“Ash’ari Islam Predominates in Syria,” by Anonymous

A Syrian friend who lives in Damascus wrote the following note to me about Ash`ari Islam, which  he explains is the mainstream interpretation in Syria. He describes how the establishment shaikhs deal with both Sufism and takfiri Salafism. He asked to remain anonymous.


This is part 3 in our on-going series of posts on the question of Salafism and Sufism among Syrian Muslims. The last part is here.


Ash`ari Islam Predominates in Syria: Its tensions with Sufism and Salafism


Dear Josh,

Thank you for your question about Sufism. It so happens that I have had enough time to read some of the major works of Ibn Arabi; however, I am afraid I can be of little help on the question of Sufis today.

The teachings of the great Sufis (Al-Hallaj, Ibn Arabi, Al-Roumi etc) are full of tolerance and acceptance of others' beliefs. However, many who consider themselves students these great Sufis do not really understand their teachings. It is difficult to understand Ibn Arabi's works without a proper knowledge of the great Greek philosophers, the great "Mu'utazilah" thinkers, Gnosticism, and Christian theology. Therefore, it is doubtful whether an ordinary religious student or a simple Sufi follower really understands the theory of Ibn Arabi about the "Unity of Existence", "Wihdat Al-woujoud.” 

Sufism received support during Ottoman rule due to two factors:

·        It enjoins tolerance, which is very important in ruling an immense empire with a wide variety of ethnicities and religions;

·        It discourages political activism, much as Christianity does, by distinguishing between the mundane and divine worlds.

The accommodation of Sufism and Sunnite-Asha'arite belief has been reached at the expense of Sufism. It has not been easy to change orthodox public attitudes toward Sufis. During much of the 20th century, Sufism was looked at as an infidel practice by orthodox imams and Sunni scholastics. In order to give Sufism a “new look” and gain widespread acceptance of Sufis as “true believers who express their faith in a peculiar manner,” mainstream Sunni scholars have watered down Sufi texts almost beyond recognition. Great Sufi works have been re-interpreted to make them acceptable by the broad Sunni-Asha'ari public. A very bland interpretation of Sufism prevails among the majority of ordinary Sunnis and Sufis today. Sunni scholars not infrequently lecture on Ibn al-Arabi, while disregarding the obvious and apparent meaning of Ibn al-Arabi’s message – which would be real blasphemy. Ironically, Sufis themselves used interpretation as a powerful tool to produce alternative readings of the holy Koran. The popular interpretation of Sufism, which reduces it to a set of shallow practices, in contrast to the "savant" version, represents the historical revenge of Asha'arism. 

Asha'arism represents the prevailing doctrine among Sunni Syrians. Both Sufism and Salafism represent threats to Asha'arism. Sufism represents an "external" threat because it contradicts Asha’ari beliefs on a doctrine level. Nevertheless, Sufism shares a quietist approach to political power with Asha’ari Islam. Both assert the necessity of supporting, or at least coexisting with, existing political authorities so long as they are broadly Islamic and not foreign or non-Muslim.

Salafism represents an "internal" threat to Asha'arism. It shares the same orthodox doctrine as Asha’arism but is much more radical.  Salafis opposed the Ottoman state in the past as they do the Syrian state today, because both states encouraged a loser definition of Islam and supported compromise between Asha’arism and Sufism. Salafis also refuse any compromise with Sufism on the doctrinal level. They have become overtly political in full contradiction to traditional Asha'ari practice.


Refusing the practice of "takfir" is one of the most important principles of Asha'arism. Historically, takfir was embraced only during the rule of Caliphate Al-Ma'moun, influenced by the "Mu'utazilah." This period in Islamic history is vociferously condemned by Asha'aris. It is referred to as the "Mihanh” or calamity. The sentence of life-in-prison that was imposed on Ibn Taymiyya was due to the fact that his teachings were tainted with the dangerous doctrine of takfir. Naturally, Asha'arism opposes this practice as long as it is thought of as an "Inquisition" – or a way to impose the death penalty on those expressing a variant of Islam. It should be added that Asha'aris have not always been reluctant to issue "takfir fatwas" themselves, when requested to do so by rulers eager to go to war against political foes.  

