Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the current Grand Mufti of Syria and the highest Muslim authority in the country, has been one of the most controversial religious figures throughout his tenure and more importantly, since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.
Hassoun was born in 1949 in the city of Aleppo. The son of cleric Mohammad Adeeb Hassoun, he was educated at the renowned al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt and graduated with a PhD in Shafi’i jurisprudence. Shafi’i is one of the remaining five major schools of Sunni Islam. His doctoral thesis was an encyclopedia of Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i, the founder of the school of Shafi’i Islam. In addition, Hassoun wrote an encyclopedia on the ‘fatwa literature’ in Islam. He holds a degree in Arabic literature as well.
In 2002, Hassoun was appointed Mufti of Aleppo. In July 2005, following the death of Ahmed Kuftaro, Syria’s previous Grand Mufti, Hassoun was appointed by President Bashar al-Assad as Kuftaro’s replacement. Between 2005 and late 2010, Hassoun devoted considerable time to building bridges between different religions and sects in Syria and the region. He often spoke at interreligious and intercultural events, such as during his September 2006 trip to Armenia, where he met with the representatives of the Catholic Church of Armenia. He also contributed to the narrative that Syria is a country from which Christianity was spread to the world, a narrative Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar both adopted when they came to power. In 2008, designated the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue by the EU parliament, Hassoun spoke in the European parliament in Brussels on the importance of intercultural dialogue. He highlighted the value of culture as a unifying force rather than a dividing one and denounced the existence of a ‘holy war’ between cultures because a war cannot be holy, only peace can be.
In an interview with the Saudi al-Arabiya channel in November 2007, Hassoun reiterated his multiple affiliations to the different denominations of Islam, saying, “I am Sunni in practice, Shiite in allegiance. My roots are Salafi and my purity is Sufi.” He has often tried to position himself as an ‘international Muslim’, who finds no contradiction between the different Islamic sects but rather a complementarity, believing that this is the best way to appeal to a Western society that has been wary of Islam and its clerics since the September 2001 attacks in the United States. However, his remarks drew criticism from stricter or more orthodox Islamic clerics. Yet Hassoun’s quest to create a unique religious personality for himself stems from the delicate sectarian constituencies of Syrian society, a predominantly Sunni Muslim one that has been governed by an Alawite minority for over 40 years.
Hassoun has been loyal to the regime since his appointment, and given the nature of the regime’s loyalty reward system, it would not have been possible for Hassoun to achieve such a prestigious post without proving his allegiance to the al-Assad clan. Hence, since the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, Hassoun has outspokenly condemned opposition forces, echoing the government’s claim that the unrest is the result of a ‘foreign conspiracy’, and declaring his support for the regime on a regular basis. Due to security threats, al-Assad’s public appearances have dwindled, but he has made sure he attends the yearly Eid al-Fitr prayers alongside his Grand Mufti. The Eid prayers mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and al-Assad’s appearance is often meant to send a message to his opposition and the world that he remains in charge.
Hassoun’s early hostility towards the peaceful protests against the al-Assad regime made him widely reviled by the Syrian opposition and the majority of Sunni Muslim clerics who openly opposed the regime. On 1 October 2011, Hassoun’s 22-year-old son, Saria, was shot and killed near Ibla University, on the Idlib-Aleppo highway. Following his death, Hassoun accused the opposition of being “armed Islamists”, backed and funded by Saudi Arabia. However, al-Arabiya, which had acquired ‘top-secret’ Syrian regime files, broadcast in October 2012 an ‘operational order’, signed by Brigadier Saqr Mannon, head of branch 291 of the air intelligence, special missions section, demanding that Lt. Col. Suhail Hassan murder Hassoun’s son. No proper investigation was conducted into the assassination.
In a highly controversial statement from his son’s eulogy, which was leaked on YouTube, Hassoun threatened Western countries, such as the United States, France and Britain, with sleeper suicide bomber cells that might attack if his country were subject to Western military intervention. He said, “The moment the first [NATO] missile hits Syria, all the sons and daughters of Lebanon and Syria will set out to become martyrdom-seekers in Europe and on Palestinian soil. I say to all of Europe and to the US: we will prepare martyrdom-seekers who are already among you, if you bomb Syria or Lebanon. From now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” At the time this did not make much sense, given that he had accused armed Islamists of assassinating his son, and that a Western military intervention was not openly discussed in Syria before the August 2013 al-Ghouta chemical attack.
After the popular uprising in 2011, Syrian authorities announced a set of reforms in an attempt to placate the increasingly angry demonstrators. However, in an interview with al-Jazeera, Hassoun often referred to “foreign conspiracies” targeting the country and blamed “infiltrators” and “corruptors” for the “strife” in Syrian society. In November 2011, Hassoun spoke to Germany’s Der Spiegel, reiterating his steadfast support for al-Assad’s policies in general, but hinting at the need to criticize some elements of the regime as well. He went on to highlight the social inequality, stressing the need to improve living conditions for the poor while denouncing what he called the “old guards” in the government who are corrupt and must be isolated.
Controversy continued to follow Hassoun when he issued a fatwa (religious ruling) on SANA, Syrian state-owned television, ordering the military to express their rage by exterminating all Syrians in the besieged and divided city of Aleppo. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) called the Grand Mufti’s demands a “deliberate crime”, and noted that thousands of people in Aleppo had been killed as a result of the fatwa.
In October 2016, Hassoun went on a state visit to Baghdad to organize a religious conference between Iraqi and Syrian Sunni clerics on combatting religious extremism. However, he was snubbed, according to an official in the Iraqi Sunni Endowment, proof of his extreme unpopularity among Sunnis in the Arab world.
In December 2016, Hassoun headed a delegation of top Syrian clerics and doctors to Dublin to address the Irish Oireachtas foreign affairs committee. Part of the purpose of the visit, which was condemned by Dr Ali Salim, a senior member of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, was to lobby against European sanctions. Hassoun engaged in heated discussions with members of the committee, often denying that Russian, Iranian and regime forces had committed any atrocities against civilians in Syria. Salim gave a statement to Middle East Eye, saying, “The killers are not only the people who carry guns but also everyone contributing to the process. The Mufti of Syria takes full responsibility for every incident of murder in Syria.”
Most recently, Amnesty International released a chilling investigative report exposing the ‘cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners’ in the Syrian government jail of Saydnaya. An estimated 13,000 people have been systematically hanged over the past five years. According to the report, Hassoun was deputized by al-Assad to approve the executions.