The Mysticism and Persistence of the Druze

The Mysticism and Persistence of the Druze

Victor Peñaranda – The Philippines 

 Medley Druze 2

The religion of the Druze is based on the unity of life and belongs to an esoteric tradition often misunderstood in a volatile region where the major religions have been invoked to wage wars. In their spiritual practice, the Druze do not have personal deity, but they believe that the divine incarnates itself in the human individual. The name by which the Druze like to be known is Muwahhidun (sing. Muwahhid) which reflects their central belief in a mystical union (tawhid) with the One.

Like several religious minorities in the Middle East (e.g. Yazedi and Mandaean), the Druze have been provoked to take political sides in historical conflicts that involve a complex cast of nations and factions with diverse motivations.

The Institute of Druze Studies once estimated that about 40-50% of Druze lived in Syria, 30-40% in Lebanon, 6-7% in Israel and Jordan. But due to the prolonged violence that has devastated Syria since 2011, a significant number of Druze have emigrated to North America, Europe and Australia.

There are about one million Druze in the world today.

Religious Origins

 According to historical records, the Druze derived their sacred teachings from prophets and philosophers.  The prophets they revere include  Muhammed (Mohamad), Noah (Nūħ), Abraham (Ibrāhīm), Jacob (Yaˤqub), Moses (Mūsā), John the Baptist (Yahya), and Jesus (Isā).  Three of the prophets provided the inspiration for establishing what became world religions: Moses for Judaism; Jesus for Christianity; and Muhammad for Islam.

The Druze also believe in the wisdom of the classical Greek philosophers such as Plotinus, Plato and Pythagoras, who have been given the same stature as the prophets.

Pythagoras, born in the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea, was responsible for establishing the Krotona school in southern Italy. Pythagoreans believed that numbers, and the geometrical projections of numbers, were important in understanding the universe.  The pentagram, for instance, is a significant symbol to both the Druze and Pythagoreans. It represents the elements of earth, fire, air and water – all being permeated by ether, the basis of energy and life.  The five-pointed star is also composed of 10 triangles – 10 being a number that signified perfection, and the triangle being an emblem of the Phythagorean’s famous theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of squares of the adjacent sides).

A strong ethical dimension pervaded Pythagorean life.  Pythagoras taught that in Nature there was a friendship of all for all; of gods for men; of doctrines one for another; of the soul for the body; of philosophy for its theory; of human with another; of husband with wife; of parents with children. Pythagoreans were taught to examine their consciences at the end of the day and to retire to a temple for extended period of time to meditate and pray.  They believed in reincarnation, and their spiritual mission is to purify the soul in each lifetime until they attain human perfection (the qualities of Christos or Messiah or those known as Rishi or Arhat in Eastern religions).

Plato, another philosopher revered by the Druze, learned his philosophy from Socrates. His philosophical ideas are presented in a series of 24 dialogues, in most of which the principal character is his teacher Socrates.

In 232 CE the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus traveled to the city of Alexandria where he studied for 10 years under Ammonius Saccas who taught that all religions came from the same divine source and their esoteric doctrines were identical.  He later traveled to Persia and then to India to learn about the eastern philosophies.  Plotinus, like the Druze, believed in the doctrine of emanation in which the One or Absolute manifests the Logos or Divine Mind, which in turn, manifests the World Soul: this trinity then manifests the universe in a process wherein matter becomes denser, in which the Divine or the Spirit is still inherent but more and more concealed.

The purpose of life, according to Plotinus, is to recollect and realize one’s essential union with the divine source, which he referred to as “the flight of the alone to the Alone” and “of the one to the One.”

The schools of Pythagoras, Plato, Saccas, and Plotinus were put up, during a span of historical time, to teach the Ancient Wisdom. These Mystery schools or academies were meant to train men and women in the science of life and the art of living.  The Mysteries referred to the stages of initiation that a person has to go through to achieve enlightenment and union with the infinitely One. Students were taught to prepare themselves to participate in the divine Truth by refining their consciousness.

The Mystery schools of the philosophers in Greece co-existed with the more popular, state-supported institutions having the same aim: the Eleusinian, Dionysian, Sabazian, Samothracian, and Cretan.  Some of these schools branched out to Alexandria in Egypt and to Rome.   

