Druzes of the Levant; History, Faith and Role

The historical and political role played by the Druze population in the Levant, a community shrouded in much secrecy and misinformation, despite centuries of persecution and oppression by much larger religious faiths, has greatly exceeded their sheer size and number of followers.

The Druze faith emerged in 1017 CE when the Fatimid ruler al-Hakim bi-Amrillah, meaning “the Ruler by Order of God”, (r. 996–1021 CE) instructed missionaries to propagate for a new era of Tawhid “Unitarianism”.

The Druze community numbers some 2 million, and can now be found mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and to a lesser extent in Jordan, although their Da’wa or “Call to the Faith” originated in Cairo, Egypt.  Druze communities exist in large numbers in Latin America, mainly Venezuela, as well as North America, Europe and Arab countries in the Gulf.

A splinter and largely secular sect of Islam, the Druze population who prefer to be called Al-Muwahhidoun, “Unitarians”, have their own philosophical and highly secular interpretation of Islam, far from extremist interpretations and fundamentalist values. Their only reference scripture is Kutub Al Hikmah, (Books of Wisdom) that falls into 5 volumes or parts, a collection of epistles and correspondence between luminaries, scholars and philosophers.

The Druzes, who strongly believe in Reincarnation, have developed a traditional reputation of bravery, generosity and nationalistic sentiments and affiliation, Hence, played leading roles in the battles for independence against the Ottomans, and later the French occupation of Syria. Their most notable national idol figure being Sultan Pasha Al Atrash, Supreme Commander of the Great Syrian Revolution against French occupiers in 1925, which led to the independence of Syria in 1946.

Having a distinct set of beliefs and practices, the Druze manuscripts share the influence of the Quran along with Greek, Persian, and Indian philosophies which are apparent in the Druze scriptures and faith. Among the Druze manuscripts is a collection entitled the Epistles of India, suggesting that some of these luminaries had visited India. Based on these philosophies, the Druze population explain their worldview of the absolute, the human attitude toward nature, and life after death.

Very little is known about the exact contents of Druze Books of Wisdom due to the secrecy that has shrouded their faith following a history of oppression and disinformation by larger Islamic sects in the Arab world. No Druze is allowed to the inner religious circles of the faith before they are properly initiated and approved as a true believer, and committing themselves to the strict rules and provisions of the faith.  Adultery, gambling, alcohol and even smoking are strictly prohibited, and no initiated Druze is allowed to reveal aspects of the faith to non-initiated individuals.

Historically, the Druzes have settled in mountainous areas and hard-to-conquer terrain in the Levant.  That has now changed, and they have become dwellers of cities, towns and villages everywhere in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and overseas.  The Druzes boast some of the highest levels of education, and their main stronghold in Syria, for example, was the first province to become totally illiteracy-free. Education and knowledge are paramount for any Druze family regardless of poverty and difficult living conditions, particularly in remote rural areas.

Although the Druze faith originally developed out of Ismaili Islam, Druzes are not generally considered Muslims, despite the fact that Al Azhar of Egypt recognizes them as one of the Islamic sects, akin to Shia. Fatimid caliph Ali Al-Zaher, whose father al-Hakim is a key figure in the Druze faith, was particularly harsh to Druze, causing the death of many of them in Antioch, Aleppo, and northern Syria. Persecution flared up during the rule of the Mamluks and Ottomans, and most recently, some 300 Druze civilians were brutally massacred and more than 500 were injured by ISIS terrorists in an attack last year on their villages in southern Syrian mainly Druze province of As-Suweida.

Human “Mind” reigns supreme in the Druze faith. Hence, their top religious leaders in the Levant are traditionally called Mashayekh Al- Aql “Sheikhs of the Mind”.  The Druzes have their own flag which contains 5 color strips, White, Blue, Yellow, Green and Red; each symbolising a sacred religious reference. The flag is frequently hoisted in major social occasions or in the battle field, and is believed to instigate extra courage and enthusiasm among warriors and followers of the faith.

In Lebanon, however, the main two Druze rival political leaders of the community, heading followers of the House of Jumblatt and House of Arsalan, have most of the time had conflicting political agendas vis a vis local, national and regional issues and affiliation. This has negatively affected their weight as balance makers in the intricate Lebanese political arena. Currently, the relationship between Walid Jumblatt, a fickle and unreliable political figure known for frequently shifting alliances and positions, and Prince Talal Arsalan, a strong ally of the Lebanese President, Lebanese Resistance and Syria, is said to be at an all-time worst.

In Palestine and Israel, the Druze community is split in allegiance but largely united in faith. Druze officers and officials, including in some high-ranking positions have become a familiar sight in the Israeli army and government. Whereas the vast majority of Druze population in the Syrian Golan, occupied in the 1967 war and later annexed by Israel, still refuse to hold Israeli ID cards and insist on their Syrian identity and being part of Syria.  President Trump’s recent controversial decree that acknowledges Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, contrary to UN resolutions and Charter, has done very little to change the rejectionist mood of some 30 thousand Druzes who form the Syrian Arab population of the Golan.