best of all, grant them autonomy.[60]


These promises to the Nusayris aroused the indignation of the Sunni dignitaries of Damascus and Hama, and they denounced Midhat to Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The Sultan, who detested and feared Midhat for his liberal and democratic ideas, transferred him to Izmir (Smyrna) as governor of that province.[61]


It should be pointed out that the Ottoman government implemented the Millet system, which gave a certain degree of control over internal affairs to the different ethnic and religious sects within the empire. But since the Nusayris were not regarded by the Ottoman government as either as Muslims or as dhimmis (like the Jews and Christians, who, according to the Islamic law, were under the protection of the Muslims as long as they pay taxes) the Nusayris were not ruled according to the Millet system. However, some Ottoman statesmen were of the opinion that they were forlorn and persecuted minority.[62]


One of these statesmen was Diya Bey, the Mutasarrif (provincial governor) of Latakia from 1885 to1892 and one of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s most obedient servants. In a report to the Sultan, Diya stated, rightly or wrongly, that the Nusayris were the tools in the hands of the Persian, with which they sympathized, and that the presence of the American schools (founded by Missionaries) in some parts of the Nusayri mountains was detrimental to the Ottoman government’s policy. He suggested that these schools be replaced by the state schools, and that the Nusayris be brought into the Islamic religion.[63]


Diya’s report was apparently approved by the Sultan. Diya Bey called the Nusayri dignitaries together and had them sign in his presence a document proclaiming that they embraced the true religion of Islam, and that they had been delegated to sign this document on behalf of all Nusayris. Thereupon, Diya Bey ordered the American schools closed (they were poor at best) and about forty state schools were built; there the Nusayri children were taught no more than elementary reading. Soon after Diya’s death, however, the Nusayris closed these schools and turned them into castle barns.[64]


NEXT⇒ The Nusayris Under the French Mandate

[1] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 264-65; Kitab al Bakhurah, 17; Massignon, “Nusairi,” 3:966-67; and Joseph Catafago, “Notices sur Les Anserien,” Journal Asiatique (February 1848): 149056. The entire work was published by R.Strothmann in Der Islam, 27 (1943-44), 1-60 and (1946), 160-273. C.F Badawi, Mazahib al Islamiyyin, 2:462-66.

[2] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 262-64.

[3] Ibid., 262-63 and Massignon, “Nusairi,” 996.

[4] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 262-64.

[5] Al Adani, Kitab al Bakhurah, 11-12.

[6] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 262.

[7] Weulersse, Le Pays des Alaouites, 49, 54, 73, and 228; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 52-56.

[8] Munir al Sharif, al Alawiyyun, Man Hum wa Ayna Hum, 93.

[9] Al Adani, Kitab al Bakhurah, 53-54, 81.

[10] Stanislas Guyard, “Le Fatwa d’Ibn Taimiyya sur Les Nosairis,” Journal Asiatique, 17 (1871): 158-98. The reference here is to page 175.

[11] Bar Hebraeus, Chronography, 1:235.

[12] See the fatwa of Ibn Taymiyyah published in Guyard, “Les Fatawa d’Ibn Taimiyyah,” 169.

[13] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyu, 210. For the castles the Ismailis captured from the Nusayris, see Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 64.

[14] Lyde, The Asian Mystery,69.

[15] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 359-63.

[16] Ibid., 363.

[17] Phillip Hitti, History of Syria (New York: McMillan, 1951), 631.

[18] See the fatwa of Ibn Taymiyyah in Guyard, “de Fatawa d’Ibn Taimiyyah,” 169.

[19] Ibid., 169, 174.

[20] In Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Battuta A.D. 1325-1352, translated with revision and notes from the Arabic text edited by C. Defrémery and B.R. Sanguinetti by H.A.R. Gibb (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1962), 1:111-12, Cf. Abu al Mahasin ibn Taghri Birdi, al Nujum al Zahirah fi Muluk Misr wa al Qahirah (Cairo: Dar al Kutub al Misriyyah, 1938), 7:150.

[21] The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1:112.

[22] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 365,377-78.

[23] Hitti, History of Syria, 631.

[24] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 365 and 378.

[25] Kamal al Din al Fadl Abdul Razzaq ibn al Futi, al Hawadith al Jami’ah’ah wa al Tajarib al Nafi’a fi al Mi’ah al Sabi’a, ed. Mustafah Jawad (Baghdad: al Maktabah al Arabiyya, 1351/1932), 329; and Imad al Din ibn Kathir, al Bidayah wa al Nihayah, 13:203.

