The Nusayris emerged as a separate sect in Syria in the tenth century, and within decades, they had created a rich and imaginative literature that adopted and expanded the esoteric Shi’i corpus associated with Ja’far al-Sadiq and his students in eighth-ninth-century Kufa. The Nusayris’ conception of God, the universe, and human nature significantly departs from mainstream Muslim beliefs, and, as a consequence, non-Nusayri Muslims have treated them as heretics.
Writing the history of the Nusayris as a community has been nearly impossible safe for very broad outlines. This is because, despite the rather large corpus of Nusayri writings that are available to us today, they mostly focus on doctrine – the nature of God and humans, their relation to one another, cycles of history, etc. – while outsider sources have little more than polemical vitriol. There is tantalizingly little in all of these texts about real people and real communities.
A recently discovered Nusayri text offers to fill this gap. It is written by ‘Imat al-Dawla Muhammad b. Mu’izz al-Dawla in the early 11th century in Cairo, and is entitled “Manhaj al-‘ilm wal-bayan wa nuzhat al-sam’ wal-‘iyan” (“The Path of Knowledge and Clarification and the bliss of hearing and seeing”). More than 400 manuscript pages-long, it is to date not only the longest, but the most detailed Nusayri text. Its importance lies in the fact that apart from theological and cosmological content, it provides intimate details about various aspects of life in the Nusayri community, and an emotional and detailed account of the author’s own spiritual quest, his pleading with a Nusayri elder, and his conversion into Nusayrism at the elder’s hands.
In my paper I will use “Manhaj al-‘Ilm” to throw a micro-historical “spotlight” on the Nusayris at the turn of the eleventh century. In particular, I will discuss the author’s conversion narrative, the network of Nusayri scholars, and the nature of the Nusayri community of the time.