The Grave of Sheikh 'Izz-Id-Din Al-Qassam in Balad Al-Sheykh
Al-Qassam told his disciples that if there
was a shortage of food, the prisoner must be fed even if the
mujahid might go hungry. He told them, "Man is the
brother of man wether he wants it or not", and the disciples
assumed this was a hadith.
In the absence of an Islamic state, al-Qassam appears to have
used the word ijmaa in the sense of a consensus of understanding
between the Muslims and Christian in Palestine.
The Christians were not to be considered as enemies unless they
seceded (kharaja) from this consensus - in other words, betrayed
the Muslims. it would be by such secession and betrayal and
not by the fact of their being Christian that they could be
considered as "the heads of unbelief", wre°referring to verse
IX:12 which concerns those who break their pledges to the Muslims.
This applied to Muslims who seceded and fought the community.
al-Qassam frequently reminded his disciples to treat the Christians
:Land agents for the Jews (Arabs who purchased land in their
own names and then resold it to Jewish buyers) or spies were
considered as those described in verse V:33, who "make war upon
Allah ... and strive after corruption in the land". Al-Qassam
would send a messenger to the offender and warn him to leave
the country, to go to Syria or anywhere else. If the agent or
spy left the country none of the Qassamiyun would harm him but
if he remained and his dealings with the enemy continued and
investigation established his guilt with what the disciples
described as "firm proof", then al-Qassam would order his execution.
Al-Qassam made no demands on his disciples in the way of dress.
He told them the condition of their hearts was more important
than the condition of their cloths,, and he spoke of the flexibility
of Islam (in the context of not imposing the sunna, given the
circumstances of life and combat), citing the example of the
Rashidun Caliph 'Umar who stopped cutting off the hands of the
hands of thieves at the time of a great famine, or of how 'Umar
suspended payment of zakat by new converts to reconcile their
hearts to Islam after the great conquests.
Although Hanifi recalls that one of al-Qassam's favourite sayings
was "the glory of the Muslims in Islamic rule", the Sheikh
spent little time elaborating upon the nature of an Islamic
state, beyond saying, "If we succeed the law of our state will
be from the Quran".
What does emerge are certain apparent social concerns. He believed
it was important to facilitate marriage as a barrier to corruption,
which meant some sort of subsidy to young men who could not
afford the mahr (bride gift) as well as keeping the age of consent
low. Once, when al-Qassam was writing up a marriage contract
he asked all of those attending the ceremony if anyone had a
problem. A young man stood up and said he did not want to transgress
the limits of God and wanted to marry but could not afford the
mahr. al-Qassam promptly took up a collection from among the
other guests for the young man. Al-Qassam also believed that
the state had the responsibility to enable men working in distant
parts of the country to maintain regular contact with their
families, which may reflect his sensitivity to conditions in
Haifa's shanty towns
where many of the migrant workers were separated from their
families left behind in the villages. And there are reports
that he encouraged the fellaheen in the movement to set up cooperatives
among themselves and with their neighbours for growing and distributing
Along with the doctrine of jihad, in its military, ethical and
spiritual dimensions, al-Qassam concentrated on teaching his
followers the importance of secrecy; over and over again he
stressed to them the need for secrecy."46"
In the earliest years, when al-Qassam was prepared to recruit
a follower into the mujahidin he would ask him to grow a beard.
Al-Qassam did not insist that the beard be long, but it was
a form of testing by which he could determine the depth of the
disciple's religious devotion. When a follower decided to grow
a beard, al-Qassam would appear at his house with other bearded
Qassamiyun to "celebrate his decision". After the recitation
of fatiha and other passages from the Quran bearing upon jihad,
the new disciple was congratulated by the company and sweets
were served. Al-Qassam explained to his disciples that the beard
they grew was a symbol of their dedicating themselves to jihad.
"47" In later years this
ceremony was replaced or supplemented by an oath, according
to Abu Is'af, in which the disciple would vow in the Name of
God to tell the truth, to be daring and honest, to observe all
the rituals of Islam and to be a guardian of its doctrines.
The oath was sworn over either a dagger or a pistol placed alongside
the Quran, and the requirement of growing a beard was waived.
But the earliest bearded disciples of the first Haifa circles
were to be known as mashayik, "The Sheikhs", and it was by this
name that the movement first came to the attention of British
and Zionist intelligence."48"
(After al-Qassam's death the mujahidin were to become increasingly
known as the Qassamiyun).