[26] Ibn Kathir, al Bidayah wa al Nihayah, 8:219; and Abu al Fida’, Kitab al Mukhtasar, 3:273-74.

[27] Ibn al Futi, al Hawadith al Jami’ah, 455.

[28] Al Shaybi, al Fikr al Shia, 80.

[29] Ibn al Futi, al Hawadith al Jami’ah, 478; Ibn Kathir, al Bidayah wa l-Nihayah, 14:121; Ibn Hajar al Asqalani, al Durr al Kamina fi Ayan al Mi’ah al Thaminah (Hydarabad: Matbat Majlis Dariat al Ma’arif al Nizamiyyah, 1348-50/1929-32), 1:501.

[30] Ibn Kathir, al Bidayah wa l-Nihayah, 14:83-84; Abu al Fida’, Kitab al Mukhtasar, 7:97; and Abu al Falah Abdul Hayy ibn al Imad, Shadharat al Dhahabi fi Akhbar man Dhahab (Cairo: Maktabat al Qudsi, 1350-51/1931/32), 1:43. C.F. Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 70-71; and al Shaibi, al Fikr al Shia, 89.

[31] The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1:112-113.

[32] Al Shaybi, al Fikr al Shia, 80.

[33] Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Abdullah al Dimashqi known as ibn Arabshah, Aja’ib al Maqdur fi Akhbar al Timur (Cairo: Bulaq, 1285/1868), 7; al Sakhawi, al Daww al Lami, 3:15; Ibn al Imad, Shadarat al Dhahab, 7:43.

[34] Abdul Razzaq ibn Ishaq al Samarqandi, Matla al Sa’dayn, Cambridge Persian M.S. Add. 185(12), fol. 272, Cambridge University; Abu Talib al Hussaini, Malfuzat Sahib al Qiran, Persian MS. 7575, fol. 2, British Museum; and al Shaybi, al Fikr al Shia, 169.

[35] Al Samarqandi, Matla al Sadayn, fol. 34b.

[36] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 388.

[37] Al Hussaini Malfuzat Sahib al Qiran, fol. 34b. for more information on this subject consult al Shaybi, al Fikr al Shia, 167-73.

[38] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 390-91.

[39] Ibid., 391.

[40] See the Ottoman Bas Vekalet Muhimmat Defteri Arsif(7), 80, Stautes 1835, 1984 and 2021; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 60.

[41] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 394-95; and Sati al Husri, al Bilad al Arabiyyah wa l-Dawlah al Uthmaniyyah (Beirut: Dar al Ilm li al Malayin, 1965), 16-17.

[42] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 396.

[43] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 397.

[44] See al Sayyad, no. 1123 (24 March 1966), 21; and al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, note a.

[45] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 399 and 434-36.

[46] Ibid., 399.

[47] Ibid., 442.

[48] John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Syria and The Holy Land (London: John Murray, 1822), 152-53.

[49] Ibid., 71.

[50] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 195-96.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 452.

[53] Jacquot, L’Etat des Alaouites, 15.

[54] Ibid., al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 451; and al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 215-16.

[55] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 199-200 and 231; and al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 421-25.

[56] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 199-200 and 208.

[57] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 418-38.

[58] Lyde, The Asian Mystery, 209, 211, 214, 216, 222-23.

[59] Badawi, Mazhab al Islamiyyin, 2:498.

[60] Al Tawil, Tarikh al Alawiyyin, 454-58.

[61] Ibid., 458.

[62] Wajih Kawtharani, Bilad al Sham (Beirut: Mahad al Arabi, 1980), 79.

[63] Farid Wajdi, Da’irat Ma’arif al Qarn al Ishrin, 2nd. Ed. (Cairo: Matbat Da’irat Ma’arif al Qarn al Ishrin, 1925), 10:252; Badawi, Mazahib al Islamiyyin, 2:499; al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 217; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 63-64.

[64] Wajdi, Da’irat Ma’arif, 10:252; Yusuf al Hakim, Suriyya wa al Ahd al Faysali, 2nd ed., (Beirut: al Matba al Katholikiyyah, 1980), 70-71; Muhammad Kurd Ali, Khitat al Sham, 3:108; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 64-65.

Back to top