Lebanon's Geography

Islamic Groups

| Twelver or Imami Shias | Sunni | Ismailis | Alawis | Druzes |

Twelver or Imami Shias

Leadership of the Shia community is held by the imam, a lineal male descendant of Ali. A son usually inherited the office from his father. In the eighth century, however, succession became confused when the Imam, Jafar as Sadiq, first named his eldest son, Ismail, his successor, then changed his mind and named a younger son, Musa al Kazim. Ismail died before his father and thus never had an opportunity to assert his claim. When Jafar died in 765, the imamate devolved on Musa. Those Shia who followed Musa are known to Western scholars as the Imami or Twelver Shias. The part of the community that refused to acknowledge Musa's legitimacy and insisted on Ismail's son's right to rule as imam became known as Ismailis. The appellation "Twelver" derives from the disappearance of the twelfth imam, Muhammad al Muntazar, in about 874. He was a child, and after his disappearance he became known as a messianic figure, Ali Mahdi, who never died but remains to this day hidden from view. The Twelver Shias believe his return will usher in a golden era.

In the mid-1980s the Shias generally occupied the lowest stratum of Lebanese society; they were peasants or workers except for a small Shia bourgeoisie. The Shias were concentrated chiefly in the poor districts of southern Lebanon and the Biqa. From these rural areas, stricken by poverty and neglected by the central government, many Shias migrated to the suburbs of Beirut. Some Shias emigrated to West Africa in search of better opportunities. As of 1987, the Shias constituted the single most numerous sect in the country, estimated at 919,000, or 41 percent of the population.

Shias of Lebanon, most of whom were Twelver or Imami Shias, lacked their own state-recognized religious institutions, independent of Sunni Muslim institutions, until 1968 when Imam Musa as Sadr, an Iranian-born cleric, created the Higher Shia Islamic Council. Sadr was elected chairman of the council, which was supposed to represent Lebanese Shias both at the political and religious levels. The council included as members all Shia clerics, as well as deputies, state employees, ministers, writers, professionals, and most noted Shias residing in Lebanon. Sadr, as chairman for life, continued to head the council until 1978, when he "disappeared" in Libya while on a state visit. He reportedly was kidnapped and killed by Libyan authorities for unknown reasons. Shia leaders in Lebanon as of 1987 still refused to acknowledge Sadr's death. While the chairmanship of the council was preserved for Sadr's awaited "return," in 1987 Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad Din (also seen as Chamseddine) was the vice chairman of the Higher Shia Islamic Council. Moreover, a new Shia leader emerged in the early 1980s in Lebanon. Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the spiritual guide of Hizballah (Party of God), became the most important religious and political leader among Lebanon's Shias.

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Orthodox Sunni Muslims are those who regard the Quran, supplemented by the traditions of the Prophet, as the sole and sufficient embodiment of the Muslim faith. They do not recognize the need for a priesthood to mediate the faith to the community of believers. Thus, Sunnis have no "church" and no liturgy. The Sunnis, especially the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, stand for the original simplicity of Islam and its practices against later innovations.

Religious leadership of the Sunni community in Lebanon is based on principles and institutions deriving partly from traditional Islam and partly from French influence. Under the Mandate, the French established a Supreme Islamic Council at the national level, headed by a Grand Mufti and a national Directorate of Waqfs; these institutions continued to exist in the mid-1980s. The French also established local departments of waqfs, which staffed and maintained hospitals, schools, cemeteries, and mosques. In addition, the waqfs managed the funds that supported these operations. The funds were obtained partly from direct donations and partly from income derived from real property given to the community as an endowment.

Shaykh is an honorary title given to any Muslim religious man in Lebanon. As a result of the 1975 Civil War and the intensification in sectarian mobilization and identification, the religious leaders of the Sunni community assumed a more political role, especially with the advent of Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon. As of 1987, the Sunni mufti, Shaykh Hasan Khalid, was the most powerful Sunni leader; he headed what was called the Islamic Grouping, which was composed of all Sunni traditional leaders. The Sunni ulama (learned religious men) of Lebanon emulated the Shia practice of combining temporal and religious power in the person of the imam.

In 1987 the majority of Lebanese Sunnis resided in urban centers. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of them lived in Beirut, Sidon, and Baalbek. The few rural Sunnis lived in the Akkar region, the western Biqa Valley, around Baalbek, and in the Shuf Mountains. Their typical occupations were in the realms of trade, industry, and real estate. Large Sunni families enjoyed political and social significance. The most prominent of them were the Sulh, Bayhum, Dauq, Salam, and Ghandur in Beirut; the Karami, Muqaddam, and Jisr in Tripoli; and the Bizri in Sidon. It is estimated that approximately 595,000 or 27 percent of the Lebanese population as of 1986 were Sunnis.

