Nusayri-Alawites and The Ottoman Empire: Fatwas About Nusayriyya and Their Effects On Them

1. Introduction and the Origin of the Nusayriyya

Nusayriyya is one of the Shi’i sects whose followers disperse throughout Syria and Western Mediterranean provinces of Turkey such as Adana, Mersin and especially Hatay. Few followers of this ghulat[1] sect also reside in Northern parts of Lebanon. This sect commonly confused with other Shi’i sects and Anatolian Alevism. However, in many ways and features Nusayriyya differs from them, for instance, a mutual thought of advocating ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib[2] for caliphate reaches divinity of Imam[3] Ali. Among the other features, going to shrines [4]as a religious practice and also praying in private houses, their ceremonies include special drinks and a special meal called hirisi[5], believing tenasuh (metempsychosis) which means reincarnation, secrecy as keeping religiously secret knowledge and ensuring that knowledge between generations with uncle hood tradition can be considered as most distinctive.[6] Moreover, dependable evidences show that this belief was influenced Persian, gnostic and pagan religions[7] as well as Christianity. Like the trinity and the acceptance that Christ is the son of the God or the God’s himself in Christian belief, Nusayri-Alawites believes that God comes to the world in different times with different faces. This is symbolized with the word of ma’na which means ‘’the meaning’’. The meaning is accompanied with two persons which are the ism which means ‘’the name’’ and the baba which means ‘’the gate’’. For instance, in the last arrival of the God to the world Ali was the God’s himself, Prophet Muhammed was his name and Salman the Persian[8] his gate. Another characteristic feature of the Nusayriyya is the belief that those who made contributions to the humanity for example in science also considered holy, such as Aristoteles, Plato, and Ibn Arabi.[9]
The origin of the Nusayriyya or Nusayris have been being talked for a long time. Especially, before and after of the integration of the Hatay to the Turkish Republic, the starting point of this sect caused a lot of controversies. Some Turkish historians and social scientist tried to prove that Nusayris are basically the Turks and the territory which they located in had been Turkish territories for centuries. Some of them even thought that the origin of Nusayriyya was traced back to as old as Hittite Period because of a Hittite colony which was founded near present-day Hatay.[10] Their historical faults and political aims can be objected to another article. Historians both Alawite and Western almost certain that, Nusayriyya formed in 9th Century in present-day Iraq.[11] One of the follower of the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari’s (d.974) follower Abû Shu’ayb Muhammed ibn Nusayr is the precursor of this sect and the source from which the name of Nusayriyya derived. Indeed, the founder of the sect was al-Husayn ibn Hamdân al-Khasibi[12] who established two important center of this little-known faction one of them in Bagdad, the other in Aleppo. Nusayris believe that the sacred knowledge which descended from Muhammed ibn Nusayr followed the way which ends with Kasım-et Teberani. Ibn Hamdân, after founding two centers, settled in Aleppo the city which is controlled by Hamdanid Dynasty.[13] It is thought that this period was the golden age of Nusayri-Alawites and was the first time Nusayris resided the western parts of Anatolia.[14] After that period, they had lived under the reign of many Sunni States (sequence of Ayyubid Dynasty, Mamluk Sultanate and Ottoman Empire) and the state of Crusaders which dominated Syria after the crusades. Among each of them, Nusayris struggled with hard conditions. However, two of those sovereignties were more crucial and hazardous than the others; Ottoman Empire and Crusaders. Famous Alawi historian et-Tavil[15] emphasized that, ‘’ (…) at the past of the Nusayri-Alawites there are two significant catastrophe: the former was the Crusades, the latter was the massacre of Yavuz I.’’
Since the short history of the Nusayriyya briefly indicated, it can be said that important part of the past of Nusayriyya occurred in hundreds-of-years Ottoman reign until the emergence of modern Turkish state. Hence, the period of Ottoman’s is very important to understand the sect of Nusayriyya but it has not been investigated efficiently yet. The main concern of this paper is to question whether Ottoman Empire was really religiously tolerant to Nusayriyya or not by looking fatwas which were about Nusayriyya and were issued in Ottoman period. This brings me to the conclusion that Nusayri-Alawites were suffered from severe conditions in Ottoman Empire because of fatwas which were directed by political aims.

