Who are the Alavis?
Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Those who seek to understand the recent upheavals in Syria often ask us: “Who are the Alavis?” We have explained this matter in detail in our essays on Islamic History. Here we summarize our observations in capsule format:
The Sunnis believe in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and accept the ijma of the Companions. This means acceptance of the first four Caliphs, namely, Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r), Uthman (r) and Ali (r) as the rightly guided Caliphs (Khulfa-e-Rashidoon).
There are four schools of Sunnah fiqh (jurisprudence): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’ and Hanbali. These four schools recognize their mutual validity. About 80 to 85% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims (estimated figures as of 2011 CE) are Sunni.
The Ithna-Asharis believe in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and accept the Imamate of the twelve Imams, namely, Ali (r), Imam Hassan, Imam Hussain, Imam Zainul Abedin, Imam Muhammed Baqir, Imam Ja’afar Saadiq, Imam Musa Kadim, Imam Ali Rada, Imam Jawwad Razi, Imam Ali Naqi Hadi, Imam Hasan Askari, and Imam Muhammed Mahdi. They are also called the twelvers. The Ithna Asharis are spread out over the world with concentrations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and India.
The Sabayees believe in the first seven Imams. They are sometimes referred to as the seveners.
The Fatimids believe in the Imamate of the first six Imams and of Imam Ismail. The term ‘Ismailis’ is sometimes used to refer to them. They are also called the Agha Khanis because many of them follow the spiritual guidance of the Agha Khan. They are a prosperous community with concentrations in Mumbai, India, the East African coast and upper Egypt.
The Ithna-Asharis, the Fatimids (the Ismailis) and the Sabayees (the Seveners) are collectively referred to as Shi’a or Shi’ or Shi’ an e Ali. About 15 to 20% of the Muslims of the world are Shia.
The Zaidis are intermediate in their beliefs between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. They believe in Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) and Ali (r) but not of Uthman (r). They also believe in the imamate of the first four Imams and of Imam Zaid bin Ali. The Zaidis are to be found mostly in Oman along the Persian Gulf, Yemen and the East African coast (the Swahel).
During the time of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (the sixth Imam), yet another schism took place, which had a profound and lasting impact on Islamic history. Not satisfied with the political quietude of Imam Ja’afar, some supporters of Bani Hashim looked elsewhere for leadership. They found a leader in Muhammed bin Hanafiya, a son of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) from one of his marriages after the death of Fatimat uz Zahra (r). The mother of Muhammad bin Hanafiya, son of Ali (r), belonged to a tribe named Banu Hanafiya. This is the beginning of the Alavis.
So, the Fatimids and the Alavis are both descendants of Hazrat Ali (r). While the Fatimids are descended through Fatima (r), beloved daughter of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), the Alavis are descended through Hanafiya, a noble lady of Banu Hanafiya. They are both descended from Ahl e Bait, as the term is used by most scholars to refer to Ali (r), Fatima (r), Hassan (r) and Hussain (r). But while the Fatimids are Seyyeds (those who are descended from the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)), the Alavis are not. They are like half-brothers.
Faced with persecution over the centuries, the Alavis (like the Druze in later centuries) retreated to the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. That is where a majority of them live, in the coastal strips between the mountains of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years, both the Sunnis and the Ithna Ashari Shias have made a concerted effort to bring the Alavis back into their folds.
We emphasize here that all Muslims believe in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The differences between Shias and Sunnis and between the various sects among them are historical. They are not doctrinal. They are all like different historical streams that trace their origin to a single source. They are all Muslim.
We hope this clarification helps.