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

Consider ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam as a man of many facets, as a living rebuttal of the schematic division of Islam; of `Sufi indifference to activism’, or `salifiyya indifference to dhikr’. Consider ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam in terms of the reintegration of the Modern Muslim Personality.


On November 21, 1935 a three-column wide front-page headline in the Jerusalem Post announced that a British constable had been killed and another injured in a battle with Arab gunmen near Jenin. The gunmen were described as “bandits” and “brigands” in the headline and in the body- of the story.“1”

According to the official statement issued by the British authorities and quoted in full by the Post: “Among the bandits known to have been killed were: Sheikh Izz-ed-Din al Qassam . . . who disappeared from his house in Haifa early this month and was the organiser of the band”. “2”

Both British and Zionist intelligence circles were in fact better informed. They knew Sheikh ‘Izz-ed-Din was the President of the Young Men’s Moslem Association, a popular khatib (preacher) at the Istiqlal mosque near the Haifa railroad yards, and a roving mathun (marriage registrar) for the Haifa shari’a court. Al-Qassam had been under surveillance, had been brought in for questioning, and had been cautioned against his habit of publicly preaching jihad against both the British occupation and the Zionist colonisation over the preceding decade. He was also suspected of having organised a series of clandestine armed attacks against Jewish settlers and British officials in and around Haifa beginning in the early 1930’s, but the authorities did not prosecute him, for lack of evidence.“3”

Al-Qassam however was convinced that his arrest was imminent and could jeopardise the secret organisation he had carefully built over the previous decade. Taking only twelve of the men in Haifa most openly identified with him, he moved up into the mountains near Ya’bud between Nablus and Jenin early in November. After one of his patrols had killed a Jewish policeman serving in the British force in an accidental encounter, he divided his group to better evade the inevitable pursuit.

But al-Qassam’s group was discovered and surrounded by a large force of British police and soldiers. Called upon to surrender, al-Qassam told his men to die as martyrs and he opened fire. AI-Qassam’s defiance and the manner of his death (which seemed to stun the traditional leadership) electrified the Palestinian people. Thousands forced their way past police lines at the funeral in Haifa and the secular Arab nationalist parties envoked his memory as the symbol of resistance. Five months later, a band of mujahidin, led by one of

al-Qassam’s companions in the flight from Haifa, ambushed a group of Jewish travellers in northern Palestine. In the weeks that followed, peasant guerilla bands and urban commandos led by other Qassamiyun sprang up across Palestine. The 1936 Uprising had begun.“4”

Izz-ed-Din Ibn Abdul-Qadar Ibn Mustapha Ibn Yusuf Ibn Muhammed al-Qassam was born in Jebla in the Latakia district of Syria in 1882 (1300 AH).“5” 

His grandfather and grand-uncle were prominent sheikhs of the Qadari tariqa who came to jebla from Iraq. His father, Abdul Qadar, held a post with the shari’s court during Turkish rule but was better known as the murshid of the Qadari tariqa in Jebla.“6” 

However, Sheikh Abdul-Malik al-Qassam, nephew of al-Qassam and the Imam of a mosque in Jebla, says that Abdul Qadar also followed the Naqshabandiya tariqa, which was to play a noticeably militant role in resisting colonial conquest in 19th century Syria, as well as in India, Turkestan and in the Caucasus, while reaffirming the Shari’a orthodoxy of the turuq. “7”

Al-Qassam, who followed the Hanifi school of juris-prudence, studied as a boy with a well-known `alien from Beirut, Sheikh Selim Tayyarah, who had settled in Jebla and taught there at the Istambuli Mosque. Shortly after the turn of the century, al-(Zassam left Jebla for Cairo to study at Al Azhar.“8”

According to some of his Arab biographers as well as some of his disciples and acquaintances in Haifa, al-Qassam studied under Sheikh Muhammed `Abdu while he was at Al Azhar. The extent of his study with `Abdu at Al Azhar is as indeterminate as the date of his departure from Jebla for Cairo. All reports agree he returned as an ‘alien from A1 Azhar in 1909. ‘Abdu died in 1905, and al-Qassam left Jebla for A1 Azhar either in 1902“9” or in 1904.“10” However significant the experience, it is given prominence in many of the contemporary Arab biographical sketches of al-Qassam, to the exclusion of any of the other more certain influences upon his life.“11”

His oldest follower, Muhammed Hanifi, who became al-Qassam’s disciple a few years after the Sheikh’s return from AI Azhar, confirms reports of his study with ‘Abdu, and says the Sheikh also talked of having met Rashid Rida in Cairo, but never mentioned al-Afghani to him in any context that he could recall.
Yet the two accounts which are directly based on the recollections of ‘Izz-id-Din ‘Alam-id-Din at-Tanukhi, al-Qassam’s classmate and close friend at Al Azhar, make no mention of al-Qassam studying or meeting with either ‘Abdu or Rida“12”.