The mujahidin were also instructed to carry a copy of the Quran
with them at all times so they could read and recite the Quran
whenever they found themselves unoccupied. Al-Qassam also encouraged
them to practise dhikr and he gave them simple invocations and
chants to recite when about to perform a mission in the jihad.
What is too easily described as al-Qassam's "recruiting" - observation,
visits, protracted spiritual instruction, continuous indoctrination
in the necessity of secrecy and its practice, and finally the
unveiling of the secret, participation in the jihad against
British rule and Zionist colonisation - was a process that often
took years and can be better understood as initiation into a
neo futuwwa. The accompanying effect of this initiation was
reintegration of the individual (threatened by a modern "proletarianisation")
into a world of moral purpose, ethical standards and religious
As soon as a group of disciples had been formed into a secret
circle alQassam would give them basic military training and
order them to continue to train among themselves. At least one
retired Ottoman officer was recruited by al-Qassam to train
the disciples, contrary to the claim by some of his biographers
that al-Qassam in principle never recruited outside of the working
Al-Qassam was very strict in his training. Abu Is'af descries
his method and the degree of obedience he commanded:
He would take us for training and
shooting lessons and asked us to walk barefoot and he
made us sleep outdoors in the cold weather when we trained
in the mountains. And he was tough on the disciples,
making us go without food or water to be able to endure
hunger and thirst. He would ask us to sleep once or
twice a week at home on the floor on a straw mat and
with a light cover, and he always insisted that we be
secretive about our activities, so we were all in trouble
at home with our wives and family because we counldn't
explain why we were sleeping in this manner and we would
endure this because we were devoted to carrying out
At the same time the disciples were encouraged to return
to their villages outside of Haifa, either on regular visits
or to resume residence, to cultivate the support of their
local mukhtar and to prepare likely recruits for a visit by
al-Qassam. Then al-Qassam would visit the village, accompanied
by the disciple and frequently by other members of his particular
circle in Haifa, and the slow process of preaching, observation,
guidance, military training, eventual initiation of disciples
and the formation of new circles would begin again. At times,
the "Sheikhs", as the members of the oldest Haifa mujahidin
circles were known, ,were authorised to directly initiate
tribesmen and villagers in the countryside to the mujahidin.
By 1923 al-Qassam had secured land in the Beisan
valley and he sent Muhammed Hanifi there to farm in order
to have an eventual source of income to purchase weapons for
the jihad as well as a centre of communication with all parts
of Palestine. In the summer al-Qassam came to Beisan and helped
Hanifi plant his crops; in the winter Hanifi would come to
al-Qassam and together they visited the villages on horseback.
Hanifi served as al-Qassam's deputy and as treasurer of the
mujahidin. He was entrusted by al-Qassam with the contacts
to all of the circles. The head of each was called either
arif or naqib, both titles drawn from the technical
vocabulary of the turuq.
Because the majahidan only knew members of their
own circle, or at most of their parent circle, the numbers
given for the strength of the Qassamiyun in the biographical
accounts vary from 50 to 200 and all were said to be concentrated
in northern Palestine. But according to Hanifi, who visited
all of the circles and arranged the dispatch of communications
from al-Qassam to the arif of each village circle
by courier, the number of trained and initiated mujahidin
was more than a thousand. While the movement was strongest
in the northern districts, Hanifi claims al-Qassam managed
to visit most of Palestine and had disciples and secret circles
throughout most of the countryside, even as far south as Gaza"50"
Although al-Qassam was not particularly successful
in recruiting mujahidin from among the predominantly middle
class members of the Young Men's Muslim Association in Haifa,
his position as President of the YMMA provided him with an
acceptable explanation for his frequent visits to the villages
around Haifa where he was organising branches of the Association
which became, outside of Haifa, the equivalent of a "front"
or "cover" group for the local mujahidan."51"
His appointment in the late 1920's as roving
registrar of weddings for the shari'a court of the greater
Haifa district provided al-Qassam with still greater opportunities
to travel around northern Palestine to meet, observe, and
eventually initiate disciples.
