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Syria -- SOCIETY

Syria - The Society


SYRIAN SOCIETY IS a mosaic of social groups of various sizes that lacks both a consistent stratification system linking all together and a set of shared values and loyalties binding the population into one nation. Distinctions of language, region, religion, ethnicity, and way of life cut across the society, producing a large number of separate communities, each marked by strong internal loyalty and solidarity. Although nearly twothirds of the people are Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, they do not constitute a unitary social force because of the strongly felt differences among beduin, villager, and urban dweller. A perceptive observer has spoken of the "empty center" of Syrian society, a society lacking an influential group embodying a national consensus.

The ethnic and religious minorities, none of which amounts to more than 15 percent of the population, nevertheless form geographically compact and psychologically significant blocs that function as distinct social spheres and dominate specific regions of the country. Because the religious groups in each locality function as largely independent social universes, a "minority mentality," characterized by suspicion toward those of different groups, is widespread among both minority group members and those of the majority group living in minority-dominated areas where they are therefore outnumbered. Psychologically and politically, religious distinctions are by far the most significant ones. In all groups, loyalty to one's fellow members, rather than to a larger Syrian nation, is a paramount value.

The religious communities are more than groups of coworshipers; they are largely self-contained social systems that regulate much of the daily life of their members and receive their primary loyalty. The independence of the religious communities is a distinctly divisive force in society. Although Islam provides the central symbolic and cultural orientation for about 85 percent of Syrians, minority communities, most with a long history in the region, maintain cultural and religious patterns outside the Muslim consensus.

The religions, sects, and denominations differ widely in formal doctrine and belief. Nevertheless, there exists in Syria a stratum of folk belief and practice common to rural and uneducated persons of many religions. Members of various groups hold certain common beliefs in saints and spirits and observe related practices, such as exorcism and visitation of shrines, regardless of the disapproval of the orthodox religious authorities.

In addition to linguistic and religious dissimilarities, three forms of traditional social and ecological organization further divide the society. Most Syrians, including many members of religious and ethnic minorities, inhabit rural villages and earn their living as subsistence farmers. A dwindling number live the admired nomadic life of the beduin, or tribesman. The remainder, including a substantial number of recent migrants from the countryside, live in cities and towns, many of which date from ancient times. Each of these three represents a distinct, usually hereditary, way of life, followed by particular social groups and separated from the others by such social barriers as marriage restrictions, education, and occupation.

The ascent to power of minority groups and their implementation of Baathist policies of secularism and socialism, has left most non-Muslims financially better off than the average Syrian, putting them in an anomalous position. On the one hand, many have reasserted their solidarity with Syria's opposition to Israel, the West, alleged imperialism, and capitalism. On the other hand, some observers have noted an exodus of numerous urban businessmen, professionals, and managers, particularly Christians and non-Arabs. In response, during the mid- and late-1970s, the government encouraged the return of these �migr�s and attempted to develop a climate more favorable to them.

Successive Syrian regimes have attempted to consolidate a Syrian national identity by eliminating the centrifugal effects of sectarianism. Despite these efforts, Syria's postindependence history is replete with conflict between minority groups and the central government.

In part this conflict can be attributed to the French mandatory administration, from which Syria inherited a confessional system of parliamentary representation similar to that of Lebanon, in which specific seats were allocated to Christians, Kurds, Druzes, Alawis, Circassians, Turkomans, and Jews. These ethnic and religious groups were guaranteed 35 of parliament's 142 seats. Minority groups also protested what they believed to be infringement on their political rights, and in 1950 successfully blocked efforts by the Sunni Muslim president to declare Islam the official state religion. A 1953 bill finally abolished the communal system of parliamentary representation;subsequent legislation eliminated separate jurisdictional rights in matters of personal and legal status which the French had granted certain minority groups.

The struggle to balance minority rights and Sunni Islamic majority representation remains a paramount theme in Syrian domestic affairs. In 1987, the Syrian government was dominated by President Hafiz al Assad's Alawi minority. The secular socialism of the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party deemphasized Islam as a component of Syrian and Arab nationalism. However, Baath ideology prescribed that non-Muslims respect Islam as their "national culture."

In 1986 educational and cultural institutions remained under close governmental supervision. Such institutions were designed to further government objectives by raising the general level of education and literacy, strengthening awareness of Arab cultural achievements, building public support for official policies resting on the principles of the ruling Baath Party and seeking to foster a sense of Syrian national unity. Public bodies serving these objectives multiplied during the late 1960s and by the mid1980s included the ministries of education, higher education, information, and national guidance and culture. Their activities were complemented by several directorates, authorities, and planning boards. In the consolidated budget for fiscal year ( FY) 1985, nearly LS (Syrian pound) 3.43 billion, or 14.5 percent of the government's expenditure, were earmarked for education of minorities. Despite the educational system's failure to achieve the government's goals, education remained an important channel of upward mobility for minorities.





The society is composed of a number of cohesive groups recognizing a common heritage and exhibiting great solidarity. Both linguistic and religious characteristics define these peoples; religious communities within the larger language groups function as separate quasi-ethnic entities and in many cases have developed distinctive cultural patterns. Ethnic and religious groups tend to be concentrated in certain geographic regions and certain social positions. For example, about 40 percent of the Sunnis are urban dwellers; of those, 80 percent live in the five largest cities. Alawis (sometimes given as Alawite) are generally poor and live in rural areas. About 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Jabal al Arab are Druzes; the Jews and Armenians are largely urban traders.

The cultural differences distinguishing religious communities are far greater than would be expected to arise from strictly theological or religious sources. The differences arose during the lengthy social separation during which each of the various communities pursued an independent communal life. For example, in addition to the obvious difference of religious belief and ritual, differences in clothing, household architecture, etiquette, agricultural practice, and outlook characterize the cultures of Muslims, Christians, and Druzes.

Accurate statistical breakdowns by language and ethnic group were unavailable in 1986, and estimates by authorities varied. Arabs, or native speakers of Arabic, were thought to constitute nearly 90 percent of the population, but Kurdish, Armenian, Turkic, and Syriac were also spoken. Arabs are divided into a number of religious communities. Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, who constitute the largest single group, account for slightly more than half the population.

Arabs live in all parts of the country--in city and village, desert and mountain. Non-Arab groups generally live in partial isolation from each other, either in their own village or cluster of villages or in specific quarters of towns and cities, mostly in the area north of Aleppo or in the Jazirah region of the northeast. The Jazirah is particularly heterogeneous; among its settled population, the proportion of non-Arabs is much greater than in any other region. The concentration of non-Arab groups in Halab Province and in the Jazirah gives these areas a distinct character and has caused concern in the central government about the maintenance of order there.

Many city dwellers speak a Western language in addition to Arabic; French is by far the most common, and many educated Syrians are as fluent in it as in Arabic. Although English is increasingly used, many Syrians do not know it as well as they do French, which has been the major channel for the exchange of learning between Syria and the West.

The consciousness of a Syrian nationality is not well developed. Both among Arabs and minority groups, primary individual loyalty is to the local ethnic or religious community. In effect, cooperation tends to be restricted to traditional family, ethnic, and religious groups. To protect himself or to meet an immediate need, an individual cooperates with those he personally knows and trusts; impersonal cooperation for long range programs with nonfamily or nonmembers of his religious community is another matter. As one Syrian has noted, a Syrian may want the government to do things for him, but he will rarely cooperate in getting those things done.

A man has few obligations to his ethnic group at large. Ethnic loyalties take shape only when one's group is under attack by another. For example, Kurds close ranks against Arabs if Arab landowners are raising land rents. Such action could be interpreted by Kurds as Arab persecution.

This extreme heterogeneity and lack of general coherence has led the government to attempt Arabization of the population. For example, it no longer refers to the Druze region as Jabal Druze (Mountain of the Druze), but has renamed it Jabal al Arab (Mountain of the Arabs).

Syrians are addressed in political speeches as "descendants of the Umayyads," "Arab citizens," "brother Arabs," and "descendants of Walid and of Saladin." "The blessed Syrian homeland" is "the land of Arabism." This deemphasis on ethnic differences has more and more equated the terms "Syrian" and "Arab."

The Syrian government deals with religious communities, not Arabs, Kurds, or Armenians. Census reports, for example, enumerate various Muslim groups, Druzes, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorian), Armenian Catholics, and Jews. There is no official listing of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, or Jews as such as ethnic groups. Candidates for political office are named in government lists as members of religious communities only; the government lead is followed even in the press, which describes individuals as Arabs or as members of religious communities and does not identify them with ethnic minorities.



Syria - Arabs


The Arabs identify with speakers of their language throughout the Middle East. The majority of Syrian Arabs are Muslims; chiefly Sunni, they also include the Alawis, Ismailis, and Shia. All the Druzes are Arabic-speaking, as are the Jews and half the Christian population; most Christian Arabs are Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, or Greek Catholic. Being both Arab and Muslim leads many Syrians to feel that the two characteristics are natural companions and that one cannot be an Arab without being Muslim and vice versa.

Syrian Arabs are highly conscious of the Islamic-Arab tradition. This is also true of Arab Christians, who follow Muslim customs in many of their daily activities and look with pride to the greatness of the Arab past.

Most Syrian Arabs think of the nomadic tribesman as the ideal Arab type. This attitude is common among both villagers and city dwellers, though the latter may also speak of the tribesman as quaint and backward. Arabs generally think of non-Arabs as inferior, but, because these groups are comparatively small and constitute no possible threat to the social position of the Arab majority, the feeling is not very strong.