Historical Confluence

In 529 CE the Academy founded by Plato and other Mystery schools were closed permanently by Justinian, emperor of Byzantine and a devout Christian.  After being a source of practical and spiritual knowledge for centuries, the Academy was accused of spreading heresy, immorality and demonolatry.  The professors of the Academy, the “successors” sought refuge in Persia (now Iran) where the predominant religion was Zoroastrianism. In this new environment, Greek philosophy and the Ancient Wisdom thrived, far beyond the effective control of imperial Byzantine or Rome.

About a hundred years later, Arab Muslims claimed dominion over lands that used to be Persia and Babylon through military conquest.  Far from being hostile to Greek philosophy, many of the early Muslim leaders were keen to shape their own civilization from the knowledge of other civilizations.  Theirs was the culture nurtured by the Abbāsid Caliphate (750–1258) that sponsored artists, philosophers and scientists based in Baghdad to collect, translate, and interpret the knowledge of other civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines.

Under the fifth caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), Baghdad became the world’s most important center for science, philosophy, medicine, and education.  His successor and son al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833) continued his policies of supporting the science and the arts.  He founded the Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad.  It served the purpose of a library, an institute for translators, and in many ways an early form of university.  The House of Wisdom hosted Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who gathered and translated the cumulative knowledge of human history in one place, and in one language—Arabic.

In 910 CE, Al Mahdi and his army overthrew the local vassals of the Abbasid caliphate in the region the Druze inhabited.  He was a man who claimed to be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed and belonged to a branch of Islam called the Ismailis.  He and his descendants would, over the centuries, build and sustain the huge Fatimid empire, encompassing North Africa, Egypt and Lebanon.  They founded Cairo. They proclaimed freedom of religion to the subjects, who included many Christians and Jews.

Ismāili doctrine, formulated during the late 8th and early 9th centuries, stressed the dual nature of Qurʾānic interpretation as both exoteric and esoteric and made a corresponding distinction between the ordinary Muslim and the initiated Ismāili. The secret wisdom of the Ismāʿīliyyah was accessible only through a hierarchical organization headed by the imam and was disseminated by teachers, who introduced believers into spiritual practice through carefully graded levels.  The Rasāʾil ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ wa khillān al-wafāʾ (“Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and Loyal Friends”), a 10th-century philosophical and religious encyclopedia,  influenced by Neoplatonism, was said to have been composed by a secret fraternity connected with the Ismāʿīliyyah.

The Druze, a people living in the mountainous areas of  Lebanon and neighboring Syria separated from the main body of the Ismāʿīliyyah early in the 11th century.  They embraced a new faith that had a minimum of religious rules and rituals.  Each one took the vow to keep the faith, tell the truth, and help fellow brothers and sisters in the faith.  They allowed men and women to pray together and gave women opportunities, such as becoming a religious initiate, to be equal with men.

The theosophist Helena Blavatsky, in her article Lamas and Druses (Collected Works III:175-89) maintains that the Druze are the descendants of a mixture of mystics from different lands and cultures.  She considered their communities as the last survivors of the archaic Wisdom-Religion from which the mysticism in various religions originated. 

In 1021 CE, after the death of the Islamic ruler al Hakim bi Amr Allah, the Druze were persecuted and thousands were killed.  They gradually retreated towards Mount Lebanon, accepting converts from various ethnic groups and recognizing each other through secret signs and code words.  Later on, the community stopped accepting new converts and observed a system of secrecy regarding cultural practices deemed sacred.  From then on, the Druze religion became hereditary.

Belief and Practice

 During an interview for the book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Sheikh al-Aql, the head of the Druze clergy in Lebanon, said: “We teach the need for good deeds. Everything forbidden in religion and international laws is avoided. We respect others. Our religion is Islam. Our sect are the Unifiers, the Muwahhidun. Our title is Druze.”

The community is tasked to help members in their spiritual quest. In the political and social climate of the 21st century, a significant number of sheikhs have taken the calculated risk of revealing facets of the Druze culture so that the people and their religion can be better understood and appreciated. The Druze could not afford to be marginalized further by violent conflicts that are not of their making. They needed to maintain the sacred bond of their community despite being dispersed by force of circumstance to various parts of the world.

Organizations, like the Druze Heritage Foundation, have been instrumental in revealing and sharing what has been hidden to the rest of the world.

