Jawdat Said, a Syrian Islamic thinker, author and proponent of non-violence who opposed the fanaticism of some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideologues, died in exile in Turkey on Sunday. He was 90.
His death leaves a centrist gap in a fragmented Syria, with the country divided between the Alawite-dominated government, Marxist-Leninist Kurdish militias in the north-east and Al Qaeda-linked groups in the north-west.
Said died from Covid-19, Syrian opposition figure Ahmed Tumeh, a disciple of Said, said by phone from Istanbul.
Mr Tumeh said that as soon as the Syrian revolt against five decades of Assad family rule broke out in March 2011, Said called for peaceful resistance regardless of the brutality many expected from the regime.
“Be forewarned, he told us from day one, do not take up arms,” Mr Tumeh said.
The revolt became an armed struggle by the end of 2011. The government's response to the mostly Sunni protest movement had toughened by then, and Sunni soldiers began to defect from the military, forming the western and Arab-backed Free Syrian Army.
Militant groups, particularly the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, came to dominate armed opposition to the government, providing a rationale for Russian intervention on the side of the regime in 2015.
“Sheikh Jawdat recognised early on in his life on the need to set weapons aside in favour of the power of ideas, and critically think about our ideological heritage,” Mr Tumeh said.
“He was convinced that democracy is the best of what humanity has produced, and that it does not contradict with Islam."
Said was fond of telling the biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel and how Abel declined to use violence even though his brother was bent on killing him.
The Egyptian-educated Said rose to prominence in the 1960s as one of the most vocal scholars to challenge Sayyed Qutb, a radical preacher who advocated an Islamic state by violent means if necessary.
Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had Qutb hanged in 1966 for a plot against the government. Qutb remains a revered figure for many in the Brotherhood.
Said graduated from the University of Al Azhar in the late 1950s and returned to Syria shortly afterwards as political turmoil shook the country.
By 1963, mostly Alawite officers had seized power. In 1970, Hafez Al Assad wrested control from a fellow officer, ushering in his dynastic rule.
In 1982, government forces killed thousands of people in the central city of Hama, in a crackdown on a revolt led by an armed group within the Brotherhood.
Said's credentials as an anti-Brotherhood figure helped him to survive as an independent figure.
In 2003, the regime jailed a dozen of his pupils in the neglected Damascus suburb of Daraya, after Said organised them to set up a public library and begin cleaning the streets.
After the 2011 revolt, followers of Said established a form of self-rule in Daraya, which was developed in other areas that escaped the control of the regime.
Independent judges presided over the courts and a civilian administration ran the suburbs.
"If the Syrian revolt succeeds through arms we will be ruled by the same [violent system] we have had since Muawiya 1,400 years ago," Said said as the revolt began.
He was referring to the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, who ruled by the sword and died from illness in Damascus in 680 AD.
"Democracy does not come into a country unless all the factions agree not to carry arms and resort to the ballot box. This is common sense," Said said.
But even some of Said's most loyal followers took up arms, becoming the core of the rebel force that controlled Daraya until it surrendered to the regime in a Russian supervised deal in 2016.