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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Slightly larger than North Dakota, Syria lies in the heart of the Middle East. It shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. It also shares a small but politically significant border on the southwest with Israel. Syria's capital, Damascus, served as the political and cultural center of the first Islamic caliphate. Although no longer the seat of Middle Eastern power, Syria still exercises substantial influence in the Muslim world.

    Around 90 percent of Syrians are Arabs. Kurds, Armenians, and other ethnic groups make up the other 10 percent. About 90 percent of the population adheres to various forms of Islam; Christians and small groups of Jews account for the remaining 10 percent.

    History and Government

    One of the earliest civilizations, Syria played a key role in several ancient empires. In those times, it had a prosperous trade route and carried goods such as wine, silk, and Indian spices throughout the Middle East. Christianity began in the greater Syrian region, and Christians emerged as the majority there around the 500s. However, medieval Syria—composed of parts of present-day Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—became a fertile ground for the spread of Islam.

    First Muslim Dynasty.

    Syria became part of the Byzantine Empire in the 300s. It experienced Muslim invasions in 633 , and by 638 , the Muslims had expelled the Christian leaders of Syria and established their own rule. The first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, built their capital in Damascus. Over the next century, they expanded their territory as far west as Spain and as far east as India. Many of their subjects converted to Islam, including a large number of Christians. The Umayyad caliphs grew wealthy from taxes and conquests. They used their money to improve agriculture and irrigation and to build impressive monuments such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

    In 750 the Umayyads lost power to the Abbasid dynasty, which moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Baghdad. Syria declined in importance and wealth, but its cities still enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The Fatimid dynasty, which supported Shi'ism, gradually took over from the Sunni Abbasids. Unpopular among many of their subjects, the Fatimids gave way to a Sunni Turkish dynasty called the Seljuks around the 1050s. The Seljuks put an end to the autonomy of many Syrian cities by placing Syria under direct rule of the sultan.

    Crusaders and Mongols.

    The Seljuk empire did not maintain its strong grip for long, however, and Syria disintegrated into many small kingdoms by the 1100s. In this weakened state, it suffered an invasion by European armies during the First Crusade. The crusaders founded a series of Christian kingdoms along the coast and conquered Jerusalem in 1099 . Muslim armies under the great warrior Saladin recovered Jerusalem in 1187 , but the crusader kingdoms along the coast of Syria remained intact for another century.

    In the mid-1200s, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan's successors invaded Syria and briefly occupied Damascus. By the 1260s, the Egyptian Mamluk dynasty drove the Mongols from Syria and swept the remaining crusader kingdoms from the coast. Syria became a province of an empire centered in Egypt and lost its leading role in regional affairs. In 1516 the Ottoman Turks invaded the region. Syria remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire until its defeat in World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ).

    Independence and Revolt.

    During World War I, Amir Faysal of the Meccan Hashemite clan seized control of Damascus from the Turks. After the war, he and his supporters proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Syria with Faysal as its ruler. However, the British and French had already agreed to let France run Syria after the war, and France forced Faysal out of power in 1920 . Syrians rebelled against French rule several times in the following years, but the country did not win its independence until 1946 , after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) had severely weakened France.

    After gaining its independence, the Syrian Arab Republic went through a period of political confusion and violence. The first government fell to a military coup in 1949 , and the army ruled the country until 1954 . In 1958 Syria and Egypt merged into the short-lived United Arab Republic. This arrangement lasted until a 1961 uprising led to new Syrian leadership. By 1963 Syria had experienced nine coups. The ruling Ba'th Party outlawed other political parties that year, and Ba'th leaders have remained in power ever since.

    In addition to internal problems, Syria had conflicts with some of its neighbors, especially Israel. Syria joined other Arab countries in attacking the Jewish state when it declared independence in 1948 and again during the Six-Day War of 1967 . During the 1967 hostilities, Israel seized the Golan Heights, a high ground separating Israel from Syria. Although the United Nations Security Council called for Israeli withdrawal from this territory, the Israelis remain reluctant to give it up.