Arabic, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, is the mother tongue of about 200 million people, from Morocco to the Arabian Sea. One of the Semitic languages, it is related to Aramaic, Phoenician, Syriac, Hebrew, various Ethiopic languages, and the Akkadian of ancient Babylonia and Assyria.

Throughout the Arab world, the language exists in three forms: the Classical Arabic of the Quran; the literary language developed from the classical and referred to as Modern Standard Arabic, which has virtually the same structure wherever used; and the spoken language, which in Syria is Syrian Arabic. Educated Arabs, therefore are bilingual, with knowledge of both Modern Standard Arabic and their own dialect of spoken Arabic. Even uneducated Arabic speakers, who in Syria comprise over 40 percent of the population, usually comprehend the meaning of something said in Modern Standard Arabic, although they are unable to speak it; however, they may have difficulty fully understanding radio and television programs, which are usually broadcast in Modern Standard Arabic. Because Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran and is regarded literally as the language of God, Arabs almost unanimously believe that the Arabic language is their greatest historical legacy.

Syrian Arabic is similar to Lebanese Arabic, but differs significantly from colloquial Arabic in neighboring Iraq and Jordan. A Syrian would find colloquial Moroccan Arabic virtually incomprehensible. Like most people speaking dialects, Syrians proudly regard their dialect as the most refined. However, few Syrians believe that their dialect is actually correct Arabic. Although they converse in Syrian Arabic, there is general agreement that Modern Standard Arabic, the written language, is superior to the spoken form. Arabs generally believe that the speech of the beduin resembles Classical Arabic most closely and that the local dialects used by settled villagers and townsmen are unfortunate corruptions. To overcome these linguistic barriers, educated Arabs speak Modern Standard Arabic to one another. Uneducated and illiterate Arabs, if Muslim, can converse with other Arabs in Classical Arabic learned from oral recitation of the Quran.

Within Syria, regional differences in colloquial vocabulary, grammar, and accent are wide enough that a native speaker can readily identify another speaker's home province, tribe, city, and even his neighborhood from his dialect. For example, Alawis from Al Ladhiqiyah Province are called "Al Qaf" because of their distinct pronunciation of this letter, the "Q".


Syria - Kurds


Estimates of the number of Kurds in Syria vary widely, but they are believed to compose about 9 percent of the population. Although some Kurdish tribal groups have lived in the country for generations, many arrived from Turkey between 1924 and 1938, when Mustapha Kemal attempted to force his reform programs on the Kurds there.

The Kurds are a fiercely independent tribal people who speak their own language, Kirmanji. Living mainly in the broad, mountainous region of northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq, they are a cohesive people with intricate intertribal ties and a deep pride in their own history and traditions. Most Kurds are farmers; some are city dwellers; and others are nomads who drive their flocks far into the mountains in the summer and graze them on the lowlands in the winter.

Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Kurds live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo. An equal number live in the Jazirah; about 10 percent in the vicinity of Jarabulus northeast of Aleppo; and from 10 to 15 percent in the Hayy al Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.

Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims; a very small number are Christians and Alawis. In addition, the Syrian Yazidis, who speak Kirmanji, are sometimes considered Kurds. Numbering about 12,000, the Yazidis inhabit the Jabal Siman, west of Aleppo; the Jabal al Akrad, north of Aleppo; and a few villages south of Amuda and Jabal Abd al Aziz in the Jazirah. Most of the Yazidis work the land for Muslim landowners.

Syria's Kurds are almost entirely settled, but they retain much of their tribal organization. Although some groups in the Jazirah are seminomadic, most are village dwellers who cultivate wheat, barley, cotton, and rice. Urban Kurds engage in a number of occupations, but not generally in commerce. Many are manual laborers; some are employed as supervisors and foremen, a kind of work that has come to be considered their specialty. There are some Kurds in the civil service and the army, and a few have attained high rank. Most of the small wealthy group of Kurds derive their income from urban real estate.

Kurds who have left the more isolated villages and entered Arab society have generally adopted the dress and customs of the community in which they live. In the Jazirah, for example, many have adopted beduin dress, live in tents, and are generally indistinguishable from the beduin, except in speech. Most Kurds speak both Kirmanji and Arabic, although others, particularly those in Damascus, may speak only Arabic. Kurds who have entered the country in the present generation usually retain much of the language, dress, and customs of their native highlands.

For most Kurds, whether long established in Syria or recently arrived, tribal loyalty is stronger than national loyalty to either the Syrian state or to a Kurdish nation. They are traditionally distrustful of any government, particularly that in Damascus. However, relatively peaceful residence in Syria and gradual assimilation have mitigated their distrust of Syrian authorities.


Syria - Armenians


The Armenians are descendants of a people who have existed continuously in Transcaucasia since about the sixth century B.C. Although a small number of Armenians have been settled in the country for several generations, the bulk of those in Syria arrived in successive waves as refugees from Turkey between 1925 and 1945.

Like Armenians throughout the Middle East, Armenians in Syria are city or town dwellers. About 150,000 Armenians lived in Syria in the mid-1980s. Roughly 75 percent live in Aleppo, where they are a large and commercially important element, and fewer than 20 percent live in the Hayy al Arman (Quarter of the Armenians), a new section of Damascus. The remainder are scattered in cities and towns throughout the country, especially in the larger towns along the northern border of the Jazirah. Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church, but about 20,000 belong to the Armenian Catholic Church.

The Armenian language, which has its own alphabet, belongs to the Indo-European family at the same level as such other subfamilies as the Slavic and Italic languages. There is a classical form with an old, highly developed Christian literature, but modern Armenian differs essentially from the older form.

The Armenians work chiefly in trade, the professions, small industry, or crafts; a few are found in government service. In Aleppo, where some families have been traders for generations, their economic position is strong. Many of the technical and skilled workers of Damascus and Aleppo are Armenian; in the smaller towns they are generally small traders or craftsmen.

Armenians are the largest unassimilated group in Syria. They retain many of their own customs, maintain their own schools, and read newspapers in their own language. Some leaders adamantly oppose assimilation and stress the maintenance of Armenian identity. As Arab nationalism and socialism have become more important in Syrian political life, Armenians have found themselves under some pressure and have felt increasingly alienated. As a result, they were reported in the 1960s and early 1970s to have emigrated in large numbers.




In the mid-1980s, Syrian society was in a state of flux. The social, political, and economic developments of the preceding two decades precipitated profound changes and realignments in the social structure, but the implications and probable outcomes of these changes were not entirely clear. This uncertainty arises from the division of Syrian society by vertical cleavages along religious and ethnic lines, as well as by horizontal cleavages along socioeconomic and class lines. Minority groups tend to segregate themselves in their own neighborhoods and villages. Although within a minority group there is a high degree of integration and homogeneity, the group as a whole is often ascribed a certain social status. Traditionally, Syrian society has been divided between landlords and tenants, between urban dwellers and rural peasants, and between a Sunni elite and minority groups.

Until the revolutions of the mid-1960s, a syndicate of several hundred Sunni Muslim extended families living in Damascus and Aleppo had dominated life in Syria. Some of these families were of the Sharifan nobility, which claims genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Most had accumulated great wealth and wielded virtual feudal power as landlords possessing vast agricultural and real-estate holdings. Others made fortunes in industry and trade in the late ninteenth century. Another component of the ruling class was the ulama (sing, alim). This group consisted of religious scholars, Islamic judges (qadis), interpreters of law (muftis), and other persons concerned with the exposition of Sunni Islam. Prosperous Sunni bazaar merchants allied with the great families occupied the next level in the social heirarchy.

The Syrian elite was at the forefront of anticolonial struggle against the Ottoman Empire in World War I and later against the French Mandatory regime. At independence in 1946, Syria's first government was dominated by the old ruling class. However, the elite had never been a monolithic entity, and the new parliament was splintered by factionalism, feuding, and generational differences. These divisions provoked a military coup d'�tat in 1949 that ushered in a new era in Syrian society.

The armed services and the Baath Party were the mechanisms for the rise of a new ruling elite. Although military service traditionally had been disdained by the old Sunni elite, a military career was often the only avenue of upward mobility open to rural minority group members who could not afford an education. Such men enlisted in disproportinate numbers and came to dominate the officer corps and the enlisted ranks of Syria's armed forces. Likewise, disenfranchised elements of society joined the Baath Party. These dual trends culminated in the 1963 Baath Socialist Revolution and the 1970 takeover by the military of the Baath Party.

The land reform legislation of 1963 and the nationalization of larger financial, commercial, and industrial establishments virtually eliminated the economic and political power base of the old elite. At the same time, the new elite, comprised of the upper echelon of military and civilian leaders, consolidated its position by cultivating the support of peasants and the proletariat, who benefited from the new economic order. The regime's socialism eroded the position of the bazaar merchants while its secularism removed power from the ulama.

After coming to power in 1970, President Hafiz al Assad reversed or relaxed the more strident socialist economic measures instituted in 1963. His expansion of the role of the private sector led to the emergence of a relatively small, but highly visible new class of entrepreneurs and businessmen who made fortunes in real estate, importing, and construction. This class, nicknamed in Syria "the velvet generation," includes higher- ranking government bureaucrats and their relatives who have capitalized on their official positions to monopolize lucrative government contracts. It also has assimilated many members of the old Sunni elite, who have been coopted by the Assad regime and have accommodated themselves to the new elite. To some extent, the old and new ruling classes have merged through business partnerships and marriages that combine the money and prestige of the old elite member and the power and prestige of the new elite member. Despite a well publicized anti-corruption campaign, patronage and favoritism have remained important forces in Syrian society.

