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

In Alexandretta, al-Qassam and the mujahidin waited for more than month. Finally they were ordered by the Ottoman authorities to return to Jebla. A new government in Instanbul, mobilising to meet the closer threat of a war in the Balkans, had abandoned the struggle in Libya and had come to hasty terms with Italy in mid-October 1912.“25”

Some of the money raised for the aborted expedition was used to build a school. The rest was put aside and when World War One broke out, al-Qassam volunteered for service in the Ottoman army. In Shawish’s words, “He was not infected by the nationalist disease”. Although ‘ulama enrolled in the Ottoman army were usually offered assignment in their local town or village to register recruits, al-Qassam refused this offer and requested a military assignment. He was sent to a camp south of Damascus where he received his training and remained as a chaplain assigned to the garrison.
In the chaos of the Ottoman collapse in the Arab East, with British forces in Syria and French build-up in Lebanon, al-Qassam returned to Jebla and initiated military training for every able-bodied man in the town. With the fund put aside from the Tripolitania jihad, the proceeds from the sale of his property, and donations from local landowners, al-Qassam purchased arms for the Jebla militia.“26”

Jebla was part of the “Blue Zone’ or “Occupied Enemy Territory North” set aside the Allies for French occupation. From late 1918 through 1919 French forces moved into the zone and consolidated their positions, while the Arab national movement struggled on in Damascus to establish an independent Syrian kingdom for Amir Faisal.“27”

But the first battles fought by the Jebla militia were against Alawite bands that had come down from the mountains and had begun to occupy the orchards and farmland outside Jebla. According to Hanifi, the Alawites had been encouraged by the French to move against the Sunni communities in Latakia district as part of the destabilising manoeuvre prior to French occupation. “28” When the Alawites were driven out of the Jebla area, the French quickly moved in and al-Qassam took his closest disciples into the mountains and established a guerilla base near the village of Zanqufeh on Sahyoun Mountain. From there al-Qassam was able to harrass French forces and continue to train his men in tactics and in the doctrine of jihad. Each month al-Qassam would teach the men a new verse from the Quran, helping them commit the verse to memory and explaining its meaning, usually in the context of jihad, while maintaining the practice of dhikr according to Qadari practices.

A Sunni notable in the district, ‘Umar al-Bitar, had also taken to the mountains with armed followers to resist the French. He was killed in action and his followers joined forces with al-Qassam’s group, which the French in their communiques continued to treat as the guerilla band of ‘Umar al-Bitar. This is probably why several of the Arab biographers describe al-Qassam as serving with ‘LTmar al-Bitar, although al-Bitar’s unit had operated in a different sector . “29”

Although al-Qassam received reinforcements when Hanifi returned to Jebla from a British prisoner of war camp and brought twenty-five more townsmen with him to the mountains, the overall position of the mujahidin deteriorated as the French increasingly consolidated their hold on the district, with its large pro-French Alawite population.“30”

Important elements within the guerilla group, and in particular several large landowners who were either serving with al-Qassam or supporting the mujahidin with funds from Jebla and were now under severe pressure from the French to pay their taxes or lose their property, questioned the wisdom of trying to hold out any longer.

This division led to quarrels in the village mosque in the mountains where the mujahidin and their supporters met. Al-Qassam, who was disturbed by the bickering which he described as fitna (in the sense of subversion and trial), declared: “Ve are here to fight the French, not to quarrel among each other”.“31”

The effect of this experience would be reflected in Haifa when al-Qassam would again begin recruiting mujahidin but with much greater caution and a greater insistence on character, obedience and the willingness of his followers to sacrifice, fi sabil-Allah.

The landowners abandoned al-(Zassam. Only the poor among the mujahidin remained with him. His mountain base was in danger of imminent encirclement by the French. Finding himself increasingly isolated, al-Qassam abandoned his base and moved towards Aleppo. There he joined forces under the command of Ibrahim Bey Hananu, who had been raiding French forces in northern Syria since May 1920, a month after the San Remo Peace Conference which had repudiated the Arab national movement’s demand for an independent Arab kingdom and had awarded France the Mandate for all of Syria except Palestine.

In mid July 1920 French forces had pushed past resistance by Hananu’s fighting forces and occupied al-Shoghur Bridge on the road to Aleppo and were demanding (among other conditions in an ultimatum to King Faisal) that the government in Damascus punish the “criminals” resisting the French advance, or the French would march on Damascus.

