The Life and Thought of ‘Izz-Id-Din al-Qassam – Part Four

Al-Qassam (left). The Grave of Sheikh ‘Izz-Id-Din Al-Qassam in Balad Al-Sheykh (right)

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 with dignity.

: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 their crops.

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 culture.

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 classes.

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 his orders.

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. “49”

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 al-Kabir. “52”

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 sabil Allah.

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. “53”

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 more extraordinary.

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 words.

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.


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
 Sheikh Ferhan Saad, a member of the Saadi tribe, initiated a number of his clansmen and they all grew beards, according to Sursawi.
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 this claim.
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, September, 1973.
57) [Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] Malanih tatwur an-nidal al-filastini (Beirut: Dirasat Filistiniya 1, n.d.).
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 fundamentalist movements.
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