Under Assad, rural peasants have reaped significant gains in their standard of living, primarily through government transfer payments and grants of land redistributed from the original upper-class owners. However, land reform has not been entirely successful in transforming the social structure of the countryside. In many cases, farmers who had previously depended upon their urban landlords to give credit for financing their crops until harvest and to deal with the government have drifted back into similar relationships with urban interests. The landlord's role as an influential advocate and local leader has not been filled by elected Baath Party representatives. In other cases, rich proprietors have begun to regain control over agricultural land and reconstitute large estates.

Since the 1963 Baath Revolution, the approximate middle of Syrian society has remained remarkably stable, both as a percentage of the workforce and in terms of the standard of living and social mobility of its members. Because Syria has not yet developed a large industrial sector, it lacks a true proletariat of wage-earning factory workers. The number of persons employed by private and public sector industry in 1980 was 207,000, or 12 percent of the working population, according to statistics compiled by the Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions. This approximates the size of Syria's "working class."

Syria compensates for its lack of a large proletarian class of industrial factory workers by a large and flourishing group of artisans and handicrafters who produce basic commodities such as soap, textiles, glassware, and shoes in small cottage industries. This group is a main component of Syria's traditional middle class, which also encompasses small proprietors, tradesmen, and white-collar employees, and has remained at about 30 percent of the population.

Since the 1963 revolution, a new and upwardly mobile class of teachers, scientists, lawyers, technocrats, civil servants, doctors, and other professionals has slowly emerged. This new upper-middle class consists of men and women who rose from the old lower or middle classes by virtue of technical or secular higher education.

Even before the revolution of 1963, secular education had become a criterion of status among many ordinary Syrians, especially as higher education ensured a virtually automatic entry into admired and well-paying occupations. The importance of education in this context will probably grow.

Values taught in the schools and emphasized in the media reflect those of the group controlling the government and have gained some currency. Nevertheless, the traditional conservatism of the peasants as well as the economic problems of daily survival that have not been alleviated by changes in government policy militate against any sudden change in the values or way of life of the masses.

As in other Middle Eastern countries, Syrian society has for millennia been divided into three discrete systems of organization based on ecological factors; these are the town, the village, and the tribe. Although closely interrelated, each fosters a distinct and independent variation of Arab culture. The cities of the Middle East are among the most ancient in the world; urban life has been integral to the society of the region throughout recorded history. Therefore, the townsman and his role are well known to all segments of the population. The tribesman, or beduin, although suffering irreversible changes since the mid- twentieth century, has also been a widely known and admired figure throughout history. The peasant farmer, or fellah (pl., fellahin), although less admired than the townsman or the tribesman, also occupies a position of recognized value.

The members of each of the three structural segments of society look on the others as socially distinct. This social distance is symbolized by easily recognized differences in clothing, food, home furnishings, accent, and custom; intermarriage between village, town, and tribal families is usually considered irregular.

Traditionally, the cities have been an expression--at the highest level of sophistication and refinement--of the same Arab culture that animated the villages. As Western influence grew, however, during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the social distance between the city and village increased. Western customs, ideas, techniques, and languages were adopted first in the cities, especially by Christians, while the villages remained ignorant of them. The introduction and adoption of elements of a radically alien culture opened a gap between the city and the village that has not narrowed with time. Only in recent years have modern transportation and mass communication begun to bring the countryside once again into the same cultural orbit as the cities.

Although the town, village, and tribe are socially distinct, they depend on each other for services and products and so are related by overall functional ties. The town supplies manufactured, specialty, and luxury products; administrative and governmental services; education and higher learning; sophisticated culture; law and justice; and financing. The village supplies agricultural products; and the tribe provides protection and navigation for caravans, travelers, and traders in the desert. As more and more villagers become educated and move to the cities, and as the beduin surrender their sole mastery of the desert to motor vehicles and the police power of the modern state and begin to adopt a sedentary life, the traditional distinctions will continue to blur.



Syria - Towns


Compared to many other developing nations, Syria is heavily urban, as approximately 50 percent of the population lives in cities. In addition, it is estimated that 70 percent of the townsmen live in the two largest urban centers.

Social structure in Syrian cities seems to be in a state of transition. The traditional city--built around a small, wealthy landowning and industrial elite, craft and artisan guilds, and small merchants--has been decisively undermined by political, economic, and technological changes. However, a cohesive structure based on modern secular education, technology, and class alignments has not yet developed. Many of the values associated with the traditional system endure and strongly influence the population, although admiration for modern values and techniques is increasing.

Cities are commonly composed of several architecturally distinct sections, which represent different periods of history and, to some extent, different ways of life. The very ancient core of a city, often of the pre-Greek or pre-Roman period, houses many of the groups longest settled there. Sections were added during Greek, Roman, and medieval times; these traditional sections also house both majority and minority groups oriented to traditional life. The suq (the traditional market), with its small specialized artisan shops, is a prominent feature of the old city. In addition, cities have a relatively new section, often built on modern European lines by French architectural firms, that houses families and enterprises most closely identified with modern technology and values.

In keeping with the significance of the religious community in Syrian life, cities were traditionally organized into ethnic and religious residential quarters. Members of all faiths still tend to reside with their coreligionists, and a quarter functions as a small community within the larger urban environment.

A residential quarter traditionally had its own mosque or other religious structure, shops, and coffeehouses where the men met, as well as a mukhtar (mayor) who represented it to the outside society and was ordinarily a man of some importance in city politics. Families of all economic positions lived in the quarter appropriate to their religious or ethnic group. In relations within the quarter, family connections, personal reputation, and honor carried more weight than financial standing, although it was of course a factor. Individuals of varying financial positions dealt with one another on a personal basis, with wealthier and more prominent residents assuming leadership.

As new sections and suburbs with more spacious and modern residences were constructed, many of the wealthier families of the various quarters moved there, causing a breakdown in the structure of the old quarters. In the new areas, residential segregation follows economic class rather than religion or ethnicity. As a consequence, the old quarters were robbed of much of their traditional leadership, and the estrangement developing between the tradition-minded masses and the modern-oriented new middle class was exacerbated. An additional factor in the breakdown of the old quarters was the large influx of rural migrants to cities and the resulting tremendous demand for housing.

In the late 1980s, information on the urban upper and middle classes was inconclusive. The old elite appeared to have declined markedly in prestige, power, and influence. In addition, the emigration of professional, commercial, and technical persons undoubtedly had an effect on urban life. It is unlikely, however, that small trading or artisan establishments were greatly affected by the social changes of the 1960s, although future opportunities in these fields seemed to have contracted.

It appears that a middle class, based on education, profession, income, and style of life, is in the process of forming, but its formation is far from complete. The many disparate elements composing it, including government officials, technicians, clerks, professionals, merchants, and traders, come from a variety of social backgrounds and do not share a class consciousness or set of values. The traditional commercial classes had aspired to the life of the old elite; however, the new middle class of education and expertise seeks an entirely different way of life. This group values scientific rather than traditional knowledge, instrumental control of nature rather than passive reliance on the deity, modernity rather than tradition, individual initiative rather than family solidarity, and upward mobility rather than stability.

The urban lower class is also a mixed group, ranging from a comparatively small segment of skilled industrial workers to messengers, domestic workers, and others similarly employed. Industrial workers (skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled) have been located primarily in Damascus and Aleppo, although they are increasing in other towns, among them Latakia. Because of the comparative recency of industrialization in Syria, most industrial workers come from rural areas and any expansion of industry under the revolutionary regime is likely, for a time, to bring other rural people into the cities. The development of Syria's oil resources in the extreme northeast should help, however, to diffuse the industrial working class over a wider area.


Syria - Villages


The effects of the changes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s on the structure of village society are not entirely clear. The urban absentee landlord has been a figure of considerable importance in the life of some villages, and the redistribution of land among the peasants has undoubtedly altered social relations.

It is not possible to generalize about Syrian villages because ecological, ethnic, and other conditions vary. On the one hand, on the coast, where rainfall is regular, small farmers can operate successfully. In the interior, on the other hand, water supply is much less reliable; there, the small owner can easily be ruined by drought, and only large enterprises stand a reasonable chance of succeeding. For this reason, the peasant of the interior depends on financing from the cities in place of advances for crops and equipment previously supplied by urban absentee landlords.

The Syrian village traditionally was not a self-sufficient economic or social unit, but was dependent on the nearest town or city for various services. This dependency increased in the 1970s and 1980s. With the development of a modern system of public transportation, peasants could visit the city with increasing frequency for reasons such as marketing, medical care, and entertainment. In addition, an increasing number of village youth attended urban secondary schools and in that manner gained a foothold in urban society, with many remaining in the town after graduation. Increased migration to the city has to some extent lessened the isolation of the villagers from urban life, as many now have relatives or friends living in towns. Nevertheless, the village should remain a significant component of society.

The relatively homogeneous occupational structure of the village includes fewer status positions than exist in towns with less distinction between the positions. With one or two exceptions, every capable adult works in agriculture. There is a very general division of labor on the basis of sex--men doing the jobs connected with planting, harvesting, and processing of crops and women caring for young children, keeping house, preparing meals, and doing the more menial tasks connected with crops and the care of animals. Only two or three nonagricultural specialists are likely to be found in a village--a small storekeeper, a coffeehouse proprietor, and a barber--and they provide goods and services needed daily by the villagers. Such specialists, with the exception of the barber, are likely to be retired or part-time cultivators. Their occupations give them a degree of social distinction.

