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Syria’s Murshidis developed unique rituals that contributed to the religious diversity of Syrian society despite facing significant challenges.
Youssef M. Sharqawi
The Murshidiyya sect may be the newest religious sect to emerge in Syria. In the 1920s, this religious group emerged from the Syrian coastal mountain range, in particular from the villages bordering Latakia, Hama and Homs. It appeared in this period of Syrian history due to a range of social, economic and political factors.
Over time, the Murshidis developed unique religious practices, rituals and holidays that contributed to the religious diversity of Syrian society. However, they also faced significant challenges, including accusations of heresy and deviating from Islam.
In his book, Glimpses of the Murshidiyya, Nour al-Mudi defines the sect as a religious movement, not a political party. He explains,
It is a purely moral approach to seek God’s mercy. It does not prescribe a specific social or economic system. This ethical approach, inner journey, and rational reasoning stem from a deep connection with God. Murshidiyya involves a personal dialogue and an exaltation of the awakening to life, prioritising the purity of the heart over administrative laws. It embraces everything that contributes to individual perfection and enhances the beauty of the collective while rejecting anything that hinders individual growth and distorts collective beauty. We emphasise the value of each individual as a cherished human being who treasures intellectual enlightenment and inner purity.
The origin of Murshidiyya can be traced back to 1923, during the era of the French Mandate over Syria, when it was founded in the mountainous border region between Latakia and Hama by Salman al-Murshid. Al-Murshid advocated for the elimination of various customs, including freeing the community from the control of religious leaders.
Al-Mudi recounts Salman’s call for equality in 1923. The Mandate government actively opposed Murshidiyya movement once it became aware of its presence: “They perceived it as a progressive religious faction and thus considered it more perilous than other movements due to its potential to gain popularity among the coastal population.”
Recognising the threat posed by the movement, the French authorities chose to exile Salman al-Murshid. “He was later brought back from exile but was eventually executed in 1946 by the central government in Damascus.” His death sentence was issued on charges of “leading a criminal group… with intentions of seizing, looting and extorting money from people. In addition, he and his group resisted the gendarmes with armed force.”
Al-Mudi’s book describes al-Murshid,
He initiated a reform movement at the young age of 18. On 12 July 1923, he successfully united his clan. He actively resisted the French authorities, resulting in his imprisonment for three months, during which he endured torture. Upon his release from prison, Salman al-Murshid advocated for equality and justice among various religious sects and political parties. However, the French authorities decided to exile him due to his strong opposition to Christian missionary activities among Muslims, which were perceived to have hidden political agendas and personal interests. He was exiled from Latakia to Raqqa on foot from 1925 to 1928. Subsequently, he was brought back from exile but placed under house arrest for six years.
Development of Murshidiyya
Abdullah Hanna divides the historical evolution of the Murshidiyya movement into three well-defined phases.
The first phase, from 1923 to 1946, was marked by the establishment of foundational principles under the guidance of Salman al-Murshid, revered as the spiritual creator of the movement.
The second phase, stretching from 1946 to 1951, is often referred to as the “post-Murshid phase.” During this period, the movement encountered significant challenges, notably after the execution of its founder in 1946 and the compulsory exile of Murshid’s children.
The third phase commenced on 25 August 1951, when Mujib Salman – according to some, the true founder of Murshidiyya – concluded his three-year exile and clandestinely initiated what the followers of Murshidiyya call the “new knowledge of God.” This day continues to hold great religious significance for Murshidis and is the sole religious holiday within their tradition.
In his study, The Murshidiyya Sect in Syria, Suleiman al-Ta’an offers an alternative division of the movement’s history. According to al-Ta’an, the first stage spans from 1923 to 1925, representing the rudimentary phase and the emergence of Salman al-Murshid as a figure of extraordinary capabilities.
The second stage, from 1925 to 1932, was marked by secrecy and covert action.
The third stage, stretching from 1932 to 1946, saw the proliferation of the movement’s message and an evolution into a structured organisation under the leadership of al-Murshid.
The fourth stage is characterised by the movement’s waning influence after Salman’s execution and the exile of his sons and several of his followers. During this phase, the movement began to solidify and take shape, marked by the rise of its own distinct terminology, including the term “Murshidi People,” which is still used by its members today.
In the fifth stage, the movement transformed into a religious sect, particularly with the emergence of Mujib Salman who announced the sect’s inception in 1951. Stringent regulations and limitations on the Murshidis persisted until Hafiz al-Assad assumed power, allowing them to practice their rituals freely.
The Murshidis are estimated to number between 300,000 and 500,000. They primarily reside in the governorates of Latakia and Homs, the al-Ghab region in Hama, and Damascus and its countryside. They have a small presence among Syrian immigrants abroad.
