Typical Druze of Lebanon

High up in the mountain ranges of southern Lebanon, south western Syria and northern Israel lie the villages of the enigmatic Druze community.

Proud and fierce fighters, intensely loyal to their semi-Islamic religion and to their community, they have survived a thousand years of turbulent Middle East history in the safety of their mountain fortresses, often under pressure from the hostile Sunni majority.

They are a small and tightly knit Arabic speaking community. They can be classified as a religio-national group with a clear sense of separate identity, culture, traditions and customs and with their own Druze flag.

Today they number some 750,000 people. In Syria there are 375,000 living mainly in the Jabal el-Druze area, in Lebanon there are 250,000 mainly in the Chouf mountains, and in Israel 100,000 mainly in Galilee and on Mt.Carmel. There are also small Druze communities in Jordan, the United States, Canada and in Latin America.

The Druze religion developed from the Shi'a Isma'ili movement a thousand years ago. To understand it one must be familiar with Islamic esoteric terminology and symbolism.

The strict Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East treated the Druze as heretics, which is why they have kept their religion as secret as possible. They maintained their identity and distinctive faith, settled mainly in the harsh mountain top areas for safety, and always sought autonomy for their community.

The Druze claim that they have always existed in the Near East. They highly esteem Jethro (Nabi Shu'ayb) whom they revere as a prophet and as an incarnation of the Universal Mind (one of the emanations of God). His tomb at the Horns of Hattin near Tiberias, Israel is a Druze holy place, second in importance only to their spiritual centre at Bayyada near Hasbaya in Lebanon.

The Druze faith was founded in Cairo in 1017 AD during the reign of the eccentric sixth Isma’ili Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, Abu ‘Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim (985-1021).

According to Isma’ili doctrine the Caliph was also the Imam, the divinely appointed leader of all Muslims. He was seen as a manifestation of the Universal Mind, the first of the divine emanations or cosmic rulers. Al-Hakim however concluded that he was actually a manifestation of the Deity itself, and he gathered a group of disciples who accepted his claims and spread the new teaching.

The leader of these disciples was Hamzah ibn-’Ali, a Persian Isma’ili felt maker, who taught that al-Hakim was the embodiment of God, and that he, Hamzah, was his Imam. Hamzah taught that from al-Hakim in his divine mode had emanated five supreme cosmic rulers (Huddud) - Universal Mind, Universal Soul, The Word, The Pervading Light and The Follower - each of whom was embodied in an actual person. Opposed to these cosmic rulers are false Hudduds, likewise the creation of al-Hakim and manifested in human beings. The cosmic struggle between the true and the false is reflected in the struggle between good and evil we experience in this world and will be finally resolved at the end of time.

Muhammad al-Darazi was another early leader of Turkish origin from Bukhara, who taught that the divine light and spirit embodied in Adam had been transmitted to the Caliph ‘Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law revered by the Shi’a as his true successor), and through him and the Imams of his house to al-Hakim.

Al-Darazi was executed in 1019 AD. Though now regarded as a heretic, he gave the movement its name, and his many missionary travels especially in Syria where he spent much time in the Wadi-al-Taym area at the foot of Mt Hermon, prepared the way for the new religion to take hold amongst the people of that region.

In 1021 AD the Caliph al-Hakim mysteriously disappeared. Some say he was assassinated, but the Druze believe that he has vanished into hiding (occultation) and will one day return to inaugurate a messianic golden age.

The Druze religion has elements of many ancient religious ideas which had been channelled into Isma’ilism - Neo-Platonism, Gnosticsm, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, besides Jewish and Christian mysticism. It was systematised by the teachings of Hamzah and his successors. Druze missionaries were active for a short while in Syria, Persia and even India.

Al-Hakim’s disappearance was followed by a time of persecution of the new faith in Egypt. Hamzah went into hiding, and his successor Baha al-Din al-Muqtana said he was in touch with him and predicted his return.

In less than three years since they first appeared, the two founding Druze teachers and al-Hakim himself had disappeared. But the new religion did not disappear. Instead it entered a period of canonisation. Baha al-Din al-Muqtana edited pastoral letters laying down the laws of Druze orthodoxy. This collection of 111 letters includes some written by al-Hakim himself, and others by Hamzah, al-Muqtana and Isma’il al-Tamimi (second in the cosmic hierarchy to Hamzah). It forms the Scriptures of the Druze, who call them Rasa’il al-Hikmah (Epistles of Wisdom).

Most members of the new sect lived in Syria where they became known as Durzi. When al-Muqtana withdrew in 1034 their missionary efforts ceased ("the gates were shut"),they developed a doctrine that there could be no further admission into their community of the Muwahhidun (declarers of the Oneness) as they now called themselves.

Initially there were Druze adherents in Egypt, Iraq, Persia and India, but they have survived only in Syria. The Druze missionaries found ready acceptance for their teaching among the peoples populating the foothills of Mt Hermon, many of whom had migrated to this area from Iraq and Persia in the 9th century (e.g. the Yamani Tanukh tribes from Hira on the Persian border who had been Nestorian Christians, but where then Islamicised after the Muslim conquests) and who were familiar with the Gnostic ideas forming the background of Druze teaching.

DOCTRINES AND LAWS

Hamzah taught that al-Hakim was the manifestation of the Godhead. Compared to him, ‘Ali and the Isma’ili Imams were but minor figures.

God is beyond comprehension, transcending language and thought, undefinable. This concept of an unknowable, transcendent and remote God (common to most Shi’a and Sufi groups), is coupled with the belief that this ultimate God, in order to bring himself nearer to human understanding, has appeared in a number of manifestations and revelations, the final one of which is al-Hakim. (Manifestation is deemed different to incarnation in that the human reflects the Deity as a mirror reflects an image, but the image is not incarnated in the substance of the mirror).

There were nine earlier manifestations of the Deity, but al-Hakim was the final and most perfect. There had also been earlier manifestations of the divine emanations (particularly the Universal Mind), in Jethro, the Messiah of True Justice in the days of Jesus, and Salman al-Farisi, the famous Persian companion of Muhammad.

Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were mere prophets, much inferior to the manifestations of Deity and it’s emanations.

The Druze doctrine of “Ghaybah” - the absence of their founder figures - is similar to that of the Shi’a. Al-Hakim did not die, he is unseen (in occultation) but still living on earth. He will one day return as the Messiah (Mahdi) to judge the world and to bring in a golden age of justice in which the Druze will be the universal rulers.

The laws given by Hamzah are binding on the Druze to this day. Amongst them are some that insist on equality in marriage and restrict divorce to weighty reasons. Seven commandments which form a moral code (rather than the external Sunni rituals), replace the five pillars of Islam:

1. The Druze must speak the truth amongst themselves. (Dissimulation to outsiders - Taqiya - is permitted to ensure Druze survival).

2. Druze must help and defend each other to the point of taking up arms.

3. Druze must renounce all beliefs that negate the oneness of God.

4. Druze must separate themselves from unbelievers.

5. Druze must recognise the absolute oneness (Tawhid) of the Lord manifested in al-Hakim.

6. They must be content with whatever the Lord does.

7. They must submit to the Lord’s will and commands.

Another important Druze belief is that the number of souls in the Druze community is fixed. Any Druze who dies is immediately reborn in another Druze.

The doctrine of Taqiya (dissimulation) requires that to preserve the secrecy of their faith and to ensure Druze survival they may pretend to accept the faith of the religious majority.

The Druze separated themselves from other religions, but they participate in the veneration of certain saints and prophets whose tombs are places of pilgrimage to other faiths.