“Sufism and Salafism in Syria” by Itzchak Weismann

This is the second article in a series on Salafi and Sufi influences on Islam in Syria. Article one is here. 

Itzchak Weismann is the best authority on Sufism in Syria during the 19th and 20th centuries. He is a professor at the University of Haifa and has written, Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus (Leiden: Brill, 2000)

Weismann writes: Here are a few lines about this complex issue of Salafi-Sufi relations in Syria.

As long as one views Sufism as excessive reverence to the shaykhs, popular practices at saints’ tombs, etc., then it is possible to assert that Salafis are anti-Sufi. These forms of Sufism are not absent from the Syrian scene, although they have lost much of their vigor in the face of modernity. However, in the last two centuries the Syrian Sufi scene has been dominated by another type of Sufism, which stresses its commitment to orthodoxy and is active in the public sphere. This is mostly the case of the Naqshbandi, but also Shadhili and Khalwati brotherhoods.

Similarly, as long as one identifies the Salafiyya with the radical brand of Islam, then Salafis are undoubtedly anti-Sufi. The group that led the uprising of the 1970s and early 1980s belonged to this radical camp and was inspired by the teachings of Sayyid Qutb. But this is the minority among Islamists. Most Syrian Salafis, from their arrival on the scene in the late 19th century to the present, have been moderate Islamists and respectful of “correct” Sufism. [JL adds: This was the case of Said Hawa, one of Hama's most important Islamists in the post WWII era, about whom Weismann has written two great articles. Hawa disapproved of the warlike wing of the MB, arguing that Jihad could not be carried out against the unbelieving regime until Syria society had been properly educated and was prepared to push it aside. To this end, he argued that Sufism had an important role to play in mobilizing the Syrian people. Its tariqas needed to be used to provide an alternative network of schools to promote activism, resistance against the un-godliness of modern society, and orthodox belief. He accused the anti-Sufi Salafists of dividing Syrians and Islamic society. To unify Muslims, Hawa argued, the Muslim Brotherhood must be inclusive and unite all the important Islamic movements of  Syria under one organization.]Muhammad Abdu (Photo of Muhammad Abdu)

Moreover, and this is the main point, in Syria the Salafiyya has been usually allied with orthodox Sufism and with ulama who adhered to this type of Sufism. The early representatives of the Salafi trend in the Syrian cities originated in an orthodox Sufi background; many of them remained loyal to Sufism, though they wished to remold it into the spiritual-ethical aspect of Islam. The Muslim Brothers, too, were under strong Sufi influence, and particularly the northern branches of Aleppo and Hama were actually founded by activists affiliated with the Naqshbandiyya. In a way, they transformed the tariqa into a social movement in line with the requirement of the modern situation. They were thus more loyal than their Egyptian colleagues to the legacy of Hasan al-Banna, who kept Sufism part of the Muslim Brothers’ call.

As for today, the present head of the Syrian Islamic opposition, ‘Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, comes from such a Sufi orthodox background. On the other hand, Ahmad Kuftaru, who faithfully served the regime for more than four decades, was also a Sufi shaykh of the Naqshbandiyya. But Kuftaru showed himself ready to adopt the Salafi discourse to the point of giving up most Sufi practices, and even the mere concept of Sufism. It would perhaps be correct to say that the Salafi discourse is the hegemonic religious discourse in today’s Syria, but this is an inclusive Salafism that has ample room for Sufism.  Best, Itzchak.  Email: weismann@research.haifa.ac.il

Here are four articles written by Weismann that I have posted to the web. All are excellent and reveal different aspects of the long relationship between Sufism and Salafism in Syria. I have also added a recent article by Oliver Scharbrodt that explains Muhammad Abduh's Sufi beginnings in Egypt. Abdu, along with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, was the founder of the modernist Salafi movement that began in Egypt and was expanded in Syria by his student, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). It is a wonderful article and demonstrates the intellectual creativity and plasticity of Sufi thought, a plasticity Abdu was forced to renounce later in life in order to conform to the orthodoxy of Salafism.

