Religious Beliefs In Syria

The Omayad Mosque courtyard in Aleppo, Syria
The Omayad Mosque courtyard in Aleppo, Syria

The country of Syria is located in Western Asia in the heart of the Middle East. The country is bordered to the north by Turkey, the south by Jordan, the east by Iraq and to the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. The country is noted for its tall mountains, deserts and fertile land as well as the diverse array of ethnic and religious groups in the country due to its central location throughout history. Since 2011 the country has been in a multi-sided, bloody and horrific civil war that is still ongoing, as well as having to combat the rise of terrorist group ISIS (Daesh) who has declared a self-proclaimed caliphate and has persecuted and killed religious groups who do not agree with them.

The Six Biggest Religions Groups In Syria:

6. Twelver Shia Islam

Twelver Shia Islam is the largest branch of Shia Islam in the world, but only accounts for 0.5% of the religious population of Syria. This branch of Shia Islam beliefs in twelve divinely ordained leaders, called the Twelve Imams, who are the spiritual and political successors to the prophet Muhammad (570-632). They believe that the twelfth and final Imam was Muhammad al-Mahdi, is still alive and will stay in hiding in the Major Occultation until he comes back to bring justice to Earth. Twelvers, also called Imams,, are found located around the Shia pilgrimage sites in the capital of Damascus and also in villages in the governorates (provinces) of Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. The Twelvers in Syria have close ties with those in neighboring Lebanon. Despite being a vast minority in Syria they have experienced increased prestige compared to other Shia groups due to Syria's close strategic alliance with Iran due to Iran being a majority Twelver Shia Islam country.

5. Ismaili Shia Islam

Ismaili Shia Islam is the second largest branch of Shia Islam in the world and it accounts for 1% of the religious population of Syria. Shia Ismailis, also called seveners, split off as a separate branch of Shia Islam due to their believe that Musa Ja'far al-Sadiq (702-765), the Sixth Imam, made his oldest son Isma'il ibn Jafar (c. 722-755) the seventh Imam, as opposed to Twelver Shia Islam who believed his youngest son Mūsá al-Kāẓim (c.745-799) was the seventh Imam. Due to this split, Ismaili Shia Islam has only line of Imamat that continues to this day, with Prince Aga Khan IV being the 49th hereditary Imam. Ismailis have two major groups Mustali and Nizari, of which most in Syria are Nizari. The Nizari are most well known in western culture from the Crusades when a mystical society of Nizari formed the Hashashin (Assassins), a group that lasted from around 1090 to 1256 in Syria that harassed and killed the regions political and religious leaders. Most of the wealthier followers of Ismaili Shia Islam currently live in the Al-Salamiyah district in the Hama Governorate, while the poorer ones live in the mountains west of the city of Hama.

4. Druze

Despite only being 3% of the religious population, the Druze are the third biggest Islamic religious group in Syria. The Druze are not considered Muslims by some followers of Islam, but in Syria as well as Lebanon they are legally considered Muslims. The Druze faith incorporates various elements of teachings, philosophies, and religions from a variety of sources like Hamza ibn-'Ali, Plato, Ismailism, Christianity, Gnosticism and more. They do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam and live a life of isolation where no one is allowed to convert out of or into the religion.

Historically, the Druze have blended into other religions to protect themselves but with modern security, they have been able to be more open about their religion. The Druze held political influence in Syria until the ruler of Prime Minister Adib Bin Hassan Al-Shishakli (1909-1964) from 1949 to 1954. During his rule, he forcibly led a policy of integrating the minorities of Syria into the country's national structure and also stigmatized them. The Druze community still holds an important role in the Syrian military to this day. The Druze make up the vast majority of people living in the Jabal al Arab volcanic region located in the As-Suwayda Governorate.

3. Christianity

The Christian community in Syria accounts for 8.9% of the country's population. Syria has had a Christian community since the earliest days of the religion. The large majority of Christians in Syria belong to one of the Eastern groups of Christianity, which include autonomous Orthodox churches, Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome and the independent Assyrian Church of the East. The largest denominations in the country are from these eastern churches, like the Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Melkite Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are also a minority of Western groups of Christianity like Roman Catholics and Protestants that were introduced later on by missionaries. Most Christians in the country live in or around the cities of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Hamah, and Latakia.

2. Alawi Shia Islam

Alawi Shia Islam is the second largest religious group in Syria, accounting for 11.5% of the population. The origins of the Alawites go back a follower of the pupil of the eleventh Imam, who was known as Al‐Khaṣībī (?-969), who organized the religion. In 1032 al-Tabarani, pupil and grandson of Al‐Khaṣībī, moved to the city of Latakia and converted the local rural population in the area to the Alawite faith. The Alawites follow the Twelver school of Shia Islam, but are differentiated as an offshoot by having syncretistic elements in their beliefs. They also revere Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-661), the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad (570-632).

Most of the Alawite population in Syria resides along the coastal region in northwestern region in the governorates of Latakia and Tartus. For centuries the Alawites were repressed, exploited and most were poor servants or farmers. Starting in the 1940s, shortly after independence, many individual Alawis attained individual power and prestige. This then culminated in 1970 with the Corrective Movement coup d'état led by Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000). Since then the Alawi Shia Assad family has ruled Syria, improving the lives of Alawites and leading to this small religious group being the ruling class of the country. Since the Syrian Civil War started many Alawi men of military age have been killed in the war due to the group's heavy support for the Assad government.

1. Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam is by far the largest religious group in Syria, making up 74% of the population. The split between Sunni and Shia Islam came about due to a disagreement over the choice of the prophet Muhammad's successor and in the centuries since has broadened to include different political, theological and juridical differences. This came about as Sunnis though that Muhammad did not designate a successor, so his father-in-law Abu Bakr (573-634) was elected as the first caliph. The Shia, on the other hand, believed that Muhammad wanted his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed him as caliph. Sunnis make up the majority of the population in all but three of the governorates of Syria and set the religious tone and values for most of the country. Since the Assad family took over Syria in 1970 the Sunni have been locked out of the vast majority of high-ranking government positions in the Assad regime. With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, most of the people in the Syrian Rebels groups and the Salafi jihadist groups who are fighting against the Assad government are Sunnis.

The Other Minor Religious Groups Of Syria

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War the Jewish population in Syria is almost nonexistent, with some reports have there being less than 10 Jews left in the country. Most Jews have left over the years do to limited economic freedom and constant surveillance, the Syrian Civil War was just the last tipping point for the remaining few left to leave. The ethnically Kurdish religious group of the Yazidis, migrated from Turkey to the area around the city of Sinjar in Iraq on the border with Syria in the 15th century. Some also live in the Jazirah region of Syria and outside of Aleppo. Estimates are that there are around 10,000 Yazidis in Syria and they have suffered greatly in ISIS controlled regions, with the United Nations declaring ISIS responsible for genocide. Tradition folk beliefs are mostly practiced among the Bedouin nomadic people of the Middle East and North Africa. These are marked by amulets, charms, evil jinns (spirts) and the evil eye. There is also a belief in saints that is popular among non-Beduin people. These saints are local people who led ideal lives and are called on for good fortune and protection.

Religious Beliefs In Syria

RankBelief SystemShare of Syrian Population
1Sunni Islam74.0%
2Alawi Shia Islam11.5%
5Ismaili Shia Islam
6Twelver Shia Islam0.5%

Yazidis, Jews, Hindus, Folk Believers, and Others1.1%

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