After the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, certain religious institutions gained influence in a manner unprecedented since the country’s independence in 1945. This followed from efforts of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to bring them more tightly under the state’s control. The price these institutions paid, however, was that the regime used them to advance its own interests, while they would surrender their administrative independence—which had been, until then, a defining feature of Syria’s Sunni religious establishment.
The most prominent example was the private Fatah Islamic Institute, which teaches Islam, Islamic jurisprudence, and Arabic. Along with two other institutions—the Sayyida Ruqiyya Foundation and the Abou Nour Foundation, which was established by Syria’s grand mufti between 1964 and 2004, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro—the Fatah Islamic Institute was transformed by Legislative Decree 48 of April 4, 2011. The decree helped initiate the integration of these institutions into the state, ultimately leading the Ministry of Higher Education to recognize the degrees they issue as legitimate, thereby allowing graduates to work in state institutions and study abroad.
This was done by unifying the university-level departments of the three institutions (but not their middle and secondary schools) and placing them in a single organization under the umbrella of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, named the Damascus Institute for the Study of Islamic Law, Arabic Language, and Islamic Studies and Research (Maahad al-Sham lil Ulum al-Shariyyeh wal Lugha al-Arabyia wal Dirasat wal Buhuth al-Islamiya). In January 2017, the state went a step further when it effectively transformed that institute into a public university called the University of the Levant for Islamic Sciences (Jamiaat Bilad al-Sham lil Ulum al-Shariyyeh).
The trajectory of the Fatah Islamic Institute reflects two defining realities of the relationship between the state and the ulama, or religious scholars, in Syria. First, there are no longer private religious establishments outside the state administration, ending centuries of independence. And second, although the institute became more prominent through its regime ties, the regime benefited more, using the institution to its advantage.
Officially Sanctioned Islam Under the Baath Party
When the Baath Party took power in 1963, it broke with previous Syrian regimes by not trying to develop a religious bureaucracy. There had been earlier attempts prior to Baath rule to increase the state’s authority over religious institutions, but these had largely been unsuccessful. The Baath Party gave up on such efforts, preferring a hardline security approach to religion.
Under the Baath Party, the ulama were not part of the state bureaucracy, nor did they have a representative association or union similar to other organizations set up by the state to oversee social groups. The principal point of contact between the Syrian state and the religious establishment at the time was the Ministry of Religious Endowments, a weak institution with limited prestige. The relationship between the ulama and the state contrasted with the ties existing among Al-Azhar, the Egyptian state, the Council of Senior Scholars, and the Saudi state. That is why Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, who became mufti after an election in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, was largely a symbolic figure, whose influence came from his personal network of relations rather than his institutional standing.
This impacted the development of Syria’s ulama. Their distance from the state allowed them to become economically independent, so that they relied more on the private sector for funding, while focusing on social work instead of political action. The religious establishment was decentralized, and this led to the creation of categories and associations of religious scholars with varying degrees of connection to the state. They and the state benefited mutually from their relationships. The associations provided the regime with religious and political legitimacy. In turn, the regime met the main demands of the ulama, namely preserving religious and social conservatism; upholding the ulama’s stature, status, and relevance; and addressing the demands of each association within the context of internal and intra-associational rivalries. This defined Syria’s religious landscape from 1963 until the legislative decree in 2011.
The Development of the Fatah Islamic Institute
The Fatah Islamic Institute was founded in 1956 by Sheikh Saleh al-Farfour, the scion of a Damascus-based family that had produced many religious scholars. He originally studied under the religious innovator Sheikh Badruddin al-Hasni, among Damascus’s most significant ulama. During the 1940s, Farfour began his own activities, first by hosting study circles (halaqat ilm) in the Umayyad Mosque and other mosques in Damascus’s old city, such as the Fathi Mosque in al-Qaimariyya.
To support his work financially, Farfour established the Fatah Islamic Association, which allowed him to provide Islamic teaching and charity to students of religion. The association bought Farfour a house and worked with him to set up the institute in the association’s name. Its curriculum was based on key works in Islamic thought and Arabic lessons for middle and high school students, amounting to a five-year program at the end of which students would earn an institutional certificate. In 1965, a section was opened for women. In 1971, the institute established the Specialization Department for university-level study, offering a three-year program of courses—one on Islamic jurisprudence, another on Arabic language and literature, and a third on the study of the Quran and the hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 1984, two years before he died, Farfour handed administration of the middle and high school—known as the Sabahi Department—to Sheikh Abdel-Fattah al-Bazam, while one of his sons, Houssam al-Din, took over the Specialization Department. The department gained academic accreditation in 1994 through a deal Bazam and Din signed with Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, on the condition that the institute implement Al-Azhar’s curriculum and develop and expand the courses offered by the Specialization Department. This allowed their graduates to receive Al-Azhar certificates. However, the agreement was abandoned at the start of the millennium without any clear explanation. The Fatah Islamic Institute did expand, however, moving from its original location around the Bilal al-Habshi Mosque in the old city of Damascus to offices in the Abou Ayoub al-Ansari Mosque in Zahira al-Jadida.
