Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim | Saleh Malas
The Syrian Islamic Council was founded in mid-April 2014 by about 40 religious leagues and committees (some still unknown) and included several Syrian religious scholars (ulema).
The announcement of the establishment of the Council came with the aim of “filling the void of state institutions’ absence and their decline in the liberated areas,” and for a direct reason, “to bring together scholars, preachers, and representatives of religious entities, to guide the Syrian people, to find Shariah-based solutions to its problems and issues, and to preserve the path of its identity and revolution.”
However, since the announcement of its founding until now, the Council has made little impact or contribution to solving the various issues that most Syrians suffer from.
The emergence of the Council has always been accompanied since that time by the Syrians themselves questioning the extent of its actual involvement in their issues, a situation that has worsened during the past months.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the function of the Syrian Islamic Council, the scope of its work for which it was established, the size of its presence, and its influence on Syrians in various social, religious, and military aspects.
It also sheds light on the shortcomings that permeate the work of the Syrian Islamic Council and contradicts its goals amid questions about the need for independent oversight to which it must be subject.
In front of piling concerns, where is the Council?
The Syrian Islamic Council deals with issues of public affairs related to the Syrians within a list of priorities that are “attached to reality, and not separate from what the Syrians are exposed to,” the spokesman for the Syrian Islamic council, Motee al-Bateen, told Enab Baladi.
The Council includes 255 members affiliated with its general body, represented by thousands of preachers and scholars, as they represent many Islamic leagues and bodies and Shariah councils, and a large part of them are operating in the regions of northern Syria, another part is in Turkey, and a part spreads around the world as well, according to al-Bateen.
Al-Bateen says as long as the Council includes scholars and an Islamic reference, then what is desired in this case is the right word and position and then guidance, adding that the work of the Council revolves around clarifying its position on issues of concern to the Syrians.
Given the priorities of the Islamic Council and the issues it deals with, which were expressed by the official spokesman, there are aspects that are absent from its focus amid dozens of problems faced by Syrians in their various regions, most notably northern Syria and Turkey, where the Council has official offices.
Presence on ground, split in influence
The presence of the Islamic Council in northern Syria is active in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, and the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, which are under the control of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the political umbrella of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
The Council’s presence in the countryside of Aleppo was reinforced by a visit made by the head of the Council, Sheikh Osama al-Rifai, to Azaz in August 2021, where he laid the foundation stone for the Council headquarters in the city, in addition to his meeting with the SIG’s Defense Ministry and a number of leaders of the National Army, and his visit to Free Aleppo University, as part of successive meetings and visits to the region.
The Islamic Council was subjected to many criticisms and accusations following its intervention in thorny military issues that provoked controversy in the region, in addition to the religious, advocacy, and guidance aspect of the members of the Islamic Council through moral guidance circles, Shariah institutes, reform, and arbitration committees.
The criticism lies in the fact that the military and political formations in the region control the Council and its clerics and implicate them in their decisions, despite the fact that the members of the Council enjoy a popular and even military incubator with some factions rallying around their word, in these areas where violations, fighting, and clashes abound.
The Islamic Council has received many criticisms and accusations of siding with factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) at the expense of other factions that also belong to the National Army, preceded by accusations centered around playing a role in strengthening the division between the SNA factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has military influence in the region of Idlib, and its alignment with the factions at the expense of the HTS.
The accusations of siding with the Third Legion – the Levant Front (key unit in the SNA in which the members of the Islamic Council enjoy popularity and an active role), emerged after forming of a committee of three clerics from the Islamic Council, with the consensus of military figures in the region to investigate only the violations of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amashat), led by Mohammed al-Jassem (Abu Amsha), excluding other factions which also committed violations.
On 10 December 2021, a tripartite “impartial” committee was formed that included Sheikh Abdulalim Abdullah, Ahmed Alwan, and Muwaffaq al-Omar to investigate the violations of the “al-Amashat.”
Sheikh Osama al-Rifai and the Syrian Islamic Council were not among the signatories to the decision to form the committee but voiced their support for its decisions.
Despite the fact that the committee approved the violations of the faction and its leader and took decisions that requested their implementation, “Abu Amsha” was not held accountable.
Alongside SNA against HTS
The Islamic Council is also under criticism for reinforcing the division between the Syrian National Army (SNA) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as the Council has described on more than one occasion the HTS attacks on the SNA factions as a “blatant assault.”
The last of these statements was on 19 June, when the Islamic Council issued a statement after fighting between factions affiliated with the National Army, after which columns of Tahrir al-Sham moved towards the countryside of Aleppo.