I have drawn a fairly stark distinction between Salafism and Asha’ari Islam, which is the version of Islam that predominates in Syria today. This is a bit simplistic. There is a battle being waged in contemporary Syria over the meaning of Salafism. Takfiri-Salafists constantly try to radicalize Salafism, whereas, Asha’aris try to pacify it and denounce violent political activism. Many Syrians call themselves Salafis in an effort to define themselves as more puritanical or orthodox than the average Syrian even though they reject takfir in principle. Salafis who reject takfir are tolerated by the Asha'ari authorities. We might call them “tamed” Salafis in much the same way that most Sufis have been tamed. The Asha’ari imams are constantly seeking a middle ground, pulling Sufis away from radical ecumenicism and departure from orthodox practice and pulling Salafis away from jihadist doctrine. For many Syrians, Salafism is no longer the fire breathing Islam of Ibn Taymiyya or that of the Saudi Wahhabis.

The end of the Ottoman role and division of the Middle East into modern states under the British and French Mandates had a profound impact on relations between Asha'arism, Sufism, and Salafism. Inspired by western thought, new calls to modernity found it easy to criticize Sufism. Modernists blamed Sufism for the backwardness of Muslim societies. However, much of this criticism, coming, as it did, from critics "outside" of Islamic circles and thinking, designated both Asha'arism and Salafism as potential threats to Islam as well. The rules of the game were changing due to foreign influences.  

In this light, it is easy to understand Hassan al-Banna’s definition of the Muslim Brotherhood. He sought to combine the “Sufi truth” and “Salafi massage,” as he stated it. This was his way of building a political party with an Islamic ideology that could combine the existing tendency among Salafists to become political, while at the same time putting an end to the destructive war that had been waged by Salafists on the Sufis. He had to find a way to end the internecine struggles that kept Muslims from uniting against the “real enemy,” the materialism and secularism represented by the West. Hassan al-Banna did not adopt "takfir," as a strategy, as many of today’s more radical Salafists have. He did, however, approve of resorting to violence for political purposes.

Let us now move to your original question: should the US administration support NSF in its struggle against the Syrian regime? Personally, I think that there is no final answer this question. Moreover, I am quite sure that the question about the relation between Salafism and Sufism in Syria cannot provide a suitable background for finding an answer to the original question. It all depends on whether the US administration can adopt a clearer strategy as regards the issue of democratization. Such a strategy should express US support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.

This strategy should be reflected in policies that express US willingness to deal with all concerned parties including the Syrian regime. For example, US officials, when talking to Syrian authorities, should insist also on the issue of human rights, freedom, and democracy building. It is important that the US always take a clear stand that democratic change remains the responsibility of the Syrian people no matter what tensions exist between the US and the Syrian regimes. There should be no more talk of the "liberation" of the Syrian people. Any conflict with the Syrian regime should be portrayed as an opportunity for Syrian people to claim more democratic rights, but never as an endeavor to enforce democratic change.

Comments (26)

MSK said:

Dear Josh,

would it be possible to ask your friend some questions?

I am surprised about the mention of Ash’ari Islam – since the scholars say that by the 10th century the Ash’aris had been integrated into the Maliki madhhab. What does your friend mean by “Ash’ari Islam”?

I was under the impression that in Syria the predominant madhhab is the Hanafiyah – at least that’s what the Grand Mufti is & that’s what is used in courts where Islamic law is relevant (personal status).

It would be great if your friend could clear up this confusion.