In the Druze community, the juhhal are those who are not yet initiated to the mystic teachings of the faith, the laypeople who follow basic religious practice and live essentially as they choose, provided they help defend the community and marry within it.  The initiates are called uqqul or sheikhs, men and women who dedicate themselves to a life of contemplation and self-denial. 

The ˤuqqāl themselves are also divided into two groups –– about 10% are al-Ajawīd, a term that means "The Good Ones." They are the leaders of the spiritual life of the Druze. The official hierarchy in the community is loose except for the Shaykh al-ˤAql, whose role is more political and social rather religious. A religious figure is admired for his wisdom and lifestyle.

To the initiated Druze, the third and last stage of Islam is the most crucial –– namely, al-haqiqa, ‘self-realization,’ unity with the One as is humanly possible. The first stage, al-shari‘a is the understanding of the self as human but essentially divine, which paves the way to the second stage, al-tariqa, the purification and mastery of the self in order to participate in the gift of being divine.

The last stage of  al-haqiqa or tawhid (oneness with the One) is reached by passing through the states of mystic preparedness instilled during the preceding two stages.  It is the nature of tawhid to lead the adherent to view his or her divine reality which is never apart from the Godhead because no outward existence is independent of divine reality.  The initiated Druze identifies oneself with every existing being and consequently, with the One.  At this stage, the initiate is under the mystical shade of the One, whose existence is the only real existence.

For the Druze, the One is absolute existence. Physical existence is the manifestation (badw) of the divine One. The world, therefore, exists due to the divine One (amr).  This divine principle transcends the world while being immanent in it.  Hence, the absolute One is referred to by the Druze as both transcendent (munazzah) and immanent (mawjud).

In Arabic, lahut refers to God; nasut refers to God manifested on earth as humans.  Since man is the quintessence of this world, which originated as a spark from the amr, and, since the amr is eternal, so is the soul which realizes itself in the human body. The human body, therefore, serves as the sole medium for the soul to participate in the progress of the human being toward knowledge and self-realization. This can only be achieved through gradual yet continuous spiritual experience, and through constant preparedness for union with the One.  For the Druze, the span of a single life is not enough for an individual to realize this ultimate purpose.

Since the human is the only being who possesses the faculty to comprehend amr, he or she alone can strive to claim it.  Only human beings can check the egotistic drive that constrain them from discovering their true nature. The seed of vice lies in taking joy in one’s own ego, while virtue demands moving away from one’s own ego toward unity with the rest of humanity and with all life. Those who succeed in reaching this goal, do so through divine love. Hence, love is seen by the Druze as a mystical feeling of endless effort for such a union with the One, whereas hatred is understood as a product of egotism in which one separates one’s own being and interests from the whole and holy.

Among the Druze, only a small number who demonstrate extreme piety and devotion are allowed to participate fully in rituals and have complete access to scriptures.

The Spiritual and the Political

The faithful Druze are encouraged to sincerely practice, through the exercise of free will, the following virtues:

  1. To profess the truth, to act according to the truth and to live for the truth;
  2.  To help and guide fellow seekers or to seek guidance from those who know in taking the path of truth and real knowledge;
  3. To renounce all beliefs that lead to the repudiation of the One and, consequently, to falsehood
  4. To dissociate from those who go against righteousness and justice, those who hinder people from knowing the truth and from treading upon the path of real knowledge
  5. To strive endlessly to achieve the real purpose of being human, namely, to be in union with the One.
  6. To be content (rida) with the divine law.
  7.  To submit (taslim) to the divine will and to serve through deeds.

Among the Druze, the aim of ethics is not merely to yield to a superior and sacred will, but to lead others, rationally and spiritually, to the fulfillment of their being through virtuous behavior. This creed is what led the Druze to call for complete equality among human beings, including equality of opportunity so the person may attain the highest possible degree, in the One.

Although the Druze have played prominent roles in shaping the region's history, they have traditionally been considered political neutrals.  But being an ethnic and religious minority Druze communities have been constantly entangled in the turbulent quarrels of powerful nations and sectarian blocs.

The Druzefought the French colonial army in the 1920s.Sultan Pasha al-Atrash was leader of the revolution against the French occupation of Lebanon and Syria in the 1920s. L'Emir Magid Arslan was a leader of the independence movement of Lebanon in 1943 when the president Bechara el Khoury, with fellow ministers, were imprisoned by the French colonial regime.In the early 1980s during the civil war in Lebanon, some of the sheiks took arms to defend their communities despite their commitment to lead austere and peaceful lives.

