Table of Contents


Until 2011, state management of Sunni Islam in Syria followed a combination of three main patterns. First, the Syrian state’s approach embodied the interventionist and repressive policies that typify religious governance in the Middle East and North Africa at large. Second, Syrian religious governance reflected secularist orientations inherited from the first two decades of rule by the Arab Socialist Baath (Resurrection) Party, which came to power in Syria through a military coup in 1963. And third, this Syrian approach revealed an obsessive focus on the security threat from Sunni Islam, a denomination that encompassed around 80 percent of Syria’s population. This is because, since 1963 (and especially since former president Hafez al-Assad took office in 1970), Syria’s ruling military elite was drawn from the country’s Alawite minority (a breakaway Shia sect whose members accounted for less than 10 percent of the country’s population by 2011).1

For decades, the result was a strategy of indirect rule. Clerics operated under the strict monitoring of the mukhabarat (intelligence services), which supported compliant figures and suppressed unruly ones, but official religious institutions remained weak. The Wizarat al-Awqaf (Ministry of Religious Endowments) was tremendously understaffed, vocational Islamic education was mostly provided by private institutes of sharia, or Islamic law, and Islamic charities mushroomed in the first years of the twenty-first century. This weak state strategy was a deliberate choice: following the ruthless repression of the 1979–1982 Islamic insurgency, the regime decided it had to tolerate outlets for society’s growing religiosity but that Sunni conservative elements, however subservient, were too unreliable to be incorporated into state institutions. Only at the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s first decade in power—that is, on the eve of the 2011 uprising—did the regime start to change course.

Thomas Pierret
Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence, France.

The shift toward a strategy of institution-based direct rule occurred as a consequence of the regime’s anxiety vis-a-vis the growing outspokenness of mainstream Sunni ulema, or religious scholars. Upon his 2007 appointment as minister of religious endowments, Mufti of Tartus Mohammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed proclaimed the “end of the era of anarchy,” a situation which, he claimed, had fostered the spread of religious extremism across society.2 A recruitment drive was initiated in the ministry, a directorate was established to supervise female preachers (most notably those affiliated with the influential Qubaysiyat, an all-women apolitical movement for religious education), vocational Islamic education was partly nationalized, and formal state control over the funding of charitable associations was tightened. By 2009, al-Sayyed announced a forthcoming law on the reorganization of his ministry to replace the de facto obsolete legal framework that had been in place since 1961.3

The ensuing civil war and resulting territorial fragmentation of Syria induced radical transformations in the religious institutions of those regions that now escaped Damascus’s authority. Opposition-held areas initially witnessed a situation of statelessness that favored decentralized, bottom-up initiatives such as the ulema leagues that formed the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council in 2014. In parallel, insurgent groups established a myriad of religious-legal bodies and, in the case of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more distinctly state-like religious bureaucracies such as the Department of Research and Fatwa.4

By 2020, three widely different models of religious governance survived outside regime-controlled areas. First, in the northwestern region of Idlib, the hardline Islamist faction now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, or Syria’s Liberation Committee)—which was formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al-Nusra—was ruling through the formally civilian Hukumat al-Inqadh al-Suriyya (Syrian Salvation Government). Second, in the northern regions of Syria controlled by the Turkish army, religious institutions were affiliated with bodies that emerged from the revolutionary era, namely local councils and the Syrian Interim Government (the executive arm of the Syrian National Coalition, the largest opposition alliance, based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep). Such institutions are now operating under the supervision of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Finally, east of the Euphrates River, governance lies in the hands of actors who historically had little interest in religion—namely, local affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This left-wing Kurdish organization in Turkey has been waging an insurgency against the state since 1984, and its Syrian offshoots control the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Religious Governance in Regime-Held Areas

Once literally besieged in its own capital by rebel groups, the Assad regime subsequently reversed the situation with the military help of Iran and Russia from, respectively, 2013 and 2015 onward. As of this writing, it controls two-thirds of the country’s territory, including all of its fourteen provincial capitals except for Idlib, Raqqa, and al-Hasakah.

Rather than ushering in a new era in management of Islam by the Assad regime, the civil war buttressed the pre-existing process of expansion of the formal authority of the Ministry of Religious Endowments over the religious field.

Rather than ushering in a new era in management of Islam by the Assad regime, the civil war buttressed the pre-existing process of expansion of the formal authority of the Ministry of Religious Endowments over the religious field. An additional step in the nationalization of Sunni Islam occurred only a few weeks into the 2011 uprising: on April 4, the country’s three private Islamic colleges (the Kuftaro Academy, the Fath Institute, and the Shia-led school Ruqqaya Hawza) were turned into branches of a state-run Sham Institute for Islamic Sciences. This was a means of reinforcing state control over religious elites and rewarding the loyalist ulema in charge of the colleges by granting them long-sought official recognition for their graduates’ diplomas. In 2017, moreover, the Sham Institute was elevated to the rank of a university.5 The same year, state-designed curricula were formally imposed upon the remaining private, secondary-level sharia institutes.6 In the meantime, some of Syria’s most respected ulema had left the country and established the pro-opposition Syrian Islamic Council in Istanbul, which deprived the regime of much of its religious legitimacy but also freed the regime from the figures best able to resist its embrace.

The pre-war ambition al-Sayyed harbored to design a comprehensive new legal framework for his ministry eventually came to fruition in October 2018 with the promulgation of Law 31/2018. Although some secularist commentators made the fantastical claim that the law would turn Syria into a Saudi-type religious state, its significance obviously lay elsewhere.7 Contrary to claims that the law provided for the expansion of the ministry’s influence over other ministries, it actually bolstered the former’s financial autonomy and reinforced its prerogatives, as well al-Sayyed’s personal power, within the religious establishment.8

Laila Alrefaai
Laila Alrefaai is a Syrian writer and researcher specializing in religious affairs.

The main victim of al-Sayyed’s empowerment was Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, whose position was weakened by Law 31/2018 in three ways. First, the length of tenure for a grand mufti was reduced from a lifetime appointment to a three-year term. Second, the grand mufti would now be nominated by the minister of religious endowments, whereas in the past holders of the post had been elected by a council of senior scholars or, as happened with Hassoun in 2005, directly appointed by the president. And third, the grand mufti’s (theoretical) supreme authority in matters of fatwa, or a legal opinion on a point of Islamic law, was turned into the mere vice-chairmanship of the newly established al-Majlis al-’Ilmi al-Fiqhi (Scholarly Council of Jurisprudence) presided over by the minister of religious endowments.9

The hostility al-Sayyed felt toward the Aleppo-born Hassoun seems to be rooted in a combination of (partly region-based) factionalism and, to a lesser extent, intellectual differences. The former had long been close to conservative Damascene ulema such as the late Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti (an eminent scholar and regime loyalist assassinated in 2013), who despised the grand mufti’s quasi-secularist and ecumenical views, although the latter had endeared him to some pro-regime members of religious minorities.10

To pass Law 31/2018, al-Sayyed took advantage of the grand mufti’s apparent fall from grace with the regime. In November 2018, Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate reportedly leaked a phone conversation in which the grand mufti was heard negotiating a ransom for the release of one of his relatives held hostage by a Druze militia in the governorate of Suwayda.11 In the first half of 2020, Hassoun almost disappeared from state media coverage. The country’s official news agency, the Syrian Arab News Agency, for instance, hardly ever mentioned him, and he was noticeably absent from public events such as an ulema visit to the mausoleum of Hafez al-Assad in the northwestern town of Qardaha for the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the late president’s death.12 Likewise, it was al-Sayyed and the Scholarly Council of Jurisprudence (which Hassoun failed to attend) that led the official Islamic response to the coronavirus pandemic, justifying the suspension of collective prayers on religious grounds and urging those who could afford it to support the needy allowing early payment of the Ramadan alms.13

The grand mufti’s misfortunes may have been related to the outbreak of the simmering conflict between Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was once Syria’s chief crony capitalist and who in 2020 angrily denounced the seizure of his assets in a series of video statements.14 Hassoun’s sons co-own a real estate company with a member of the Syrian parliament named Bilal al-Na‘al, himself an associate of Makhlouf by way of the Damascus Cham Holding Company. (Established in 2006, this firm was Syria’s first holding company and is now in charge of constructing the luxurious housing development of Marota City in Damascus.)15 Na‘al is also the owner of Falcon, a private security company that contracted with the Makhlouf-owned companies Syriatel and Cham Wings.16

The feud between al-Sayyed and Hassoun is also part of another divide that has shaped Syrian politics in recent years, namely, the Russia-Iran rivalry. The inclusion of the minister’s son Abdullah into the Russian-and-Turkish-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee seemed to indicate that the minister is favored by Moscow.17 Abdullah al-Sayyed claims to have the ear of Russia’s Chechen Republic, which allegedly borrowed from the strategy he and his father have devised to reshape Islam in Syria.18 The elder al-Sayyed is also said to be close to businessman Iyad Hassan, who partners with Russian investors in the Yalta real estate project in the Syrian port city of Tartus along the Mediterranean Sea.19

Hassoun, for his part, has continued to benefit from Iran’s support, as evidenced by the fact that, while he was de facto banished from Syrian state media, he retained extensive access to Iranian-sponsored outlets. In May 2020, for instance, Alalam Syria TV granted him a thirty-minute interview.20 Since the regime’s recapture of eastern Aleppo in December 2016, Hassoun took advantage of his close ties with militias affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Aleppo’s Local Defense Forces, both of which have become critical actors in the northern city’s security landscape.21

This allowed Hassoun to fill the void left in 2012 by the exile of Suhaib al-Shami, his archrival who once reigned supreme over Aleppo’s religious bureaucracy. Hassoun secured the appointment of relatives and protégés to key religious positions in the city, including many of the mosque pulpits left vacant after the rebels’ defeat.22 He also reportedly emerged as a broker between the authorities and would-be returnees such as Sheikh Mahmoud al-Hout, a popular preacher and head of the Kiltawiyya sharia institute, who came back to Aleppo in 2019 after seven years of exile in Egypt.23 In spite of rumors of his impending dismissal in the spring of 2020, Hassoun seems to have garnered enough support to return to favor, as illustrated by his presence alongside Assad during the celebration of the Mawlid (a minor holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) in October that year.24

As for the minister, he has also worked to increase his influence in the patrimonial way that has become the hallmark of the Assad regime.