May 20th, 2007, 9:50 am


swerv21 said:

does anyone have any information on fath al islam and the Hariri blocks claims that it is linked to the syrian regime?

no sooner had the events in tripoli transpired than the chorus of march 14 politicians to point the finger at syria. there has been no evidence offered as far as i can tell, you just have to take samir gea’geas word for it.


there are also reports that fath al islam has split from fath al intifadeh in protest of the syrian security services control of that group. moreover there are some other reports, also unsubstantiated as far i can tell, that fath il islam is linked to jund al sham and al qaeda.

im wondering about recent reports on salafist elements that have been introduced into lebanon with alleged white house and saudi backing….

if anyone can shed any light onto this matter, i would be grateful

May 20th, 2007, 2:14 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

Lebanese news are more important,now.
it is the begining of a war in Lebanon.

May 20th, 2007, 3:58 pm


MSK said:


“it is the begining of a war in Lebanon” — says who? You? Or Al-Siyassa? Or any of your usual undisclosed “sources”?


May 20th, 2007, 4:08 pm


Alex said:


It is not that serious, true, but it is another step towards escalation.

Akbar (and others) here is an interesting background on president Sarkozy.

Anyone here would like to predict how Sarkozy will differ from Chirac on Syria and Lebanon?

I am not predicting.

From the above article:

One significant policy modification that could actually come through under Sarkozy is on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. The new French president is not as friendly to Lebanon as was his predecessor, furthermore, as the Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy even advocated closer ties between France and Syria.

Especially if the later plays the cards of talking-peace correctly, Sarkozy may increase pressure on Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Assad.

May 20th, 2007, 6:11 pm


G said:

Keep wishing Alex, you advocate of colonization and defender of murderers and analyst extraordinaire you!

It’s very funny to see people on this blog and what they represent essentially wishing for one thing and one thing only: that the world abandons Lebanon back to the hands of killers like the one Alex loves.

Sick human beings.

May 20th, 2007, 6:37 pm


bilal said:

Bashar has started answering the International Tribunal in Tripoli. He should know by now that: THERE IS NO WAY OUT. He has to start paying for the crimes he did instead of being enforced for another 7 years that will not pass maybe more than 7 months or even 7 weeks.

May 20th, 2007, 7:07 pm


MSK said:

So … the SYRIAcomment commenters care more about (uninformedly) discussing current Lebanese events than the future of Syria.

Hmmmm …

Or maybe none of you has any idea what a madhhab is … 😉

I’ll wait for Josh to get back, then.


May 20th, 2007, 7:41 pm


Alex said:


I learned by now that when you want an answer from Josh, I should not answer you, otherwise you will write me “Ya Alex, is your name Josh?”

: )

And Lebanon is important, you know why? … because the current “leaders” in Lebanon are the most aggressive set of losers in the whole Middle East… and their only target of aggression is Syria. THEY (not Lebanon) are Syria’s most active enemies lately.

May 20th, 2007, 7:45 pm


t_desco said:

Now that is a surprise:

Brother of German train bomb suspect killed in Lebanon clashes

Tripoli, Lebanon – Saddam al Haj Dib, brother of Youssef al Haj Dib, a main suspect in Germany’s train bombing last July, was among the dead members of Fatah al-Islam in northern Lebanon on Sunday, a high-ranking security source told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.

Saddam was killed by Lebanese army troops in the northern city of Tripoli during clashes with the al-Qaeda linked group. According to the source, Saddam was killed along with Abu Yazen, the third in command in the Fatah al-Islam group.

Saddam al Haj Dib ranks fourth in the Fatah al-Islami movement(!), the source said.

(my emphasis)

I had already pointed out a possible link to Jund al-Sham.

May 20th, 2007, 7:46 pm


MSK said:

Ya Alex,

mea culpa. This time I guess I should’ve been more explicit. Yes, I’d like Josh to ask his friend about the Ash’arites. But also, maybe somebody knows something about the Ash’ari issue in Syria & can contribute …

As for Lebanon, of course it’s important, but most of what has been said is just … uninformed speculation & hearsay.

Now, as for your statement that “the current “leaders” in Lebanon are the most aggressive set of losers in the whole Middle East” – do you include the Iranian president, various factions in Iraq, and the Israelis? (Not to speak of parts of the Syrian regime.)

