Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Is the state really Secular?

As I stated before, Syria is one of the few countries in the area that are officially secular. Many religious people complain about the secularism of the state. Some even blame secularism for all the failures in our economies and politics.
Let’s look closely for a second before we blame anyone for our failures. Is the state indeed secular?

First let’s start with defining Secularism? According todictionary.com
Secularism is “The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education”.

Now let’s see how Secularism applies in our dear country.

1. Our civil affairs and laws are hugely influenced by the Islamic law, “Shari a”, and the Syrian Judicial law takes the model of the Hanafite Sunni laws as a good example to follow. The influence mostly appears in personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, paternity, custody of children, and inheritance.

2. Our public and private school oblige students to receive religious education as a part of their curriculum from the 1st grade to the 12th.
-Sunni, Alawaite, Ismilite, Druz, Izidi, Sufi, and Shiite students (and all the non-religious and Atheist students whose families or ancestors belong to the sects just mentioned)are gathered under one category. They study a book that basically teaches some picked information from the Sunni faith.

-Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant students (plus the Atheists and Non-religious ones) are gathered under one category. They also study one book which follows a faith that I assume follows the Orthodox faith, because they represent the majority of Christian. But it is known that the first lessons always deal with and glorifies “martyrdom”. These lessons also happen to have some not-very-spiritual quotes from famous Syrian politicians too.

For further and more specific information about religious education in Syrian schools, you could read the essay: Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism by Professor Joshua M. Landis

3. All missionaries, except a few Sunni and Christian ones, are prohibited from entering the country or promoting their faith, at least legally.

4. By law, Inter-faith marriages are permissible. However, the offspring of the marriage will always belong to the Islamic faith, whether the mother or the father is Muslim. So if an Atheist, Buddhist, or a Christian married a Muslim man or a woman in Syria, all their children will be considered officially as Muslims.

5. All conversions to any religion, except to Islam, are prohibited. I don’t know if it is a written or unwritten law, but I have a tragic story to tell you. It’s about a Damascene guy who used to live in our neighborhood.

He is the son of a prominent Syrian Actor. He and his friend were interested in learning about other faiths. Secretly, they converted to Christianity, but for some reason the secret wasn’t kept hidden very well. They started having hard time from the people around them including their friends and families that disowned them. That part of the story is not remarkably stranger than other conversion stories worldwide. However, things got even worse. When it was time for them to join the military service, they were badly treated and one of them got shot twice by some militant who wanted to convert them back. They served jail time for months. Many attempts of conversions went in vain, until the two headstrong guys were released and told to go free in condition they don’t tell anybody about their conversion.
The small details of that story might not be 100% accurate, but the story was told by the guy’s mother. She’s the only person in his family that is still in contact with him.

On the other hand, I heard about many people who openly talk about their Atheism, religious-bashing, conversions, or religious freedom. An example for that would be Nabil Fayad who is becoming a political and religious celeberity in Syria.

Having said all of the above, I would like to mention that I am not Anti or Pro Secular or Religious states in Syria. I just wanted to point that our versions of Religious and Secular states look so much alike and function in the same way. Furthermore, neither option worked well to secure our freedom of belief (whatever we believe or NOT believe in). Of course, provided that people who care about freedom of belief exist in this country.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Prophet Muhammad and Damascus

There are two legends concerning the trip of Prophet Muhammad to Damascus, and his refusal to enter the great city.

The first and most popular legend says that the Prophet took the mountain road to Damascus. On the horizon, he saw the beautiful and enchanting oasis city, and he decided to stop his journey because "man should only enter Paradise once

The other legends says that the Prophet approached Damascus from the southern side in an area called "Qadam" "قدم" which means "foot". He turned back and didn't continue the trip, because he stumbled in the road and took it as a bad sign.

That area "Qadam" (foot) is probably named after the footprint impression on a piece of marble in its mosque. In old times, the footprint was believed to be made by Moses, but nowadays, it is believed to be made by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Beautiful Damascus of the 19th Century

Here are some of what an American, an English, and a French authors had to say about the beautiful Damascus of the 19th century.

Mark Twain talked about his visit to Damascus in his book The Innocent Abroad, published in 1869 :

"... no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive the news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days, months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She saw Greece rise and flourish two thousand years, and die. In her old age she saw Rome built, she saw it oversahdow the world with its power; she saw it perish..... She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies."

