The Syrian Ulama at Peace and War

[inset_left]Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to RevolutionBy Dr. Thomas PierretCambridge University Press, 287 pagesCambridge, UK, 2013[/inset_left]When I met Sheikh Walid, a large, imposing man affiliated with Syria’s Islamic Front, I remember thinking that his role in the Syrian war must be one that inspires men to jihad. After taking tea and traveling around Syria with him, it became apparent that he was, in fact, instrumental in tempering the zeal of young fighters. While running 400 schools in Latakia province, he was also touring the region to provide religious education to men in the various rebel brigades, maintaining that “what we need are teachers, more than fighters.”

With the absence of a government presence in the rebel-held areas of Syria, many people there have come to rely on the Sunni Islamic scholars called Ulama in Arabic to meet their physical and spiritual needs. The importance of the Ulama in the conflict has yet to be widely acknowledged, as is evident in the dearth of books on the subject, yet understanding their role could help explain how the Syrian war has become more Islamic in character. Fortunately, Dr. Thomas Pierret’s Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution provides some much-needed illumination of the Ulama’s role in the conflict.

In Pierret’s view, the scholarship that does exist on this topic tends to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood or on key figures within Syria’s Islamic community, often overlooking significant portions of the clergy. Pierret demonstrates that it is precisely these overlooked segments that have had the greatest impact on Syria’s religious landscape. He also makes clear that the Ulama cannot be discounted when thinking about the future of Syria. It is possible that some of them may even play a crucial role in softening parts of the more hardline elements within the Syrian opposition.

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Pierret is able to write with considerable authority, being a lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and a regular commentator for Foreign Policy, the New York Times and Le Monde, among other leading publications. He is also well connected to his subject, having spent a considerable amount of time in Syria conducting field research. It is this résumé that sets his work apart from that of many other academics: He knows the men he is writing about; he has attended their lectures, interviewed them and broken bread with some of them.

The book opens with a historical overview of the role of the Ulama in Syria. Pierret explains how the Sunni religious elite has managed to maintain a level of independence from the state and how they have fared far better than the Islamists, including the Brotherhood. Pierret also boldly asserts that it is the Ulama, rather the Syrian Brotherhood, as is commonly believed, who are the real architects of the Islamization of the country.

The startling relationship between the state and the Ulama is exemplified in the book by the relationship between the late scholar Sheikh Ramadan Bouti and the Ba’athist government. Bouti’s tacit support for the government allowed him the opportunity to have long private meetings with Hafez Al-Assad, the former President of Syria and father of current President Bashar Al-Assad. Despite his relationship with the regime, Bouti was highly regarded in the Rukn Al-Din district, a largely Kurdish area of Damascus where he was genuinely loved. It is said that when the regime tried to buy his support by offering him an expensive car, he sold it and distributed the profits to the poor in that district. But Bouti refused to join the uprising: it is rumored either because he was stubborn (a common trait attributed to the Kurdish community in Syria), because he feared the exposure of certain secrets about his relationship with the state, or because of an apocalyptic vision he had in his sleep.

Pierret gives us insight into the network of Sunni Ulama, including its rivalries, its foibles and its contributions, as well its role as a potent force in the Islamization of Syrian society. Mohammed Rateb Al-Nabulsi, a sheikh who broadcasts symposia on the radio, illustrates the international reach these Ulama enjoy—one look at the popularity of his Facebook page is sufficient proof. Another sheikh, Wahba Zuhayli, makes CDs that compete with pop albums, and his compendium of comparative jurisprudence is monumental. These are men with serious religious clout.

The author also reveals that the movement is not driven only by men: groups such as Al-Qubaysiat, an influential all-female Sufi movement, boast thousands of members all over the country, including in the elite. Pierret debunks the oft-repeated myth about the Salafist cleric Adnan Al-Aroor’s sectarianism, and reveals how the conflict between Syrian Salafists and the Sufis has impacted the intellectual climate in Syria. The scholar also provides a thorough account of who’s who in the Syrian Ulama.

Some might criticize Pierret for labeling some of these religious figures as insincere, but his judgment is not cynical, and neither does it come from an anti-religious stance. It an assessment based on meticulous intellectual endeavor. He deals with the topic with great sensitivity and respect, and his book should be considered standard reading for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of the Syrian religious milieu.

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