It has become common for Syria’s opposition to blame the government of President Bashar al-Assad for explosions that hit residential areas in Damascus. The latest blast – in a mosque that killed the country’s top cleric, Sheikh Mohammad al-Bouti, his grandson, and 40 others – was no different.
Dissidents, including the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, have alleged al-Bouti, a vocal supporter of Assad, was assassinated this week by regime insiders. Many believe he had been on the verge of announcing his defection.
Al-Bouti’s daughter, Sumayya, however, said that her father could not have changed his position. She said those who killed him were “unjust” and “criminal” – but refused to say who she thought might have been responsible for his death.
|Thousands of people gathered in Damascus for the funeral of al-Bouti, killed in a mosque on Thursday [AFP]|
“My father’s position is clear. It was based on conviction and religious texts. He believed one should not disobey [the ruler]. Disobeying may lead to strife and strife would lead to a cycle of more disorder,” she said, speaking from Saudi Arabia.
Since the early days of the uprising, which started in March 2011, al-Bouti had dismissed anti-government protesters as a bunch of mercenaries and saluted the Syrian Army in its fight against Assad’s enemies.
Sumayya said her father believed that changing reality required patience.
“He preached for patience and advocacy, rather than violence and bloodshed,” said the 52-year-old.
“In his writings, he spoke of many examples where change took place after a lot of patience, like in India.”
The cleric had influence over the affluent Sunni Muslims in Damascus and is credited for keeping them away from the violence of the protest movement.
Al-Bouti was considered one of the most influential Muslim scholars in the world. He wrote more than sixty books on various Islamic issues, and was considered an important scholar of Sufism.
Following the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the 1970s and the brutal crackdown upon armed fighters and thousands of civilians by President Hafez al-Assad in the early 1980s, the regime encouraged a more moderate interpretation of Islam based on Sufism, which focuses on rites and rituals rather than political governance.
“He attended meetings with officials to advise them, not to be photographed with them“
– Sumayya al-Bouti
In the early 1990s, al-Bouti became a highly reputable figure among Syrians. He appeared on state television twice a week and his mosque lectures were attended by thousands.
But in 2011, many Syrians, including some of al-Bouti’s students, found Assad’s crackdown on protests too brutal to justify and accused the cleric of legitimising the regime’s military campaign against rebellious towns.
His daughter said al-Bouti was aware that some people saw his support for Assad as “hypocrisy” and “power hungry”.
“He disregarded them. He lived by the saying of Prophet Mohammad: ‘Whoever seeks Allah’s pleasure at the expense of men’s displeasure, will win Allah’s pleasure and Allah will cause men to be pleased with him.'”
“My father used to say to us: ‘If I really was after power and wealth then I would have pursued them when I was young. Not now, when I am 84.'”
Al-Bouti wanted reform. He believed it was his duty to advise both officials and the public at large.
“He attended meetings with officials to advise them, not to be photographed with them,” Sumayya said.
‘Scent of heaven’
When asked what he had advised Assad, she said: “He never told us. He is not the kind of person who would tell people about discussions that take place in private gatherings.”
Sumayya is al-Bouti’s only daughter. He has six sons. Several rumours have emerged on social media regarding possible defections within the al-Bouti family. Sumayya said there was no defection – “thank Allah”, she said – but there have been “discussions” within the family.
“My father used to be bothered by some of the discussions that took place. He had expected that doubt be raised by strangers but not by those close to him. He expected his children would have more knowledge than others,” she said.
What united the siblings, however, was a shared fear for the life of their father. Sumayya recalled her father saying that security guards would not make a difference, because everything happened “with Allah’s will and permission”.
“Whenever we felt scared, we felt the need to be around him and talk to him because he made us feel safe. He had so much tranquility in his heart.”
Al-Bouti told his children that what was happening in the country was a crisis that would eventually end, but he felt that the day of his death would come first.
“He told us to take care of each other,” said Sumayya. “He said that could smell the scent of heaven.”
Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @Basma_