*** Syria religions

Syria: Religions

Figure 1.--

Syria and Damascus in particular have been described as being a hub of cultural flows since time immemorial Syria like Palestine sits at the epicenter of three continents and the cultural flows between them: Africa, Europe, and Asia. Syria was part of many of the great empires of history, the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islamic Caliphate, Mongol, and finally Ottoman. Trade flowed through Syria as well as ideas, including religious ideas. Many of the great religion of history were active in Syria, including all three Abrahamic religions. Judaism was the first to arrive, but has always been a minority religion. During the Roman era, Christianity arrived and became the majority religion (4th century). During the Byzantine era, the state began enforcing orthodox doctrine, fanning sectarian resistance. The Arab conquest brought Islam with grater acceptance of religious diversity (7th centenary). Through all of this the Silk Road operated and Damascus and Aleppo were major trading and intellectual centers. Indian math began being called Arabic numbers because it passed through Syria. This all came crashing down when Portuguese navigators rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1498) and maritime trade routes were established with Asia. The overland Silk Road recede receding into insignificance and the Arab World became a backwater. And as time passed the Arab world became increase less tolerant and the Christian world mire tolerant. Today in the Middle East we hear the term genocide being shouted by Islamists claiming that there is a war on Muslims. Yet the only genocide going on is the successful Arab onslaught against Jews and Christians outside of Israel including Syria. And the progressive destruction of Christian communities in Syria and other Arab communities. While in Israel Muslim (Palestinian) and Christian communities worship freely and prosper. The country is predominately Muslim. Sunnis dominate, making up about 75 percent of the population. There are also Shi'ia pockets and a substantial Alawite minority along the Mediterranean coast. The Sunnis generally look down on the Alawites as backward and even heretical. 【Ajami, p. A17.】 Under the Assads the Alawite minority, associated with Shi'ia Islam have political power and while a minority are the dominant group. There is also a Christian minority divided into several different denominations. There was once a small Jewish community dating back to ancient times. The Assads have brought the Alawites to power. There is an ethnic/geographic fault line between the Alawite mountains and the Sunni planes. The ethnic, political and religious difference broke out into a brutal civil war (2011). And the most important divide appears to be not so much religious or ethnic as it is ideological divide between Muslims. Fundamentalists want to pursue a political agenda and create a theocratic caliphate. Secularists want a more limited religious role in government. The highly nationalistic Kurds and the Sunni Islamists pose fundamental threats to the Syrian state. Both but especially the Islamists are attracting huge support from the Sunni oil states. Russian President Putin has been aiding the Assad regime. President Obama and the Europeans have been much more reluctant to get involved and support moderate secular groups which have only limited followings. One author ends his essay on religion in Syria with this all too biting comment, "The main point for this current age is to reflect on the brotherhood between people of all faiths when Syria was at its zenith as recorded by travelers such as Ibn Jubayr. This goodwill in society was possible because people were attuned to their spirituality, whatever their faith or sect. Syria needs to reflect on this now, when people of the same faith are at war with each other and innocent women and children are losing their lives." And notice that it is not Jews and Christians doing the killing.

Ancient Era

Syria was located at the crossroads many great civilizations and empires. Major trade routes crossed Syria, including the Persian Royal Road and the famed Silk Road. Thus the people of the Levant were exposed to a world of ideas including religions. Great empires like Assyrian, Babylonia, Persia, and other imposed their religious ideas. Great cities sprang up in which these religious were discussed and practiced, including Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, and others. The people involved have changed over time, including Canaanites, Phoenician traders, the Arameans, the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites and with them their religion. Then came the Persians and Greeks. Alexander the Great conquered Syria (334 BC). Modern Syria became part of the Seleucid Empire. Finally came the Romans and with them eventually Christianity. While these ancient faiths have not survived, the religious thought of the ancient peoples survive in the Torah and Old Testament with stories like the Creation and Great Flood. This has bothered some Christian and Jewish theologians. One writes, "... the most serious tensions to be faced stem from the undeniable commonality of cultural and literary motifs that the Bible shares with the civilizations and literatures of the ancient Near East." 【Eichler】 It is unckear how much of vthis was incororated into Jewish thought bt thetime of the formation of the Jewish Kingdom (10th cebtury BC), but it was crtainly added or reinforced by the Babylonian Captivity (6th century BC).


