Sufis in Syria Reach Out to the West

At a Sufi mosque in Aleppo, Syria, the imam advocates political freedom and dialogue with the West. But the Syrian government wants to keep politics out of religion. Some observers wonder how long this mosque will be able to spread its liberal message.

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In this era of al-Qaida and calls for holy war, two questions are often asked. Where are the moderate Muslim clerics? And are Islam and democracy compatible? Some answers come from northern Syria. For centuries the city of Aleppo has been a center for Sufism, a deeply mystical practice of Islam. Aleppo remains steeped in Sufi tradition, which includes rhythmic chanting, religious music, and a liberal outlook.

NPR's Deborah Amos has our report.

(Soundbite of chanting)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In this ancient city, the call to prayer echoes from more than a thousand minarets. One call, then another, and another, so many choices. But the many of the city's educated elite are drawn to the Jamal al-Adiliyya Mosque in the Old Quarter of Aleppo. This imposing stone structure, with a vast courtyard and fountains for ritual ablutions before prayer, was built more than 400 years ago. But the message here is not about Islam's past, angry denunciations of the West, or calls for holy war.

Imam Abdul Hoda al-Husseini speaks of freedom. It's a message flashed on a plasma screen during sermons, a PowerPoint presentation for more than a thousand worshippers who pack this mosque each week.

Imam ABDUL HODA AL-HUSSEINI (Cleric): Welcome.

AMOS: How are you?

Imam AL-HUSSEINI: Fine.

AMOS: Al-Husseini, a soft-spoken medical doctor as well as a trained religious leader, preaches about the lack of freedom and the need for freedom in Syria.

Imam AL-HUSSEINI: (Through Translator) Violence and extremism are a reaction to the absence of freedom.

AMOS: His message in the mosque is repeated on his Web site. Al-Husseini has also spoken at religious seminaries in the United States. He welcome dialogue with the West.

Imam AL-HUSSEINI: (Through Translator) In order to open a dialogue, I have to understand what George Washington did for America, and what Goethe did, the French Revolution, what Shakespeare talked about in his literature.

AMOS: An approach that appeals to 35-year-old Karim Moudarisi(ph)

Mr. KARIM MOUDARISI (Resident): Islam got so popular when it started because it was so tolerant. It was so open. I mean, that's what made it a killer commodity, for the lack of a better expression.

AMOS: A killer commodity? It's an expression he learned at business school in California. When he came home, Moudarisi joined this mosque. He attends Friday prayers and a Wednesday night service for what he calls recreational prayer. About 100 men and women gather. Razan Ali(ph), a 28-year-old university graduate often comes on Wednesday nights, too.

Ms. RAZAN ALI (Resident): The very important thing about this mosque is the spiritual thing, because we need spiritual life these days. We need to know where our spirits are going.

(Soundbite of chanting)

AMOS: These rhythms are part of the spiritual practice in Sufi Islam. It begins with chanting the word for God, Allah. The Imam al-Husseini leads the service, his voice piped into the women's section by a loudspeaker. On the women's side a neon sign with the word Allah serves as the only light. Everyone holds hands, including the hand of a non-Muslim visitor, as they chant, rocking back and forth in unison.

(Soundbite of chanting)

AMOS: Al-Husseini guides the faithful with the pace of his voice. The rocking accelerates to bring worshippers to a trance-like state they say brings them closer to God. Many of the women weep.

Ms. ALI: (Unintelligible) where you can be (unintelligible) for an hour or two hours a week. And there's no noise, no cars, and no pollution somehow. This is why I like it.

AMOS: Razan Ali is part of a religious revival in Syria.

Ms. ALI: I mean, I remember 10 years ago, people didn't go to mosque, as they go now. And women - women didn't go to mosques like this 10 years ago. So we have more open thinking about these things.

AMOS: But how will this religious revival change Syria? For years, the government has funneled financial support to moderate preachers, who stuck to religion and stayed out of politics. But Aleppo is a historic recruiting ground for the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed organization in Syria. More extremes views are gaining ground.

The U.S. intervention in Iraq has radicalized many young Syrians. Aleppo has been a stop on the Underground Railroad, delivering militant Islamists into Iraq to join the Zarqawi network.

At the Jamal Adiliyya Mosque, Imam al-Husseini says he offers something different, spirituality and a way to live in the modern world.

Imam AL-HUSSEINI (Through Translator) In Islam it is important to involve everyone in the government. Dictatorship is not allowed. The government has to be shared. Everybody should have their say in the rulings.

AMOS: At the entrance to the mosque, a large proclamation outlines Al-Husseini's views. When the nation has neglected freedoms, it says, the goals are lost. And there's this. We have become a nation of submission and lowness. On democracy, it says, there must be consultations with people, which is a divine duty.

His vision so boldly stated seems to conflict with serious authoritarian rule. Moudarisi says Al-Husseini is taking a risk in a state that assigns security police to monitor every Friday sermon, which may explain why the proclamation is in English rather than Arabic.

AMOS: That's something inflammatory.

Mr. MOUDARISI: Oh yeah. He's been just playing on the edge for a long time. From here he can speak. From the Friday sermon, he can speak.

AMOS: Moudarisi, a successful businessman who owns a factory that packages popped corn, worries about al-Husseini. There are dangers in mixing Islam and politics in Syria today.

Mr. MOUDARISI: If this is the right time to have a movement for moderate Muslims, one that believes in democracy, believes in human rights, believes in the state of law, it means - I don't know if the government is gonna allow such a thing or not. If he ends up in jail, then he's too early.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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