Accusations of Heresy
Studies that delve into the history of the Murshidiyya sect are notably absent in Arab writing. According to al-Ta’an, Murshidiyya has remained largely overlooked in contemporary social and political discourse.
He explains, “Historically, the sect was often associated with heresy during the period of national rule until 1963. When the Baath Party assumed power in Syria, there was a public silence regarding sectarian matters, and research on the subject was virtually non-existent in academic circles.”
Al-Ta’an also highlights a common popular misconception that does not distinguish between Murshidiyya, the Alawites and other denominations perceived by Sunni Muslims as heretic traditions.
In the same context, historians face ongoing challenges when trying to access adequate historical documentation related to the history of Syria’s coastal region and its religious movements.
According to writer Mohamed al-Rabeo, political, security and social factors have impeded the acquisition of such documents. He asserts that these factors have repeatedly hindered “the oral collection of the region’s heritage in recent decades, ultimately eliminating the potential for benefiting from this valuable heritage.”
With the exception of al-Mudi’s book, Murshidiyya’s followers have not extensively documented their circumstances or the origins of their community.
However, according to al-Ta’an, the content of al-Mudi’s book primarily serves the purpose of affirming the Murshidis’ commitment to Islam and Arabism. Al-Ta’an describes the book as more focused on providing biographies of the leaders of Murshidiyya rather than delving into its nature.
There are two distinct streams of studies concerning Murshidiyya.
The first characterises it as a peasant movement aimed at resisting the injustices of feudalism. Leading in this perspective is Abdullah Hanna’s book The Murshidiyya in its Alawite Environment and its Political and Social Atmosphere. Ahmed Nihad Sayyaf’s autobiography, A Ray Before Dawn, also contributes to this viewpoint.
The second category of studies approaches Murshidiyya from a religious standpoint. According to al-Ta’an, these studies do not categorise Murshidiyya as a “heretical sect outside of Islam.”
Freedom and Women
According to Syrian researcher Muhammad Ali Abduljalil, Murshidiyya is based on principles “calling for a commitment to morals to attain God’s mercy and approval.”
He further explains, “What sets Murshidiyya apart is its rejection of religious authority. There are no priests, sheikhs, or proselytising within Murshidiyya. Instead, faith is imparted upon the disciple’s request. Central to Murshidiyya is the purity of one’s conscience and the sincerity of intention, making any religious or priestly authority unnecessary to oversee one’s conscience. The emphasis in Murshidiyya is placed on the purity of the heart over strict adherence to Sharia law. Sharia is regarded as temporary and subject to change depending on the context. It is considered advice and nothing more, without the need for a governing body or manager of this advice.”
He continues, “The Murshidis do not judge anyone, nor do they declare anyone pious or a non-believer. The ultimate judge is God. Similarly, no one has the authority to act as a guardian over another individual. All religions and sects represent diverse paths leading to a shared objective, and within each religion, there exists truth, enlightenment and a connection with Islam. No single religion encompasses the entirety of God’s truth. Therefore, it is essential to show respect for all religions. In essence, Murshidiyya is the religion that rekindled the connection between humanity and religion by freeing individuals from religion.”
Murshidiyya centres on “total religious freedom” with a particular emphasis on “women’s freedom.” Based on this principle, “a woman has the right to marry the person of her choice.”
As Syrian writer Walid Badran observes, there is “no hint of coercion” in Murshidiyya’s teachings. “Instead, it advocates for equality between men and women. Murshidi women have the freedom to pursue religious and secular education and possess the autonomy to choose their professions and life partners without any form of pressure or coercion.”
Rituals and Holidays
At present, the Murshidis do not have a formal religious hierarchy or authority. They rely on individuals referred to as mulaqqin or instructors, whose primary role is to teach prayer to Murshidi children who express interest once they reach the age of 14.
According to researcher Karim al-Hani, the prayer involves the individual standing and stating their intention to pray, saying, “O Allah, I intend to pray towards myself,” followed by saying, “Arise, O believer, and pray. Point with your hands to the present. Stand up and call out and raise your hand. You believed and spoke the truth. Glory belongs to God, greatness belongs to God, and power belongs to God.”
All Murshidi devotional practices revolve around prayer and do not have designated locations or times.
Each year, on 25 August, the Murshidis commemorate the “Feast of Joy in God,” which marks the day that Mujib Salman called for Murshidiyya. The celebration lasts three days, and the exchanged greetings often include the phrase “May God congratulate you on your faith,” to which the response is “May God make your life happy.”
Murshidiyya, therefore, remains primarily a moral religious doctrine. Notably, the Murshidis refrain from engaging in missionary work, emphasised in their teachings with the phrase, “It is not our mission to save the world.”