The Fatah Islamic Institute continues to teach Arabic based on classic texts of Islamic law. This is part of the institute’s integrated, traditional educational program, offered to a small number of students, that has high entry and graduation requirements. The institute also enforces significant discipline and conservatism—especially for women—making it attractive to Damascene society, which leans socially conservative, and allowing it to compete with other institutes, most notably the Abou Nour Foundation.
Competing for the Regime’s Favor
For a long time, the Abou Nour Foundation was the Baathist regime’s favored religious group. An example of the regime’s approval occurred in 1967, when it used the foundation to replace imams who had resigned following an article in the Syrian army magazine describing religions as retrograde, suggesting they be placed in a museum. The foundation repeatedly broke ranks with its peers to improve its status with the regime. However, after February 1982, when thousands of people in Hama were massacred following a failed insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime somewhat relegated the foundation when it sought Islamic legitimacy. This advantaged the prominent Islamic writer and thinker Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, who had long dominated the religious scene.
The Abou Nour Foundation’s preferential status was a major reason the Fatah Islamic Institute differentiated itself at the time. In 1993, the situation changed when Sheikh Abdel-Fattah al-Bazam was appointed mufti of Damascus in a regime effort to co-opt the institute. However, because Kuftaro remained mufti of Syria, the Abou Nour Foundation retained the upper hand; so the Fatah Islamic Institute continued to seek the regime’s favor until Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000.
Assad’s arrival was a shock to many former regime supporters, including Kuftaro, institute officials, and even Bouti. The new president sidelined them all and initiated conversations with a former enemy, the Zayd Association, which the regime had mistrusted since the 1980s because of the group’s unclear loyalties during the 1982 crisis with the Muslim Brotherhood. The association survived because several leading figures were allowed to remain in Syria. Its leader, Osama al-Rifai, would soon return from exile and was alone among religious figures in enjoying a personal audience with Assad.
Several factors drove Assad’s actions. Once in office, he faced an increasingly devout society searching for religious representatives with greater legitimacy than the regime’s longtime allies. Syria was also buffeted by regional unrest—including the second Palestinian intifada, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and growing instability in Lebanon. All this heightened Assad’s fears of losing power, pushing him to open channels to new partners who could offer greater social legitimacy. Yet the regime also played religious actors off against each other, limiting their influence while maintaining ties with those it trusted and appointing their members to posts in the religious administration, such as officials from the Fatah Islamic Institute.
When Kuftaro died in 2004, his association lost some ground and the Fatah Islamic Institute moved to fill the gap. Two of its clerics, Bassam Dafdaa and Mahmoud Dahla, ran in the 2007 parliamentary elections, though neither won. However, the institute did play a larger role in the government. Ahmad Samer Qabbani, an institute teacher, was appointed head of the Endowments Department for Damascus, while Khodr Shahrour, another teacher, took the same position for Rural Damascus Governorate.
The institute found itself in an enhanced position. Abdel-Fattah al-Bazam was mufti of Damascus, and institution officials controlled the religious endowments of the country’s capital and its environs. The institute even started working on ecumenical matters. In 2006, it organized a meeting between Sunni clerics and Christian clergymen at Harvard Divinity School. This was controversial among Syria’s ulama, who have reservations about interfaith dialogue. It prompted Bouti and two leading figures in the Faculty of Islamic Law at Damascus University, Imadeddine al-Rashid and Badiaa al-Sayyid al-Lahham, to resign their teaching positions in the Specialization Department after refusing to compromise on religious matters.
Syria’s Islamic establishment experienced much upheaval in 2008. The regime felt more at ease in its foreign policy (epitomized by Assad’s attendance at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris), and it saw an opening to strengthen its hold over the religious establishment without risking its own legitimacy. One of Assad’s first moves was to appoint as religious endowments minister Mohammed al-Sayyid, the mufti of Tartous and a noted regime loyalist, who vowed to “end anarchy” in the religious establishment and “promote the entry of the ulama into the body of the state.”1
In September 2008, Sayyid took advantage of an explosion near a state intelligence building, allegedly set off by the Fatah al-Islam jihadi group, to underline that the state had to “take control of [religious] institutions.”2 For reasons left unclear, he made an exception for the university-level branches of the Abou Nour Foundation and the Fatah Islamic Institute. However, all of Syria’s religious institutions, including the Fatah Islamic Institute’s Sabahi Department, were later placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which also set their curriculum.
The Strengthening of the Fatah Islamic Institute After 2011
The uprising in 2011 represented a major rupture for Syria. Its impact was felt everywhere, including the religious sphere, with top-ranking clerics forced to take positions on events. They felt this acutely because their young supporters, along with lower-ranking clerics from most of the country’s religious institutions, contributed to the antigovernment demonstrations. The uprising’s speed and unpredictability provoked ambiguity in the religious establishment. This pushed the regime to restructure the religious establishment by imposing separate arrangements on each actor, depending on its reaction to the uprising and according to the regime’s needs.
