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But Is It Good for the Druze?

George Clooney and his future in-laws.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By LEE SMITH
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Perhaps because of the Syrian war now engulfing the region, Jumblatt is often thinking about the future and where the Druze will find a place in it. He inherited his role after Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez killed his father Kemal in 1977, and he’s preparing his own son Taymur to replace him. Given Jumblatt’s open contempt for the Syrian president, who regards him similarly, his end may come sooner rather than later. Jumblatts, as he likes to remark, don’t die in bed—like his father, his grandfather was assassinated. Even when joking, Jumblatt seems to see dark clouds ahead for himself and the Druze. “You can tell Clooney to do a movie about the Druze, and he could say that they are the last of the Mohicans,” Jumblatt wrote me. “I could be Geronimo.”

For such a tiny sect, the Druze have been an object of fascination for centuries. After Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt, Europe was mad for all things Oriental and the Druze’s esoteric wisdom—seemingly bred from a mixture of Ismailism, a heterodox branch of Shiism, as well as Sufism and Gnosticism—was appealingly exotic. Researchers and travelers visited the Druze heartland in the Lebanese mountains to uncover the sect’s mysteries. They came away with only wisps of smoke, albeit very colorful ones. In his travel book Journey to the Orient, the 19th-century French poet Gérard de Nerval relates a likely fictional interview with a Druze sheikh who, rather than answer Nerval’s questions about the Druze faith directly, spins out a long tale of impossible and forbidden love. 

The sheikh’s story, which Nerval called “The Tale of the Caliph Hakim,” purports to chronicle the events leading to the mysterious disappearance, or death, of one of the Druze founding figures, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021 a.d.), the sixth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty, an Ismaili empire encompassing much of North Africa and the Levant with its capital in Cairo. Al-Hakim, often disparagingly referred to as the “Mad Caliph,” may have believed he was God incarnate. One of the faith’s earliest adherents certainly did—Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin al-Darazi, a renegade Ismaili preacher from whom it seems the Druze derive their name and whom other early adherents, including the Druze imam, Hamza ibn Ali, quickly came to consider a heretic.

Al-Hakim and Hamza ibn Ali dispatched letters to various communities in regions where the Druze are now concentrated encouraging them to accept the key Druze doctrine, tawhid, the knowledge of the oneness of God. The first letter is from 1017, when Al-Hakim announced the opening of the da’wa, or invitation to convert. In total there are 106 letters, dealing mainly with spiritual matters, which form the Druze’s sacred text, The Epistles of Wisdom. Perhaps because of political persecution, the da’wa was closed in 1043, at which point the Druze would theoretically accept no more converts—in practice it appears that there were many subsequent conversions. In any case, timelines are somewhat beside the point when it comes to the Druze. They believe that their souls never die but are reincarnated in the body of another Druze, a conviction that, according to one scholar, gives rise to the Druze saying, “We are born in each other’s houses.”

The apparently ethereal nature of Druze spirituality—which, again, the vast majority of Druze know little or nothing about—is in sharp contrast to their worldly reputation. The Druze are stout, hard-minded mountain men, farmers, and laborers, best known for their fighting skills and political agility—both of which talents are evidenced by the fact that this tiny group has survived the violent furies of the Middle East for nearly a millennium.

The Druze fought the Crusaders for nearly 200 years and then resisted the Ottomans. In the mid-19th century, the Druze were in conflict with their mountain neighbors, the Maronites, which in 1860 culminated in one of the region’s bloodiest episodes of sectarian warfare. The Druze and the Maronites were again on opposing sides when the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975. Kemal Jumblatt, an Arab nationalist, leftist, and avowed Buddhist who saw similarities between Buddhism and Druze belief, cast his lot with the Palestinians, as did Walid when his father was murdered in 1977. It wasn’t until after the war that Jumblatt made his peace with the Maronites. He and Samir Geagea, head of the Christian militia that Jumblatt’s Druze fought in the mountains in a bitter reprise of the 1860 war, became two of the cornerstones of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement.

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