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the druze overview

By Pam Rohland
The Druze, also known as the "Sons of Grace," are a secretive, tightly-knit religious sect whose origins can be traced to Egypt a thousand years ago. They believe that God was incarnated on earth in the form of their leader, al-Hakim bi-Amrih Alla. The Druze do not have their own homeland. Thus, many of them migrated to the isolated mountains of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, while others settled throughout the Middle East.
The Druze are of mixed race. They are largely of Arab descent but they also have Iranian, Kurdish, and European heritage. Little scholarly study has been done on the Druze, and much of what is available has not been translated into English. The Druze themselves are reluctant to share information about their faith or their culture with outsiders, primarily because of the fear of persecution. They have seemed radical for their belief in equality for men and women, the abolition of slavery, and separation of church and state.
The Druze have survived and thrived within their own communities by remaining isolated and secretive. Estimates of their numbers vary from 700,000 to 2 million worldwide. This wide range is because the Druze have not been part of any formal census since the 1930s. However, rough estimates place the number of Druze at 390,000 in Lebanon, 420,000 in Syria, 75,000 in Israel, 15,000 in Jordan, and about 80,000 scattered around the rest of the world, mostly in North America, Australia, and West Africa. The American Druze Society estimates the number of Druze in the United States at between 15,000 and 20,000.
Although they live in various parts of the world, the Druze have a flag, which strengthens their sense of unity. The flag includes five colors, which represent five prophets. It combines a green triangle on the hoist side and four horizontal stripes of red, yellow, blue, and white. Red symbolizes the heart and love of humanity, green the farmer and life, white the air and purity, yellow the sun and wheat, and blue the sky and faith.


In 1009, al-Hakim bi-Amrih Alla announced that he was the earthly incarnation of God. He began attracting followers, and the Druze sect was born near Cairo, Egypt. Early years were marked by fighting with members of the Shi'a, a sect of Islam, who were incensed that the supremacy of the prophet Muhammad, leader of the Muslims, was disputed. The last years of al-Hakim's life were marked by unusual, irrational actions, which led outsiders to stereotype the Druze as madmen. The Druze themselves found al-Hakim's actions to be further evidence of his divinity. Druze historians believe al-Hakim's reputation for instability was exaggerated, but they do describe him variously as capricious, whimsical, enigmatic, and prone to violence. In The Druze, Robert Benton Betts wrote, "The general picture that emerges is of a brilliant megalomaniac who dreams of uniting the Islamic world under his own aegis at whatever cost - a goal toward which all his political moves, internal reforms, even the creation of a new religious movement with himself as the divine center, were aimed." Al-Hakim disappeared around 1020. The widely accepted theory is that he was murdered by conspirators with the help of his sister. Others believe he simply vanished while despairing that his goals would ever be reached.
Al-Hakim's apostle Hamzah ibn Ali ibn Ahmad subsequently gave the religion form and content, and formed the various dogmas into a creed. But fear was rife among the Druze, and for six years following their leader's disappearance, they hid. They slowly re-entered public life, but most began emigrating to remote mountainous regions in Lebanon, Syria, and what became Israel, where they hoped they could practice their faith without persecution. Because of their fear of outsiders, no new members have been admitted to the sect since 1043.
Despite trying to avoid conflict with large religious groups, Druze living among Muslims in the Middle East faced retribution. Tribal skirmishes have been sporadic but ongoing for nearly a thousand years. Over the years, Druze who did not want to contend with the hostility publicly adopted the doctrine of the Muslims, while privately practicing their own religion.
During the mid-1800s, Protestant American missionaries traveled to Syria to convert the Druze, but failed. A missionary named A. L. Tibawi wrote, "The Druze are a deceitful and truculent race who, under changed conditions, professed themselves to be Muslims with the same readiness that they declared themselves Protestants." During the same era, the Druze in Lebanon worked their way into a position of power, some becoming feudal lords. But an insurrection by the Christians turned many of the Druze into serfs.
The Druze in Syria fared somewhat better, remaining autonomous, mainly because of their self-imposed isolation. This detachment also led to poverty, as Syrian Druze attempted to make a living from farming. They were considered more militant than their Lebanese counterparts and were involved in various tribal wars with other sects.


