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SYRIA. The Muslim population of Syria is composed of a Sunni majority and four minority Shi’i sects. Exact figures are unavailable, but informed estimates place the Sunni population, found throughout the country, at roughly 70 percent. The largest Shi`i sect, the `Alawis, is concentrated in the northwestern province of Latakia and comprises around 12 percent of the population. The Druzes are only 3 percent of the population but form a dominant majority in the southwestern province of Suwayda. Isma`ilis in central Syria near Hama and Homs and a small number of Twelver Shl’is in the vicinity of Aleppo together account for I percent of the population.

Islam’s place in Syrian society has changed fundamentally in modern times. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s political and social elite incorporated Islamic institutions, symbols, and religious scholars (`ulama’). By the second half of the twentieth century, secular tendencies dominated Syria, and movements for restoring Islam’s primacy had become the platform for political dissent.

During the Ottoman era (151’7-1918), sultans legitimized their authority by claiming to rule in accord with Islam. This religious legitimation accorded with the preeminent place of the (`ulama’). in Syria’s urban elite, which mediated relations between province and capital. Among the religious notables the highest offices were jurisconsult (mufti) and doyen of the Prophet’s descendants (naqib al-ashrdf). Other high-status dignitaries included law court judges, assistants to the jurisconsult, teachers at endowed schools, and preachers and prayer leaders at prestigious mosques. Thus Ottoman authority and local religious institutions reinforced each other’s authority.

The religious institution also incorporated scholars and mosque officials outside the provincial elite. Indeed, stratification according to wealth and status among the (`ulama’). mirrored that in urban society at large. High status (`ulama’). enjoyed imperial patronage in the form of rights to farm taxes on rural lands, whose revenues they frequently invested in urban real estate. They also received stipends from the revenues of pious endowments (waqfs). Middle-status (`ulama’). taught at schools and presided at mosques with modest endowments. They often earned the main portion of their livelihood as tradesmen and artisans. The poorest members of the religious institution were petty traders and artisans associated with minor mosques and popular Sufi orders.

The affiliation of the Syrian (`ulama’). with legal schools and Sufi orders manifested their participation in a cosmopolitan learned culture tolerant of diversity. Of the major Islamic legal schools, the Shafi’i had deep roots in Syria, but the Hanafi became more widely accepted among high status (`ulama’). in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of its status as the official legal school of the Ottoman Empire. An ancient though modest Hanbali tradition persisted as well. A religious student normally studied with scholars of each legal school. This diversity and tolerance also characterized affiliations with Sufi orders. A Muslim might cultivate ties to several cosmopolitan orders, such as the Qadiri, Naqsh-bandi, Rifa’i, and Khalwati orders. Local Sufi orders and minor branches of cosmopolitan orders also attracted their own followings.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Syria’s religious establishment demonstrated its loyalty to the Ottoman sultan by rejecting the call to revolt issued by propagandists of the religious reformist Wahhabi movement in central Arabia. In addition to this political dimension, the Wahhabis’ anathematization of fellow Muslims clashed with the spirit of tolerance that marked relations among Muslims of different legal schools and Sufi orders. By contrast, Syrian Wamd’ proved more receptive to the reformist Sufism of Shaykh Khalid, who revived the Naqshbandi order when he settled in Damascus in the 1820s.

In 1831 an Egyptian army invaded and occupied Syria, bringing it under Cairo’s rule until 1840. Religious dignitaries received a rude shock when Egyptian authorities sharply reduced their role in governing provincial affairs. The restoration of Ottoman rule in 1841 brought relief, but during the next two decades the rise of a secularizing bureaucratic elite in Istanbul and the growing European commercial and missionary presence alarmed Syrian (`ulama’). Anti-European sentiment exploded in 1850 when an anti-Christian outbreak occurred in Aleppo and in 1860 when Muslim mobs massacred Christians in Damascus. Ottoman investigators of the Damascus disturbance accused leading (`ulama’). of inciting the mob and dealt them severe punishments of prison and exile. The Ottoman response marked a turning point in the historical posture of Syria’s (`ulama’). who would never regain their central position of influence. Instead, the Ottomans cultivated a new bureaucratic elite nearly devoid of (`ulama’). participation and more attuned to the secular outlook of Istanbul’s bureaucrats and ministers.