Sometime in the late 1920's al-Qassam visited Haj Amin al-Husseini,
the Mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Supreme Islamic Council
(which was the closest to a self-governing Palestinian authority
tolerated by the British) and requested an appointment as
a roving preacher for the Council. This would have provided
al-Qassam with an opportunity to travel the length of Palestine
and with an acceptable explanation to the authorities for
such travel. But Haj Amin never responded to the request and
Hanifi credits al-(Zassam's coolness towards Haj Amin to this
incident, which predates a more widely reported incident in
which al-Qassam informed Haj Amin of his preparations for
jihad and asked Haj Amin to lead the struggle in central Palestine.
Haj Amin refused, saying he believed the problem could be
solved by political means according to Subhi b'asin's version,
or because the timing was premature, according to Abu Ibrahim
AI-(Za:.~sam's position as President of the
YMMA provided him access to the notables and with still closer
relations to the younger and more radical Arab nationalists
from the modern educated classes who were to coalesce around
the Istiqlal Party, which was a Palestinian inheritance of
the aborted Arab national movement in Syria. These relationships
protected al-Qassam, for while the Istiqlal were radical in
comparison to the traditional parties of the big families,
they were nevertheless profoundly respectable. His closest
professional associate in the Istiqlal was the Haifa banker
Rashid Haj Ibrahim, a leading figure in the charitable society
Jamiat al-Islamiya and the founder and first president of
the Young Men's Muslim Association in Haifa. Such men could
never be associated with the Bedouin, village fellahin or
landless farm workers involved in the sporadic acts of violence
against Jewish settlements from the late 1920's on. Although
it is precisely in this milieu that al-Qassam found his first
followers, his professional association with the notables
and young professional men were such that neither his public
preaching of jihad nor his peculiar working class following
were to be taken with sufficient seriousness by either British
intelligence or his Arab nationalist acquaintances. But his
public preaching of jihad so disturbed the British authorities
that he was picked up and interrogated on at least one occasion
(one informant reports four such occasions) and warned not
to be so provocative. Rashid Haj Ibrahim also appealed to
al-Qassam on several occasions to moderate his sermons since
it was becoming increasingly difficult for Haj Ibrahim to
persuade the British not to arrest the Sheikh.
Although the Istiqlal was a loosely organised, non-sectarian
party focussed upon secular Arab rather than Islamic identity
in its nationalism, the party was sufficiently close in time
to the salifiya origins of much of its inspiration and is
association between Arabism and Islam for any but the most
hardened secularist not to colour its Arab nationalism with
an Islamic rhetoric that employed such phrases as Jihad and
This vague approximation of rhetorical style was reinforced
by the one basic political position shared by the Istiqlal
and al-Qassam, that opposition to the Zionist colonisation
of Palestine could not be separated from opposition to the
British occupation since Zionist settlement was only possible
by virtue of British protection. This was in contrast to the
prevailing strategy among all the big-family parties, be they
"moderate" or nationalist, to work politically by a mixture
of cooperation and principled protest for a realignment of
British policy in favour of the Arabs that would halt further
Zionist encroachment on Palestine.
Al-Qassam identity of view with the Istiqlal was limited to
this one point, but from the perspective of Palestinian politics
and their subsequent interpretation as secular history, that
identity of view was not only profound but inescapable reinforced
by al-Qassam's continuous denunciation of the British in his
sermons and less formal public talks. But al-Qassam shared
this perspective with whoever else held it, and as late as
November 2, 1935, the Palestine Post reports al-Qassam sharing
the platform at a Haifa rally condemning Balfour Day with
Jamal al-Husseini, leader of the Arab Party, rather than in
Nablus for the big Istiqlal rally organised by Akram Zu'ayter.
These associations were such that Akram Zu'ayter,
the leader at that time of the Istiqlal in Nablus, believed
that al-Qassam was a member of the Haifa branch of the party
and describes him as such when entering the news of of al-Qassam's
death into his diary."54"
The same claim occurs in the history of the Palestinian struggle
written by Izzat Darwaza, who was senior leader of the Istiqlal,
and it has been repeated in all the subsequent biographical
accounts of al-Qassam."55"
However, all of the Qassamiyun informants interviewed in this
study deny that al-Qassam belonged to any party. Still more
significant, Darwaza has acknowledged this confusion and his
subsequent account is that al-Qassam sympathised with the
Istiqlal and was closely associated with its Haifa leadership
but that he was never a member.
Nor is this a uniquely Istiqlal phenomenon; rather, it is
that the Istiqlal claim is the most creditable. Al-Qassam
has also been claimed posthamously by the partisans of Haj
Amin Husseini as a member of the Arab Higher Committee and
a close associate of the Mufti.
