New Age Islam
Sun May 26 2024, 09:14 PM

The War Within Islam ( 15 Oct 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Syria: Between the Sufis and the Salafists


By Mohammad Abu Rumman

محمد أبو رمان

(Translated from Arabic, Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam) 

 The rise of the Salafist movement in its traditional jihadist forms has been a manifest phenomenon during the Syrian revolution. This is largely because the revolution grew in the countryside mostly occupied by the Salafist groups.  Meanwhile, the Sufi movement, which is vehemently opposed to the Salafist interpretation of Islam and has predominantly thrived in Syria’s urban cities, split into pro-regime, pro-opposition and neutral currents. Sufism has long been the mainstream Sunni Islam in Syria, but is now under serious threat as Salafism gains power and growing influence. This state of affairs raises fundamental questions about Syria’s religiosity, which during the past decades was dominated by Sufism. There are now questions regarding whether the religiosity of Syria's Sunnis will permanently adopt the Salafist trend or just temporarily.

Syria's Sufi Tahleela band performs during the third annual Sufi Festival at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman, Oct. 12, 2010. (photo by REUTERS/Ali Jarekji)


Over the past decades, Sufism has been going off in different directions and divergent political trends, the most notable of which is the Zayd movement. It was founded by Sheikh Abdul Karim al-Rifai in the early 20th century. It took roots in Damascus’s conservative social circles and a network of mosques and seminaries.

But, the Zayd movement suffered a serious setback, when many of its members joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s insurrection against the regime in the 1980s, inviting the wrath of the government. The movement’s leader, Sheikh Osama al-Rifai (who was the eldest son of Abdul Karim al-Rifai and his successor as the movement’s leader) left the country and returned in the mid-1990s. Soon the Zaydis managed to restore their religious network and quickly expanded in Damascus. The movement’s leader Osama al-Rifai was widely respected, to the extent that in 2002 President Bashar al-Assad visited him, while religious leader visiting the president was quite strange to their tradition.

Another Sufi trend is the “Qubaisiate movement”. It is a female-oriented movement, but does not subscribe to the feminist ideas in the sense of the Western political ideas. This movement was headed by a lady, Sheikh Munira al-Qubaisi, who was an activist among the Syrian bourgeoisie. Later on, it went on establishing schools and associations in Syria and abroad, especially in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. It has a purely religious, spiritual and educational outlook.

On the other hand, a third Sufi trend that emerged during the past few decades has been the official religious establishment, represented by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the General Fatwa Institute. All its associations and allies support the Syrian regime in clear and unequivocal terms, particularly when they confront the Muslim Brotherhood. In the early 80s of the last century, a number of Sufi sheikhs filled the vacuum caused by the exile and arrest of the Ulema and religious scholars belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The most notable among these Sufi scholars was the former official mufti of Syria, Ahmad Kuftaro, who established his relationship with the regime very long ago, including a special relationship with late president Hafiz al-Assad. He contributed to the establishment of the religious complex in Damascus “Abu al-Noor” that attracted thousands of students for their early and university-level education, as well as a large number of Ulema, Islamic preachers and Fuquaha (Islamic jurists).

The Sufi Movements In The Midst Of the Revolution

The political truce between the government and majority of Sufi groups came to halt during the revolution, despite the absolute support accorded to the regime by the official religious establishment. The grand mufti of the Republic, Ahmad Hassouna, issued a fatwa calling for jihad in defence of the regime in March 2013. It was the time when Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, a well-known Sufi Sheikh was killed in a bombing at the Iman Mosque in Damascus. The reason was that he had strongly criticized protesters and demonstrators in his support for the regime. While the government and the opposition accused each other of the murder.

As for the feminist Sufi movement “Qubaisiate”, it chose to remain silent onlooker, refusing to support either of the regime or the opposition. While the opposition parties see to this silence as support for the regime, Syrian opposition circles point out that a number of the Quaisiate members have actively engaged in the revolution.

The only Sufi movement that openly supports the revolution is the Zayd movement. On the contrary, Sheikh Rifai calls for releasing detainees, putting an end to their torture, and other political reforms.

The turning point in the Zayd movement’s position was witnessed when the supporters of the regime beat Rifai and attacked his mosque and supporters. This incident provoked the people of Damascus, who came out to strongly demonstrate the next day in support of Rifai. Afterwards, he and his younger brother left the country and declared their clear support for the revolution.

The Salafists' rise in Syria is seen as the antithesis of the Sufis, who are suffering constant decline despite the official Syrian religious establishment having a Sufi mindset and comprising mostly of the Sufis. The reason why the Sufis are politically in decline is that the armed revolution was launched from the countryside where it grew, while Sufism is active in the cities and is allied with the bourgeoisie and the merchant class. The armed rebellion has been driven by rural and poorer classes not by the elite of the cities. As the armed conflict and sectarian and violence are on rise, the Sufis, sooner or later, will have no option but to support the revolution, as the regime’s grip weakens. Despite the Sufi movement’s social influence, its constant decline is a result of the present state of affairs in the region.

URL for the Arabic article: