Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa against the Nusayri-Alawi Sect
Yar on Friedman (Paris)
The view of Sunni scholars about minorities and sects in the medieval Muslim world has a crucial influence on their actual image in the Middle East. While Sˇ iism is considered a fifth school (maühab) in Islam today, Sunni authorities have never accepted such sects as Baha#is, Druzes and Nusayris-Alawis as part of Islam. This rejection of what Sunnis consider as heretical sects contributed to their persecution and isolation, which lasted until the twentieth century.
The case of the Nusayris-Alawis is an extraordinary one. Firstly, negative rumors were always associated with this sect because of its esoterical religion and cult, which were always kept a secret. Secondly, its situation changed dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, the Nusayris-Alawis becoming the dominant element in Syria. Their doctrines, as well as the circumstances that led to their rise to power, have already been studied.2 Our purpose in this paper is to re-examine a religious decree launched by one of the most prominent Sunni scholars in the late medieval period regarding the subject of the Nusayris-Alawis.
The main fatwa (pl. fatawa, judicial decision) of Taqi l-din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328),3 the most prominent Hanbali theologian and jurist, dealing with the Nusayriyya sect in Syria and its status in Islam, was first printed in Arabic and translated into French at the end of the nineteenth century by M.S. Guyard.4 The publication reflected the French Société Asiatique’s interest in the Levant and its sects, since Silvestre De Sacy’s introduction to the Druze religion.5 This specific fatwa has not been a subject of study since that time, although today it is considerably more important than when first published. In Guyard’s period the sect’s condition was poor and its influence on the surrounding was limited.
Today, when the Nusayris-Alawis are the only dominating sect in the Muslim world, the study of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa has gained greater significance. In general, Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa has a great importance for the understanding of the Nusayris-Alawis’ history, as well as for comprehending the Islamic view – mainly that of the Hanbali school – of the sect’s religious identity.6 Other fatawa by Ibn Taymiyya relating to this sect that have not yet been studied will also be discussed here.
The Nusayriyya is aSˇ ii sect dispersed in Syria and southern Turkey, and the only branch of the gulat (sing.: gali) extremistSˇ i#is of Kufa still in existence. In 1964 they numbered some 600,000, 11 % of the Syrian population, which is majority Sunni. They are spread out in villages and towns near the western coast of the country.7
The aim of this paper will be to draw a more precise picture of Ibn Taymiyya’s judicial activity in this field in the context of its historical circumstances. Through this study I will try to prove that Ibn Taymiyya’s work was not based on solid ground. Finally, its significance in its period and its relevance nowadays will be assessed.
Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa against the Nusayri-Alawi Sect 351
The Main Fatwa Studied by Guyard
Regarding the Nusayris position in Islam, most modern historians mention the main fatwa (a) as an example of an Islamic scholar’s attack against the sect, which is viewed as heretical. It was issued a century after the raid of the Egyptian Mamluk sultan Baybars (d. 676/1277) upon the fortresses of the Ismailis in Syria, followed by a first and failed attempt to convert the Nusayris.8
Yet, a re-examination of the text published by Guyard raises questions about Ibn Taymiyya’s real knowledge of the Nusayris. It seems quite obvious that the first part of the document, an anonymous istifta# (request for a fatwa) shows a great deal of knowledge about the sect’s secretive religion. However, such knowledge is not characteristic of Ibn Taymiyya’s response:9
“What is the view of the noble scholars the religious leaders about the Nusayriyya, may Allah forgive them …”
“These people, described [in the Istifta#] called Nusayriyya, they and the other kinds of Qaramita, the Batiniyya, (see below, p. 356 an addition here in one version) are more heretical than the Jews and the Christians, even more so than many polytheists. Their harm to Muhammad’s umma (community) is more severe than that of the infidel fighters such as the Turks (i. e. the Mongols) and the Crusaders …”10
The Confusion between the Nusayriyya and the Ismailiyya While the request focuses on the Nusayriyya, the response shows clearly that Ibn Taymiyya considered the Nusayriyya to be part of the Sˇii-Isma#ili Qarmatian sect.11 Moreover, as will be demonstrated, it becomes clear in the following part of the fatwa that he is addressing mainly the Ismailiyya:
a. The name nusayriyya is mentioned only once in the entire fatwa, in the opening phrase cited above. In another part, where Ibn Taymiyya mentions the various names of the sect under discussion: Mulahida, Ismailiyya, Qaramita, Batiniyya, Khurramiyya, Muhammara, the name Nusayriyya is missing.12 This list is almost similar to al-Gazali’s Fada#ih al-Batiniyya (twelfth century), which dealt exclusively with the Ismailiyya.13 Nevertheless, other versions of the same fatwa differ from Guyard’s manuscript. There are serious discrepancies between the versions appearing in three collections of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatawa: Al-Fatawa al-Kubra,14 Muätasar al-fatawa al-misriyya15 and another Majmuu fatawa. 16 In these texts, based on other manuscripts,17 the names of the sect are listed in a different order than that of Guyard’s manuscript, with the addition of the name of the Nusayriyya.18 We cannot exclude the possibility that Guyard’s version is Ibn Taymiyya’s original text, while other versions have been altered in a later period. Many explanations could be put forward as to the difference between the versions. Nevertheless, one cannot doubt the fact that the altered versions are identical to that of one of Ibn Taymiyya’s disciples, al-Bali. It is the version of the fatawa which appears in the Muätasar, which is Ibn Taymiyya’s fatawa abbreviation by Badr al-Din al-Bali(d. 778/1376).19 In this case, the name of the Nusayriyyay only appears in the opening sentence of the original fatwa.
b. The theological accusations against the sect are all directed against Isma#ili doctrines. It is true that some could be relevant also to the Nusayriyya, as the allegorical interpretation of Islamic law and the influence of Greek philosophy. Nevertheless, the other accusations, as the compilation of Ikhwan al-Safa#,20 could not be related to the Nusayris.21
c. Aside from theological factors, Ibn Taymiyya points to specific historical accusations which most likely do not refer to the Nusayriyya, but are directed to the activity of the Ismaili sect and dawa (propaganda) in the course of the preceding centuries. These accusations mainly consist of the killing of pilgrims on their way to Mecca, stealing of the Black Stone of the Kaba, collaborating with enemies of Islam (mainly the Crusaders and the Mongols), taking over Egypt for two centuries (969–1171) and helping the Mongols to murder the caliph of Baghdad (1258).22
In conclusion, it seems quite clear that Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa demonstrates a confusion between Nusayris and Ismailis, originating from his incorrect assumption that the Nusayriyya are part of the Ismailiyya. This could be explained by the fact that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Nizari branch of the Ismailiyya took possession of numerous fortresses in the Nusayri mountains, what is now the Jabal Ansariyya in Syria. Moreover, the Isma#ilis and Nusayris had shared the same geographical territory for the two centuries previous to the time of Ibn Taymiyya. 23 Nusayri texts from that period reflect some strong Ismaili theo-logical influence. Al-Tawil, a modern Alawi historian, in his history Ta#riä al-alawiyyin, describes peaceful meetings between the two sects at Ana, then in Safita, in 690/1291, in an attempt to unify the two groups.24 Although those meetings are not mentioned in other sources, one cannot doubt the similarity between the two sects with regard to some important theological elements. It seems that neo-Platonic thought, in addition to Neoplatonist works, had a direct influence on the formulation of both Ismaili and Nusayri doctrines.25
Ibn Taymiyya’s text reflects a more general Muslim confusion existing in his period between Nusayriyya and Ismailiyya – two sects who shared the same territory and had a similar theology. His main fatwa also demonstrates the gap between the vast knowledge available about the Ismailis, and the poor information about the Nusayris. This difference in the information available for Sunnis about the two groups can be explained by the fact that the Ismaili doctrine had been disseminated throughout Egypt and Syria by the Fatimid Empire’s dawa (propaganda) during the tenth century and by its Nizari branch in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Unlike them, the Nusayris, who were weak and oppressed herdsmen, developed a strong tradition of dissimulation (taqiyya), meant to keep their religion secret in order to prevent persecu-tions.26 Ibn Taymiyya’s lack of knowledge concerning the Nusayriyya can also be demonstrated in other fatawa that he issued against the sect in Syria, as will be discussed below.