Villages are organized around families and their extensions. Often, a village consists of several lineages, or groups of descendants of the same ancestor; the lineages frequently form residential neighborhoods and political blocs within the village. An individual's primary social identity is as a member of a given lineage. The leaders of the various lineages, usually respected middle-aged and older men informally chosen and recognized, maintain stability and make necessary decisions on an informal basis. These leaders keep themselves informed of opinion within their own lineages and formulate policy in discussions with other leaders in the village coffeehouse or the guesthouse of a leading citizen. Those families not related to a lineage usually align themselves with the one in whose ward they live.

Whatever a man's economic situation, he reaches its full social status when he can abstain from direct agricultural labor. For the ordinary peasant, this abstention occurs when he is old enough to have sons to take over his work, allowing him to devote himself to religious matters, family, and village affairs.

Traditionally, the nominal headman of the village was the mukhtar, who was not necessarily the man of highest prestige in the village. He was often chosen merely for his ability to read and write Arabic to the degree necessary to perform the functions of the office. If the mukhtar had a high standing in the community, it was because of his family background and personal qualities rather than his office. The mukhtar served primarily as a channel of communication from higher administrative officials.

In many, if not most, villages, ultimate power and status rested in the owners of village land, who frequently lived in town, although they might maintain a house in or near the village. In some cases, villages were mixed, in that a segment of a pastoral tribe had settled there. The head of such a segment (or of the tribe as a whole) had a good deal of status and authority in the village. This stemmed in part from a certain prestige accorded tribal Arabs but also occurred because such tribal heads had acquired large quantities of land.


Syria - Tribes


The precise size of Syria's beduin population is not known, although in the mid-1980s it was estimated at less than 7 percent. The number of actual nomads among the tribesmen is steadily decreasing because of government settlement policy and the extension of law to the desert. Nevertheless, the nomad remains a highly romantic and admired figure in folklore, and his pride, independence, sensitive honor, and disdain for agricultural or other manual labor are influential values among villagers, especially near the margins of the desert. However, the Baath Party views the nomadic way of life as primitive and hopes to settle all beduin. Ordinarily tribesmen settle in their own villages rather than merging with peasant communities.

In Syria, only eight wholly nomadic tribes remain, sometimes overlapping international boundaries. They are the Ruwala (by far the largest) and the Hassana of the Syrian Desert; the Butainat and the Abadah, near Tadmur in central Hims Province; the Fadan Walad and the Fadan Kharsah of the Euphrates Desert; and the Shammar az Zur and the Shammar al Kharsah in Dayr az Zawr Province.

Tribal society consists of semiautonomous bands of kinsmen moving their flocks within their respective territories. Each band is defined by its members' descent from a common male ancestor, and bands are grouped together according to their supposed descent from a more distant male. Each tribal group, from the smallest band to the largest confederation, ordinarily bears the name of the common ancestor who supposedly founded the particular kin group.

The tribal community itself is defined in terms of kinship, with patterns of behavior, both within and between groups, governed by kinship relations. The kinship system also served to stabilize relations among different bands and groups of bands. The individual tribesman is placed in the center of ever-widening circles of kinship relations that, in theory at least, eventually link him with all other tribesmen within a particular region of the country--that is, with all tribesmen with whom he is likely to come into contact.

Within the basic tribal unit, the nomadic band, the individual's status is ascribed at birth in terms of the kinship relations existing between him and all other members of his band. He is considered subordinate to his elder kinsmen and equal to his age-mates. However, a tribesman may gain prestige because of his special skills at riding horses, hunting, herding animals, or handling men--particularly in the settlement of disputes. His standing within the band will also be enhanced by his relative wealth in terms of the kind and number of animals and the special gear and equipment he owns. Beduin in Syria are not considered poor or underprivileged people; in fact, many beduin tribes are regarded as very wealthy by Syrian standards because of their ownership of large flocks of sheep--a valuable commodity.

High-prestige animals are horses, camels, sheep, and goats, in that order. A tribesman who owns a horse has more prestige than one who does not; one who has two horses is more esteemed than another who has only one. Otherwise, the relative social differences between tribesmen, other than for members of the mukhtar's and shaykh's lineages, are slight.

The mukhtar has a special, superior relationship to other tribesmen in that band; he is elected from among the adult male members of a specific lineage segment within the band. Generally the most prominent member of the lineage segment, he is selected by his close kinsmen and approved by the tribesmen at large and by the leaders of the superordinate tribal group. Although the office of mukhtar does not necessarily pass from father to son, it tends to remain within the same lineage segment. This lineage segment is likely to have a good deal of the band's wealth in terms of animals and gear and probably most of the money to be found within the band.

The mukhtar exerts most of his influence as the leader in the majlis (tribal council), which is composed of all adult males of the band, and the views of its most senior and respected members carry the most weight in council. The mukhtar holds open majlis daily in his guest tent, where the tribesmen discuss all matters of importance to the band. In addition, individual tribesmen appear before the majlis to air their own problems and to press grievances against fellow tribesmen. The mukhtar and his majlis try to solve all these problems and disputes within the tribal unit.

When settlement within the band is not reached or when the dispute involves members of two or more bands, the problem becomes a matter for consideration by the leaders of superordinate tribal groups who stand in a senior position both to the mukhtar of the single band and to the parties to the dispute. Final appeal is to the paramount shaykh of the entire tribe. The Kurdish tribal groups have essentially the same structure as the Arab tribes but apply different titles to their leaders, and their political and economic tribal unit appears to be smaller than that common among Arabs.




Syrian life centers on the extended family. The individual's loyalty to his family is nearly absolute and usually overrides all other obligations. Except in the more sophisticated urban circles, the individual's social standing depends on his family background. Although status is changing within the emerging middle class, ascribed rather than achieved status still regulates the average Syrian's life. His honor and dignity are tied to the good repute of his kin group and, especially, to that of its women.

Gender is one of the most important determinants of social status in Arab society. Although the traditional seclusion of women is not strictly observed in most parts of the country, social contact between the sexes is limited. Among Muslims, men and women in effect constitute distinct social subgroups, intersecting only in the home. A strict division of labor by sex is observed in most social environments, with the exception of certain circumscribed professional activities performed by educated urban women. The roles of the sexes in family life differ markedly, as do the social expectations. The differences are expressed and fostered in child rearing, in ideology, and in daily life.

Because of the cohesiveness of religious and ethnic groups, they universally encourage endogamy, or the marriage of members within the group. Lineages, or groups of families tracing descent to a common ancestor, also strive for endogamy, although this is in fact less common, despite its theoretical desirability. Viewed as a practical bond between families, marriage often has political and economic overtones even among the poor.

Descent is traced through men, or patrilineally, in all groups. In addition, the individual household is based on blood ties between men. Syrians ideally and sentimentally prefer the three-generation household consisting of a senior couple; their married sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren; and their unmarried sons, daughters, and other miscellaneous patrilineal relatives. The latter might include a widowed mother or widowed or divorced sister of the household head or a widow of his brother along with her children. At the death of the household head, adult sons establish their own homes, each to repeat the pattern.

This ideal is realized in no more than a quarter of the households. Little reliable information is available about the size of households, but authorities believe that they average between five and seven persons and that city households are slightly smaller than rural; among Christians the difference between urban and rural household size is more marked than among Muslims. The relatively large size of the typical household probably results from a large number of children and the rarity of single adults living alone; children live at home until marriage, and the widowed tend to live with their children or other relatives.

Syrians highly value family solidarity and, consequently, obedience of children to the wishes of their parents. Being a good family member includes automatic loyalty to kinsmen as well. Syrians employed in modern bureaucratic positions, such as government officials, therefore find impersonal impartiality difficult because its conflicts with the deeply held value of family solidarity.

Syrians have no similar ingrained feelings of loyalty toward a job, an employer, a coworker, or even a friend. There is widespread conviction that the only reliable people are one's kinsmen. An officeholder tends to select his kinsmen as fellow workers or subordinates because he feels a sense of responsibility for them and trusts them. Commercial establishments are largely family operations staffed by the offspring and relatives of the owner. Cooperation among business firms may be determined by the presence or absence of kinship ties between the heads of firms. When two young men become very close friends, they often enhance their relationship by accepting one another as "brothers," thus placing each in a position of special responsibility toward the other. There is no real basis for a close relationship except ties of kinship.

Ideally one should marry within one's lineage. The son or daughter of one's father brother, i.e., one's first cousin, is considered the most appropriate mate. Particularly among the beduin, such marriages occur frequently. In some communities, the male cousin has a presumptive right to marry his female patrilineal first cousin and may be paid by another suitor to release her from this obligation. In towns, marriage between cousins is common among both the wealthiest and the poorest groups. In large metropolitan centers, however, the custom is breaking down, especially among the middle class. Marriage between first cousins is common among Sunnis, including Kurds and Turkomans, although it is forbidden among Circassians. Christians forbid marriage between first cousins. Nevertheless, those groups that forbid marriage of cousins still value family endogamy and encourage the marriage of more distant relatives.

Traditionally, in both Muslim and Christian marriages, the groom or his family must pay a bride price or mahr to the bride or her family. The bride price can be extremely high; it is not unusual for a middle class family to demand of the groom the equivalent of several years salary as the price of marriage to their daughter. However, this payment is often specified in prenuptial contracts to be payable only in the event of a divorce or separation. Therefore, the bride price serves as an alimony fund. The wealthy marry within their families not only to preserve the presumed purity of their bloodlines but to keep the bride price within the family, whereas the poor do so to avoid bride-price payments.

