Mysticism and Violence: The Story of Al-Hakim and the Druze

CONTRARY to other Islamic sects, the Druze represent a very secretive and insular phenomenon which, when judged alongside those Muslims who are ordinarily associated with the comparatively more mainstream Sunni and Shi’a varieties, tends to include a significantly esoteric dimension. Much of their mysticism is derived from Gnostic and Neoplatonist sources and they believe in godly emanations and a supernatural hierarchy. Benjamin of Tudela (1130-73 CE), a writer from the early medieval period who met them on his travels in 1170 CE, described the Druze as

Mountain dwellers, monotheists [who] believe in soul transfigurations and are good friends with the Jews.

Not long after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, came the first major schism between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam. The Sunnis are often regarded as the original Muslims, of course, but a dispute concerning who should take over in the wake of the Prophet’s demise led to a fundamental disagreement and the two sides were split down the middle as Muslims were forced to choose between Abu Bakr (573-634 CE), who was duly nominated First Caliph by the Sunni faction, and Ali (599-661 CE), the Prophet’s son-in-law who was judged by their Shi’ite opponents to be the obvious successor to Muhammad himself. The bitter antagonism between the Sunni and the Shi’a still endures to this very day, but once the Shi’a had turned their backs on the machinations of the Sunni – who, in their more formative years, seemed to care more about political and cultural domination than spirituality – the scene was set for yet more infighting and from out of their ranks came the Ismaili movement.

The Ismailis had broken away from the main body of Shi’a after another power struggle concerning who should head the Imamate, or Islamic leadership. Indeed, whilst the Shi’a decided to back Musa al-Kadhim (745-799 CE), those poised to become known as the Ismailis had sided with Isma’il ibn Ja’far (721-755 CE). Between the tenth and twelth centuries, the Ismailis did eventually become the largest wing of Shi’ite Islam and had a large amount of influence upon the Fatimid dynasty, but this was only a temporary phase and despite building an impressive stronghold at Alamut in northern Iran, they were eventually defeated by the incoming Mongols.

The Druze, however, were an offshoot of these Ismaili renegades and the Arabic term itself (singular: Darazi / plural: Duruz) is borrowed from the name Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin ad-Darazi (d. 1018 CE), who was one of two original founders of what was eventually to evolve into a rather mysterious and obscure religious movement. Around 1016 CE, ad-Darazi had formed a group in Cairo known as the ‘Successors of Wisdom’ and preached the idea that Allah could become incarnated into humans. Needless to say, this theological hot potato led to a great deal of controversy and ad-Darazi even dared to suggest that God had become manifest in the ruler of the Fatimid dynasty, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah.

Born in 985 CE, more than three and a half centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (“Ruler by Allah’s Command”) was an Egyptian who went on to succeed his father as head of the Fatimid dynasty in 996 CE when he was just eleven years old. Despite his tender years, there was nothing particularly tender about al-Hakim’s character and he soon earned himself a ruthless and uncompromising reputation. On one occasion he ordered his parasol-bearer to murder his personal tutor, simply because he had became tired of his interfering ways. Incredibly, this act was later used to justify his alleged divinity. When ad-Darazi compared him to Allah, on the other hand, al-Hakim was able to find enough humility to dismiss the claims and when riots broke out in Cairo he ordered ad-Darazi’s movement to cease their activities forthwith.

When al-Hakim was twenty years old, he waged a campaign of persecution against both Jews and Christians. The former had to wear yellow clothes and hang a block of wood around their necks as a symbol of the Golden Calf, whilst the latter had to dress entirely in blue and wear a wooden cross measuring twelve inches in length. Alcohol was completely banned, town criers warned people not to enter their baths without undergarments, fishmongers were told not to sell fish without scales, a series of strict curfews were imposed and he even had every dog in Cairo shot after one of them had frightened his horse. Grooms and valets were also executed and women were not permitted to wear shoes. By the time al-Hakim was thirty, 500 Christian churches and monasteries had been destroyed and their lands seized. Despite this, one sacred Druze text describes this period of al-Hakim’s life in the following way:

Our Lord before his disappearence wore black garments during seven years; he let his hair grow long for seven years; he kept all the women shut up in their houses for seven years; he rode on a donkey for seven years. This he did out of his great compassion for us, to conform himself […] to the number Seven, which is so important in the system of the Ismailis. He wore black garments […] to signify to his faithful friends and servants that for seven years after his disappearance they would be in a state of trial and darkness.

Those women who chose to defy al-Hakim’s seven-year containment order were invited to his palace, where they were sewn up in sacks and thrown into the Nile. Elsewhere, al-Hakim once took offence when he heard female voices as he rode past a public baths and therefore had the whole building walled-up, forcing the women inside to starve to death. Ironically, however, al-Hakim was gradually beginning to accept that the rumours about his own divinity were true.

