Islam in Syria

Islam in Syria is followed by 90% of the country's total population:[1] Sunnis make up 74%[1] of the total, mostly of Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman ethnicities. Shias make up the remaining 13%:[1] Alawites are the predominant Shia group, followed by Twelvers and Ismailis. Sunnis are mainly of the Shafi'i madhhab with pockets of Hanafi and Hanbali. Several large Sufi orders are active in the country, including the Naqshbandi tariqa, and Qadiriyya. Although not traditionally considered as Muslims, the Druze make up 3% of the total population.[1]


In 634-640, Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the form of the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the region becoming part of the Islamic empire. In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital of the empire in Damascus. Syria was divided into four districts: Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan. The Islamic empire expanded rapidly and at its height stretched from Spain to India and parts of Central Asia; thus Syria prospered economically, being the centre of the empire. Early Umayyad rulers such as Abd al-Malik and Al-Walid I constructed several splendid palaces and mosques throughout Syria, particularly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. Though not considered as equals under the law and required to pay a special poll-tax, there was a general toleration of Christians (mostly ethnic Arameans and in the north east ethnic Assyrians) and other religious minorities in this era as long as they accepted Islamic rule. In the mid-8th century, the Caliphate collapsed amid dynastic struggles, regional revolts and religious disputes. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to Baghdad. Arabic — made official under Umayyad rule — became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era. For periods, Syria was ruled from Egypt, under the Tulunids (887-905), and then, after a period of anarchy, the Ikhshidids (941-969). Northern Syria came under the Hamdanids of Aleppo.[6]

Krak des Chevaliers from the South-West The court of Ali Saif al-Daula, 'Sword of the State,' (944-967) was a centre of culture, thanks to its nurturing of Arabic literature. He resisted Byzantine expansion by skillful defensive tactics and counter-raids into Anatolia. After his death, the Byzantines captured Antioch and Aleppo (969). Syria was then in turmoil as a battleground between the Hamdanids, Byzantines and Damascus-based Fatimids. The Byzantines had conquered all of Syria by 996, but the chaos continued for much of the 11th century as the Byzantines, Fatimids and Buyids of Baghdad engaged in a struggle for supremacy. Syria was then conquered by the Seljuk Turks (1084-1086). After a century of Seljuk rule, Syria was conquered (1175-1185) by Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt. During the 12th-13th centuries, parts of Syria were held by Crusader states: the County of Edessa (1098-1149), the Principality of Antioch (1098-1268) and County of Tripoli (1109-1289). The area was also threatened by Shi'a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin) and in 1260 the Mongols briefly swept through Syria. The withdrawal of the main Mongol army prompted the Mamluks of Egypt to invade and conquer Syria. In addition to the sultanate's capital in Cairo, the Mamluk leader, Baibars, made Damascus a provincial capital, with the cities linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons. The Mamluks eliminated the last of the Crusader footholds in Syria and repulsed several Mongol invasions.

Citadel of Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.[7][8] At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered persecution. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria.


Sunni Islam

Main article: Sunni Islam

The largest religious group in Syria is the Sunni Shafi'i Muslims, of whom about 70 percent are native Syrian Arabs, with the remainder being Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, Iraqis and Palestinians. Sunni Islam sets the religious tone for Syria and provides the country's basic values.

Sunnis follow nearly all occupations, belong to all social groups and nearly every political party, and live in all parts of the country. There are only three governorates in which they are not a majority: As-Suwayda Governorate, where Druzes predominate, and Latakia Governorate and Tartus Governorate, where Alawis are a majority. In Al-Hasakah Governorate, Sunnis form a majority, but most of them are Kurds rather than Arabs.

In theory, a Sunni approaches his God directly because the religion provides him no intercession of saints, no holy orders, no organized clerical hierarchy, and no true liturgy. In practice, however, there are duly appointed religious figures, some of whom exert considerable social and political power. Among them are men of importance in their community who lead prayers and give sermons at Friday services. Although in the larger mosques the imams are generally well-educated men who are informed about political and social affairs, an imam need not have any formal training. Among beduin, for example, any literate member of the tribe may read prayers from the Quran. Committees of socially prominent worshipers usually run the major mosques and administer mosque-owned land and gifts.

The Muslim year has two canonical festivals—the Eid al-Adha, or "sacrificial" festival on the tenth of Dhul al Hijjah, the twelfth Muslim month; and the Eid al-Fitr, or "festival of breaking the fast," which celebrates the end of the fast of Ramadan on the first of Shawwal, the tenth month. Both festivals last 3 or 4 days, during which people wear their best clothes, visit and congratulate each other, and give gifts. People visit cemeteries, often remaining for some hours, even throughout the night. The festival of the Id al Fitr is celebrated more joyfully than the Id al Adha because it marks the end of the hardships of Ramadan. Lesser celebrations take place on Mawlid, which falls on the twelfth of Rabi' al-awwal, the third month, and on the first of Muharram, the beginning of the Muslim new year.

Islamic law provides direction in all aspects of life. There are four major schools of Islamic law—the Hanafi, the Hanbali, the Shafii, and the Maliki—each named after its founder and all held to be officially valid. Any Muslim may belong to any one of them, although one school usually dominates a given geographical area. The schools agree on the four recognized sources of law—the Quran, the Sunna, the consensus of the faithful (ijma), and analogy (qiyas)--but differ in the degree of emphasis they give to each source. Represented in Syria are the Shafii school and the more liberal Hanafi school, which places greater emphasis on analogical deduction and bases decisions more on precedents set in previous cases than on literal interpretation of the Quran or Sunna.

