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David Commins, Itzchak Weismann
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The Muslim population of Syria is composed of a Sunnī majority and four minority sects. Exact figures are unavailable, but informed estimates place the Sunnī population, spread throughout the country, at roughly 70 percent. A small number of Twelver Shīʿīs in the vicinity of Aleppo and a larger number of Ismāʿīlīs in the district of Hama together account for 1 percent of the population. More substantial are the ʿAlawī and Druze sects. The ʿAlawīs are concentrated in the northwestern province of Latakia and comprise around 12 percent of the population; the Druze constitute only 3 percent but form a dominant majority in the southwestern province of Suwayda.

Islam's place in Syrian society has changed fundamentally in modern times. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the provinces of Damascus, Aleppo, Tripoli, and Sidon were part of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful Sunnī Muslim polity of the time. In the course of the twentieth century, nationalist and socialist secular ideologies largely superseded Islam in the Syrian state, and since 1963 the country has been ruled by a minoritarian ʿAlawī-based regime. Movements to restore Islam's primacy became platforms for political dissent. A more compliant form of Islam has retained a conspicuous public presence in Syria under the auspices of the state.

During the Ottoman era (1517–1918), sultans legitimized their authority by claiming to rule in accord with Islam. This gave men of religion a preeminent place among the urban elites, which mediated relations between province and capital. The highest religious offices in Syria were judge (qāḍī), who was usually appointed from Istanbul, and jurisconsult (muftī) and doyen of the Prophet's descendants (naqīb al-ashrāf), who were drawn from local families. Other dignitaries were judge assistants (nāʿib), teachers, preachers, and prayer leaders. Also important were heads of Sufi brotherhoods and keepers of shrines. High ʿulamāʿ and Sufi shaykhs, who were often the same person, enjoyed imperial patronage in the form of rights to farm taxes on rural lands and received stipends from the revenues of pious endowments (waqfs). They frequently invested the revenues in urban real estate and in trade. Middle-status ʿulamāʿ and shaykhs often got their main income as tradesmen and artisans and hence were less dependent on the government. The poorest members of the religious institution were petty traders and artisans associated with minor mosques and popular Sufi orders.

Of the major Islamic legal schools, the Shāfiʿī had deep roots in Syria, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Hanafī school became more widely accepted among high ʿulamāʿ because of its official status in the Ottoman system. An ancient though modest Hanbalī tradition persisted as well, whereas the Maliki school was reinvigorated in the mid-nineteenth century by refugees from Algeria. A religious student could study with scholars of different legal schools. Similarly, every Muslim might cultivate ties to several major Sufi brotherhoods, such as the Qāḍirī, Naqshbandī, Rifāʿī, and Khalwatī. Local Sūfī branches like the Saʿdī and Jabawī also attracted considerable followings, as did the numerous saints’ tombs and shrines dispersed throughout the country. Most celebrated was Ibn al-ʿArabī's tomb-shrine in Damascus.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Syria's religious dignitaries demonstrated their loyalty to the Ottoman sultan by rejecting the propaganda of the puritan Wahhābī movement of Arabia. They loathed the Wahhābīs’ anathematization of fellow Muslims and denounced their attack on saint intercession and tomb visits. The Syrian ʿulamāʿ proved more receptive to reformist Sūfī currents, which called on the government to reinforce the sharīʿah and eliminate injustice. The Kurd Shaykh Khālid of the Naqshbandī brotherhood instigated a religious awakening in Damascus when he settled there in the 1820s. Among his supporters was the noted Hanafī jurist Ibn ʿ Ābidīn (1784–1836). Indigenous deputies of the Egyptian Khalwatī brotherhood reinvigorated religious feeling in Aleppo and the coastal towns.

