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David Commins, Itzchak Weismann, Eyal Zisser
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The Muslim population of Syria comprises a Sunnī majority and four minority sects. While exact figures are unavailable, informed estimates place the Sunnī population, which is spread throughout the country, at roughly 70 percent; 10 percent are of Kurdish ethnic origin and the others are Arabs. A small number of Twelver Shīʿīs in the vicinity of Aleppo and Hims 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 provinces of Latakia, Tartus, and Banyas along the Syrian coast and comprise around 12 percent of the population, while the Druze constitute only 3 percent but form a dominant majority in the southwestern province of Suwayda.

The Syrian state with its current borders and demographic composition is thus the distinct product of Anglo-French understandings and arrangements reached at the end of World War I. Until its establishment by the French, there had never existed a Syrian political entity in the territory then known as Bilad al-Sham or, since the nineteenth century (owing clearly to Western influence) by the name “Syria” (geographical Syria). Moreover, Arab and Muslim history contain no mention of the name and, for the duration of Ottoman rule beginning in 1516, the term lacked political significance. It was primarily a geographical designation for the territory that includes, in addition to contemporary Syria, Transjordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. For a short time in the 1860s the term had administrative significance as well; in 1864 the Ottoman authorities established the vilayet (district) of Syria, which was based on the district of Damascus to which the Ottomans attached regions of adjacent districts.

Nonetheless, in the course of more than 1,300 years of Arab and Muslim history since it was occupied by the Arabs in 636, a series of events marked this expanse as distinct in its own right, at least in the collective memory and consciousness of its denizens. First, in the period from approximately 650 to 750 CE, the Arab Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the Muslim Empire, made Damascus its capital. It was only later that the heirs to the Umayyads, the Abbasids, moved the seat of the caliphate to Iraq and, later still, made Baghdad their capital. Second, Syria (Bilad al-Sham) was the site of two momentous battles of Arab and Islamic history. One was Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi’s rout of the Crusaders in 1187 at The Horns of Hittin. This battle augured the end of the Crusader presence in the region. Salah al-din himself hailed from Tikrit, in modern-day Iraq, but spent most of his adult life in Syria as founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, which ruled Syria and Egypt. The second battle was that of ʿAyn Jalut in 1260. Here Baybars, the Mamlūk Sultan, defeated the Mongol army and thus halted its invasion of the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. Lastly, at the close of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, the Arab national movement sprouted from Syrian soil, with Damascus at the center. For a time this gave Syria special status, at least in its own eyes, as the bellwether of the Arab world. In the words of the Syrians themselves, it turned Syria into the “beating heart of Arabism” to this very day.

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. Throughout the twentieth century, nationalist and socialist secular ideologies largely superseded Islam as the prevailing ideology, and since 1963 the country has been ruled by a minority ʿAlawī-based regime. Movements to restore Islam’s primacy became platforms for political dissent during the Islamic Revolt against the Baʿth regime in 1976–1982 and during the Syrian revolution since 2011, while a more compliant form of Islam 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, who mediated relations between province and capital. The holders of the highest religious offices in Syria were judges (qāḍī), who were 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 included judge assistants (nāʿib), teachers (ʿalim), preachers (khatib), and prayer leaders (imam). Also important were heads of Ṣūfī brotherhoods and keepers of shrines. High ʿulamāʿ and Ṣūfī shaykhs, (known also as pir or murshid) 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 Ṣūfī orders.

Of the major Islamic legal schools, the Shāfiʿī historically had the deepest roots in Syria, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Ḥanafī school became the dominant school among high ʿulamāʿ because of its official status in the Ottoman system. An ancient though modest Ḥanbalī tradition persisted as well, and the Mālikī school was reinvigorated in the mid-nineteenth century by Algerian refugees. A religious student could study with scholars of different legal schools. Similarly, an individual Muslim might cultivate ties with several major Ṣūfī brotherhoods, such as the Qāḍirī, Naqshbandī, Rifāʿī, and Khalwatī. Local Ṣūfī branches like the Saʿdī and Jabawī also attracted considerable followings, as did the numerous saints’ tombs and shrines dispersed throughout the country. The tombs of saints were typically located in rural cemeteries, on hilltops, near water springs, or even in pre-Islamic ruins or holy sites. Most celebrated was Ibn al-ʿArabī’s tomb-shrine in Damascus. Other examples are the tomb of Bilāl ibn Rabāh al-Habashi in Bab al-Saghir Cemetery in Damascus or the Nabi Hūrī tomb in the Kurd Dagh.

