Supporters of the Opposition
Anas Sweid is a Syrian cleric from Homs and was the imam of al-Marija Mosque in the Bab Sibaa neighborhood of Homs.
An unknown cleric before the uprising, Sweid gained prominence during the early stages of the January 2012 siege of Homs.
In April 2011, Sweid attended talks with President Assad along with 20 Muslim scholars from Homs in an attempt to negotiate with the regime. After skipping a second meeting with Assad a few months later, Sweid was placed under house arrest and interrogated in October 2011. In January 2012, Sweid again attended talks with Assad before fleeing the country and calling for the downfall of the regime. He is a member of the Revolutionary Command Council of Homs. After the assassination of pro-regime cleric Dr. Said Ramadan Al-Buti on March 21st 2013, Sweid swore to God that the Assad regime had killed him in a statement and asked God to have mercy on him.
Sweid was born in 1977 and graduated from the Islamic Fath Institute in Damascus, Syria.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is the former imam of al-Hassan Mosque in Damascus.
He was among the first Sunni clerics to express his support for the uprising and condemn the government’s response to the largely peaceful early demonstrations. In June 2011, he was forced into exile by the Assad regime and moved to Morocco. He has since been participating in various opposition meetings in Turkey, Egypt, France, and the UK.
A longtime critic of the Syrian regime, al-Yaqoubi once refuted a statement made by Syrian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun and called for Hassoun’s resignation. This resulted in al-Yaqoubi’s immediate dismissal from his post, to which he was eventually reinstated. He had also been a longtime critic of the late Dr. Said Ramadan al-Buti, criticizing his stance supporting the Syrian regime in many public writings, however after the assassination of Buti on March 21st, al-Yaqoubi claimed that he was a martyr and had been privately readying to defect from the Syrian regime.
Sheikh al-Yaqoubi has said that while he supports an Islamic state, his interpretation of Islam is more moderate than that of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. Al-Yaqoubi’s understanding, which he contends is also the most mainstream interpretation of Islam by Syrian clerics, although rejecting secularism, advocates a type of separation between temporal and spiritual power. The National Bloc, of which he is a member, sees the 1950s Syrian Constitution as a model for governance. He has stated that the most important article in that constitution is the one proclaiming Islamic sharia as the basis of all legislation although he has stated that Islamic law in its proper interpretation does not apply to non-Muslims.
In a recent interview, al-Yaqoubi clarified that he sought a democratic and Islamic Syria. Sheikh al-Yaqoubi was born in 1963 in Damascus to an influential Islamic family. Three of his ancestors, including his father, were imams at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. His father was also a prominent Sufi scholar. Al-Yaqoubi belongs to the Shadhili Sufi tradition and is deeply learned in the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence. He studied at the University of Damascus within the Faculty of Islamic Law, where he obtained a degree in Arabic literature in 1987. He then studied philosophy for two years at the Beirut Arab University before beginning a linguistics doctoral program in the Oriental Studies Department of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which he never completed. After having worked as a teacher and preacher, the Swedish Islamic Society appointed him mufti of Sweden in 1999. Upon returning to Syria in the mid-2000s, he began preaching at al-Hassan Mosque and teaching theology at the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
SHEIKH SARIYA AL-RIFAI and SHEIK OSAMA AL-RIFAI
Sheikh Sariya al-Rifai and his brother Osama were both prominent Islamist scholars and imams in Damascus until going into exile. Osama is the vice president and Sariya is a member of the Syrian Islamic Scholar Association (Rabitah Ulama al-Sham), which supports the revolution against the Assad regime. Until recently, Sheikh Sariya preached at the Zayd ibn Thabit Mosque and Sheikh Osama preached at the Rifai Mosque, both in central Damascus. Syrian Islamic Scholar Association
After the 1979–1982 clashes between the Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Rifai brothers went into exile in Saudi Arabia for over fifteen years. Upon their return in 2000, they continued to attract thousands of followers and gain legitimacy among the Sunni middle class in Damascus.
As early as March 2011, the sheikhs stated their support for peaceful demonstrations. Sariya joined nineteen leading clerics in signing a petition against the regime. The brothers denounced the crackdown on protesters and thus the Assad government’s handling of the situation.
With the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the Rifai mosque—named after Sariya and Osama’s father, Sheikh Abdul-Karim al-Rifai—quickly became one of the main locations for protests inside the capital. On April 1, 2011, around 600 protesting worshippers locked themselves in the Rifai Mosque. On August 27, 2011, the mosque was attacked during the celebration of Laylat al-Qadr (translated as the Night of Destiny, or the anniversary of the night Muslims believe the first Quran verses were revealed to the Prophet). Sheikh Osama al-Rifai was physically assaulted and hospitalized.