Bs- now, Hananu’s group had disintegrated and al-Qassam accompanied by Hanifi and three other followers remaining from the Jebla and Sahyoun mountain campaign made their way to Damascus on the eve of the battle of Maisalun to see Amir Faisal and ask for arms to resume resistance. At-Tanukhi, back in Damascus and serving as a secretary to Amir Faisal, arranged the meeting and the Amir agreed to provide the Sheikh with fifty rifles. al-Qassam also met with Sheikh Abdul Qadar al-Maghrebi, a great alim of Damascus, and two othe sheikhs for advice. They described the situation in Syria as hopeless and advised al-Qassam to abandon the struggle. With the French army advancing on Damascus and a French military tribunal death sentence on his head for the Sahyoun mountain insurgency-, -al=Qassam decided to flee the capital. He and his men made their way back to Syria through French lines with false passports provided by at-Tantukhi and from there by boat to Tartous, then Beirut, finally reaching Palestine in 1921.

Al-Qassam was to settle in Haifa which was to become a centre of refuge for exiles from French-occupied Syria and Lebanon. A number of the leading exiles including al-Qassam joined the teaching staff of Haifa’s Madrassa Islamiya which maintained branches throughout the city and was supervised and supported by the Jamiat Islamiya, a waqf (foundation) financing and supervising schools and other Islamic institutions in the district. Supported and directed by Haifa’s Muslim notables, the Jamiat was a vehicle for communal self-support and expression for the Muslims of Haifa and the surrounding rural districts through the British Mandate period and an inevitable meeting ground for Islamic and Arab nationalist opposition to the Mandate.

This meeting ground was specifically salifi,“32” and most typified by the well known principal of the Madrassa Islamiya, the exiled Damascus notable, Arab nationalist and salifi sheikh, Kamal al-Qassab.“33” Al-Qassab was a friend of Rashid Rida and Shakib Arslan and he had played a major role in the short-lived United Syrian Kingdom. It was al-Qassab who rallied the Syrian National Congress to directly confront French claims in Syria in March 1920 and who inspired the people of Damascus to seize arms and march out of the city to meet French forces in the battle of Maisalun.

In the early 1920’s al-Qassab and al-Qassam became allies in a controversy some of the Palestinian ‘ulama. The controversy was sparked by their criticism of the custom in Haifa and its twin city, Acre, of Muslim mourners chanting the takbir (“Allahu Akbar”) and then the tahlil (“La ilaha il-Allah”) .out loud and listening to Quranic recitation while accompanying their dead in procession to the cemetery. Both al-Qassab and al-Qassam denounced the practice as bidaa (hateful innovation), according to the sunna of the Prophet. Sheikh Muhammed Subhi Khuzeiran al-Hanifi al-‘All, who was president of the shari’a court of Acre and the Mufti of Acre, Sheikh Abdullah al Jazzar, issued fatwa describing the practice as permitted. In the subsequent controvesy the Acre sheikhs denounced both al-Qassam and al-Qassab as wahhabiya heretics, a standard accusation in any polemic between the orthodox ‘ulama and the salifiya since the pre-modern doctrines of the Nejdi Sheikh Muhammed Abdul Wahhab (to which the reformist salifi doctrine bears a certain similarity) had been universally condemned as heresy by the sunni ‘ulama in the early 19th century. “34”

Al-Qassam and al-Qassab responded with a crushing pamphlet, Criticism and Declaration in Refutation of Khuzeiran’s Delusions, “35” quoting in their favour the views of the four schools of jurisprudence, with supporting With. They also reproduced fatwas they had taken from leading ‘ulama at Al Azhar and in Damascus condemning the popular practice and commending instead that God’s name be invoked in silence when following a funeral cortege in order not to distract the mourners from mediating with full concentration upon death.