 Traditionally, there were two branches of Druze living in the Jabal Amel region of Lebanon: the Yemeni Druze (headed by the Hamdan and Al-Atrash families) and Qaysi Druze (headed by the Jumblat and Arsalan families).

In 1711, the internal rivalry among the Druze clans of Qaysi and Yemenis turned violent. The Hamdan and Al-Atrash families were banished from Mount Lebanon following the battle of Ain Dara. They migrated to Syria in the Jebel-Druze region and settled in the area of Sweida. Their descendants are now the world’s largest Druze community, most of them live on the plateau of the Druze Mountain.

When national borders were imposed by the French and British imperial powers in the 1920s, the Druze in Israel were separated from their brethren in Lebanon. They now comprise approximately 2% of the population and most live in the northern regions of the Galilee, Carmel and the Golan Heights.

In Israel, the Druze are a close-knit community active in public life, according to a Pew Research Center study of Israel in March 2016.

  • Nine-in-10 Israeli Druze say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Druze community and about the same number (93%) say they are proud to be Druze.
  • Israeli Druze rarely marry across religious lines. Fewer than 1% of married Israeli Druze say they have a spouse or partner from outside their religion. 
  • The Druze place heavy emphasis on philosophy and spiritual purity. Nearly all Druze (99%) believe in God, including 84% who say they are absolutely certain in their belief. They have no set holy days, regular liturgy or obligations for pilgrimage, as Druze are meant to be connected with God at all times.
  • In Israel, the Druze are active citizens of the country and they are subject to the military draft.
  • The Druze and other Israeli groups share similar assessments of the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In January 2016 the National Planning and Building Council of Israel approved a project to build a new Druze town in the Lower Galilee region, in the Naftali area west of Tiberias, but it is being criticized by prominent members of the Druze community. They are concerned that the new town is slated to be built on the site of two Palestinian villages of Hatin and Namarin that were razed in 1948 and whose inhabitants became refugees.

Druze leaders expressed their preference to enlarge their existing towns, which are built on mountainsides but are under severe planning restrictions due to their proximity to nature reserves.

In Syria, they are the third largest religious minority and are considered by jihadists as heretics. Druze comprise about 3% of Syria's population of 22.5 million. Most live in the rugged Jabal al-Druze region of Sweida province, south of the capital Damascus. There are also several Druze villages elsewhere in Syria, including the Jabal al-Summaq region of Idlib.

During the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, a number of Druze villages formed Popular Committees to defend their homes against rebel attacks. They are apprehensive that if the government were overthrown, minorities like them would be vulnerable targets by extremist militants.

The Syrian Druze have campaigned against army conscription of their community members. As an alternative, they formed armed neighborhood watch groups, like the one in the Sweida, to protect their own communities. "They never fought outside of Sweida, and they weren't trained as proper fighters," according to the source interviewed by Al Jazeera in 2015.

The Druze have been negotiating centuries of conflict in their strife-torn homeland to keep a cultural and spiritual heritage alive. They are constantly drawn into a whirlpool of violence, pressured to abandon the inner peace that has sustained them and made them proud as a people.

Main References:

  1. Russel, Gerald; Heirs of a Forgotten Kingdom; Basic Books; 2014
  2. Druze Heritage Foundation; The Druze Faith; online website
  3. Harris, Philip S.; Hao Chin, Vicente; Brooks, Richard W.; Theosophical Encyclopedia; Theosophical Publishing House-Philippines, 2006
  4. Hall, Manly L.; Fundamentals of the Esoteric Sciences; Philosophical Research Society; 1979
  5. Saylor Foundation, The Abassid Dynasty: The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization,
  6. Khoury, Jack; Establishment of New Druze Town on Lands of Destroyed Palestinian Villages Draws Criticism; Haaretz; Jan 07, 2016
  7. Irshaid, Faisal; :Syria's Druze under threat as conflict spreads"; BBC; June 19, 2015
  8. Samaha, Nour;  "Despite the assassination of a prominent Druze leader last week, many still refuse to join Syria's opposition"; Al Jazeera; September 14, 2015
  9. Theodorou, Angelina E.; 5 facts about Israeli Druze, a unique religious and ethnic group; Pew Research Center with helpful guidance on the Druze from Alexander Henley, American Druze Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University;March 21, 2016
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