Subsequently, Sariya was banned from preaching and the mosque was closed for several weeks. Both left the country after these incidents, with Sariya moving to Cairo and Osama to Turkey.
Syrian Islamic Scholar AssociationOsama and Sariya were born in Damascus in 1944 and 1948, respectively. Osama graduated from the University of Damascus with a degree in Arabic studies in 1971. Sariya graduated from the Faculty of Theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1977.
The al-Rifai brothers are prominent leaders of the Jamaat Zayd (the Zayd Group), which runs charities in Damascus and elsewhere that provide food for families in need.
MOHAMMAD KARIM RAJEH
Mohammad Karim Rajeh was a Friday preacher at the al-Hassan Mosque in Damascus until he resigned in May 2011. In September 2012, he joined with other Islamic scholars to establish the Syrian Association of Islamic Scholars (Rabitat Ulama al-Sham), which he now chairs.
Sheikh Rajeh has been an outspoken critic of the regime since the start of the uprising in March 2011. State authorities banned protesters and worshippers from accessing the al-Hassan Mosque and forced Rajeh to resign in May 2011. In August 2011, he co-signed a statement with other religious scholars—including Sheikh Sariya al-Rifai—condemning the regime for its violent crackdown on protesters and holding it responsible for the chaos in the country. In late September 2011, security forces arrested Rajeh for describing the Syrian army as impious.
Born in the Damascus suburbs in 1926, Sheikh Rajeh earned a degree from the Faculty of Education at the University of Damascus. He taught in Bosra, Syria, and was then appointed mufti of Southern Damascus.
MAHMOUD ABU AL-HUDA AL-HUSSEINI
Mahmoud Abu al-Huda al-Husseini was the director of the Islamic religious endowment in Aleppo until he was removed from his position in December 2010.
Al-Husseini was among the first clerics from Aleppo to openly criticize the regime after the uprising began in March 2011. He then established himself in Turkey, where he leads a small opposition movement called the National Bloc (al-Kitlat al-Wataniyat) with Dr. Mustafa Kayali, Sheikh Muhammad Yaqoubi, and Owaynan Aljarba. Al-Husseini calls for a civil state and a bicameral parliamentary system of government with quotas for all aspects of Syrian society.
Born in Aleppo in 1960 into a family of scientists, al-Husseini graduated with a MD from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Aleppo in 1985. He also studied Sufism and Islamic thought at the Higher Institute of Dawa in Beirut and became officially involved in religious affairs in 1990 after becaming an imam at the Adeleya Mosque and the Grand Mosque of Aleppo. He also holds a diploma in Arabic history.
Al-Husseini wrote several books on Sufism and Islamic ideology that have been translated into English, Spanish, and Malay. In addition, he has taken part in numerous international conferences and given lectures in various universities across the world.
EMAD AD-DIN AL-RASHID
Emad ad-Din al-Rashid is the current president of the Syrian National Movement and the former vice dean of the Faculty of Islamic law at the University of Damascus.
He joined the opposition and fled Syria for Istanbul in spring 2011 at the outset of the popular uprising. He founded his own Islamist-leaning movement in December 2011 as part of the Syrian National Council called the Syrian National Current (al-tayyar al-watani al-sury). This movement operates as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian National Council. Since al-Rashid channels funds to several battalions across Syria, the Syrian National Current is directly involved in the armed uprising.
Al-Rashid is well-connected within the Syrian religious establishment and has some political experience (he supported two independent candidates in the 2007 legislative elections).
Born in Quneitra, Wafik City, in 1965, al-Rashid holds a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Damascus and another doctorate in hadith from Jinan University. He was deputy head of the International Jerusalem Foundation in Syria until spring 2011 and a member of the Project Management Institute, an American nonprofit organization. Al-Rashid has written extensively on freedom andIslamic political thought.
He now resides in Istanbul and Cairo.
Adnan al-Arour is a Syrian Salafi cleric.
Since the start of the uprising, al-Arour has broadcast several statements against the Syrian regime and its Alawite supporters on satellite television channels. His messages seem to have mostly reached militants in rural and working-class urban areas, although the real extent of his support is hard to gauge. Moreover, the Central Area Clan Federation, an opposition-led military battalion in Homs, claims it receives financial assistance from Sheikh al-Arour.
Al-Arour left Syria in 1974 and established himself in Riyadh. He reportedly returned to Syria in late September 2012 and was the keynote speaker at a meeting that gathered the leaders of the Revolutionary Military Councils. Because he was not significantly involved in Syria during his years in Saudi Arabia, al-Arour was unknown to many Syrians before his recent television appearances and forceful denunciations of the Assad regime.
Adnan al-Arour was born in Hama in 1948. He holds a degree in education from the University of Damascus and became an Islamist scholar, teaching in Damascus and then Riyadh. He currently directs a Saudi scientific research and publishing center.