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 Ṣūfī currents, which called on the government to reinforce the Sharīʿah and eliminate injustice. The Kurd Shaykh Khālid (1779–1827) of the Naqshbandī brotherhood instigated a religious awakening in Damascus when he settled there in the 1820s. Shaykh Khālid was an Iraqi Kurdish Ṣūfī by the name of Shaykh Diyā al-Din Khālid al-Shahrāzūrī. He was associated with establishing the Khālidī, a new branch of the Naqshbandī order. Much of his significance lies in his giving renewed emphasis to traditional tenets and practices of the Naqshbandī, notably adherence to the Sharīʿah and sunnah and avoidance of vocal dhikr in preference of silent performance. Among his supporters was the noted Ḥanafī jurist Ibn ʿĀbidīn (1784–1836). Indigenous deputies of the Egyptian Khalwatī brotherhood reinvigorated religious feeling in Aleppo and the coastal towns. The Khalwatī brotherhood took its name from the Arabic word khalwa, meaning “method of withdrawal or isolation from the world for mystical purposes.” It was founded by Umar al-Khalwatī in the fourteenth century but reemerged as a new reformed brotherhood during the mid-nineteenth century, mostly focused in Egypt.

The Syrian ʿulamāʿ were angered by the Egyptian occupation regime (1832–1840), which usurped their traditional roles governing provincial affairs. The restoration of Ottoman rule and the introduction of the Tanzimat reforms (1839–1876), which attempted to modernize the Ottoman Empire and secure its territorial integrity against Western powers as well as emerging national sentiments within the Ottoman population, 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 severe 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 emphasizing his religious standing as caliph of all Muslims. Abdülhamid enlisted conservative ʿulamāʿ and popular shaykhs to spread his Pan-Islamic propaganda, and he financed the building of mosques and Ṣūfī lodges. The chief propagator of this policy was Rifāʿī Abu al-Hudā al-Sayyādī (1849–1909), who was called to Istanbul and was made head of the Ṣūfī 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 Ṣūfī shaykhs. The reformist camp, which came to be known as Salafīs, supported the restoration of constitutional government, contested the validity of taqlīd (the legal practice of following the opinions of medieval jurists), and condemned visits to saints’ tombs for intercessionary prayers. Scholars such as ʿAbd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī (1849–1902) of Aleppo and Tāhir al-Jazā’irī (1852–1920) and Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866–1914) of Damascus advocated critical reasoning (ijtihād) of the Qurʾān and sunnah instead, as well as 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 (The Truth).

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 the struggle to maintain Syrian independence. However, many ʿulamāʿ, 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 under a League of Nations mandate.

Under French colonial rule, Lebanon was conclusively detached from Syria, and the Syrian state itself was divided along regional and communal lines. Nonetheless, during the mandate period (1922–1946), Arab nationalism largely superseded Islam as the prevailing discourse, allowing Syrians of all denominations to unite against foreign intervention. The extension of central authority to remote areas also furthered the more effective integration of the Druze and ʿAlawī communities into mainstream 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 to the personal status laws to allow Muslim conversions to other religions and the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men, 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 institutions and authorities, as it threatened to undermine their material base of support.

The mandate period witnessed the spread of grassroots Islamic associations (jamʿīyāt) throughout Syria’s cities. During the 1920s and 1930s, these Islamic organizations surpassed the Ṣūfī 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, 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) established Badr al-Dīn al-Hasanī (1850–1935), the doyen of Syria’s ʿulamāʿ, as the spiritual father of the great revolt of 1925–1927, and Jamʿīyat al-ʿUlamāʿ and 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, Hims, and Hamah. These groups were influenced by the ideas of Hasan al-Bannā, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Society, and after several nationwide annual conferences they united in 1944 under that name. The first leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods 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 Ṣūfī 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 a short tenure as prime minister in 1951 before Colonel Adib Shīshkalī banned the party, and Muhammad al-Mubārak was appointed minister in several cabinets. Sibāʿī, who in 1955 became dean of the Sharīʿah faculty at 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 Brotherhood 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 8 March 1963 a military coup inaugurated the era of Baʿthist rule. Because of the party’s secularism, and socialist agenda, and mainly due to the high percentage of members from minority sects (especially those of ʿAlawī origin) within its leadership, 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 Sunnī 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 (Jaysh al-Shaʿb) (The People’s Army) 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 al-ʿAttār, who lived in exile in Germany, was challenged from within the Muslim Brotherhood 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), both of Hama. Popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s sectarian composition, dictatorial rule, and economic policies mounted in the late 1970s. This climaxed in the Hama uprising of 1982, which was ruthlessly put down by the regime. Thousands of civilians perished, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood 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 present in the public sphere. Throughout this time, the Baʿth leadership allied itself to the revolutionary regime in Iran and lent its support to various militant movements, such as 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 Ṣūfī organization in the country. Kuftārū was rewarded for his loyalty to the regime by the granting of a free hand in promoting Islamic education in Syria and global interfaith dialogue. He controlled two extensive networks: one based on the traditional Ṣūfī master-disciple bond and the other on modern religious schools/educational centers for both sexes.