Syria just north of modern Israel played an important role in the development of Christianity. The New Testamentb largely transpires south of modern Syria, but there were Jewish comminities in Syria rapidly sopread into Syria which at the time was largely part of the Roman Empire. Modern Iraq was a battlefround with the Parthians, but Syria was kargely controlled by the Romans. The language of the region (both modern Palestine and Syria) was Aramaic, the tongue spoke by Jesus. Christianity would be the first of the great religions adopted in Syria. Paul of Tsarsus would be the most important figure in the evolution of Christianity, second only to Jesus. Other important early Christian theologians were from Syria. Antioch became one of the important hub of Christian thought along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. St. Paul, was based at Antioch and launched evangelical missions from hat city before traveling to Rome an martyrdom. Paul of course became converted on the road to Damascus where he was planning to persecute Jews who had converted to Christianity. 【St. Paul, Acts 9:1-6.】 Ignatius (35-98 AD) was an early Church Father and third Bishop of Antioch playing a major role in the early Church. He was eventually arrested, taken to Rome and martyred on the orders of Emperor Trajan. Antioch became a great center of Christian leaning. It was here where some of the that great debates were conducted on the nature of Jesus, Mary, and the Trinity. Also important was the growth of Gnosticism rejected by Church Councils. Theodoret (393-458) was a moderate Bishop in Cyrrhus near Antioch. He was an important figure in the monophysite controversy with the Alexandrian Church concerning the nature and person of Jesus. This was at a critical when Church fathers began to ascribe a divine nature to Jesus. Theodoret argued on his humanity. The importance of Syria in the Christian Church ended with the Islamic conquest (634–38 AD). The Rashidun Caliphate invaded Syria as part of the wider Arab-Byzantine Wars. The Byzantines were decisively defeated at the Battle of Yarmouk (636). It was the first great wave of early Muslim conquests after the death of Mohamed and began the rapid advance of Islam into the Byzantine Christian Levant. The Arabs tolerated the Christians, but it ended the importance of Syria in the developing Christian Church. Several denominations are present, including Chalcedonian Antiochans, Melkites, Armenians, Syriac Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Roman Catholics, Maronites, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and several others. The Ottomans made some effort to protect Jews and Christians from Arab majority over time. Despite several notable massacres (19th century), Syria had a substantial minority Christian population into the 20th century. That population has declined substantially in recent years. Islamists talk about a war on Islam, where in reality what is transpiring in Syria and many other Arab countries is an Islamic war on non-Muslims. Today only about 5 percent of Syrians are Christians and the Cristian community is under siege by Islamists who have succeeded in driving out or killing the Jewish community.


Another notable, but lesser known religion are the Druze. This a religious community found in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. The Druze may vec 3c percentb of the population, The Druze see themselves as the 'people of Monotheism' (al-Muwahhidun). The name of the religion comes from a iis said to derive from the cleric Ad-Darazi (1016 AD), the most modern of the region's religions. He advanced the idea that Khalifah Al-Hakim in Cairo was divine. 【Glassé, p. 103.】 The Druze arose out of the Islamic tradition, an Ismaili Shia tradition--although most Muslims view them as heretical. Their theology also has elements of Greek and various mystic tendencies, especially Gnostic and Jewish mysticism. Among the Druze there are differences about whether God was actually incarnated into humans. Hazrat Alira and his descendants have lead this discussion. Understanding the Druze is complicated by the fact that they have a tendency for whatever reason to conceal their beliefs, similar to the Alawites. They call this approach 'Taqiyya'. An important Druze religious figure is Rasa’il Al-Hakim. The Druze ardently believe that Al-Hakim, arguably perhaps the most important Druze cleric, is returning as the Mahdi (Guided One). The Druze are able to maintain a degree of secrecy by excluding outsiders--seen as a matter of purity. Both conversion or intermarriage are prohibited. Despite being rejected by main-line Islam, the Druze orientation is toward the Islamic community. While important in Syria, it is Lebanon that the Druze played a major role, eventually leading to the creation of a separate Lebanese identity. Historically the the major conflict was between a Christian peasantry and Druze feudal land owners. The resulting conflict led to mass murder of Christians and European intervention (19th century). After World War I the Druze were especially resistant to European control and demanded a right to be armed, leading to the Great Revolt, primarily a Lebanese affair (1925-27). The Druze helped bring down President Shishakli (1954). This led to military and Bathist control and the Druze have ceased being an important player in Syrian affairs. In the conflict between Jews and Arabs, the Druze seem more favorable toward the Arabs, but have not embraced the Palestinian cause and have wisely avoided armed participation in the conflict.