The Druze developed a fierce loyalty to each other because of their isolation. It also made them an easier target for French, British, and, later, Israeli occupying forces that wanted to undermine Arab nationalism after World War I. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Druze lived under Christian rulers. Although the Druze were not really part of the Arab Nationalist movement, they were at odds with Christian leaders, especially the French. They feared that the French maintained contacts with Muslim sects that still tried to suppress them.
In 1926, Syrian Druze rose up against the French in what is called the Druze Rebellion. This insurrection failed and French authority was restored. Tensions continued to simmer until 1936, when France recognized both Lebanon and Syria as independent states and sovereign members of the League of Nations. The French remained a presence in both countries until the end of World War II.
The Druze had no geographical base from which to lobby for an autonomous regional authority. They were also too small in number to take any kind of powerful role in national affairs, which were dominated by two large sects, the Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. They had one privilege granted by the French that they had not enjoyed under the Ottomans: the right to officially administer their own civil affairs according to the laws and customs of their community. Despite this, a long and complicated number of coups and upheavals continued in Syria and Lebanon.
Later, in Israel, the growing Druze population was permitted to exercise separate jurisdiction in matters of marriage and divorce, although the Druze had to participate in the same compulsory military service required of all residents. During the period of civil and political unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, some Druze protested Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, and a minority of Druze was involved in violent acts. It was at this point that the rest of the world began hearing about the Druze from media reports, and modern misconceptions of the Druze as radical and violent emerged. Since the late 1980s, the American Druze Society has been involved in an educational campaign to inform the public that they are neither Muslim nor leftists nor anti-American.


An information packet distributed by the American Druze Women's Committee described the first wave of immigrants arriving in the United States in the early 1900s. Most settled in small towns across the country, with a significant group in Seattle, Washington. They maintained a very low religious profile. Many became at least nominally Christian, usually Protestant.
The second period of immigration lasted from 1947 to 1970, and the third phase occurred from 1971 until the late 1980s. Many Druze still send money to relatives in their homeland and visit as often as they can. Some arrange marriages with women from their home village. Their cultural ties, more than their religious bonds, are what bind the Druze together in their adopted countries.


By tradition, the Druze are farmers who depend on olive groves and fruit orchards, carefully nurtured on the hillsides in the Middle East, for food. They grow cherry and apple trees, as well as wheat. Most families grow their own vegetables and fruit, bake their own bread and live, for the most part, on a vegetarian diet, with meat, primarily lamb, served only on special occasions.
A typical meal may include olives, pita or "mountain bread," eggplant, cauliflower, cheese, and chickpeas flavored with onions, garlic, and sesame oil, rice, burghul (dried cracked wheat) or potatoes, a salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley and other herbs flavored with lemon and olive oil, yogurt, baklava, and seasonal fruit. Strong coffee is often served with meals.
In places where there are no butcher shops, animals are slaughtered infrequently, and the meat is eaten the same day. Animals are butchered by slitting their throats, in the Muslim fashion. The basic cooking ingredients are olive oil, clarified butter, and, sometimes, animal fat. The Druze favor lamb but also eat chicken and beef. They frown upon eating pork, although not as severely as Muslims. Most Westernized Druze do not object to eating it.


Druze living in America typically wear Western dress. But in most of the Middle East women still wear the traditional long black or blue dress with a white head covering. Men, who often grow mustaches, have abandoned the shirwal (traditional baggy pants, tight around the ankles) for Western-style trousers, but shirwal still can be purchased in Middle Eastern shops. Men working in the fields usually wear the traditional red and white checkered kufiya on their heads.


The Druze are often given a name that could be Christian or Muslim. In the past, men were given Muslim names such as Mahmud, Ali or Muhammad; now, a Druze boy is more likely to be called Samir, Samih, Amin or Fawzi, names of no particular religious significance. The same is true for Druze girls. Muslim names such as A'isha and Fatima have all but disappeared in favor of neutral or even Christian names. Few family names are predictably Druze, aside from Arslan, Junbalat and al-Atrash.


In keeping with their belief in austerity, traditional Druze homes are sparsely furnished with low wooden tables and thin cushions lining the walls.


The Druze language is derived from Arabic. In everyday speech, the Druze are easily recognizable by the use of the qaf, a strong guttural "k" sound that is found in Arabic and translated as "q" in English. Outside the Middle East, the Druze may consciously drop the qaf and other distinct speech characteristics to avoid identification or appear more sophisticated.


Among the many Druze sayings are "Reason is above all" and "The pen is in thy hands, write and fear not." A traditional Druze war song proclaims, "We are the Children of Maruf! Among our rocks is sanctuary. When our spears grow rusty, we make them bright with the blood of our enemies."