Therefore, marriage is customarily arranged. Among the members of the small urban, Westernized community, a man and woman participate in the decisionmaking and usually can veto the family's choice; but, with rare exceptions, marriage is a familial as well as a personal matter. In rural areas, marriage remains a family matter, too important to be left to the whims and desires of the youthful participants. The preferred marriage is an endogamous one. Althouth, until recently, marriages were arranged for practical, i.e., non-romantic, reasons there is a sizable folklore concerning passionate love affairs and elopements, but such actions rarely occur.

Endogamous marriage and high bride prices serve as deterrents to divorce, counterbalancing the relative ease of divorce authorized in Islamic law and tradition. According to sharia, a man may summarily divorce his wife simply by pronouncing the talaka, or repudiation, three times, although it is far more difficult for a wife to divorce her husband. Currently in Syria, a sharia court adjudicates divorce. Incompatibility is cited most often as justification.

Seven percent of marriages end in divorce, according to Syrian statistics from 1984. The rate varied from a high of 16 percent in urban Damascus to a low of 2 percent in rural Al Hasakah.

If a woman marries within her own lineage, she has the security of living among her people, and the demands upon her loyalty are simple and direct. If she marries into a different lineage, she is among comparative strangers and may also be torn between loyalty to her husband's family and lineage and loyalty to her paternal kinsmen, particularly if trouble should develop between the two. As a wife, she is expected to support her husband and his family, but as a daughter--still dependent on the moral support of her father and brothers--she may feel compelled to advocate their interest. Her father's household always remains open to her and, in case of a dispute with her husband, she may return to her father's house.

Except in the small, urban, Westernized segment of society, the spheres of men and women tend to be strictly separated, and little friendship or companionship exists between the sexes. People seek friendship, amusement, and entertainment with their own sex, and contact between the two sexes takes place primarily within the home.

Women are viewed as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit and therefore in need of male protection, particularly protection from nonrelated men. The honor of men depends largely on that of their women, and especially on that of their sisters; consequently, the conduct of women is expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. Veiling is rarely practiced in villages or tribes, but in towns and cities keeping one's women secluded and veiled was traditionally considered a sign of elevated status. In the mid-1980s, the practice of wearing the veil was quite rare among young women in cities; however, the wearing of the hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was much more common. Wearing the hijab was sometimes more a symbol of Islamic affiliation than a token of modesty, and the garment underwent a revival in the 1980s as a subtle protest against the secular Baath regime. For this reason, the government discouraged the wearing of such Islamic apparel.

The traditional code invests men as members of family groups with a highly valuable but easily damaged honor (ird). The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety on the part of the women in his family or of male infractions of the code of honesty and hospitality could irreparably destroy the honor of a family. In particular, female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward are essential to the maintenance of honor. In the case of a discovered transgression, the men of a family were traditionally bound to kill the offending woman, although in modern times she is more likely to be banished to a town or city where she is not known.

There is no evidence that urbanization per se has lessened the importance of the concept of honor to the Syrian. The fact that town life is still concentrated in the face-to-face context of the quarter ensures the survival of the traditional notion of honor as personal repute in the community. Some authorities have suggested, however, that although urbanization in itself does not threaten the concept, increased modern secular education will probably do so.

In common with most traditional societies, traditional Arab society tended--and to an unknown extent continues--to put a different and higher value on sons than on daughters. The birth of a boy is an occasion for great celebration, whereas that of a girl is not necessarily so observed. Failure to produce sons may be used as grounds for divorcing a wife or taking a second. Barren women, therefore, are often desperately eager to bear sons and frequently patronize quack healers and medicine men and women.




Islam, in addition to being a system of religious beliefs and practices, is an all-encompassing way of life. Muslims believe that Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the rules governing proper life of man and society; therefore, it is incumbent upon the individual to live in the manner prescribed by the revealed law and upon the community to build the perfect human society on earth according to holy injunctions. Ideally, life for a Muslim should take place within a religious community. As a consequence, in Muslim countries religion has an importance in daily life far greater than it has in the West.

The Prophet enjoined his followers to convert the infidel to the true faith. However, he specifically exempted, the "people of the book," Christians and Jews, whose religions he recognized as forming the historical basis of Islam; these peoples were to be permitted to continue their religious observances unimpeded so long as they recognized the temporal rule of Muslim authorities, paid their taxes, and did not proselytize or otherwise interfere with the practice of Islam.

The Ottoman Empire organized the society of present-day Syria around the millet, or autonomous religious community. The non-Muslim people of the book living under Muslim occupation were called dhimmis. They paid taxes to the government and, in return, were permitted to govern themselves according to their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims. The religious communities were therefore able to preserve a large measure of identity and autonomy. Under the Mandate, the French continued this system, tending to favor the Christians.

In matters of personal status, such as birth, marriage, and inheritance, the Christian, Jewish, and Druze minorities follow their own legal systems. All other groups, in such matters, come under the jurisdiction of the Muslim code.

Although the faiths theoretically enjoy equal legal status, to some extent Islam is favored. Despite guarantees of religious freedom, some observers maintain that the conditions of the nonMuslim minorities have been steadily deteriorating, especially since the June 1967 War. An instance of this deterioration was the nationalization of over 300 Christian schools, together with approximately 75 private Muslim schools, in the autumn of 1967. Since the early 1960s, heavy emigration of Christians has been noted;in fact, some authorities state that at least 50 percent of the 600,000 people who left during the decade ending in 1968 were Christians. Many Christians remaining in the country, fearing that they were viewed with suspicion, have attempted to demonstrate their loyalty to and solidarity with the state.

Membership in a religious community is ordinarily determined by birth. Because statistics on the size of the various religious communities were unavailable in 1987, only rough estimates may be made. Muslims were estimated as constituting 85 percent of the population, although their proportion was possibly greater and was certainly growing. The Muslim birthrate reportedly was higher than that of the minorities, and proportionately fewer Muslims were emigrating abroad. Of the Muslims, 80 to 85 percent were members of the Sunni sect, some 13 to 15 percent were Alawis, and approximately 1 percent were Ismailis; other Shia groups constituted less than 1 percent of the population.

A striking feature of religious life in Syria is the geographic distribution of the religious minorities. Most Christians live in Damascus and Aleppo, although significant numbers live in Al Hasakah Province in northeastern Syria. Nearly 90 percent of the Alawis, also known as Nusayris, live in Al Ladhiqiyah Province in the rural areas of the Jabal an Nusayriyah; they constitute over 80 percent of the rural population of the province. The Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in the southwest of the country, is more than 90 percent Druze inhabited; some 120 villages are exclusively so. The Imamis, a Shia sect, are concentrated between Homs and Aleppo; they constitute nearly 15 percent of Hamah Province. The Ismailis are concentrated in the Salamiyah region of Hamah Province; approximately 10,000 more inhabit the mountains of Al Ladhiqiyah Province. Most of the remaining Shia live in the region of Aleppo. The Jewish community is also centered in the Aleppo area, as are the Yazidis, many of whom inhabit the Jabal Siman and about half of whom live in the vicinity of Amuda in the Jazirah.

In addition to the beliefs taught by the organized religions, many people believe strongly in powers of good and evil and in the efficacy of local saints. The former beliefs are especially marked among the beduin, who use amulets, charms, and incantations as protective devices against the evil power of jinns (spirits) and the evil eye. Belief in saints is widespread among nonbeduin populations. Most villages contain a saint's shrine, often the grave of a local person considered to have led a particularly exemplary life. Believers, especially women, visit these shrines to pray for help, good fortune, and protection. Although the identification of the individual with his religious community is strong, belief in saints is not limited to one religious group. Persons routinely revere saints who were members of other religious communities and, in many cases, members of various faiths pray at the same shrine.

Unorthodox religious beliefs of this kind are probably more common among women than men. Because they are excluded by the social separation of the sexes from much of the formal religious life of the community, women attempt to meet their own spiritual needs through informal and unorthodox religious beliefs and practices, which are passed on from generation to generation.

Religion permeates life in all but the most sophisticated social groups. The Syrian tends to view religion instrumentally, depending on the deity and subsidiary powers to aid in times of trouble, solve problems, and assure success. The expressions bismallah (in the name of Allah) and inshallah (if Allah is willing) are commonly heard, expressing the individual's literal dependence on divine powers for his well-being.



Syria - Islam


In A.D. 610, Muhammad (later known as the Prophet), a merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans. However, because the town's economy was based in part on a thriving pilgrimage business to the shrine called the Kaaba and numerous other pagan religious sites located there, his vigorous and continuing censure eventually earned him the bitter enmity of the town's leaders. In 622 he and a group of followers accepted an invitation to settle in the town of Yathrib, later known as Medina (the city) because it was the center of Muhammad's activities. The move, or hijra, known in the West as the Hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as an historical force. The Muslim calendar, based on the lunar year, thus begins in 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued to preach, eventually defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated both the temporal and the spiritual leadership of all Arabia in his hands before his death in 632.

The shahada (testimony, creed) succinctly states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." Muslims repeat this simple profession of faith on many ritual occasions, and a recital in full and unquestioning sincerity designates one a Muslim. The God depicted by Muhammad was not previously unknown to his countrymen, for Allah is Arabic for "God" rather than a particular name. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the many minor gods and spirits worshiped before his ministry and declared the omnipotence of the unique creator, God. According to Islam, God is invisible and omnipresent; to represent him in any visual symbol is a sin. Events in the world flow ineluctably from his will; to resist it is both futile and sinful.

