Syria: Memories of the “Religious” Trend

23 Feb

The religious “trend” in Syria … that was what Hafez al-Assad intended to wipe out between 1979 and 1982.  However, by the time I was doing research in Syria, Islamization was on the rise; new groups had appeared and most were careful not to

cross the red lines of political activity.  


Not all were “new” groups.  Well-established families of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs included those who were both very pious and conservative.  Never part of the Ba`th’s inner circle, or outer dependents, some of these families had suffered during the crackdown on the earlier Islamist resistance to the Assad regime even if they had not been personally active.  Others continued their customs of complete veiling – even though this irritated the youth leagues and women’s groups of the Ba`th Party, and all the complex traditions of additional fastings and extra prayers and other special rituals. 


Their veiling was a head to toe black outergarment which varied from city to city.  In Homs, the traditional headgarb even included double horns coming up from the headpiece.   (Another interesting traditional style of dress is the mamlukeh and long dress of the Druze women, who did not cover their hair at all.  The mamlukeh itself is basically an apron made of metallic woven fabric not unlike assyut.   The dress is fitted at the waist, with a low neckline and a long full skirt).  But the women of the newer Islamic “trends” had begun wearing an overcoat, often belted and with a scarf tucked in. 


I met men in several prayer and discussion circles which had arisen, in spite of, or because of the official discourse that suppressed the foregrounding of religious knowledge.  I had requested and received a copy of a fatwa – not an individual ruling, but a decision of the World Shari`ah Council on the issue of surrogacy (hiring a surrogate to give birth).  So I decided to ask various groups and authorities their opinions of the matter of reproductive innovations and family law while I had access through members of one of the “originally” religious families. 


One interesting interview came about when I was brought to meet the Mufti of Syria.  I had already met the Mufti of Damascus, a rather down-at-the-heels position, reflected in the person and he had been uninterested in any legal discussion.  But this more lofty Mufti hosted a halqah and at first, challenged my assertion that the Shari`ah Council had even considered the issue.  When I said I had a copy of the groups’ decision (showing which cleric agreed or disagreed with the multi-point fatwa), he wanted to read it.  Climbing up an interior set of stairs in his flat, which rose a half-level from the salon as if onto a stage, he  disappeared into his study with the papers.  His wife came out to entertain me and offered me coffee while his seven young children bounced onto the couch next to me, and off it onto the floor. 


I knew that the decision completely overturned the position of the foremost Syrian cleric writing about such matters at the time, and also the previous position of the Council (centered in Mecca) which had first claimed that there must be no medical interference, and no use of technology at all.   Now, in vitro fertilization had been assented to – but only so long as it involved gametes from the spouses.  Surrogacy, however, was regarded by the council as an inappropriate division of the functions of motherhood (conceiving, birthing, parenting) and they worried that wombs would be rented, and that poor women would be at a disadvantage.  Still the council was aware that the practice was already being adopted. 


He emerged from his study waving the papers and indicating that he never would have believed such an advent in rulings on fiqh, if he had not seen it, and stating that he wasn’t sure where he himself stood now.  He did – in response to my questions – say with a little laugh, that if a man were to marry a surrogate as a second wife, then there would be nothing unlawful about the arrangement.  


Now, so many years later, the Left which sees the Assad government as the last bastion of resistance to Israel (although the Assad government had done nothing to deserve that view and had been engaged in secret talks with the Israelis as far back as the Oslo period), has been quick to charge that the Syrian opposition is full of “the religious” and specifically warn against the Muslim Brotherhood.   Syria has always trailed other Arab states due to the political repression of its government and severe controls over information coming in and out of the country.  But the interest in Islam and Islamism has increased there and no doubt these trends will be among those who succeed the cruel government of Bashar al-Assad.

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