ABDUL KARIM BAKKAR
Dr. Abdul Karim Bakkar is president of the Shura Council of the Syrian Islamic Scholars Association (Rabitah Ulama al-Sham). Born in Homs in 1951, he studied Arabic and linguistics at al-Azhar University, earning a master’s degree in 1975 and a doctorate in 1979.
Bakkar has been based in Saudi Arabia since 1980, teaching Islam and linguistics at Imam Ibn Saud University and King Khaled University. A frequent preacher on pan-Arab media, Bakkar has had radio shows on Radio Quran in Riyadh, written columns on the IslamToday website—which is known to be closer to the Salafi interpretation of Islam—and appeared frequently on al-Arabiyah TV.
A strong opponent of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Bakkar signed a fatwa in March 2012 proclaiming it a religious obligation to carry arms against Syria’s ruling government. He also signed a June 2012 statement after the Houla massacre calling on the international community to put more pressure on the Syrian regime and help oust Assad.
Bakkar has noted that while Islam contradicts democracy in certain places—such as democracy’s insistence that the people are the main source of power, which contradicts Islam’s tenet that God was sovereign, it is compatible with democracy in other areas.
MOHAMMAD RATIB AL-NABULSI
Dr. Mohammad Ratib al-Nabulsi is an Islamic scholar and a member of the Syrian Islamic Scholars Association (Rabitah Ulama al-Sham). He was born in 1938 in Damascus to a family of religious scholars. He received a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language and literature from Damascus University in 1964, a master’s degree in Arabic literature from the University of Leon in Lebanon, and a doctorate in education from Dublin University in the United Kingdom.
In 1974, al-Nabulsi was appointed preacher of the Sheikh Abdul Ghani al-Nabulsi Mosque in Damascus. He worked as a professor in numerous universities in Damascus from 1969 to 1999, where he taught Islamic studies and the Quran in addition to writing books about Islamic studies and pedagogy. He also published Nahj al-Islam magazine, which was issued by the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments.
In May 2005, he was appointed preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus by the Syrian Ministry of Endowments. He has preached throughout the world, including during several visits to the United States, Lebanon, Mali, Senegal, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. He is also known for having several television shows preaching Islam on satellite television channels including Syrian TV, Abu Dhabi TV, Sharjah TV, al-Waha, and the Infinity Channel.
Al-Nabulsi announced his support for the Syrian revolution in a July 2011 sermon. He condemned the Assad regime’s use of force against protestors and noted that corruption and tyranny must always be opposed. On August 17, 2011, al-Nabulsi wrote a letter to Dr. Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, a staunch defender of the Assad regime, urging him to reconsider his support for the Syrian president. On September 10, 2012, al-Nabulsi joined the Syrian Islamic Scholars Association with Dr. Mohammad Karim Rajeh and Sheikhs Sariya and Osama al-Rifai.
MUHAMMAD ALI SABOUNI
Sheikh Muhammad Ali Sabouni is head of the Islamic Scholars Association of Syria. Born in 1932 in Aleppo, he is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Quran and the author of one of the most famous collections of Quranic exegesis in the world, Tafsir al-Sabouni. He is a traditional Sunni who adheres to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.
In 1952, he earned a doctorate-equivalent certificate in Islamic law from al-Azhar University in Cairo. From 1952–1962, he taught Islamic law and culture in secondary schools in Aleppo. He then moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was a professor of Islamic law at the University of Mecca and Umm al-Qura University, then worked as a consultant for the Muslim World League. He has written dozens of books on Islamic law and has a 600-episode television show on Quranic exegesis.
Only one month after the outbreak of the 2011 Syrian uprising, Sabouni denounced the regime’s slowness in carrying out promised reforms, asking how injustice could be removed within a matter of days if the regime had failed to implement reforms for years. Sabouni made a statement saying that supporting the peaceful protests against Assad was a religious obligation for all Muslim scholars. He also issued fatwas calling upon all protesters to stand firm and fight against tyranny and forbidding soldiers in the Syrian army from fighting their brethren.
Supporters of the Regime:
MUHAMMAD SAID RAMADAN AL-BUTI
Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti was the head of the Theology Department at the University of Damascus. He was assassinated in what appeared to be a suicide bombing attack on al-Iman Mosque in Damascus on March 21st 2013 by unknown perpetrators.
Al-Bouti was known as a staunch defender of the Assad regime. He has criticized the protesters for causing disturbances and accused them of being backed by external powers. He had stated that fighting in the Syrian army for Assad was a religious obligation.