The Fatah al-Islam link to the German train bomber doesn’t surprise me. Ya’nii: the brother of an extremist Islamist gets the idea to put a bomb on a German train. Not extraordinary …


May 20th, 2007, 7:55 pm


G said:

nd Lebanon is important, you know why? … because the current “leaders” in Lebanon are the most aggressive set of losers in the whole Middle East… and their only target of aggression is Syria. THEY (not Lebanon) are Syria’s most active enemies lately.

What a vicious little mutt. Did a single explosion occur in Syria from anyone in Lebanon? You little mutt. You have the nerve to say that Lebanese are “aggressing” against syria when your masters in Damascus are dispatching bombs and killers?!

What a vicious psychopath.

May 20th, 2007, 8:00 pm


bilal said:

To Alex

WOW. That is a big statement from your side:”because the current “leaders” in Lebanon are the most aggressive set of losers in the whole Middle East… and their only target of aggression is Syria. THEY (not Lebanon) are Syria’s most active enemies lately. ”
It looks there is something going on.
I do not agree with you. Actually THEY (not Lebanon) are Bashar’s (& not Syria’s) most active enemies lately. Here I would agree with you. But why this has happened. I would not know what your feelings will be toward the person who ordered your father’s death or your loved PM.
The important thing is Who started it?

May 20th, 2007, 8:01 pm


Ziad said:

most of these groups which suddenly appeared these last few years are related to hidden mukhabarat agents with beards like abu qaqa…

May 20th, 2007, 9:16 pm


t_desco said:


it’s more like “the No. 4 in Fatah al-Islam sends his brother to put a bomb on a German train as an initiation test before joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq”.

This is a strong argument that Fatah al-Islam is indeed an independent (and surprisingly well-connected and well-established) organization (unlike Fatah al-Intifada).

May 20th, 2007, 9:45 pm


Lebanon Forever said:

“Lebanese news are more important,now.
it is the begining of a war in Lebanon. ”

It would be more correct to say that it is the beginning of a war on Lebanon.

Oh no, wait, please the ‘beginning’ part. Syria has been waging this war for decades. This is hardly anything new.

May 20th, 2007, 11:36 pm


Bakri said:

I’m in an exam period so this is a short comment about the subject above.
Your damascene friend is right ,ash’ari school of thought is dominant in the islamic world and not only in Syria.so most of the muslim scholars since the Ayyoubi Era were in fact Ash’aris and this is true whatever is their mazhab,hanafi or shafei ,sufis or not sufis…For example the promoter of ash’arism was the famous scholar Sheikh Abu Hamed al Ghazali ,he was a scholar of the shafei mazhab and practiced sufism during his stay in Damascus.(in a small place in the ommayad mosque that was lately damaged by the regime during the catastrophic renovation of the site).
In fact the relation between sufism and the islamic state is older than the ottoman era,the seljduks(konya),the zankids the ayyoubid and then the mameluks and the ottomans had all promoted sufi practices and had built sufi monasteries.
Another thing ,the overwhelming majority of syrian sheikhs murdered by the regime were well respected Sufis from the leading traditional families of Syria,the famous zawya of the kilanis in hama was razed to the ground by hafez asad in 1982 and he killed nearly 300 members of the kilani familly they were highly educated people and some were seculars.The last in date,Sheikh al Khaznawi killed by the mukhabarat 2 years ago was also a sufi sheikh.
As for the salafi takfiri groups in syria,they are an insignifiant minority ,most of them are infiltrated and manipulated by the regime,they dont represent a threat because have no popular support among syrians…they are only used to cover syrian regime’s plot.The syrian youth must be aware of these hidden mukhabarat agents with beard that appeared lately in Syria…It’s time to the religious establishment in Syria to act against this regime’s plot.

May 21st, 2007, 1:35 am


bilal said:

We clearly see what Bashar is going to do by the day. Now AlAshrafieh bomb. Who knows where next. God protect Syria & Lebanon & the all the countries that Bashar has mentioned during his conversation with Mr. Banki Moon ten days ago.