In 1017 CE, Persian Ismaili leader Hamza ibn ‘Ali ibn Ahmad (b.985CE) arrived in Egypt and joined forces with ad-Darazi. The two men soon fell out after al-Hakim showed greater favour towards Hamza, with ad-Darazi eventually blaming Hamza himself for the violent disturbances in the city. But al-Hakim would have none of it and ordered ad-Darazi’s immediate execution. Ironically, despite having lent his name to the Druze religion, ad-Darazi is today regarded as a heretic. Hamza, meanwhile, denounced his former ally and continued to preach his own message to the long-suffering denizens of Cairo.

By this time al-Hakim had rejected the Islamic observances and banned all Muslim feasts – including the fasting at Ramadan – and prevented Muslims from making the annual pilgrimage (Haj) to Mecca. Christian and Jews, on the other hand, were now allowed to worship without fear of violence or molestation, a gesture al-Hakim hoped would serve to increase his popularity and therefore his chances of being perceived as a god by the population at large. As a result, he issued the following decree (Dawa):

Remove ye the causes of fear and estrangement from yourselves. Do away with the corruption of delusion and conformity. Be ye certain that the Prince of Believers hath given unto you free will, and hath spared you the trouble of disguising and concealing your true beliefs, so that when ye work ye may keep your deeds pure for God. He hath done thus so that when you relinquish your previous beliefs and doctrines ye shall not indeed lean on such causes of impediments and pretensions. By conveying to you the reality of his intention, the Prince of Believers hath spared you any excuse for doing so. He hath urged you to declare your belief openly. Ye are now safe from any hand which may bring the harm unto you. Ye now may find rest in his assurance ye shall not be wronged. Let those who are present convey this message unto the absent so that it may be known by both the distinguished and the common people. It shall thus become a rule to mankind; and Divine Wisdom shall prevail for all the days to come.

In order to retain his iron grip on power, this mentally unstable and increasingly paranoid ruler of the Fatimid dynasty would adopt a disguise and tour the city at night to ensure that his citizens were behaving themselves. After someone had insulted his sister, however, al-Hakim ordered his troops to set fire to a third of the city and watched the blaze from a nearby hilltop. According to one nineteenth-century historian of the Druze religion, al-Hakim’s

aspect was as terrible as a lion; his eyes were full, and of a light brown; no one could stand his look; his voice was strong and sonorous. Inconstancy and caprice, joined to cruelty; impiety united to superstition, formed his general character. It is said that he adored, in a special manner, the planet Saturn.

In 1020 CE, al-Hakim completely disappeared. He awoke early one morning, embraced his mother and then rode off on his donkey – never to be seen again. Around the same time that al-Hakim vanished, Hamza also went into retreat and left the movement in the hands of Al-Muqtana Baha’ud-Dīn. However, by 1043 CE Baha’ud-Dīn had suspended the activities of the Druze completely. The Druze believe that al-Hakim is still alive and that one day he will return, similar to the long-awaited Guide (Mahdi) or Ariser (Qa’im) who appears as a redeeming figure in both Sunni and Shi’a forms of Islam. It is argued that souls of the departed Druze faithful occupy cities in the West of China and that when al-Hakim does choose to make himself known he will be accompanied by millions of Chinese worshippers. This sizeable force will sweep away both Christians and Muslims alike, before marching on towards the holy city of Mecca and subsequently converting Jerusalem and eventually the entire world to the Druze faith.

Given the extreme bloodshed that characterised the origins of this religion, it is hardly surprising that the Druze have often found themselves embroiled in acts of violence and civil war. In Lebanon as recently as 1958, for example, armed Druze forces were led by Kemal Jumblatt (1917-77) of the Popular Socialist Front. But Jumblatt was not simply a politician and revolutionary hero who had inspired his followers to rise up against the US-backed government of Fuad Chamoun (1902-73), he was also a teacher, historian and supreme leader of the Druze faith. Prior to his assassination in 1977, Jamblatt served in a number of ministerial posts in Lebanon and as a result the profile of the Druze was raised significantly.

Today, the hierarchical structure of the Druze religion is split into two main sections and its adherents continue to occupy parts of southern Lebanon (250,000), south-western Syria (375,000) and the northern areas of what is presently occupied Palestine (120,000). The first of these, al-Juhhal (“the ignorant”), comprise 80% of the community as a whole and are a largely secular grouping who are not permitted to read holy literature or attend religious meetings. The remaining 20%, the Uqqal (“knowledgeable initiates”), represent the esoteric core from which is derived the religious leadership of the Druze community itself.

The prevailing Gnostic and Neoplatonic aspects of the religion are enjoined to a strict monotheistic or utilitarian (Muwahhidin) worldview, a rejection of polygamy and a strong belief in reincarnation. Heaven and Hell are regarded as spiritual concepts which do not exist outside of the mind and the world is perceived as a mirror-image of the Divine Intelligence. The Druze also claim that in total there have been around seventy incarnations of God, one for each period of the world. But whilst Jesus is included amongst those spiritual luminaries by way of whom Allah is said to have become made flesh, Muhammad is completely excluded. Instead, during the early years of Islam the incarnation was said to have appeared in the form of Miqdad ibn Amr Al-Aswad, who was one of the Companions (Sardah) of the Prophet Himself. The Druze are also committed to the Seven Commandments of Hamza:

The first and greatest of which enjoins truth in words amongst the Druze; the second, watchfulness over the safety of the brethren, to the point of taking up arms; the third, absolute renunciation of every other religion; the fourth, complete separation from all unbelievers; the fifth, recognition of the absolute unity (Tawhid) of “Our Lord” in all ages; the sixth, complete resignation to his [al-Hakim’s] will; the seventh, complete obedience to his orders.