The Islamic Council considered that the military movement of HTS towards the areas under the control of the National Army was “absolutely forbidden,” and it appealed to Tahrir al-Sham members not to be “aggressors,” calling on the components of the National Army to repel the “aggression as it is a duty by Shariah.”
For its part, Tahrir al-Sham condemned in a statement the position of the Islamic Council and called on it to be a platform for reform “not to sow discord,” noting that “the fatwa is a trust, and politicizing it is a betrayal of the legacy of (Shariah) science and its followers.”
Tahrir al-Sham called on the Islamic Council to stop “turning the factions against each other under motives and revolts,” adding that the members of the Islamic Council, who live safely outside the region, carry the responsibility for any bloodshed with their “cross-border” fatwas, according to the statement.
Partiality promotes rifts
Dr. Abulrahman al-Haj, a Syrian researcher who covers religious movements, considered in an interview with Enab Baladi that the embrace of Sheikh Osama al-Rifai and the Islamic Council by the Levant Front faction reinforced the division not only between the National Army and Tahrir al-Sham but also between the Levant Front and the other factions in the countryside of Aleppo, adding that, the division was already there, but the bias of the Council deepened it.
This division will weaken the Council and turn it into a party to the rift, which will affect its ability to influence the settlement of disputes in northern Syria.
Also, the Council will not be able to play an active role in society in northern Syria as a whole, despite the revitalization of its presence in a remarkable way and its mixing with people more during the last period, according to al-Haj.
The academic believes that the Islamic Council has found in the Levant Front a credible body that it can rely on to find a foothold on the ground, considering that the Council is involved in conflicts motivated by its desire to influence the daily events in the lives of Syrians in the north, rather than being just a case that it got involved with.
The Levant Front is one of the most prominent units of the SNA, and the members of the Islamic Council enjoy a popular base within it, and prominent members of the Council supervise many campaigns of moral guidance for its members.
For his part, the spokesman for the Islamic Council, Sheikh Motee al-Bateen, in his interview with Enab Baladi, denied the Council’s responsibility for rifts and discords, noting that “it is against any fighting and is working to stop it, according to its capabilities.”
“The Council also supports any attempt to unite the factions, but it is also against any faction assaulting another,” as he described it.
Al-Bateen explained that the Islamic Council had condemned many fighting, assaults, and corruption issues, since the opposition’s fighting in Eastern Ghouta suburbs in Damascus countryside in 2017 until the recent fighting in the northern Syrian regions.
According to al-Bateen, the matter of the condemnations is not limited to issuing statements, pointing out that the condemnations of the Council members, led by Sheikh Osama al-Rifai, were always present during their visits and meetings in the north.
“The Syrian Islamic Council aspired to become a religious reference for the revolutionary factions from the beginning, but it failed to achieve this.
Nevertheless, its presence remained important because it constitutes an influential religious reference in the face of extremist discourse.”
Religious movements expert Dr. Abdulrahman al-Haj
To unify factions, “preaching” not enough
The efforts of the members of the Islamic Council in the areas of Aleppo countryside have not been successful, whether through their calls for unifying ranks among the factions or trying to hold the perpetrators of violations accountable in cases that surfaced and provoked widespread controversy.
The case of the investigation into the violations of “Abu Amsha” and his faction is one of the most prominent cases facing the Islamic Council, as the case witnessed interference from the head of the Council, Sheikh Osama al-Rifai, through an audio recording, in which he spoke about forming a committee to investigate the violations, calling for non-incitement during the committee’s work in order not to spare bloodshed.
Al-Rifai confirmed that he sent calls to several people from inside Syria to end the campaign of threats and incitement until the investigation ends, pending results, to help end problems and achieve justice.
Al-Rifai appeared, on 25 November 2021, in his first speech after his appointment, addressing the “rebels carrying weapons,” referring to the opposition factions in Syria, saying, “Unless we unite our ranks, we will never dream of victory,” asking them to stay away from injustice and oppression which took place among them and to be “harmonious, cooperative and supportive brothers to promote justice.”
For his part, Dr. al-Haj considered that the Islamic Council does not have a direct influence on the factions for several reasons, including that the Council’s religious authority is lax and the great effort it needs to achieve this influence, in addition to the fact that the actual decision to unite the factions is related to economic reasons and at the same time is due to political reasons related to the factions’ ties with regional parties.
