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Title: Concealment and Revelation: A Study of Secrecy and Initiation Among the Nusayri-'Alawis of Syria
Authors: Tendler, Bella
Advisors: Cook, Michael
Crone, Patricia
Contributors: Near Eastern Studies Department
Keywords: Alawite
Subjects: Near Eastern studies
Islamic culture
Gender studies
Issue Date: 2012
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: The Nusayri-'Alawis, the syncretistic Shiite sect currently prominent in Syria, are some of the only survivors of the heterodox cults of Early Islam. For theological and precautionary reasons they are forbidden from sharing their beliefs with outsiders. As a result, scholarly knowledge of their religion has been limited. Using a large collection of newly published treatises and unstudied manuscripts from the 10th-20th centuries, this dissertation explores the reasons for their secretiveness and the multi-staged process by which they initiate their youth. The dissertation opens with the question of why, considering their strict insistence on secrecy, do the Nusayris revere several of the notorious Islamic heretics who publicly preached the divinity of the Imams. Following the stories told by al-Khasibi, the 4th/10th century founder of the sect, about 'Abd Allah b. Saba', the arch-heretic of Islam, this dissertation uncovers the pattern of concealment and revelation that underlies the Nusayri trinity, and which, by extension, informs their ideas of education, dissimulation, and initiation. The pervasiveness of this pattern demonstrates the significance of concealment and revelation for the self-definition of the Nusayri religion, which, at its core, is an initiatory cult structured around the preservation and careful transmission of secret religious truths. One of the principle ways through which the early Nusayris ensured the secrecy of their doctrines was by conceiving an extended sexual metaphor, according to which the transmission of religious knowledge is likened to sexual intercourse. Proceeding from this metaphor, the founders of the Nusayri religion structured initiation as a spiritual marriage between a male master and disciple, which, like a physical marriage, could lead to gestation, birth, and breast-feeding stages. This theoretical construct encouraged Nusayris to hide the secret of their religion as one guards his chastity, and to think of their coreligionists as family, united by bonds of marriage and consanguinity. As can be seen from the legal responsa of the 5th/11th century scholar al-Tabarani, every aspect of this process was legislated according to precise parallels to Islamic family law. The detail with which this mirroring was sustained reveals the familiarity of the early Nusayris with the Quran and Islamic jurisprudence, dispelling widespread notions to the contrary. In addition to the previously available material, this dissertation employs two manuscripts that were personally discovered by the author. The first is a lost 19th century manual for Nusayri shaykhs. In 1860 it served as the basis for the first monograph on the Nusayri religion, titled <italic>The Asian Mystery<italic>, by the Reverend Samuel Lyde. However this manuscript has been missing for the last 150 years. Its rediscovery and its influence on several related initiatory texts are described in detail. The second is a 19th century manual for Nusayri novices that provides the first internal evidence to confirm reports of ritual libertinism among members of the sect. An appendix dealing with this subject, including a transcription and translation of the relevant sections of the manuscript, is attached to the dissertation. The largest portion of this study is reserved for a description of the various initiatory rites. In explaining the stage directions, this dissertation also sets out many of the doctrines that, for lack of sources, have previously been misunderstood. Some of these include the appearance of God in light, the transubstantiation of God's body into wine, docetism, the primordial existence of believers as shadows, the transmigration of souls, the hierarchical structure of the cosmos, misogynism, and antinomianism. As such the dissertation should be of interest to scholars studying secrecy and initiation in other cultures, and to scholars of Islamic heterodoxy who now have access to primary source analyses of sectarian doctrines otherwise known only from secondhand heresiographical reports.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Near Eastern Studies

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