    In 1970 Hafiz al-Assad became president of Syria, a post he held until his death 30 years later. Strongly opposed to Israel, Assad funded Palestinian terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon. He refused to let them attack from Syria, however, and suppressed terrorist activity during the Lebanese civil war ( 1975 – 1991 ) in order to avoid Israeli attack. Syrian troops maintain a strong presence in Lebanon, despite the desire of many Lebanese for their removal. Bashir al-Assad, who became president after his father's death, has yet to address this issue.

    Religion and Politics

    Almost 75 percent of Syrian Muslims are Sunnis, with the remainder made up of four Shi'i sects: Alawi, Ismaili, Druze, and Twelvers. The largest of these is the Alawi, considered a heretical group by many Sunnis. The Alawi, however, have held leadership positions in the country since the 1970s. Although composed of many different religious groups, Syria retains a mostly secular government.

    Islam and Syrian Independence.

    Under the Ottoman Empire, Syrian ulama enjoyed considerable power and wealth, and they repaid the sultans by helping to maintain order in the state. In the early 1800s, for example, the ulama opposed an anti-Ottoman revolution backed by Arabian reformers known as Wahhabis. The close relationship between mosque and state, however, eroded in the mid-1800s as European powers gained more influence in the empire. Concerned about the growing Christian presence in Syria, many Muslims participated in anti-Christian riots. An 1860 uprising in Damascus led to a massacre. The Ottomans blamed the violence on the ulama and punished scholars with imprisonment and exile. They then established a secular government largely without ulama participation.

    Syrian Muslims challenged Ottoman authority and called for a return to an Islamic state. They founded religious institutions and schools all over the country, although various groups clashed on matters of doctrine. The French occupation of Syria after World War I crushed the hopes of these Islamic reformers. Under French rule, however, a nationalist movement arose that united the country's many religious factions. To build support among different groups, the movement stressed issues of concern to all Syrians. Although largely secular, the movement relied on slogans and symbols that appealed to Muslims. It thus gained the backing of the ulama, and eventually helped bring about Syrian independence.

    During the French occupation, minority groups such as the Alawi and Druze also rose in power. Under the Ottomans, Sunni elites in the cities had filled key commercial and government jobs. The French, however, extended political authority to the countryside, where the majority of the Shi'i Muslims lived. The influx of rural Shi'is into the government weakened the influence of the Sunni religious leaders. It also ensured Syria's new role as a secular state because leaders did not want to alienate sections of the population by promoting their own religious views.

    Syria After Independence.

    Soon after independence, Syria demonstrated its commitment to secular politics. In 1949 the country abandoned the Ottoman legal code and adopted an Egyptian system that relied less heavily on traditional Islamic law. That same year, the government took control of private funds called waqf that financed the activities of mosques. Seizing these funds allowed the state to reward the religious leaders who supported it and punish those who did not.

    The new republic, however, made some concessions to Islamic reformers. In 1953 the government reinforced Islam's influence over family life with a Law of Personal Status governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other matters. This code applies Islamic law to Sunnis, Alawis, and Ismailis. Druze, Christians, and Jews each have separate codes. The government made further concessions to Islamic reformers in the 1973 constitution, which required the head of state to be Muslim and cited Islamic law as the main source for all legislation.

    Such moves, however, did not satisfy the Syrians who wanted Islam to play a larger role in public life. Many criticized the government for failing to establish Islam as the state religion. Dissatisfaction with the Ba'th party led to uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were crushed by the government.

    As President al-Assad worked to suppress his political opponents, Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood led anti-government resistance. Some factions supported armed struggle to overthrow the government. They had little influence in rural areas, however, and could gain no support among people of minority sects, who had a better life under secular rule than under Islamic rule. As a result, Islamic groups remained largely ineffective in challenging the Syrian regime.

    The Ba'th party's hostility toward Islamic political groups is not reflected in its social policies, however. Although the regime assumed control over all religious schools in 1967 , it allowed Islamic instruction to continue. Newspapers and television promote Syria's Muslim heritage, and the government has made no attempt to halt the distribution of religious materials. Damascus University maintains departments of Islamic law and literature. The Ba'th regime thus provides citizens the means to fulfill their religious obligations without enforcing any particular religious belief. See also Alawi; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Druze; Ismaili; Lebanon; Secularism.

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