Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, June 1st, 2014
Issam Eido is a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow and a Visiting Instructor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the University of Chicago Divinity School. Dr. Eido’s research focuses on the Qur’an in late antiquity, hadith studies, and Sufi and Arabic literary and poetic studies. Graduating with his PhD in 2010 from Damascus University, he also served that institution from 2010-2012 as Lecturer in the Department of Qur’anic Studies and History of Islamic Sciences. In 2012 he was a Fellow of the “Europe in the Middle East/Middle East in Europe” research program at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. At the University of Chicago, he currently teaches Qur’anic Arabic.
Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution
by Issam Eido for Syria Comment
Clouds of ambivalence and uncertainty have obscured Syria’s religious landscape from the beginning of the revolution. In the particular way that the conflict developed across space and time, every individual affiliated with a religious group became compelled—sooner or later—to take sides. Needless to say, any declaration of alignment in the conflict carries serious consequences, especially for religious shaykhs who are looked to for guidance. If even tacitly supportive of the revolution, the position taken by shaykhs can lead to killings, arrests, or torture by the regime’s officers. On the other hand, a shaykh might lose his followers or be accused of being a spy or in-league with regime intelligence if he exhibits even nominal support for the opposition. Hence, the first stage of suffering was the dreadful obligation to choose a side, something that weighed on ulema everywhere and exacerbated whenever a shaykh’s popularity was on the rise or when there was specific danger in the area where he lived. Accordingly, the way that the conflict developed can help us understand the reason for the declarations of each shaykh at particular points in time, as well as explain (in some cases) why the focus was on one shaykh more than others.
The Syrian revolution has two trajectories: geographic and temporal:
The geographic trajectory of the revolution conferred upon the ulema—the Arabic word for Muslim religious and legal authorities—the responsibility to tell the truth about what was happening in the area where they resided. Accordingly, we understand that the first religious defection to occur was that of the mufti of Dara‘a, and that the first shaykhs who were exposed to killings, imprisonment, and other dangers were the shaykhs of Dara‘a. These were followed by those of the city of Homs whose shaykhs rebelled in their entirety, supporting the revolution from the oldest to the youngest. They subsequently suffered displacement, prison, or evacuation, including such shaykhs as Anas Swaid, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa. This city, therefore, didn’t experience the contravention of public expectations by any shaykh who had gained the trust of the people before the revolution. Moreover, some shaykhs of the city were leading demonstrations and giving speeches in public places, such as Shaykh Junaid. The city of Hama was the third city to engage strongly in the revolution, but it lacked prominent religious leaders because most of its significant figures were killed, arrested, or evacuated during the events of the 1980s. Since then, fear of persecution has led most of its shaykhs and students to follow ulema from Damascus and Aleppo.
As for Damascus, the revolutionary activity was divided between the city and its countryside. While the countryside was among the most active regions of the revolution since its beginning, demonstrations in the city were limited to a few mosques such as the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques. Therefore, we can understand the great weight of responsibility that the ulema of these places took on. While the countryside of Damascus didn’t witness any support for the regime on the part of any prominent shaykh (in particular in Dariyya, Muddamiya, Doma, and Harasta), the people of Damascus heard vague statements and declarations coming from their ulema. Among the Damascene ulema we do not find a direct and obvious declaration inviting people to demonstrate against the regime, yet most of their statements contained calls for an end to oppression, an urging for justice, and calls for political change and reform. However, the continuity of demonstrations that were occurring at the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques exposed their shaykhs to direct harm. Shaykh Kurayyemal-Rajeh was only placed under house arrest (by the Minister of Endowments), but Shaykh Usama al-Rifai was directly assaulted by security forces and armed shabiha on the holiest night of the Islamic calendar (the night of al-Qader, near the end of Ramadan). Then, Al-Rajeh and Al-Rifai departed the country, and founded a new association of ulema about which I will speak later.
As Aleppo joined the revolution later in 2012, most of its ulema avoided overt opposition of the regime. However, most of its prominent ulema did sign statements urging all to end the killing and oppression, and requesting relief for affected people, especially those in Homs. Still, these ulema were subjected to some degree of questioning, but not to the same extent of those in other cities, as the regime sought to give the impression that Aleppo was its spoiled child.