In the last decades of Ottoman rule, the religious establishment received one last boost from Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909). This ruler countered European encroachment and internal political dissent with a policy stressing his religious standing as caliph of all Muslims. In Syria, this allowed the sultan to depict his political opponents, mostly partisans of constitutional government, as enemies of Islam. In addition to emphasizing the duty of Muslims to obey their caliph, Abdulhamid financed a revival of religious institutions, primarily mosques and Sufi lodges. Indeed, one of his chief religious advisers for a time was a Syrian Sufi shaykh, Abu al-Huda al-Sayyadi (1849-1909) of the Rifa’i order, and that order became a mainstay of support for the sultan. [See Rifa’iyah.]

A religious reform movement arose, however, that would oppose Abdulhamid’s despotic rule, his claims to legitimacy as caliph of the Muslims, and his patronage for popular Sufi orders. Reformist scholars such as Tahir al-Jaza’iri (1852-1920) and Jamal al-Din alQasimi (1866-1914) also supported the restoration of constitutional government, which Abdulhamid had suspended in 1878. In the early 1900s, a bitter controversy erupted between reformers, known as Salafis, and loyalists over religious practices such as visiting saints’ tombs for intercessionary prayers, and also over Islamic legal theory, particularly the validity of following the opinions of medieval jurists (taqlid) rather than using independent reasoning (ijtihad) to derive rulings from the Qur’an and the sunnah. These religious disputes overlapped with political conflicts both before and after the 1908 restoration of the Ottoman constitution and Sultan Abdulhamid’s deposition the following year. Because of the Salafi reformers’ identification with liberalizing tendencies, they attracted the younger generation of educated Syrians who were sowing the seeds of Arab nationalism. In the last decade of Ottoman rule, religious reformers and advocates of autonomy for Arab provinces contended for power with civil and religious dignitaries who sided with whatever faction prevailed in Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire’s destruction at the end of World War I abruptly terminated this rivalry by altering the grounds of Syrian politics.

First, an independent Arab kingdom under Amir Faysal of the Meccan Hashemite clan struggled to maintain Syrian independence against French pressure. Then in July 192o French forces invaded Syria, expelled Faysal, abolished his government, and under a League of Nations mandate established direct rule that would last until 1946. During that quarter-century, Arab nationalism emerged as the leading ideology of opposition to foreign rule.

This ideology allowed Syrians of all religions-Sunni, Druze, `Alawi, Shi’l, and Christian-to unite against the European power. Nonetheless, Islam had an important part in the nationalist struggle. Even though Syria’s political leaders shared a secular outlook and included no religious dignitaries, the slogans and symbols they used often played on Muslim religious sentiment. Likewise, leading Syrian politicians mobilized religious institutions for the nationalist struggle in order to draw grassroots support from the towns’ popular quarters. The politicians succeeded in large part because of their ability to gain the backing of local mosque preachers, religious teachers, and other (`ulama’).

In the sensitive sphere of law, the French left untouched existing criminal, civil, and commercial codes and courts. When the French attempted to implement revisions in the personal status laws based on Islamic law, Muslim judges successfully resisted. As for education, Ottoman reforms had already largely diluted the influence of the (`ulama’). and during the Mandate era modern Western education continued to develop. The most dramatic confrontation between French authorities and Syria’s religious institution arose over the administration of religious endowments. The French brought greater regularity to their administration and eventually took control over them, an act that triggered Muslim outrage.

