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Are the Druze People Arabs or Muslims? Deciphering Who They Are

posted on: Aug 8, 2018

The Druze religion, initially an offshoot of the Ismaili Shia sect, was founded in Cairo in the 11th century.

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

The Druze are an ethnically and religiously defined population living mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel. There are also large communities of Druze living in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia, Latin America and West Africa. They comprise about over a million people worldwide. Their primary language is Arabic and most Druze define themselves as Arabs. Druze people do not, however, define themselves as Muslims, though many of their customs follow Islam. So what is their religion? How is it different from Islam? And, since its theology, which derives from the same roots as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is secretive, how much can we know about it? Here, Arab America contributor, John Mason, peels away some of the mystery of the Druze people and their religion.

The Druze – An Offshoot of Ismaili Shia Islam

In the 11th century, a movement named after a religious leader, ad-Darazi, began in Cairo. While he was considered a heretic, the name Druze nevertheless stuck with the followers of the Druze faith. The movement remained under cover, given its heretical stance. In 1016, the movement caused a riot in Cairo. At that time the Shia Fatimids ruled Cairo, though the people mostly practiced Sunni Islam. The Druze are a derivative of the Ismaili Shia branch of Islam, but they do not claim to be Muslim, but rather they practice what is a mix of Shia, ancient Greek philosophies, and Hinduism. Their belief in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul is borrowed from both the ancient Greeks and Hinduism, which gives their faith a mystical quality. Another label given to the Druze is “Unitarian,” meaning a belief in the one God.

Because of continued Shia rule in Cairo in the 11th century, the Druze faith found an opening to emerge as a legitimate sect. This was a short period during which religious freedom was declared by the Fatimid caliph named al-Hakim whose role in the Druze religion is disputed. Some say he was divinely appointed to guide the faith, others deny any divine aspect, calling him a heretic. Following al-Hakim’s rule, his successors persecuted and killed thousands of Druze.

Early Druze populations inhabited present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel.

The Druze survivors ended up in isolated parts of Syria and Lebanon, namely in southern Syria in the Jabal ad-Druze or the Druze Mountains and in the mountains of Lebanon, in a place called Mount Lebanon. Because of their secrecy, their different religious practices, and their earlier persecution, the Druze traditionally tended to live in close-knit communities which were partially closed to outsiders. The Druze faith is not open to new adherents since from almost the very beginning of the faith, proselytizing was prohibited.

The Druze Do Not Consider Themselves Muslim

While some Islamic authorities accept the Druze as Muslim, the Druze themselves do not accept that label, for which reason they were persecuted over the centuries. This is not the case of Druze communities in Lebanon. In fact, the prominent Druze are represented in the government as judges, parliamentarians, and diplomats, while in the private sector, there are many Druze physicians. In communities around the world where they live, Druze are known as excellent business people.

The Druze religion, monotheistic in the tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, borrows heavily from concepts of Greek philosophy and Hindu reincarnation.

Druze secrecy derives in part from the period of their persecution when they went underground in order to safeguard their faith. Still, in the 11th century, a more friendly political climate allowed them to come out in the open. They came out further into the open in the 11th-13th centuries, when they served as warriors for Muslim rulers of Damascus in fighting the Christian crusaders. Over time, the Druze formed two powerful military and feudal families or groupings, strong enough, in fact, to rebel against the Ottoman overlords in the 16-17th centuries.

They were strong enough during that same timeframe that their villages spread further under the Druze feudal lords into additional parts of Syria and Lebanon. Thus, the Druze were not just some little, insignificant offshoot of Shia Islam, but they became important players militarily in the region of contemporary Syria and Lebanon. While generally friendly with their neighbors in Lebanon (the Christian Maronites), in 1860, the Druze and Maronites became involved in a civil war. It was mainly fought between the Catholic Church authorities and powerful Druze feudal lords in the region. Given French intervention, the Druze were stripped of most of their power as a result of this war.

Modern Druze

Today, the Druze living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel are officially recognized as a separate religious community. In these countries, they have their own religious courts. Despite their strong community bond, they try to blend in countries where they live.  The Druz also identify as one religion and culture and a proud one, which crosses the borders of the countries where they live. Ironically, the Druze in Israel are eligible for military service in the Israeli Defense Forces, in contrast to Israeli Arabs. However, not all Druze accepted the Israeli 1967 annexation of the Golan Heights, part of Syria, and a stronghold of their people.

While the Druze do not have their own country, they share a strong sense of ethnoreligious identity.

While traditionally the Druze were farming people, today many are employed in professional positions, such as banking, trade, transportation and small businesses. This author had the honor to meet Druze in the capital city of Monrovia and Liberia, where they were in the hotel business and have been known for their hospitality and service to their hotel guests. In the U.S., this author and his Arab America colleagues know Druze that have initiated successfully businesses of their own and attest to their strong tradition of service to their clientele and loyalty to family and friends.





















Druze Population Country Breakdown

Given their small numbers, the Druze make a significant contribution to the societies in which they reside. They are proud of their traditions and history and are especially devoted to their faith. While there is still a mystery surrounding their religion, given that it is based on secret knowledge, the Druze have come to fit well into their adopted societies.

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.