Conservative, Sunni leaders look to the ancient days of Islam for secular guidance. Only since the first quarter of the twentieth century have Syrian Sunnis become acutely aware of the need for modern education. Therefore, secularization is spreading among Sunnis, especially the younger ones in urban areas and in the military services. After the first coup d'état in 1949, the waqfs were taken out of private religious hands and put under government control. Civil codes have greatly modified the authority of Islamic laws, and the educational role of Muslim religious leaders is declining with the gradual disappearance of kuttabs, the traditional mosque-affiliated schools.

Despite civil codes introduced in the past years, Syria maintains a dual system of sharia and civil courts (see The Judiciary, ch. 4). Hanafi law applies in sharia courts, and non-Muslim communities have their own religious courts using their own religious law.

Moreover, the Syrian Sunni Muslims have close links to the Lebanese Sunni Muslims,[2] Iraqi Sunni Muslims and Jordanian Sunni Muslims.

Twelver Shia Islam

Main article: Twelver Shia

The Ithna Asharia Shia play only a minor role in Syrian politics. In religious affairs, they look to Shia centers in Iraq, especially Karbala and An Najaf, and to Iran. However, Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and Syria's alliance with Iran in its war with Iraq, have elevated the prestige of Syria's Shia minority. As hundreds of Iranian tourists began to visit Damascus each week, the Shia shrine of the tomb of Sayada Zaynab, granddaughter of Muhammad, located in Al Ghutah outside Damascus, became a major pilgrimage destination, replacing those areas no longer accessible in Iraq. Moreover, the Syrian Shi'a Twelvers have close links to the Shi'a Twelvers in Lebanon.[3]


Main article: Alawites
Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite

Alawism is an offshoot of Shia Islam and constitute the second largest Islamic sect in Syria and are mainly located in northwestern Syria.


Main article: Ismaili

The Shia Ismailis form the second largest branch of Shia Islam, the split having occurred over the recognition of the Seventh Imam. Shia Ismailis, believe that Musa Ja'far al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, appointed Isma'il to be the Seventh Imam, a line that continues unbroken to the present day, the office currently citting with His Highness the Aga Khan. The Shia Ithna Asharia, however, believe that Jafar appointed Isma'il's brother Musa al Kadhim to be the Seventh Imam, a line of Imamat that ended with the 12th Imam of the Ithna Asharia. Little is known of the early history of the sect, but it was firmly established by the end of the ninth century. From 969 to 1171, an Ismaili dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled as caliphs in Egypt. The Ismaili power in Syria was stamped out by the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt, after the former offered the Crusaders their allegiance and conversion to Christianity - which were rejected by the Knights Templar.[4]

Ismailis are divided into two major groups, the Mustali and the Nizari. The Ismailis of Syria, numbering about 200,000, are predominantly Nizaris; this group gained prominence during the Crusades when a mystical society of Nizaris, called Assassins, harassed both the Crusaders and Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayyubi). The Nizari Ismaili community has continued in Syria to the present day and recognizes the Aga Khan as the 49th hereditary Imam, the only line of Imamat that continues to the modern era. [Shahgaldian, op. cit.].

Originally clustered in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, most of the Syrian Ismailis have resettled south of Al-Salamiyah on land granted to the Ismaili community by Abdul Hamid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909. A few thousand Ismailis live in the mountains west of Hama, and about 5,000 are in Al Ladhiqiyah. The western mountain group is poor and suffers from land hunger and overpopulation—resulting in a drift toward the wealthier eastern areas as well as seasonal migration to the Al-Salamiyah area, where many of them find employment at harvest-time. The wealthier Ismailis of Al-Salamiyah have fertile and well-watered land and are regarded as clannish, proud, and tough.


Main articles: Druze and Druze in Syria

In 1987, the Druze community constituted 3 percent of the population and ranked as the third largest Islamic religious minority in Syria. The Druze constitute the overwhelming majority in the Jabal al Arab (Jabal ad-Duruz), a rugged and mountainous region in southwestern Syria.

The Druze religion is a eleventh-century offshoot of Ismaili Islam.


Main article: Ahmadiyya in Syria

Ahmadiyya is a small Islamic movement in Syria. The history of the movement in Syria begins in the 1920s, when the second caliph of the Community, Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad visited Damascus, as part of his tour of Europe and the Middle East. The caliph appointed Sayyid Zayn al'Abidin Waliullah Shah and Jalal al-Din Shams to be sent for missionary work in Damascus. Along with Maulvi Abu'l-'Ata Jalandhari, who arrived for a mission in Jerusalem, the three missionaries spent their time spreading Ahmadi teachings in major towns and cities across the Middle East, including Haifa, Beirut and Cairo.[5]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

  1. 1 2 3 4 "Syria - International Religious Freedom Report 2006". U.S. Department of State. 2006. Retrieved 2009-06-28.
  2. "Closer ties emerge between Sunni militants from Lebanon and Syria, officials say". Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  3. "Report: Hizbullah Training Shiite Syrians to Defend Villages against Rebels". Naharnet. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  4. Cyril Glassé (2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam (illustrated, revised ed.). Rowman Altamira. p. 226. ISBN 9780759101906.
  5. Adil Hussain Khan (2015). From Sufism to Ahmadiyya: A Muslim Minority Movement in South Asia. Indiana University Press. p. 134.

Further reading

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