Sheikh Saeed Ramadan al Bouti might have been a supporter of the Assad regime, but his murder is as tragic to the Syrians in the opposition, though many might not realise it yet. One might ask whether the death of this one man is any different to the tens of thousands of Syrians that have been murdered over the past two years, and it is a fair question to ask. The answer is both no and yes, as clear as everything else in the Middle East. No insofar as he is just the latest victim of Assad's quixotic crusade to hold an entire country to ransom, and yes, because the death of a man of his theological and intellectual calibre will be a great blow to Islam, and not just any Islam, but Levantine Islam.
Al Bouti was often derided as the “Sultan's Sheikh”, and was known for his anti-revolutionary position and strong support of Assad. Recently he had even called for an Islamic jihad against the enemies of Assad's state, and implored believers to join the Syrian Army. At the start of the revolution, al Bouti had angered his Friday congregation by claiming that those killed in the early protests were not martyrs and were themselves to blame for what had happened. He had also famously described those revolting against Assad's rule as “scum”. In spite of these positions, he is not somebody who can be dismissed lightly, and it is widely believed that his position kept a lot of Sunni Muslims in the capital out of the revolution and in their homes, and possibly even saved their lives from the regime, but that is a controversial view for some in the revolution to take.
Respected throughout the Muslim world for his views and writings, al Bouti had, until two years ago, represented the quintessential, for Muslims, Syrian approach to religion; a spirituality tinged with Sufism. Long before Syria was the beating heart of Arabism, it was and remains the beating heart of Sunni Islam. By this I do not wish to emphasize the difference between Sunni Islam and Shiism, but between Sunni Islam as it was and the Salafist ideology it is associated unfairly with today. Many in Syria, especially those within the opposition like Muath al Khatib – a former Imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus – have explained time and again that Islam in Syria is not the same as the Wahhabi or Salafist extremism that dominates the world's attention. Most Syrians would proudly insist the same though few can actually explain why. To understand Islam as understood by many Syrians, we need to look back to a time when the Ottoman empire ruled the region for over four hundred years.
The Ottomans were not just Sunni Muslims, but Hanafi and Maturidi Sunni Muslims, and they were Sufis. The Maturidi creed is the anti-thesis of the core doctrines of Wahhabism, which are quick to exclude those who deviate from Islamic teachings as unbelievers. In contrast, the Maturidi creed considers belief as a state which either exists or not. It is piety which can increase or decrease. For example, a person might smoke, drink, and have forgotten what the inside of a mosque looks like, and yet they would still be deeply imbibed with Islamic tradition, considering themselves to be Muslims without the slightest feeling of contradiction. History shows that the Ottomans were far from perfect, but the seeds for tolerance were, of necessity, within the jurisprudence they adhered to.
Damascus in particular holds a reverence for this Sufi piestic tradition. Dotted throughout the city are the domed shrines where Sufi sheikhs and wise men have been buried throughout the ages. These ancient shrines are still highly venerated, and one continues to look down over Damascus, the famous Qubat al Sayar, whilst the Four Seasons Hotel development was built around, rather than over, another. The sheer number of Sufi saints that had settled in Damascus throughout the centuries is underlined by the fact that the grandmaster and greatest of them all, Sheikh Muhyildeen Ibn Arabi, is buried in the Damascus neighbourhood that now bears his name, and where Sufi gatherings still take place every Tuesday night. Furthermore, the Ottomans referred to this city as “Sham sherif” (Holy Sham, using the ancient name) and whilst the old Sufi orders were eventually stamped out under Ataturk's Turkey, their influence and tradition lived on in Syria. When al Khatib highlights his worry that there are interpretations of Islam that we do not recognise in Syria, and that the Islamic character of the Free Syrian Army is not the same as that ideology, then he is speaking from this background and heritage and it is important to distinguish that the Sunni Islam of many Syrians is not the same as that of Salafists.
It is from within this rich tradition and fabric that both al Bouti and al Khatib emerge, and whilst they found themselves on different sides of the revolution, it is very likely that men like them who would have set the first stones of reconciliation not just between Sunni Muslims in Syria but between all communities in the country. Apart from the blow to Syria's spiritual heritage, al Bouti's killing means one less sane and reasonable individual, however controversial his views, who could have been a force for healing in the country. A commonly voiced view is that the Islamic orders which had aligned with Assad's regime, including the female Qubaysi order, have done so not because they support the regime but because they feared further bloodshed and the deaths of their followers. This is not as controversial a view as some Muslims in the opposition would think. Prior to the Syrian revolution Adnan al Arour, a Salafist Syrian Sheikh based in Saudi Arabia and known for his opposition to the Assad regime, said clearly and unequivocally that Syrians should not rise up against the regime at all so long as everything was calm and safe.
We will never know al Bouti's motives for certain and some will argue that his proximity to the regime and prominence would have made any public voicing of his concerns an impossibility. His support of the regime was deeply unpopular and caused consternation as well as amusement, but his death will leave a terrible vacuum for all of us as we see the Syria we once knew get blown apart bit by bit.