The country has a population of 21 million. Sunnis constitute 74 percent of the population and are present throughout the country. The largest religious group in Syria is the Sunni Muslims, of whom about 80 percent are native Syrian Arabs, with the remainder being Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, 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 two provinces in which they are not a majority: As Suwayda, where Druzes predominate, and Al Ladhiqiyah, where Alawis are a majority. In Al Hasakah, 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 Id al Adha, or "sacrificial" festival on the tenth of Dhul al Hijjah, the twelfth Muslim month; and the Id 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 cemetaries, 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 the Prophet's birthday, which falls on the twelfth of Rabia 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 Hanabali, 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. Hanafi law applies in sharia courts, and non-Muslim communities have their own religious courts using their own religious law.
Some 200 of the most prominent Sunni religious leaders in Syria signed a petition addressed to President Bashar al-Asad in early July 2006, protesting government education reform plans. The sheikhs were angered by attempts by the ministries of Education and Awqaaf (Islamic Endowments) to extend the duration of primary school by two years, to include the seventh and eight grades. Part of the implementation included orders issued by the Minister of the Awqaaf that prohibited religious schools and institutes from registering students in the seventh grade for the upcoming school year. Under the previously existing education rules, students could choose as of the seventh grade to specialize in Islamic education, in a religious curriculum completely shaped by Sunni religious leaders rather than by the SARG.
The petition certainly got the attention of the Syrian leadership, given that it was viewed as one of the first significant protests in decades against the Syrian regime by the Sunni religious establishment. Senior security officials intervened and asked the leaders to mute the protest, assuring them that the reforms would be shelved. This controversy is the latest chapter in the ongoing story of rising Islamic religious sentiment in Syria, regime attempts to co-opt, use, and control it, while repressing violent fundamentalism, and the futile attempts of feeble non-Ba'athist secular forces to make themselves heard above the din.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|