Two other fatawa of Ibn Taymiyya dealing with the Nusayris were preserved in al-Fatawa al-kubra. These two are shorter than the main fatwa studies above, but share have common elements:
The Inclusion of the Druzes in the Anti-Nusayri Fatawa
The first short fatwa (b) is a general legal decision about how Nusayris and Druze sects should be treated by Muslims:
“A question has been raised: what is [Islam’s] judgment for the Durziyya and the Nusayriyya?”
“These Durziyya and Nusayriyya are heretics according to [the judgment of] all Muslims; their [methods of] slaughter are not permitted for eating nor [can a Muslim] marry their women. They refuse to pay the jizya (head tax) and are considered murtaddun (sing.: murtadd, apostates). They are neither Muslims, nor Jews, nor Christians. They do not accept the obligations of the five prayers, the fast of Ramadan and the pilgrimage. They do not forbid what Allah has forbidden, [such] as [eating] carrion and [drinking] wine. Even if they apparently declare their belief [in Islam] and accept its doctrines, they should still be considered heretics by all Muslims. Regarding the Nusayriyya, they are a sect of Abu Sˇuayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who was one of the extremist Siis who believed that Ali is God. They [the Nusayriyya] recite the [confessional] phrases: I testify that there is no other God but Haydara [“lion”, one of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s nicknames] the transcendent, the esoteric, and that there is no Veil but Muhammad the righteous, the faithful, and that there is no path to him but Salman the powerful. Regarding the Durziyya …[explains their doctrine]”.27
This fatwa (b) could be, among others, a later addition of Badr al-Din al-Bali, since in some versions of the al-Fatwa al-kubra, this specific fatwa does not appear at all.28 Texts by al-Bali, the Hanbali sheikh of Baalbek, show a strong tendency to include the Druzes in the attack against the Nusayris. The same tendency can be seen in his Muätasar version of the principal fatwa (a) studied previously, where, following the opening phrase, “This people called the Nusayriyya”, al-Bali adds a comment: “… settled in the Druze mountains of al-Sˇ am [greater Syria]”.29 This geographical detail does not exist in any other version of the main fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya against the Nusayris.
The Fatwa against the Nusayri Mahdi
The second short fatwa deals with a specific case: a Nusayri herdsmen uprising led by a local leader claiming to be Muhammad ibn Hasan al- Mahdi (the twelfth and last Imam of theSˇ iis):30
“A question: about a group of herdsmen who believed in the nusayri doctrine; all believed in a man of whom they had variety of opinions. Some claimed he is God, some said he is a prophet sent [by God], others said he is Muhammad ibn Hasan, meaning the mahdi. They ordered that anyone who should meet him [i. e. the mahdi] should prostrate before him. In doing so they revealed their heresy, [as they did in] cursing the prophet Muhammad’s Companions. They revealed their refusal to obey and their determination to fight. Are we obliged to fight them and kill their warriors? Are we permitted [to hold as captives] their children and [to take] their property?”
“Praise be to God. These [Nusayris] should be fought as long as they resist, until they accept the law of Islam. The Nusayriyya [springs] from the worst heretic people guided by the devil, they are from the worst murtaddun; their fighters should be killed and their property should be confiscated. [the next part is a discussion about the question how their children should be treated and whether they should be taken as slaves] … The Nusayriyya do not conceal their matter [i. e. their religion], moreover, all Muslims know them well. They do not pray the five prayers, they do not fast during Ramadan, nor do they carry out the pilgrimage. They do not pay zakat (charity), and they do not admit that it (paying zakat) is an obligation. They permit [drinking] wine and other prohibited things. They believe that Ali is God; they recite: ‘I testify that there is no other God but Haydara, the transcendent, the esoteric, and that there is no Veil but Muhammad the righteous, the faithful, and that there is no path to him but Salman the powerful’. Even if they do not reveal their extremism and do not declare that this liar is the expected mahdi, they should be fought. This was Ali ibn Abi Talib’s case [when he was] ordered by the prophet to deal with the äawarij31 … [the following part is a discussion about their spoils and how they should be treated if they surrender or show regret] … they should be compelled to obey Islamic law, if they refuse they must be killed … Those who lead them astray should be put to death even if they show regret … so, without any doubt, this devil (the Nusayri mahdi) must be killed. God knows better.”32
It is important to mention that this last fatwa (c) resulted from a Nusayri uprising that took place in Jabala, Syria, in 717/1317, a fact that was disregarded in modern research.33 The connection between this last fatwa and the event is important in order to date Ibn Taymiyya’s attacks against the sect, as will be explained later.