The Syrian ʿulamāʿ were angered by the Egyptian occupation regime (1832–1840), which reduced their role in governing provincial affairs. The restoration of Ottoman rule and the introduction of the Tanzimat reforms (1839–1876) brought relief, but the growing European commercial and missionary presence, and the secularizing turn taken by the reforms after the Imperial edict of 1856, which promised equality to non-Muslims, alarmed Syria's religious dignitaries. Muslim sentiment exploded in an anti-Christian riot in Aleppo in 1850 and in the massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860. Ottoman investigators of the latter disturbance accused leading ʿulamāʿ of inciting the mob and imposed se-vere punishments on them. By contrast, middle-status ʿulamāʿ became associated with the Syrian new middle class, which conceived the concept of Syria as a distinct entity and favored accommodation with the West. From 1855 they gathered around the exiled Algerian amir ʿAbd al-Qāḍīr al-Jazāʿirī, who advanced a modernist inspirational interpretation of Ibn al-ʿArabī's mystical teaching. During the Damascus disturbance of 1860 ʿAbd al-Qāḍīr and his associates protected Christians and gave shelter to survivors.

In the closing decades of Ottoman rule, Syria's ʿulamāʿ families lost ground as the Ottomans cultivated a new bureaucratic elite more attuned to the secularized outlook of the government. The religious establishment received one last boost from the autocratic sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909), who countered European encroachment and internal political dissent with a policy stressing his religious standing as caliph of all Muslims. Abdülhamid enlisted conservative ʿulamāʿʿ and popular shaykhs to his Pan-Islamic propaganda and financed the building of mosques and Sufī lodges. The chief instrument of this policy in Syria was the Rifāʿī Abu al-Hudā al-Sayyādī (1849–1909), who was called to Istanbul and made head of the Sufī shaykhs in the empire. Abū al-Hudā's writings emphasized Muslims’ duty to obey and support the sultan-caliph.

Middle-status ʿulamāʿ of Syria were opposed to Abdülhamid's despotic rule and to the complicity of the religious establishment and popular Sufi shaykhs. The reformist camp, which came to be known as Salafīs, supported the restoration of constitutional government, contested the validity of the legal practice of following the opinions of medieval jurists (taqlīd), and condemned visits to saints’ tombs for intercessionary prayers. Scholars such as ʿAbd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī (1849–1902) of Aleppo and the Damascene Tāhir al-Jazā’irī (1852–1920) and Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866–1914) advocated instead critical reasoning (ijtihād) on the basis of Qurʿān and sunnah and an ethical form of Sufism. The Salafī reformers’ identification with liberalizing tendencies attracted the younger generation of educated Syrians, who were sowing the seeds of Arab nationalism. Both groups were persecuted during Abdülhamid's later years, and still more in the Young Turk era (1908–1918). The conservatives, who saw popular Sufism discredited after 1908, appealed to the common people from their pulpits and through their journal Al-haqāʿiq.

During Amir Faysal's short-lived Arab kingdom (1918–1920), which followed the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Salafiī thinkers were allied with the government and lent their support to its struggle to maintain Syrian independence against French pressure. Many ʿulamāʿ, however, led by Kāmil al-Qassāb (1873–1954), joined the militant popular committees that set themselves against Faysal's compromising policies. Their agitation precipitated the invasion of Syria by French forces in July 1920 and the imposition of direct foreign rule over the country under a League of Nations mandate.

Under French colonial rule, Lebanon was conclusively detached from Syria, and the Syrian state was divided along regional and communal lines. Nonetheless, during the mandate period (1922–1946), Arab nationalism largely superseded Islam as the hegemonic discourse, allowing Syrians of all denominations to unite against the foreign power. The extension of central authority to remote areas also furthered the more effective integration of the Druze and ʿAlawī communities into the mainstream of national politics. Still, Syria's leaders used slogans and symbols that played on Muslim religious sentiment and mobilized mosque preachers and religious teachers to draw grassroots support from the towns’ popular quarters.

