Shadow religions challenge the mainstream. They blur the line between devotion and heresy. Many are syncretic—or hybrids of many theologies. These mixed faiths have a curious way of annoying power structures, particularly when the movements emerge from lower classes or contain foreign ideas. Some of these faiths are made even more obscure by limiting their deepest mysteries to the initiated.
One in 12 Syrians is an Alawite, practitioners of a secretive sect of Islam dating to the ninth century. These Shiites worship Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali as a god, deny women have souls, and believe in reincarnation. The Ottomans despised them. Sunni do not believe they are Muslim.
Alawites are accused of using a veil of Islam to hide their radical beliefs. “Fasting” means keeping secrets. And a “pilgrimage” is a visit to their sheiks. Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century chronicler, noted they did not attend mosque or maintain those provided for them.
President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria is a member of the sect. He is currently working to normalize this shadowy faith. However, many suspect that centuries-old Alawite-Sunni grievances are the subtext of much of the Syrian conflict.
Candomble came to Brazil on slave ships. It is syncretic, mixing Catholic imagery with a veneration of traditional West African orixas (spirits). Their all-powerful god is aided by lesser helper spirits and personal guide spirits. Practitioners do not believe in good or evil, only personal destiny.
Since the 1970s, when the ban on public gathering without police permission was lifted, people started identifying more with the religion. In recent years Evangelical Christianity has been on the rise in Brazil, and to combat the political influence of these new Christians, some created a Candomble political party: PPLE, the Party for Freedom of Expression. Evangelicals have attacked shrines and labeled followers devil worshipers. The politics of race are at the core of the issue. Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery. Half of the population considers themselves black yet have little political power, and Candomble is an unmistakably African religion. Read more