2. Fatwas and the Ottoman Period

In Islamic law fatwa corresponds a kind of religious decree which is issued by a mufti[16], and includes two parts; jawab, an answer to an inquiry (su’al) asked to the mufti. It is also a tradition that the fatwa begins with the phrase of ‘Allahu a‘lam’[17] and ends with the same phrase.[18] The first fatwas according to Nusayri-Alawites were issued by Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), a Hanbali scholar, who was born in Harran in Syria. His one of the most famous works is al-Fatawa al-Kubra which also includes fatwas against Nusayriyya. Indeed, they were not issued in Ottoman Period, but the effect of the fatwas had been still effective in Ottoman society and we also can see its traces in modern-day Islamic community.
Ibn Taymiyya lived in Mameluke period and in the city of Damascus which was a city relatively adjacent to Nusayriyya settlements. However, in can be easily seen that ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas consist of a lot of historical and theological mistakes. In Taymiyya’s fatwa, the mustafti[19] wondered the opinion of grand scholars about Nusayriyya and he gave almost detailed information about Nusayriyya catechism. For instance, he said that in Nusayriyya drinking wine was allowed and Ali ibn Abi Talib is believed to be God. Whether the offerings of Nusayris’ can be eaten, whether the marriage with Nusayris is allowed, whether Nusayris can be buried in Muslim graveyards were questions of the mustafti. Additionally, above all, he wondered that whether fighting against Nusayriyya is more Ibn Taymiyya lived in Mameluke period and in the city of Damascus which was a city relatively adjacent to Nusayriyya settlements. However, in can be easily seen that ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas consist of a lot of historical and theological mistakes. In Taymiyya’s fatwa, the mustafti[20] wondered the opinion of grand scholars about Nusayriyya and he gave almost detailed information about Nusayriyya catechism. For instance, he said that in Nusayriyya drinking wine was allowed and Ali ibn Abi Talib is believed to be God. Whether the offerings of Nusayris’ can be eaten, whether the marriage with Nusayris is allowed, whether Nusayris can be buried in Muslim graveyards were questions of the mustafti. Additionally, above all, he wondered that whether fighting against Nusayriyya is more important than the fighting with Mongols.[21]
As to order of ibn Taymiyya, it can be seen that how Taymiyya considered Nusayriyya falsely. He advocated that Nusayris had ruled Egypt for 200 years and they had killed pilgrims in Hejaz and stole the Black Stone from al-Ka’ba. Nevertheless, it is certain that they were Fatimids who ruled Egypt before the times when ibn Taymiyya lived and it was the Qaramita who had stolen the Black Stone from al-Ka’ba.[22] After these mistakes Ibn Taymiyya compared the Nusayriyya with the Christians and the Jews. Then, he concluded that Nusayris were more heretical than the former ones and their damage to the Islam was more destructive than the Mongols and the Crusaders. Hence, marriage with them, burying Nusayris in Muslim graveyards, and agreeing their slaughter were forbidden.[23]
This tradition of fatwas against Nusayris, after Ibn Taymiyya, can be seen in Ottoman Period. Because, after Mameluke State, Ottoman Empire occupied Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas were independent from state policies but as to Ottoman Empire, the same thing cannot be said. Ottoman converted to a strict Sunni state after Sultan Salim I took caliphate from Abbasid caliph who located in Mameluke State, after defeating them in Battle of Marj Dabiq(1516, near Aleppo) and in Battle of Ridaniya (1517, today’s Egypt). Transforming into a rigid authority which follow Hanafi doctrine and the first encounter with Nusayriyya after Battle of Marj Dabiq overlaps. According to al-Tawil, when he came to Syria and defeated the Mameluke State, Salim I executed 40.000 Nusayris only in Aleppo, and before massacre he were granted a fatwa by some imams. (et-Tavil 2012, 265) His judgments are partly true, partly not. Salim I took a fatwa from Shaykh of Damascus who was called. Shaykh Nuh al-Hanafi. However, that fatwa were not confined with Nusayris, it were issued to justify Yavuz I’s expedition to Shi’a territories. Nevertheless, there was no differentiation in reality, the fatwa caused numerous massacre against Nusayris. They had to abandon their homes, fled to other regions, such as Hatay or Nusayriyya Mountains and not only Sunni authority but also indigenous Muslim people and the new ones, the Turkmen who were transplanted by Yavuz I to that region ostracized Nusayri-Alawites.[24] The name of the Yavuz I is still remembered by followers of both Nusayriyya and Anatolian Alevism.
The second fatwa about Nusayriyya which issued in Ottoman Period is dated 1820s. Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Mugrabi (1764– 1827/28) who was from Morocco[25] as it can be understood his name and resided at Latakia where Nusayris still live in. We encountered his fatwa in merely Samuel Lyde’s work. Samuel Lyde was an American missioner who came to Middle East, learnt the existence of little-known sect, Nusayriyya and lived among them for a certain time. He also wrote his memories in his work, The Asian Mystery which is the only source we are informed about such a fatwa.[26] It causes a little uncertainty. However, the name of Muhammed Nasir al-Din is one of the cursed names among Nusayri prays. It causes a conclusion that the fatwa is true.
As Yvette Talhamy also proposed in sharia, a Muslim cannot be sold as a slave.[27] Given this information, it can be said that Nusayriyya was not considered as an Islamic sect.  However, they were enlisted.[28]  It brings the circumstance to a skeptical point because according to Ottoman law, the people who were reinforced were Muslims. An ambivalent policy can be seen. The empire, while collecting taxes from Nusayris, also were enlisting Nusayris. Nevertheless fatwas said another thing, Nusayris are not considered as Muslim, because they could be enslaved and their properties could be looted.