Born in 1926 on the Turkish island of Butan, al-Buti immigrated to Damascus with his father when he was four years old. He earned his doctorate in 1955 from the Faculty of Islamic Law at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Since 1965, al-Buti had held various positions at the University of Damascus—professor, vice dean, dean, and as chair of the Theology Department. He is a prolific writer and has published several books on religion, philosophy, and Arabic literature. He had also written extensively against the Salafi interpretation of Islam.
AHMAD BADREDDIN HASSOUN
Ahmad Bardreddin Hassoun is the grand mufti of Syria.
Hassoun has outspokenly condemned opposition forces and voiced his support for the regime since the start of the Syrian crisis. On October 1, 2011, his twenty-two-year-old son, Sariya, was killed near Ebla University on the highway connecting Idlib and Aleppo. Hassoun subsequently accused the rebels of being armed Islamists backed by “foreign hands,” specifically accusing Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he claimed in a public address aired on Syria News TV that he would command suicide bombers to attack in the United States and Europe if these foreign powers were to militarily intervene in Syria.
Born in Aleppo in 1949, Hassoun holds a degree in Arabic literature as well as a doctorate of jurisprudence from the renowned al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was a member of the Syrian parliament from to 1990 to 1998. He was appointed mufti of Aleppo in 2002 and is a member of the Grand Council of Fatwas as well as preacher at the Rawda Mosque in Aleppo. He was promoted to the position of grand mufti by President Bashar al-Assad in July 2005.
MOHAMMAD ABDUL SATTAR AL-SAYYED
Mohammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed is the minister of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) of Syria.
Sheikh Sattar al-Sayyed has supported the regime since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. He has also refuted speculation of his defection, calling such reports “sheer dreams and illusions being crafted by the media.”
Born in Tartus in 1958, al-Sayyed obtained a degree in economics and trade in 1980 from the University of Damascus as well as a PhD in Islamic Studies in 2000. He served as director of Religious Endowments and mufti of the Tartus Governorate from 1985 until 2002. He was then appointed deputy minister of Religious Endowments for Religious Affairs before becoming minister in 2007. Sheikh al-Sayyed has participated in several Islamic conferences and delivered a number of lectures.
Wahba Zuhayli is the chairman of Islamic jurisprudence in the College of Sharia at the University of Damascus and a preacher at al-Badr Mosque in Deir Atiyah.
Zuhayli is a prominent Islamic legal philosopher and jurist and one of the most well-known Syrian Islamic scholars. Born in Deir Atiyah in 1932, he studied Islamic law at al-Azhar University in Cairo and received his doctorate in Islamic law from Cairo University in 1963. He has written dozens of books on comparative Islamic law and has lectured in the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Pakistan, and Libya. A strong critic of Salafism, he defends Sufi practices such as intercession through righteous Muslims, celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and gatherings of worshippers chanting remembrances of God (majalis dhikr). He has not taken a clear public position against the regime nor has he spoken out in favor of it.
Dr. Muhammad Habash is an Islamic scholar, preacher, and thinker in Damascus and has been an independent member of the Syrian parliament since 2003. Born in 1962, he has a doctorate in interpretation of the Quran from the Sudan Council of Higher Education in Syria, a master’s degree in Islamic law from Damascus University, and multiple bachelor’s degrees in Islamic law and Arabic.
Habash was director of the Institute of the Holy Quran in Syria from 1989 to 2001 and has been a preacher at al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus since 1981. From 1986 to 2009, he was director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus. He has written 52 books on Islamic thought.
Known for his moderate Islamic views, Habash is the nephew of former Syrian grand mufti Ahmed Kuftaro. He says that his Islamic political thought is influenced by Kuftaro and by reformists such as Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, and Jawdat Said. He is well-known for his contention that individual judgment and reason need a stronger role in interpretations of Islam and his calls for Islamic reform and revival. He has denounced terrorism, the use of violence against non-Muslims, and conservative interpretations of jihad, preferring a liberal understanding.
Habash is highly critical of the idea of religion having a monopoly on politics. He claims to believe in an interpretation of Islam that allows for a democratic and secular state with Islamic movements working as a part of civil society, similar to Turkey. He has vocally criticized Saudi Arabia, saying that its interpretation of Islam encourages extremism and misrepresents the true nature of Islam to the West.
Habash had spoken in support of the Syrian regime before the uprising. In July 2012, however, he stated that he had never been a member of the Assad regime and never supported Assad as a member of parliament. He also clarified that he had not supported the regime since the outbreak of the revolution.
While he has praised the righteous nonviolent protesters and condemned the regime’s shabiha militia and the army for waging war on the Syrian people, Habash has also censured the opposition for massacres and crimes. He is strongly opposed to foreign military intervention into Syria, saying “it will only bring catastrophe,” but he has called on the international community to pressure both the regime and the opposition to begin negotiations. He has also called on the Assad regime to withdraw its army from the cities and attempt to solve the crisis through dialogue.