ʿALAWĪ, the nesba used to denote descendants, political states, or sects connected with one or another ʿAli (Ebn al-Aṯīr, al-Lobāb, II, Cairo, 1357, p. 148; Ebn Ḥaǰar, Tabṣīr al-montabeh, ed. ʿA. M. al-Beǰāwī, Cairo, 1964-67, III, pp. 1020-21); more particularly, it is employed to refer to a Shiʿite sect centered today in Syria. The nesba is most commonly used to refer to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, and with this meaning frequently is combined with a title of nobility such as Sayyed or Šarīf. In this sense the term, often translated as “ʿAlid,” has a wider application than “Fāṭemī” (since ʿAlī had children by wives other than Fāṭema) and a narrower application than “Ṭālebī” (since Abū Ṭāleb had other sons besides ʿAlī).

According to most works on ʿAlawī genealogy, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib had eighteen sons, five of whom left issue: Ḥasan, Ḥosayn, Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafīya, ʿOmar, and ʿAbbās (Maqrīzī, Etteʿāẓ al-ḥonafāʾ, ed. J. al-Šayyāl, Cairo, 1967, I, p. 8). The allegiance of the various Shiʿite sects was given to Ḥasan, Ḥosayn, Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafīya, and their descendants, most of whom did not take part in the political activities of their days (e.g., the Imams Moḥammad Bāqer and Mūsā Kāẓem), though a few were politically active and led revolts against the Omayyads (e.g., Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī in 61/681 and Zayd b. ʿAlī in 121/739) and the ʿAbbasids (e.g., Moḥammad al-Nafs al-Zakīya in 145/762 and Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī Ṣāḥeb Faḵḵ in 169/785.) The genuine ʿAlawīs did not commonly use the name ʿAlawī; more often their nesbas referred to the son of ʿAlī from whom they were descended. But pretenders to ʿAlawī descent, such as the leader of the Zanǰ revolt in Baṣra in 255/869, often employed it.

States founded and ruled by ʿAlawīs included in the Maḡreb, the Edrīsīs, the Fatimids (also in Egypt), and the Šarīfīs; in Yemen, the Solaymānīs, the Banu’l-Oḵayżer, and the Rassīs; in Mecca, the Solaymānīs, the Banu’l-Oḵayżer, the Banū Folayta, and the Banū Qatāda; in northern Persia, the Zaydīs (see ʿAlids); in Āmol the Ḥasanīs; in Andalusia the Ḥammūdīs. Of all these, only the state in northern Persia and the Šarīfī state in Morocco were commonly referred to as ʿAlawī, though some historians (e.g., Ebn al-Aṯīr) called the Fāṭemī state by that name.

The Shiʿite sects that grew up around ʿAlawīs were usually given names derived from their direct and often non-ʿAlawī leaders or from one of their doctrines. Thus the Bayānīya were named after their active leader, Bayān b. Samʿān, and the Ismaʿilis after Esmāʿīl b. Jaʿfar Ṣādeq; the Wāqefa believed in the “termination” (woqūf) of the imamate after Mūsā Kāẓem, whom they claimed was the Mahdī. In modern times the names ʿAlawī and ʿAlawīya have often been used to refer to various ḡolāt sects, all of which are said to deify ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb. Thus the Tahtaci and the Qizilbāš in Anatolia are commonly called ʿAlawī; more rarely the term is used for the Ahl-e Ḥaqq in Iran. ʿAlawīyūn is also the name of a sect found largely in Syria, particularly in the Jebāl al-Noṣayrīya and the district of Lāḏeqīya.

The Muslim heresiographers call this last group the Nomayrīya or Noṣayrīya and say that it was named after its founder, Abū Šoʿayb Moḥammad b. Noṣayr al-ʿAbdī al-Bakrī al-Nomayrī, a Basran who was a contemporary of the tenth Imam of the Eṯnāʿašarīya, ʿAlī Naqī (d. 254/868), and founded an independent ḡolāt sect in 245/859. The name Noṣayrīya probably was adopted by the sect in the time of the first full formulator of the doctrine, Abū ʿAbdallāh al-Ḥosayn b. Ḥamdān al-Ḵaṣībī (d. 346/957 or 358/968). The Noṣayrīya still recognize Moḥammad b. Noṣayr as their first teacher and Ḵaṣībī as their real founder (Aḏanī, al-Bākūra, pp. 15-16, 27), and it appears that the term “Noṣayrīya” was derived from the name of Ebn Noṣayr. Other hypotheses can be discarded: that “Noṣayrīya” was (a) a diminutive from naṣrānī (“Christian,” Renan); (b) a nesba derived from a village near Kūfa, Noṣayrāya (S. de Sacy, Exposé de la Religion des Druzes, Paris, 1838, I, clxxvii); (c) an attribution to Jebāl al-Noṣayrīya, to which the sect migrated (Kord ʿAlī, Ḵeṭaṭ al-Šām, VI, Damascus, 1925-28, p. 266). The confusion is understandable, in view of the numerous explanations given by some Noṣayrīya and others as to the name’s origin (e.g., from the name of a freedman of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, a vizier of Moʿāwīa, a Shiʿite martyr, or even a son of ʿAlī; Dussaud, Histoire, pp. 10ff.). These explanations, possibly “popular” among the Noṣayrīya at a later stage in their development, do not appear in their doctrines, poems, and liturgies.

