Syria's jihad is awash with religious jurists. No wonder there's as much arguing as fighting.
- By Sam HellerSam Heller is a non-resident fellow at The Century Foundation
Syria’s Islamist rebels unveiled a joint "Revolutionary Covenant" on May 17, a step meant to assuage fears of extremism among the international community and Syrian minorities. The document promised respect for Syria’s multiethnic makeup and a "state of justice, law and freedom," albeit one bound by the rules of Islamic law.
The covenant, however, promptly provoked a backlash among Syria’s jihadist wing, which was alarmed that the document didn’t explicitly call for an Islamic state. Among those leading the charge was one of the jihadist groups’ top shar’is — essentially, in-house Islamic jurists and advisors. Sami al-Uraydi, a leading shar’i for the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, issued one of the covenant’s most pointed critiques: "Life in mountains and caves under the rule of sharia [Islamic law] is better than life in mansions without it, and we have the Taliban as evidence of that."
Uraydi’s criticism provoked an irritated response from Hassan Abboud, the powerful rebel commander who had read the covenant on Al Jazeera. "Doctor [Uraydi], instead of all this misrepresentation and one-upmanship, why don’t you clarify what we did wrong?" Abboud tweeted. "There are those who style their jihad so that they end up isolated from their Islamic nation, cut off in forests and mountains; this isn’t the point of jihad."
Abboud heads Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the largest single rebel force nationwide, and is among the top leaders of the Islamist mega-brigade, the Islamic Front. That he would be drawn into a public back-and-forth with another faction’s shar’i reflects both how seriously many of Syria’s Islamist rebels take their religious credibility, and the unprecedented public status that the shar’is now enjoy in the Syrian rebel scene.
Rebel shar’is have played a key part in deciding who their brigades could fight and how. And while this operational role apparently has some precedent, the celebrity of Syria’s shar’is does not. The most hard-line Islamist brigades in particular have seen shar’is become their most visible and active representatives. In March, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra named three top shar’is (including Uraydi) as official spokesmen. The al Qaeda affiliate’s top shar’i, "Abu Mariya al-Qahtani" is personally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. On Twitter, however, he has almost 60,000 followers, to whom he regularly (and prolifically) expounds on religion and war.
"You know how every company or organization has a lawyer consulted on legal affairs?" one Islamic Front fighter told Foreign Policy. "The shar’i is the same idea, but for Islamic legal matters."
Islamist rebels interviewed by FP via social media said that the shar’i is responsible for providing rebel fighters with religious inspiration, as well as consulting on issues with an Islamic or moral dimension. "The shar’i‘s role is, at base, the same in every group: religious guidance and fatwas [Islamic legal rulings]," said an Ahrar al-Sham shar’i in an interview. "But his authority differs from one group to another; in some, he has an authoritative role and a great amount of influence, whereas in others his role is limited to preaching."
In practice, a shar’i might be an advisor, a judge, or even a military commander who serves as a religious reference within the brigade. Some Islamist brigades might have a single shar’i, or none at all. Others, meanwhile, might have enough shar’is to assign them to individual rebel units; they might also feature sharia councils made up of the brigade’s most senior jurists. They seem to have the most weight in the most conservative Syrian Islamist brigades, such as the Islamic Front, as well as in jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
"With the Islamic Front, the sharia council has binding authority on issues related to Islamic law," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar’i. "It’s responsible for the judiciary, fatwas and dawa [religious outreach], and its members have a fair amount of influence among the fighters."
Shar’is and sharia councils can at times rule on pivotal issues. For example, the Ahrar al-Sham shar’i confirmed that the Islamic Front’s sharia council approved the Revolutionary Covenant. The Islamic Front fighter, meanwhile, said that the front itself was the product of its jurists: The merger of its Islamist brigades, he said, began with an agreement by their shar’is to "work according to a unified Islamic program."
The fighter also said that the Front’s shar’is were consulted on fighting ISIS: "The shar’is had a role in the planning, in whether it was permissible to fight ISIS or not, [and] what the conditions were for fighting them."
Shar’is are also sometimes involved in approving day-to-day matters or tactical decisions, which can range from fine-tuning religious language in a group statement to sanctioning controversial tactics. "With ‘suicide’ or ‘martyrdom’ attacks," said Khaled al-Hammad, commander of the mainline Salafist Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya, "there are some who approve of them in all cases, some who set conditions for them, and some who forbid them totally. That’s why even the name differs."
In the most extreme cases, shar’is might rule that other factions are apostates or infidels, thus sanctioning their killing. As rebel-ISIS fighting escalated after January 2014, ISIS’s shar’is were consistently accused of encouraging their fighters’ worst behavior by excommunicating Muslim rebels, including members of the Islamic Front — a position that ISIS’s sharia authority confirmed and codified with a ruling on the front in May.
Shar’is ideally have degrees in Islamic law or expert knowledge of Islamic policy and jurisprudence, but this is by no means guaranteed. The scarcity of top-level qualified religious scholars or experts in Syria means that, while most shar’is are members of particular brigades, some brigades will also reach out for the opinion of outside religious scholars or sheikhs. "Consultation is open, as most of the brigades’ shar’is are students of religion, and only a few can be called true experts," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar’i.
Though the term "shar’i" might be new, the concept itself is not. Jihadist groups elsewhere — Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, for example — have their own
sharia committees or councils, even if their members may not enjoy the same high profile. And the position of the shar’i is, in many ways, an improvised alternative to a normal Muslim state’s religious institutions. "In Arab countries, you have the mufti," the Islamic Front fighter said. "Of course, this isn’t a great example, because Arab governments’ muftis are basically a rubber stamp…. But now, because you’re dealing with military groups, they call it a shar’i."
Syria’s shar’is have enjoyed a new prominence thanks in large part to social media, but this celebrity might be a mixed blessing. Fighters and ideologues — including Ahrar al-Sham commander "Abu Yazan al-Shami" — have reproached some jurists for providing their brigades with publicity instead of guidance. Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya’s Hammad said there was "no doubt" fame had negatively influenced some shar’is. It had encouraged them, he said, to "reproach others, and to show off their own status and knowledge." The Ahrar al-Sham shar’i also acknowledged that notoriety could be a double-edged sword, but one that the faithful can manage: "Only the biggest shar’is have become prominent, and their fame has affected them according to their piety and devotion."
It remains to be seen whether the Syrian shar’i phenomenon will represent a new paradigm for Islamist rebels and jihadists elsewhere or just a single, exceptional case. However, there is reason to expect that the role is here to stay: Foreign veterans of the Syrian war are already returning home to fuel domestic insurgencies, and they are bringing with them the skills they learned and the concepts to which they grew accustomed. Moreover, Syria’s rebel and jihadist social media has shaped how a whole new generation understands how to wage jihad. At the least, we can expect the terminology to come into vogue elsewhere. "Yes," said the Ahrar al-Sham shar’i when asked if he thought the term might spread. "But only God knows."