How religion underwrites the unrest in Syria and Yemen

by - 1st April 2011

There is a hadith – a well-attested saying of Muhammad - that throws light on the religious underpinnings of the growing political unrest in Syria and Yemen.

Muhammad – peace be upon him – is said to have once prayed, ‘O Allah, bless us in our Syria (Shams), bless us in our Yemen.’  The authenticity of this hadith is established for Sunni Muslims by the great collectors of the Prophet’s sayings, Al-Bukhari and Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj, both living in the ninth century CE, the third century of the Islamic era.

All Muslims follow the religious examples provided by Qur’an and the hadith or oral comments of the Prophet.  But the Qur’an is subject to varying interpretations, and the hadith have differing applications, according to analogy with later events in the history of Islam. 

Each trend in Islam – fundamentalist, traditionalist, Sunni, Shia, and spiritual Sufi – will cite hadith to which they are particularly attached.  Since it is said that Muhammad had the gift of foresight regarding human affairs, some ahadith apply with striking appropriateness today, as applied to the new political turmoil in the Arab lands.

New demands for accountability and popular sovereignty in Syria and Yemen, which are equated by Westerners with democracy but which find genuine affirmation in the principles of traditional and spiritual Islam, have emerged with eloquence and sacrifice.

In both lands, the virtuous and courageous masses of civic protestors have great need of the mercy and grace of God.  They are up against tyrannies with long histories of usurpation and brutalisation.   

The people of Syria and Yemen include adherents of varied Islamic sects.  Syria has a Sunni majority, with Shia minorities including the esoteric Alawites who control the army and government, along with mainstream Shias (Twelvers), and an Ismaili Shia presence.  Syria also includes a substantial Christian community and a minuscule Jewish remnant.

Yemen has a Muslim majority split between Sunnis and followers of Zaydi Shiism (Fivers), plus small numbers of Christians, Jews, and Hindus.  Twelvers and Fivers are so nicknamed because of their recognition of different legacies of imams, or major religious authorities.  While most Shias are Twelvers, Yemen is a redoubt of Zaydism.   Both Syria and Yemen possess distinguished histories in the development of Sufism, or mystical Islam.

But the populace in both countries, while they yearn for responsible government, face enemies aside from those within the ranks of functionaries, police, and soldiers obedient to the regimes that rule over them.

Syria has been aligned with Iran and it cannot be expected that Tehran will encourage major changes in Damascus that could serve to revive widespread internal opposition to control by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Ruled by the fascistic Baath party, Syria must also contend with a significant history of agitation by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the role of which in the ongoing social and political transformation of Egypt remains ominous.  Some Syrian adherents of the MB moved to western countries such as Britain and Germany, where they assumed leading positions in mosques and community organisations.

Yemen, for its part, is burdened with a history of Soviet-style rule in its south, formerly known as the Protectorate of Aden, which remains alienated from the expansion of the country’s borders, in 1990, by unification with the former Yemen Arab Republic in the north.   But worst of all, Yemen has become the dumping ground to which Saudi Arabia has ‘exported’ the Saudi cadres of al-Qaida.

In both Syria and Yemen the people, as they progress on their path to greater freedom, must be cautious of manipulation by the MB, the Saudi-based Wahhabis who inspire al-Qaida, and Iran. In this context the traditional and sound guidance of Islamic authorities and Sufi shaykhs, conscious of the Prophet’s prayer for blessings in Syria and Yemen, may prove decisive.

Extreme Muslim fundamentalists and their secular allies – the latter being more numerous than most non-Muslims would imagine – prefer to make noise, right now, about the abbreviated US congressional inquiry into radical Islam (the so-called ‘Peter King hearings’), which the Islamists have painted as if it resembled the Spanish inquisition, than bloodshed in the streets of Syria.  This is especially true in the U.S., where the majority of Arab Americans happen to be Lebanese and Syrian Christians.  These interest groups may press Barack Obama to act against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad if Syrian repression proves unrestrained.

But there is a final aspect of the Prophet’s hadith about Syria and Yemen that makes it echo with great importance today.  When Muhammad uttered his request for blessings to these two regions, a voice from the crowd called out, ‘And bless us in our Nejd, O Messenger of Allah!’  Nejd is the barren wilderness in central Arabia whence the Wahhabi sect, the most fundamentalist and violent in the history of Islam, and the mentors of al-Qaida, emerged in the 18th century CE.

It is said the Prophet repeated himself twice, saying three times, ‘O Allah, bless us in our Syria (Shams), bless us in our Yemen.’  And three times the voice from the crowd called out ‘And bless us in our Nejd, O Messenger of Allah!’

Muhammad is said to have turned to the speaker and cried: ‘From Nejd will come only earthquakes and conflict, and there the horns of Satan will rise!’

Moderate, traditionalist Muslims interpret this hadith as a forewarning against Wahhabism, which indeed emerged from Nejd, has created conflict among Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere, and has preached Satanic doctrines favouring terrorism.

With the assistance of God, the people of Syria and Yemen will gain justice, and Muslims who have remained silent on these efforts (mainly Shias concerned to protect their relations with Iran) may be swept aside or drowned in the flood-tide of change.