Islam means submission (to God), and he who submits is a Muslim. According to its doctrine, Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets;" his revelation is said to complete for all time the series of biblical revelations received by Jews and Christians. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but men had strayed from his true teachings until set right by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (known in Arabic as Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa respectively) are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger Jesus. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, or last day, general resurrection, heaven and hell, and eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the five pillars of the faith. These are the recitation of the shahada; daily prayer (salat); almsgiving (zakat); fasting (sawm); and hajj, or pilgrimage. After purification through ritual ablutions, the believer is to pray in a prescribed manner each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at the mosque with the imam and on Fridays make a special effort to do so. The Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, although more frequently women pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour; those out of earshot determine the proper time by the sun. Public prayer is a conspicuous and widely practiced aspect of Islam in Syria, particularly in rural areas.

In the early days of Islam, a Muslims obligation to give alms was fulfilled through the tax on personal property proportionate to one's wealth imposed by the authorities; this tax was distributed to the mosques and to the needy. Today almsgiving, however, has become a more private matter. Many pious individuals have contributed properties to support religious and charitable activities or institutions, which traditionally been administered as inalienable waqfs (foundations, or religious endowments).

The ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Quran. Throughout the month all but the sick, the weak, pregnant or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Those adults excused are obligated to undertake an equivalent fast at their earliest opportunity. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. Owing to the lunar calendar, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years; when it falls in summer, it imposes severe hardships on manual laborers.

Finally, at least once in their lifetime all Muslims should, if possible, make the hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. The Prophet instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom to emphasize sites associated with Allah and Abraham, founder of monotheism and father of the Arabs through his son Ishmael (Ismail).

Once in Mecca, pilgrims, dressed in the white seamless ihram, abstain from sexual relations, shaving, haircutting, and nail paring for the duration of the hajj. Highlights of the pilgrimage include kissing the sacred black stone; circumambulating the Kaaba, the sacred structure reputedly built by Abraham that houses the stone; running seven times between the mountains Safa and Marwa in imitation of Hagar, Ishmael's mother, during her travail in the desert; and standing in prayer on Mount Arafat. The returning pilgrim is entitled to the honorific "hajj" before his name. Id al Adha, a major festival celebrated world wide, marks the end of the hajj month.

Jihad, the permanent struggle for the triumph of the word of God on earth, represents an additional general duty for all Muslims, and is construed by some as a sixth pillar of the faith. Although in the past this concept has been used to justify holy wars, modern Muslims see it in the broader context of civic and personal action. In addition to specific duties, Islam imposes an ethical code encouraging generosity, fairness, honesty, respect for the elderly and those in authority, and forbidding adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol.

A Muslim stands in a personal relationship to God; there are neither intermediaries nor clergy in orthodox Islam. Those who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than because of any special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination.

During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community and established the concept of Islam as a total and all-encompassing way of life. Islam traditionally has recognized no distinction between religion and state. Religious and secular life merged, as did religious and secular law. In keeping with this concept of society, all Muslims have been traditionally subject to sharia, or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed gradually during the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative doctrine, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) gradually closed. Thenceforth, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized maintenance of the status quo.

In 632, after Muhammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community consensually chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in- law and one of his earliest followers, to succeed him. At that time, some persons favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his favorite daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the so-called Shiat Ali, or party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs (from the Arabic word khalifa; literally successor)--Umar, who succeeded in 634, and Uthman, who took power in 644--enjoyed the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in 656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia, where in a short time he was murdered.

Ali's was the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphates, the period during which the entire community of Islam recognized a single caliph. In Damascus, Muawiyah then proclaimed himself caliph. The Shiat Ali, however, refused to recognize Muawiyah or his line, the Umayyad caliphs. In the first great schism, the Shiat Ali withdrew and established a dissident sect known as the Shia (or Shiites), supporting the claims of Ali's line to a presumptive right to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet. The major faction of Islam, the Sunni, adhered to the position of election of the caliph; over the centuries the Sunnis have represented themselves as and have come to be identified as the more orthodox of the two branches.

Originally political, the differences between the Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn, killed after the schism, became martyred heroes to the Shia and thus repositories of the claim of Ali's line to mystical preeminence among Muslims. The Sunnis retained the doctrine of leadership by consensus, although Arabs and members of the Quraysh, Muhammad's tribe, predominated in the early years. (Reputed descent from the Prophet still carries great social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world.) Meanwhile, the Shia doctrine of rule by divine right became more and more firmly established, and disagreements over which of several pretenders had the truer claim to the mystical power of Ali precipitated further schisms. Some Shia groups developed doctrines of divine leadership far removed from the strict monotheism of early Islam, including beliefs in hidden but divinely chosen leaders and in spiritual powers that equaled or surpassed those of the Prophet himself.

Fueled both by fervor for the new faith and by economic and social factors, the early Islamic polity was intensely expansionist. Conquering armies and migrating tribes swept out of Arabia, spreading Islam with the sword as much as by persuasion, and by the end of Islam's first century, Islamic armies had reached far into North Africa and eastward and northward into Asia. Syria was among the first countries to come under the sway of Islam; by 635 Muslim armies had conquered Damascus.

In Islam, the Quran is the principal source of religious law, supplemented by the Sunna, which sets forth the perfect example of the Prophet as represented by his deeds, his teachings and decisions, and his unspoken approval as reported by witnesses. In addition to "Allah's Quran and the Prophet's Sunna," the hadith records the deeds, teachings, legal interpretations, and consensual decisions by the Prophet's companions in the period immediately after his death.


The largest religious group in Syria is the Sunni Muslims, of whom about 80 percent are native Syrian Arabs, with the remainder being Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians. Sunni Islam sets the religious tone for Syria and provides the country's basic values.

Sunnis follow nearly all occupations, belong to all social groups and nearly every political party, and live in all parts of the country. There are only two provinces in which they are not a majority: As Suwayda, where Druzes predominate, and Al Ladhiqiyah, where Alawis are a majority. In Al Hasakah, Sunnis form a majority, but most of them are Kurds rather than Arabs.

In theory, a Sunni approaches his God directly because the religion provides him no intercession of saints, no holy orders, no organized clerical hierarchy, and no true liturgy. In practice, however, there are duly appointed religious figures, some of whom exert considerable social and political power. Among them are men of importance in their community who lead prayers and give sermons at Friday services. Although in the larger mosques the imams are generally well-educated men who are informed about political and social affairs, an imam need not have any formal training. Among beduin, for example, any literate member of the tribe may read prayers from the Quran. Committees of socially prominent worshipers usually run the major mosques and administer mosque-owned land and gifts.

The Muslim year has two canonical festivals--the Id al Adha, or "sacrificial" festival on the tenth of Dhul al Hijjah, the twelfth Muslim month; and the Id al Fitr, or "festival of breaking the fast," which celebrates the end of the fast of Ramadan on the first of Shawwal, the tenth month. Both festivals last 3 or 4 days, during which people wear their best clothes, visit and congratulate each other, and give gifts. People visit cemetaries, often remaining for some hours, even throughout the night. The festival of the Id al Fitr is celebrated more joyfully than the Id al Adha because it marks the end of the hardships of Ramadan. Lesser celebrations take place on the Prophet's birthday, which falls on the twelfth of Rabia al Awwal, the third month, and on the first of Muharram, the beginning of the Muslim new year.

Islamic law provides direction in all aspects of life. There are four major schools of Islamic law--the Hanafi, the Hanabali, the Shafii, and the Maliki--each named after its founder and all held to be officially valid. Any Muslim may belong to any one of them, although one school usually dominates a given geographical area. The schools agree on the four recognized sources of law-- the Quran, the Sunna, the consensus of the faithful (ijma), and analogy (qiyas)--but differ in the degree of emphasis they give to each source. Represented in Syria are the Shafii school and the more liberal Hanafi school, which places greater emphasis on analogical deduction and bases decisions more on precedents set in previous cases than on literal interpretation of the Quran or Sunna.

Conservative, Sunni leaders look to the ancient days of Islam for secular guidance. Only since the first quarter of the twentieth century have Syrian Sunnis become acutely aware of the need for modern education. Therefore, secularization is spreading among Sunnis, especially the younger ones in urban areas and in the military services. After the first coup d'�tat in 1949, the waqfs were taken out of private religious hands and put under government control. Civil codes have greatly modified the authority of Islamic laws, and the educational role of Muslim religious leaders is declining with the gradual disappearance of kuttabs, the traditional mosque-affiliated schools.

Despite civil codes introduced in the past years, Syria maintains a dual system of sharia and civil courts. Hanafi law applies in sharia courts, and nonMuslim communities have their own religious courts using their own religious law.


Shia Islam is often viewed as a deviant or heretical form of orthodox Islam. However, Shia Islam is the result of schism and, as scholars correctly observe, the elements for a Shia interpretation of Islam are present in the Quran as well as in the hadith. The catalyst for Shia's development was the political turmoil over a temporal successor to Muhammad and the ensuing murders of Ali and his sons. Shia maintain, however, that SunniShia polemics are not as much about who should have succeeded the Prophet as about the function of the office of the successor and the qualifications of the man to hold it.

Shia Islam's distinctive institution is the Imamate, which holds that the successor of the Prophet is more than a political leader. He must have walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and sharia; only those who are free from error and sin (masum) and have been chosen by God (nass) through the Prophet possess walayat.

The five Shia principles of religion (usual ad din) are: belief in divide unity (tawhid); prophecy (nubuwwah); resurrection (maad); divine justice (adl); and the belief in the Imams as successors of the Prophet (imamah). The latter principle is not accepted by Sunnis.