With regard to the temporal trajectory, the Syrian revolution underwent a number of major transitions: The first stage was peaceful protests; these were followed by the defecting of many soldiers from the regime’s army; then there was the establishment of the Free Army; then the discussion surrounding the announcement of Jihad; and finally the present situation with the emergence of civil and militant Salafi groups.
Before delving into the details of this trajectory, I should point out that traditional Islamic thought, which occupies almost all the discourse of Syrian religious individuals, groups and institutions, is generally a conservative form of thought. Namely, it generally conforms to the established traditions and norms, and does not possess a spirit of initiative and change. In addition, it is—in the Syrian case—moderate. Accordingly, its pronouncements are always late and after-the-fact, which causes it to lose its sheen.
In the first six months of the revolution, the religious groups were moderate. They did not prefer change by force and only issued vague statements. But this situation changed during Ramadan of 2011 when the regime used heavy military force in Hama. The revolution’s trajectory quickly began to shift toward an armed revolution, in particular after the first military defection, that of Husain al-Harmoush. Many official persons followed his lead, such as the mufti of Dara‘a and the later striking announcement of defection of young women from the Qubaisyyat, a group for Muslim women that is known for its political quietism.
In examining this trajectory, we see that the structure of the religious groups started to disintegrate and crumble as a result of multiple factors: the defections of followers, the departure of shaykhs from the country, the loss of shaykhs’ popularity, and members adopting a new outlook and changing allegiance to other groups with different ideas about how to manage the situation. The changing structure of these groups was very deep.
We can classify Syria’s old and newly-emergent religious groups according to the following six categories:
- First: Groups that support the revolution explicitly: most religious groups and their shaykhs in the Syrian countryside around most cities explicitly announced their support for the revolution. Some observers attributed this to a rural reaction against cities and against the official religious and political discourse that for many years had marginalized the countryside. But this analysis does not apply to some groups who worked for years prior to the revolution to develop a moderate or reformist religious discourse concerned with values of dignity, justice, and equality such as Shaykh Jawdat Saedd and Muaz al-Khateeb’s group. In addition, we find that most religious groups and leaders in Dara‘a, Homs, Hama, and most northeastern Syrian cities explicitly announced their support the revolution. There are also some ulema who openly declared their opinion in support of the revolution, such as Shaykh Ihsan Badarani—the religious advisor to the previous president Hafiz al-Assad. Badarani had been marginalized by the Syrian regime and religious institutions throughout Bashaar al-Assad’s reign, and some attributed his support for the revolution to this marginalization.
- Second: Groups that support the regime explicitly: It is difficult to identify a religious group that supported the regime, except the ministry of endowments’s official institutions, its branches in cities, and some institutions that are associated with the ministry, such as the Abu al-Nour (Kuftaro) Institute. The ministry of endowments strove throughout the revolution to establish new groups and associations under different titles such as “The Association of Damascene Ulema” claiming that ulema actually supported the regime. These new associations often included some imams of mosques and some directors of official institutes like the directors of Abu al-Nour and al-Fateh Institutes, as well as some muftis. But the most prominent figures of these associations were the internationally renowned al-Buti and the grand Mufti Hassoun. While the Hassoun’s attitude was not surprising, al-Buti’s statements, speeches, lessons, and fatwas were surprising and generated many discussions and debates in online forums. This resulted in him losing most of his followers as we see in a record on the internet showing that only 20 to 40 students continued attending his lessons compared with a huge number of students who were attending prior to the revolution. Ultimately, al-Buti and many of his students were massacred during one of his weekly lessons in March 2013 in a well-known Damascus mosque, although there are conflicting reports about who was responsible.
- Third: Groups that nominally support the regime: Most groups whose attitudes are ambiguous are Sufi groups and the Qubaisyyat (the group for religious Muslim women). While some activists claim that these groups support the revolution, others provide records that prove their support for the regime. In the case of the Qubaisyyat, the regime strove to display them as supporters by means of some pictures that showed them meeting with the president—an event that many said happened under coercion. As for Sufi groups, the ambiguity of their attitude was to be expected, as these groups are concerned mainly about individual and spiritual affairs rather than public ones. This, however, led to many questions about the role of these groups. Ambiguity was the general feature of most Sufi groups in Aleppo, such as the Keltawiyya, some of whose followers leaked a record indicating that their Shaykh Mahmoud Hout supported the regime and insulted the rebels. But afterwards, other followers leaked a record which indicated his criticism of the regime. It would be mistaken to assume that this pattern of ambiguity applied to all Sufi groups, as there were instances that stood in stark contrast, such as that of Shaykh Abu al-Huda al-Yaqubi in Damascus and Shaykh Mahmoud Abu al-Huda al-Husaini in Aleppo whose support for the revolution was explicit early on. Some attributed this to their higher levels of education.