As for the minister, he has also worked to increase his influence in the patrimonial way that has become the hallmark of the Assad regime. The elder al-Sayyed, whose own father Abdul Sattar held the same position in the 1970s and whose brother Khayr al-Din served as the governor of Idlib, gave his son Abdullah a prominent role in the Ministry of Religious Endowments by appointing him as director of religious endowments in Tartus.25

Abdullah al-Sayyed has also been appointed head of al-Fariq al-Dini al-Shababi (the Youth Religious Team), a voluntary organization that the ministry set up in 2016 to mobilize junior male and female religious scholars between the ages of twenty-five and forty in the fight against “extremism” and the promotion of “moderate” religious discourse.26 The team has held training sessions and conferences across the country while enjoying extensive access (including a dedicated weekly program) to the ministry’s Nour al-Sham television channel.27

Besides al-Sayyed’s own multivolume tafsir (the critical explanation or interpretation of scripture),28 the backbone of the team’s doctrine consists in the so-called fiqh al-azma (jurisprudence of crisis)—that is, refutations of the regime’s religious nemeses, in particular Wahhabis; the Muslim Brotherhood; and any takfiri (someone who has accused others of apostacy), which is what the regime calls jihadis. One should not overstate the originality of this intellectual endeavor: what the Sayyeds aim to propagate is not some groundbreaking Islamic modernism but a neotraditionalist approach centered on what they consider an authentic—that is, politically subservient—understanding of al-islam al-shami (Syrian-Levantine Islam).29

Unlike other social groups such as peasants, workers, and students, men of religion had not been incorporated into Soviet-style popular organizations during the first decades of Baathist rule. This meant limited access to state resources and decisionmakers but also an ethically comfortable isolation from the secular-minded, Alawite-dominated elements that rule over those state agencies. By contrast, the team was jointly established by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the intensely loyalist National Union of Syrian Students as an “integral part” of the union, as explained by Darin Suleiman, who has been head of the union since 2020 and who attended most major events held by the Youth Religious Team in pride of place.30

Very much like the Baath Party itself, the team is best conceived of as a patronage structure that members join in search of political and security benefits rather than as a political movement eliciting genuine ideological conviction in its ranks. The main incentives for joining it are privileges granted to members by the ministry and security apparatus regarding appointments and authorizations for religious activities.31 This patronage has proven particularly appealing in formerly rebel-held areas, which remain submitted to drastic security measures.32 However, the moral discomfort aroused by this bargain is such that some scholars—including team members themselves—advance religious arguments to discourage their colleagues from joining it.33

Thus, through the Youth Religious Team, the ministry is propping up a new generation of clerics that owe little to their own scholarly merits and much to their political connections. Besides ethical considerations, there are limitations to this strategy. In spite of Abdullah al-Sayyed’s exaltation of young religious scholars as more capable of propagating a flexible religious discourse than their elders, younger scholars are not about to replace their more experienced colleagues.34 In the religious field at least, the Assad regime still needs the religious old guard’s scholarly credibility, as well as its human and institutional resources. In 2019, Assad inaugurated the International Islamic Cham Center on confronting terrorism and extremism not in the company of the Youth Religious Team but instead with senior ulema from the Fath Institute and the Kuftaro Academy (including then mufti of Damascus and its countryside, Adnan al-Afiyuni, who was appointed as the center’s director).35 A few months later, Umayyad Mosque preacher Ma’mun Rahme, whose unrestrained pro-regime enthusiasm was inversely proportional to the reverence he inspired among the faithful, was replaced by Tawfiq al-Buti, the son of aforementioned religious luminary, Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti.36

Support from the mukhabarat is likely to ensure that the team will remain a key player within the Sunni religious field. However, in Syrian politics at large, the Sayyeds’ ambitions have faced significant setbacks. Upon its establishment in 2016, the Youth Religious Team had four members of its fifteen-member Central Council elected to the People’s Assembly, Syria’s parliament.37 Team affiliates—who replaced the handful of more senior ulema who had represented religious-minded Sunni constituencies in parliament since the early 1970s—included female preacher Farah Hamsho, the sister of crony businessman Muhammad Hamsho, and Muhammad Zuray‘a, who was appointed as the assembly’s secretary.38 However, not a single Sunni religious candidate succeeded in the next round of legislative elections that was held in 2020.39 Two years earlier, the Sayyeds faced another political setback when explicit mention of the Youth Religious Team in Decree 16/2018 (the draft version of Law 31/2018) was eventually replaced with a mere reference to al-‘unsur al-shababi (the young element).40

The team’s political misfortunes resulted, first, from the considerable anxiety its emergence sparked among members of pro-regime minority constituencies, who view any political empowerment of conservative Sunnis as an existential threat and who initially perceived the team as an Islamic movement akin to the Muslim Brotherhood.41 Opposition to the Sayyeds’ policies broke out at the People’s Assembly and on social media upon the release of Decree 16/2018, as both Latakia Province’s parliamentary representative Nabil Salih and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (which draws the bulk of its membership from Alawite and Christian communities) denounced what it called an attempt at “Islamizing society.”42 This outcry resulted in several amendments to the draft law, including the deletion of the mention of the team and the lifting of a provision allowing the ministry to recruit foreign nationals, which was widely interpreted as a means to incorporate Iran-backed Twelver Shia missionaries into Syria’s religious bureaucracy.43

Minority constituencies had already expressed their opposition to the Sunni religious establishment in 2016 during an outreach event held by the Youth Religious Team in the Alawite-majority province of Tartus. Obviously uncomfortable Sunni clerics had to face attacks from participants reproaching them for giving firebrand sermons and for instilling in their listeners “the fear of God more than the love of God.”44 In recent years, secular-minded observers have blamed various instances of censorship and imposed public morality on the ministry’s alleged hidden influence.45

On matters of strategic importance, the religious establishment is less able to shape regime policies than it used to be before the civil war.

In fact, these fears appear to be overblown. On matters of strategic importance, the religious establishment is less able to shape regime policies than it used to be before the civil war. Notably, a committee of conservative legal experts provoked widespread indignation in secularist circles in 2009 by drafting amendments to Syria’s personal status law. The government ultimately withdrew the amendments, but the affair nevertheless demonstrated the influence of conservative religious opinion on social matters.46 Ten years later, however, the government enacted amendments that shifted the personal status law in a somewhat more secular direction, changes that were described by conservative observers as “violations of sharia.”47

Finally, the most significant limitation on the empowerment of the Youth Religious Team and of Sunni clerics at large is their questionable political relevance for the regime. In that respect, Sunni religious elites compare unfavorably with far more resourceful players—namely, paramilitary leaders and war profiteers—whose growing influence resulted in the former’s exclusion from parliament in 2020.48 Except for topmost religious cronies such as al-Sayyed and Hassoun, the ulema have traditionally been tied to businessmen running small- and medium-sized businesses who have been overshadowed by the aforementioned war-created economic elites.49 Moreover, whereas clerical go-betweens proved instrumental in the negotiated surrender of rebel-held localities around Damascus from 2014 onward, those so-called sheikhs of reconciliation lost much of their relevance after the regime completed the reconquest of the capital’s suburbs in 2018. Most prominent among them was al-Afiyuni, who died in an October 2020 car bombing while in the company of Sheikh ‘Adil Mastu (who survived the blast) in Qudsaya, a town the two men had once helped return to regime control.50 By a troubling coincidence, the assassination occurred on the day the People’s Assembly approved a decree abolishing the National Reconciliation Committee (the body in charge of supervising local negotiated surrenders), which a member of parliament described as now being “useless.”51

Religious Governance in Idlib Province

An early insurgent stronghold, the province of Idlib fell entirely to the rebels in 2015 following an offensive by the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a military coalition dominated by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani’s Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Between 2017 and 2019, several rounds of infighting resulted in the victory of Jabhat al-Nusra (by then renamed as HTS) over Ahrar al-Sham and its allies. The infighting also led to the submission of the province to the authority of an HTS-affiliated civilian administration, the Syrian Salvation Government. From a military perspective, the region became a de facto Turkish protectorate when Ankara’s army, which had deployed there as an observation force in 2017, forcefully repelled a major regime offensive in early 2020.

Among the four state or state-like entities now ruling over parts of Syria, HTS is the only one that overtly endorses an Islamist ideology. Originally a franchise of the Islamic State in Iraq, and then the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra broke with the latter in 2016 and renamed itself HTS the following year. Subsequently, al-Jolani’s group gradually distanced itself from transnational jihadi ideals and adopted an increasingly pragmatic, Syria-centered ideology.

HTS’s Islamist outlook is reflected, first, in the forward-looking denomination of the Syrian Salvation Government’s dedicated agency, namely, the Wizarat al-Awqaf wa-l-Da‘wa wal-Irshad (Ministry of Religious Endowments, Islamic Call and Guidance). HTS sees the agency as particularly strategic: Whereas the Syrian Salvation Government upon being established in 2017 allocated ten out of eleven portfolios to sympathetic yet formally independent figures, the Ministry of Religious Endowments (HTS) was entrusted to a senior HTS member—namely, then chairman of the group’s al-Majlis al-Shar‘i (Legal-Religious Council), Anas Muhammad Bashir al-Mousa, also known as Bishr al-Shami.52 A subsequent holder of the post was Ibrahim Shasho, who defected from Ahrar al-Sham to HTS after his former faction endorsed codified law in June 2017.53

While the ministry is concerned with the management of religious institutions, the Syrian Salvation Government’s marja‘iyya (legal-religious reference) is al-Majlis al-A‘la li-l-Ifta’ (the Higher Fatwa Council), which was established in April 2019. The latter is also embedded within HTS’s own religious apparatus: Besides the ministers of religious endowments and justice, its founding members include HTS’s two top shar‘is (Islamic jurists), namely, ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Atun (also known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami) and Mazhar al-Ways.54

HTS’s direct control over religious institutions entails policies that interviewees among Idlib-based clerics uniformly describe as highly centralized and authoritarian.