If the decision to unite the factions was in the hands of the (Syrian Islamic Council), we would have seen all the factions now united. But unfortunately, this decision is not in its hands, knowing that everyone shows respect for the (Council) and deals with it as a reference body.
Now (the Council) is making all possible efforts to support any unification project, but in words, for this is the scope available to it, and this is its real potential.
Mutee al-Bateen, spokesperson for the Syrian Islamic Council
Far from Idlib
The clear rift between the Islamic Council and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham made the activities of the Islamic Council and its members far from Idlib governorate and part of the western countryside of Aleppo and Latakia, and the al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama.
The discord was reinforced by the Council’s successive statements condemning some of the HTS’ actions and violations, to which the Salafist group responded with similar statements.
The areas under the control of Tahrir al-Sham do not include any official headquarters or offices of the Islamic Council, with a small number of individuals affiliated with the Council, without its activities having a clear presence represented by them.
The statement of the Islamic Council, which was released when the HTS fighters entered areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo last June, was rebuked by the HTS Shariah men, most notably Abdulrahim Atoun, who criticized the work and role of the Islamic Council and the appointment of al-Rifai as a Mufti without consultation and the bias to some parties against others without naming them.
Mazhar al-Wais, another HTS cleric, said what harmed the sphere was the “politicized and packaged” fatwas, which contributed to the increase of sectarianism and fragmentation and did not fix any religion or life issue, as it repeated the same mistake.”
Al-Wais assures that “the Council’s fatwas are a model for this.”
Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a senior HTS commander, said in a strongly worded speech posted on social media that the Shiite clerics, despite all their differences, support the “Popular Mobilization” and seek to prevent any dispute between the factions, but the statements of the Syrian Islamic Council are politicized and of a political nature.
The Syrian researcher specializing in religious movements, Abdulrahman al-Haj, said that the Islamic Council was able to be a religious reference that transcends all Islamic groups, especially after Sheikh Osama al-Rifai was granted the title of “Mufti of the Republic.”
Dr. al-Haj confirmed that there is a difference in the religious discourse between the two parties. The dominant discourse in the areas controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) is a Salafi-jihadi, while the reference of the Islamic Council is Sufi and traditional doctrine (the four sects), but this dispute can be managed and does not lead to problems.
As long as the background of the discourse is linked to a political position, it is difficult to manage differences. However, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham cannot compete with the Islamic Council on the subject of religious discourse because, in the end, Salafism does not have broad social acceptance, according to al-Haj.
Absent files, Syrians in Turkey as a model
Many racist violations against Syrian refugees are repeated in Turkey, and they are at times subjected to “random” deportations without clear controls, which may force them to start their lives again from scratch amid the absence of legal or human rights bodies protecting Syrian refugees in Turkey.
A number of Syrians residing in Turkey hold the Islamic Council responsible for not interfering to preserve their rights because of the good relationship between it and the Turkish government and because of the aspirations of the Council related to “communicating with all parties to clarify the right demand of the revolting Syrian people.”
Regarding the criticisms of the Council on the issue of refugees in Turkey, the Council’s spokesman Motee al-Bateen considered that the relationship between the Islamic Council and the Turkish government is bound to “the government respect for (the Council).”
This does not allow the Council to dictate decisions to the Turkish state, as the Council’s position on these decisions has no effect, he added.
Al-Bateen explained that the good relationship with the Turks is mainly with the Turkish Religious Affairs since the Council is a scientific body that includes a group of scholars.
The Syrian Islamic Council stands with any Syrian who is subjected to injustice or inappropriate treatment as a refugee, as much as it can, but only within the limits of the available capabilities.
Motee al-Bateen, the Syrian Islamic Council’s official spokesman
Fatwa, a golden opportunity
The political use of religion as one of the main means of mobilization was not limited to the Syrian regime but extended to its Islamist opponents, who used the same method in their fight against it.
In November 2021, the Syrian Islamic Council announced the unanimous election of Sheikh Osama al-Rifai as the country’s Grand Mufti in response to the decision of the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to abolish the position of Mufti of the Syrian Republic.
However, this consensus within the Syrian Islamic Council did not have an impact on most Syrian societies, especially in northern Syria, where its ability to mobilize the street or benefit from the data on the ground was absent.
The professor of Islamic Theology at Abu Dhabi University, Dr. Mohammad Habash, believes that despite the limited impact, the Syrian Islamic Council is able to “form itself with a base much broader than it is in now,” recommending that there be “deep reviews” so that the Council can be more able to represent the general Islamic mainstream in Syria.
