Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:
The Strange World of the Druzes

The Druzes rarely leap into the headlines more often than twice or three times a century; but when they do bestir themselves it is usually history they make as well as news.

In 1860 they massacred about 15,000 Maronites and set in motion a train of events that resulted successively in the dispatch of a French expeditionary force to the Levant, an important expansion of French political and educational activities there, and finally the establishment of a French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Their 1925-26 revolt against the reforms a well-intentioned but unimaginative French governor tried to force upon them gave an impetus to Levantine nationalism that was to transform the whole Eastern Mediterranean within a generation.

In the summer of 1949 the head of one of their leading families told me that they were boiling up to a revolt against the Syrian dictator of the day, Colonel Husni Zaim; but within a week another colonel, Sami Hinnawi, had beaten them to that headline and removed Zaim for them. Obscurity swallowed them up again for four more years. Then, early this year, they rose against Hinnawi’s successor, Brigadier Abid Shishakli.

The Syrian army’s French-supplied Sherman tanks and artillery took a heavy toll of life in undefended Druze villages. Sultan Pasha el-Atrash—for forty years uncrowned king of the Jebel ed-Duruz, the “Druze Mountain” of southern Syria—was forced to flee into British-protected Jordan. But in the extreme north of Syria a small group of senior officers, one of whom was a Druze, seized the Aleppo radio station and incited the army to revolt. Within forty-eight hours Dictator Shishakli in his turn was streaking over the border and Sultan Pasha was on his way back to his mountain.

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Despite their predilection for spectacular uprisings, the Druzes bear little resemblance to the conventional historian’s portrait of them as a grim, fanatical, humorless people. About ten years ago Beirut, Damascus, and Haifa began buzzing with rumors of an impending Druze invasion of the Huleh Valley, the beautiful lowland extension of Eastern Galilee that projects northwards between the forbidding uplands of South Lebanon and the Syrian Hauran. A few Arabic papers gave the story house-room beneath enthusiastic headlines. It appeared that the son of a Druze notable had been kidnapped by Jewish farmers and was being held prisoner in a Huleh settlement. Druze bands were accordingly gathering at the foot of Mt. Hermon and along the edge of the Hauran plateau ready to sweep down upon the Zionists and liberate their kinsman.

It so happened that I knew the Druze notable in question very slightly, and I was asked by a British official in Palestine to go and talk to him. I found him presiding over a feast in a village on the southeastern flank of Mt. Hermon, two miles or so inside Syria. Among the guests were four or five Moslem townees who had been sent along by Syrian and Palestinian political leaders to bring their fraternal greetings and pour kerosene on the flames. One by one they delivered themselves of their speeches—inwardly uncertain, one could sense, despite their self-intoxicating oratory, as to how to interpret the Druzes’ almost mockingly lighthearted attitude—and at last there was a cavalcade of growling taxis lurching away along the hideous track to an accompaniment of what seemed to be slightly ironical cheers, and I was able to see the father of the missing youth alone.

The British, I told him, were very unhappy about all this fuss over his son, particularly since they knew he was normally on fairly friendly terms with the Jewish settlers. If his son were indeed spending some time in one of the Huleh settlements, might it not be because he had a girl friend there?

The young man had had a city education and had “Western” ideas about a number of things.) Might he not even be negotiating the sale of some Arab land to the Jews? The old man adopted an appropriately indignant expression. If he insisted that his son had been kidnapped, I went on, there would be a search and an inquiry—and one or two embarrassing facts of this nature might then be made public.

He was suddenly laughing and shaking his head. One reason why he liked the English so much, he said, was that they were so clever: they knew the secrets in even a Druze’s heart—and that was the most difficult heart in the world to penetrate. This secret was, however, as my friend the Palestine official had guessed, a disarmingly simple one. The son had indeed gone quite voluntarily to a Huleh settlement to discuss a business matter. Some Syrian Moslems, also in the area on business, had seen him in the company of a settlement guard and, partly out of malice, had told the story in such a way as to suggest he was the guard’s prisoner. The father could not admit that this was a business visit; at the same time he was not ungrateful to the Moslems for enabling him to take a stand that would discredit the rumor-mongers who had recently alleged that he was collaborating with the Huleh settlers in some mysterious way.

“There is no cause for your friend in Palestine to be unhappy,” he said. “My son will be home soon. There is no danger of our attacking a people that worships the One God. If we wished to attack anyone we should choose enemies nearer home.”

