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The Salafi-Asharite Divide: How a Centuries-old Theological Conflict Has Re-emerged in Syria

Until relatively recently, the term ‘Ashari’ was not well known in Syria. Most Syrian Sunni Muslims were content with identifying themselves simply as Sunnis, or if necessary, as not Wahhabis, a term that reduces all Salafi schools to a single oversimplified sectarian identity.

The term Asharism is used as a scholastic term covering most Sunnis in the Arab world. It stands in contrast to the Ahl al-Hadith school to which Sunni Salafis belong. After the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, increasing numbers of Salafis entered the country, establishing a presence in areas outside of regime control. Their leaders took advantage of any means possible to not only promote Salafism, but also criticize and launch attacks on moderate Sunnis.

The Salafis used the term ‘Asharites’ when referring to the moderate form of Sufism or the traditional Levantine school of thought. The way Salafis used this term was meant to invoke a centuries-old theological conflict in order to discredit Sunnis who were not Salafis.

Salafis capitalize on the weak points of rivals

Despite the already waning influence of Sufi orders, Salafi preachers and groups – particularly those of a jihadist bent – concentrated their efforts on attacking the religious school of thought to which most Syrians adhered.

They attacked what they labelled as Asharism as encompassing bidah, or ‘innovation’, in religious matters, a point of contention among Sunni schools that was used as a continual reminder of those Syrian Sunni scholars and institutions that stood by the regime or remained silent in the face of its repression. By painting the entire traditional Sunni establishment with the same brush, Salafis succeeded greatly in attracting more supporters and followers as well as strengthening their position in the Syrian theatre.

Salafi leaders invested in the tools of powerful propaganda, strong material capabilities and a well-organized command structure to reach out to the Syrian masses and play on their emotions. Their moderate Sunni rivals, on the other hand, lacked internal organization, political experience and a real understanding of how to confront this new ideological threat. In the end, the latter groups not only lost supporters, but also suffered a blow to their reputation and influence as participants in the revolution.

The role of moderate Sunni leaders in the revolution

The involvement of moderate Sunni leaders in the Syrian revolution was not limited to the handful of sheikhs and scholars who expressed their opposition to the regime early on and whose prominence prior to the Arab Spring helped lend them broader appeal. Rather, as their followers affirm, there was hardly a region in Syria where traditional Sunni scholars did not actively ally with the protestors or exercise their extensive influence to encourage the public to join the cause.

Many Sunni religious leaders noted that protestors were only able to use mosques as gathering places and launch their movement from them thanks to the support of local imams in the early stages of the revolution.

As for the fact that the al-Fatih Institute, the Sharia College at the University of Damascus and the renowned Abu al-Nur Institute in Damascus stood with the regime, this does not imply that all the graduates and scholars of these institutions toed the line in kind. In reality, there were many preachers, sheikhs, and scholars who had studied at said institutions, but chose to support the Syrian revolution.

The participation of sheikhs in the protest movement

Apart from those moderate Sunni sheikhs who became famous at the start of the revolution for standing with the protest movement, there were countless others who joined its ranks, but remain largely unknown. Ghouta is home to many of these latter figures – the majority of whom were graduates or faculty of the al-Fatih Institute – who actively participated in both peaceful demonstrations and military combat.

The same can be said for places like Homs, al-Sahel, Hama and Idlib, where most of the sheikhs who lent their support to the revolution were graduates of the Shari’a College and various institutes for the study of Ashari jurisprudence in Damascus.

In Damascus, as in Aleppo, the faculties of traditional religious institutions kept silent or expressed reservations concerning the revolution. Yet this did not prevent a number of figures affiliated with these institutions from siding with the protestors, whether in the capital or its surrounding countryside, where there are several renowned religious schools including al-Keltawia, al-Sha’baniyah, and the Turkmen Bareh Institute.

