Do Alawis Want to Fully Become Shia Offshoot?

On the Syrian coast, the diffusion of Shia proselitism stirs up mixed feelings in the local Alawi community.

09 March 2017

Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

(Latakia) Ghadir[1] (17) admits that he didn’t pray before he started attending the Shia Ar-Rasul al-Aazam compound in Latakia. While there has been a mosque in his Alawi village for decades, it’s not common place for people to attend prayer. “Some people in my village are surprised that I pray. It is a ritual that they’ve never incorporated in their daily lives,” he tells SyriaUntold. Despite the mainstream media coverage of Syria, which usually defines Alawis as "an offshoot of Shia Islam" for simplification purposes, some of their rituals are substantially different from this denomination.

Every day, Ghadir travels from his village in rural Baniyas to Latakia – a 90 Km ride - to attend high school after he successfully obtained his lower secondary education (9th grade). He explains: “In the beginning, my family refused the idea [of travelling so far], but then accepted once they realized the school would pay for my tuition fees. Also, my high school degree will qualify me to continue my university studies at the same compound.”

Hafez al-Asad and Religious Proselitism: a Troubled Relationship

Most of the Shia Jaafari schools were established during the reign of Bashar al-Asad. It had been the norm during the time of his father, Hafez al-Asad, to present Syria as a secular state; therefore, he refused to open any educational entities that deviate from the state, which only taught the four Sunni doctrines (madhahib) even in Sharia faculties. The only exception to secular institutions were the Quran memorization centers under the jurisdiction of the ministry of awqaf (Islamic religious endowments).

The Asad regime fought independent religious  entities, mainly the attempts of Jamil al-Asad in spreading Alawism in Syria via his al-Murtada Association, which was established in 1981. But according to Mujtaba (45), an Alawi graduate of the Sharia college at the University of Damascus and a reciter of the Quran at one of the schools, “Jamil al-Asad tried to link the Alawis with the main Sunni source of reference (marjaʻiyyah) in Mecca by sending Hajj expeditions, all of which were paid for. He also burned a number of Alawi shrines in the mid-eighties, which was denounced by the community and the clergy[2] at the time. So a presidential decree was issued to dissolve the association and shut it down in the winter of 1983.”

However, while there actually were Hajj expeditions, the most widespread narrative (including popularly) contradicts this version of the events with the belief that Jamil was trying to spread Shi’ism, as Nikolaos Van Dam states in his book, ʽThe Struggle for Power in Syriaʼ.

Iranian Influence

The trials to spread Shi’ism all over Syria and not just the coast never stopped, and the Iranian influence in the Syrian war allowed it to have more power over the political system in Syria. Iran is now able to directly influence the sovereign decisions of the state, including those related to education which are incredibly helpful in framing the Shia missionary work within legal and formal parameters. This is manifested either through building schools, husayniyyat and mosques or via charities that help spread their political and religious ideology.

While the spread of Shi’ism on the coast also targets non-Alawis, it mainly addresses the minorities who share the notion of historical injustice. The percentage of Sunnis who have embraced Shia Islam is actually very small, and is mainly found in informal housing areas.

Sheikh Omar (40), a graduate of the Sharia college in Damascus and an Imam at one of the mosques of the Sunni-majority ar-Raml al-Falastini neighborhood, tells SyriaUntold that the Sunnis newly joining the Shia fold can be counted on one hand. “The war in Syria only fueled the idea that both parties are targeting each other. Neighborly relations were on the brink of being forever severed had it not been for the wise men who intervened [In Latakia, it was the Alawi family of Al Ghazal and the Sunni family of Al Silwayah who took responsibility to calm down the Alawis after the 2012 anti-regime demonstrations], especially when religious extremism became evident at some of these events.”

Majd (35) works as a journalist for a pro-regime local media outlet.  He resides in the al-Bahloliyah rural area, north-east of Latakia, where a school has been recently opened. “Let us admit to this important fact: the awqaf ministry has done very little for the people of the mountains [the majority of whom are Alawis]. Most of these are poor and impoverished and have no economic power to build their own schools and mosques.

"The idea of giving money for charity isn’t as widespread here as it is in the cities. What the Shias are doing is building mosques and schools either by pressuring or influencing the ministry [decisions]. They pay for all the costs as well as the salaries of the teachers and the students,” explains Majd. Students receive a stipend, similar to those attending non-public high school paths where they learn a craft or commerce or ʻwomenʼ occupations.

Geographically speaking, these schools are also spread in the Tartus province, and specifically in ad-Draikish and Safita areas, where the Jaafari Muslim Charity Association established a husayniyyah in 1975 with the help of local aid. In the city of Tartus, the Khadija Mosque was formerly known as the Aisha Mosque but the name was formally changed due to recurrent protests given the generally unfavorable view of  Aisha among Shias. While in the Latakia province, there are schools in each of Kirsana (north of Latakia city), Ras al-Ain in rural Jablah, al-Bahloliyah and al-Qardaha, Hafez al-Asad's birthplace, as well as the ar-Rasul al-Aazam school in Latakia city.

