Religion has come to the fore in numerous international conflicts and has, belatedly, been recognized as a significant independent element in conflict analysis. So far, however, this interest has been concentrating on violent religious movements and ideologies. Less attention has been paid to the role of the “men of religion”, the carrier group of religious authority in ordinary times. How do they respond to social and political tension? What role do they play in sectarian escalation? And what, conversely, are their roles and instruments in de-escalating inter-religious dimensions of violent conflict?

Focusing on the Syrian conflict and the religious specialists of the majority Sunni confession, the ulama, this paper investigates the role of some of Syria’s most well-known ulama in 2011–2014, dividing them into positions: some remaining loyal to the regime, some hesitantly abandoning it, some preferring exile and some embracing Jihadism. Combining Weberian perspectives on political legitimacy and religious authority, the paper analyses these ulama’s positions on the crucial issue of the Islamic legitimacy of rule, and their actions in terms of organizational initiatives and religio-political communication (khutbas, fatwas). Demonstrating their various roles in conflict escalation, it surveys their marginalization during the phase of full-scale violent conflict, and discusses their possible role in a later de-escalation phase.