The two short fatawa show clearly that Ibn Taymiyya’s knowledge of the sect’s doctrine is not based on the sect’s own sources, but on the information he got from local Syrians, as included in the main istifta (a) mentioned earlier. This assumption is based on the fact that in his accusations in the two short fatawa (b, c), Ibn Taymiyya repeats the facts mentioned in the anonymous question. It becomes evident when he cites from the main istifta (a), almost word for word, the Nusayri shahada (declaration of belief) about the Nusayri Trinity of Ali-Muhammad Salman.34
The two fatawa (b, c) mention other elements from the main istifta
(a): the belief in Ali’s divinity, and the rejection of the five pillars of Islam.35 Ibn Taymiyya’s only addition to the information in the istifta (a) is the fact that the Nusayris are followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr,36 a fact known to Muslim heresiographers since the twelfth century.37 Ibn Taymiyya appears to have used the knowledge that contains the question he received from local Syrians, who were probably better informed about the sect’s faith. But even that knowledge, detailed in the first istifta (a), could solely be based only on rumors, because it does not mention any specific book and explains that the Nusayris conceal their religion from the Muslims.38 Although the fact that the two short fatawa (b, c) focus on the Nusayris without confusing them with other sects, we obtain a very limited picture of their religion. Still, the study of these texts is essential in order to date Ibn Taymiyya’s work.
The study of Ibn Taymiyya’s three fatawa against the Nusayris permits us to draw some conclusions concerning the order in which they were written. While the third (c) fatwa clearly refers to the Nusayri messianic uprising of 717/1317, the second (b), dealing with Druze and Nusayri sects, cannot be associated with any precise period. Nevertheless, the first and main fatwa (a) studied by Guyard should be placed first chronologically, since elements from its istifta# are repeated in the two later fatawa (b, c), as demonstrated above.
It could have been written in 705/1305 when, according to the historian Ibn al-Wardi, Ibn Taymiyya issued a fatwa against the Nusayris and accompanied a raid against them to secure the roads of al-Zaninayn. 39 It was part of the Mamluk raid against the Sˇ iis of Qisrawan,40 who were also accused by Ibn Taymiyya, just as the Nusayris, of collaborating with the Mongols and Crusaders.41 But it seems more likely that it was written in the same period as the third fatwa (c), that is, at the time of the mahdi’s revolt.
A clear indication of this is that the historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1364/ 1441), when describing the uprising, cites a portion of the main istifta# verbatim. He mentions that the Nusayris believe in “permitting [the drinking] of wine, [believe in] metempsychosis, the antiquity of the world, deny the resurrection, deny paradise and hell, and that the five prayers are manifested by Ismail [in the istifta#: Ali], Hasan, Husayn, Muhsin and Fatima … and that God is Ali ibn Abi Talib …”.42 The exact citation of the istifta# (c) leaves no doubt of al-Maqrizi’s view: that the
main fatwa (a) against the sect is connected with the local events of Jabala in 1317.