Only in eastern Syria was there still an active presence of Sufi orders, whose followers remained divided in their stances vis-à-vis the revolution. Some of their sheikhs and students played a vital role in relief work as well as armed resistance. Numerous Sufi military formations – most notably, the Sufi Freedom Movement and al-Qadisiyah Brigade in al-Bukamal – engaged in fighting in different parts of Deir ez-Zor before being defeated by the jihadist groups that came to dominate the region.

Causes and manifestations of Salafi expansion in Syria

Moderate Sunnism lost ground not only because of Salafism’s arrival on the Syrian scene and the spread of its military and proselytizing groups but also because moderate Sunnism did not place itself at the forefront, so that the revolution would not be branded as merely a sectarian movement. Lack of organizational experience and limited material capabilities among moderate Sunni leaders contributed to the weakening of their popular appeal, leading to major setbacks that isolated them from society.

Foreign jihadist Salafis were also not the only ones that targeted moderate Sunnis. Local Salafi groups, especially Ahrar al-Sham during the first four years of its existence along with Jaysh al-Islam, fought decisively against moderate Sunni forces in areas they controlled in the Damascus countryside.

Moreover, military confrontation and assassination were not the only methods employed by jihadist Salafis to challenge rival currents – the former shut down Sufi schools, expelled their sheikhs, destroyed shrines and banned Asharites from preaching and teaching in addition to carrying out detentions and forced displacements.

Tenuous prospects for Salafi reform

All this does not mean that the entire Salafi current has maintained an antagonistic attitude toward Sufis and other moderate groups. There were always sheikhs and preachers who strove to break the pattern of chronic intra-religious hostility – which dates back to the eighth century AD/second century AH – by joining forces with other Islamic currents in the struggle against the regime. Many well-known al-Fatih graduates from Damascus and Ghouta who supported the revolution alongside other Sunnis were Salafis, though they were primarily ‘academic Salafis’ or followers of the al-Sururiya school, which marries Salafism with the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps one of the most prominent manifestations of this rapprochement is the Syrian Islamic Council, which is made up of scholars from different Sunni schools of jurisprudence and theology, including Salafis from various backgrounds.

The council was established in April 2014 with the objective of ‘forming a Sunni religious authority that brings together the Syrian opposition’s Sharia schools and Islamic organizations’. It consists of 128 religious scholars and preachers from divergent currents of thought who, in the words of the council’s foundational documents, ‘support the Syrian revolution and seek to unify the position issued by scholars in fatwas and issues related to the general interest of Syrians as well as that of other countries and regional and international organizations’.

Yet this rapprochement has remained primarily at the level of individual religious figures rather than groups, especially military groups that failed multiple times to consolidate their agendas, as in the case of the Syrian Islamic Front, which was eventually and predictably dissolved. Similarly, Salafi groups like Ahrar al-Sham ended up splintering when they attempted to implement reforms to their ideology to make it less rigid and better adapted to local conditions.

The dire result of sectarian conflict

The result of these internal tensions has been an increasing reinforcement of ideological divisions and polarization between Salafis and moderate Sunnis within the Syrian opposition. However, in the military realm, Salafis have succeeded in eliminating – completely or in great part – rival local forces, be they Islamist or allied with the Free Syrian Army.

Like most leaders and elements whose factions disintegrated, traditional Sunni sheikhs and scholars chose to isolate themselves or flee in the wake of defeat. This has further undermined their position in the eyes of the public as they face accusations of inaction and desertion from the battlefield, which Salafi groups and their supporters have repeated and used to great effect in continuing to attack their moderate rivals who they labelled as Asharites.

Moreover, the failure of the Asharite-dominated Syrian Islamic Council to achieve an active presence on the ground as well as clarify the nature of its relationship with secular national opposition forces and other Syrian Islamist forces – in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood – has further complicated the political position of the traditional Sunni establishment. What remains clear is that the deterioration of the latter continues to negatively affect all parties involved in the Syrian war.