Apart from Islam’s place in the nationalist struggle, the Mandate period witnessed the spread of novel grassroots Islamic associations and cultural institutions in

Syria’s cities. Islamic benevolent associations (jam’iyat) appeared in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama in the 19205 and 1930s. These societies propagated moral and religious reform along lines drawn by the earlier Salafi trend, established schools for religious education, and published periodicals cultivating proper religious culture. Islamic associations combated what they considered the immoral effects of foreign influence represented by nightclubs, casinos, gambling, and alcohol. Moreover, they agitated against the westernization of women’s status and conduct, such as wearing European fashions and appearing at public functions.

On the political front, Islamic associations led opposition to a French proposal in the draft of the 1928 constitution to establish religious equality for all citizens. They also resisted moves to legalize Muslim conversions to other religions and the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. In the broader Arab arena, religious organizations pressed the Syrian government to support the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, and they raised funds to aid their Muslim brethren there.

During the Mandate era Syrian society changed in several respects, including the more effective integration of the Druze and `Alawi communities into the mainstream of national politics. Whereas during the Ottoman era these communities’ geographical isolation kept them apart from the power structure dominated by Sunni townsmen, in colonial and independent Syria the extension of central authority to remote areas brought them into national politics. A religiously diverse population made the inclusive ideology of secular Arab nationalism more attractive to political figures seeking to appeal to the entire Syrian nation. Conversely, a political program based on Islam would alienate the country’s large nonSunni minority.

The secular thrust of independent Syria became apparent in 1949 when it adopted a new civil code enacted in Egypt that same year. Previously, the Mecelle, an Ottoman code derived from Hanafi law, had regulated civil affairs. By borrowing from Egypt, the Syrian government was inching away from Islamic law. On the other hand, in 1953 the government confirmed Islam’s sway over family life with a new Law of Personal Status governing marriage, divorce, and other family matters. This law applies Islamic law to Sunnis, `Alawis, and Isma’ilis, but the Druze, Christians, and Jews each have their own special codes. Another important reform affecting religious interests was the 1949 initiative to take the administration of religious endowments out of private hands altogether and place them under direct government control.

From independence in 1946 until 1963, Syrian politics consisted of a tumultuous series of military coups, ephemeral civilian cabinets, and a brief period of union with Egypt. The most dynamic political forces were secular Arab nationalist parties such as the Bath and leftist parties. The Muslim Brotherhood, first established in Syria in 1946, represented religious sentiment alarmed at the dominant secular tendencies, but it did not achieve great influence in Syrian politics during this period. The brotherhood’s leader, Mustafa al-Sibd’i (1915-1964), placed the organization in Syria’s political mainstream with his calls for neutrality in the cold war, armed struggle against Israel, an Islamic version of socialism, and limited private property rights. His fundamental difference with other political forces lay in his opposition to secularism. Siba’i left the scene in 1957 because of poor health, and leadership passed on to `Isam al-`Attar, an advocate of political moderation. [See the biography of Siba’i]

On 8 March 1963, a military coup inaugurated the era of Ba’thist rule. Because of this party’s highly minoritarian composition, secularism, and socialist agenda, the political reaction against it took a sectarian hue. Consequently, the most intractable challenge to Ba’thist rule has come from Islamic groups, most notably the Muslim Brothers. The first Islamic rising took place in 1964 in Hama, and other sectarian disturbances followed in 1967. Further protests erupted in 1973 when a new constitution omitted mention of Islam as the state religion. The regime attempted a compromise by adding provisions that the head of state be a Muslim and that Islamic law provide the principal source of legislation, but these points did not satisfy Islamic critics, especially since President Hafiz al-Asad (Hafiz al-Assad) belongs to the minority `Alawi sect, which many Muslims regard as heretical.

