As I expect a fair number of people now know, the Alawites are a religious sect, mostly in Syria. Assad is Alawi and they are a major part of his support. But, religiously speaking, who are they?
My vague memory was that they had a long history of keeping their doctrines secret, making it unclear just where they did or didn't fit into the general pattern of Muslim sects, that in recent years they had chosen to identify themselves as a form of Shia but that it was not clear whether that was an accurate description of their beliefs or merely one that they found politically convenient. A comment on a recent post here got me interested, so I did some online research.
The Wikipedia page
says that they "follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam," and goes on to add that "Alawite beliefs are kept secret for outsiders, even for non initiated
Alawites. Therefore many rumours about their religious beliefs have
arisen," but says nothing about what those beliefs are.
With a little searching, however, I found quite a detailed account
on another web page. I do not know if it is accurate, although my guess on internal evidence is that it probably is. If so, it sounds as though their beliefs deviate from Islamic orthodoxy as much as Muslim beliefs deviate from Christianity and probably more than Muslim beliefs deviate from Judaism. They apparently believe that Ali was some sort of incarnation of God, reject the Koran, and believe in reincarnation for males but not females.
Which makes me wonder whether the absence of information in the Wikipedia page reflects a successful attempt to defend the identification of Alawites as Shia in support of Assad's alliance with (twelver Shia) Iran.
A commenter point out a detailed and scholarly account
of Alawites consistent with the one I earlier linked to. It supports my suspicion that their identification as twelver Shia was a matter of politics rather than theology.