May 21st, 2007, 1:37 am


Akbar Palace said:

G –

The Syrians (for some reason) want you to play nice with the Islamic terrorists that live in your midst lest you be branded “aggressive” or worst yet, a Zionist sympathizer. Of course, I’m not saying you have to be pro-Israel. But taking back control of your own country seems like a good idea to me.

I guess the rule-of-law is frowned upon in the Middle East. Your supposed to let the fanatic Islamists run your country while you sit back and ignore them.

I say, it’s time for a change. Good luck to you.

May 21st, 2007, 1:38 am


Alex said:


Unlike scientists who discovered the beauty of discrete physical traits, when it comes to “religion” in Syria, I see only the continuous nature of whatever we classify under “religion”

No two Syrians are the same. Salafi, Sufi, or whatever types we try to describe and count ends up being a very rough approximation of what in reality is an infinitely variable set of beliefs, traditions, values, aspirations, and fears that we like to group under “sufi or salafi” labels.

You have Sufis who are totally gnostic and esoteric, others who are almost mainstream sunni-like… and you have everything in between.

This is not Texas and the people we are analyzing are not Jerry Falwell’s generic and predictable believers. In Syria everything is more complicated, including religious beliefs.

May 21st, 2007, 5:57 am


MSK said:

Ya Alex,

I’m sorry, but your answer makes no sense at all.

First of all, there are clear schools of jurisprudence in Islamic law – 4 Sunni (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i) & 1 Shi’ite (Ja’fari). There used to be more, but by the Middle Ages only those 5 had remained. The Ash’ari school was one of those who ceased to exist when it integrated itself into the Maliki madhhab.

Second, when it comes to legal procedures that are dealt with according to personal status (i.e. religious or ethno-religious or ethnic) law, then if you’re Muslim you have to choose which madhhab you follow. This “following a madhhab” tends to be uniform among inhabitants of distinct regions, although there are some places where you find more than one madhhab (or even all 5) present. Syria is predominantly Hanafi, which is an Ottoman legacy. There are also some Shafi’i and, of course, the Shi’ites have their own.

Third, this legal question has nothing whatsoever to do with Sufism or Salafism (except for the fact that Salafis are Sunni & thus, in principle, wouldn’t choose to follow the Shi’ite madhhab).

Fourth, as you well know I am somewhat familiar with those “more complicated religious beliefs” in Syria. And I know that it’s next to impossible to arrive at a precise picture of just what exactly each & every Syrian believes and/or does in terms of religious practice. That’s the same everywhere, incl. Texas. And, if you reread the post & comments, I didn’t make any statements about religious beliefs.

Fifth, since Ash’arism as a legal school doesn’t exist anymore (and hasn’t for hundreds of years) I am asking just what exactly Josh’s friend means when he says “Ash’ari Islam”.

Fahimta ‘aleyya?


May 21st, 2007, 8:00 am


Alex said:


Fahimt Aleik, but next time, I want you to post the whole answer in pseudo-Arabic : )

I think I have an explanation to why my comment above was not to your liking: I was not refering to this post that I have not read : )

I was talking about the older discussions here … especially to some who tried to explain the differences between Sufis and Salafis in very precise terms.

I know you are familiar with Syrians’ complicated beliefs … but Texans are nowhere close to Syrians in complexity of religious beliefs .. they simply do not have the same number of influences and they don’t have the 10,000 year history.