The life of the average Druze revolves closely around his or her family and his or her relationship with other Druze. Apart from Thursday night religious meetings, the Druze enjoy spending time together through visits to each other's homes. Hospitality is an important feature of the culture. The Druze are known for their generosity and are guided by a sense of chivalry and honor. This concept compels the Druze to look after each other, including widows, orphans, and the destitute. If the extended family cannot take care of a member, the larger community will find a means of support.


The birth of a baby, especially a son, is cause for celebration, with a typical gathering including family members and friends and gift giving. Sons are considered an asset, socially and economically. If a Druze couple has only daughters, they keep having children until sons are born. This leads to large families. The average Druze family has five or six children. More recent generations of Druze see the logic of having fewer children and providing for them, so the size of modern Druze families is shrinking. Male circumcision, which is universal among Muslims, is not ritually practiced by the Druze. There is no ceremony for the circumcision of newborns, although it is a practiced among those living in urban areas or outside the Middle East, mainly for hygienic reasons.


Weddings and funerals provide another opportunity to bond, and these usually involve the whole community. Marriage celebrations can be quite extensive, depending on the means of the families involved. Guests expect large quantities of food and drink. The dishes served are copious and extravagant and, unless there are too many disapproving attendees, wine and other spirits may be served. Although frowned upon, the Druze drink alcohol, the men more frequently than the women.
Marriage festivities also provide one of the few social occasions in which young men and women are allowed to mix socially and eye each other as potential marriage partners. Both the bride and the groom are expected to be virgins at the time of marriage, although men find opportunities to engage in premarital sex. The subject of sexual relations is taboo in a traditional Druze household. Nothing of a physical or sexual nature is ever brought up in conversation, especially with elders. The telling of a slightly off-color anecdote is considered a breach of manners.
Polygamy, while permitted to Muslims, is forbidden among the Druze. The Druze may marry within their family, including first cousins. Marriage outside of the Druze faith is forbidden. "If you marry out, you convert out," said Haeyl Azaam, a 30-year-old Israeli Druze who was quoted in The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. "You're excommunicated. There's just no place for you in the community any more."
To keep marriage ties strong, a Druze will marry a spouse from another country rather than wed a local non-Druze. In an event arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1993, seven Druze brides in elaborate white gowns crossed the Israel-Syrian border to marry bridegrooms in the Golan Heights, according to a report in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. From both sides of the cease-fire lines, hundreds of Druze danced and cheered as the couples married in the United Nations zone. The couples met each other through videotapes.


Divorce is not easy for Druze. Although a Druze woman can initiate divorce proceedings, this is a rarity. The most frequent grounds for divorce by men are the failure of a wife to bear children, especially sons, disobedience, immodest behavior, or some chronic mental or physical illness that makes intercourse impossible. The wife may ask for divorce based on impotence, non-support, and desertion or lengthy absence. If a woman is divorced through her own failings, the husband is permitted to reclaim the dowry and the marriage expenses. In most cases, the Druze follow the custom of compensating the divorced wife for her "exertions." This benefit is especially important for the older woman who has few prospects of remarriage and cannot return to her father's house or expect other support in her old age.


Funerals are major events in the Druze community, even more so than marriage. Funeral arrangements are made immediately after death, and ceremonies are held that day, or the next day, at the latest. The body is washed and dressed in the finest clothes. At the funeral, women lament loudly and at length, and acquaintances tell stories of the departed's virtues. Bodies are interred above ground, marked by monuments ranging from the very simple to the highly elaborate.


Druze women have always had the right to own and dispose of property freely. Historically, a significant number of Druze women were literate and educated. At the end of the twentieth century, literacy was almost universal for people under the age of 25. But a Druze woman holding a full-time job was still the exception.
Marriage is expected of all Druze women at a relatively early age, usually between 17 and 21 years, although a few marry as early as 15 years of age. The marriage, which often is arranged by the families, is usually preceded by a two-year engagement. Marriage partners are chosen from eligible young people within the same community.
Although Druze women traditionally enjoy a privileged status of near equality with men, there is no compromise in the matter of female chastity. A young woman is expected to be faithful to her husband throughout her whole life. A woman's honor is the single most important factor in Druze family life, and its defilement is cause for great humiliation. If a woman's dishonor becomes public knowledge, it is the responsibility of her father or brother to take what is considered appropriate action in their culture. It is not unknown, even today, for a Druze woman living in the Middle East to be murdered by her nearest male relative for shaming the family.
In Israel, Druze judges have forced the government to waive the requirement for a Druze woman's photograph to appear on official documents, such as identity cards. They also object to male doctors attending or autopsying women. Many conservative Druze consider these acts as a shaming of a woman's honor, in addition to things such as going to a cinema. It is becoming more common, however, for women to leave the house with other women in pursuit of innocent pleasures such as shopping or going to lectures.