AI-Qassam first met and befriended at-Tanukhi, the son of a Damascus notable, at A1 Azhar. Many years later, after the death of al-Qassam, he was to tell al-Qassam’s son Muhammed of the lesson he learned from the Sheikh. “We were studying in Al Azhar together and we were short of money. I asked the Sheikh, `What do we do now for funds?”‘ The Sheikh asked atTanukhi what he could do and at-Tanukhi said he could cook nammourah, an Arab sweet. Al-Qassam told at-Tanukhi to cook the sweets and he would sell them. At-Tanukhi’s father was visiting Cairo at the time and passing by Al Azhar he saw them together selling the sweets and asked his son what he was doing. At-Tanukhi answered with some embarrassment, “This is what al-Qassam told me to do”, and his father replied, “He taught you to be self-sufficient”.“13” 

The story is instructive for it is the earliest of many anecdotes in which Qassam practises and encourages the practice of self-sufficiency as one of the moral elements along with humility, courage, and asceticism for training in thabit (steadfastness) which was also understood by his disciples to mean the willingness to sacrifice and the practice of moral-ethical behaviour.

While many of the anecdotes reflect the zuhd (ascetic) practices and training methods of the earliest Sufis, they were also understood by some of his disciples in an almost al-Afghani sense of “willingness to sacrifice for the cause .“13” al-Qassam was sensitive to what he perceived as the backwardness and moral debasement of the Muslims of his day and he believed that the only way the Muslims could liberate themselves from the foreign occupation (that was to become all but universal after World War One) and to progress (tagaddum ) would be by the revival of Islam.“14”.

When al-Qassam returned to Jebla he began teaching at a school maintained the Qadari tariga. In addition to the disciplines of tasawwuf, al-Qassam ded instruction in Quran, its commentary and jurisprudence. He also served as Imam at the Ibrahim Ibn Adham mosque in Jebla.“15” al-Qassam still considered himself a follower of the Qadari tariqa.“16” But when he returned to Jebla to visit the tombs of his father, grandfather and grand uncle.“17”
Perhaps this is what the salifi Sheikh at-Tantawi (or his source, at-Tanukhi) -neans when he writes that al-Qassam “took the useful and good things in it [the Qadari tariga] and what was derived from the Quran and the Sunna and left what aroused his suspicion”.“16”

Al-Qassam undertook an Islamic revival in Jebla based upon the conscientious practice of religious obligations and orthodox voluntary practices. To illustrate the theme of one of his sermons, that the Muslim who does not pray ;: a dead man (which suggests as its text the hadith, “He who remembers His I-ord and he who does not are like the living and the dead”.),” he encouraged his disciples to grab a villager who did not pray, put him in a coffin, and carry him around Jebla.“18”

The incident also illustrates how al-Qassam’s insistence on piety was accompanied by good humour. His disciples, members of his family and acquaintances describe al-Qassam as a man who was always smiling or laughing. Sheikh Nimr, who was a student of al-Qassam’s in Haifa, describes him as “an intensely active man but with a child-like charm. He laughed like a child, spoke with the simplicity of a child and was a warm and impulsive person”. His family attributed his good humour to a complete trust and confidence in God. “At the worst times he would always laugh and tell us not to worry”.“19”One story that still circulates in Jebla is how an important official came to the town to meet al-Qassam, only to find him, to his great shock, eating a simple lunch with the fireman at the communal hamaam (public bath).“20” Similar stories circulate about his later life in Haifa, where he lived simply and with the poor in a society rapidly dividing along the strict class lines of a modern industrial city, although he was a salaried official of the waqf. ‘Izzat Darwaza, a leader of the Istiqlal Party, who met al-Qassam several times during this later period in his life, described him in this manner:

His face was illuminated by an inner light. He was a man lacking in arrogance or selflove. He was open and available to all of the people and the people loved him. And he lived the life of a mujahid.“21”