May 21st, 2007, 9:59 am


jb said:

I’m kind of an outsider so I don’t know all the ins and outs. Your discussions get pretty polarized and personal. I will say that, as an American, regardless of the interesting diversity among Muslim beliefs, I don’t know how anyone can look at the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq and still think there is any justification for American meddling in a countries politics by violently overthrowing a current regime.
About today’s news and Fateh al Islam:
I am not sure how to perceive the violence between the Lebanese Army and Fateh Al Islam. There were a couple of interesting features on the organization from New TV on Mosaic News a couple of months ago. You can watch them online at and . The New York Times had a feature on the group the same day.
The Lebanese were ambivalent about the group and painted a sad picture of the Palestinian Camp, where the NYTimes was clearly hostile and painted the camp as a festering nest of evil. It seemed to me that the leader of the group is an old Al Qaeda operative, but much less clear that the young Palestians who follow him have any interest except to regain their country. In the Times article, they report US Govt complaints that this significant AlQaeda target is holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp where they can’t (because of Lebanese laws dating from the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre) go in after him.
So, now they finally get their wish with Siniora ordering his men to do their work for them. And, how nice, it’s a whole new incident and no one even remembers that they wished it. Who benefits from a Lebanese attack on a Palestinian refugee camp? the US and Israel; and Siniora, who gets to show his loyalty to his masters. Even if the group was caught red handed stealing from a bank, what civilized nation would justify bombing a civilian target to get them. Israel and the US do it all the time. Collateral damage; We have an antiseptic term for it.
So what’s Syria’s stake in this?

May 21st, 2007, 7:18 pm


zalame said:

Was Asha’ariyya ever a madhhab, as opposed to a theological movement?

May 21st, 2007, 11:51 pm


MSK said:


yes, it was.


May 22nd, 2007, 7:09 am


Ahmet said:


with all respects to the author of the article, the claim that Ashari-Maturidi Islam is in clash or in contradiction with Sufism, whether in the past or in the present, is something far from reality. This is because Asharism is related to accepting-recognizing of doctrinal matters, sufism is to personally or communally experience those doctrines in ones life, and jurisprudence is the medium of laws where the doctrinal affirmation and experience is expressed, and all these three together form the traditional Islamic religion. They are interconnected, interelated, and inter dependent, where with the absence of one, the other loses its value and falls from merit.

A parable will be with an aeroplane, where without the essential components of a cockpit, wings, and engines, the plane would not fly, likewise there is no Islam, without the fusion of the three, Asharism, Sufism, and Fiqh/Jurisprudence.

How can one say Asharism and Sufism is in competition, and rivality, where they both need each other for one another’s confirmation?

For this reason, historically speaking,the early initiators from the major and main personalities in Sufism, were Asharis as well, Imam Abu Hamid al ghazali, the author of Ihya Uloom Ad deen, a primary and one of the oldest and most respected sufi references, which all sufi orders deem with great reverence, was at the same time an Ashari as well.

Muhiyuddeen Ibn Arabi, who is refered affectionately as Shaykh al Akbar or the grand master by the sufis, his doctrine conformed with that of Asharism as well, as evident from his Futuhat al Makkiyyah.

Imam Abu Hasan Ash shadhili, the founder of the Shadhili tariqah was an Ashari, and likewise AbdulAziz Ad Dabbagh, one of the most respected sufi masters, was an adherent to the Ashari doctrine as well.

Imam an Nawawii, Jalaluddeen As Suyuti, etc. were all Asharis.

The reason why the Ottomans, supported Sufism, was because they themselves were sufis, and were initiated into the different Sufi orders of Central Asia, long before they entered Anatolia, and at the same time they were Maturidi in doctrine, which is the same as Asharism, which through their Sufism they experienced those doctrines

So Ashari-Maturidi and Sufism they both come hand-in-hand. and for this reason even in Syria itself you’ll find the grand scholars of Sufism, to be Ashari-Maturidi at the same time, and likewise the scholars of Asharism to be adherents to Sufism as well.

As for Salafism, they contradict Asharism in affirmation of certain doctrinal matters, they reject personal experience of those doctrines which forms Sufism, and donot adhere to a proper juristic system like the 4 schools of Hanafi, Maliki, Shaafii, and Hanbali, and in this fashion they come in clash with the Ashari-Sufi-traditional Jurisprudence..as salafis with the same vigour in which they oppose Asharis, they at the same time oppose Sufism, as the latter is a part of the former(Asharism), and the former is a part of the latter

August 31st, 2009, 11:15 am


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