Since al-Qassam’s name precedes al-Qassab’s on the pamphlet and al-Qassam was far better trained as an ‘alim (al-Qassab was a “strong man” in Damascus notable politics in his youth and only took up serious religious studies later in life, according to Shawish), we can assume the pamphlet was largely his work. The arguments that al-Qassam marshalled are so overwhelming that it is difficult to understand the motives of the Acre sheikhs. None of the many favourable fatwas collected in Cairo and Damascus by al-Qassam and al-Qassab for publication were taken from salifiya ‘ulamd but Shawish believes this was a tactical decision on the part of the authors. Al-Qassam and al-Qassab suggest in their pamphlet that the Acre sheikhs sought to “ingratiate themselves with the general public” by practising the bidaa. Here there may be a hint of professional job protection at work, for the lower ‘ulama frequently found employment as Quran reciters and professional mourners at popular funerals. Al-Qassam was also opposed to other popular innovations in the practice of Islam, such as the pilgrimage by women to the shrine of Khidr at the foothills of Mount Carmel to sacrifice sheep in gratitude for the recovery of a child from illness or a son’s graduation from school. After making sacrifice the women would perform tribal dances around the shrine. Al-Qassam preached in the mosques of Haifa against the practice and he called upon the people to sacrifice directly and secretly to God.“36”

These controversies concerning practices of popular religion suggested to some observers at the periphery of al-Qassam’s jihad movement that the salifi current was the abiding influence on his thought. But the imperative for the reform of popular religious practice and the revival of Islam in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries was by no means exclusively Fundamentalist or Sal2f2. “37”

In the early 1920’s al-Qassam met the Algerian Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Malik al-‘Alami. He receives no mention in any of the published biographical accounts of al-Qassam, but both Shawish and at-Tantawi are aware of his existence though they identify him as Moroccan.

According to both Shawish and at-Tanukhi, it was Sheikh al-‘Alami who arranged permission for al-Qassam’s wife and daughters to leave Syria and join him in Palestine. Al-‘Alamihad called upon al-Qassam in Haifa and told him he had “some close friends” among the North African officers serving in the French army of the Levant occupying Syria who could intervene with the French authorities to secure the release of his family. Al-Qassam refused, saying he would trust in God and ask nothing of collaborators (Shawish’s version; “Unbelievers”, according to at-Tantawi). Sheikh al-‘Alami was pleased with this reply, according to at-Tantawi, and in both versions of the story, he arranged for family to be reunited. Neither Shawish nor at-Tantawi have anything more to say about Sheikh al-‘AIami.

25) At_Tantawi, op. cit., p. 2. Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, p. 224.
26) Hanifi; al-Hafian; ‘Ebu; at-Tantawi, op. cit., Ch. 23, pp. 4-5.
27) Zeine N. Zeine, The Struggle for Arab Independence (Beirut: Khyats, 1960), pp. 34-40; Stephen Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 74-76.
28) The only Alawite opposition to French authority came from a local brigand Sheikh, Sali al-‘Alt, who clashed with French forces in the Spring of 1921. By October 1921 Sali had surrendered (Longrigg, op. cit., pp.120-121; also, Shawish). According to all his disciples from the Sahyoun mountain period, al-Qassam never served with Sheikh Sali, although this is not apparently part of official Syrian Baathist history, and is reported by Ghneim, op. cit., p.181
29) Sharuish Papers and interview; al-Hafian; see Ghneim, p.181, for standard treatment of alQassam’s alleged service with ‘Umar al-Bitar.
30) Hanifi; Shawish Papers. Hanifi also served in the Ottoman army.
31) ‘Ebu; Abdul-Malik.
32) Shawish notes that the orthodox ‘Mama of Syria refused to register as “Syrian” and insisted on registering as “Ottoman” during the earliest years of French occupation. This is also confirmed by Farid Troublsi, great-nephew of Sheikh Abdul Qadar al-Maghrebi of Damascus.
33) Besides al-Qassab and al-Qassam, the faculty included such prominent Syrian exiles as Hani Abu Muslah and Rashid Bey Baydunus, according to al-Khatib.
34) SEI, s.v. “Wahhabiya”. According to Hanifi, Sheikh Khuzeiran had been a classmate of alQassam at A1 Azhar.
35) Muhammed ‘Izz-id-Din al-Qassam and Mohammed Kamel al-Qassab, Al naqd mal bayan ft dafa’ ‘awham Khuseiran (Damascus: the Authors, 1925).
36) Atif Nourallah, private interviews, Beirut, January and March, 1974. Nourallah’s uncle was a Haifa notable and a patron of al-Qassam.
37) Al-Khatib; Shawish; Nourallah. For reformist currents in the turuq and particularly the tijaniya, see Trimingham, Sufi Orders, pp. 106-110.

The Islamic Quarterly, London
Second Quarter 1979