Alawite Imam Ali Mosque in Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli, Lebanon
Alawite Imam Ali Mosque in Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli, Lebanon. Source: FunkMonk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Alawis, also referred to as Alawites or Nusayris, are an Arabic speaking religious minority of the Islamic tradition. They are a significant minority of Syria and in smaller numbers in Lebanon, southern Turkey and Iraq. Their identity as Muslims has been the source of contention and although they themselves regard their beliefs and practices as part of Islam, many mainstream Muslims consider the Alawis as so far removed that they are not regarded as a form of Islam.

The term Alawis refers to them as followers of Imam Ali whom their ancestors believed to be the rightful heir of Prophet Muhammad’s leadership. The Alawis believe that their branch of Islam was founded at the time of Muhammad, but this is disputed by scholars who claim that the Alawis grew from the teachings of Ibn Nusayr during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Accusations of heresy by mainstream Muslims has resulted in the persecution of the Alawis over many centuries both at the hands of Ottoman rulers and more recently, at the hands of fundamentalist extremist groups in the Middle East and in Western countries to which Alawis have migrated. It was only in the decades following the 1970 rise to power of the al-Assad family, that Alawis enjoyed some protections in Syria.

Some of the key features of the Alawi faith which have defined them and have been the cause of their persecution as ‘heretics’ include their religious focus on melding some beliefs, practices and thoughts of different religions (including Christianity) and their focus on spiritualism. The Alawis have a spiritual system of beliefs that extends beyond Islam and includes the recognition of spiritual truths of other religions. Their complexity of spiritual beliefs, along with a history of persecution has meant that Alawis have been protective and secretive about their teachings and their places of worship.

Religious Observances

 Alawites celebrating at a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II
Alawites celebrating at a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. Source: Frank Hurley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Alawis believe in the five pillars of Islam, but interpret these in a more allegorical sense. Also consistent with Islam are their celebration of Islamic festivals and events:

  • Eid al Fitr: Festival marking the end of Ramadan
  • Eid al-Adha: Festival marking the completion of the Pilgrimage to Mecca

Like the Shia, Alawis commemorate:

  • Ashura: Remembering the martyrdom of Hussain (commemorated by Shias in particular)
  • Eid ul-Ghadir: Commemorating Imam Ali’s nomination as the Prophet Muhammad’s successor

Alawis also celebrate Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter in recognition of the importance of Jesus as a prophet of their faith. Friday prayers are observed by Alawis in mosques which are attached to Alawi community centres. Mainstream Sunni mosques are, by and large, not attended by Alawis due to historical hostilities towards them and the rejection of Alawis by mainstream Islam.

History in Australia

Although the first Alawis migrated to Australia in the 1960s for economic reasons, civil wars in the Middle East during the 1970s resulted in Alawi resettlement to Australia for humanitarian reasons. In New South Wales there are an estimated 30,000 Alawis and Victoria is now home to approximately 13,000 Alawis. You can find Alawi community organisations in our Directory.

Further Reading & Materials