0. In his August 19, 2015, article, “Iran’s Support for Syria Pragmatic, not Religious (or, Who are the Alawites?),” posted on Juan Cole’s essential blog, Informed Comment, Ari Heistein draws our attention to the challenge outsiders face in understanding the theology of the Alawite sect to which Syrian president Assad and many of the key members of his regime belong.
Insight into actual Alawi belief and doctrine is severely limited because of the practice of taqiyya/kitman, disguising or concealing one’s religious beliefs in order to avoid persecution. Thus, even the most basic tenets of the Alawi religion remain in dispute: it is unclear whether they deify Muhammad’s nephew, Ali ibn Abi Talib, after whom they are named. This question is extremely significant because deification of Ali would mean a stark departure from both Sunni and Shia Islam and the key Muslim principle of God’s unity, tawhid.
I have nothing whatsoever to offer to anyone wanting “[i]nsight into actual Alawi belief and doctrine.” In the present post I merely wish to take note of and briefly reflect upon two different definitions of “Alawi,” either of which could justify the application of the name. The one, and perhaps less startling, definition sees an Alawi as, not just a devotee of Ali, but an adherent to the doctrine that Ali is the ultimate prophet. The other, and perhaps more startling, definition sees an Alawi as, not just an adherent to the doctrine that Ali is the ultimate prophet but an adherent to the doctrine that Ali is divine.
1. The first definition might well set forth reflections much like the following. When there are two most major religious figures, such as is the case with John the Baptist and Jesus in Christianity and with Muhammad and Ali in Islam, the temporal priority of the one to the other does not imply the ontological or, a bit more precisely, theological priority of the one to the other. So it is that while, in “orthodox” Christianity, the temporally prior John the Baptist but prepared the way for the theologically prior Jesus, logically speaking it need not have been that way: the two could have been accorded theological equality, neither one enjoying theological priority over the other, or their theological roles could, still logically, have been reversed, with John the Baptist having theological priority over Jesus.
In “orthodox” Islam, on the other hand, whether Sunni or Shiite, the priority of Muhammad over Ali is both temporal and theological. It need not have been that way, at least logically speaking, and it may well have not been that way for Alawi theology, whatever that theology may hold today. That is, it is logically possible for devotees of Ali to hold to and may well have been the case that Alawi theology has held to some version of the doctrine that the temporally prior Muhammad but prepared the way for the theologically prior Ali, theologically prior in that he was or is the ultimate prophet.
2. Adherence to the doctrine that Ali was or is the ultimate prophet would certainly be enough to justify being identified as an “Alawi.” Even more so would be adherence to the doctrine basing the second definition, that of incarnation, , analogous to that of Christianity and according to which Ali is divine and thus, in the context of the doctrine of an absolute monotheism, in fact God. That doctrine leads to all the difficulties familiar to us from the Trinitarian controversies marking the history Christianity and which I discussed in my post of April 14, 2014, “The Inconsistency of the Doctrine of (the Distinction of Divine Persons and so That of) the Trinity with Monotheism.”* Orthodox Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, with its doctrine of “tawhīd” or (divine) unity, has of course rejected the thesis of divine incarnation, whether applied to Muhammad or Ali.
3. There are any number of additional logically possible and so theoretically available doctrines in this conceptual “space.” A theology could, for instance, identify its two primary religious figures, John the Baptist and Jesus in Christianity or Muhammad and Ali in Islam. A theology could add a third personage, such as Elijah in a Christian context, which personage could be seen as apt for identification with one or both of the others; in an Islamic context, some personage appearing later in time than Muhammad or Ali might be brought up for consideration as identical with one, the other, or both, with at least some plausibility for at least some seekers.
A hint that the number of additional logically possible and so theoretically available doctrines in this conceptual “space” is vast can be seen in the following statement by Sam Dagher, in his June 25, 2015, Wall Street Journal article, “Syria’s Alawites: The People Behind Assad.”
Mainstream Sunni Muslims have long regarded Alawites as adherents of an obscure, even heretical cult. Alawites believe that Imam Ali—a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and a figure also revered by Shiites—was an incarnation of God, who revealed himself in six other people before Ali’s seventh-century caliphate.
Until next time.