HTS’s direct control over religious institutions entails policies that interviewees among Idlib-based clerics uniformly describe as highly centralized and authoritarian. Everyday monitoring of local mosque activities is carried out by a ministry-appointed, HTS-loyal mas’ul al-masajid (mosque officer).55 Mosque officers have been charged with putting an end to the unregulated character of mosque-based lessons and conferences that has prevailed since the advent of insurgent rule in 2012.56

Appointments and dismissals of imams and preachers are strictly conditioned on compliance with official guidelines.57 As a result, several clerics have been replaced with HTS affiliates and sympathizers.58 Independent khatibs (preachers at Friday prayers) who retained their position were temporarily substituted with HTS-affiliated shar‘is at sensitive political moments; preachers who refused to step aside could be permanently dismissed. This particularly has been the case during the repeated rounds of infighting between HTS and other factions since 2017. Preachers who are not aligned with HTS have been reluctant to support al-Jolani’s group in such contexts because of a deep-seated belief in the sinful character of rebel fratricide, and/or because they had sympathies for HTS’s rivals.59 As one interviewee remembers, “during HTS’s war against the Nur al-Din Zenki Movement [around late 2018 and early 2019], [HTS leaders] asked a respected Friday preacher to stay home while they sent one of their kids to give the sermon and incite people to fight Zenki.”60

In spite of the above, there are several limitations to HTS’s domination over Idlib’s religious field. First, attempts to placate local communities through displays of pragmatism have resulted in policies that, although inflexible on political loyalty, appear more lenient on matters of religious doctrine. There has been no wholesale imposition of the group’s Salafist creed over local men of religion who, to a non-negligible extent, still embrace the Sufi version of Islam that used to be dominant before 2011. Dismissals of clerics on religious grounds have most often been a pretext for politically motivated decisions. Moreover, whereas Salafists generally eschew madhahib (established schools of jurisprudence), HTS has started to promote the teaching and judicial use of the Shafi’i school (the most widespread school of Islamic jurisprudence in the Syrian countryside) to ease relations with homegrown men of religion and to stifle the most doctrinaire jihadi shar‘is among its ranks.61 Such doctrinaires often belong to HTS’s foreign contingent of clerics, who have largely been kept away from Friday pulpits and mostly officiate as military chaplains.62

HTS’s grip over the religious field has proven softer in regions where it does not hold full military dominance over other rebel factions, such as in the western countryside of Aleppo.63 This is more generally the case outside major population centers, considering that the Syrian Salvation Government’s religious bureaucracy has invested the bulk of its (limited) economic and human resources in the control of the urban religious field.64 HTS’s Ministry of Religious Endowments being unable to pay salaries for all mosque personnel, the mosque personnel often have to rely on their own resources and those of local communities.65 Appointments of ministry-affiliated clerics thus occur when political necessity dictates; in the summer of 2020, for instance, HTS asserted its authority over the village of Arab Sa‘id, which until then was controlled by the al-Qaeda loyalists of the group called Hurras al-Din.66

The management of specialist Islamic education conforms to the mixed pattern expounded above. HTS runs its own Preachers Training Institute, while key positions are occupied by HTS sympathizers such as Anas ‘Ayrut, the leader of the 2011 uprising in Banyas in Tartus Governorate who succeeded Shasho as dean of the Faculty of Sharia at the University of Idlib.67 Yet independent Islamic institutes continue to operate in Idlib. The Syrian Salvation Government closed down or seized institutions it perceived as hostile, such as Idlib’s branches of the Free Aleppo University, which is affiliated with the rival Syrian Interim Government.68 At the same time, it has continued to tolerate sharia institutes run by non-Salafist groups that are seen as politically neutral, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Tabligh, both of which teach Ash‘ari theology, which contradicts the Salafist creed.69

Likewise, the Syrian Salvation Government has opted for strict monitoring, rather than a full takeover, in its relations with major Islamic charities.

Likewise, the Syrian Salvation Government has opted for strict monitoring, rather than a full takeover, in its relations with major Islamic charities such as Idlib’s Jam’iyyat al-Nahdat al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Renaissance Association). Self-restraint in this matter derives from a concern, as the saying goes, to avoid “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”—that is, putting off donors, including the Turkish Diyanet and the Muslim Brotherhood–aligned Jam’iyyat ‘Ita’ (Giving Association), by replacing the existing management with HTS loyalists.70

As a result of HTS’s Islamist nature, the remit of religious affairs is not as clearly delimited among Idlib’s political institutions as it is in other Syrian polities. Legal matters, in particular, are closely interconnected with religious affairs, notably because they are run by clerics rather than by experts in secular law. Prior to his appointment as Minister of Religious Endowments, al-Mousa chaired the court of appeals in the Army of Conquest coalition.71 His successor, Shasho, had served as minister of justice in the Syrian Salvation Government’s first line-up.72 Shasho himself was replaced in the latter position by Anas Mansur Sulayman, a sharia graduate who built his credentials by serving as a judge in post-2011 sharia courts.73 Accordingly, the first general conference of Idlib’s heads of courts in May 2020 was jointly held by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Religious Endowments (HTS).74

The Syrian Salvation Government’s religious policies also extend into the economic realm. As a means of bolstering the government’s ability to levy income tax (a major challenge for both state and nonstate actors ruling over Syrian territory), the Ministry of Religious Endowments (HTS) supervised the establishment of al-Hay’a al-‘Amma li-l-Zakat (the General Authority for Zakat), whose task is to centralize the collection of compulsory alms and their redistribution to the needy. In the fall of 2019, popular protests erupted in the northwestern city of Kafr Takharim after officers of zakat, or the mandatory annual charitable donations made by Muslims, seized the alms’ share of oil from users of olive presses. Discontent resulted from excessive levies (a fact that the zakat authority itself eventually acknowledged by demonstratively returning the oil to some farmers) but also from a broader rejection of the Syrian Salvation Government’s legitimacy, as local communities preferred to continue paying zakat into grassroots, decentralized schemes.75 Similar, albeit less visible, dissatisfaction has been provoked by the ministry’s drive to register religious endowments and centralize their revenues (against the preferences of local communities) for schemes in which endowments specifically cater to the mosque to which they are attached.76

Because the Syrian Salvation Government’s raison d’être is to confer a modicum of respectability on HTS’s rule in the eye of foreign actors and local communities, the most controversial aspect of Islamist governance in Idlib is not carried out by the Syrian Salvation Government but by bodies that are directly commanded by HTS. That greatest source of controversy is the practice of hisba, or the enforcement of religious norms, particularly in terms of female modesty and gender segregation, in public spaces. Following the near-complete takeover of Idlib in 2017, the group established a hisba apparatus named Sawa‘id al-Khayr (Arms of Good).77 The apparatus became particularly active in the spring of 2018, when a new round of infighting against Ahrar al-Sham and its allied factions led to a rare stalemate that made HTS appear vulnerable, hence particularly eager to tighten its control over society.78 Yet popular discontent with hisba practices and this heavy-handed interference in the operations of educational and medical institutions subsequently convinced HTS to freeze the activities of the Arms of Good.79 By early 2019, another crushing victory against rival rebel factions allowed HTS to concentrate on polishing its image and, more vitally, on preparing the defense of Idlib against a looming large-scale loyalist offensive.

HTS’s religious police reemerged in March 2020 under the name Markaz al-Falah (Bliss Center), whose members subsequently arrested the head of a midwifery institute following a drawing exhibition featuring a “masonic emblem” (in reality, the female symbol: ♀).80 This time, the return of HTS’s vice squad seemed related to concerns over the group’s internal cohesion. An increasingly blunt embrace of realpolitik (a de facto military partnership with the Turkish army, acceptance of the March 5 Turkish-Russian ceasefire, and a crackdown on Hurras al-Din) was met with unease by hardliners. Yet religious actors typically see the sacred realm as a more legitimate and solid grounds for challenging the incumbent than purely political considerations. Therefore, HTS dissidents such as Egyptian cleric Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri and military commander Abu Malik al-Telli (who established his own short-lived faction before being arrested by HTS) seized the opportunity of the coronavirus pandemic–induced closure of mosques in April to voice their criticism of the Syrian Salvation Government.81 But HTS’s Consultative Council member Abu al-Fath al-Farghali, another Egyptian hawk who remained loyal to al-Jolani, insisted that, notwithstanding the political compromises imposed on the group by the Turkish military buildup of February 2020, the domestic implementation of sharia remained a red line.82 Against this background, the reactivation of the hisba might be interpreted as a means of enticing figures like al-Farghali and the many foreigners that reportedly man the Bliss Center into remaining loyal to HTS rather than joining Hurras al-Din or other hardline groups.83 This expedient might only be temporary, however, and is likely to become unnecessary given HTS’s ever-increasing military superiority over its radical contenders.

Religious Governance in Turkish-Controlled Areas

The Turkish-controlled zone of northern Syria was established through three military operations. First in 2016–2017, Operation Euphrates Shield secured the rebel-held city of Azaz and expelled the Islamic State from the northwestern cities Jarablus and al-Bab. Then in 2018, Operation Olive Branch seized the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin from the PKK-aligned People’s Protection Units (YPG). Finally, in 2019, Operation Peace Spring targeted a border strip extending from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ayn.84

Religious institutions in those areas stand out due to their decentralized, multilayered, and fragmented character. This is because Ankara’s approach to governance in northern Syria simultaneously relies on the co-optation of mutually competing Syrian revolutionary structures and on the direct involvement of Turkish institutions.

Ankara’s approach to governance in northern Syria simultaneously relies on the co-optation of mutually competing Syrian revolutionary structures and on the direct involvement of Turkish institutions.

Like all rebel-held Syrian regions, northern Syria witnessed a mushrooming of uncoordinated grassroots religious initiatives following the expulsion of regime troops in 2012. A myriad of religious schools, Islamic charities, and ulema leagues were created by local men of religion, rebel factions, and foreign (mostly Gulf-based) sponsors.85 In the province of Aleppo, the Legal-Religious Council began a process of bottom-up coordination of these initiatives in 2013.86 Initially conceived of as a syndicate for clerics, the council gradually came to claim—against similar ambitions on the part of Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham and HTS’s predecessor, Jabhat al-Nusra—the status of a quasi-official institution exerting prerogatives formerly held by the Assad regime’s Ministry of Religious Endowments.87 The council saw itself as the nucleus of a new Ministry of Religious Endowments to be established within the Gaziantep-based Syrian Interim Government of the Syrian National Coalition (the largest opposition alliance), but the latter focused its limited resources on other priorities, namely, education and healthcare.88 Formal cooperation between the council and the interim government was thus initially limited to the joint management of the three dozen thanawiyyat shar‘iyya (sharia secondary schools) established by the council.89

In 2014, the Legal-Religious Council became a founding component of the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council. In a similarly bottom-up fashion, the latter assembled a vast array of ulama organizations from all over Syria and the diaspora, including Sufis, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and (non-jihadi) Salafists.90 The Syrian Islamic Council was conceived of as a purely scholarly, non-executive body claiming the status of marja‘iyya for the Syrian opposition. Accordingly, it has been chiefly concerned with the issuance of fatwas and statements on religious issues (such as setting the amount of Ramadan alms), though it also has addressed political developments such as disputes between rebel factions.91 Although the council generally aligns with Turkish policies, it recently demonstrated a degree of independence by condemning those who leave the domestic front to fight abroad, an oblique reference to Syrians who volunteered as mercenaries to participate in Ankara’s military interventions in Libya and Azerbaijan.92

