80% of Syria’s population are Muslims and around 15% are Christians. Most Muslims (70%) are Sunnis, the rest are more fundamentalist Shiites. They include Alawites (Prisident Assad’s denomination), Imamites and Druzes. Christians are as varied, with most faiths belonging to more eastern Christianity. Some groups recognise the Pope as their leader, these are Melkites, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics and Maronites. Others do not, such as the Greek and Syrian Orthodox orders, Armenian Apostolics or the Jacobites.
Islam: The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission to God’. The core belief is in the one indivisible god Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet. Allah revealed his words to Mohammed in the 7th century via the angel Gabriel. The revelations were written down to form the Muslim holy book, the Koran. For centuries the sharia, the holy Islamic laws based on the Koran, dictated justice and education in Islamic countries. There are five sacred duties which all Muslims must fulfil, the so-called five pillars of Islam. These are:
- Shahada: The declaration of the religion’s core principle; ‘There is no god other than Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’.
- Salat: Prayer, which every Muslim must say five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Face, hands and feet must be washed before prayer. The prayers and movements are fixed, and prayer in a mosque is compulsory for men on Friday afternoon. People are called to prayer from towers everyday, and these towers are everywhere on the landscape.
- Zakat: The giving of alms to the poor. These days, this is not as common as in earlier times.
- Sawm: Fasting throughout the month of Ramadan. It is not permitted to eat, drink, smoke or have sex from sunrise to sunset.
- Hijrah: Pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina. Every Muslim must do this once in their lives, as long as finances and health permit.
The consumption of pork or alcohol is not permitted by Islam. The religion also has a tendency to separate the sexes. In some restaurants it seems as if only men are allowed to dine, but if you ask the proprietor then he might show you the ‘family room’, where women are also allowed.
Christianity: The majority of Christians in these two countries are members of the Greek Orthodox order, but there are Greek Catholics, a small Roman Catholic community, and Syrian, Koptish and Armenian Orthodox orders.