Moḥammad b. Noṣayr and Ḵaṣībī lived in Iraq (Bākūra, p. 16), as did the latter’s contemporary, the Noṣayrī poet Montaǰab ʿĀnī (d. ca. 400/1009; A. ʿAlī, Fann al-Montaǰab al-ʿĀnī, Beirut, 1968, p. 21). Thus it can safely be assumed that the Noṣayrīya first appeared in Iraq. Moreover, a poem written by Ḵaṣībī indicates that the Noṣayrīya doctrines were not popular in Syria (Šām) during his time (Bākūra, p. 16), though they had attained some currency in Persia through one of his teachers, ʿAbdallāh b. al-Jannān al-Jonbolānī (Bākūra, p. 16). The situation in Syria probably changed not long after Ḵaṣībī, for the Noṣayrī feast calendar of the 4th/10th century contains references to Tiberias, Tripoli, Aleppo, and Lāḏeqīya (Strothmann, Die Nuṣairi im heutigen Syrien [Nachr. der Ak. Wiss. 4], Göttingen, 1950, p. 39). By the 6th/12th century, the Noṣayrīya had become well established in northwestern Syria, but not until 1920 under French occupation did the Noṣayrīya come to be known as “ʿAlawīyūn.” At this time they claimed that this was their original name but that they were “prohibited” from using it for 412 years, i.e., from the time of the Ottoman conquest of Syria (Kord ʿAlī, p. 266).

According to the early heresiographers, both Shiʿite and Sunnite, the teachings of Moḥammad b. Noṣayr included the deification or prophethood of the Imam ʿAlī Naqī, the idea that Ebn Noṣayr was his bāb (gate) and rasūl (messenger), eḥlāl al-maḥārem (abolition of certain prohibitions of the šarīʿa), and tanāsoḵ (metempsychosis). Ebn Noṣayr’s followers believed in the prophethood of ʿAlī Naqī’s son, Ḥasan ʿAskarī (d. 260/873). The shift toward the deification of ʿAlī, known as the basic doctrine by the time of Ebn Taymīya, may be due to Ḵaṣībī, as is admitted by the sect itself (Bākūra, p. 16). According to the Noṣayrī Ketāb al-maǰmūʿ and to Solaymān Aḏanī, a convert to Protestantism, the Noṣayrīs believed, with minor variations, that ʿAlī was God, the Creator, the Giver, the amir of the angels, etc. He is the maʿnā (meaning) and is compared to the moon; he created the esm (name), Moḥammad, who is like the sun and is called the ḥeǰāb (veil) of the maʿnā. Moḥammad created his bāb, identified with Salmān Fārsī and compared to the sky (Ketāb al-maǰmūʿ in Dussaud, Histoire, pp. 183, 185, 193; also Bākūra, pp. 19-20, 77). Salmān created the five aytām (orphans)-al-Meqdād, Abū Ḏarr Ḡefārī, ʿAbdallāh b. Rawāḥa, ʿOṯmān b. Maẓʿūn, and Qanbar—who in turn created the various aspects of the universe (al-Maǰmūʿ, pp. 189-90; Bākūra, pp. 18-20). ʿAlī, Moḥammad, and Salmān make up the Noṣayrīya trinity, corresponding to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; hence the primary initiatory word of the sect is ʿayn-mīm-sīn. The Noṣayrīs developed a sophisticated belief in tanāsoḵ (Bākūra, pp. 59-61, 81) and interpreted the pillars of Islam as symbols (ibid., pp. 24-33, 96), an act which led to their abandonment of the performance of the Islamic duties. Both Baybars (658-76/1260-77) and ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd (1293-1327/1876-1909) forced the sect members to build mosques. According to Solaymān al-Aḏanī, the image of Christ the Messiah plays an important role in the sect’s doctrine (ibid., pp. 16-17).

The sect celebrated festivals of diverse origin: Islamic (Feṭr and Ażḥā), specifically Shiʿite (Ḡadīr, Ferāš, ʿĀšūrāʾ and 15th Šaʿbān, the birth date of the twelfth Imam), Persian (Nowrūz and Mehraǰān), and Christian (Christmas, Epiphany, feast of St. Barbara; ibid., pp. 34-35). Of special interest are the initiation ceremonies for new members, in which wine plays a paramount role (ibid., pp. 2-11). The ʿAlawīyūn of today are still very secretive about their creed; they prefer to describe themselves as Arabs, of a moderate Shiʿite stand not much different from that of the Eṯnāʿašarīya.



R. Dussaud, Histoire et Religion des Nuṣairis, Paris, 1900.

Solaymān al-Aḏanī, al-Bākūrat al-Solaymānīya, Beirut, 1863.

On the descendants: Al-Eṣbahānī, Maqātel al-Ṭālebīyīn, Cairo, 1949.

Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Dawādārī, ʿOmdat al-ṭāleb, Beirut, n.d. On the ʿAlawīyūn sect: Ḡ. al-Ṭawīl, Taʾrīḵ al-ʿAlawīyīn, Lāḏeqīya, 1924.

M. al-Šarīf, al-ʿAlawīyūn, man hom wa ayna hom, Damascus, 1946.

Both these books, as well as Bākūra, have to be handled with great care. For a list of the sect’s works, see Dussaud, op. cit., pp. xiv-xxxiv.

L. Massignon, “Esquisse d’une bibliographie nusayrie,” Mélanges syriens offerts à M. R. Dussaud, Paris, 1939, pp. 913-22.

Idem, “Nuṣairī,” EI1 III, pp. 963-67.

There has been no thorough study of the doctrine of the ʿAlawīyūn.

Search terms:

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(W. Kadi)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 804-806

Cite this entry:

W. Kadi, “Alawi,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 804-806; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alawi-the-nesba (accessed on 17 May 2014).