When Operation Euphrates Shield was launched in 2016, the Legal-Religious Council, with the support of the Syrian Islamic Council and the Syrian Interim Government, presented itself to Turkish authorities as the most suitable partner to administer Islam in the area.93 Yet, reflecting in this a broader pattern of Turkish governance in northern Syria,94 Ankara eventually tasked each major town’s al-majlis al-mahalli (local council) with establishing an idarat al-awqaf wa-l-ifta’ wa-l-shu’un al-diniyya (directorate of endowments, fatwa, and religious affairs). Local directorates are responsible for managing endowments, appointing mosque personnel and muftis, organizing Quran classes, and monitoring Friday sermons in their respective districts. The nineteen such directorates that saw the light of day in the three zones of Turkish military operations were later assembled into a loose single idara (administration), while in reality they reported directly to the Diyanet.95 The latter’s vakif (foundation) is the chief provider of funding for the restoration, maintenance, and staffing of mosques.96 Turkey also imposed its own model of recruitment of mosque personnel through a competitive examination, which contrasts with the connection-based model that prevailed before 2011.97 By May 2019, the Diyanet claimed to have hired over 1,400 clerics in northern Syria.98

The Legal-Religious Council and the Syrian Islamic Council reacted to their marginalization at the hands of local directorates by encouraging the Syrian Interim Government to finally establish its own Hay’at al-Awqaf wa-l-Shu’un al-Diniyya (Authority of Endowments and Religious Affairs), a hundred-members-strong administration, in January 2018. The authority’s president since that date has been Rafa‘a ‘Abd al-Fattah, a founding member of the Syrian Islamic Council. Accordingly, the authority vocally proclaims its recognition of the Syrian Islamic Council as its marja‘iyya.99 On matters of mosque management, the role of the authority is apparently confined to Afrin, Ras al-Ayn, and Tell Abyad, due to the absence of preexisting local councils following the uprooting of PKK-aligned institutions upon Turkey’s capture of those areas.100 The authority plays a more significant role in the educational realm because it inherited the management of the sharia high schools formerly affiliated with the Legal-Religious Council and because of the leverage it derives from the Syrian Interim Government’s ability to standardize diplomas and have them recognized by national institutions of higher learning in Syria and abroad.101

Besides sheer administrative rivalries, there are doctrinal dimensions to the competition between local directorates and the Syrian Interim Government’s religious affairs authority. The former are dominated by homegrown, traditionalist, Sufi-leaning scholars who intend to take advantage of their empowerment by the Diyanet to roll back Salafist influence. The latter remains strong as a result of the legacy of the Islamic State’s three-year rule over the al-Bab area, the ongoing presence of Salafist-leaning rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, and the activities of Gulf-funded nongovernmental organizations like the Taj Association for Quran Teaching.102 By contrast, the nexus between the Syrian Islamic Council and the Authority of Endowments and Religious Affairs displays an inclusive attitude reflecting its own pluralistic makeup. Moreover, whereas the directorates and Turkish authorities favor a statist, top-down approach to the management of religion and education, the authority, once again echoing the Syrian Islamic Council’s preferences, emphasizes the need to facilitate the role of what authority members call religious civil society—that is, the many grassroots initiatives that appeared from 2012 onward.103

Administrative fragmentation explains the exceedingly complex structure of the Islamic educational sector in northern Syria.

Administrative fragmentation explains the exceedingly complex structure of the Islamic educational sector in northern Syria. At the middle and high school levels, it includes three distinct categories. First, there are sharia secondary schools, which are religious courses of study within general, nonvocational high schools, affiliated with either local councils or the Interim Government. Then there are equivalent Imam-Khatib high schools directly attached to the Turkish Ministry of Education.104 Finally, northern Syria has ma‘ahid shar‘iyya (authority-affiliated private Islamic institutes, or vocational Islamic high schools) like the Mecca Institute of the League of Syrian Ulama—itself linked to the Muslim Brotherhood—and the Abdallah Ibn Hudhafa al-Sihami Institute run by the Ahbab Association, a local offspring of the Jama’at ad-Da’wa wat-Tabligh.105 In the realm of higher Islamic studies, likewise, the offer is divided between the Faculty of Sharia of the Syrian Interim Government–affiliated Free Aleppo University; branches of the Turkish Gaziantep University, such as the Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Azaz or the Sharia Institute in Jarablus; and the al-Bab branch of Başakşehir Academy, a private, Istanbul-based, Syrian-run university.106

The multiplicity of Islamic educational institutions in northern Syria should not be mistaken for the extent of their reach. Members of the Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Azaz lament that sharia institutes and secondary schools only cater to a minuscule share (which they estimate at around 1 percent) of all school pupils in northern Syria.107 This low figure does not necessarily constitute evidence of a decrease in religiosity among locals, as it could also be explained by concerns over career opportunities. Yet it is consistent with other trends that local men of religion interpret as signs of a popular backlash against religious norms which, in their view, finds its origin in the abuses committed by the Islamic State and other hardline Islamist rebels.108 Preventing the resurgence of ghuluw (extremism) and the spread of irreligion are the twin challenges that local religious institutions see themselves as poised to face in the future.

Religious Governance in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which was proclaimed in 2018, is the latest iteration to date of the governance structure first established in 2012 by the YPG in the Kurdish-majority areas of Afrin, Kobane, and Qamishli. Between 2015 and 2019, U.S. military support against the Islamic State allowed the YPG and its partners within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to expand southward into Arab-majority areas of the provinces of al-Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor.

Official religious institutions in the autonomous administration have been shaped by three main dynamics. First, there is the leftist, secularist, and feminist ideology of PKK founder and ideologue Abdullah Öcalan. The second one is a top-down, hegemonic party model of governance that leaves very little space for private initiatives. And the third is the post-2015 inclusion of large Arab communities that remain suspected of harboring sympathies for the Islamic State and radical interpretations of Islam in general.

Whereas all official religious institutions in Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa define themselves as primarily—or exclusively—Islamic, the bureau is inherently conceived as pluralistic.

Following the proclamation of the Rojava self-rule administration in 2014, hay’at diniyya (religious bodies) were established in the three cantons of Afrin, Jazira (including Qamishli and al-Hasakah), and Kobane.109 In 2016, these bodies were placed under the authority of the Maktab Shu’un al-Adiyan wal-Mu‘taqadat (Bureau of Religions and Beliefs) for Northern and Eastern Syria.110 Whereas all official religious institutions in Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa define themselves as primarily—or exclusively—Islamic, the bureau is inherently conceived as pluralistic. First, its name not only makes space for several religions but also for potentially nonreligious beliefs. Second, its logo gives the same importance to the symbols of Islam (a crescent), Christianity (a cross and a dove), and Yezidism (a peacock). Third, it is headed by three ra’is mushtarak (co-presidents) representing each of the three religions.111 Fourth, it is supplemented with a Maktab Multaqa al-Adiyan (Bureau for Religious Encounter) whose task is to reach out to non-Muslim communities inside the autonomous administration and abroad.112

Besides a heavy emphasis on tolerance and religious coexistence, another key feature of the autonomous administration’s religious discourse is an insistence on gender equality. Mirroring the administration’s Executive Council, the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs is headed by a mixed co-presidency: while the Syriac Christian and Yezidi presidents are men, the Muslim president is a woman, namely, a sharia graduate from al-Azhar University named ‘Aziza Khanafir.113

The bureau is an executive body rather than a marja‘iyya. The latter function is exerted by the Mu’tamar al-Mujtama‘ al-Dimuqrati al-Islami (Islamic Democratic Society Congress), which originated as the Union of Muslim Scholars in the Jazira Canton (also called the Union of Kurdish Muslim Scholars). The union was established in 2015 by the local autonomous administration as a means of co-opting clerics and, as a founding member has explained, to “get rid” of extremist fatwas and scholars.114

Union members were subsequently appointed to key positions within the autonomous administration’s religious institutions. Union chairman Mohammed Mullah Rashid Gharzani became the head of the Islamic Democratic Society Congress upon its establishment in 2019.115 Sheikh Muhammad al-Qadiri is the son of ‘Ubayd Allah al-Qadiri, a prominent figure of the Qadiriyya Sufi order based in Amuda, a town near the Turkish border, and whose following includes many Arabs from the Euphrates Valley.116 Muhammad al-Qadiri presided over the Religious Body of the Jazira Canton upon its establishment and continues to exert a supervisory role over the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs in his capacity as head of the organization and administration.117 In parallel, he has occupied political positions such as head of the Hay’at al-A‘yan (Council of Dignitaries), which primarily includes tribal chiefs and board member in the Minassa Jamahiriyya (Peopledom Platform), a coalition that promotes unity among Syrian Kurdish parties.118 The union’s media chief, Duran al-Hashimi, a young scholar also affiliated with the Qadiriyya, owes the trust of the autonomous administration’s authorities to his participation in the defense of Rojava as a fighter and military chaplain.119 He has played crucial roles such as manager of investment projects related to religious endowments and superintendent for local branches of the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs established in Arab-majority areas after their capture from the Islamic State.120

The transformation of the Union of Muslim Scholars into the Islamic Democratic Society Congress indicated the extent of the PKK’s ideological influence over religious governance in the autonomous administration. During the first decade of this century, Öcalan evolved from a rigidly antireligious stance toward a tactical embrace of Islam, whose neglect, he argued, was responsible for the failure of many leftist movements across the region.121 According to Rahman Dag, Öcalan extolled what he called cultural Islam, which forms the basis of Islamic society in opposition to state-dominated or political interpretations of religion championed by the PKK’s Islamist enemies.122 As Kurdish self-rule consolidated in northern Syria from 2012 onward, Öcalan’s local followers also found themselves ruling over other ethnic groups like Arabs and Assyrians. As such, the party’s ideologues used the Charter of Medina, which was designed by the Prophet upon his arrival in the city of Medina, as a means of conferring Islamic legitimacy upon the notions of peaceful coexistence and equality of rights between Muslims and non-Muslims and between Muslims of various tribes and origins. It was on the basis of these elaborations, and upon Öcalan’s call, that the first Democratic Islam Congress was held in 2014 in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish city in Turkey along the Tigris River.123 Likewise, the first Islamic Democratic Society Congress that met in Rumeilan (Syrian Jazira) in April 2019 opened with a reading of Öcalan’s letter to the 2014 congress and took place under the slogan “reviving the Charter of Medina.” Accordingly, the congress adopted a banner featuring the Prophet’s shrine in Medina.124

The congress decided to incorporate the essentially Kurdish Union of Muslim Scholars into a multiethnic structure, which meant including Arab scholars such as Mufti of Manbij ‘Abd al-Razzaq Kalo as a congress speaker and establishing its headquarters in the Arab-majority Syrian city of al-Hasakah.125 The timing of this shift was significant, as it shortly followed the SDF’s capture of the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the Syrian town of Baghuz Fawqani, which had put an end to four years of military expansion that brought sizeable Arab communities under the autonomous administration’s purview.