Haganah Intelligence, in its own jaundiced manner but without
any vested self-image at stake, could clearly see decisive
factors at work that seem so difficult of discernment or acknowledgment
by many of al-Qassam's Arab biographers: ". . . contrary
to the general national movement .. . the organisation had
a prominent Islamic stamp. The Sheikh was an old-fashioned
fanatic of Islam ... Everyone who entered the organisation
swore a purely religious oath".
With the passage of time and distance - geographic, spiritual
and ideological - the claims on behalf of al-Qassam became
Ghassan Kanafani's appreciation of al-Qassam in his study
analysis of the 1936 Uprising nearly sums up in entirety the
understanding of a new generation. Al-Qassam's Syrian birth
(which Kanafani refers to as "his Syrianism", "represents
the Arab nationalist factor in the battle". Al-(Zassam's status
as an Azhari "represents the religious-nationalist factor
represented by A1 Azhar at the beginning of the century".
It must be assumed that Kanafani is referring either to the
modernist Islamic nationalism of al-Afghani or the salifiya
school of Rashid Rida, both of which were currents of thought
opposed overwhelmingly in their time by the consensus of A1
Azhar. Al-(Zassam is no longer a mujahid; he is now, in these
later interpretations, a munadal, freedom fighter.
Kanafani's account must be slightly amended to incorporate
additional nuances. Among the secular reconstructionists,
for Shawki Khayrallah for example (who is perhaps the most
dedicated admirer of al-Qassam), the Sheikh is the prototype
of the Syrian nationalist revolutionary."56"
For the Popular Democratic Front he was the prototype of the
Leninist militant, "preaching the idea of armed revolution
in the ranks of the workers and in the rural areas", "57"
an idea already echoed by earlier treatments (and denied by
his disciples) that he excluded anyone outside the ranks of
the working classes from the mujahidin.
Al-Qwssam is that rarity in the modern Muslim world, an enduring
but relatively contemporary hero, and perhaps a uniquely contemporary
hero who lacks a literature of his own. This makes al-Qassam
particularly vulnerable to the same process of political appropriation
that to a lesser degree threatens all heroes.
But there is more here than the political misuses of history,
and the corruption of thought. There is a process at work
in al-Qassam's life that is, by its nature, difficult to recognise
even by the most sympathetic of eulogists within the Arab
national movement. Ahmed Shukeiry writes very movingly about
his attempt as a young nationalist lawyer to defend the Qassamiyun
survivors of the battle of Ya'bud and how struck he was by
the calm and composure with which they awaited their trial.
Shukeiry, the political lawyer looking for a defence suggests
that the Qassamiyun had been tortured or coerced into making
a full confession. But no, they had acknowledged their participation
in the battle freely. He asks the Qassamiyun what he can say
to the court. "Tell them we are mujahidin fi-L sabil Allah
and nothing will affect us except by the Will of God", they
replied. Shukiery, who was deeply touched by this experience,
admits that he had met al-Qassam many times at YMMA conventions
in Haifa, knew him very well and admired him as a man of piety
and as a good orator, "but it had never occurred to me or
to others, even among his close friends, that he was preparing
himself for an armed revolt directly against the British authorities"."58"
Akram Zu'ayter makes a similar remark in almost identical
And even Shawish, whose archives contain much of this unpublished
history of al-Qassam, saw the product of the process begun
by al-Qassam as "profound piety but without knowledge", which
led to what Shawish thought of as naive errors on the part
of the mujahidin, such as refusing to take food from the fellaheen
if not offered to them (the Qassamiyun would not ask for food),
or telling the truth to their enemies about their objectives,
not realising, as the 'ulama do, that "war is a deceit"."59"
But from the perspective of a spiritual chivalry, of their
Quranic sense of shahid as "witnesses against mankind",
and their imitiation of a Prophet who "makes the Truth victorious
by the Truth","60" their
behaviour was impeccable.
If al-Qassam and the products of his effort seem to defy even
the best intentioned modern Muslim thinkers, it is because
his life and thought - dedicated to jihad in all of
its dimensions - transcended the identity systems and contradictions
of modern Islamic political thought. But he was capable of
waging jihad in the contemporary milieu because he
was able to absorb whatever of these conflicting schools filtered
through his own traditional orthodox conscience, applying
what he understood as compatible with orthodox Islam and rejecting
what he understood was not.