Al-Qassam devoted himself to moral reform, encouraging the community to keep regular prayer, to maintain the Ramadan fast, and to stop gambling and drinking. His campaign was so successful that those among the townspeople who were not noticeably pious either reformed or began to conform to shari’a standards in public. Because al-Qassam had acquired moral authority with the Turkish authorities responsible for the district, he was able to call upon the police in the case of rare but flagrant violations to enforce Shari’a standards within the town. On a few occasions when he heard that mule trains were moving alcohol through the district he sent out his disciples to intercept the caravans and destroy the contraband.“22”

The religious revival in Jebla reached such a point that the women would go out into the market unveiled on Friday at noon, certain they would encounter no man on the streets, since every male in Jebla was at prayer. “23”

The family of his classmate at-Tanukhi had been exiled to Turkey by the Ottoman authorities for suspected Arab nationalist activities and by this time at-Tanukhi was studying in Paris. When at-Tanukhi’s mother died, al-Qassam travelled to Turkcy to visit the family and according to Hanafi, he took over the responsibility of sending at-Tanukhi money to continue his studies.

But there are no indications that al-Qassam himself was ever involved in the anti-Ottoman Arab national movement. His behaviour and the Turkish assessment would indicate that he was a loyal subject. In September 1911 the Italians invaded Tripolitania (Libya). Al-Qassam began to preach jihad, took up a collection in Jebla to support the combined Turkish-Libyan forces fighting the Italians, and composed a chant for the townspeople:

Ya Rahim, Ya Rahman
Unsur Maulana as-Sultan
Wa ksur a’ada ita al-Italiyan
(Oh Most Merciful, Oh Most Compassionate
Make our Lord the Sultan victorious
And defeat our enemy the Italian .)“23”

The governor of Jebla attempted to take control of the fund raising away from al-Qassam; when the townspeople continued to contribute to al-Qassam, the governor accused the Sheikh of plotting against the Ottomans, but an official investigation vindicated al-Qassam and resulted in the discharge of the local governor.
Exonerated by the authorities, al-Qassam soon became convinced that fund raising for the jihad against Italy was not sufficient. In June 1912, while preaching the Friday sermon at Jama’at as-Sultan Ibrahim al-Adham mosque in Jebla, al-Qassam called for volunteers for jihad against the Italians. Many twonsmen volunteered, but he only accepted those who already had military training with the Ottomans, and he again raised funds to finance the expedition and to provide a modest pension to the families of the mujahidan during their absence. Accompanied by anywhere from 60 to 250 mujahidin,“24” al-Qassam went to Alexandretta (Iskandarun), expecting the Ottoman authorities to provide them with sea transport to Libya via Alexandria, the same route used by Anwar Pasha, Aziz al-Masri and Abdul Rahman Azzam, who had already made their way to Libya to participate in the jihad against the Italians in Tripolitania.

At the time, the Jerusalem Post was a privately owned Jewish newspaper in Palestine that reflected the opinion of the moderate wing of the Zionist movement in Palestine.
2) Ibid., Nov. 21, 1935.
3) Tegart Papers, Reports 1937-1939 (copy available at the Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut), Memo 17/12/37, pp.2-4, 7-8. Ben-Zion Dinur, ed. Seser Toldot Ha-Haganah, Vol.1, Book 2 (Tel Aviv: Marachot, 1956), pp. 449-453. A detailed if somewhat confused and exaggerated account of some of these same early operations appear in Adel Hassan Ghneim, “Thawrat al-Sheikh Izz-id-Din al-Qassam”, Shu’un Filastiniya, No. 6 (Jan. 1972), pp. 183-184. Also, see the generally accurate summary of al-Qassam’s public life and appreciation of his political achievements in A.W. Kayyali, Palestine: A Modern History (London: Croom Helm, n.d.), pp. 180-183, 229-230.
4) Tegart Papers, “Memo: Terrorism 1936-1937”, pp.iv-v (“… the old followers of Sheikh ‘Izzedin were no doubt the nucleus of the [1936] rebel organisation. …”, united report on ‘Izzid-id-Din al-Qassam, DS 1262, pp.1-6. Dinur, op. cite. pp. 467-469. Zu’ayter Papers, Vol.7, diary entire, 20/11-, 21/11-, 8/12-, 9/12/1935 (n.p.). Kayyali, op. cit., pp. 180-198. Also, Sheikh Abu: Ibrahim al-Kabir Khalil Mohammed, private interview, amman, March 1974 (hereafter referred to as Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir). A small shopkeeper and in his seventies at the time of the interview, he had assumed command of the Haifa section of the Qassamiyun immediately upon the death of the Sheikh.
5) ‘According to biographical data on al-Qassamin the personal archives of Zuhayr Shawish (Shawish Papers, and private interview, Beirut, March 1974). Al-Qassam’s full name is Mohammed ‘Izzid-Din Bin Abdul Qadar Bin Mustapha al-Qassam. A similar version, but lacking “Bin Mustapha” occurs in the unpublished Mss. of Sheikh Mohammed Said Mustapha at-Tantawi, “AI-Alaam alIslam”, Ch. 23, p. 1. Both Shawish and at-Tantawi(private interview, Mecca, Nov.1976) cite as their mainsource of information ‘Izz-id-Din ‘Alam-id-Din at-Tanukhi ad-Damashqi, who was a close companion of al-Qassam at A1 Azhar. Poet, man of letters, and deputy chairman of the scientific Council in Damascus, Tanukhi was associated with the same Syrian Salafi circles including Zuhayr Shawish and Sheikh Mohammed at-Tantawi’s brother, Sheikh ‘Alt at-Tantawi. Shawish, an exiled leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, was publisher of the Islamic Publishing House (Beirut) at the time of the interview. Shawish also cites a (deceased) disciple, Abu Ibrahim as-Saghrir, as an additional source for his information on the Haifa period.