War-like Arabiann esertv tribes raided and terrorized the settled people of the Fertile Crescent for millennia. They were never a mortal treat bcause the were not united. It was Mohamed that finally united the tribes under the banner of Islam. Mohammad knew a great deal about Syria. While still a boy, Mohammed was on many trade caravans with his Uncle Abu Talib, visiting Antioch, Damascus, and Homs as well as Basara in modern Iraq (7th century AD). He thus knew a great deal about Christianity. Arab armies entered Syria led by Hazrat Khalid ibn al-Walidra (634 AD). After the death of Hazrat Alira (661 AD), Hazrat Mu’awiyah (the Governor of Syria) was proclaimed the new Khalifah. He moved his capital Madinah to Damascus. Only when the Abbasid dynasty came to power was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate moved to Baghdad (750 AD). Slowly the official language became Arabic, replacing Greek and Aramaic. The rulers were Arabs, but the great bulk of the population was unchanged. Up until this time, Damascus had been an important Christian city, gradually the population began to convert to Islam. There were many advantages in doing so. Caliph al-Walid oversaw the construction of the the Great Mosque (706 AD). Up until this time, both Christians and Muslims worshiped in the Cathedral of St. John in Damascus in a notable sign of of toleration. This notable degree of toleration was still being reported (12th century). 【Broadhurst, pp.300-01.】 Islamic schools and libraries were opened, drawing scholars from across the ever increasing Muslim world. The library of Banu Jaradah in Aleppo was particularly important. Muslim scholarship was still not strictly theological and thus important strides were made in secular learning. The school in Damascus became known as the 'house of hadith' because of its importance in Islamic scholarship. Notable Syrian scholars included Ibn Kathir, al-Nawawi, Taqiyuddin Subki and Ibn al-Salah. 【Siba’i. p. 147.】 Important secular institutions were built. Sultan Malik Nuruddin built the Nuri Hospital or the poor and helpless. Yahya Suhrawardi opened the Al-Ishraq school of illumination (painting) in Aleppo, influenced by Persian mysticism. He was coincided that a mix of mysticism and reason was needed for real understanding. to define true philosophy, and set up his school to teach both aspects. 【Armstrong, p.78.】 After the conquest of Syria, the Islamic Cacaliphate expanded east and west. there were constant encroachments on the Byzantine Empire. Cconquests included Persia (632-54), Egypt (639-42), Cyprus (690), Turkistan (705), Spain (711) and Pakistan (712). Thus the schools in Damascus and other Syrian cities was gaining prominence in an the ever expanding Islamic Empire. Students and scholars came to Syria to study and share their wide-ranging secular and religious idea. This all began to change (12th century). European Christian powers began to react to the continuing Muslim assaults. The Reconquista was gaining ground inn Spain. The First Crusade was launched (1096). Antioch became a Crusader principality. Crusader forces would land in Antioch to retake Jerusalem. But more than anything, the Mongols rocked the Islamic world. The Mongols sacked Baghdad. The Euphrates River ran black with the ink of of books dumped into the river from the great libraries of the city. It was a loss of learning beyond comprehension, rivaling if not exceeding that of the great Library of Alexandria. Aleppo and Damascus fell (1260). The lslamic world never recovered. The Mamluks stopped the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260). Syria became, however, a battleground between the Mongols and Mamluks. The engine of commerce that fueled the Arab Caliphate was finally extinguished when Portuguese explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1498), establishing maritime trading routes with Asia. This was game changing because maritime transport is so much cheaper than land transport. The Arab world became a backwater and turned inward to exclusively theological learning as the same tine that the Renaissance ignited European secular learning. Syria and the Arab World in general has been an important center for secular learning and the beginning of modern science, became a scientific black hole, a situaion which continues to this day. The Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluk Sultanate (1516) at the Battle of Marj Dabiq north of Aleppo and and occupied Arab lands 【Masters】 This was part of the Ottoman-Mamluk Wars (1596-17) and fundamentally changed Middle Eastern and Arab history. One impact on Syria was that Damascus again became a prominent center. It was from Damascus that pilgrims heading toward Mecca from all over the Ottoman Empire began their journey. Another development impacted the Arab and wider Muslim world. Shi'ia Islam had for centuries been a relatively small sect within the Arab community with no real political power. The Safavids led by Ismail led a force Azerbaijan into Persia, conquering Tabriz (1501). Within a decade he controlled Persia. He imposed Twelver Shia Islam on the local Sunnis, at the time a majority Sunni nation. This revived the split in Islam dating back to the death of the prophet Mohammed (632 AD). Most of Mohammed's key followers thought that they should choose his successor. A small group was convinced that only someone from Mohammed's family -- at the time his cousin and son-in-law, Ali—should succeed him. They became known as the followers of Ali; which in Arabic the Shiat Ali, or simply Shia. With Persia as its base Shi'ia power became a real rival to Sunni Islam. 【Armstrong, pp. 99-101】 And modern Iraq and Syria would be a primarily battleground for this conflict which is clearly in evidence today. Syria remained an Ottoman province until World War I (1914-180. Becoming a French trusteeship under the League of Nations before becoming independent (1944-46). The Arabs today constantly complain about colonialism, ignoring the fact that European control of the Levant was for a few decades. It was Ottoman control lasting four centuries that was the major colonial experience. The difference if course was the religious issue. The Ottomans were Muslim and the Europeans were Christian. Shortly after independence, Syria as one of the front-line sates became involved in the intractable conflict with Israel. Unlike many Arab states, Syria has remained largely a secular state, but controlled by failed Baathist rules and failed Arab Socialism before the Assad family seized control. Something like 70 percent of the Syrian populati9on is Sunni. The Shi'ia population is over 10 percent, but there are no precise figures.