In any case, it is clear that Ibn Taymiyya’s fatawa reflect the need of the Mamluk dynasty to receive religious moral support for the two raids aimed at oppressing the Nusayris and other rebel elements. However, the total elimination of the sect, one of the fatawa’s main objectives, was not accepted by most of the Muslim community, because it appeared that they contributed to the war against the Crusaders. This fact explains why Ibn Taymiyya, in his main fatwa (a), shows much fear in accepting their assistance, which might lead to their acceptance as part of the Muslim umma. He compares them with the munafiqun (hypocrites), Muslims from the period of the prophet Muhammad who hadn’t truly converted and only harmed Islam from within. He adds: “using these hypocrite infidels … in Muslim battle camps, castles or corps is like using wolves to pasture sheep …”.43
We have evidence to conclude that Ibn Taymiyya’s main fatwa against the Nusayriyya was based on partial and second-hand knowledge of the sect, and that its legal argument was based on his erroneous assumption that they were Ismailis. The aim of the fatwa seems to be limited to supporting the oppression of the sect in Jabala or in al-Zaninayn. Apart from these local conflicts, it seems to have had only a minor effect on the Muslim community, as its goal to eliminate the sect was not accepted by the larger community. Another expedition against the Nusayris, launched in 745/1344, did not succeed in converting them, as one can see from Ibn Battuta’s description of the same period.44 Ibn Battuta (d. 779/1377) explains that economic interests, not religious ones, led to the decision of sparing the Nusayris, who were needed to cultivate Muslim land.45 In the first main istifta# (a) there was a question that demonstrated how marginal the Nusayri subject was in the Muslim political agenda at that time:
“Can a mujahid (a fighter in a holy war) against these above-mentioned Nusayris be considered as a holy fighter? Should he get paid as [any] other holy fighter in a border camp near the sea to prevent a Crusade attack? … Is that (killing them) more important and [does it carry] more (religious) weight than fighting against the Mongols, the Chinese or the Africans, or is this better?”46
Ibn Taymiyya’s judgement, that the Nusayris had sinned with ridda (apostasy) and deserved death, had no influence in the long term. Even the motivation to convert them by force did not last long and mosques built in their villages by the Mamluks were never used for prayers.47 The sect has survived to this day in the same territory, while preserving its original religious beliefs.
However, one should not underestimate Ibn Taymiyya’s influence on the medieval Islamic view of the Nusayris. While politically the fatwa had short term but deadly effects, we lack information about its social implications. The negative attitude towards the Nusayris is typical to the Sunni scholars of the Mamluk period, many of them influenced by the works of Ibn Taymiyya.48
It should be noted that two hundred years of Christian domination (Byzantine and Crusader) then Ismaili domination (Nizaris-Batinis) in the Nusayri territories caused their identity to become even more vague to the Sunni religious authorities. This is well explained in the main istifta# (a):
“Their ways were concealed from many people during the period of the Crusader occupation, [as they were] isolated in the coastal lands. When Islam came, their manners and wrong beliefs were veiled …”49
After centuries of being marginalized, Ibn Taymiyya’s Hanbali school regained its prominent position in the modern period in the form of the Wahhabi movement and the Saudi state. Today his ideology gives inspiration to many Muslim circles. Since the 1970s, the weak and oppressed Nusayris, today called Alawis, dominate the ruling Baath party in Syria, Ibn Taymiyya’s fatawa seem to have gained new dimensions and have greater political significance than they originally had.
The sensitivity of Syrian Alawi leaders to the subject and their need to present themselves as a legitimate Muslim regime, as well as the need of the Alawi community to integrate in the Arab world, can be demonstrated by a vast apologetic literature.50
A typical example of this phenomena can be shown in a recent publication by two Alawi intellectuals in Lebanon, Ahmad Ali Hasan and Hamid Hasan, that shows just how very relevant Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa continues to be. In their book about what they call “the Muslim Alawis”, they respond to another Lebanese author, Dr. Abd al-Salam al-Tadmuri. In his book Ta#riä Tarablus, al-Tadmuri cites the main fatwa (a) against the sect.51
These Alawis attack Ibn Taymiyya’s opinion, claiming that it was he who accentuated the rift between the Shia and Sunna and encouraged violence against the Sˇ ia as community and not only against the Nusayriyya. This shows, according to their view, how deep the rivalry was and still is between Sunna, as presented by Ibn Taymiyya, and the Sˇ ia of which the Nusayri-Alawis claim to be a part.52
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The case of Ibn Taymiyya’s attack against the sect clearly shows the difference between theory and practice in Islam. It is also an example of the direct influence of events of the Middle Ages on modern history in the
It is possible to prove on an academic basis that the fatawa of Ibn Taymiyya against the Nusayriyya were originally dealing with narrow and local cases and had influence on a short-term basis. Also we have suggested that it was based on an incorrect assumption and on oral and partial information. However, one cannot doubt the potential effect of these fatawa on modern Muslim society.