Adherents of an offshoot of Ismā‘īlī Shī‘ism originating in Egypt toward the end of the reign of the Fātimid Caliph al- Hākim (996-1021), who later found refuge in Syria, particularly in the mountains of Lebanon. The Druzes were erroneously considered by early modern travelers to the Levant to be descendants of the Franks; more specifically, of a French crusader called Comte de Dreaux, who is said to have remained in the East. In fact, the Druzes (Arab. Durūz or Drūz) are so designated after one of their earliest missionaries, Nashtakīn al-Darazī (d. 1019). They themselves prefer to be called al-Muwahhidün or Ahl al-Tawhid (“Unitarians”).
The Druze religion originated with the propagation of ideas concerning the special standing of al-Hākim as mahdi (a redeemer of Prophetic descent), or even divinity, whose advent ends the era of the religious law. Al-Hākim’s mysterious disappearance in 1021 was interpreted as a voluntary temporary occultation. Despite fierce opposition from the Fātimid religious establishment, the new cult spread in Egyptian and some other Ismā‘īlī communities. Persecution under al-Hākim’s successor, al-Zāhir, led surviving adherents to settle in Syria, mainly in southern Lebanon, where the movement acquired its greatest success and developed its special body of doctrine and sacred scriptures. It was propagated for some twenty years and then became the religion of a closed and highly secretive autonomous community, permitting neither conversion nor apostasy. The Druze religion received its final formulation in the second half of the fifteenth century. Due to its esoteric character, to the hostility of Muslim authors, and perhaps also to its doctrine of taqiyya (permission to conceal religious identity in case of danger), it was often misunderstood and misrepresented.
Druze cosmogony, the theory of creation through emanation and a cyclical view of history, derives from Ismā‘īlī Neoplatonism. The Druze scriptures, the Rasā’il al-Hikma (Epistle of Wisdom), comprise 111 epistles attributed to al- Hākim and a few of his contemporary companions and missionaries. The Qur’ān and Muslim religious law receive allegoric interpretation. The Druzes emphasize God’s unity while claiming that for the benefit of mankind he periodically manifests himself in human form. They regard al-Hākim as having been the locus of the final human incarnation of God and expect him to return and establish the rule of justice and true faith. They believe in predestination and in the transmigration of souls. While the common believers (Arab. Juhhāl, “ignorants”) are committed to a code of ethical-religious principles, only the uqqal (“sages”), who are initiated into the true faith after lengthy preparation, are allowed access to all the religious literature, but they are obliged to live strict religious lives.
According to the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1170) and later Druze chroniclers, the Druze Tanûkh clan (of southern Arab descent) defended the Gharb area southeast of Sidon (mod.Saïda, Lebanon) against the Franks. Later sources claim that the other leading Druze family of Mount Lebanon, the Ma‘nis, established itself in the Shûf Mountains around 1120, for the same purpose. Druze leaders were rewarded by the Bûrid atabeg of Damascus with official recognition of their rule in the region. Having assisted in warding off the Frankish assault on Damascus in 1148, they received grants of land revenue (Arab. iqtâ') from Nûr al- Dīn, reconfirmed later by Saladin. But in the thirteenth century the relations between the leading families of the Gharb and Shûf and the Frankish lords of Sidon seem to have been warmer than their relations with the Muslim Ayyûbids and Mamlûks.