Reflecting on the autonomous administration’s decision to increase its investment in the control of the religious field, the congress was conceived as an all-encompassing Islamic establishment.

The congress also absorbed the union’s female counterpart, the Religious Foundation for the Muslim Woman. Resultingly, the three hundred attendants elected female scholar Dalal Khalil as co-president of the congress with Gharzani and created a mixed consultative council of twenty-five members.126 Reflecting on the autonomous administration’s decision to increase its investment in the control of the religious field, the congress was conceived as an all-encompassing Islamic establishment. As a marja‘iyya, it issues fatwas such as the one that provided a religious rationale for the decision by the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs to close mosques during the coronavirus pandemic. The congress also denounced the re-publication of French cartoons of the Prophet in September 2020.127 It runs an Islamic college (the Democratic Islam Academy), secondary vocational Islamic schools (al-Salam institutes), Quran memorization circles, a charity (al-Salam Humanitarian Association), and a journal (Social Islam).128 Finally, since 2019, it has been liaising with Saudi authorities to organize the pilgrimages of the autonomous administration’s residents to Mecca. The launch of this partnership ended a seven-year monopoly of the Syrian National Coalition’s Pilgrimage Committee in this domain.129

Like the congress, the Democratic Islam Academy is co-presided by Gharzani and Khalil.130 Its four-year course trains male pupils as imams and Friday preachers, and their female classmates (who made up three-fourths of the class of 2019’s thirty students) as religious teachers in mosques and schools.131 The academy seemingly endorses the autonomous administration’s ideological orientations, as illustrated by a quote from Öcalan that features on its banner (which reads “religion is the memory of society”).132 Its peculiar logo symbolizes the superiority of reasoning and creativity over rote learning and indoctrination, as it consists of a brain and an open book—not the Quran that appears on the emblem of numerous Islamic organizations, but a blank book surmounted by a pen. In practice, however, the academy features more conservative elements that reflect the mindset of the traditionalist Sufi scholars who presided over its establishment. Indeed, male and female pupils attend classes in separate rooms, and jurisprudence syllabi are mostly based on the Shafi‘i school of fiqh (human attempts to understand and apply jurisprudence of sharia).133

It was precisely to preserve its vocational and relatively traditional character that the academy was not included in the more decidedly modernist Faculty of Religious Studies that was inaugurated at Rojava University in 2020.134 Like the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs, the faculty at Rojava University is a pluralistic institution consisting of three departments for Islam, Christianity, and Yezidism. A modicum of gender balance was achieved, here again, through the appointment of a female scholar as head of the Islamic department. Remarkably, students of all religious backgrounds follow the same curriculum during the first two years of study and only specialize in the third and fourth years.135 As a result of this revolutionary approach, the faculty was hailed by Muhammad Habash, an influential Dubai-based cleric and former member of the Syrian parliament who has been vilified by his senior colleagues due to his claim that Islam holds no monopoly on eternal salvation.136

The local management of Islam in the autonomous administration lies with mu’assasat diniyya (religious institutions) affiliated with the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs. The latter are supposed to work hand in hand with consultative councils of local ulema, but in Arab-majority areas, at least, those councils do not seem to play any effective role.137 Each religious institution is officially headed by a local cleric, typically with a Sufi background (such as Ali al-Nayif al-Shu‘ayb in Raqqa, ‘Abd al-Razzaq Kalo in Manbij, and Najm al-Din al-Husseini in Deir ez-Zor).138

Local religious institutions deal with day-to-day issues such as mosque appointments and Friday sermons, which they write and distribute to the city’s preachers. The local religious institutions operate under the close supervision of a Kurdish official known as the kadir al-awqaf (cadre of religious endowments)—kadro (cadre) refers to diehard PKK loyalists who control key positions within the SDF and the autonomous administration.139 On two occasions at least, decisions made by local religious institutions (a threat to arrest whoever might publicly break the Ramadan fast in Manbij in 2018 and the reinstatement of collective prayers in mosques in Raqqa during the coronavirus pandemic) were repealed immediately after they were announced.140 Local religious bureaucrats seem to enjoy slightly more autonomy at the ideological level. In February 2020, for instance, the Religious Institution in Raqqa hosted the first Islamic conference held in the city since its capture from the Islamic State by the SDF two years earlier.141 Although the conference’s final statement included obligatory references to moderation and tolerance, it made no mention of the more controversial concept of democratic Islam.142

The consolidation and expansion of the autonomous administration’s religious institutions should not be interpreted as a break with the PKK’s secularist agenda, which remains alive and well, as illustrated by the suppression of Islamic education in school curricula.143 Unlike their counterparts in other regions of Syria (including in regime-held areas), the autonomous administration’s religious institutions are not supposed to promote Islamic values. Instead, as illustrated by the establishment of the Islamic Democratic Society Congress, they are aimed at ensuring that religious discourse and practices strictly comply with the ruling party’s ideology. No Islamic charities, schools, or movements are tolerated outside the realm of official institutions—except for al-Hasakah’s ‘Irfan Institute, a large vocational Islamic high school run by the Kurdish-majority Naqshbandi Khaznawi Sufi order, which likely retained its position because of its size and influence.144 Imams and preachers have been dismissed due to accusations of extremism but also, reportedly, for political offenses such as failing to attend demonstrations against Turkey.145

At the same time, the process described above is not merely top-down. It also reflects the efforts of religious actors who, faced with an unfavorable political environment, struggle to remain relevant by espousing the incumbent’s discourse. In her capacity as the Democratic Islam Academy co-president, Khalil explains, “at the beginning we faced significant difficulties because Islam was looked upon negatively, so acceptance of such an academy seemed impossible. However, through insistence and efforts, we managed to clarify things and make people revise their views on Islam.”146 Similarly, the booklet of the first Islamic Democratic Society Congress defended the expression “democratic Islam” (against objections that there is only one Islam and that it doesn’t suffer epithets) by emphasizing the need to “frame our Islamic thought in a way that reassures people.”147 The autonomous administration’s leadership is thus faced with the same problem as twentieth-century secularist rulers across the region, including the Syrian Baathist regime: its embrace of Islam is purely tactical, but its control of the religious field relies on partners who, unlike their political masters, take religion seriously.

Beyond Borders: The Syrian Islamic Council

The Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council is arguably the only Syrian religious institution whose influence meaningfully extends beyond regional and national borders. This is due, first, to inherent features such as its relative independence and inclusion of some of Syria’s most respected scholars. For instance, in January 2021, condolences for the death of council member Sheikh Adnan al-Saqqa even came from HTS, in recognition of the deceased’s scholarly merits and in spite of the council’s vocal support for rebel factions that had battled al-Jolani’s men in previous years.148 The Syrian Islamic Council is, to put it simply, the only major religious body in Syria that is perceived as a political actor in its own right rather than as a mere mouthpiece for its political patron. Whereas the religious apparatuses of the regime, HTS, and YPG are largely ignored (or derided) by their detractors, the Syrian Islamic Council has been excoriated by HTS shar‘is for its hostility to their group and was even the target of demonstrations held by the ulema of the autonomous administration in protest over the council’s support for Operation Peace Spring in 2019.149

The Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council is arguably the only Syrian religious institution whose influence meaningfully extends beyond regional and national borders.

The Syrian Islamic Council is also the leading religious authority among the Syrian diaspora. It does not command unquestioned loyalty, of course: Syrian expatriates might follow other ulema living in exile or inside Syria, affiliate themselves with non-Syrian Islamic groups and figures, or disregard religious leaders altogether. Yet the council’s dominant position stems from a lack of meaningful challengers, considering that there has been no real attempt at establishing an alternative Sunni religious authority within the Syrian diaspora. Moreover, few exiled ulema that are not affiliated with the council have secured or retained significant standing—a figure like Sufi scholar Muhammad Abul Huda al-Yaqoubi is rather exceptional in that respect.150


After a decade of civil war, official religious institutions across Syria are now organized along patterns that vary widely from one region to another. In regime-held areas, the conflict has accelerated the nationalization of the religious field under the authority of al-Sayyed and at the expense of his rival Hassoun, the grand mufti. Notably, al-Sayyed has promoted a new generation of scholars led by his son Abdullah through the establishment of the Youth Religious Team, which, for the first time in the history of Baathist Syria, has brought junior men of religion into the regime’s popular organizations. In Idlib, Islamist governance has translated into direct control of clerics affiliated with the ruling HTS over the Syrian Salvation Government’s Ministry of Religious Endowments. The prerogatives of official religious institutions extend to the realms of justice, tax collection, and public morality. In Turkish-administered zones in the north, religious governance is at the center of a competition between endowments directorates affiliated with local councils and funded by the Turkish Diyanet, on the one hand, and the Syrian Interim Government’s Authority of Endowments and Religious Affairs, which enjoys the support of the Syrian Islamic Council, on the other hand. In the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, finally, a highly centralized religious apparatus headed by the Bureau of Religions and Beliefs and the Islamic Democratic Society Congress promotes a religious dialogue–centered interpretation of Islam in line with the leftist views of the ruling Democratic Union Party.

In spite of such glaring differences, there are several similarities between the four polities. First, the self-management of the religious field once allowed by the collapse of state control over opposition-held areas has given way, in all cases, to some variant of the heavily state-centric, top-down pattern of religious governance that characterizes the Middle East and North Africa more generally. Second, a decade of civil war has considerably increased the imbalance of power between religious actors and commanders of military forces. None of the official religious institutions are in a position to challenge the political leadership—not even in Idlib, where HTS’s al-Jolani has regularly dismissed scholars who have opposed his many policy shifts. Finally, however, all of the four political regimes considered here suffer from a lack of financial and symbolic resources that limits their ability to fully control and reshape Islam according to their respective secularist, Islamist, or traditionalist views.

