A Twist of Faith in Syria

By Nir Boms
Published July 28, 2006

Another bomb of Syrian origin exploded – but this time it did not hit Haifa, Israel, but rather Washington. Although its impact inside the corridors of the Capitol, where it was quietly detonated, was barely noticed, it was felt in the Middle East and has given Syrian dictator Bashar Assad another reason to worry. 

The “bomb”: a well-known and respected Sufi scholar from Syria, Sheikh Abdullah AlgharibAlhamadAltamimee, stepped off a plane in Washington and publicly called for Mr. Assad’s ouster. While the development may not appear significant on the surface, the sheikh has broken the thousand-year-old Sufi tradition of refraining from politics. 

Sufism, or “tasawwuf” in Arabic, is the name by which Islamic mysticism came to be known in the 8th or 9th century. This mystical, or psycho-spiritual, dimension of Islam soon developed into a more structured Islamic school of thought that brought both Shia and Sunni Muslims into its midst. Like other mystical and spiritual streams, Sufi Islam was less rigid in its approach to Islamic law (Shariah)andinstead stressed individual devotion to God and the pursuit of peace, equality and tolerance. Sulh-i-kul (“peace with all”) is a central Sufi teaching and one that is applicable not just within the Muslim community but also outside of it. Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, a 12th-century Sufi, said that “my heart is the center of love, and it is a mosque, a temple, a church and synagogue.” 

These moderate teachings were often at odds with both Sunni and Shia Muslims, who considered Sufism to be a threat to existing orthodoxy and a deviation from the stated teachings of the Koran. As early at the 9th century, Sunni and Shia Muslims resorted to persecuting Sufi mystics, charging them with witchcraft and apostasy. As a result, Sufis avoided politics at all costs since their way is one of peace and tranquility. They learned to keep quiet the hard way. 

Mr. Abdullah, however, chose to speak. When I asked him if he expected consequences for him and his family back in Syria, he sadly replied, “If I sacrifice my life for my people God will reward me.” Yet it is neither sacrifice nor death that he ultimately seeks. He yearns for a different future for his homeland. 

Although 70 percent of Syria is Sunni, the country is tightly controlled by the Alawites, an offshoot branch of Shia Islam that includes just 5 percent of the population. Syrians are overwhelmingly secular, and the moderate teachings of Sufism speak to the hearts of the nation. 

Indeed, Abdullah is not concerned about the position of Sufism in Syria. He explained: “There are 2 million eligible young women who are not married mainly due to the fact that their peers, 2 million eligible men, are too poor to support a future family… Twenty-five percent of Syrians cannot marry and start a family. Over 60 percent are unemployed, and this creates pessimism that hurts the country’s future. At this point, we are fighting for our future.” 

Sufi leaders across the world have always seen themselves as bridges between the people and their respective governments. They try to work with their governments to ensure the protection of the people and they encourage their followers to remain loyal to their governments. Mr. Abdullah, however, has lost his confidence in the Assad government to protect and provide hope to the people of Syria, and he believes that it is now his responsibility to take a different action. 

He has allied himself with the Syrian Democratic Coalition (SDC), a group of nine organizations led by the Washington-based Farid Ghadry. The SDC calls for the immediate removal of the Assad government and has proposed a constitution that calls for the establishment of a democratic and transparent government based on the principles of equality, human rights and universal suffrage. The group is outlawed inside Syria and its founders were declared enemies of the state. Many of its members and grassroots activists have been arrested and remain detained in Syrian prisons. The SDC is now working to initiate a Syrian government in exile.

Mr. Abdullah is the latest public figure to join the growing ranks of the Syrian opposition. In a twist of faith and at great personal risk he is calling for the betterment of human life for all Syrians and for the pursuit of a better and brighter future. His courage and rare call for change should echo throughout the corridors of Congress and inside European parliaments to bring pressure on Damascus. 

Mr. Abdullah is not just praying. He is asking for help and begs that it will not come too late. Please listen. 

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