Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, December 12th, 2006
Shi’ites and Shi’ism in Medieval Syria
By Stephennie Mulder
for "Syria Comment"
Ibn Jubayr was not pleased. Traveling through Syria at the turn of the thirteenth century, the Spaniard paused in his narrative to grumble. “In these lands, the Shi’ites are an astonishing phenomenon. They are more numerous than the Sunnis, and they have disseminated their doctrines everywhere. They are divided into different sects, (including) the Rafidis…the Imamis (Twelvers), the Zaydis…the Isma’ilis, the Nusayris (Alawites) – these last are infidels because they attribute divinity to ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him – the Ghurabiyya, who claim that ‘Ali resembles the Prophet PBUH…as well as other sects one shrinks from enumerating. God has misled them and has misled many of his creations. We beg of God to protect us in (true) religion and seek refuge in Him from the deviations of the heretics!” Could it be true that there was a time when the land of Syria was dominated by Shi’is?
Although we are used to thinking of this area as predominantly Sunni, during the Middle Ages, from about the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, Shi’ism was widespread. Despite Ibn Jubayr’s concerns, the various Shi’ite sects probably never achieved numerical majority in Syria. But in this period, they were a highly visible and influential element of Syrian political and cultural life. The story of Shi’ism in medieval Syria is a fascinating, and little-known, tale. In some areas, Shi’ism appears to have established itself at an early stage: al-Muqaddasi (d. ca.1000) reports that “…regarding allegiance to theological schools, the people of Syria are rightly guided, and upholders of authority and tradition (i.e., Sunni). The people of Tiberias, however, and half the population of Nablus and Qadas, and most of the people of ‘Amman, are Shi’a.” In fact, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the lands of Syria were controlled by a series of Shi’ite dynasties, among them the Fatimids, the Hamdanids, and the Mirdasids. Unlike Egypt, where Shi’ite Fatimids ruled for a time, but where Shi’ties remained far smaller in numbers to Christians and Sunnis, in Syria the Shi’ite dynasties not only build powerful communities, but in many cities also ran things.
In southern Syria, Shi’ite control did not have the same outcome as it did in the area of north-central Syria and the Jazira (Mesopotamia). Although the Isma’ili Fatimids controlled southern Syria until the mid-twelfth century, Shi’ism remained a marginal presence with few exceptions. Damascus had a community of Imamis (Twelvers); the Druze became entrenched in southern Lebanon and Syria in eleventh century; a split among Isma’ilis led to the creation of the Nizari Isma’ilis or Assassins, who settled in Syria and Iran. But this was the extent of Shi’i success in southern Syria. In particular, large cities such as Damascus maintained a strong commitment to Sunnism and sheltered only a small minority of Shi’i inhabitants. Nevertheless, because Damascus is the burial place of many members of the ahl al-bayt or family of the Prophet Muhammad, the city retained an important role in Shi’ite devotional practice; pilgrims both local and from distant lands traveled to Damascus to visit its shrines. Still today, the graves of Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Ruqayya, the Shrine of al-Husayn in the Umayyad Mosque, and the cemetery of Bab al-Saghir in Damascus are the most venerated places of Shi’ite ziyara (visitation) in Syria, with an estimated one million visitors each year making the often-arduous journey from across the Islamic world.
Hezbollah Pilgrims at Bab al-Saghir Cemetery
Many of these sites are revered by Sunnis and Shi’is alike and are unique spaces of inter-confessional exchange and interaction.
Procession of 'Ashura at Shrine of al-Husayn, Umayyad Mosque
In the Jazira and north-central Syria, the strength of Shi’ism was much more pronounced. In medieval Aleppo, the Shi’is were able to practice their religion freely, even after the return of the city to Sunni hands in the twelfth century. When the Shi’i Hamdanids captured Aleppo in the mid-tenth century, prince Sayf al-Dawla made Aleppo his capital and built a glittering court, which included the most famous poets, philosophers, and litterateurs of the day. He attracted the most illustrious Shi’i ulama to Aleppo from the Shi’i centers of Harran, Qum, Kufa, and Karbala’. In 977, the mosques of Aleppo used the Shi’ite formulas “Come to the best of works” and “Muhammad and ‘Ali are the best of men” as part of the call to prayer. Sayf al-Dawla also founded one of medieval Aleppo’s most important Shi’i shrines, the Mashhad al-Muhassin (Mashhad al-Dakka), devoted to the stillborn son of al-Husayn. It was destined to become one of the most beloved of Syrian pilgrimage sites. It has been enlarged and beautified repeatedly by Aleppo’s rulers and is still revered today.
Two other Shi’ite dynasties succeeded the Hamdanids: the Mirdasids and the ‘Uqaylids. They ruled Aleppo until the Seljuks returned it to Sunnism in the twelfth century. In 1069, the Mirdasid prince Mahmud, sensing the political winds shifting in favor of Sunnism, ordered that the invocation of the khutba (Friday sermon) in Aleppo cease to honor the Fatimid Caliph; instead he name the Sunni Abbasid Caliph. The response of the attendees at Friday prayer was outrage: they snatched up their prayer mats and declared defiantly, “These are the mats of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. If you want the people to pray, let Abu Bakr bring mats!” The Shi’ites were numerous in Aleppo and dominated positions of rank; By the second half of the eleventh century, Aleppo was among the most celebrated centers of Shi’i scholarship and culture throughout the Islamic world.