By the late 1970s the Ba’thist regime had suppressed or coopted its most threatening secular political rivals. Popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s dictatorial rule, its economic policies, and its management of foreign relations therefore coalesced around the Islamic groups. Significantly, this discontent was centered in Syria’s major cities and did not spread to the regime’s bastion of support in the rural areas. The latter regions historically had been the poorest and most backward parts of Syria, but during Ba’thist rule they witnessed unprecedented progress. Moreover, Syria’s religious minorities

Druze, `Alawis, Christians, and Isma’ilis-are concentrated in rural areas and have no sympathy for Islamic aspirations. Hence the insurrection conducted by Islamic groups between 1979 and 1982 did not spread to the countryside, and with a ruthless campaign of repression the regime quelled the insurrection. Another element in the revolt’s failure lay in the divisions that plagued the Islamic movement. In 1970 the Muslim Brothers alone split into three groups. The Damascus branch followed the moderate line of `Isam al-`Attar. In the northern towns of Aleppo, Horns, and Latakia, branches adopted the strategy of armed struggle to overthrow the regime. A third faction based in Hama also embraced armed struggle but maintained its own independent leadership and organization.

The Syrian regime continues to insist on a strict separation of religion from politics, but otherwise it does not seek to undermine the place of religion in Syrian culture and society. Damascus University has a flourishing faculty of Islamic law, and its Arabic language department teaches courses on early Arab Islamic literature. In 1967 the Ba`thist regime nationalized all private Muslim and Christian schools, but instruction in both religions is still provided in public schools, Muslims studying Islam and Christians studying Christianity. Religious periodicals and literature, including children’s books, are published and widely available. Television and radio broadcasts promote the country’s Arab-Islamic heritage with historical dramas and highbrow cultural programs. Moreover, customary patterns of social intercourse within the bounds of one’s religious community are persistent. Although modern national institutions such as the army and universities contribute to weakening primordial ties of religion and locality, and Syrians commonly socialize across sectarian boundaries, it is still unusual for marriage to take place across them. Broadly speaking, the regime encourages the dissolution of sectarian divisions and promotes a nonpolitical interpretation of Islam wherein the state is responsible for providing the conditions for citizens to fulfill their religious duties, but not for enforcing religious conformity.

Syrian Civil War

The ongoing Syrian Civil War was inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions. It began in 2011 as a chain of peaceful protests, followed by a crackdown by the Syrian Army. In July 2011, Army defectors declared the formation of the Free Syrian Army and began forming fighting units. The opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims, whereas the leading government figures are generally associated with Alawites. According to various sources, including the United Nations, up to 100,000 people had been killed by June 2013, including 11,000 children. To escape the violence, 4.9 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. An estimated 450,000 Syrian Christians have fled their homes. By October 2017, an estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the war according to the UN.

In an effort to restore law and order, the Russian Federation army claims to have “signed agreements with some 1,571 representatives of the inhabited areas in Syria,” where they have agreed to cease all hostilities against the Syrian government. In addition, some 219 groups in Syria who had formerly been suspected by the government of involvement in armed resistance have agreed to the terms of a ceasefire.


Abd-Allah, Umar F. The Islamic Struggle in Syria. Berkeley, 1983. The fullest account of Syria’s Islamic movements from the 1940s to the early 1980s, by a highly sympathetic observer.

Commins, David. Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria. New York and Oxford, 1990. Study of the social, intellectual, and political dynamics of the Salafi trend in Damascus between 1885 and 1914.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Ba’thist Syria. Boulder, 1990. Important study of the historical roots of the Ba’thist regime and the mechanisms for its endurance. Contains a chapter on the Islamic opposition to the regime that incorporates the author’s findings published in several articles.

Khoury, Philip S. Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920. Cambridge, 1983. Describes the high status enjoyed by the (`ulama’). in Ottoman Damascus before 1860 and the process of their exclusion from the notable elite by 1920. Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab

Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, 1987. Definitive study of Syria during this period, focusing on the secular nationalist leadership, but containing as well information on Islam and religious institutions.

Marcus, Abraham. The Middle East on the Eye of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century. New York, 1989. Splendid survey of the city’s social history, containing information on religious life and the religious establishment that shows their similarity to those in Damascus.

Schilcher, Linda S. Families in Politics: Damascene Factions and Estates of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Stuttgart, 1985. Detailed examination of Damascus’ society, economy, and political dynamics, including a wealth of information on the city’s leading families of religious dignitaries.




Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/syria/

  • writerPosted On: March 12, 2018
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