Most people know that three of the world’s major religions were born in the Middle East : Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. However, there are less known ones like Druze, Baha’i, Yazidis etc.
Legend has it that Druze originated in Egypt under the Fatimids from a group of Shia Muslims, the Isma’ilis, then diverged. The Fatimid caliphate (909-1171) was the last great Shia empire. In 1018, the Druze sect was persecuted by the Fatimids who viewed it as heretical to their form of Ismai’li Shi’ism.
Other Ismaili sects are Bohras and Nizaris (who follow the Aga Khan) – these emerged later following a split, when the empire collapsed in 1171.
The Druze call themselves muwahhidun, ‘monotheists’. The theology of Druze religion is called hikma and a central theme theme is that God/ Allah) reincarnated himself in the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, who they believe disappeared in 1021. Druze believe that he will return to usher in a new age of greatness and prosperity. As Egypt and North Africa shifted from Shia to Sunni, they moved eastwards and today are found today in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Also nowadays, they are not open to converts even if they have been in the past. They are therefore now considered an ethnoreligious group like Jews, Sikhs, Amish etc. – Druze are an ethnic group by definition, that have their own religious practice.
Druze talk in Arabic and Hebrew and are found in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel plus there is a more recent diaspora in South America, USA and Europe.
Fun fact : Kasey Qasem who did the voice of Shaggy in the cartoon Scooby Doo was a Druze.
Druze are syncretic and secretive – similar to Alawites, the most famous being Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which also diverged from Shia Islam and combining practices from different faiths. However what is most distinct is that Druze don’t follow polygamy and drink alcohol, Alawites do.
They don’t have Mosques but pray in private centers or Khalima. These are simple structures, not elaborate. They gather to pray on Thursday night. Friday is still the holy day, called jummah in Arabic/ islam.
Druze have had a very long and good history with Jews, being persecuted minorities themselves.They also don’t eat pork, just like Muslims and Jews. Druze don’t perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca like other Muslims do. Druze like to drink tea, especially popular is maté, which was introduced to Middle Eastern Druze from their kin who had settled in South America. The Druze also have their own hunting dog breed, so they are not forbidden from keeping dogs – a practice that is subject to debate among Muslim and Jewish denominations.
Their most popular festival is Eid el Adha. Most Muslims fast for 30 days, Druze do this for only 10 days. Central to the faith is the prophet Shoaib (Jethro), Moses’ father in law, who was a not a Jew.
They do not allow intermarriage, but they allow divorce which the woman can initiate and do not require circumcision even if some do it. They have their own Holy books. ‘The Epistles of Wisdom’ is the most important of these.
As for the Quran, Hadith and Bible, they don’t follow them but still read for general knowledge. Druzes do not recognize a religious hierarchy as such. Those initiated in the six Druze holy books are called ʿuqqāl, while the regular members of the group are called juhhāl. This initiated includes men and women who might dress differently, most wear a costume that was characteristic of mountain people in previous centuries. Women can opt to wear al-mandīl, a loose white veil, especially in the presence of others. Male ʻuqqāl often grow mustaches, and wear black coats with white turbans that vary according to seniority.
According to Anan Kheir of the Israeli Druze Veteran association, the women have played an important role both socially and religiously within their community. Druze in different states can adopt different lifestyles.
Druze give a prominent place to Jesus, John the Baptist, Elijah and other common figures in Abrahamic faiths. They also believe that Mohammed in Islam was a prophet.
Something unique is that Druze believe in reincarnation similar to non-Abrahamic religions such as Greek polytheists, ancient Egyptians, Hindus and Buddhists. They say that they will be reborn as a Druze man or woman – but only within the same gender. In contrast, Hindus and Buddhist believe that you can be reborn in another gender or even as an animal. So during Druze funerals they don’t do much mourning and the rituals are done very quickly because they believe that too much bereavement is of no use as the souls are recycled. Mainstream Islam has a clear concept of heaven and hell, Judaism does not. However, other Abrahamic faiths don’t have a concept of reincarnation
Afterlife is viewed differently from most other religions, and bears clear resemblances with Gnostic philosophy : heaven is only spiritual, when man stops being man and is saved from more rebirths. Hell is just as spiritual and is the distance from, and the longing to, unity with God – which continues if a person has been evil.
Despite being known to integrate with outsiders, Druze also have had a history of resistance to occupying powers. Like the Sikhs in India, another ethnoreligious, syncretic culture, they also have a history of belonging to different countries and joining the military of whichever country they belong in and being loyal. Today, both the Syrian and Israeli militaries have very good Druze representation, even though both countries don’t necessarily have a good relationship.
So we see that the Druze have a very unique set of beliefs and practices even if they have similarities with the other Abrahamic traditions.