Implied in the Shia principle of the imamah is that imams, are imbued with a redemptive quality as a result of their sufferings and martyrdoms. And, although imams are not divine, they are sinless and infallible in matters of faith and morals, principle very similar to the notion of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. That man needs an intermediary with God is an Iranian idea that long predates Islam, as is the idea of a savior or messiah (Mahdi) who will come to redeem man and cleanse the world. To expect that the Mahdi, who is the last (twelfth) Imam, really will one is a religious virtue (intizar).

The Imamate began with Ali, because it is his descendants who are the Imams. To justify their beliefs, Shias emphasize the close lifetime association of the Prophet and Ali. When Ali was six years old, the Prophet invited Ali to live with him, and he is considered by Shias to be the first to make the declaration of faith to Islam. He also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra, when it was assumed that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. Ali fought in all except one battle with the Prophet, and the Prophet chose Ali as the husband of his only child. Also regarded as especially significant is a hadith that records the Prophet as saying: "God placed the children of all the prophets in their backbone but placed my children in the backbone of Ali."

Most Shia religious practices are comparable to those of Sunni Islam. There are, however, two distinctive and frequently misunderstood Shia practices: mutah, temporary marriage, and taqiyah, or religious dissimulation. Mutah, that is, marriage with a fixed termination contract subject to renewal, was practiced by Muslims as early as the formation of the first Muslim community at Medina. Banned by the second caliph, it has since been unacceptable to Sunnis, but Shias insist that if it were against Islamic law it would not have been practiced in early Islam. Mutah differs from permanent marriage because it does not require divorce proceedings for termination because the contractual parties have agreed on its span, which can be as short as an evening or as long as a lifetime. By making the mutah, a couple places the sexual act within the context of sharia; the act then is not considered adulterous and offspring are considered legitimate heirs of the man.

Taqiyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shia Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shia imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyah has been continually reinforced.

Shia play only a minor role in Syrian politics. They are among the least educated religious groups, and their members are more resistant to change. In religious affairs, they look to Shia centers in Iraq, especially Karbala and An Najaf, and to Iran. However, Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Syria's alliance with Iran in its war with Iraq, have elevated the prestige of Syria's Shia minority. As hundreds of Iranian tourists began to visit Damascus each week, the Shia shrine of the tomb of Sitt az Zaynab, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, located in Al Ghutah outside Damascus, became a major pilgrimage destination, replacing those areas no longer accessible in Iraq. However, the government of Syria has viewed with caution the resurgence of Shia Islamic fervor in Syria and has taken steps to dampen it.


The Ismailis are an offshoot of Shia Islam, the split having occurred over the recognition of the Seventh Imam. Shia Twelvers, those who accept the first Twelve Imams, believe that Jafar, the Sixth Imam, passed over his eldest son, Ismail, in favor of Ismail's brother Musa al Kazim. Ismailis, however, believe that Jafar appointed Ismail to be the Seventh Imam--hence Ismailis are often called Seveners. Little is known of the early history of the sect, but it was firmly established by the end of the ninth century. From 969 to 1171, an Ismaili dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled as caliphs in Egypt.

Ismailis are divided into two major groups, the Mustafians and the Misaris. The Ismailis of Syria, numbering about 200,000, are predominantly Misaris; this group gained prominence during the Crusades when a mystical society of Misaris, called Assassins, harassed both the Crusaders and Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayyubi). The Misari Ismaili community has continued in Syria to the present day and recognizes the Aga Khan as its head. The Mirzahs are the leading family in the community. [Shahgaldian, op. cit.].

Originally clustered in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, most of the Syrian Ismailis have resettled south of Salamiyah on land granted to the Ismaili community by Abdul Hamid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909. A few thousand Ismailis live in the mountains west of Hamah, and about 5,000 are in Al Ladhiqiyah. The western mountain group is poor and suffers from land hunger and overpopulation--resulting in a drift toward the wealthier eastern areas as well as seasonal migration to the Salamiyah area, where many of them find employment at harvest-time. The wealthier Ismailis of Salamiyah have fertile and well-watered land and are regarded as clannish, proud, and tough.

Ismailis accept many Shia doctrines, such as the esoteric nature of truth and the inspiration of the Imams. Although holding their Imams to be of divine origin, as the Shia do, Ismailis have a dual Imamate. They believe the succession of visible Imams has continued to the present. There are, however, two imams, the visible and the hidden, the speaker and the silent. The identity of the hidden imam is not known to the community but it is believed he will return to lead the faithful. Ismailis generally follow the religious practice of the Shia Twelvers in prayers, fasts, and Quranic prescriptions, but in their conservatism they resemble Sunnis on some points. For example, they do not observe the tenth of Muharram in the impassioned way of the Shia.


Syria - Alawis


The Alawis, or Nusayris, who number about 1,350,000, constitute Syria's largest religious minority. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population; the city of Latakia itself is largely Sunni. The Alawis appear to be descendants of people who lived in this region at the time of Alexander the Great. When Christianity flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the Alawis, isolated in their little communities, clung to their own preIslamic religion. After hundreds of years of Ismaili influence, the Alawis moved closer to Islam. However, contacts with the Byzantines and the Crusaders added Christian elements to the Alawis' new creeds and practices. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany, and use sacramental wine in some ceremonies.

For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936.

For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria's most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. However, after Alawi President Assad and his retinue came to power in 1970, the well being of the Alawis improved considerably.

Split by sectional rivalries, the Alawis have no single, powerful ruling family, but since independence many individual Alawis have attained power and prestige as military officers. Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.

Alawis claim they are Muslims, but conservative Sunnis do not always recognize them as such. Like Ismaili Shias, Alawis believe in a system of divine incarnation. Unlike Ismailis, Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of the deity in the divine triad. As such, Ali is the "Meaning;" Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, is the "Name;" and Salman the Persian is the "Gate." Alawi catechesis is expressed in the formula: "I turn to the Gate; I bow before the Name; I adore the Meaning." An Alawi prays in a manner patterned after the shahada: "I testify that there is no God but Ali."

According to Alawi belief, all persons at first were stars in the world of light but fell from the firmament through disobedience. Faithful Alawis believe they must be transformed seven times before returning to take a place among the stars, where Ali is the prince. If blameworthy, they are sometimes reborn as Christians, among whom they remain until atonement is complete. Infidels are reborn as animals.

Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. Alawis study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam, which they interpret in a wholly allegorical sense to fit community tenets.

Alawis do not set aside a particular building for worship. In the past, Sunni government officials forced them to build mosques, but these were invariably abandoned. Only the men take part in worship.


Syria - Druzes


In 1987 the Druze community, at 3 percent of the population the country's third largest religious minority, continued to be the overwhelming majority in the Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in southwestern Syria.

The Druze religion is a tenth-century offshoot of Islam, but Muslims view Druzes as heretical for accepting the divinity of Hakim, the third Fatimid caliph of Egypt. The group takes its names from Muhammad Bin Ismail ad Darazi, an Iranian mystic. Druzes regard Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, as their chief prophet and make annual pilgrimages to his tomb in lower Galilee. They also revere Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, the three most important prophets of Islam.

The Druze have always kept their doctrine and ritual of secret to avoid persecution. Only those who demonstrate extreme piety and devotion and the correct demeanor are initiated into the mysteries. The initiated (uqqal; sing., aqil) are a very small minority and may include women. Most Druzes are juhhal, ignorant ones. Apparently the religion is complex, involving neo-Platonic thought, Sufi mysticism, and Iranian religious traditions.

Endogamy and monogamy are the rule among the Druzes. Until recently, most girls were married between the ages of 12 and 15, and most men at the age of 16 or 17. Women are veiled in public, but, in contrast to Muslim Arab custom, they can and do participate in the councils of elders.


Syria - Christianity


The Christian communities of Syria, which comprise about 8 percent of the population, spring from two great traditions. Because both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were introduced by missionaries, a small number of Syrians are members of Western denominations. The vast majority, however, belong to the Eastern communions, which have existed in Syria since the earliest days of Christianity. The main Eastern groups are the autonomous Orthodox churches; the Uniate churches, which are in communion with Rome; and the independent Nestorian church. Even though each group forms a separate community, Christians nevertheless cooperate increasingly, largely because of their fear of the Muslim majority.

The schisms that brought about the many sects resulted from political and doctrinal disagreements. The doctrine most commonly at issue was the nature of Christ. In 431, the Nestorians broke away because of their belief in the dual character of Christ, i.e., that he had two separate but equal natures, the human Jesus and the divine Christ. Therefore, Mary was not the mother of God but only of the man Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon, representing the mainstream of Christianity, in 451 confirmed the dual nature of Christ in one person; Mary was therefore the mother of a single person, mystically and simultaneously both human and divine.

The Monophysites, another schismatic group, taught that Christ's divinity overpowered his humanity, resulting in a single divine nature. They were the precursors of the present-day Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. The Monothelites, precursors of the modern Maronites, tried to evolve a compromise by postulating that Christ had two natures, human and divine, but a single will.

By the thirteenth century, Eastern or Greek Christianity had irrevocably separated from Western or Latin Christianity. In the following centuries, however, especially during the crusades, some offshoots of the Eastern churches accepted the authority of the pope in Rome and entered into communion with Roman Catholic Christianity. Today called the Uniate churches, they retain a distinctive language and liturgy.

The largest Christian denomination in Syria is the Greek Orthodox church, also known as the Melkite church. The appellation "Greek" refers to the language of liturgy, not to the ethnic origin of the members. Arabic is also used. The Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church, whose liturgy is in Syriac, split off from the main body of orthodoxy over the Monophysite heresy.

The Armenian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church is the second largest Syrian Christian group. It uses an Armenian liturgy and its doctrine is Monophysite.