The twin weaknesses of political and religious leaderships create room for compromise. Yet the latter’s effects will be felt differently depending on the region. In Idlib and Turkish-administered areas, there is a broad congruence between the views of the two sides regarding the place of Islam in society and politics. Ideological differences chiefly concern doctrinal matters (like the Sufi-Salafist divide) that have already proven surmountable. In such contexts, compromise in the form of increasing tolerance of doctrinal differences on the part of political authorities likely will have a stabilizing effect by removing a major source of tension with religious actors. On the contrary, the political orientations of the Assad regime and the autonomous administration remain fundamentally at odds with the agenda of religious conservatives. Consequently, a modus vivendi that would gradually give clerics more space to operate would inevitably generate contradictions, such as those that were witnessed in Syria prior to 2011. However subservient, religious leaders (including those affiliated with official institutions) are not content with secularist policies and will patiently wait until the context is ripe to reverse them. As these dynamics combine with the two regimes’ continuing securitization of (Arab) Sunni Islam for sectarian or ethnic reasons, heavy-handed management of official Islamic institutions is likely to remain a source of friction between both the Assad regime and the autonomous administration and their religious-minded constituencies.


The authors would like to thank Aron Lund for feedback on this paper.

About the Authors

Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence, France. He is the author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama From Coup to Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Islam in Post-Ottoman Syria (Oxford Bibliographies, 2016).

Laila Alrefaai is a Syrian writer and researcher specializing in religious affairs. Follow her on Twitter @loaila_

Correction: Bishr al-Shami's name was misspelled originally. This has been fixed.


1 Youssef Courbage, “Syria’s Population: Reluctance to (Demographic) Transition” in Baudouin Dupret, Youssef Courbage, Zuhair Ghazal, and Mohammed Al-Dbiyat (eds.), Syria Today: Reflections of a Society (French) (Paris: Actes Sud, 2007), 189.

2 Thomas Pierret, “The State Management of Religion in Syria: The End of ‘Indirect Rule’?” in Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders (eds.), Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 97.

3 Ibid., 83‒106.

4 Thomas Pierret, “The Syrian Islamic Council,” Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, Diwan (blog), May 13, 2014,; and Cole Bunzel, “Caliphate in Disarray: Theological Turmoil in the Islamic State,” Jihadica, October 3, 2017,

5 Laila Rifai, “Syria’s Regime Has Given the Fatah Islamic Institute Influence, But at What Cost?” Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, December 13, 2018,

6 “The Syrian Regime Closes Religious Schools” (Arabic), Rozana, June 12, 2017,النظام-السوري-يغلق-مدارس-شرعية.

7 Maryam Jirjis, “Projected Presidential Decree Discussed in Parliament . . . Sunni Religious Elites in Syria Follow the Model of Saudi Islam” (Arabic), Raseef 22, October 2, 2018,بمباركة-من-النظام-المشيخة-السنّية- .

8 Harout Akedian, “The Religious Domain Continues to Expand in Syria,” Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, March 19, 2019,; and Azzam al-Kassir, “Formalizing Regime Control Over Syrian Religious Affairs,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada (blog), November 14, 2018,

9 Al-Kassir, “Formalizing Regime Control Over Syrian Religious Affairs.”

10 Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama From Coup to Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 86.

11 Zayn al-Halabi, “Why Did the Air Force Intelligence Leak a Conversation Between the Mufti and Mu‘taz Mazhar?” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, November 30, 2018,السويداء-لماذا-سربت-الجوية-مكالمة-المفتي-مع-معتز-مزهر.

12 Khaled al-Khateb, “Mufti Hassun Out of the Limelight . . . Suspicions of Corruption . . . and Replacements Are Ready” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, June 17, 2020,المفتي-حسون-وحيدا-في-حلب-ورقته-تسقط-والبدائل-حاضرة.

13 The Syrian government posted the following photo on Facebook. Syrian Ministry of Awqaf, Facebook, May 18, 2020,; and “In Support of the Regime’s Economy: Assad’s Clerics Call for Paying Zakat Under the Pretext of Fighting Coronavirus” (Arabic), March 28, 2020,لدعم-اقتصاد-النظام-مشايخ-الأسد-تدعو-لدفع-الزكاة-بدعوى-التصدي-لـ-كورونا.html.

14 Michael Young, “What Is Behind the Leadership Tensions in Syria?” Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, Diwan (blog), May 14, 2020,

15 “Establishment of Siyaj Company for Real Estate Development in Damascus” (Arabic), Aliqtisadi, June 14, 2016,ستقيم-مشاريع-عقارية-بحسب-القانون/; and Mahmoud al-Lababidi, “Damascus Businessmen: The Phantoms of Marota City,” Middle East Directions 7 (2019).

16 “The Regime’s Government Revokes the Licenses of Two Security Companies. . . . What Is the Relationship to Rami Makhlouf?” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, May 5, 2020,

17 “What Is the Story of ‘the Son of the Minister of Awqaf’” (Arabic), Zaman Alwsl, November 17, 2019,

18 “Discussions and Inquiries About the Role of the Religious Establishment in Confronting Extremism and Terrorism” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “Sheikh al Mohendis Abdullah Mohammed Sayyed,” May 5, 2017,

19 Ethar Abdul Haq, “Behind the Video of ‘Bassel Hospital’ . . . The Russian-Alawite Equivalent of the Sunni-Iranian ‘Samer al-Fouz’” (Arabic), Zaman Alwsl, July 27, 2019,; and “Russian Yalta in Syrian Tartus” (Arabic), Arabic Sputnik News, June 1, 2019,يالطا-الروسية-طرطوس-السورية/.

20 “A Private Meeting With the Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “Al-Alalam Syria TV,” May 23, 2020,

21 “From the City of Al Qusayr. ‘Hassun’ Thanks Hezbollah for Its Intervention in Syria” (Arabic), Zaman Alwsl, October 3, 2019,; and Khateb, “Mufti Hassun Out of the Limelight.”

22 Khaled al-Khateb, “Mufti of the Regime: Clerics in Aleppo Are Under My Protection” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, July 8, 2018,مفتي-النظام-مشايخ-حلب-تحت-عباءتي.

23 Khaled al-Khateb, “Aleppo: Sheikh Mahmud al-Hut Comes Back Thanks to Iranian Intercession?” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, June 4, 2019,حلب-الشيخ-محمود-الحوت-يعود-بوساطة-إيرانية.

24 Khateb, “Mufti Hassun Out of the Limelight”; and “Bashar al-Assad Appears on Pictures During His Participation in the Celebration of the Mawlid” (Arabic), Syria TV, October 28, 2020,بشار-الأسد-يظهر-في-صور-خلال-مشاركته-احتفالات- المولد-النبوي.

25 “Government of Maj. Gen ‘Abd al-Rahman Khulayfawi (4 April 1971-23 December 1972)” (Arabic), Presidency of the Council of Ministers, October 13, 2015,وزارة-السيد-اللواء-الركن-عبد-الرحمن-خليفاوي---من--3-نيسان-1971---23-كانون-أول-1972-; “Governor of Idlib: Meet the Citizens’ Requirements for Fuel and Check the Meters” (Arabic), Sana Syria, January 14, 2015,; and “Symposium at the Arab Cultural Center in Tartus to Discuss the Content of President Bashar al-Assad’s Historical Speech” (Arabic), Ministry of Awqaf, December 20, 2020,

26 Rahaf Aldoughli, “Departing ‘Secularism’: Boundary Appropriation and Extension of the Syrian State in the Religious Domain Since 2011,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2020); and “A Detailed Report on the Launch of the Religious Youth Team Project in the Ministry of Awqaf” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “The Syrian Ministry of Awqaf,” January 8, 2016,

27 “With the Religious Youth Team 08.07.2020” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “Nour al-Sham Channel,” July 9, 2020,

28 “Modern Comprehensive Exegesis” (Arabic), Ministry of Awqaf,

29 Aldoughli, “Departing ‘Secularism.’”

30 “A Detailed Report on the Launch of the Religious Youth Team Project in the Ministry of Awqaf.”

31 Author interview over WhatsApp with Damascus-based cleric no. 1, September 20, 2020.

32 Khaled al-Khateb, “The Sunni ‘Religious Youth’: Promoting the Regime’s Battle Against the ‘Deviant Sect’” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, September 1, 2018,الديني-الشبابي-السني-ترويج-لـ-ملحمة-النظام-ضد-الفئة-الضالة.

33 Author interview over WhatsApp with Damascus-based cleric no. 2, September 20, 2020.

34 “A Detailed Report on the Launch of the Religious Youth Team Project in the Ministry of Awqaf.”

35 “President Assad Inaugurates Al-Sham International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism, Which Is Affiliated With the Ministry of Awqaf” (Arabic), Sana Syria, May 20, 2019,; and “President al-Assad Inaugurates Al-Sham International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism, Which Is Affiliated With the Ministry of Awqaf” (Arabic), Dam Press, May 20, 2019,

36 Kamil Saqr, “Dismissed Umayyad Mosque Preacher Ma’mun Rahme Launches Fierce Attack Against Ulama of Damascus . . . ‘Despicable Machinations’” (Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, April 24, 2019,خطيب-الجامع-الأموي-المعزول-مأمون-رحمة/.

37 See the following photo posted on Facebook. Religious Youth Team, Facebook, May 7, 2018,

38 Majd al-Khatib, “Law No. 31: ‘Islam as Assad Sees It’” (Arabic), Syria Untold, July 3, 2019,القانون-31-الإسلام-كما-يراه-الأسد/; and Ziad Awad and Agnès Favier, “Elections in Wartime: The Syrian People’s Council (2016–2020),” Middle East Directions 7 (2020), 19.

39 Ziad Awad and Agnès Favier, “Syrian People’s Council Elections 2020: The Regime’s Social Base Contracts,” Middle East Directions 13 (2020), 17.

40“Legislative Decree Number 16” (Arabic), Syrian Arab Republic, September 21, 2018,; and “Historical Precedent Affirmed Respect for the Constitutional Principles . . . ‘the People (’s Assembly)’ Amends, Deletes, and Preserves the Essence of the ‘Awqaf’ Decree to Turn It Into a Law” (Arabic), Al Watan, November 10, 2018,

41 Survey of two dozen pro-regime Facebook pages in October 2018.

42 “MP Nabil Salih Accuses Hidden Parties of Trying to ‘Islamize Syrian Society’” (Arabic), Sham Times, January 13, 2018,النائب-في-مجلس-الشعب-نبيل-صالح-يتهم-جها/; and SSNP News, @SSNPNews, Twitter post, October 1, 2018, 1:31 p.m.,

43 “Historical Precedent Affirmed Respect for the Constitutional Principles . . . . ‘the People(’s Assembly)’ Amends, Deletes, and Preserves the Essence of the ‘Awqaf’ Decree to Turn It Into a Law.”

44 “The Role of Elite Youths in Formulating a Contemporary Religious Dialogue, Tartus Dialogue Sessions” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “Syrian Ministry of Awqaf,” February 2, 2016,

45 “The Syrian ‘Awqaf’ Prohibits an Advertisement for an Assadist Company: It Has Sexual Overtones” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, September 29, 2020,الأوقاف-السورية-تحظر-إعلانا-لشركة-أسدية-إيحاءاته-جنسية.

