With the war in Syria, interest in the Assad family’s religious group is growing

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

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a-history-of-the-alawis-1503915149.jpgReview of Stefan Winter, A History of the ‘Alawis. From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2016


With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, interest in the ‘Alawis (the group to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs) has greatly increased. There are not many studies that present their history systematically, however, and Stefan Winter’s work stands out for its comprehensiveness and rigor. Rather than dwelling on the distinctive dogmatic features of the ‘Alawi creed – a peculiar form of Shia Islam born in the ninth century – the author traces the socio-economic history of the community, which he reconstructs primarily from Ottoman archive documents.


Using multiple sources, Winter sets himself the task of demolishing “a monolithic narrative of [the] persecution” (p. 272) that the ‘Alawis had reportedly suffered throughout their history. Since this narrative is one of the “sectarianist myths being mobilized on all sides of the civil war in Syria” (p. 2), the work of demonstrating that the ‘Alawis’ relations with the other groups “were repeatedly characterized by accommodation, cooperation and trust” (p. 10) assumes an evident political value.


Thanks to the scholar-preacher al-Khasībī (d. circa 957), what was initially an esoteric Shi‘ite sect active in Iraq took root in tenth-century Aleppo. Over the following centuries ‘Alawism slowly spread through the Syrian mountains, until the poet-prince al-Makzūn al-Sinjārī (d. 1240) took control of some castles in the Latakia hinterland. That was the moment when “[t]he ‘Alawis emerged [...] as something [...] that would define them for the rest of history, as a ‘minority’” (p. 42).


Winter follows the vicissitudes of this “minority” during the Mamluk period and especially the Ottoman era. The fatwa issued by the Hanbalite jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) – who declared the ‘Alawis to be more deviant than Jews and Christians – cannot be taken as indicative of an overall Mamluk policy towards sectarian groups: matters were, in fact, much less clear-cut on the ground. The advent of the Ottoman Empire marks the community’s tribalization, a process accompanied by the birth of a landed aristocracy charged with collecting taxes. Archive documents provide tangible evidence of the intensity of the efforts made by the Sublime Porte to increase its control over the Syrian provinces after the Egyptian interregnum (1831-1841). As the French presence intensified, finally leading to the Mandate after the First World War, the ‘Alawi community split. One part, guided by Sālih al-‘Alī, actively fought the French invasion – and Winter demonstrates the insurrection’s close connection with the Kemalist Southern Front – whilst another portion welcomed the new autonomous status. A dilemma that persists to the present day.


Despite the very extensive documentation, the book’s basic thesis seems only half demonstrated. One can take, for example, the case of the dirhemü r-rıcal, the poll tax imposed in the Mamluk era and continued during the first Ottoman period. If, on the one hand, the census set up by Istanbul straight after the conquest is a uniquely important document that Winter makes masterful use of to locate the ‘Alawi presence in the region, his attempt to demonstrate the non-sectarian nature of the tax does not seem totally convincing. The religiously based discrimination re-emerges at different historical moments, as evidenced by the record certifying the conversion to Sunnism of various members of the Banū Shamsīn family in 1817; an extraordinary document that, once again, Winter brings to light. If it is therefore true that the ‘Alawis have maintained constant relations with the rest of Syria, it is equally true that their specific brand of religion has strongly contributed to shaping their destiny. And yet, as Winter concludes, one day “the war will end, and when it does, the people of Syria [...] will have a choice to make regarding the historical models on which to draw [...] The past is neither dead nor even past, as we know, and it is vital that the ‘Alawis, their neighbors, and countrymen reclaim theirs” (p. 273).


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The ‘Alawis’ Forgotten Past”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 132-133.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The ‘Alawis’ Forgotten Past”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/syria-the-alawis-forgotten-past.