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The Druze & Arabism
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Musical Excerpts On The Compact Disc

Druze History

It was during the period of Crusader rule in Syria (1099-1291) that the Druze first emerged into the full light of history, in the Gharb region of the Shuf mountains. As redoubtable warriors serving the Muslim rulers of Damascus against the alien invaders, the Druze were given the task of keeping watch over the Crusaders in the seaport of Beirut, with the aim of preventing them from making any encroachments inland. Subsequently, the Druze chiefs of the Gharb placed their not inconsiderable military experience at the disposal of the Mamluk rulers of Egypt (1250-1516); first, to assist them in putting an end to what remained of Crusader rule in coastal Syria and, later, to help them safeguard the Syrian coast against Crusader retaliation by sea.

(In 1425, a Druze contingent from Beirut and the Gharb joined in a major Mamluk naval expedition against Cyprus, where the last remnant of Crusader rule in the Near East was reduced to subservience). In return for the valuable services rendered by the Druze of the Gharb and other parts of the Shuf mountains, the Mamluks appear to have allowed them the freedom to manage their internal affairs with minimal interference from the central government in Cairo, or its Syrian agency in Damascus.

(The history of the Gharb Druze during the Crusader and Mamluk periods is known from the work of two remarkable Druze historians, Salih ibn Yahya (d. ca. 1435) and Ahmad ibn Hamza ibn Sibat (d. 1523), no such documentation being available regarding the Druze of other Syrian regions. It appears, however, that the Druze of Hauran were among the peasants and tribesmen of that area who fought and decimated the forces of the Second Crusade, as they advanced from Palestine to attempt the capture of Damascus in 1147.

Notably, the Druze placed their military resources at the disposal of the Sunni Muslim state against the Crusaders at a time when their community was being singled out for special condemnation by the Sunni religious establishment on account of its beliefs.)

Unlike the Mamluks, the Ottomans who succeeded them as the rulers of Syria in 1516 were not prepared to allow the Shuf Druze the customary local freedoms which they had come to regard as established rights. Consequently, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were to witness a succession of armed Druze rebellions against the Ottomans, countered by repeated Ottoman punitive expeditions against the Shuf in the course of which the Druze population of the area was severely depleted and many villages laid waste. These military measures, however, severe as they were, did not succeed in reducing the local Druze to the required degree of subordination. This led the Ottoman government to agree to an arrangement whereby the different nahiyes (districts) of the Shuf would be granted in iltizam (that is, in fiscal concession) to one of the region’s emirs, or leading chiefs, leaving the maintenance of law and order in the area, and the collection of its taxes, in the hands of the appointed emir. This arrangement was to provide the cornerstone for the privileged status which ultimately came to be enjoyed by the whole of Mount Lebanon in Ottoman Syria, Druze and Christian areas alike. (The history of the Shuf Druze for the Ottoman period is known from the work of Christianmainly Maronitehistorians, as well as from other local and Ottoman sources, and from Ottoman archival material.)

(Remarkably, the Shuf Druze had taken up arms against Ottoman rule when the Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its power. Starting from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the Hauran Druze of Jabal al-Duruzwhose earlier history remains obscure due to a lack of documentationput up a similar resistance to determined efforts on the part of the Ottoman state to tighten its weakened control over Syria. Later, in the mid-1920s, these same Hauran Druze rose in armed rebellion against the French shortly after France, emerging victorious from the First World War, was allotted its mandate over Syria and Lebanon. This Druze revolt was to trigger a general Syrian insurrection against the French Mandate, lasting for nearly three years.)

Historically, the close relations between the Druze and Christians of the Lebanon date back to the sixteenth century, when the Druze of the Shuf, whose livelihood depended on silk production, first opened their country to large-scale Christianand principally Maronitepeasant migration from the north, to help produce the silk. To encourage this Christian immigration, the leading Druze chiefs of the area made generous donations of land to Maronite and other Christian monastic orders for the building of monasteries and churches; tradition has it that the Druze villages where the Christian newcomers settled came to be called ‘honoured villages (diya‘ musharrafa)’. Meanwhile, as the Druze emirs holding the iltizam of the Druze area gained control over the adjacent Maronite nahiye of Kisrawan, the management of the affairs of Mount Lebanon developed into a close Druze-Maronite partnership.

Having the advantage of numbers and of privileged external connections, the Maronites eventually started to gain the upper hand in this partnership. This development appears to have elicited little Druze concern in its initial stages but, before long, tensions began to rise. Incited and openly backed by France, the Maronite clerical and feudal leaderships began, from the 1840s, to seek complete dominance over the whole of Mount Lebanon, causing the Druze to feel dangerously threatened on their very home ground. When the Druze reaction, in full force, finally came in 1860, its violence was such that the Christian parties who had provoked it fled the scene, leaving the defenceless Christians of the Druze regions to their fate.

While the manner in which the Druze fell upon their terrified Christian neighbours in 1860in the Shuf, Wadi al-Taym and elsewherewent far beyond the justifiable limits of self-defence, what it represented at the time was an outburst of pent-up feelings of hostility provoked by decades of equally unjustified Christian provocation. Over a century later, during the course of the multi-faceted Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, Christian provocation was even more pronounced and included indefensible attacks on isolated and unprotected Druze communities in different parts of Mount Lebanon (notably, in the Matn and Shahhar districts). This was a decisive factor in eliciting the violence with which the Druze attacked Christians living in their midst in 1983, devastating their villages and forcing a massive Christian exodus from the Shuf. In both instances, the Druze recourse to violence represented a departure from the historical Druze norm, which had emphasized peaceful coexistence on the basis of equitable partnership and mutual goodwill. However, to maintain this norm, the community had first to attend to its survival, which is why, at various turning points in their history, the Druze felt compelled to resort to arms when they perceived their community to be in danger. This compulsion was the same regardless of whether the perceived danger came from a neighbour or an external power, or whether the odds were with the Druze or overwhelmingly against them.

Proud of their communal identity and solidarity, the Druze have also been staunchly attached to their native soil; the same Druze families have lived in the same towns and villages, if not the same houses, for centuries, with hardly an interruption. Attachment to community and territory, however, has never been a bar to active Druze involvement in the affairs of the broader societies to which they belonged; nor has it obstructed the Druze commitment to the wider Arab identity that they share with other Muslim and Christian communities of the Near East. Moreover, though socially conservative, the Druze have exhibited a remarkable openness to Western cultural influences in modern times. During the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Lebanese Druze chiefs welcomed and offered their protection to British and American missionaries arriving to establish schools and colleges in the Shuf mountains, as they had in Beirut; furthermore, by sending their own sons and daughters to these teaching institutions, they set the example for others. As a result, the spread of modern education began particularly early among the Druze, no less than among Lebanese Christians. In due course, Druze educated at home or abroad came to be counted among those playing leading roles in the social, economic and cultural advancement of Lebanese society, as of the broader Arab society, thereby placing their community in the vanguard of Arab development.

All of these considerations make the heritage of the Druze community a subject worthy of serious academic investigationbeginning with a thorough survey of Druze literature and of centuries of literature written about the community, both by its supporters and by its detractors. Hopefully, the present bibliography, sponsored by the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman, Jordan, will help provide not only basic material, but also an incentive for further study in the field.

Kamal Salibi


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