46 Rania Maktabi, “Female Citizenship and the 2009 Controversy Over Personal Status,” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl (eds.), Syria From Reforms to Revolution Vol. 1: Political Economy and International Relations (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015).

47 Nour Abdel Nour, “Amendments to the Personal Status Law . . . Sharia Violations or Fairness for Women?” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, February 24, 2019,

48 Awad and Favier, “Syrian People’s Council Elections 2020,” 17.

49 Pierret, Religion and State in Syria, 144‒162.

50 Mazen Ezzi, “Reconciliations in the Damascus Countryside: Does Any Representation Remain for Local Communities?” (Arabic), Middle East Directions (2020).

51 “The People’s Assembly Approves the Decree Abolishing the General Authority for National Reconciliation” (Arabic), Al Alam Syria, October 22, 2020,

52 “Head of the Salvation to Eldorar Alshamia: We Have No Relationship With the Interim Government and We Will Maintain the Same Distance From All Factions” (Arabic), Nedaa Syria, November 3, 2017,

53 Reliance on codified law, as opposed to direct interpretation of Islamic scriptures, has been a major source of disagreement between mainstream and hardline rebel factions. For information on Shasho’s defection, see “Resignation of a Prominent Sharia Judge in Ahrar al-Sham” (Arabic), Eldorar Alshamia, June 19, 2017,

54 “Announcement of the Members of the Supreme Council for Fatwas Inside Syria” (Arabic), Ebaa News, April 25, 2019,

55 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 1, September 2020.

56 Haid Haid, “HTS’s Offline Propaganda: Infrastructure, Engagement and Monopoly,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2019, 17; and “The Director of the Awqaf of Jisr al-Shughur, Mr. Khaled Amr, Meets With the Imams and Preachers of the Sahl al-Roj Region in the Mosque (Bani Ezz Church), in the Presence of the Region’s Mosque Officer, Mr. Jihad al-Hamud, to Arrange Lessons and Outreach Conferences in the Area’s Mosques” (Arabic), Syrian Salvation Government, August 27, 2020,

57 Haid, “HTS’s Offline Propaganda,” 16; and author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 1, September 2020.

58 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 2, September 2020.

59 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 3, September 2020.

60 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 4, September 2020.

61 Jérôme Drevon and Patrick Haenni, “How Global Jihad Relocalises and Where It Leads: The Case of HTS, the Former AQ franchise in Syria,” Middle East Directions 108 (2021).

62 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 5, September 2020.

63 Author interview over WhatsApp with cleric based in Aleppo’s western countryside, September 1, 2020.

64 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based clerics no. 2 and 6, September 2020.

65 Author interview over WhatsApp with cleric based in Aleppo’s western countryside, September 1, 2020; and “#Circular to All Awqaf Departments to Direct Workers in Unsponsored Mosques (Preachers, Imams, Muezzins, Staff) Who Do Not Receive Any Financial Donations to Go and Ask the Awqaf Department in Their Area to Benefit From the Funds Provided by the Ministry” (Arabic), Syrian Salvation Government, July 9, 2020,

66 Aymen Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Village of Arab Sa’id: Interview,” Ayman Jawad Al-Tamimi’s Blog (blog), August 24, 2020,

67 “Tahrir al-Sham Graduates a New Class From the Preachers Training Institute in the Liberated North” (Arabic), Ebaa News, November 29, 2016, Please also see the following photo posted on Facebook. College of Sharia and Law–University of Idlib (Arabic), Facebook, August 29, 2020,

68 Haid, “HTS’s Offline Propaganda,” 16; author interview with Idlib-based cleric no. 3; and “Salvation Government Continues Closing Down Aleppo Free University,” Syrians for Truth and Justice, January 29, 2018,

69 Author interviews on WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 6 and cleric based in Aleppo’s western countryside, September 2020.

70 Author interview with Idlib-based cleric no. 4. Please also see the following video and photo posted on Facebook. Islamic Renaissance Association in Idlib (Arabic), Facebook, August 4, 2020,; and Islamic Renaissance Association in Idlib (Arabic), Facebook, June 1, 2019,

71 Haid, “HTS’s Offline Propaganda,” 16.

72 “Head of the Salvation to Eldorar Alshamiya: We Have No Relationship With the Interim Government and We Will Maintain the Same Distance From All Factions.”

73 “Who Are the Members of the Syrian Salvation Government?” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, December 20, 2019,

74 “The Ministry of Justice in the Syrian Salvation Government Holds the First Judicial Seminar, in the Presence of the Prime Minister, Engineer Ali Keda, the Minister of Justice, Judge Anas Suleiman, the Minister of Awqafs, Advocacy, and Guidance, Doctor Ibrahim Shasho, and a Number of Court Heads in Liberated Northern Syria” (Arabic), Syrian Salvation Government, May 21, 2020,

75 “Kafr Takharim Rises Against HTS: No Zakat by Force” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, November 6, 2019,كفر-تخاريم-تنتفض-على-تحرير-الشام-لا-زكاة-بالقوة.

76 Author interview over WhatsApp with Idlib-based cleric no. 5, September 2020; and “A Communique Issued by the Ministry of Awqaf, Advocacy, and Guidance With the Aim of Uniting Efforts to Look After the Waqf” (Arabic), Syrian Salvation Government, July 9, 2018,

77 Haid, “HTS’s Offline Propaganda,” 14–16.

78 Joud Alshmale, “HTS Sharia Bodies in Idlib, a Blatant Interference in Personal Freedoms and Countless Violations in the Name of ‘Religion,’” Northern Syria Observer, April 14, 2018,,-a-blatant-interference-in-personal-freedoms-and-countless-violations-in-the-name-of-%22religion%22/en.

79 “Idlib’s Civilian Organizations Reject the Factions’ Interference in Their Operations” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, February 11, 2018,; and “Controversy Over the Aggression of the Head of Exam Office at Idlib University by a Preacher From Sawa‘id al-Khayr” (Arabic), Shaam Network, June 24, 2018,جدل-حول-اعتداء-داعية-في-سواعد-الخير-على-رئيسة-دائرة-الامتحانات-بجامعة-إدلب.html.

80 “HTS Arrests Head of the Midwifery Institute in Idlib and Summons Students Because of an Art Exhibition” (Arabic), Zaiton Mag, August 19, 2020,

81 Abdullah al Khatib, “Clash Over Banning Friday [Prayers] and Closing Mosques in Idlib . . . What Is the Islamic Ruling?” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, April 12, 2020,

82 Sam Heller, “Leak Reveals Jihadists’ Weakening Grip in Syria’s Idlib,” War on the Rocks, April 10, 2020,

83 “Research Center Sheds Light on HTS’ Motives for Enabling the Bliss Center Religious Police” (Arabic), Shaam Network, March 19, 2020,مركز-دراسات-يسلط-الضوء-على-دوافع-تحرير-الشام-من-تمكين-حسبة-مركز-الفلاح-بإدلب.html.

84 Khayrallah Hilu, “The Turkish Intervention in Northern Syria,” Middle East Directions 01 (2021).

85 Thomas Pierret, “The Sham Islamic Committee: A Salafi ‘Middle Way’ Against Jihadi Radicalism” (French), Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 181 (2018), 219–239.

86 “‘Religious Authority’ . . . The Legal-Religious Council in Aleppo Elects Othman as Its President” (Arabic), Zaman Alwasl, June 26, 2013,

87 “Ignoring the Legal-Religious Council . . . Clerics From a Number of Military Factions Proclaim the Establishment of a Department of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Aleppo” (Arabic), Just Paste It, December 18, 2014,; and “Shahrur: the Legal-Religious Council in Aleppo Is the Ministry of Awqaf” (Arabic), Just Paste It, November 25, 2020,

88 Author interview over WhatsApp with Hassan al-Dughaym, November 4, 2020.

89 Mohammed Sarhil, “The Sharia Council in the Governorate of Aleppo” (Arabic), Ayn al Madina, May 14, 2017,المجلس%20الشرعي%20في%20محافظة%20حلب/4064/ar.

90 Thomas Pierret, “The Syrian Islamic Council.”

91 “Fatwa 33: Estimating Ramadan Alms and the Payoff for Those Unable to Fast in the Year 1441” (Arabic), Syrian Islamic Council, April 30, 2020,; and Abd al-Karim al-Halabi, “Sultan Murad Agrees to the Arbitration of the Syrian Islamic Council Regarding Its Conflict With the Levant Front” (Arabic), Baladi News, October 15, 2017,السلطان-مراد-ترضى-الاحتكام-للمجلس-الإسلامي-السوري-باقتتالها-مع-الشامية.

92 “A Statement to Those Stationed on the Fronts in the Face of the Criminal Regime and Its Supporters” (Arabic), Syrian Islamic Council, October 20, 2020,

93 Sarhil, “The Legal-Religious Council in the Governorate of Aleppo.”

94 Aaron Stein, Hossam Abouzahr, and Rao Komar, “Post Conflict Stabilization: Turkey and the End of Operation Euphrates Shield,” Atlantic Council, July 13, 2017,; Gregory Waters, “Between Ankara and Damascus: The Role of the Turkish State in North Aleppo,” Middle East Institute, June 20, 2019,; and Khaled al-Khateb, “’‘Euphrates Shield’: Local Governments Supported by Turkey” (Arabic), Al Modon Online, July 1, 2018,درع-الفرات-المجالس-المحلية-كحكومات-مناطقية.

95 Author interview over WhatsApp with Azaz’s Director of Awqaf Ahmad Yasin, September 2020.

96 Author interviews over WhatsApp with Azaz’s Director of Awqaf Ahmad Yasin, September 2020, and with Ahmad al-Dughaym, November 4, 2020; and “Turkey Restores Hundreds of Mosques in the Northern Countryside of Aleppo” (Arabic), Nedaa, July 27, 2018,

97 Author interview over WhatsApp with northern Aleppo–based cleric no. 1, September 2020.

98 Engin Yüksel and Erwin van Veen, “Turkey in Northwestern Syria: Rebuilding Empire at the Margins,” Clingendael CRU Policy Brief, June 4, 2019,

99 Author interview over WhatsApp with the head of authority Rafa‘a ‘Abd al-Fattah, October 14, 2020.

100 Author interview over WhatsApp with northern Aleppo–based cleric no. 2, September 2020; “Authority of Awqaf and Religious Affairs Opens Mosque in Olive Branch Area” (Arabic), Syrian Interim Government, July 29, 2020,هيئة%20الأوقاف%20والشؤون%20الدينية%20تفتتح%20مسجدا%20في%20منطقة%20غصن%20الزيتون; and “The Awqaf Authority in Ras al Ain Thanks the Syrian National Army . . . Find Out the Reason Why” (Arabic), Zaitun Agency,

101 Author interview over WhatsApp with Northern Aleppo–based cleric no. 1, September 2020, and author interview over WhatsApp with the head of authority Rafa‘a ‘Abd al-Fattah, October 14, 2020.