The English historian and traveller, Alexaner Kinglake said:

"The juice of her life is the gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon. Close along on the river's edge through seven sweet miles of rustling boughs and deepest shade, the city spreads out her whole length; as a man falls flat, face forward on the brook that he may drink and drink again: so Damascus,thirsting for ever, lies down with her lips to the stream and clings to its rushing waters."

The French poet and traveller, Alphonse de Lamartine, wrote in April of 1833 about his arrival to Damascus:

"through a gap in the rocks, my eye fell on the strangest and most fantastic sight which man has ever seen: it was Damascus and its boundless desert, a few hundred feet below my path... first the town, surrounded by its walls,,, a forest of minarets of all shapes, watered by the seven branches of its river, and streams without number, until the view is lost in a labyrinth of flower gardens and trees....."

Unfortunatily, many people who read these positive appraisals would feel disappointed when they visit Damascus of the 21st century. The city that has survived many invasions and wars for centuries is withering little by little. The river is drying up. The flowers are being pulled out. The gardens have been destroyed. The people are abandoning her. The overwhelming strive of restoring and maintenaing the dying beauty is put in the hands of a few locals and foreigners who have been mesmerized by her beauty.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

When the Syrian god led the Arabian gods...

The most worshiped and higehst deity in pre-islamic Arabia (now Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian Gulf countries) during that time was "Hubal", Our Syrian god of the Moon. Hubal, although Syrian, was not as important to Syrians as he was to the Arabs.

His statue was placed over the Ka'ba in Mecca, and he represented the strongest deity that led all the other 360 gods and goddesses that had idoles in the Ka'ba.

At that period, there were a few Christian,Jewish and Hanafite tribes, which were all monotheistic (believing in only one God). However, the majority of the population was Pagan.

The fact that isn't popular about those Pagans is that they were henotheistic, meaning that they believe in one high God without denying the fact that there exists other gods. The Highest God for Arabs at that time was called Allah. Although Allah had no statue in the Ka'ba, he was considered the highest of all deities. It is believed that they used to worship the smaller gods and goddesses as a channel to reach Allah.

According to "No god but God" by Reza Aslan, Allah's three daughters, Al-lat,Al-Uzza, and Al-Manat were very prominent goddesses in the Ka'ba. People used to pray for the three goddesses for water, rain and for health.

Some pages online claim that Hubal is Allah, but he had a different name. Also those pages mentioned that there's a posiblity that Hubal ,the god of the moon, was the influence behind the symbol of Islam, the crescent. However, both of the claims could lack some precision and accuracy.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Majority...

The major religion in Syria is Sunni, or Orthodox, Islam. Islam reached Syria a few years after the death of the Prophet, Muhammad, when the Arabs army conquered Syria completely in 640.The Sunni sect is also the major sect in Islam worldwide, except in a few countries like Iran and Iraq.

According to The CIA Factbook, Sunnis make 74% of the Syrian nation. Thinking that all the Sunnis have the same mindset is not completely precise.

Sunnis belong to four different schools of law. During the first 3 centuries after Islam, Muslim scholars were the ones to influence verdicts, especially the cases that weren't mentioned in the Quran or the Shari'a. In the eleventh century, link-minded scholars established legal institution:

- The Shafii School, was founded on the principles of Muhammad ash-shafii (d. 820), who held the Sunna to be the most important source of law.

- The Maliki School, which is primarily observed in West Africa, was founded by Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), who relied almost exclusively on the traditions of Medina in forming his opinions.

-The Hanbali School of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), the most traditionalist of the legal schools. It tends to dominate ultraconservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

-The Hanafi School of Abu Hanifah (d. 767). It is the largest and most diverse legal tradition with regard to breadth of interpretation. It is also considered the most 'liberal' Sunni school of law.

The majority of Syrian Sunnis follow the Hanafi School. There are also considerable number of Sunnis who follow the The Shafii School.

Nowadays, all the school of laws seem to emerge and be influenced by political, economical, and international events. You can find people who identify themselves as followers of a certain School of Law, while not necessarily following its law, just because their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents belonged to that School.

Of course, there existed many movements through the centuries after the establishment of these four Schools. Wahabism, the movement to "purify" Islam from all "outside" and "strange" influences is the most concervative movement that ever existed. In addition to small groups who follow the teachings of some Sheikhs who were influencial at certain point in time.