Druze is a relatively small Middle Eastern religious sect characterized by an eclectic system of doctrines and by a cohesion and loyalty among its members that have enabled them to maintain for centuries of turbulent history their close-knit identity and distinctive faith. They numbered more than 250,000 in the late 20th century and live mostly in Lebanon, with smaller communities in Israel and Syria. They call themselves al-Muwahhidin (“The Monotheists”). The Druze religion has its roots in Ismailism, a religio-philosophical movement which founded the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt in the tenth century.
The first Druze settled in what is now southern Lebanon and northern Israel. By the time of the Ottoman conquest of Syria, Druze also lived in the hill country near Aleppo, and Sultan Selim I recognized Fakhr al-Din as Emir of the Druze, with local authority. Until the end of Ottoman rule, the Druze were governed by emirs, as a semi-autonomous community.
Although the Druze recognize all three monotheistic religions, they believe that rituals and ceremonies have caused Jews, Christians, and Muslims to turn aside from pure faith. The Druze religion is secret and closed to converts. From the theological perspective, the secrecy derives from the tenet that the gates of the religion were open to new believers for the space of a generation when it was first revealed and everyone was invited to join.
The Druze are divided into two groups: al-Juhhal (the ignorant) and al-Uqqal (the knowledgeable). Druze religious books are accessible only to the initiates, the uqqal. The juhal accept the faith on the basis of the tradition handed down from generation to generation. Men and women adopt a more stringent dress code, and the spiritual leaders of the community arise from the most influential 5% of the al-Uqqal. The Druze forbid polygamy, along with the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and pork. Equality between men and women, in marriage and in religious life, is an important part of the Druze tradition. Women are encouraged to participate in daily prayer, can take part in religious ceremonies, and are able to initiate divorce.
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