The son returned the next day, a halfhearted story was put out to explain his “escape” from the Zionists’ clutches, and after more feasting everyone went home. During the next few months there were frequent reports of Jewish “illegal immigrants” passing over the Druze notable’s land and crossing into Palestine under the guidance of his men. The reports were probably exaggerated and, anyhow, there was nothing to connect this unconfirmed immigration with his son’s business trip to the Huleh. The son later entered the Syrian diplomatic service and when I last heard of him was in Latin America. I have often felt it was a pity no Western foreign office offered the father a senior appointment.

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The Druzes believe themselves to number something near 200 millions. Their actual total is nearer 200,000. About half of them live in Syria, and most of the remainder in Lebanon, while some 18,000 are citizens of Israel, represented by two deputies in the Jerusalem parliament. There are also a few thousand Druzes—emigrants from Lebanon—in the United States of America, where they pose as Christians.

Their center of gravity, religious and political, is a tiny group of low buildings half-hidden in trees on the main western slope of Mt. Hermon. Here, at Khalweht el-Bayada, live the sheikhs who watch over the mysteries of a religion whose rites and doctrines have for nearly a thousand years been the Near East’s most closely guarded secret. They also hold the strands of a fantastic network of political intelligence—intelligence no other body of men could utilize or even fully understand, so distorted, so beclouded with haze and rumor, so utterly insubstantial does the dim, distant, workaday world beyond sight of their great mountain appear through the prism of Druze cosmology.

Khalweht el-Bayada lies a short distance on the Lebanese side of the point at which the frontiers of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet. The spine of Mt. Hermon, blotting out the sky to the east, marks the frontier with Syria. A few miles to the south is the cave, dedicated by the Greeks to Pan, from which the main stream of the Jordan issues, and beneath it the lands of Dan-northernmost limit, Biblical and actual, of Israel. Up and down these great silent slopes, along the chaotic little valleys, round the very shoulders of Hermon’s snow-capped summit (the Arabs call Hermon the Jebel esh-Sheikh because of its imposing white turban of snow, visible in the desert sixty miles away) runs a trellis of trails no frontier authority has ever been able to control. A dozen or more Moslem villages in the area live by smuggling—food into Israel and manufactured goods out, and hashish from Lebanon to Syria en route for Egypt—and the local Lebanese and Syrian gendarmes and customs men grow rich on their share of the proceeds.

It is unusual for Druzes to smuggle, merely for financial gain at least, but they have their uses for the frontier trails. A modest amount of gun-running, from sources as distant and diverse as Baghdad and Haifa, keeps their mountain caches of arms in a healthy condition. Small groups of Oriental Jews, seeking refuge in Israel, are occasionally escorted there by Druze guides. And those trails which converge on Khalweht el-Bayada carry the primitive courier traffic that maintains the cohesion of the Druze community.

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The fulcrum of Druze life at village level is the khalweh—an austere one-room building, sometimes possessing a second chamber underground, which serves simultaneously as chapel and lodge. Here a “service” is held, in secret, every Thursday evening, and, since religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in the Levant, as much time is devoted to political discussion as to the reading of Druze scriptures, the chief religious exercise. Periodically, a leading member of the khalweh will be dispatched to consult the Bayada sheikhs, taking them information about local affairs and bringing back their advice. In times of crisis, as at present, the intermittent trickle of visitors to Khalweht el-Bayada becomes a purposeful flow as Druzes everywhere, no matter what the obstacles in the way of their envoys, seek an authoritative version of the facts and inquire what is expected of them.

Druze society is not, however, uniformly theocratic. On matters affecting the political interests of the community, the Bayada sheikhs take the advice of the heads of the chief Druze families and other outstanding personalities whose purely religious significance may be negligible. But once a formal edict is issued from Khalweht el-Bayada, it is theoretically binding on all initiated Druzes.

On one visit I paid to the Bayada sheikhs while the British Labor government was in office, I was asked if there were any truth in reports that it was supporting a rather unpleasant fascist-type party founded in the Levant by a hopeful imitator of Mussolini and currently gaining popularity. I had no more information on the subject than they, but not wishing to disappoint them—since they tend to take it for granted that every Westerner they see has come, freshly clued up, straight from their opposite numbers in London, Washington, or Paris—I ventured an emphatic “No.” They seemed relieved but, afraid I was telling them only what they wanted to hear, sought to pin me down. Did I think it a good idea to advise Druzes not to join the party? I said I thought it an excellent idea—but since the fascist-type party’s sudden disappearance from the local political scene might leave its sympathizers prey to Communism, which appealed to the same type of mentality, would it not, I suggested, be wise to issue similar advice concerning the Communist party?