Habash told Enab Baladi that the step of appointing Sheikh Osama al-Rifai as General Mufti was a “golden opportunity” to implement the values of the Shura on a large scale and to serve as a “model” for the rest of the parties in democratic values.
But the mechanism for electing the Mufti, as well as the timing and manner in which this was done, was a “mistake,” in Habash’s point of view.
“We have a large spectrum of at least ten thousand people holding a degree in Shariah who are located in different countries, and communication with them is possible. We had hoped that an electoral body would be formed, and this body would consist of two chambers whose job was to recommend candidates in order to reach the nomination of the Mufti of the Republic,” says the Islamic researcher.
Habash described the case of appointing al-Rifai “as if we were waiting for a signal from the Syrian regime to abolish the Mufti position in order to appoint our own but in a strange way.”
In this approach, the Syrian street was not prepared or mobilized towards the idea of establishing a position of Mufti as an alternative to the Mufti of the Republic affiliated with the regime and not as an extension of it. Rather, it is based on a reference and new ideas that derive its legitimacy from the people’s approval of it, and therefore its impact was limited to a narrow scope.
Fatwas’ death lies in its obligatoriness
The value of Shura, which Habash spoke about, is viewed as a purely advisory opinion that does not have the slightest authority over society and is not the legislative and jurisprudential authority of the people within the framework of the general principles and spirit of Shariah, in this case, the Shura is binding.
“I do not feel that (the Council) is required to issue fatwas, fatwas may be issued by a committee affiliated with (the Council), but it presents its opinion in an advisory manner, not as a binding opinion,” says the Islamic theologist.
Habash attributed this opinion to the fact that “in Islamic doctrine, there is complete clarity between the function of the Mufti and the job of the judge. The Mufti’s opinion is not binding, unlike the opinion of the judge, because the Mufti may have multiple fatwas, but the judge issues one binding opinion.”
According to Habash, when the position of Mufti is given the power to issue binding opinions, it is a “killing move for any institution working within the framework of the fatwa.”
Habash clarified that all fatwa institutions, without exception, present opinion, not judgment, and, naturally, there will be a plurality of fatwas, adding to the (Quranic verse 17 of Surah Ar-Ra’d) “As for the scum, it goes to be thrown away, while that which benefits people remains on the earth.”
Are Syrians waiting for the Council’s fatwas?
A research study published in the 13th and 14th issues of the Qalamoun Studies and Research quarterly magazine in 2020, entitled “The Interaction between Religion and Society in Syria,” says that preaching Islam focuses on popular culture in Syria and considers it its great goal, while the relationship of the Muslim with the teachings of his religion, his religious morals and commitment to worship are the public sphere in which Syrian scholars think.
Regarding the Syrian society’s need for fatwas issued by the Syrian Islamic Council, an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi through its social media platforms showed that 65 percent of the participants said that they were not concerned with the Council’s fatwas, while 35 percent of them believed that the fatwas are a reference.
As an affirmation of the religious division in both Aleppo countryside, where the Islamic Council is operating, and Idlib region, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham controls, a video poll by Enab Baladi showed that most residents of Aleppo countryside consider the Council as a religious reference for them, expressing their willingness to abide by its fatwas.
While the same does not apply to a number of residents in the city of Idlib, as a number of them did not know the Islamic Council at all, according to the poll.
Transparency is a requirement
A public body within the Syrian Islamic Council monitors its work and the fatwas it issues, that consists of 255 scholars, according to what the official spokesman, Motee al-Bateen, told Enab Baladi.
With regard to monitoring the work of the Council, Dr. Mohammad Habash, a veteran Syrian Islamic scholar, said that he “has not heard of those 255 scholars,” neither as a specialist nor as an ordinary Muslim, and “it is not known how they were appointed, and on what bases and criteria, but it is a sufficient number to monitor the work of the Council, he added.
Habash also wondered why the names of scholars specialized in monitoring the work of the Syrian Islamic Council or issuing fatwas through its official accounts and website were not published, in addition to their field of specialization and information related to their work.
This matter “would not provide a service to the Syrian intelligence because all of the scholars are well-known to the regime.” The presence of specialists who monitor fatwas in a clear and transparent manner reassures people, according to Habash.
Through these proposals, Habash considers that the development of the Syrian Islamic Council is necessary in order for it to be a civil governance institution that publishes the opinions of specialists of a high degree in Islamic law, but in the end, it is just opinions that should not have any binding character, but rather only reflect the vision of the Consultative Council.
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