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Essential Readings in Druze History (by Graham Auman Pitts)

[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author.Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]

While the Druze religion originated in Fatimid Egypt in the early eleventh century, it first gained a significant number of converts in what is now contemporary Lebanon. The window during which it grew through proselytizing was brief. The da‘wa, or call to join the faith, began in 1016 and lasted until 1043—when religious authorities are said to have closed the religion to new converts. That restriction continues until the present day. The Druze faith is part of the Islamic tradition, and an offshoot of Ismaili Shi‘ism. Currently, the Druze number no more than two million persons resident in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and their diasporas.

The beliefs and holy texts of the Druze are ostensibly secret. That tradition of concealment has long frustrated academic inquiry on the Druze communities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, there is a body of scholarship on the sect’s history despite long-standing obstacles to research. This Essential Reading reviews the scholarly literature on Druze history published in English. Several of the below texts cover over a thousand years of history, or even trace the origins of the Druze religion back to early Islamic history. Others focus primarily on the last few centuries. Those authors working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have largely drawn on the archives of the British, French, and Ottoman Empires along with documents produced by the non-Druze inhabitants of the region.

For all periods, Druze voices remain largely obscured in the documentary record. While the uneven archival terrain (including the issue of access) is a general problem for historians of the Eastern Mediterranean, the obstacles to writing the history of Druze communities are particularly severe. On the one hand, the historical inaccessibility of the holy texts is now moot: the internet has made them widely available. Secular documents are not however open to researchers in any organized archive. Studies concerned with the broader Eastern Mediterranean region, of which the Druze form an inextricable part, oftentimes exclude the Druze experience for this reason. 

This bibliography is not a study of the Druze or their religion per se, but rather a summation of what have been key resources for scholars in the Anglo-American academy. Inclusion in this list does not indicate an endorsement of these texts or their arguments. Below, the first three titles below treat Druze history as a totality. That approach has fallen out of favor as scholars have often subsumed the Druze experience within larger historical currents and compartmentalized their analysis by region. Only with difficulty could the argument be made that this represents a coherent field. As much as anything else, the ensemble of scholarly work on Druze history is notable for its limitations. In the future, the extent to which the Druze will feature in histories of the region depends on access to the archives relevant to their history.

Philip Hitti, The Origins of the Druze People and Religion: With Extracts from Their Sacred Writings (Columbia University Press, 1928). 

For most of the twentieth century, Philip Hitti’s book stood as the major scholarly touchstone work on the history of the Druze. His analysis of the Druze religion regurgitates salacious allegations made by nineteenth-century Orientalists about the sect’s unorthodox beliefs and practices that do not merit reproducing. Hitti’s book deserves attention because it was the most prominent resource on Druze history for decades and reveals the sorts of prejudices that outsiders had about their customs. In that sense, it is a sort of modern heresiography–a description of supposedly unorthodox religious beliefs by a hostile outsider. 

A lack of competing studies was the main factor behind the book’s predominance. Hitti (1886–1978) was born in Lebanon and became a well-regarded academic in the United States. In what he must have intended to be a provocation, he reproduced a page of what he claimed to be a Druze holy text, from the Princeton library, on the first page of his book. Hitti also cites Druze religious texts in France’s national library. He argues that the Arab heritage of the Druze represents the community’s willful obfuscation of its Persian origins. On the surface, that conclusion is odd considering that the first to accept the Druze da‘wa were residents of Wadi al-Taym, the southern extremity of the Bekaa valley, in contemporary Lebanon. Hitti argues that those who accepted the Druze religion were an already extant community of Persian immigrants to the region who converted en masse. This core conclusion of his book rests solely on conjecture and contrasts with the predominant Druze self-understanding that the community has Arab ethnic origins.

Nejla Abu Izzeddin, The Druzes: A New Study of Their History, Faith, and Society (Brill, 1984).

Written by a daughter of the faith, this study offers a sympathetic perspective of Druze history from its origins until 1840 that hews close to the sect’s self-narrative.  She was the first Druze person to write a detailed, public account of the religion. In that sense, it is an extended counterpoint to Hitti’s unauthorized account that flouted sensitivities surrounding Druze religious practices. For those seeking to discover Druze religious history from the perspective of the faithful, her book is an essential resource.