We were sitting in a circle, in the open air, on the curious stone bench, shaped like a rounded horseshoe, that stands in the center of Khalweht el-Bayada. The reaction to my suggestion rippled excitedly away from me on both sides and closed in again on the opposite side of the circle. Yes, I was told, this seemed a sound precaution, and would be considered.

Later I learned that the sheikhs had indeed let it be known that the two parties in question were not to be flirted with by good Druzes. How compulsive their advice was made I have, of course, no means of knowing. For really serious misdemeanors and disregard of important edicts, a Druze may be cut off from the community and even dropped by his own family, but I doubt if such action would be taken to back up a purely political pronouncement of this sort. In any event, Bayada edicts affect uninitiated Druzes—who make up about a third of the community—only so far as initiated relatives and friends are able to influence them.

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The initiated—aqel, “enlightened”—alone have access to the secrets of the Druze religion and to the Thursday evening meetings which shape the life of the community. The uninitiated—jahel, “ignorant”—know no more about their kinsmen’s beliefs and religious practices than complete outsiders do, though unlike the latter they can apply to the imam of their local khalweh at any time for initiation and undergo a period of probation.

An aqel may conceal the fact of his initiation from the “ignorant” if he wishes, but in all-Druze areas at least most proclaim the fact by sporting a white turban and a thigh-length red cloak. (There is one hanging on the wall opposite me as I write this, presented to me by one of the Bayada sheikhs about ten years ago. The sleeves, which are only eight inches long, and the whole of the front are minutely embroidered in a vertical zigzag pattern in white, green, orange, and gold.) The average aqel sets his Christian and Moslem neighbors a useful example of honesty, sobriety, incorruptibility and—though only in his relations with other Druzes—truthfulness: his religion exalts veracity above all other virtues but permits him to lie to non-Druzes if this is necessary to safeguard the secrets of the faith or the interests of the community.

An aqel is permitted to adopt the outward conventions and rites of other religions in times of persecution or when traveling among non-Druzes. Under the Ottomans, except during the glorious century that followed the conquest of Syria by Selim the Grim in 1516, the Druzes generally found it advisable to camouflage themselves as Moslems. When Ibrahim Pasha tried to conscript them, they fled in large numbers to the bosoms of the French-protected Maronite and Latin churches. One bishop who baptized them excitedly informed Rome and Paris of this miraculous tide of conversions. But when the danger had passed he was soon deploring the loss of his converts.

In a Druze village one day I met an old man who had been taken as an infant to America and later lived in Egypt. In America, he said, he had been a revivalist preacher—“Hell-fire and all,” he declared proudly—and in upper Egypt the imam of a mosque.

In politics, an even more subtle device is sometimes adopted. When two outsiders are engaged in a dispute whose outcome may affect Druze well-being, the Druzes generally manage to have a foot in each camp. Once it is clear which way the issue is going to be decided, the two feet are speedily brought together. During the Arab League invasion of Israel, Druzes in Syria and Lebanon acted like loyal citizens of these two states—which meant that, like all other Syrans and Lebanese, they made the routine speeches and declarations expected of them but did nothing of any military consequence. Palestinian Druzes joined forces with the Jews and helped chase the Albanian adventurer Fawzi Kawukji and his Arab Liberation Army out of Galilee.

During the Anglo-French quarrel in the Levant three years previously, where there were no clear-cut territorial boundaries to help, members of the same family sometimes put on a most brilliant pretense of being at loggerheads. Kamel would pay frequent visits to the British political officer to denounce his brother or cousin Bahij and deliver a discourse on local affairs calculated to heighten British self-esteem; simultaneously Bahij would call on the French political officer to complain about Kamel and allow himself to be milked of information that confirmed French preconceptions. This duty accomplished, they would meet for coffee and then go up the hill to Khalweht el-Bayada. The strategem broke down when the two political officers got together, too, as often happened, to deplore the lunacy of their respective Foreign Offices and compare notes.

