Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence, France. He focuses on politics and religion in modern Syria. He is the author of Religion and State in Syria. The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and of “Religious Governance in Syria Amid Territorial Fragmentation,” in Frederic Wehrey’s edited book, Islamic Institutions in Arab States: Mapping the Dynamics of Control, Cooptation, and Contention (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2021). Diwan interviewed Pierret in mid-November to get his perspective on the decision of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take away the powers of Syria’s mufti of the republic, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, and redistribute them to a body chaired by the Minister of Religious Endowments.

Michael Young: Why did President Bashar al-Assad take away all the powers of the mufti of the republic in Syria and redistribute them to a jurisprudential council, the Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi?

Thomas Pierret: The decision came a few days after a controversial statement made by the current holder of the position, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun. During the funeral of the famous Alepine singer Sabah Fakhri, Hassoun claimed that the map of Syria was found in the Figtree sura of the Qur’an, that God created humankind in Syria, and that those who left the country—in other words refugees—would be damned. Such idiosyncratic interpretations of the scriptures have long made Hassoun a pet hate for many of his colleagues and a laughingstock among the broader public.

In fact, the position of grand mufti was already hollowed out in 2018, when Law 31 reduced life tenure to three years and transferred the mufti’s (nominal) jurisprudential prerogatives to a newly established Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi, chaired by the minister of religious endowments. As for the complete abrogation of the position of mufti that was recently decreed, I think it owes less to a strategic decision by the regime (if one means by that Assad and his clan) than to the fact that Hassoun’s position of relative weakness was seized upon by his enemies within the state’s religious bureaucracy.

MY: Can you tell us something about Hassoun? What has his relationship been with the Assad regime?

TP: He is the son of a respected religious scholar from Aleppo, and first made a name for himself as a silver-tongued Friday preacher, then as a member of parliament in the 1990s. A dedicated loyalist, and a relative lightweight among the Sunni religious elite, he was seen as unthreatening by the regime, hence his appointment as grand mufti in 2005. Once in office, Hassoun expressed nonconformist views by describing himself as “secular,” emphasizing commonalities between Islam and Christianity, and adopting Shia-friendly rhetoric.

Such positions were in tune with the regime’s orientations, but they also made Hassoun an embarrassment for Assad in the eyes of the predominantly conservative ulama, or religious leaders. In recent years, the grand mufti fell from grace. This happened partly because of his business partnership with Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and formerly Syria’s leading crony capitalist, whose assets were seized in 2020; and partly because of the machinations of rival Sunni clerics.

MY: It appears that one of Hassoun’s problems, and that which led to his sidelining, was his enmity with the current minister of religious endowments, Mohammed Abdel Sattar al-Sayyid. Can you put this rivalry in a broader perspective for us?

TP: Sayyid’s Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi issued a scathing rebuttal of Hassoun’s interpretation of the Figtree sura. The minister was most likely behind the decision to abrogate the position of grand mufti, and before that, behind Law 31 of 2018. Beyond sheer factionalism and localism (Hassoun is from Aleppo, whereas Sayyid originates from Tartous and is mostly tied to the Damascene ulama), the dispute is related to matters of religious doctrine. As soon as he was appointed in 2007, Sayyid garnered support among the pro-regime ulama by championing Sunni orthodoxy in the face of eccentric figures such as Hassoun. The minister’s conservative constituency is what made him a more credible partner for the regime than the grand mufti, who was relatively isolated within the religious field.

MY: Opposition sources have suggested that the wider authority granted to the Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi is tied to Iranian influence in Syria, as Iran has an interest in keeping Sunnis weak by weakening their senior religious figure. Is there any truth to this allegation?

TP: I disagree with that analysis because Hassoun is in fact very pro-Iranian. He maintains close ties with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated militias operating in Syria, and when he became persona non grata in Syrian state media two years ago, he retained extensive access to Iran-sponsored outlets. I do not completely exclude that Iranian support might help Hassoun retain some influence, even after his dismissal. Sayyid, on the contrary, is closer to Russia and represents a more rigidly Sunni conception of Islam that does not fit well with Iran’s agenda in Syria.

Additionally, the abrogation of the position of grand mufti might be a symbolic blow to the Sunni community, but it does not really make it weaker than it already is. When anti-regime ulama, such as those of the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council, denounced this decision, it was not of course because they will miss the position of grand mufti as it existed under the Baath—that is, as one held by subservient figures who hardly ever issued fatwas and mostly concerned themselves with protocol and public relations. Rather, they mourn the office as it allegedly existed before 1963, and as it should have remained in their eyes—occupied by eminent scholars with sufficient symbolic capital to retain some level of political independence.

MY: What is the jurisprudential council, the Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi, and how does it fit into the regime’s plans?

TP: It is a collegial religious authority that includes such figures as the head of Damascus’ religious court, representatives of Islamic universities, and other prominent ulama. It came out of Sayyid’s personal agenda, rather than from a grand strategy on the part of the regime. Since his appointment, Sayyid has worked on building up the institutions of his ministry. The latter used to be an empty shell because the regime preferred to monitor religious activities informally, through the security apparatus, rather than through an expansion of the religious bureaucracy, which would entail the growth of a conservative Sunni lobby within the state apparatus. Sayyid managed to convince Assad that changing course was the only way of curbing the rise of extremism.

While the Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi serves the minister’s personal ambitions (he had his own son appointed as a member of the council), it also fulfils the aspirations of Sayyid’s constituency among the ulama, which has long requested the establishment of such a collegial structure. Its members see several advantages in it. First, the council was designed to exert jurisprudential prerogatives that grand muftis had de facto forsaken for half a century. Second, participation in the council brought the ulama back into one of the ministry’s key institutions after decades of exclusion. The deal is the following: In exchange for their absolute loyalty to the regime in political matters, Sayyid’s supporters among the ulama obtain greater formal control over matters of religious doctrine, which is their main concern.*

MY: More generally what does this episode tell you about Syria’s religious landscape today?

TP: That the regime was able to swiftly abrogate as symbolic, albeit ineffective, an institution as the position of grand mufti testifies to the great weakness of Syria’s Sunni community in the aftermath of Assad’s victory against the opposition. This weakness is also illustrated by the fact that his decision did not aim to suppress a threat, but simply to arbitrate a conflict between two figures—Hassoun and Sayyid—who are equally loyal to the ruling clan.

This does not mean, however, that the Sunni religious establishment will never again be a source of trouble for Assad. I say this not because Sayyid and his friends have any ambition to challenge the regime, but because there are other pro-regime constituencies—in particular among the Alawites—that profoundly distrust Sunni conservatives, even if they are entirely loyal to Assad. In 2018, those constituencies managed to force a redrafting of what would become Law 31, after they accused Sayyid of trying to expand the influence of his ministry over the Syrian state at large. Such incidents might occur again in the future if Sayyid’s policy of institutional build-up continues.

*This last sentence was added subsequent to publication at the author's request.