  • Oliver Scharbrodt, "The Salafiyya and Sufism: Muhammad Abduh and his Risa¯lat al-Wa¯rida¯t (Treatise on Mystical Inspirations)," Bulletin of SOAS, 70, 1 (2007), 89–115.
  • Itzchak Weismann, "Sufi Brotherhoods in Syria and Israel – A Contemporary Overview."  
  • Itzchak Weismann, "The Politics of Popular Religion: Sufis, Salafis, and Muslim Brothers in Twentieth-Century Hamah," International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 37, 1 (2005).
  • Itzchak Weismann, “Sa‘id Hawwa: The Making of a Radical Muslim Thinker in Modern Syria,Middle Eastern Studies 29 (1993), 607-611.
  • Itzchak Weismann, “Sa‘id Hawwa and Islamic Revivalism in Ba‘thist Syria,” Studia Islamica 85 (1997), 131-154. Said Hawa(photo of Sa'id Hawa)
  • The "Overview" article is a survey of Sufi orders, explaining which have survived the great changes of the 20th century and which have not. It also places the new Qubaysi tariqa for women, begun by Munirah al-Qubaysi, which has received so much attention, in context. (On the Qubasiyyat, read Ibrahim Hamidi and Katherine Zoepf

    Abstract of THE POLITICS OF POPULAR RELIGION: SUFIS, SALAFIS, AND MUSLIM BROTHERS IN 20TH-CENTURY HAMAH, Itzchak Weismann, International Journal of Middle East Studies (2005), 37: 39-58

    With the advent of the 20th century, Sufism found itself under increasing attack in many parts of the Muslim world. In previous centuries, mystical movements had played a prominent role in the struggle for the revival of Islam and occasionally, where governments were weak or nonexistent, also in actual resistance to European encroachment. In the wake of the increasing consolidation of the state and the spread of Western rationalism, however, Sufis came to be regarded as a major cause of the so-called decline of Islam and an obstacle to its adaptation. In the Arab world, this anti–Sufi feeling was generally associated with the Salafiyya trend. The Salafi call for a return to the example of the forefathers (al-salaf al-salih) amounted to a discrediting of latter-day tradition, which was described as cherishing mystical superstition as well as scholarly stagnation and political quietism. Under the burden of this critique, and as a response to the general expansion of education and literacy, Sufism has been forced to assimilate new ideas and to make room for a new form of organization; the populist Islamic association. These developments culminated in the establishment of the Society of the Muslim Brothers.

    On the splintering of the Muslim Brotherhood following Hama read Chris Kutschera,Wither the Syrian Muslim Brothers?, 1988.

    Addendum: Bernard Haykel, a professor at New York University, who is also working on Salafi movements, writes this on the relationship between Sufism and Salafism:

    As a rule of thumb, Salafis of the Wahhabi/Hanbali theological variety are anti-Sufi because they consider Sufism, in both its beliefs and practices, to consist of reprehensible innovations (bida`, sing. bid`a). 

    Unlike Salafis, the Muslim Brothers have historically not been doctrinaire about theological matters–but rather what I would call "broad mosque opportunists"–and therefore can be accepting of Sufism (as well as others, including Shiites).  However, those Brothers who have adopted Wahhabi views, and a good number have done so, are likely to be theologically doctrinaire and opposed to Sufism and Shiism. 

    The Brotherhood types who are in the Wahhabi fold evince hatred and animosity to both Sufism and Shiism of the 12ever/Imami kind, and there isn't even a debate about the Alawi-Nusayris who fall beyond the pale of Islam as far as the Wahhabis/Salafis are concerned. 

    The Salafis of the Muhammad Abduh variety no longer exist, as far as I can tell, and certainly are not thought of by others as Salafis since this term has been appropriated/co-opted fully by Salafis of the Ahl al-Hadith/Wahhabi variety.  In short, Salafis (if understood to be staunch Ahl al-Hadith/Wahhabi types) are viscerally opposed to Sufism and most forms of Islam that are not identical to their own–how many openly practicing and self-identifying Sufis are there in Najd? I know of one in Ha'il. Having said this, these staunch or doctrinaire Salafis are not of one kind, but rather come in different types with respect to questions of strict madhhab affiliation and political engagement or quietism. 

    As you can see, the answer is complicated.  I would not agree that Syria's Sunnis are all Sufis today, nor are they all or even 50% Salafi–besides what do these labels really mean when it comes to politics?  I would hazard that inasmuch as Sufism has been allowed deliberately to flourish by the Asad regime, those who choose to oppose Bashshar al-Asad are likely to be anti-Sufi and possibly, but not necessarily, identify as Salafi.  Not sure if any of this helps answer your question. Best wishes, Bernard (Joshua responds: "Yes it does. Thanks.")


    Joshua Landis will be in Paris for 5 days at a conference and will not be able to post until after May 17, alas.