102 Mahmud Cinar et al., “Religious Life in Syria’s Safe Areas” (Arabic), (Gaziantep: University of Gaziantep, 2020), 78, 93, 183.

103 Information on the directorates’ and Turkish authorities’ approach from author interview over WhatsApp with Azaz’s Director of Endowments Ahmad Yasin, September 2020; and “Azaz Local: Turkey Refuses to Support Schools It Adopts in Aleppo” (Arabic), Enab Baladi, October 1, 2017, Information on the Syrian Interim Government’s authority for religious affairs from author interview over WhatsApp with head of authority Rafa‘a ‘Abd al-Fattah, October 14, 2020.

104 “Turkish Official Enters Syria and Visits the City of Afrin” (Arabic), Arab Turkey, January 31, 2019,مسؤول-تركي-يدخل-سوريا-ويزور-مدينة-عفري/.

105 Author interview over WhatsApp with Northern Aleppo–based cleric no. 1, September 2020; Cinar et al., “Religious Life in Syria’s Safe Areas,” 175; “Makkah Academy,” accessed March 16, 2021,; and Abdallah Ibn Hudhafa al-Sihami, Facebook page, accessed March 16, 2021,

106 See “Free Aleppo University to Provide Housing for Its Students in Azaz” (Arabic), Syria TV, April 21, 2019,جامعة-حلب-الحرّة-تعلن-عن-تأمين-سكنٍ-لـ-طلابها-في-اعزاز; “College of ‘Islamic Sciences’ in Azaz Reopens Registration and Sets Conditions for Admission” (Arabic), Halab Today, October 11, 2019,; “Enrolment Begins at Gaziantep University’s Arabic Branches in Jarablus and Gaziantep,” Arab Turkey, September 7, 2019,جامعة-عازي-عنتاب-تفتتح-التسجيل-للأقسا/; and Khaled al-Khateb, “The Turkish Başakşehir Academy Branch in the City of al Bab . . . the Only One That Offers Recognized University Degrees” (Arabic), Al Monitor, February 23, 2018,

107 Cinar et al., “Religious Life in Syria’s Safe Areas,” 156.

108 Ibid.

109 Finsa Temmo, “A Year and a Half Since Its Creation . . . What Have the Autonomous Administration Bodies Accomplished and What Difficulties Have They Faced in Their Work?” (Arabic), Buyer Press, September 19, 2015,

110 Bureau of Religions and Beliefs, Facebook page, accessed March 26, 2021,مكتب-شؤون-الأديان-والمعتقدات-اقليم-الجزيرة-2696595687020456/.

111 “Bureau of Religions and Beliefs Visits Archbishop of Jazira and the Euphrates” (Arabic), Cezire Media, September 28, 2019,

112 “Duran al-Hashimi to Adar Press: ‘There Are Many Commonalities Between Religion That We Can Draw Upon to Narrow the Gap Between the Different Points of View’” (Arabic), Adar Press, March 12, 2017,دوران-الهاشمي-لــ-آدار-برس-هناك-قواس/.

113 “Two Years After the Liberation of Raqqa From ISIS, an Islamic Forum on ‘the Eternal Message of Islam,’ the First of Its Kind, Was Held in the City” (Arabic), ASO, February 3, 2020,

114 “Duran al-Hashimi to Adar Press: ‘There Are Many Commonalities Between Religion That We Can Draw Upon to Narrow the Gap Between the Different Points of View.’”

115 “Islamic Institutions in Northern Syria Unite Under the Name ‘Democratic Islamic Society Conference’” (Arabic), Violations Documentation Center in Northern Syria, April 29, 2019,; and Finsa Temmo, “A Year and a Half Since Its Creation . . . What Have the Autonomous Administration Bodies Accomplished and What Difficulties Have They Faced in Their Work?”

116 “Religious Movements and the Kurdish Political Scene in Syria” (Arabic), Jusoor for Studies (2017).

117 “The Office of Religions and Beliefs Affairs Visits the Archbishop of Jazira and the Euphrates.”

118 Suhaila Sufi, “Establishment of the Council of Dignitaries in Northern Syria” (Arabic), Adar Press, March 25, 2019,تأسيس-هيئة-للأعيان-في-شمال-سوريا-وقائم/; and “Peopledom Platform Emphasizes Importance of Dialogue With All Communities of Northern and Eastern Syria” (Arabic), SyriacPress, August 12, 2020,المنصة-الجماهيرية-تشدد-على-أهمية-الحو/.

119 Seidar Ramu, “The Media Sheikh: Relentless Efforts and Cultural Mix Par Excellence” (Arabic), PYD Rojava, July 26, 2017,الشيخ-الإعلامي-سعي-دؤوب-ومزيج-ثقافي-با/.

120 “The Religious Affairs Institution in Raqqa . . . An Effective Moral and Social Role” (Arabic), SDF Press, July 24, 2018,; and Muhammad Salih, “In Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, Formation of a Legislative Council That Operates as a Supreme Religious Authority for Muslims” (Arabic), Al-Hall, July 25, 2018,تشكيل-مجلس-تشريعي-في-الرقة-ودير-الزور-ي/.

121 Rahman Dag, “Democratic Islam Congress and the Middle East,” Open Democracy, June 13, 2014,

122 Ibid.

123 Ibid.

124 Ibrahim Ibrahim and Abbas Ali Musa, “Democratic Islam Congress in Northern and Eastern Syria . . . Controversial Name and the Control of Society” (Arabic), NPA Syria, April 29, 2019,مؤتمر+الإسلام+الديمقراطي+في+شمال+وشرقي+سوريا..+إشكالية+في+الاسم+واحتواء+للمجتمع.

125 Gandhi Iskander, “Democratic Islam . . . Spreading the Map of Social Harmony and Solidarity” (Arabic), Ronahi, April 28, 2019,

126 Ibid.

127 See the following audio file posted by Rojava. Salman al Harbi, “Democratic Islam Conference: The Decision to Suspend Collective Prayers Is Compatible With Sharia” (Arabic), Sawat al-Hayat, Also see the following photo posted on Facebook. Union of Islamic Scholars in the Jazira Region (Arabic), Facebook, October 26, 2020,

128 See the following photos posted on Facebook. Academy of Democratic Islam (Arabic), Facebook, July 27, 2019,; and the Union of Islamic Scholars in the Jazira Region (Arabic), Facebook, April 11, 2020,

129 “After a Break of Seven Years, the People of Northern and Eastern Syria Perform the Hajj” (Arabic), Hawar News, July 30, 2019,

130 “Shedding Light on the Democratic Islam Academy in Rojava” (Arabic), PYD Rojava, January 24, 2019,إضاءات-على-أكاديمية-الإسلام-الديمقرا/.

131 Ibid.

132 Ibid.

133 Ibid.

134 Hurin Hassan, “Rojava University to Open College of Islamic, Christian and Yezidi Religious Sciences” (Arabic), Welatî News, September 7, 2020,جامعة-روج-آفا-بصدد-افتتاح-كلية-لدراسة-ا/.

135 See the following video posted on Facebook. Academy of Democratic Islam (Arabic), Facebook, September 26, 2020,

136 Paul Heck, “Religious Renewal in Syria: The Case of Muhammad Habash,” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 15, no. 2 (2004), 185–207. Also see the following photo posted on Facebook. Muhammad Habash (Arabic), Facebook, September 11, 2020,

137 Author interview over WhatsApp with Raqqa-based cleric, September 2020; and Salih, “In Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, Formation of a Legislative Council That Operates as a Supreme Religious Authority for Muslims.”

138 See the following video posted on Facebook. Civil Council of Raqqa (Arabic), Facebook, March 28, 2020,; Iskander, “Democratic Islam . . . Spreading a Map of Social Harmony and Solidarity”; and “Muslim Scholars Call for the Prosecution of ISIS Mercenaries and the Establishment of Social Islam Along the Lines of the Community of Medina” (Arabic), Hawar News, March 27, 2019,

139 Author interview over WhatsApp with Raqqa-based cleric, September 2020.

140 “Manbij: Circular From PYD-Affiliated Administration Bans Public Break of Fasting and Threatens to Jail Offenders” (Arabic), Zaman Alwsl, March 17, 2018,; and “Religious Affairs Institution in Raqqa Disavows Circular Publicized by Dar al-Ifta in Raqqa Regarding the Resumption of Friday Prayers” (Arabic), Civil Council of Raqqa, April 22, 2020,

141 “Two Years After the Liberation of Raqqa From ISIS, an Islamic Forum on ‘the Eternal Message of Islam,’ the First of Its Kind, Was Held in the City.”

142 Ibid.

143 Abdallah al-Bashir, “School Curricula in Autonomous Administration Ignore Syrian Customs and Traditions” (Arabic), July 16, 2020, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed,مناهج-الإدارة-الذاتية-تتجاهل-الأعراف-والتقاليد-في-سورية.

144 “Documentary . . . Village of Tell ‘Irfan; the ‘Irfan Khaznawi Institute for Religious and Arabic Language,” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by “Buyer FM,” May 5, 2017,

145 “Kurdish Militias in Qamishli Dismiss a Number of Mosque Imams and Sources Reveal the Reason” (Arabic), Eldorar Alshamia, August 14, 2019,

146 “Shedding Light on the Democratic Islam Academy in Rojava.”

147 Ibrahim and Musa, “Democratic Islam Congress in Northern and Eastern Syria . . . Controversial Name and the Control of Society.”

148 Al-3raby, @al3raby_1, Twitter post, January 11, 2021, 12:43 a.m.,

149 “HTS Shar‘i Responds to the Islamic Council’s Initiative to Unite Rebel Ranks” (Arabic), Shaam Network, September 3, 2017,شرعي-في-تحرير-الشام-يرد-على-مبادرة-المجلس-الإسلامي-لتوحيد-الصف.html. Also see the following video posted on Facebook. Xeber 24, Facebook, November 10, 2019,

150 “Sokoon Media Reports on the Reading of the Book Characteristics of the Beloved Envoy by the Savant Sheikh Abu al-Huda al-Ya‘qubi ‒ Istanbul” (Arabic), YouTube video, posted by Sokoon Media, November 8, 2019,