Jews have a long history in Syria. Large areas of the Assyrian Empire were part of what is now modern Syria. After the Assyrian conquest of the Jews, substantial numbers were exiled to other areas of the Empire. As these exiles disappeared to history, they became the Lost Tribes of Israel. They are believed to have assimilated with the local population. Other Jewish communities were established during the Roman era. Syria was part of a series of empires (Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman). The League of Nations after Wold War assigned a mandate to France (1922). At the time of World War II there were about 30,000 Jews in Syria. There were three major Jewish communities in Syria. Kurdish-speaking Jews were centered in Kamishli. Jews of Spanish ancestry were concentrated in Aleppo. Jews descended from the original eastern Jewish community lived primarily in Damascus and were referred to as the Must'arab. The status of these Jews changed radically with the fall of France (June 1940) and the formation of the Vichy Government. Syria and Lebanon (administered as part of Syria) were only two Vichy controlled colonies around the Mediterranean. Vichy also controlled Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Vichy's 1940 anti-Jewish regulations were extended to all these jurisdictions. The Vichy regulations involved a range of persecution and denial of of rights. Committees for Aryanization were established and the citizenship of French Jews was revoked. Camps were established and many Jews intervened. The pattern differed somewhat in each jurisdiction with Tunisia adopting particularly harsh regulations in 1941. The Vichy High Commissioner in Syria, Henri Dentz, was planning to open concentration camps, but the British and Free French forces seized control of Syria before he was able to do so. 【Stillman, p. 146.】 As a result of Vichy support for the pro-German Rashid Ali revolt in Iraq, British and Free French forces occupied Syria (June-July 1944). About 1,350 Syrian Jews were transported to Palestine in a complicated operation as part of the Aliyah effort. The Jewish community in Syria gained only a brief respite from persecution. After Syria achieved independence, the government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Other regulations followed as well as attacks on Jews.


Ajami, Fouad. "Syria's war hits the house of Assad," Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2012), p. A17.

Broadhurst, Ronald. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (New Delhi, India: Goodword Books 2011).

Cyrill Glassé, Cyrill. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam Second Edition (London, UK: Harper San Francisco, 1991).

Eichler, Barry L. "study of the Bible in light of our knowledge of the ancient Near East," in Shalom Varmy, ed. Modern Scholarship in Light of the Torah<./i> Northvale, New Jersey and Jerursalem, Jaon Aronson, 1996).

Mastrers, Bruce. "The Arabs of the Ottoman Empire, 1516–1918: A Social and Cultural History," Journal of Islamic Studies Vol.26, Issue 1 (January 2015).

Siba’i, Mustafa. The Islamic Civilization (Swansea, UK: Awakening Publications, 2002).

St.Paul, "Acts".

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991).


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Last updated: 5:35 PM 11/1/2018