Esoteric beliefs found an early foothold in Western civilization through the ancient Greek Gnostics. Since then, other esoteric beliefs have been trickling in from all over world, but one of them that has evaded our understanding until recent times are those of the Druze. Since the Middle Ages they have lived somewhat secretly in closed-off communities to prevent persecution. Today there are at least 1 million Druze on the planet. Some of them in the Middle East, especially in Syria, still wear the traditional clothing of their ancestors as depicted in the photograph, but the trend is toward modernization, especially for the 20,000 Druze in the United States.
Who Are the Druze?
The Shiite Muslims who branched off from the majority of Sunni in the seventh century continued to split into the more conservative Muslim group who are now the modern Shiites (who live mostly in Iran) and into a series of progressively more esoteric brands of Islam culminating in the establishment in Syria and Lebanon of the Druze in the eleventh century. The Druze had several major leaders who incorporated other philosophies and religious components into their native Muslim system, particularly those of the ancient Greek Gnostics and the Greek appreciation for intellect and reason. One leader became a heretic to their own cause and caused a lot of trouble with other Muslim groups. His name in Arabic sounded something like Druze, and thus the sect earned the bad nickname Druze, which caught on so well that the sect accepted it, even though they prefer to be called Muhawhiddun which is often translated “Unitarians”, but not related to Christian Unitarians.
Unity of God and Esoteric Meanings
The Druze refer to the faith they practice as “Tawhid” which means unity of God. It does not simply mean that all religions are of the same monotheistic source, but that the source is the essence of everything in it. There is no separation between God and man, or between God and any other aspect of the universe. God is not a numerical “one” that can be divided, but an all-ness. This is not what the Quran says about Allah, but they retain the Quran as one of their major religious texts that is interpreted quite loosely as a source of esoteric wisdom. The Quran is like an outer shell from which the inner meaning must be extracted. Other texts include the OT and NT, Vedic literature, and Greek theological literature (neo-Platonic). However, their most sacred texts are the “Epistles of Wisdom” written by their Middle Age leaders, of which there are 111 Epistles. Epistle 13 conveys this essence of the unity of God in all creation:
“He does not occupy a definite place, for He would be limited to it, and other places would be vacant from Him. There is no place where He is not, or else His power would be deficient. He is neither first, for this would imply a notion related to a last, nor is He the end, for this would make Him have a beginning. Neither is He external, for this would necessitate a notion related to something internal, nor is He internal, for He would be irrevocably covered by something external. Such appellations necessarily lead to a notion of correlation with something else. Neither do I say that He has a soul or a spirit, for He would then be like created beings, susceptible to progress and regression. Nor do I say of Him that He has a person or a body or a corporeality [of any sort] or a figure or a substance or any extrinsic qualities, because each of these attributes necessarily implies a position relative to six limitations: above and below, right and left, in front of and behind. Anything which can be given an attribute is in need of that attribute. Furthermore, each of these six limitations requires by necessity six more of the same limitations, and so on, progressively and endlessly. God the Exalted, glory be to Him, is too great to be associated with numbers or with beings whatever they may be, together or individually. Neither do I say of Him that He is a being, for a being is subject to destruction. Nor do I say that He is not a being, for a non-being is merely naught. Nor is He on a thing, because He would then be subject to it. Nor is He in a thing, because He would be limited to it. Nor is He dependent on a thing, because He would be in need of it. He is neither standing nor sitting, neither asleep nor awake, and there is naught which is similar to Him. He is neither going nor coming nor passing through or by. Neither is He non-physical nor corporeal, neither powerful nor weak. Our Lord, glory be to Him, is exalted over names, attributes, genera and expressions, and over all things. However, I must say, for comprehension and not for reality, that He is the Creator of all things, Who brought all things into being and gave them their forms. From His light originated all things, whether absolute or partial, and all things go back to His divine greatness and dominion.” [Epistle 13.]
All branches of Islam distinguish the literal interpretation of scripture and the allegorical interpretation of scripture. However, whereas most Muslims are restricted to having the allegorical interpretations dictated to them, the Druze take the allegorical interpretation a lot further and with a lot more personal interpretation, combining what they find in Islamic literature with other resources. The Druze emphasize the distinction between the esoteric (batin) and exoteric (zahir) aspects of religion, and have fully developed the esoteric aspects. They further differentiate between esoteric meanings obtained from exegesis of literature and an even deeper, hidden understanding of the most hidden mysteries of the universe, known to only a few.
Closed Community and Enlightened Ones
Starting in the Middle Ages, to avoid persecution from other Muslims and religious groups, and to better preserve their own evolving spirituality from outside interference, the Druze formed closed communities in which they kept their culture and religion concealed as much as possible from the outside world. Druze were born into their religion; one could not convert into it. Druze families typically have about five children, which counteracts attrition and keeps them slowly increasing. They believe in supporting the nations in which they live.
About 120,000 Druze currently live in two regions of Israel. They accept Israel as a Jewish state. They regulate some of their own government but are otherwise equal citizens of Israel and participate in the mandatory draft into the Israeli military. They fought against Arab opponents during the 1967 Six Day War. They are known in Israel as valiant fighters; hardworking, reliable workers; and are very active in the Knesset (Israeli Congress) and social work outside their communities. Israel considers them an important national asset, more positively influential in the national community than would be expected from their numbers, and they are now being provided with special training in high technology.
More than 80% of Druze are juhhal (unenlightened ones) who follow the exoteric aspects of Tahwid, and the rest are uggal (enlightened ones) who follow the esoteric aspects and are leaders and teachers of the juhhal. Both groups attend the first part of religious meetings conducted every Thursday night, in which community matters are discussed, projects planned, and some of the first principles of the Tawhid faith are sometimes emphasized (although much of these principles are taught in Druze schools), but the Tawhid literature is not studied or discussed in any depth. Only juhhal participate in the second part of the meeting which involves reading from the literature, discussion, teaching, prayer, and meditation. New initiates are guided by experienced uggal. The emphasis for uggal is to go beyond the outward form of religion to seek truth and spread light to others. Qualifications to become a uggal include being an upstanding member of the community, maturity, solid knowledge of the basic principles of Tawhid, and a desire for devotion and greater truth. Women are also uggal and leaders, and in general are nearly equal to men in all aspects of life, however a lot of their energy is required for child bearing and child rearing.
The Robe of the Soul, Predestination, and other Beliefs
Druze believe in immediate reincarnation of the soul into another human body after death. The body is like a robe one takes off and then dons another. The soul cannot exist without a body. Heaven and Hell are states of mind. Everything in life is predestined even though we must exercise free will wisely. They believe marriage is monogamous. They abolished slavery long before it was popular to do so. They believe in biological evolution.
The Druze have evolved from fundamentalist Islam to form an eclectic and esoteric religion that borrows from the best of other religions and philosophies. Although they have their traditions dating back to the eleventh century, they have managed to be adaptive in new cultures, loyal to local governments, and productive members of the societies that surround them. The esoteric nature of their faith has played an important part of their evolution. Although the large number of Druze in Syria started out being loyal to the regime of Assad, today they are becoming more concerned and eager to remove him.