Abu Izzeddin did her doctoral work at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, publishing only a short doctoral dissertation of less than ten pages. She waited until the 1980s to publish a book-length work on the topic. Did she withhold her findings out of fear of upsetting the Druze convention of secrecy? Although it appeared in print nearly half a century after she received her PhD, her book owes much to the academic currents of the era when she trained. The book opens with an extended discussion of Druze “racial origins” based on cephalic indexes—the study of skull sizes. In that regard, she draws heavily on the work of Carleton Coon (The Races of Europe: The White Race and the New World, 1939), a prominent work of scientific racism. Despite its flaws, Abu Izzeddin’s work remains one of the most cited works of scholarship on Druze history. She brings substantial erudition to bear on matters of Druze religious history and this book likely remains the fullest engagement with the holy texts.

Kais Firro, A History of the Druzes (Brill, 1992).  

This is perhaps the most rigorous account of Druze history. A limited scope enhances the quality of its analysis. Firro focuses primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While he does cover the entire millennium of Druze history, Firro largely defers to Abu Izzeddin’s treatment of the earlier period.  His work is primarily a narrative history that emphasizes the diversity of the sect’s experience based on cleavages of geography and class. Thus, instead of offering a series of generalizations about the sect’s history, he disaggregates Druze history into its constituent parts. This methodology allows him to perceive the key role played by divisions of clan and class.  Ultimately, he offers not only an overarching history of the Druze as a community of believers but also a social analysis of their emergence as a minority in the contemporary nation states of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. In each, he argues, the Druze have enjoyed political influence that belies their small numbers.    

Firro draws his source material from diplomatic archives in Britain and France, along with published Arabic sources. As a Druze citizen of Israel, Firro was unable to visit Lebanon and Syria for research and so did not have access to local archives which are, in any event, generally inaccessible. That fact explains how a history reliant mainly on colonial documents could become the most effective synthesis of Druze history. 

Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (University of California Press, 2000).

In perhaps the most influential work of history on modern Lebanon, Ussama Makdisi casts the Druze-Maronite sectarian violence that plagued Mount Lebanon in the 1840s and 1860s as the product of European interference, Ottoman reform, and local political entrepreneurship. In the mid-nineteenth century, a political order where sectarian affiliation was the “defining public and political characteristic,” supplanted the old regime of rigid social hierarchy. Sectarian conflict was a modern phenomenon, according to Makdisi.  While many Druze were involved in the events in question, their voices barely feature in the documents that inform The Culture of Sectarianism. Colonial archives and the repositories of Christian ecclesiastical institutions inform the book. Makdisi recognizes the absence of Druze sources as a major shortcoming. Nevertheless, his work provides an essential insight into the evolution of Druze history by uncovering  “the fallacy of the pure communal actor” thereby questioning approaches that treat the sect as a coherent category of analysis.

It is worth noting that before Makdisi, Leila Fawaz wrote a detailed narrative history of the 1860 conflict that pitted Druze and Maronite militias against one another. She shows that the relative cohesion of Druze communities accounted for the military victory of their militias. Although significantly larger, the Christian population of Mount Lebanon was less united. Leila Tarazi Fawaz, An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 (University of California Press, 1994). 

Laila Parsons, The Druze between Palestine and Israel, 1947-49 (Macmillan, 2000)

Parsons rejects essentialist views of Druze history and takes aim at narratives of the sect’s alliance with Zionism due to a supposed affinity between Judaism and Druzism. Hers is a detailed narrative of the contingent, not inevitable, decision by the Druze leadership in Palestine to not engage in resistance against the nascent national military institution of Israel. Another valuable study on the topic that draws on local Druze sources is Amir Khnifess, “Israel and the Druze Political Action: Between Politics of Loyalty and Politics of Violence,” (PhD Dissertation, SOAS University of London, 2015).

Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (University of Texas Press, 2005).

This study offers the reader a vivid and sympathetic account of the nationalist uprising against French colonialism that began in 1925. Focused on the grainlands of the Hauran plain, Provence’s analysis explains why the revolt first began in the Druze regions. He does not see the revolt as sectarian, however. For him, nascent Syrian nationalist sentiment inspired militant opposition to colonialism that transcended class and sect. Provence challenges the idea that Hauran Druze society was primarily divided along class lines, suggesting that French colonial officials concocted the narrative of rural masses oppressed by feudal lords. That latter point represents a potential refutation of Firro’s analysis that puts class dynamics at the center of Druze history in the Hauran.

