Thursday, November 07, 2013

Syria's Jama'at Zayd

Thomas Pierret's Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution is an excellent and important new work on that country's 20th century history and culture.  With all the attention given to the politically active Muslim Brothers, the salafis with their real and perceived links to local and international vigilante activity, including terrorism, and then the Islamic liberals, there is also too little paid to what I think is still the dominant form of piety in the Arab world, that of the traditional ulama carrying forth the centuries-old traditions of Islamic learning in the modern world.  Syria is a striking place for this study precisely because the Muslim Brotherhood ceased to be a factor after its 1982 suppression.

I read this book over too protracted a period to really "review" it, but part of the book's importance lies in its chronicling the origins and development of many Islamic groups in 20th century Syria.  One of the more interesting in the Jama'at Zayd.  This group was founded in the early 1950's by Abd al-Karim Rifa'i, and named for his mosque in Damascus.  The study circles of centuries of Islamic learning became more like bounded cells of dozen or so devotees under a head.  The mosque also offered tutoring in secular disciplines so as to attract those attending state schools, precisely the demographic over which the ulama were losing influence.  Al-Rifa'i's goal was for the pupils to become "pious examples" of religion in non-religious careers, having a secular profession but still living according to Muslim values and being active in a mosque.

Al-Rifa'i tried to avoid Jama'at Zayd's becoming a political movement, but the regime nonetheless cracked down on its leadership after the 1982 uprising, in which some followers had become involved.  It did not stay down, however, in part because of its close ties to the professional middle class to whom it had reached out back in their school days.  These ties to the educated upper middle class have allowed it to excel at fundraising and charitable endeavors.  In addition to the charity projects the Jama'at network itself runs, its followers are active on the boards non-religious charities in Damascus.

In 2011, Jama'at Zayd leaders were vocal in their opposition to the regime, leading to regime thugs storming the main mosque and injuring worshippers, with Abd al-Karim's son Usama al-Rifa'i himself being hospitalized.  When accounts and images of this spread, there were protests in the poor outskirts of Damascus, but not the upper middle class heart of the city where Jama'at Zayd was strongest in terms of membership.  In fact, attendance at their mosques declined after the incident, which Pierret points out highlights the class dimension of the Syrian conflict.

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