- Fourth: Groups that nominally support the revolution: Most Damascene and some Aleppan ulema fell into this category during the first year of the revolution. This ambiguity started to change when the revolution reached Aleppo and Damascus. A good example of where we can see this ambiguity is in the Shari‘a faculties of universities where most of the lecturers supported the revolution with indistinct, opaque language. They were reluctant to exhibit overt support because they were suffering concern on two fronts: the fear of the official channels of Syrian intelligence as well as pressure from their own colleagues.
- Fifth: New groups outside Syria: in the first year of the revolution, some new organizations were established by Syrian ulema, most of whom had already been living outside of Syria before the revolution began. One example is the “Syrian Ulema Association” whose head is Shaykh Ali al-Sabouni and whose vision is basically traditional. This organization issued many statements that are considered the first religious statements against the regime. The “Syrian Islamic Forum” was established in Istanbul by a number of Syrian ulema. These had escaped from the country with a few exceptions like Shaykh Anas Swaid from Homs. Although this institute relies on shari‘a as the source of law, it sees citizenship as a right for all Syrians, and it describes itself as moderate and committed to developing an open and deep Islamic discourse. There is also the “Islamic Organization of Sham (Greater Syria)” that was also established in Istanbul at the end of 2011 by ulema unknown to most Syrians, and which presented itself as an extensive Islamic reformist organization that considered citizenship a right for all Syrians. However, the most important organization founded during the revolution was “The Ulama of al-Sham Association” which was created quite late (Sept. 2012) in Doha by several ulema who escaped from Syria, such as Shaykh Kurayyem al-Rajeh, the association’s head, Shaykh Usama al-Rifai the deputy, Saria al-Rifai, Rateb al-Nabulsi, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa, and Abd al-Kareem Bakkar. These scholars aimed to support the revolution through “Jihad al-Kalima”—a jihad through words—to form a religious reference point through which they could advise rebels on how to act according to shari’a, propagate a moderate discourse that dismisses sectarian behavior, and deal with all Syrians as equals.
- Sixth: New groups growing inside Syria: Most of these groups have been founded in exceptionally violent circumstances, and have generally emerged as a reaction to brutal acts of the regime, or as relief groups and judicial councils in the areas that moved out of the regime’s control. These groups can be classified according to three types: ulema, judges, and armed militants. However, these groups generally have two common features: they are young and rural. Since the armed groups emerged as a reaction to the regime’s brutality, they generally promote extreme attitudes which often adopt the Salafi vision. As for other groups, they are almost all students of Syrian universities, in particular the shari‘a colleges, a fact which bolstered their credibility and gave them a level of trustworthiness. We see this in the countrysides of Aleppo and Damascus in such examples as the Association of Ulema in Jabal al-Zawia and the local judgment council in the countryside of Aleppo.
We can now conclude with several points:
- Most official religious institutes have continued supporting the regime, in particular the Ministry of Endowments and its institutes, such al-Fateh, Abu al-Nour, and the Syrian Mufti.
- Most traditional institutes, in particular mosques providing lessons, ceased their activities as most ulema fled to neighboring countries.
- New groups emerged inside Syria, most of whose ideas are based on criticizing the official and traditional religious and legal discourses, in which most of these growing groups believed that these religious and legal discourses were one of the most important reasons for the continuity of the Ba‘ath regime.
- However, the traditional ulema still have popularity among Syrian people especially in Damascus where conservative and moderate Damascenes consult the opinions of these ulema regarding every event.
- The general religious landscape of Syria is currently characterized by two primary views: that of the late prominent Shaykh al-Buti who strongly supported the regime, and that of the many religious groups who believe that the battle represents a religious and sectarian conflict. This fact prompted many wise ulema and groups outside Syria to strive to conduct a non-sectarian revolution that would emphasize a citizenship of greater inclusivity. However, with the continuous brutality of the regime, the lack of any convincing political solution, and the passive role of the international community, Syria continues to be entrenched in sectarian conflict, remaining an ideal environment for the operation of extremists.