Al-Qassam -- moving among jealous effendis, decadent 'ulama,
and worldy religious reformers, a secret presence in the shacks
of railroad porters and stone masons in the oil, cotton and
cleaning rod painstaking ugliness of his treasured light machine
guns - experienced by the vehicle of those spiritual virtues
that he dlisciples perfected so earnestly, an opening into
their tawdry and doomed natural world for the presence of
the supernatural. This, by his own doctrine, was his greatest
and only enduring triumph and it is precisely this triumph
that has been denied him by his modern biographers.
46) Abu Is'af (private interview, February 1974), a young
disciple of al-Qassam and a leader in the 1938-39 uprising. AI-Qassam's
stress on secrecy is also emphasised by Hanifi, Sursawi, Abu Ibrahim
yearly all of the published biographical sketches.
47) Sursawi, who described in detail his father's initiation
into the mujahidin, or Qassamiyun, as they came to be known after
the Sheikh's death.
48) Tegart Papers, DS 1262; Shabtai Teveth, Moshe Dayan
(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972), p.70
49) Sheikh Ferhan Saad, a member of the Saadi tribe, initiated
a number of his clansmen and they all grew beards, according to
50) Abu Is'af makes a similar claim in his letter to Shu'un
Filastiniya, No. 7 (March 1972), p.10, signed "Ibrahim Sheikh
Khalid". Muhammed al-Qassam, who was only seven years old at the
time of his father's death,, reports in corroboration that in
the years following the uprising he received many visitors who
came from all parts of Palestine and who told him they were disciples
of his father. He also claims his father told him there was "no
place in Palestine" where there was not a secret circle of Qassamiyun.
The Tegart Papers (see Hope ftnt. 359) would tend to vindicate
51) Tegart Papers, "Confession of Mustapha Ali Ahmed",
May 29 1933. The Saffouria "secret society" met at the local YMMA.
52) Subhi Yasin, Al thawra al- arabiyya al-kubra ft falastin,
1936-1939 (Damascus: Dar al Hind, 1959), p.23. Yasin is referred
to by Kayyali (p. 180) as a "Qassamite". This was denied by Abu
Ibrahim al-Kabir and Abu Is'af, who described Yasin as an Arab
nationalist writer who inter- viewed a number of surviving Qassamiyun
and "distorted much of what they said", which would tend, along
with historic experience, to confirm Ibrahim al-Kabir's version
of the incident.
53) Palestine Post, "Arabs Denounce Britain and Jews",p.1.
54) Zu'ayter Papers, Vol.7 entry 20/11/1935.
55) ssMuhammed 'Izzat Danvaza, Haul al-haraka al-arabiya
al-haditha (Sidon: .11 Jlaktaba al-asriya, n.d.), p. 116. Kayyali,
op. cit., p. 322; Ghneim, op. cat., p. 188.
56) Shawki Khayrallah, .-lt-tariq ila al-Qudr (Beirut:
the author, 1972), pp. I3-I `I; and private interview, Beirut,
57) [Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine]
Malanih tatwur an-nidal al-filastini (Beirut: Dirasat Filistiniya
58) Ahmed Shukeiry, Arbaoun sennatin fil hayat al-arabiya
w'al-dawliyah (Beirut: Dar al Nahar, 1969), pp. 140-141.
59) The hadith quoted by Shawish can also be rendered,
"war is a stratagem". "Naive" is not a proper description for
men who had maintained such extraordinary secrecy despite joint
attempts by the British CID and the Haganah Intelligence to penetrate
the movement (see Dinur). They obvious- ly understood they were
under no obligation to be truthful to the "enemies of God", Who
is the Truth. Shawish also criticised the Qassamiyun for their
hasty execution of village headmen found guilty of collaboration.
But their particular con- cept of ijmaa in which a Muslim is condemned
only for his political disloyalty to the community (in- terestingly,
not declared apostate by virtue of doctrine, as in the khawaridj,
or neo-khawaridj tendency) is much more in conformity with tradi-
tional orthodox practice than the tafkir tendencies within modern
60) From the wird of the Tijaniya, saint al Path: " `Oh
God, bless our master Muhammed, who opened what had been closed,
and who is the seal of what had gone before; he who makes the
Truth victorious by the Truth, the guide to Thy straight path,
and bless his household as is the due of his immense position
and grandeur"'. (Abu Nast, The Tijaniya, p. 51).
The Islamic Quarterly, London
Second Quarter 1979