Provence’s study, in contrast to those that bracket the sect’s experience, places the Druze in the wider context of Syrian nationalist history. Importantly, he explains why the Druze were first to revolt without reference to the cliché of “warrior people.” Their unique ability to sustain a revolt stemmed from the surplus grain production of the Hauran plain. Another key monograph that reveals the legacy of the revolt and French counterinsurgency in shaping the history of the Syrian state is Daniel Neep, Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation (Cambridge University Press, 2012). 

Anis Obeid, The Druze and their Faith in Tawhid (Syracuse University Press, 2006).

A medical doctor by training, Obeid offers a fresh look at the history of the Druze faith and its place in the broader Islamic tradition. The latter chapters break new ground by engaging the consequences of secrecy for the Druze diaspora in North America. He advocates for a religious reform that would make the religion more accessible to younger generations. While his overview of Islamic history will likely not have new material for specialists, the portions of the book relevant to the Druze faith are worthwhile for undergraduates and established scholars alike.   

Abdul-Rahim Abu-Husayn, Rebellion, Myth Making and Nation Building: Lebanon from an Ottoman Mountain Iltizam to a Nation State (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2009).

Abu-Husayn shows that Druze militant opposition to Ottoman rule began in the early sixteenth century, soon after the empire replaced the Mamlukes. Contrary to accounts that portrayed the relationship between Druze notables and the Ottoman state as warm, Abu-Husayn reveals that they were engaged in a “long rebellion” for autonomy between 1515 and 1697. See also, Abu-Husayn, The View From Istanbul:  Lebanon and the Druze Emirate in the Ottoman Chancery Documents, 1546-1711 (I.B. Tauris 2004).

Stacy Fahrenthold, Between the Ottomans and the Entente: The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Previously neglected, the history of the mahjar (diaspora), is currently in full blossom. Fahrenthold has produced the latest book-length academic book that devotes significant attention to Druze communities. She shows how the networks cultivated between migrants in Buenos Aires, New York, and São Paulo and the Eastern Mediterranean after the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution, cultivated by the Committee of Union and Progress became crucial to anti-CUP nationalist mobilization during the war. The CUP fired Druze notable Amin Arsalan from his position as Ottoman consul in Buenos Aires in 1916 when he–along with many others in the mahjar– became permanently disenchanted with Ottoman rule. Her book is an essential primer on the history of diaspora. Another key recent contribution on the diaspora’s role in the politics of homeland is Reem Bailony, “From Mandate Borders to the Diaspora: Rashaya’s Transnational Suffering and the Making of Lebanon in 1925,” Arab Studies Journal 26, no. 2 (2018): 44-73.

A few other works on the diaspora bear mention: Kathy Jaber Stephenson et. al., The Druze in America (2015) offers a detailed exposition of the Druze diaspora through documents, narrative, and photographs.  Robert Lee Hamady has written a memoir of his family’s business in Flint, Michigan, The Groceryman (2015) which will be of interest to students of the Druze studies, the Lebanese diaspora and the history of capitalism, and family and gender in the United States. 

There are currently welcome indications that a new era of openness as regards historical research on the Druze. For one, the American Druze Foundation has endowed a permanent fellowship at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. In October 2018, the American University of Beirut hosted an unprecedented public conference The Druze: Celebrating a Thousand Years of Diversity organized by Dr. Makram Rabah. Finally, Jafet Archives and Special Collections has recently acquired and made available two key archives devoted to the two most prominent figures in modern Druze history. One chronicles the career of influential left-wing intellectual and political leader Kamal Joumblatt and the other collection details the life of Ottoman notable and Arab nationalist Amir Shakib Arslan. Both men had careers that were influential far beyond the particular concerns of the Druze community. 

The diverse historical experience of Druze communities emerges most clearly when considered along with processes that transcend sectarian analysis. The fact that the books not solely devoted to the Druze have been the most influential (Makdisi, 2000; Provence, 2005) suggests that the most fruitful avenue for discovering the history of the Druze is not through studies that adopt the sect as an exclusive unit of inquiry. In the future, the ability of historians to include the Druze in their work will hinge on the accessibility of relevant archives. To arrive at a full picture of Druze social history will require access to a broader set of archival materials that illuminate beyond the history of powerful individuals and their families. 

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