Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Alawite Now? Not So Much

According to Jonathan Kay in the NatPo, there are "striking similarities" between the history of Syria's Alawis and Israel's Jews. So striking, in fact, that the headline of Kay's piece calls Syria "the other promised land." (It has a different headline here, but the content is the same.)

Anyone else have a problem with that?

Now, I'm no expert, but since "Israel" is central to Jewry and Jewish theology ("next year in Jerusalem," the Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, and all that), and since "Syria" is a made-up country that dates all the way back to post-WWI, and does not have the same historical and religious significance for the ruling Alawites, to try to tie the two together is more than a stretch. It is a colossal misread of history and Judaism.

A piece in the New York Review of Books sheds light on the tribe (who were originally called Nusayris):
Nusayrism could be described as a folk religion that absorbed many of the spiritual and intellectual currents of late antiquity and early Islam, packaged into a body of teachings that placed its followers beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy. Mainstream Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, regarded them as ghulta, “exaggerators.” Like other sectarian groups they protected their tradition by a strategy known as taqiyya—the right to hide one’s true beliefs from outsiders in order to avoid persecution. Taqiyya makes a perfect qualification for membership in the mukhabarat—the ubiquitous intelligence/security apparatus that has dominated Syria’s government for more than four decades.

Secrecy was also observed by means of a complex system of initiation, in which insiders recognized each other by using special phrases or passwords and neophytes underwent a form of spiritual marriage with the naqibs, or spiritual guides. At this ceremony three superior dignitaries represent a kind of holy trinity of the figures who feature in other Nusayri rituals, namely Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi (the Persian companion of Muhammad who in several Islamic traditions forms a link between the Arabs and the wisdom of ancient Persia). Nusayri rituals, performed in private homes or out-of-the-way places, include a ceremony known as Qurban—almost identical to the mass—where wine is consecrated and imbibed in the Christian manner. As Matti Moosa, a leading scholar of the Nusayris, states in his seminal study Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988):
The Christian elements in the Nusayri religion are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurban, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to His disciples, and, most important, the celebration of the Quddas [a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, founder of the Church, who is seen, paradoxically, as the embodiment of true Islam].
Yup. Those Alawites are dead ringers for the Jews. ;)

Update: Everybody sing, "Alawite now, baby, it's Alawite now...":

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