A similar synthesis of Islamic tradition and modernity characterizes the teachings of popular religious scholar Mohamed Saʿīd Ramadān al-Būtī, who was assassinated in a terrorist attack when he was praying in his mosque in February 2013, due to his support of the Syrian regime during the Syrian revolution. Syria is also home to liberal thinker Muhammad Shahrour, a professor of civil engineering who is highly critical of Islamic tradition and who advocates for scientific ways of thinking, women rights, and political pluralism.

Indeed, 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. Finally, in the late 1990s there was a partial rapprochement between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian Islamist leaders were allowed to return from exile, and with the accession of Bashar al-Assad in 2000, a general amnesty allowed many others to go free.

In mid-March 2011, the “Arab Spring” arrived in Syria. A peasant protest in the periphery and the rural areas quickly developed into a widespread popular uprising and eventually into a civil war that, in its first two years, claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians.

Although the Syrian revolution erupted against the backdrop of clear social and economic unrest, it quickly broke down along sectarian lines, as a struggle between the Sunnī majority and the minority ʿAlawī sect (and other minority groups that have been ruling Syria since 1963). Eventually, the revolution also acquired a religious dimension, as Syria turned into a battlefield in the name of jihad. Young volunteers from all over the Arab and Muslim world poured into the country with the aim of fighting the “heretical” ʿAlawī regime supported by its Shīʿī allies, Iran and Hizbullāh.

The revolution enabled the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to once again play a role, as it did in Egypt and other Arab states in the wake of the Arab Spring. First, the Muslim Brotherhood integrated and eventually took control of the opposition’s political bodies that emerged outside the country, such as the National Council and the National Coalition for the Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, headed during most of 2013 by Ahmad Ma`ādh al-Khatib, a former imam from the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Second, the Muslim Brotherhood organized an armed militia called the Syrian Liberation Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiyya li-tahrir Suriya) operating inside Syria alongside other groups like the Syrian Free Army (al-Jaysh al-Sūri al-Hurr) or other radical Islamic groups such as the Nusra Front—the support front for the People of Syria (Jubhat al-Nusra li-Ahāli al-Sham) and the Islamiac State in Iraq and Syria (al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-`Irāq wal-Sham).

Islamic revival in Syria was not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, as the fighting escalated and became increasingly brutal, particularly as the religious dimension to the struggle became increasingly salient. New players entered the scene, jihadi fighters streaming into Syria from all over the Arab and Muslim world. These foreign volunteers, joined by native Syrians, served as the basis for the Nusra Front, under the leadership of Muhammad al-Jawlāni, which started its activities in Syria as the local branch of al-Qa`ida organization in Iraq (known there as the Islamic State of Iraq; al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-`Irāq). In April 2013, the Iraqi branch under Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi separated itself from the Syrian one and began operating independently as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-`Irāq wal-al-Shām). These groups gained momentum and support in some parts of Syria, mainly in the south in the province of Darʾā, in the north in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib (al-Nusra), and in the east in the province of al-Raqqa (the Islamic State). Other religious groups arose as well, including the Syrian Islamic Front, based on local armed groups inside Syria such as the Islamic army (Jaysh al-Islām) under Zahrān `Allush.

After fifty years of Baʿthist secular rule, Islam nevertheless still plays a significant role in Syria. This has been particularly obvious throughout the unfolding revolution, during which Islamic movements renewed their struggle for a hegemonic role in the country.


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