The followers of al-Hakim also believe in the five cosmic principles, a system which is represented by the five colours of the Druze star:

  • Green: Universal Mind (Aql)

  • Red: Universal Soul (Ruh)

  • Yellow: Truth / Word (Kalima)

  • Blue: Antagonist / Cause / Precedent (Sabq)

  • White: Protagonist / Effect / Immanence (Tali)

Those Muslims occupying the spiritual mainstream consider much of the Druze belief system to be extremely bizarre, but the latter continue to insist that they must still be regarded as Muslims on the following grounds:

  • The chain of Imams responsible for dictating the legal decision for al-Hakim’s call (Dawa) were of the House of the Prophet Muhammad.

  • The Epistles of Wisdom, which contain the whole dogma of the Druze faith, made it clear that the confessed religion in front of God is Islam and nothing else (there are Sikhs who say the same thing).

  • All the prayers and rituals practiced during birth, marriages, funerals and obituaries are totally Islamic in both word and spirit.

  • The Druze follow the Islamic Hanafi school of jurisprudence with some slight modification. The Hanafites form the most popular school of Sunni jurisprudence.

  • The Sufi conduct of the Druze priests (Ukals) is perfectly Islamic in nature.

  • The Druze have been historically in alliance with other Islamic sects in their struggle to protect Muslim lands from the Crusaders and other enemies of Islam.

  • The Qur’an is the ultimate source of legislation for the Druze and considered to be the Holy Book of God. The Qur’an is the Book of the Druze, whilst the Epistles of Wisdom are their culture and tradition.

  • Most of the rules which regulate Druze ethics and social conduct are inspired by the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Druze admit that the roots of their religion are purely allegorical and that they are the heirs of a long tradition that incorporates certain pagan aspects from the pre-Islamic period in Arabia, most notably in the use of black stones similar to that found in the Qa’ba, as well as various Gnostic influences. This has led to them being connected with Freemasony and Rosicrucianism, groups which certainly share their belief in universal wisdom. Templar Knights were said to have been initiated into the Druze order during the Crusades and, several centuries later, the Druze Book of the Testimonies to the Mysteries of the Unity, amounting to seventy treatises in four volumes, was presented to Louis XIV (1638-1715) by a Syrian doctor. Today, the religion stil continues to enjoy good relations with the Rosicrucian hierarchy.

Finally, it needs to be said that criticism of Islam has reached hysterical proportions over the last few years, chiefly as a result of the dangerous hornet’s nest which has been stirred up by the systematic greed and aggression characterised by the imperialistic foreign policy emanating from London, Washington and Tel Aviv.

Mass immigration into Europe, on the other hand, which has become a serious problem, has also led to the villification of this often misunderstood and misrepresented religion. Instead of concentrating on the racial, cultural and linguistic implications of this development, some of the more opportunistic politicians – encouraged, as always, by the reactionary mass media – have attempted to leap onto the populist bandwagon and smear Islam in general as a religion.

At the same time, of course, there can be little doubt that some of the more fanatical and fundamentalist Muslims – most of whom are overwhelmingly drawn from reformist Wahabbi circles in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – are guilty of waging a campaign of terror against both non-Muslims and those who happen to come from Shi’a, Sufi or various minority Islamic backgrounds. But to seek to tar all Muslims with the same brush is clearly very foolish or, at worst, highly gratuitous and therefore I have no desire to smear Islam in the same manner. Saying that, despite my sympathy towards those Muslims who continue to resist Western tyranny, few people can ignore the brutal orgins of the secret Islamic sect that calls itself the Druze.


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Robert Brenton Betts, The Druze (Yale University Press, 1990).

Nissim Dana, The Druze in the Middle East: Their Faith, Leadership, Identity and Status (Sussex Academic Press, 2003).

B. Destani, Minorities in the Middle East: Druze Communities 1840-1974, Volumes 1-4 (Archive Editions, 2006).

John L. Esposito, The Oxford History of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2000).

William Ewing, Arab and Druze At Home (BiblioBazaar, 2010).

Robin Fedden, Syria and Lebanon (John Murray, 1965).

De Lacy O’Leary, A Short History of the Fatimid Khalifate (Kegan Paul, 1923).

Philip K. Hitti, Origins of the Druze People and Religion (SAQI, 2007).

A.H. Hourani, Minorities in the Arab World (Oxford University Press, 1947).

Sami Nasib Makarin, The Druze Faith (Caravan Books, 1974).

Laila Parsons, The Druze Between Palestine and Israel: 1947-49 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

Kamal S. Salibi, The Modern History of Lebanon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965).

Samy Swayd, A to Z of the Druze (Scarecrow Press, 2009).

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druze (Lantern Books, 2010).

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