    Comments (17)

    MsLevantine said:

    I never thought I would write it on this blog, but this is actually a very interesting and informative post. It has been a very very long time coming.

    Two things if I may:

    -Nobody is commenting. The usual suspects are not particularly interested in understanding the dynamics of the present situation. What a surprise.

    -It is not surprising that an Israeli is an expert on the topic. We have the same problem in Lebanon. When it comes to Lebanese history, unfortunately the likes of E. Zysser and M. Zamir are doing more interesting work than the Lebanese historians who are still stuck with the usual platitudes. Not that I agree with their views, but at least they are looking the primary sources. It would be interesting to understand why this is happening. Maybe we are so unconfortable with our official historical narrative than we are unable to revisit it. It is easier to keep our skeletons in our collective closet.

    May 11th, 2007, 4:32 pm


    Bakri said:

    It’s surprising but from what i have read from Dr Weismann’s works it’s more reliable and objective than many.
    He wrote in a paper that the famous scholar Sheikh AboGhodda was a Naqshbandi Sufi ,i’m not sure about this assertion ,it’s true that he had a friendly stance towards Sufism but that doesnt mean that he was himself a Sufi …it’s important here to discern Sufi from MutaSawif.

    Bon voyage Dr Landis !.

    May 11th, 2007, 5:58 pm


    ausamaa said:


    That fact that nobody is commenting on the above indicates one of two things, or perhapse a combination of two things:

    1- The subject involved is a very complicated theological matter that most people neither understand nor wish to delve into and is better left to its own fans and zealous researchers

    2- What the heck would a matter such as the difference between “Sufi” and “Mutaswaif” has to do with the price of tomatos in the market today? Not to mention its preceived irrelevance to the matter-at-hand nowadays being the zealous strive of President Bush to improve the living conditions in the Middle East!

    As to the “surprising” the interest of Israelies in those matters, wow, its like looking up to the Fox to show the Hens the way home. The Fox being a nutral observer of course! Maybe those kind Israeli scholars can invest similar effort and energy in trying to explain the “strange” phenomenon of how can a “long-suffering” Jewish People accepts to and excells at victimizing the Palestinan People in such an inhumane way as Israel has been doing for the last decades.

    May 11th, 2007, 9:07 pm


    Enlightened said:


    You made me laugh that hard I almost fell ou of my chair this morning:
    You are so right! I couldnt care less if people worshipped the devil, as long as they do it in their own home, and dont stuff it down my throat.

    The lack of comments here does not surprise, this post made my head spin, lets see if we can start a new religion and lets call it ” I dont give a damn” or Quote the Famous Abraham Lincoln which Abu Kais has on his site: ” I do not care for a mans religion whose dog or cat are not better off for it”

    May 11th, 2007, 11:58 pm


    trustquest said:

    The dynamic way described in this post of the relation between the Salafi and Sufi, is what I witnessed. Back in 70s when I lived in Damascus, the one Mosque in our area which was attracting a lot followers, could be Shaikh Refai who run away from authority to Saudi Arabia later, in one of his sermon he told the story of young guy who came to him asking god to forgive him because he was playing music instrument, when he told the story of this young guy repent for disobey god and he used very dramatic voice and drama in describing the young guy crying and crying and crying in front of him. This is unheard of in Damascus where a lot of celebration of “Mooleds” and “Zekers” are all over town.

    On the other note and while I was reading the articles of Sufi, Salafi relationship in this post, it occurred to me to ask if the Arab revolution in 1920 by King Faisal against the Ottoman Turk is in itself a revival of the Salfi movement attacking indirectly the Sufi setting and way of live as it is coming from the Arabia and the Wahabi Salafi birth place. Which also is an attack on the Ottomans Sufi way of live, “Tariqa”. Which might bring another question, did the British and Laurence of Arabia had any idea in the 1920s about the Salfi, Sufi contradictions and have they exploited it.

    May 12th, 2007, 1:00 am


    Eli Winstein said:

    So saddened to see that my fellow Jewish professionals are publishing books about Musluman-Muhammadan history when there are so much about our great Hebrew history that needs to be written about. Now days with Holocaust denier and from what I read on this comment, there are some who even calling our history is nothing more than fraud. Even stating that our great kings David and Solomon did not exist. Thought people will celebrate the discovery of our magnificent King Harrods Grave site, instead they said, it has no inscription anywhere to be found and that was nothing more than Roman Pilate’s wife favorite dog grave that was discovered.