The Druze religion is one of the youngest of the world’s faiths. It was touched off early in the 11th century by the half-Russian Fatimid Caliph el-Hakim bi-Amrillahi, whose reign is remembered by non-Druzes for his destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, his extermination of the whole canine population of Cairo because a dog barked at him one day, and his proclamation at the age of thirty-one of his own divinity. His vizier, a Persian mystic named Hamza ibn Ali, succeeded in convincing many thousands of Egyptians of the justice of the Caliph’s claims, but after el-Hakim’s disappeared in 1021 these converts soon lost interest. In the Levant, however, the movement had taken root thanks to the efforts of another Persian, dispatched there by Hamza, Mohamed ibn Ismail ed-Dorazi, who gave the Druzes—the “followers of ed-Dorazi,” as they were now called—their name.

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The scriptures of the Druzes are for the most part the writings of Hamza augmented by the output of ed-Dorazi and a third evangelist named Baha ed-Din. None of their works has ever been published or even printed by the Druzes. A few manuscripts have, however, been seized in raids on khalwehs from time to time, particularly during the disturbances of 1860 and 1925-26, or obtained in other ways, and although some have since been discovered to be bogus—compiled in most such cases by Druze scribes to mislead the inquisitive—enough is now known of Hamza’s teachings to permit one to outline their essential points. The direct quotations which follow are from a Druze catechism which came into my possession by means there is no space here to detail: the English version is, of course, my own.

Like the Jews, whom they greatly respect, the Druzes are strict and unswerving mono-theists. An alternate Arabic name they give themselves means “unitarians” and they are convinced that Western Unitarians are secretly Druzes in Occidental dress. But they have grafted onto their borrowings from Judaism variations on the theme of reincarnation common to other Syrian and Arab religions and, of course, to some of the great faiths of Central Asia.

They believe God to have made ten appearances on earth in places ranging from India to Morocco. His last was in the flesh of el-Hakim in Cairo. His next will be on Yom ed-Din—the “Day of Religion”—which will come about when all kings are dethroned, Christianity has prevailed over Islam, Mecca has been destroyed by fire, and a vast army of reincarnated Druzes has arisen to dominate the world. “Our Lord, the Creator-Governor, will then annihilate all religious communities except four: the Unitarians, the Jews, the Christians, and those who have once been Moslems but have since turned their backs on Islam.” The Moslems will then be reborn to act as the servants of the favored four communities while all who have been faithful Druzes will be appointed “princes, sultans, and pashas.”

The Druzes are outstanding in the Near East—indeed, in the world—for their tolerance. Their willingness to share their paradise with three other religious groups shows a degree of enlightenment centuries ahead of even some highly respected Western sects. And far from wishing to stuff their doctrines down other people’s throats, they do everything possible to discourage proselytism. Even those of their own kinsfolk who wish to be initiated must submit to a minute investigation and pass stringent tests: it is easier to join a Pall Mall club than to become a Druze.

Those who have already been “born into” another religion have been ineligible for initiation since the middle of the 11th century, though persistent outsiders have occasionally been put through bogus ceremonies to get rid of them. Their catechism replies to a question that has obviously been formulated by more than one sensitive Druze:

Q: Are we not selfish in not wanting to save those who are not Unitarians?

A: This is not selfishness. The call has been given and the door has been closed.

And the inevitable question is raised:

Q: Why are we ordered to keep the Wisdom secret?

A: Because it contains the secrets of the Lord and is the means whereby our souls will be saved.

A more accurate answer to the last question might be that outraged Moslems would have massacred the Druzes long ago had they ever revealed their true opinions of Islam, its institutions, and its founder. Christianity, on the other hand, is to be “esteemed and praised” by Druzes, their catechism tells them, and the Christian Evangelists are described as “the carriers of wisdom.” The reason given is less satisfying. The Druzes believe that “Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary” failed in his mission (their “revised version” of the Gospel narrative has received a rather curious echo in an erudite and controversial book just published in London: The Nazarene Gospel Restored by Graves and Podro), which was redeemed only by the intervention of Hamza, who, as “the True Christ,” performed the miracles and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Despite this example, Jesus fell short of perfection and God allowed him to be crucified. Hamza took him down from the cross, however, and allowed him to return to his family.