The French administration left existing commercial, criminal, and other civil law codes and courts essentially untouched. When it attempted to implement revisions in the personal-status law to allow Muslim conversions to other religions and the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslims, religious leaders successfully resisted it. Most pressing for the ʿulamāʿ was the French control of education. The official school system greatly expanded during the mandate era, giving scope to the study of modern Western sciences and French language at the expense of Islamic sciences and Arabic. Private schools were subsidized, with the result that Christians had greater access to education than Muslims. The French authorities’ decision to take control of the administration of religious endowments also ignited the outrage of Syria's religious institution, as it threatened to undermine its material base.

The Mandate period witnessed the spread of grassroots Islamic associations (jamʿīyāt) in Syria's cities. During the 1920s and 1930s, these Islamic organizations surpassed the Sufī brotherhoods in addressing the religious and social needs of the common people in the impoverished traditional quarters and immigrants from the countryside. Their leaders—ʿulamāʿ, religious schoolteachers, and laymen—promoted a pious Muslim lifestyle and culture by preaching in popular mosques, building schools for boys and girls, and publishing journals. Islamic populists agitated against Western influence, Christian proselytism, religious equality for all Syrian citizens, women's emancipation, and the immoral effects of nightclubs, casinos, gambling, and alcohol. They were also involved in the national struggle. Al-Jamʿiyah al-Gharrāʿ (The Noble Society) portrayed Badr al-Dīn al-Hasanī (1850–1935), the doyen of Syria's ʿulamāʿ, as spiritual father of the great revolt of 1925–1928, and Jamʿīyat al-ʿUlamāʿand other associations raised funds to support the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936–1939.

In the mid-1930s, religious youth groups sprang up in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and Hamah. These groups were influenced by the ideas of Hasan al-Bannā, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers Society, and after several nationwide annual conferences they united in 1944 under that name. The first leader of the Syrian Muslim Brothers was Mustafā al-Sibāʿī (1915–1964), who joined the Egyptian movement during his studies at al-Azhar. Like Bannā, Sibāʿī envisioned an organization that would include and direct all religious forces in the country— ʿulamāʿ, Islamic associations, the Salafī trend, and Sufiī brotherhoods.

From independence in 1946 until 1963, Syrian politics consisted of a tumultuous series of military coups, ephemeral civilian cabinets, and a union with Egypt. The traditional nationalist elite continued to employ Islamic values and symbols, but the most dynamic political forces were the army and the Baʿth party, which juxtaposed secular Arab nationalism and radical socialist ideologies. They represented the interests of the new middle class, the peasantry, and religious minorities. A compromise formula in the 1950 constitution declared the religion of the president of the republic to be Islam and Islamic law to be the main source of legislation, while reaffirming the rights of all religious communities.

In 1949, Syria adopted a new civil code that gave greater scope to principles of natural justice and custom. That same year, administration of religious endowments was taken out of private hands and placed under direct government control. By contrast, in 1953 the government confirmed Islam's sway over family life with a Law of Personal Status governing marriage, divorce, and related matters. It applied to Sunnīs, ʿAlawīs and Ismāʿīlīs, whereas Druze, Christians, and Jews retained their own special codes.

The Muslim Brotherhood took part in parliamentary politics during the first era of Syrian independence; its constitution was mostly limited to religious students and the small-trader class. Among its leaders, Dr.Maʿrūf al-Dawālībī served shortly in 1951 as prime minister, before Colonel Shīshkalī banned the party, and Muhammad al-Mubārak was appointed minister in several cabinets. Sibāʿī, who in 1955 became dean of the sharīʿah faculty in the University of Damascus, called for neutrality in the cold war, armed struggle against Israel, and an Islamic version of socialism based on limited private property rights and social solidarity. The Muslim Brothers was again dissolved in 1958, with all other political parties in the Syrian Region of the United Arab Republic. It reemerged after the separatist coup in 1961 under the leadership of ʿIsām al-ʿAttār.