    I advise our noble Jewish historians and book publishers to focus their research on Jewish history so mockers cannot mock us as a fraud anymore.

    eli.winstein@gmail.com or

    Dr. Eli Winstein
    Shavat Institute
    Herzliya, Israel

    May 12th, 2007, 1:18 am


    Enlightened said:

    Eli said:

    “So saddened to see that my fellow Jewish professionals are publishing books about Musluman-Muhammadan history when there are so much about our great Hebrew history that needs to be written about.”

    Eli I ask you a simple question ” How do we learn about each other and understand each other to find a middle ground if this work is not done by both sides?

    May 12th, 2007, 1:37 am


    majedkhaldoun said:

    My concern on Salafist is their hard position ,regarding women,their interpretations of women rights are different from what Quran said,an example is Quwameh,it means (in Quran) authority,where women must be loyal and obedient to men,PROVIDED men has VIRTUES and SPEND their money on women, it doesnot mean that only man has the right to ask for divorce,infact women has full right to ask and get divorce,within ODEH(Separation) time, women in Islam generally inherit half the men share but sometimes they inherit equal amount and sometime the woman take twice as much as the man, Salafist interpretations of inheritance change this,depriving women of their rights,other issues such as divorce and marriage,marriage requires in Islam, one representative two witnesses and qualified Sheikh,so divorce must require the same thing,not just saying you are divored,which frequently said out of anger not exactly meant seriously at a time of quiet deliberations, my understanding of Quran it clearly says that a judge from her side,and a judge from his side,discuss the matters,then decide if divorce is the answer,it is not just to say you are divorce,and divorce must follows.
    their are many other issues it will require a book.

    May 12th, 2007, 5:05 pm


    youngsyria said:

    “infact women has full right to ask and get divorce,within ODEH(Separation) time,”

    “women in Islam generally inherit half the men share but sometimes they inherit equal amount and sometime the woman take twice as much as the man,”

    what?.. how? who? proof?….new stuff to me!maybe because my islamic studies teacher was a wahabi..

    May 12th, 2007, 11:02 pm


    majedkhaldoun said:

    if you read Quran you will agree with me,
    “what?.. how? who? proof?….new stuff to me!maybe because my islamic studies teacher was a wahabi.. ”
    if you read souret al nisaa’, verse #12, it says if one dies and has no children and has a brother and sister from one of his parent each(sister or brother) will get equal amout equal to 1/6 of sibling inheritance, here woman get as much as man..
    in the same soura verse #11, it says if a woman or man dies and has no children,and no brothers or sisters,but has both parent alive the mother take 1/3 and the father take 1/6,ofcourse the husband of the dead woman will inherit 1/2. here is an example where the mother(woman) should take twice as the father(man) takes
    please read Quran and ignore what your islamic teacher told you, this is an example, that they changed Quran.

    May 13th, 2007, 3:54 am


    Enid Houston said:

    Great one Josh…you put some historical meat on the old bone of contention…by the way did you ever get an historical atlas of Oklahoma? U. of Texas is sending its first summer MSA students to Damascus instead of Cairo…the times they are changing for the better…you need to better understand the symbiosis of the two states…it’s outside your specialty but necessary…tell “Porky Mole” I’m glad he’s loosing weight in pounds.

    May 13th, 2007, 9:20 am


    Fares said:

    can’t publish something
    K, it seems like many of the load gloating voices are on vacation as well. Are they tired of discussing Islamic philosophies??? or they can’t defend the prisoners any more?


    May 14th, 2007, 5:34 am


    Zenobia said:

    I think this post and the prior sister one are fascinating, and I appreciate them very much. I say this even though – I don’t have much of a clue about these things….and it also makes my head spin a bit. Nonetheless…they are educational and it helps to have references then – for understanding more if one wants to pursue it.
    As well, I don’t think such theological subject are irrelevent because in fact – this is culture and politically connected to the current trends in Syria and the middle east in general… trends that should be understood if any of us hope to speculate about the thinking of the people of syria…

    May 14th, 2007, 8:17 am


    SyriaComment » Archives » “Ash’ari Islam Predominates in Syria,” by Anonymous said:

    […] 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. […]

    May 20th, 2007, 4:44 am


    The Syrian War – Bibliography and Sources | Red (team) Analysis said:

    […] Series on Salafi and Sufi influences on Islam in Syria in Syria Comment, 2007. […]

    October 7th, 2013, 4:33 am


    sufism said:

    learn to practice sufism

    June 16th, 2015, 5:30 pm


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