Hamza is credited with seven incarnations in all—one as Pythagoras, another as Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammed who appears in other Near Eastern religions—and he is identified also as the Angel Gabriel. He has, of course, no divine or other power in his own right—at all times he is “the slave of the Creator-Governor.”

One of the first things a newly initiated aqel is told is, naturally, how to identify his fellow Druzes. “After saluting him and saying commonplace things we ask him: ‘Do you have farmers in your country who grow the myrobalan (huleilej)?’ If he answers ‘Yes, we grow it in the hearts of the faithful,’ then we ask him: ‘Do you know the frontiers?’ [The frontiers are Hamza, ed-Dorazi, Baha ed-Din, and Abu el-Khair, all nominated by el-Hakim to carry out the mission of the Unitarian religion.] If he answers correctly then he is one of us.”

Even at the high tide of feudalism the Druzes were more advanced than the communities around them in their personal relations. Druze women are still the envy of their Moslem neighbors. The society they live in is monogamous, they have the same rights as men, they may be initiated into the Druze religion without consulting their husbands on the matter, and—unheard-of privilege—they may even petition for divorce. Adultery is punished by a seven-year period of penance and an adulterer who fails to atone for his crime “dies as a heretic.”

As a result of not being treated as beasts of burden, Druze women age less quickly and are more independent of spirit than is usual in the Moslem world. The men, too, unhampered by the enervating weight of Islamic fatalism, are distinguished by a dignity and self-respect—an irrepressible love of liberty and an air of being masters of their own fate—all too rarely seen in the Near East. Bedouin tribesmen who pride themselves on their warlike past and on the terror they inspire in the Syrian peasantry are content meekly to hire themselves out as servants and laborers in the Jebel ed-Duruz.

There are no beggars in the world of the Druzes. Baha ed-Din declared that it was the duty of every Druze to support himself “without exacting contributions” from anyone; but if, by chance, a Druze were ever in need it would be the duty of those nearest him to supply all necessary aid without being asked.

A good Druze is enjoined to refrain from accepting or even handling money and goods which he has reason to believe have been improperly obtained or are not “rightfully possessed.” The catechism lays down: “The property of peasants and other workers is rightfully theirs; the property of rulers and apostates is not rightfully possessed.”

Feudalism has decayed in the Jebel ed-Duruz and on the slopes of Hermon and Mt. Lebanon, as in other parts of the Arabic-speaking countries, but the decay has been graceful and marked with a certain melancholy dignity. It has been succeeded not by the corruption, rootlessness, and moral squalor that have supervened so often elsewhere, but by an odd see-saw of mellow paternalism on the part of the old folk and fiery idealism on the part of the young. Scions of the great Druze houses of Atrash, in Syria, and Jumblatt, in Lebanon, are now socialist hotheads. Had not ex-President Shishakli arrested an Atrash among a band of youthful demonstrators last January he would probably still be in power.

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The Druzes are, of course, but one of a whole patchwork of exotic Near Eastern communities whose thoughts and interests are not merely on a different plane from our own, but on a different mental planet. To recall their existence from time to time is salutary. T. E. Lawrence wrote that the peoples of the Near East “had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colors—or, rather, of black and white. . . .” The observation is even more applicable to far too many of the men who have handled Near Eastern affairs in the chancelleries of the West during the last thirty years.

The Druzes are a reminder that the intoxicatingly straightforward-seeming black and white map or the Moslem world is in reality a mosaic of an infinite variety of grays; that what may seem an unanswerable argument in Washington or London may well strike Near Easterners as irrelevant rigmarole; and that there are, in fact, vast recesses within the Near Eastern mind as unresponsive to the conventional stimuli of American and European political thought as were the waves to Canute.

To cite a not untypical instance: the Druzes believe their dead to be reborn in China and Tibet, where a vast reserve of Druze souls, already numbering many millions, is being built up. The irresistible army whose advent they await as a sign of the approach of Yom ed-Din is to come from these two countries. Druze poets have written epics describing the conquest of the world by this “Eastern Army.” Obviously, from a Western point of view, this is all highly undesirable. But what are the appropriate Western authorities to do about it? Pontificate to the Druzes in Whitehallese or Pentagonian? Threaten an agonizing reappraisal? If they are henceforth to be restricted to these narrow-gauge lines of approach to Near Eastern problems, far better proclaim their Secretary of State a reincarnation of Hamza, amend the myth in his name: “For China read Suez Canal Zone”; and have done with it.

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