Syrian President Hafez Assad comes from the Alawite religious minority which, though considered a sect of Shiite Islam, bears little resemblance to Islam in doctrine or practice. The secretive faith -- in name indicating followers of Ali, son-in-law of Islam's founding Prophet Mohammed -- also combines elements of Christianity and astrology. It is believed to date to the 9th century.
Alawites, unlike Muslims and Christians, believe women do not have souls. Astrological phenomena also takes on special meaning. There is a belief, for example, that the Milky Way is made up of deified souls of believers.
Alawites are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, living mainly in Syria, where they account for about 6 percent of the 17 million population, but also in Lebanon and Turkey.
A Look at Alawite Religious Sect, Las Vegas Sun/AP, June 12, 2000
The Alawites, at about 1.5 million strong in Syria and representing about 12 percent of the country's population, are considered by some to be a distant offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam. Most members of the sect live in Syria, although there are scattered communities in Turkey as well.
Their belief system has been a matter of speculation, rumor and suspicion from more orthodox Muslims of both the Shiite and Sunni sects almost from their beginnings in the ninth century, when the branch was founded by a man named Ibn Nusayr, who declared himself the gateway to truth.
Only a small group within the sect are initiated into Alawite rituals and doctrine. But researchers who have studied the group say they drink wine in some ceremonies, incorporate elements of Phoenician paganism, and hold that Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, is a divine. All of that is anathema to conventional Islam.
Assad Patronage Puts a Small Sect on Top in Syria, New York Times, June 22, 2000