Islamic history, religion, Syrian history

Alawites and their place in the Islamic World, part 3: an intro and brief recap, the next stages of the civil war, peace arrives and new ideas emerge

An introduction and a brief recap

The Alawais were finally ordained into the Shia church in 1974 but their religious practices continue to differ from those of the mainstream. The Alawais are often described as a secretive sect but as Karen Armstrong points out in the early days, potential Islamic dissidents tended not to express their ideas in public, in addition  they are still regarded as unbelievers in many quarters.

The Syrian Alawai allegiance with Iran and the Lebanese movement Hizb’allah are underpinned both by politics and an adherence to Ali ibn Abi Talib /2015/06/08/alawais-and-their-place-in-the-islamic-world-part-one/The continuing volitility in the Islamic world means there is a need to protect the Alawai populations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and in Turkey.

With Hizb’allah the Syrian Alawais share an aspirational vision of a liberated Palestine, free from Zionist control as well as, particularly in the case of the latter, a re-united Greater Syria. With Iran they share a common ancestry as Syria homes the Zainab Mosque in Sham and the Assassin castle at Masayaf, in the Hama province.

As is shown in the previous chapter, this is a complicated history and cannot be explained exclusively in political or religious terms. The many different facets are difficult to organise but the series attempts to describe the controversy associated with the origin of the name Alawai; how the Alawai sect was rejected by both Shia and Sunni orthodoxy and how the Shia/Sunni split occurred.

The civil war, Hussain and Ali

The last chapter described the events leading to the battle of the camel, which marked a turning point for the Islamic faith /2015/06/23/alawais-and-their-place-in-the-islamic-world-separation/. Another important event, which exacerbated the split was the slaughter of Hussain, son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his baby son, around 680, by Ummayad troops, as he and a small band of followers made their way from Saudi (Medina) to Kufah in Iraq.

Uthman had appointed Muawiyyah as governer of Syria, who in his turn appointed his son Yazid 1 as his successor. Many of Ali’s supporters opposed the appointment and believed Hussain should hold the position, thus his pilgrimage to Kufah, a strategic town and a capital asset, under his father. Ironically Ali was assassinated in Kufah, in 661 by the Kharajites.

The pilgrimage was inspired by a belief that, the Ummah be revised, Islamic principles adhered to and the power be returned to Mecca and Medina. Up to the present day Shia Muslims commemorate Hussain’s murder at the Ashura festival. At the time and to this day the murder of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson is lamented by all Muslims.



The photos are of a couple of scarves I bought in Sur, Lebanon in the run up to the Ashura festival last year. I saw them in a shop and knew nothing about the festival so I asked. Of course my Arabic is so bad no-one could understand and I attracted a crowd. Luckily I met someone eventually, who explained the festival to me.

At the end of the last chapter I explained how the uprisings and the dissent between the Umayyads and the Alids centres on Ali’s failure to punish the killers of Uthman ibn Affan. In my view this is a rather spurious idea. It seems more likely, that it was simply a power struggle over succession and more importantly the way the Ummah was progressing.

Ali too had attempted to restore power to Mecca and Medina as power had dispersed as the Umayyads had appointed governors to the various regions they had conquered. Their empire was growing and changes were required. The appointment of a successor by Musawiyyah was a departure from the Arab principle of ”the best man for the job”.

The civil war: the struggle for the Ummah, Umayyad, Kharajite or Shia

Despite their differences the Umayyad and the Rashidans agreed the Ummah should incorporate all Muslims and that other monotheist religions should be allowed to worship freely. This was not a universal view as groups like the Kharajites disagreed with these principles and advocated a far more austere and separatist version of Islam, a bit like the modern day mercenaries operating in Syria, though they are sponsored by the west.

In 683, the untimely death of Yazid 1 and that of his son plunged the region into civil war yet again. Ibn Zubayr became Khalif but an uprising by the Kharajites meant he was isolated in the Hijaz region. There followed Kharajite rebellions in Iraq and Iran as well as Shia uprisings in Kufah in response to the death of Hussain. Syrian troops restored the power of the Umayyads eventually.

Peace at last

In 691 Abd al-Malik took power and his 20 year reign saw the emergence of an absolute monarchy as Arabic became the principal language in the region, replacing Persian. The Dome of the Rock was constructed in Jerusalem despite the presence of a Christian majority. Centralisation was encouraged but as time passed segregation evaporated as the different faiths lived and traded with one another.

According to Karen Armstrong the suppression of the Shia and the Kharajites had inspired a new Islamic movement in the garrison towns, which was based on Islamic principles. Though Abd al- Malik (king in Arabic) embraced these new ideas to a point his rule was a political one and he was part of the Umayyad dynasty so was not in a position to concur with the Shia vision of an Islam run by direct descendants of the Prophet or the Kharajite doctrine of complete piety.


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