The return of northern Syria to Sunni orthodoxy was slow and marked by a number of extraordinary statesmen who sought compromise between the sects. They struggled to find a middle way to preserve the prosperity and social concord of their city. The archetypal Sunni ruler Nur al-Din hesitated to enforce official Sunnism on the city. According to the twelfth-century Shi’ite chronicler Ibn Abi Tayyi’, Nur al-Din initially “conformed to the attitude of his father (‘Imad al-Din Zangi), showing great respect for the Aleppine Shi’ites, encouraging them to practice their prayer openly according to their rite in the eastern section of the great mosque. Their muezzins continued to call the faithful to prayer from the minarets of Aleppo, using the Shi’ite formula: ‘Come to the best of works!’” The chronicler claims that in his father’s day, even the mosque of Aleppo’s famous citadel (the residence of the Sunni ruler) used the Shi’ite formula. To win the confidence of Shi’ites and demonstrate his respect for their ways, Nur al-Din made ziyara to the Shi’i shrine of al-Muhassin and inscribed verses on the wall in his own hand. The day that Sunni pressure forced him to prohibit the Shi’ite call to prayer, riots broke out in the city and threatened civil war. Only by restoring most Shi’ite privileges was civic peace restored.
Al-Malik al-Zahir (ruled 1186–1216), the son of the great Sunni leader Saladin, also sought to establish a delicate middle ground between Sunni and Shi’ite in Aleppo. Despite his father’s strong commitment to Sunnism, al-Zahir understood that the welfare of Aleppo’s Shi’ite community was central to Aleppo’s greatness. To this end, he built one of the Ayyubid epoch’s architectural gems, the shrine to al-Husayn. Not only was it built at great expense, but it was also a monument with a message. Over the magnificent entrance portal two inscriptions call for conciliation between Syria’s diverse sects; the first praises the twelve Shi’i Imams and the second lauds the four Rightly Guided Caliphs of the Sunnis.
Aleppo: Husayn Portal Inscription Praising the Twelve Imams
Remarkably, by investing so lavishly in an architectural project that clearly benefited Syria’s Shi’i population, al-Zahir was not acting alone. In fact, he was following the precedent set by the Sunni Abbasid caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah. This caliph had patronized at least seven Shi’ite shrines, chief among them the tomb of the twelfth Imam at Samarra, which al-Nasir renovated and enlarged in 1209. Al-Nasir’s policies had an overtly political goal: to unify the Islamic community under the single banner of the Caliph in Baghdad, and thereby to strengthen the caliphate, which by the twelfth century had long been in decline. To that end, he seems to have advocated a “politically correct” Sunnism that tolerated moderate sectarian differences. To Syria’s and Islam’s great misfortune, al-Zahir and al-Nasir’s policies were not continued by their successors.
The Shi’is of Syria were persecute relentlessly in later ages. The Mongols slaughtered thousands of Shiites after sacking Aleppo in 1260. Egyptian Mamluks repeated the Mongol depredations some forty years later when they drove the Crusaders from Syria and sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on the Syrian mosaic. Under the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf, the Shi’is were pursued with singular determination; the Druze and Nusayris (Alawis) were forced to conform to Sunnism; the Isma’ili fortresses were besieged and captured; the Twelvers were driven from Kisrawan in northwest Lebanon and settled in the Bekaa valley. Many Shi’is, including scholars such as Muhammad ibn Makki al-‘Amili, known as Shahid al-Awwal, were forced to live in takiyya (dissimulation) because of the periodic intolerance of the Mamluk regime. In later ages, despite occasional periods of greater openness, the Shi’is of Syria would never again achieve the prominence they knew from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. But for a time in the medieval era – much to the Spanish pilgrim Ibn Jubayr’s annoyance – Shi’ism seemed ascendant.
Stephennie Mulder received her Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 2001. She is a PhD candidate studying Islamic architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is completing her dissertation on Sunni patronage of Shi’i shrines in medieval Syria. She has traveled extensively in Syria for the past nine years while working as excavation ceramicist at the Islamic site of Balis on the Euphrates. In 2005, she received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship for her dissertation research and had the pleasure of living in Syria for a very happy year. She still misses Qaimariyya street.
Addendum (a bit taken from a Landis article): The Ottoman Turks, on conquering Syria in the 16th century, revived Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Alawite injunctions in an effort to cleanse the region of Alawites and Shiites. According to Muhammad Ghalib al‑Tawil, the first Alawite to write a history of his community, Selim I, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Aleppo in 1516, demanded a fatwa from the Sunni religious men of the city to fight the "infidel Alawites" and Shiites. He then brought 9,400 Shiite leaders to Aleppo under the pretext of carrying out peaceful negotiations, but instead detained and murdered them. As word of the massacre spread through the Shi’a community, thousands fled into the Alawite Mountains seeking safe haven. But Sultan Selim was not content merely to exterminate the religious leadership of the heterodox, he bent on their total destruction and led his army to the city of Latakia, where he slaughtered any Alawites he could find. According to al‑Tawil’s mournful account of the period, "no traces of the Nusayris were left in Latakia except the graves of their ancestors." Though Sultan Salim did not succeed in wiping out the Alawites, he did succeed in corralling them into the mountain regions along the Syrian coast and emptying the cities and principle towns of heterodox Muslims. Stories of Alawite suffering at the hands of the Ottomans are repeated among the Alawites to this day and provide the bedrock for continuing distrust between Alawites and Sunnis.