How did Alawite emerge? Is it a madhhab (sect) or a tariqah (sufi order)?
Alawite is indeed neither a denomination nor a madhhab. It emerged as a tariqah based on love for people descending from the Prophet.
As for the historical development of the issue, the emergence of Alawite as a tariqah took place as follows:
Tamerlane took the thirty thousand captives that he had captured in Anatolia after defeating Bayazid I, the Sultan of Ottoman Empire, to Iran. He settled them in Ardabil. In the course of time, they affiliated to Sheikh Ali, who was known as the sheikh of Ardabil and was Shah Ismail’s grandfather, and took lessons from him. After some time, when Tamerlane visited the Sheikh of Ardabil and asked him if he wanted anything from him, the sheikh said: “I do not want anything. I only want you to set the Turkish captives you brought from Anatolia free.” Tamerlane accepted the wish of the sheikh with pleasure and set them free. For this reason, the captives’ love for the sheikh increased. Some of these followers of the sheikh returned to Anatolia and some of them stayed in Ardabil.
The Sheikh of Ardabil stayed in touch with his disciples who returned to Anatolia. As the tariqah of the Sheikh of Ardabil was based on love for Hazrat Ali, people who attended this tariqah were totally fascinated by the love of Hazrat Ali. For this reason, they were called “Alawi”. In fact, these captives’ ancestors and the captives themselves were followers of Ahl Sunnah before they had contact with this tariqah. After they deepened their involvement, they totally entered into Ardabil lodge’s service. They tried to obey all orders of the lodge completely. These disciples gave their taxes, charity and alms to Ardabil. Moreover, some people who were sent by Ardabil and called the “khalifa” of the Sheikh gathered money from people in the name of “nazir (votive)” and “sadaqah (charity) and send it to Iran secretly.
The lodge of the Sheikh of Ardabil was expanding and its disciples were increasing in number day by day. The real aim of this sheikh was indeed to gain reign through religion, to transfer from being sheikh to shah by increasing his disciples in Iran and Anatolia. However, before he could reach his aim, his son Sheikh Junaid took over his place. He pursued his father’s secret aim too. Jihanshah, the sovereign of Iran at that time, felt this secret aim and expelled him out of Iran. Upon this, Sheikh Junaid came to Anatolia. His stay in Anatolia which lasted sixteen years brought lots of disciples to his tariqah. As he wandered around not only with the title of sheikh but also “sayyid (descendant of Prophet Mohammad)” he gathered more followers than he expected.
Now the lodge of Ardabil was very strong in Anatolia and it had a large circle that could not be overlooked. Sheikh Junaid had a similar end to his father’s. He was replaced by his son too and his son Sheikh Haidar pursued the same aim, too. Despite all his efforts and ambition, he could not reach his political goal, either. Finally, his son Shah Ismail unfortunately managed to make his father’s and grandfathers’ dream come true. When he was 13 years old, he waged war against Akkoyunlu State, which ruled over Iran at that time, with an army consisting of disciples in Anatolia. He managed to defeat the ruler of Akkoyunlu and succeeded to the throne, making his way under the name of religion, and he founded the state of Safawi. Besides, Shah Ismail did not relinquish Anatolia. He tried to strengthen his influence on Anatolia by sending there khalifs from time to time. Such activities continued to increase day by day until Caldiran Battle.
After this battle, definite borders were determined between Iran and the Ottoman State. So the connection between the disciples in Ardabil and Anatolia was broken. As a result of it, the disciples in Anatolia gradually grew away from the influence of their sheikhs. The disciples of this lodge in Anatolia wrongly thought that other Muslims except themselves did not love the family and descendants of the Prophet, because of the influence of Ardabil lodge. That behavior and attitude of theirs resulted in apathy between them and other Muslims. This apathy turned to a separation in the course of time.
As a result of this controversy, Anatolian Turks who followed the lodge of Ardabil stayed away from madrasah (Islamic theological school) could not learn many judgments related to the creed and worshipping properly. They contented themselves only with the teachings which passed over from ancestors to descendants. And other Muslims could not have close contact with them and could not fulfill their responsibility for them properly. The apathy between them grew more and more with immoderate discussions and imprudent criticism and attitudes and eventually it turned to a deep disunity. And when the negligence of governors was added to it, a disagreement amongst Anatolian Muslims emerged in the form of Sunni and Alawi.
In fact, it is religiously unobjectionable for a Muslim or a tariqah to base their characters on love for Hazrat Ali. It is totally unobjectionable to deem Hazrat Ali and the family of the Prophet as a guide on condition that one does not offend other Companions, performs their prayers under the light of the Quran and Sunnah, fast and fulfill other responsibilities. Frankly, a real Alawi, who knows the Quran and sunnah and lives accordingly, recognizes only Allah as god. S/he knows him/herself as a member of Islam, Our Prophet as the last prophet and the Quran as the last heavenly book.
The only way to abolish this artificial controversy is to come under the light of the Quran and accept it as the only criterion. As a matter of fact, Allah orders all Muslims to get together around the Quran, stating the following in the Quran: “Hold on tightly to Allah’s rope and do not separate.”
Muslims’ union and unity can only be established in this way, and controversies can be abolished only with its principles. It is only possible to stay away from all fake beliefs in this way.
Statements about Allah in the Quran are capable of persuading all people. Ordinary people are charmed by the simplicity of its declaration and scientists adore its eloquence and fluency. Hearts become satisfied by reciting it” and scientists of all levels meet their need for believing with it and reach maturity in mind by following it.
The following is stated in the Quran: “Verily, this Quran leads people to the truest way.” (al-Isra, 9)
One will learn how to enter the circle of belief by believing in what way and how to stay in the circle of Islam by performing what kinds of deeds and avoiding what kinds of things from the Quran and Sunnah.
As the criteria for all Muslims are the Quran and Sunnah, a Muslim should evaluate and balance all humanly thoughts, all claims and all beliefs according to the Quran, and to Hadith which is its interpretation at first degree.