Of the Uniate churches, the oldest is the Maronite, with ties to Rome dating to the twelfth century. This group originally held to the Monothelite heresy, but in 1215 renounced it. The liturgy is in Syriac.

Among the Uniate churches, the largest is the Syrian Catholic church, a Uniate offshoot of the Syrian Orthodox church, which uses the same liturgy as the Maronites and has a similar background. The Greek Catholic church is a Uniate offshoot of the Greek Orthodox and, like it, uses Greek and Arabic. In contrast to the Uniate Chaldean Catholics who derive from the Nestorian church, the Nestorians, descendants of the ancient Nestorian schismatics, are in communion with no other church and have their own very ancient liturgy.

With the exception of the Armenians, most Christians are Arab, sharing the pride of Muslims in the Islamic-Arabic tradition and in Syria's special role in that tradition. Many Christians, particularly the Eastern Orthodox, have joined in the Arab nationalist movement and some are changing their Westernized names to Arabic ones. More Syrian Arab Christians participate in proportion to their number in political and administrative affairs than do Muslims. Especially among the young, relations between Christians and Muslims are improving.

There are several social differences between Christians and Muslims. For example, Syrian Christians are more highly urbanized than Muslims;many live either in or around Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, or Latakia, and there are relatively fewer of them in the lower income groups. Proportionately more Christians than Muslims are educated beyond the primary level, and there are relatively more of them in white-collar and professional occupations. The education that Christians receive has differed in kind from that of Muslims in the sense that many more Christian children have attended Western-oriented foreign and private schools.


Syria - Jews


Most Jews now living in the Arab world belong to communities dating back to Old Testament times or originating as colonies of refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. In Syria, Jews of both origins, numbering altogether fewer than 3,000 in 1987, are found. A Syrian Jew is Arabic-speaking and is barely distinguishable from the Arabs around him. In Syria, as elsewhere, the degree to which Jews submit to the disciplines of their religion varies.

The government treats the Jews as a religious community and not as a racial group. Official documents refer to them as musawiyin (followers of Moses) and not yahudin (Jews). The government's translation into English of musawiyin is "Judists."

Although the Jewish community continues to exercise a certain authority over the personal status of its members, as a whole it is under considerable restriction, more because of political factors than religious ones. The economic freedom of Jews is limited, and they are under continual surveillance by the police. Their situation, although not good before the June 1967 War, has reportedly deteriorated considerably since then.


Syria - Yazidis


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Yazidis, whose religion dates back to the time of the Umayyad caliphate (A.D. 661-750), migrated from southern Iraq and settled in their present mountainous stronghold--Jabal Sinjar in northern Iraq. Although some are scattered in Iran, Turkey, and the Caucasus, Iraq is the center of their religious life, the home of their amir, and the site (north of Al Mawsil) of the tomb of their most revered saint, Shaykh Adi.

In 1964, there were about 10,000 Yazidis in Syria, primarily in the Jazirah and at Aleppo; population data were not available in 1987. Once seminomadic, most Yazidis now are settled; they have no great chiefs and, although generally Kurdish-speaking, gradually are being assimilated into the surrounding Arab population.

Yazidis generally refuse to discuss their faith which, in any case, is known fully to only a few among them. The Yazidi religion has elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as of paganism. Yazidis consider the Bible and the Quran as sacred. Sometimes inaccurately called "devil worshipers" by other Syrians, Yazidis go to considerable lengths to placate a fallen angel symbolized as a sacred peacock called Malik Taus.




Since 1967 all Syrian schools, colleges, and universities have been under close government supervision. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education are primarily responsible for all aspects of administration, including curricula development.

Schooling is divided into 6 years of compulsory primary education, 3 years of lower secondary education, and 3 years of upper secondary education. General secondary education offers academic courses and prepares students for university entrance; the last 2 years of this stage are divided into literary and scientific streams. Vocational secondary training offers courses in industry, agriculture, commerce, and primary school-teacher training. The usual entrance age for secondary schooling is 15 but is 14 for teacher training institutions. This system was established in 1967, when the country signed the Arab Cultural Unity Agreement with Jordan and Egypt, introducing a uniform school ladder in the three countries and determining curricula examination procedures and teacher training requirements for each level.

In the mid-1980s, Syrian education policies reflected the official intention of the Baath Party to use the schools to indoctrinate the masses with its ideology and to make school training responsive to the nation's manpower needs. The Fourth Five-Year Development Plan (1976- 80) established a target of full enrollment of boys of primary school age by 1980 and of girls by 1990. By the early 1980s, Syria had achieved full primary school enrollment of males of the relevant age; the comparable figure for females was about 85 percent. Enrollment in secondary school dropped to 67 percent for boys, and 35 percent for girls, reflecting a high drop-out rate. Enrollments in remote rural areas were frequently far below the national average. In some villages of Dayr az Zawr Province, for example, only about 8 percent of the girls attended primary school, whereas in Damascus about 49 percent of the girls completed the 6-year primary system.

The demand for education has increased sharply. Between 1970 and 1976, enrollment in the primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary levels increased by 43 percent, 52 percent and 65 percent, respectively. During the same period, enrollments in the various institutes of higher learning increased by over 66 percent. In 1984, 1 million boys and 818,000 girls attended primary schools, which numbered 8,489. Nearly 1,600 secondary schools enrolled over 700,000 pupils.

The Ministry of Higher Education in 1984 supervised four universities, one each in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, and Homs. The University of Damascus, founded in 1923, had faculties of law, medicine, pharmacology, letters, dentistry, Islamic jurisprudence, agriculture architecture, engineering, science, fine arts, commerce, and education. The Higher Institute for Social Work, established in 1962 to conduct research into social and economic problems, also was affiliated with the university. Syria's ruling Baath Party operated an institute of political science at the university which conducted mandatory classes in political orientation and current Syrian history. The University of Aleppo, opened in 1958, had faculties of engineering and sciences, agriculture, and literature. Tishrin University in Latakia had a similar curriculum. Al Baath University in Homs, opened in 1979, was Syria's only university with departments of petroleum engineering and veterinary medicine.

In the 1980s, the Syrian government was attempting to expand enrollment in its university faculties of science. In 1984, Syrian universities graduated 948 medical doctors and 1,693 engineers. However, over 3,100 students graduated from the faculties of arts and literature.

A second major thrust of Syrian educational planning was eliminating illiteracy. In 1981, an estimated 2 million Syrians-- 42 percent of the population over 12 years of age--were illiterate. In accordance with the government's drive to eliminate illiteracy by 1991, in 1984 approximately 57,000 Syrians attended literacy classes sponsored by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

Public demand for education has remained strong, reflecting the importance of education as a channel of upward mobility. The government has continued to expect the system to provide trained citizens to meet the economic and political needs of the society. In the mid-1980s, however, the educational system was still inadequately funded, and, even within its funding restrictions, was viewed by impartial observers as failing to achieve its limited objectives and goals.

In the Syrian education system of the mid-1980s, the concept of examining a "truth" in an effort to confirm or refute it was largely unknown, and, in any event, was often viewed as an unacceptable challenge to authority. If the teacher's instructions and assertions are questioned and refuted, other centers of authority--the family and the government--might then be asked to submit their truths to objective examination and testing. Because research possesses limited intrinsic value, the inadequate research and laboratory facilities were infrequently used.

In 1977 one observer stated that although the Syrian government has been seeking to improve the situation, the task was formidable because of the "many shortcomings and defects" in the educational system and because the society and government have been unable to agree on a modernizing, energizing social role for the system. This assessment was largely valid in the mid-1980s.


Syria - HEALTH


Because of the increasing use of vaccinations and various preventive measures, health conditions in Syria generally improved in the 1980s. Malaria, and to a lesser extent tuberculosis, declined, but gastrointestinal and parasitic diseases were endemic, particularly among the rural population. Diphtheria and tetanus also plagued rural communities, and there was a high rate of infectious diseases, heart disease, and cancer in urban areas.

Syria's Ministry of Health had a budget of approximately LS 187 million in 1985. As a socialist government, Syria provided virtually free medical care to its citizens and imposed a ceiling on charges by private hospitals.

In 1984 there were 41 state-run hospitals and 139 private hospitals in Syria. The state hospitals averaged 200 beds each, while the private hospitals averaged only 20 beds each. As of 1980, Syria had established state hospitals in every province except Al Qunaytirah; however, these public facilities were concentrated on Damascus, which had 15 public hospitals with a total of 3,801 beds, and Aleppo, which had eight state hospitals with a total of 1,870 beds. Private hospitals were likewise concentrated in Damascus and Aleppo. Syria also had established 503 public health clinics throughout the country.

Syria's public health program was augmented by programs administered by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Social Affairs provided vaccinations, medicine, and maternity care at rural community development centers throughout the nation. The Ministry of Education administered a preventive medicine and dentistry program for schoolchildren. In 1981, this program operated with a staff of 62 physicians, 22 dentists, and 110 nurses in 160 schools, and Syria was implementing plans to double the size of this program.

Syria had 5,543 physicians in 1985, one for every 1,792 people. There were 2,045 dentists, one for every 4,858 people. Syria had 7,923 nurses and 2,071 midwives. In 1984, 948 medical doctors graduated from Syrian universities.

Syria's socialist government provided extensive welfare services to citizens. Most welfare programs were administered by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, which in 1985 had a budget of LS 265 million. This ministry controlled labor unions, set minimum wages, was in charge of occupational safety, paid social security premiums, and operated orphanages, institutions for the handicapped, and rural community development centers. Many citizens had access to subsidized public housing.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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