6) Shawish Papers; at-Tantawi, op. cit., pp. 1, 8; Sheikh Mohammed Hanifi, private interview, Damascus, February 1974. Hanifi is the oldest (95 in 1974) and closest disciple (surviving or not), by consensus of all the surviving disciples.
7) Imam Abdul-Malik al-Qassam (hereafter, Abdul-Malik), private interview, Jebla, February 1974. Albert Hourani, A Vision of History (Beirut: Khayats, 1961), pp.56-57. Trimingham, Sufi Orders, pp. 127-129.
8) Haj Hassan al-Hafian, private interview, Jebla, February 1974 (94 years old), who served under al-Qassam against French occupation of Syria and fought with the Mujahidin in the Palestine 193639 Uprising after al-Qassam’s death.
9) Abdul-Malik.
10) Al-Hafian.
11) Adel Hassan Ghneim, “Thawrat ash-Sheikh ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam, Shu’un Filastiniya, No. 6 (Jan. 1972), p.181; [‘Ali Abed Ibrahim] “Sheikh ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam”, At-Tala’i was al jamahir, Vol. 4, No. 48 (June 1975), p. 23. Neither of these authors indicates his source, and neither of them indicate elsewhere that they interviewed surviving disciples of al-Qassam. However, Ibrahim cites Ghneim as a source, and Ghneim cites a work by Sheikh Mohammed Nimr al-Khatib, Min athar anndkbar (Ghneim does not provide publication data). Sheikh Nimr was a leading figure in Haifa Islamic circles from the late 1930’s up until partition (1948) and also reports al-Qassam studied with ‘Abdo. (Personal interview, Beirut, February 1974).
12) Shawish Papers; at-Tantawi, op. cit.
13) Mohammed ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam, private interview, Jebla, February 1974. Born in Haifa seven years prior to his father’s death, Mohammed was teaching at the ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam government school in Jebla at the time of the interview.
14) Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir.
15) At-Tantawi, op. cit., Ch. 23, pp. 1-2.
16) At-Tantawi, op. cit., Ch. 23, p.8.
17) Bukhari and Muslim, Mishkat, Book IX, Ch. II.
18) Rashid ‘Ebu, private interview, Jebla, February 1974. As a young boy, ‘Ebu served as a courier for al-Qassam when he was in the mountains above Jebla fighting the French. After al-Qassam’s death he went to Palestine and participated in the 1938-39 Uprising.
19) Umm Mohammed al-Qassam, wife of’Izz-idDin al-Qassam, in her 90’s at the time of the inter view (Jebla, February 1974). Also, Mohammed al-Qassam, Hanifi, and all the other disciples interviewed.
20) Mohammed al-Qassam; Sheikh Nimr alKhatib.
21) Mohammed ‘Izzat Darwaza, private interview, Damascus, February 1974.
22) Ebu; Abdul-Malik.
24) Hanifi (who was not taken along by the Sheikh because he lacked military experience), for the lower figure; Shdwish Papers and at-Tantawi, for the higher figure.

The Islamic Quarterly, London
Second Quarter 1979