The Kurds are non-Arab Sunnis of whom there are only a few in Lebanon, concentrated mainly in Beirut. They originated in the Taurus and Zagros Mountains of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds of Lebanon tended to settle there permanently because of Lebanon's pluralistic society. Although they are Sunni Muslims, Kurds speak their own language.

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In the mid-1980s there were only a few hundred Ismailis in various parts of Lebanon. The Ismailis are Shias known as Seveners because they believe Ismail was the seventh Imam.

The Ismaili sect is divided into two branches: the Mustalian branch is found primarily in North Yemen, and the Nizari branch is found in the Iranian district of Salamiya, Afghanistan, Soviet Central Asia, India, the hitral and Gilgit areas of Pakistan, and East Africa. The Ismailis split into two branches over a succession dispute. The current Nizari Imam is a revealed ruler and is well known, even in the West, as the Agha Khan.

Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic, combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions. Ismaili tenets are unique among Muslims. Ismailis place particular emphasis on taqiyya, the practice of dissimulation about one's beliefs to protect oneself from harassment or persecution. Ismaili beliefs about the creation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism, toleration of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. Furthermore, the secrecy with which they veil their religious beliefs and practices (together with the practice of taqiyya) makes it extremely difficult to establish what their actual religious beliefs are. Their conceptions of the imamate also differ greatly from those of other Muslims.

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Several thousand Alawis were scattered throughout northern Lebanon in 1987. Lebanese Alawis have assumed more significance since the rise to power of the Alawi faction in Syria in 1966, and especially since the Syrians established a military presence in Lebanon in 1976.

The Alawis are also known as "Nusayris" because of their concentration in the Nusayriyah Mountains in western Syria. They appear to be descendants of people who lived in this region at the time of Alexander the Great. When Christianity flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the Alawis, isolated in their little communities, clung to their own pre-Islamic religion. After hundreds of years of Ismaili influence, however, the Alawis moved closer to Islam. Furthermore, contacts with the Byzantines and the Crusaders added Christian elements to the Alawis' new creeds and practices. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and the Epiphany, and use sacramental wine in some ceremonies. For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the midnineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936.

Alawis claim they are Muslims, but conservative Sunnis do not recognize them as such. In the early 1970s, however, Imam Musa as Sadr declared the Alawi sect a branch of Shia Islam. Like Ismaili Shias, Alawis believe in a system of divine incarnation. Unlike Ismailis, Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of God. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy initiation process; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Alawis study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam.

Alawis do not set aside a particular building for worship. In the past, Sunni government officials forced them to build mosques, but these were invariably abandoned. Only the men take part in worship.

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In 1987, more than half of Lebanese Druzes resided in rural areas. Druzes were found in the Shuf, Al Matn, Hasbayya, and Rashayya Regions; those who chose to live in an urban setting resided in Beirut and its suburbs in confessionally marked neighborhoods. The Druze elite consisted of large landowning families.

The religion of the Druzes may be regarded as an offshoot of Ismaili Islam. Historically it springs from the Fatimid caliph of Egypt, Hakim (996-1021 A.D.), who considered himself the final incarnation of God. His close associates and followers Hamza and Darazi (hence the name Druze) spread the new doctrine among the inhabitants of southern Lebanon, and founded among them a sect which non-Druzes called "Druze" and Druzes called "Unitarian." The Druzes believe that Hakim is not dead but absent and will return to his people. Like the Ismailis, they also believe in emanations of the deity, in supernatural hierarchies, and in the transmigration of souls.

The Druzes are religiously divided into two groups. Those who master the secrets and teaching of the sect and who respect its dictates in their daily life, are referred to as uqqal (the mature) and are regarded as the religious elite. Believers who are not entitled to know the inner secrets of the religion and who do not practice their religion are called juhhal (the ignorant).

The leadership of the Druze community in Lebanon traditionally has been shared by two factions: the Jumblatt (also seen as Junblatt) and the Yazbak family confederations. The community has preserved its cultural separateness by being closely knit socially. The Druzes constituted about 7 percent of the population (153,000) in 1987. Shaykh Muhammad Abu Shaqra was the highest Druze religious authority in Lebanon in 1987, holding the title of Shaykh al Aql.

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Source: Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)

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1997-2001 by Ayman Ghazi
Last changes: September 30, 1997