[Photo: The Shia ar-Rasul al-Aazam compound opened in 2006 was initially a mosque before it became a main educational compound that includes a law department and a Sharia college. The risks faced by the photographer while working under a pseudonym in regime-controlled territories has affected the quality of the picture  - Latakia - February 2017 (Hazem Mustafa/SyriaUntold)].
School Curricula and Regulations

According to teacher and Quran reciter Mujtaba, the curriculum “is divided into two areas: one is given to all students at religious schools, it’s called "the universals" (al-kawniyyat) and it includes the sciences, maths, Arabic and other subjects. The second part is called "the juristic teachings" (al-fiqhiyyat) and differs according to the Islamic doctrine of each school. In this section of the curriculum, the Jaafari doctrine is given based on the teachings of the sixth imam Jaafar as-Sadeq.

An employee at the curricula department in the education ministry in Latakia informs SyriaUntold that the teachers have different religious backgrounds. Most of them are Syrian Shias (from al-Fouaa, Kefraya, as-Sayyidah Zaynab, as well as some converts from the coast) apart from some Sunnis who are hired officially to teach. Nevertheless, there have been some Iranian teachers who  teach some subjects in Arabic.

The administrations are completely Syrian, and students are accepted according to their 9th grade official test scores. Usually, continues the ministry employee, students with the lower marks who are unable to continue into the public education paths of either sciences or literature are accepted into these schools. There is an allocated number of seats for them and the acceptance rate is set by the awqaf ministry as well as the education ministry. However, “the awqaf ministry is the sole supervisor of these schools and the education ministry has nothing to do with it.”

The Deterrent of Rural Alawi Sheikhs

Majd the journalist refuses the idea that the given generosity is aimed to spread Shia Islam in the area. “One can’t practically turn villages to Shia Islam because of the clergy [the Alawi sheikhs] whose power comes from the ignorance of people and their control of the religious rituals. It is not in the [clergy’s] best interest to show people their lack of scientific and epistemic knowledge when compared to the Shia religious men who hold hawzah [religious academic] degrees, either in the teachings of the Jaafari doctrine or in other esoteric [batiniyyah] dogmas that are not shared with the layman."

The journalist also believes that attempts to spread Shia Islam could be “more successful in the cities because of the absence of the clergy and the regime's partial support, as happened in the ad-Daatour neighborhood in northern Latakia, which is home to 250,000 people. The neighborhood turned to Shia Islam because of poverty, but it is not in the regime’s best interest, either tacitly or publicly, to wage a campaign against those living in rural areas because they are its human reserve [for army enlistment].”

According to Majd, the Alawi-Shia power struggle was clear in Latakia's ar-Raml ash-Shamali neighborhood in the early nineties, when the Alawi clergy were able to get the imam of the Jaafar as-Sadeq mosque (a Shia from al-Fouaa) fired by exercising their connections.

The majority of those attending the schools are Alawis, either from the countryside or the city. It is rare to find anyone from outside the faith, yet it is remarkable that there is a healthy number of female students. Huda (18) from the Ras al-Ain school in Jablah is one such student. She only wears the headscarf while at school or during prayer or when reciting the Quran, because Alawi women aren’t generally used to wearing the headscarf all the time.

“Up until recently, reciting the Quran by women was unacceptable by both society and the clergy. When my mother passed away, I read a few verses [at the funeral]. Many of the attendees were surprised and offended. One of the sheikhs even stopped me, but I didn’t care and my father encouraged me. Today, I am asked to recite the Quran during funerals in our area.”

On the coast, there haven’t been any public or secret Shia celebrations that showed self-flagellation (latm) as is found in other cities, such as Damascus. Nonetheless, Iranian clergy are active participants in school celebrations during Shia as well as Alawi religious occasions, such as Eid al-Ghadir and Ashura. They usually present gifts (mostly books) and that gives the schools a new role as a conduit of Shi'ism beyond religious teaching.

Different Perceptions

Locals have different opinions on the role of these schools. Some see it as an opportunity to establish a source of reference for the Alawi sect after many attempts were thwarted by the Syrian regime. It even went as far as elimination as happened with Sheikh al-Mahlab al-Hassan, who hailed from Tartous and was assassinated in 1984 in mysterious circumstances after he called for establishing an Alawi reference.

Others are wary of the political ramifications of embracing Shia Islam. Alawi Quran reciter Mujtaba comments: “A Sunni Syrian is closer to me than a Shia Iranian. We respect the Iranian people, their values and their culture, but we don’t want to take a misstep to serve a political agenda and we don’t want to be one of its tools. The [Syrian regime] is fully responsible for the existence and escalation of this trend on the coast, which has always been a place welcoming of all its people from different sects.”

Most probably, Ghadir will finish his college education at the ar-Rasul al-Aazam compound to return to his village and become its imam at the mosque he’s working to expand with the aid of compound officials. Almost certainly, he will face a lot of resistance from the clergy in his area. But to this he says: “I’m willing to sacrifice [everything] in order to rectify our creed. Faith pays no heed to anyone when we have the endless support of our brethren.”

[Main Photo: Another view of the Shia ar-Rasul al-Aazam compound -  Latakia - February 2017 (Hazem Mustafa/SyriaUntold)].

[1] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.

[2] The term has been used for simplification purposes. SyriaUntold is aware that "clergy" is not the most appropriate term to define the Alawi rijal ad-din (lit.: men of religion).

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