3. Conclusion

Nusayriyya was one of the exaggerator sects which was formed during the middle Ages in Middle East, but especially in Iraq and Syria. From pretty plenty of aspects in can be differentiated among other sects but they derived from Islamic worldview, yet it influenced from many other beliefs, religions and traditions, so it emerged as a very different formation. This difference made them dangerous according to other authorities such as Sunni experts. So, a lot of practices applied on Nusayriyya but much of them influenced from prejudice, political aims and hatred. Among these practices, fatwas were almost most significantly because they reflected certain Sunni authorities’ ideas. Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas were most significant because they were the first fatwas and still has an effect on hatred and prejudice against Nusayriyya. The two other fatwas were issued in Ottoman Period, most probably for political aims. One of then coincided the period of Yavuz I. Although it was issued for Shi’a, the fatwa caused disastrous circumstances for Nusayri-Alawites. The second fatwa, was declared around 1820s, and it was replicated that Nusayriyya couldn’t established themselves in Ottoman nation-system, because of ambivalent practices such as having been regarded as an Muslim when it came to enlistment, while having been regarded as an heretic or non-Muslim when it came to enslavement.
Picture 1 it is a painting from a shrine which is located on Samandag, in Hatay, Turkey. Almost nearly in all shrines depiction of ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib can be found. Contrary to major Islamic view Nusayris don’t consider them as sin. This painting also reflects the relationship between Christian beliefs and Nusayriyya.
1- Adjective form of ghuluww, which is a term to describe exaggaretor groups in Shia Islam
2- Ali was the cousin and the son-in- law of Prophet Muhammed. After the death of Muhammed, the problem of choosing the successor of Muhammed arose. According to Shi’a tradition, before his death, Muhammed appointed Ali to succeed himself.
3- Nusayries are followers of the Twelve Imams which began with Imam Ali and ended with the disapperance of the last imam –Muhammed el Mehdi.
4- In the places where Nusayries commonly live and are important minority, plenty of shrines can be seen and indigenous people usually visit that places to pray.
5- (Talhamy 2010, 176)
6- (Türk 2005, 45)
7- (Friedman 2001, 91)
8- Salman al-Farsi was the first Persian converting to Islam.
9- (Türk 2005, 52)
10- (Tankut 1938)
11- (Eyuboğlu 1987, 415) (Mertcan 2014, 28) (Friedman 2001, 91)
12- (Friedman 2001, 91)
13- (Mertcan 2014, 32)
14- Ibid. p,34.
15- Muhammad Amin Ghalin al-Tawil, an an exceptional, worked as an chief of police in many provinces in Ottoman Empire and wrote ‘’History of Alawites’’. (*Halm,H.“Nusayriyya.” The Encyclopedia Islam: 1995.Print.) Although the term Nusayri had been used since Middle Ages, he was the first person who use the term Alawi most probably close the differences between Shi’ites and the Nusayris. (Friedman 2001, 96)
16- Religious scholar. (Talhamy 2010, 177)
17- The God knows the better.
18- Ibid. p, 77-78.
19- The person who asked the question in fatwa.
20- (Talhamy 2010, 179)
21- Ibid. p,180.
22- For fatwas please look (Talhamy 2010, 179)
23-  et-Tavil didn’t give an accurate name of the person who gave the fatwa, but Talhamy pointed out the name and additionally he argued that the scholar was not famous only a local scholar who asked to give a fatwa, most probably for an immediate reason. (Talhamy 2010, 182) (et-Tavil 2012, 265)
24- (Talhamy 2010, 183)
25- (Lyde 1860, 196)
26- (Talhamy 2010, 183)
27- (Bilgili, et al. 2010, 39)


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Bilgili, Prof. Dr. Ali Sinan, Dr.Uğur Akbulut, Yrd. Doç. Dr. Selahattin Tozlu Tozlu, and Naim Ürkmez, . 2010. Osmanlı Arşiv Belgelerinde Nusayrîler ve Nusayrîlik. Ankara: Gazi Üniversitesi Türk Kültürü ve Hacı Bektaş Velî Araştırma Merkezi.

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Talhamy, Yvette. 2010. “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria.” Middle Eastern Studies 175-194.

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