The origins of the Druze faith can be traced to Egypt in the early eleventh century. Their faith subsequently spread to many regions in the Middle East and North Africa. The basis of the religion is the belief that at various times God has been divinely incarnated in a living person. His last, and final, incarnation was al-Hakim bi-Amrih Alla, who announced himself as the earthly incarnation of God in about 1009. A year later, his followers helped shaped a creed that is still followed today.
The Druze religion is an outgrowth of Islam, although Muslims disavow it. The religion also incorporates elements of Judaism and Christianity. When the religion was established, its founders were influenced by Greek philosophy and Asiatic thought. Their progressive ideas—including the abolition of slavery and the separation of church and state—were considered unorthodox and placed its followers at risk. This cloak of secrecy continues today.
The tenets of the Druze religion are secret and mysterious, even to many Druze themselves, since the faith allows only a limited number of elite men and sometimes women, called uqqal ("the enlightened"), to study and learn all of its aspects. The uqqals oversee the religious life of their particular community, acting almost as intermediaries with God. Other Druze, known as the juhhal ("the unenlightened"), are not permitted to access the religion's six holy books but are given a simplified outline of their faith in the form of a strict code of moral and ethical behavior.
The seven duties that all Druze are required to observe are recognition of al-Hakim and strict adherence to monotheism; negation of all non-Druze tenets; rejection of Satan and unbelief; acceptance of God's acts; submission to God for good or ill; truthfulness; and mutual solidarity and help between fellow Druze. While they are respectful of other religions, the Druze are convinced that a severe judgment awaits all non-Druze.
Religious meetings are held on Thursday nights in inconspicuous buildings without embellishments or furniture, except a small lectern to lay books on during meditation. Men and women may sit together, but with a divider between them. During the first part of the service, community affairs are discussed, and everyone may attend. However, the juhhal must leave when prayer, study, and meditation begin. The secrecy surrounding the Druze faith is meant to protect its followers from persecution.
In order to protect their religion and not divulge its teachings, the Druze worship as Muslims when among Muslims, and as Christians when among Christians. They allow no outside converts to their religion: one must be born into the Druze faith. What is known is that the Druze are Muwahhidun, or Unitarians, who believe in one God whose qualities cannot be understood or defined and who renders justice impartially.
Reincarnation is a key belief of the faith. The Druze believe that the number of days of one's life is fixed, not to be exceeded or diminished by a single day. Since a Druze considers his body a mere robe for the soul, he does not fear death because it is only a tearing of the robe. The Druze believe that as soon as one dies, his soul immediately is reborn into another body. If that person was bad in a previous life, however, his soul may return in the body of a dog. Reincarnation continues until one's soul achieves purification and merges with the Holy One. Hell is the failure to achieve this state.


Although still a largely rural people with a long tradition of farming, younger Druze are seeking more professional occupations as they arrive in the United States and other countries, where they study and establish businesses. Today, the Druze work in banking, trade, small business, and transportation services. Druze students in American universities are likely to major in business administration, economics, or engineering. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Druze men are prominent members of the local business community, particularly in American and European firms. They are known to be especially hardworking and trustworthy. In recent years, a number of Druze have joined the ranks of academia and can be found on the faculties of high schools and universities, particularly in the Middle East.


The Druze believe in the co-existence of all religions, national and ethnic groups living under one flag. The sect's beliefs include loyalty to the country in which they reside, although all maintain close ties with their homeland. Syrian Druze serve in the Syrian military; Lebanese Druze serve in the Lebanese Army; and Israeli Druze service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Many young Druze play a part in the daily defense of Israel's borders, serving the required three years.
When called upon, Druze living in America have serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, Druze are reluctant to battle other Druze, and some defected from the Lebanese and Syrian armies when those countries were at war. Having been subjected to onslaughts from other sects, Druze also form their own militias to defend their territory when necessary.


Salwa Shuqayr, the elder daughter of Druze immigrants from Lebanon, was appointed the State Department's chief of protocol by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.


There is no established Druze media in the United States, but Druze around the world stay connected through the Internet.