- Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution by Thomas Pierret
Studies of the Islamist movement in Syria focus almost exclusively on the Muslim Brotherhood. This has meant that the movement attracted only minimal scholarly attention between the suppression of the February 1982 Hama uprising and the opening decade of the 21st century, when the Ba‘th Party-led regime started to make overtures to the exiled leadership of the organization. No one besides a few specialists on Sufism thought there was anything happening that was worth writing about, except perhaps the young women of the Qubaysiyya, until Thomas Pierret introduced us to the dense networks of educational and charitable associations that kept the movement alive over the intervening three decades.1
Pierret’s pathbreaking study of the complicated and largely opaque trajectory of the post-Hama Islamist movement has now appeared in an elegant English translation. This does not mean that the book is an easy read. In the first place, three quite different stories get told, interspersed episodically among one another: the history of the major rivals to the Muslim Brotherhood; the key doctrines that Syrian ‘ulama’ championed during the 20th century; and the emergence and evolution of the contemporary associations, most notably the Zayd Movement. Second, readers must continually fight the temptation to fall back on a Muslim Brotherhood–centric viewpoint, which turns out to be more difficult than one might imagine. Third, the book makes few concessions to novices: the very first paragraph uses the terms ‘ulama’, Sunni, and ‘Alawi without translation or definition (p. 1).
Anyone who is willing to take the time and effort to work through the text will nevertheless come away with a much better understanding of Syria’s recent past, as well as the struggles that drive the current civil war. The book offers an encyclopedic survey of the organizations, personalities, and practices that characterize Islamic activism — both political and apolitical — in the Syrian context. More [End Page 652] importantly, if I understand Pierret correctly, the conventional narrative of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Fighting Vanguard, whose cadres carried out the 1979–1982 insurrection, needs to be completely rewritten: the radical wing of the Islamist movement did not take shape out of disaffected Muslim Brothers, but instead consisted of angry young men who had received their training and socialization entirely outside the organization (pp. 66–68). In a similar vein, the book proposes an analysis of the rise and spread of Salafi ideas and groupings in Syria that is much closer to what I saw going on in Aleppo in 1992/93 than one finds in any other portrayal in English.
Somewhat less persuasive, at least on an initial reading, is the deployment of the tricky terms “traditional” and “conservative” to characterize various types of religious doctrine and practice. Pierret reminds us of the crucial fact that the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes a fundamentally modern interpretation of Islam, and connects the political leanings of this wing of the movement to liberal democratic theory. What it means to call competing thinkers and groups “traditional” (sometimes, as on p. 41, with quotation marks, but most often without) is not at all clear. The problem, at least for me, is augmented rather than diminished by the lengthy opening discussion of religious education during the years of the French Mandate and early independence (pp. 23–44), since it seems to conflate traditional methods of instruction with traditional (conservative?) theology.
Those who, like myself, chase down the original, French-language edition of the book may still find it worth investing in the new translation, not least for the added material on the 2011–present civil war. The treatment here of the role played by prominent religious scholars in the popular uprising contrasts with Pierret’s earlier writing on the topic, which had underscored the deliberate noninvolvement of influential ‘ulama’ in the escalating unrest.2 We are now presented with a wide range of...