Indeed, the regime’s first step toward reining in trusted clerics was to issue Legislative Decree 48 less than a month after the uprising began, to reorganize and centralize religious institutions. The decree soon bore fruit. It brought the Fatah Islamic Institute into the loyalist camp, and the institute issued statements lending legitimacy to the government and warning against fitna, or civil strife. This repositioning came at the expense of the institute’s clerics who had joined the uprising and went against students protesting the institute’s tilt toward the regime. The institute gave the security forces access to CCTV footage to identify regime opponents, leading to mass dismissals of students and the departure of many staff members.3 At the same time, senior clerics in the institute were appointed to positions in mosques vacated by members of the Zayd Association, which had declared its opposition to the regime.
Within the Fatah Islamic Institute, the Specialization Department took advantage of the legislative decree that had brought recognition from the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Teachers from the department began appearing on official television stations, raising their profile. This partly stemmed from a departmental modernization program that had set up a media training section. Many of the department’s students played key roles in the official Nour al-Sham religious television channel, which Assad had created for Bouti. There were other changes, too: the institute allowed the sexes to intermingle on its premises and in some of its newly established academic departments, after this had long been prohibited.
The Fatah Islamic Institute’s demonstrations of regime loyalty earned it other benefits. It can annually broadcast, on state television, its graduation ceremony, with the minister of religious endowment’s approval. However, the crowning moment came in January 2017, when a presidential decree transformed the Damascus Institute into the University of the Levant for Islamic Sciences. This placed the university, and through it the Fatah Islamic Institute’s Specialization Department, on par with other important Syrian universities, granting it official recognition from the Ministry of Higher Education. It also completed the regime’s efforts to bring Syria’s religious institutions under the state’s auspices.
The growing closeness between the Fatah Islamic Institute and the regime had ramifications on the ground. Well-known figures from the institute, building on its social and religious standing, helped break the morale of rebel forces in the territories they controlled, to the regime’s benefit. For example, Bassam Dafdaa, along with dozens of his colleagues, endured the siege of Kfar Batna, east of Damascus. During the siege, he cooperated with the dominant faction in Kfar Batna, Failaq al-Rahman. Once the tide turned in the regime’s favor in early 2018, however, Dafdaa led a popular movement calling for regime forces to enter Kfar Batna. In the end, the regime forces were able to enter the town. Opposition sources accused Dafdaa and some 400 armed men loyal to him of having eased the entry of Syrian government troops into the area. He would not have been able to play such a role had he not been a scholar and teacher from the Fatah Islamic Institute.
This approach was repeated in southern Damascus by two other institute graduates, Anas al-Tawil and Radwan al-Kahil. In a more overt way than Dafdaa, they led a reconciliation drive with the regime after abandoning armed struggle at the end of the siege of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in 2014. This facilitated the territory’s handover to regime forces in May 2018.
The mediation role played by individuals from the Fatah Institute was not only visible on the ground during the conflict; it also played out in the religious arena. The institute also lent greater legitimacy to Iran and Shia Muslims in official Syrian religious institutions, something the Iranians had sought since 2005.4 Institute representatives made up a large share of the Syrian delegation to a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran in March 2018. The meeting was followed by a conference attended by Houssam al-Din al-Farfour, Mohammed al-Sayyid (Syria’s religious endowments minister), and Kamal al-Kharrazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations. During the conference, they announced the founding of a College of Islamic Doctrines in Damascus.
The Future Is a Dilemma for Religious Institutions
The Fatah Islamic Institute has ceased to be a religious actor that merely did favors for the regime in exchange for privileges, and has become a fundamental part of Syria’s official Islamic religious establishment. In the process, it not only gave up its administrative independence but also helped revitalize relations between the Islamic field and the regime. It has stimulated the social role of these Islamic institutions under the regime umbrella, and they are more in tune with society than the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Syria’s muftis have ever been.
However, these closer ties with the regime raise questions about the future of religious establishments and their legitimacy. Particularly after a brutal and divisive conflict, it is doubtful whether Islamic institutions can benefit in the long term when they are identified with a state that has alienated a significant portion of the Syrian population. In many regards, these institutions’ value to the regime has always been the religious legitimacy they provide. It is questionable, however, whether they can still do this today, creating a dilemma for the religious institutions. Continuing to embrace the regime will further erode these institutions’ credibility with many Syrians, while opposing the regime will undermine the gains they have made in recent years and render them irrelevant. For the regime, this is a winning deal. It helped the regime re-legitimize itself in society’s eyes after a divisive conflict, and it also neutralized any potential independent actor that could distort Assad’s legitimacy.
Laila Rifai is a Syrian journalist, writer, and former student of the Fatah Islamic Institute, who focuses on Syrian religious actors and their evolution after the 2011 uprising.
1 Quoted in Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 212.
2 Quoted in ibid.
3 Author interview with a witness to the protests, May 2018, Istanbul.
4 Author interview with a former lecturer in the Department of Sharia at Damascus University, May 2018, Istanbul.