On March 8, 1963, a military coup inaugurated the era of Baʿthist rule. Because of this party's highly minoritarian composition, secularism, and socialist agenda, the political reaction against it took on a sectarian hue. The main opposition came from Islamic groups, with the connivance of the ʿulamāʿ. Hafez al-Assad, who rose to power in 1970, sought to appease the Sunni majority. He co-opted leading ʿulamāʿ, obtained a legal opinion that ʿAlawīs were a Shīʿī sect, and restored the constitutional compromise of 1950. These points did not satisfy Islamic critics, who regarded the regime as heretical.

The first Islamic uprising took place in 1964 in Hama. It was instigated by Marwan Hadid, a disciple of the Egyptian radical Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. In 1967 an offending article in the army magazine sparked a fresh eruption of Muslim feelings. Among the demonstrators was the doyen of the Syrian ʿulamāʿ, Hasan Habannaka (1908–1978). Further outbursts occurred in 1973, when al-Assad initially failed to mention in his proposed constitution that the head of state had to be a Muslim. By that time the leadership of ʿAttār, who lived in exile in Germany, was challenged from within the Muslim Brothers movement. A militant branch was formed in the northern cities under the leadership of ʿAbd al-Fattāh Abū-Ghuddah of Aleppo and ʿAdnān Saʿd al-Dīn and Saʿīd Hawwā, the movement's chief ideologue, of Hama. Popular dissatisfaction with the regime's sectarian composition, dictatorial rule, and economic policies mounted in the late 1970s. The climax was the Hama uprising of 1982, which was ruthlessly put down by the regime. Thousands of civilians perished, and the Syrian Muslim Brothers was left in disarray.

The Hama uprising prompted the Baʿth regime to seek alliance with the Sunnī majority and give greater scope to nonpolitical manifestations of Islam. The state-controlled media magnified al-Assad as a great Muslim leader, while casting Islam in a nationalist-humanist mold. Mosques and sharīʿah institutes were revitalized, and religious periodicals and literature became widely available. By the 1990s, a process of Islamization had begun in Syrian society, as Islamic dress, veiling, and religious practices were staged in the public sphere. All along, the Baʿth allied itself to the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran and lent its support to Hizbullāh, Hamās, and Islamic Jihād in the struggle against Israel.

The foremost official religious figure under Baʿth rule was Ahmad Kuftārū, Syria's Grand Muftī from 1964 until his death in 2004 and head of the Naqshbandī brotherhood, the largest Sūfī organization in the country. Kuftārū was rewarded for his loyalty to the regime by the grant of a free hand in promoting Islamic education in Syria and global interfaith dialogue. He controlled two extensive networks, one based on the traditional Sūfī master-disciple bond and the other on modern religious schools and educational centers for both sexes. A similar synthesis of Islamic tradition and modernity characterizes the teachings of the TV-star ʿalim and university professorSaʿīd Ramadān al-Būtī. Syria also hosts the liberal exegete Muhammad Shahrour, a professor of civil engineering, who is highly critical of Islamic tradition and advances the causes of science, women rights, and political pluralism. Finally, in the late 1990s a partial rapprochement was effected between the regime and the Muslim Brothers opposition. Syrian Islamist leaders were allowed to return from exile, and with the accession of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 a general amnesty set many others free.

Almost half a century of secular Baʿthist rule notwithstanding, Islam still plays a vital, and expanding, role in Syria. Asad the son continues to promote an Islamic posture and co-opts Islamic institutions. The ʿulamāʿ are essential for the legitimization of the regime and enjoy wide appeal. Sufism has revived in recent decades, both in the cities, where the state-sponsored Naqshbandīyah propagates a modernized discreet form of mysticism, and in the countryside, where brotherhoods like the Saʿdīyah and Rifāʿīyah adhere to their popular traditions. The Islamic movement too works to regain a foothold in the Syrian society, and awaits an opportunity to replace the Baʿth regime by an Islamic state.


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