Who Are the Druses, Anyway?

A primer.

Top members of the Lebanese opposition announced a set of political demands today, following their meeting at the ancestral mountain palace of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt. Who are the Druses?

A religious group that split from a sect of Shiite Islam a thousand years ago. The split originated with a caliph named Hakim, a religious reformer who ruled from Cairo at the turn of the 11th century. During his reign, some of his subjects began to believe he was an incarnation of God. After Hakim vanished in 1021 (his followers believe he disappeared; others say he died), a preacher named Hamza continued to disseminate his ideas. Today, the faith rejects major principles of mainstream Islam in favor of an eclectic mix of Islam, Christianity, Platonic philosophy, and Gnosticism.

You can’t convert to being Druse, and you’re not supposed to convert to another religion if you’re born a Druse. Details about the religion are kept very secret—even from most Druses. Only certain members of the community (maybe 10 or 20 percent) have access to the weekly religious meetings and are allowed to read sacred Druse writings—these people are called uqqal, the wise (as opposed to juhhal, the ignorant). Political and military leaders of the Druses tend to be drawn from the juhhal; they can be distinguished from the uqqal by the latter’s distinctive dark clothes and white hats. Druses who wish to become uqqal must undergo a lengthy application process; women are considered especially suitable for initiation. Something like one in 50 initiates attains elevated status and gains a special say in religious and cultural matters; these individuals are called ajaweed.

All Druses, intitiated or not, subscribe to the same basic principles of faith, community, and truth. The five-pointed, five-colored Druse star represents the aspects of the divine: the mind (green), the soul (red), the word (yellow), the will (blue), and the realization of the will (blue). Druses read both the Bible and the Quran but believe that each holds multiple levels of esoteric meaning. They believe in human reincarnation and forbid polygamy, smoking, drinking, and the consumption of pork.

The name “Druse” was first given to the followers of Hakim and Hamza by medieval historians who incorrectly identified them with the preacher Darazi. In fact, Hakim and Darazi had been at odds, and the caliph had Darazi executed in 1019. Today, the Druses consider Darazi a villain and sometimes call themselves the “Muwahhidun,” meaning “monotheists.” While many Druses consider themselves Muslims, most other Muslims do not agree.

Worldwide there may be up to 1 million Druses, most of whom reside in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan. Smaller communities exist around the world. About 20,000 Druses live in the United States; the American Druze Society will hold its 59th Annual American Druze Convention later this year in Miami Biscayne, Fla. The most prominent American Druse is probably Casey Kasem, née Kamal Amin Kasem.

Next question?