Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh:

Palestinians have never agreed on a character, in modern and contemporary history, like they agreed on Sheikh Ezzeddine ‘Abdel Qader Mustafa Al-Qassam whose 75th anniversary of martyrdom was commemorated on last 20 November.

Al-Qassam was not a Palestinian according to the definitions of the geographic map which resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the French and British occupations since he was originally from Jablah near Latakia in Syria. However, he was a character of national consensus among Islamic, nationalist and even leftist Palestinian factions to the extent that he was called “the father of nationalism.” In addition, Hamas has called its military wing after him.

Al-Qassam, who is considered among the leaders of Reform and Revival Islamic movement and the pioneer of Islamic activism in Palestine, was the focus of many studies regarding his revolution and martyrdom. However, most of these studies did not address his intellectual vision or the Jihadist organization he established nor the vital role his Qassamite comrades had played in the Palestinian Revolt from 1936 to 1939. On the other hand, the Islamic schools of his contemporaries, such as Mohammad Rashid Reda, Hassan al-Banna, Ibn Badis and al-Maududi have been given the attention they deserve.

Among the limited studies which have tried to fill the gap are those conducted by Samih Hammoudeh, Abdallah Schleifer and Rudolph Peters, in addition to the study conducted by the writer of this article, in his

[Arabic] book “The Islamic Trend in Palestine 1917-1948.”

This brief article, which is dedicated to the memory of this eminent person, cannot cover all the aspects of al-Qassam’s life and thought, but tries to address some key points.

The first of these points is related to his personal character. Al-Qassam had, in addition to his strong faith, a comprehensive understanding of Islam, intelligence and high organizational skills, courage and ability to grasp facts, a sociable and popular personality, besides his Jihadist and advocacy work. Perhaps, the leading advocate, close to his character, was Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, even though the core of al-Qassam project was based on military resistance, due to its direct confrontation with the Zionist project in Palestine.

Al-Qassam, who was born in 1882 and studied at al-Azhar under Sheikh Mohammad Abduh, pursued a Salafi Islamic understanding and fought against heresies and blind imitation. Nonetheless, he benefited from the Sufi environment where he lived and from his relation with the Algerian Sheikh Mohammad bin Abed al-Malik al-‘Alami, who was a senior fellow in the Tijaniyya sufi order, to strengthen his faith and enforce it among his comrades.

Moreover, al-Qassam has understood Islam as a religion of dignity, pride, Jihad, justice and equality. He shared people in their concerns and joys and mingled with them in mosques, cafes, weddings and funerals. He was humble in the way he ate, dressed and lived, while maintaining an active, influential and powerful personality. He also set up a night school to teach the elderly while people, even those from neighboring villages, flocked to listen to his sermons and speeches.

Furthermore, al-Qassam was seen as a model of courage and audacity. He tackled the issue of Jihad frequently and asked people openly to buy arms and practice using them. In one of his speeches he said, “I saw some men carrying broomsticks to sweep the streets; those are called to carry arms. And I saw some men carrying brushes to clean foreigners’ shoes; those are called to carry guns and shoot those foreigners.” (i.e., forces of the British occupation)

Al-Qassam was himself also seen as a model for what he advocated. For example, when he declared revolution against the French in the north-west of Syria in 1918, he sold his house (which was all what he owned) and used its money to buy 24 rifles. Similarly, when he declared revolution against the British in 1935, he sold the only house he owned in Haifa while his comrades sold some of their wives’ jewelry and house furniture to buy guns and bullets.

The second point is related to his vision and approach to work. In this context, al-Qassam adopted Islam in its entirety as a framework for education, recruitment and Jihad. He considered the British occupation and the Zionist project as an infiltration of Dar al-Islam, thus Jihad became the duty of every Muslim. Further, he made it clear that in case his movement succeeded in expelling the occupation then the “law of our country would be based on Quran.”

In the Organization he established, al-Qassam adopted a method of Islamic education and culture which focused on Jihad and its different meanings. The fighter, in his vision, should receive an integrated upbringing, because Allah (S.W.T) has chosen him, based on the verse “And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you.” True Jihad requires charity and perfection, and the true fighter helps the needy, feeds the hungry, attends to the sick, visits his relatives, prays and maintains a good relation with Allah.

According to al-Qassam, the spirit of faith is more important than physical force, while the death of a martyr is the fuel to ignite Jihad and protect Islam. Al-Qassam’s comrades learnt how to deal with Quran as a way of life, and they used to keep a copy with them wherever they went.

Al-Qassam believed that the potentials of the Ummah (nation) should be mobilized for Jihad and resistance against occupation. He further believed that preparing people for Jihad is a priority over erecting buildings and mosques and decorating them even al-Aqsa mosque itself. He said, “Ornaments in mosques should be replaced by guns. If you lost your land, what would you benefit from the decorations on walls?” He even called to postpone pilgrimage to Makkah (Hajj) and use its costs to buy weapons, since Jihad is a priority over performing hajj in these conditions.

In addition, al-Qassam believed that Jihad should focus on the British occupation, which is seen by him as the real cause of the problem, in as much as it protects and sponsors the Zionist project. Consequently, his revolt participated in reorienting national efforts and focusing the Revolt of 1936 against the British, after it was mainly targeting the Zionist Jews.

The third point is related to al-Qassam organization, as he established a Jihadist movement which derived its understanding from Islam and adopted its approach, while embracing Jihad as the only way to liberate Palestine. Al-Qassam was a pioneer in establishing a secret, Jihadist organization to the extent that Emile al-Ghouri (one of the leaders of the Palestinian National Movement) considered al-Qassam organization as “the most important underground organization, and the greatest guerilla movement in the history of Palestinian national movement, and even in the modern history of Arab Jihad.”

Al-Qassam’s organization, al-Jihadiyyah, started in 1925 and continued its secret work till al-Qassam declared revolution in 1935. Its motto was “It is a Jihad, victory or martyrdom.” Al-Qassam enlisted around 200 regular members in addition to 800 supporters. New recruits would vow allegiance on a dagger or pistol placed next to a copy of Quran. He formed separate secret units where each was headed by a Naqib (commander). His movement spread especially in north Palestine.

The most striking characteristic of al-Qassam organization was its high level of confidentiality, and the spirit of seeking reward from Allah which was common among its members. The British failed most times to detect former executors of Qassamite military operations.  Moreover, part of the historical injustice which befell the Qassamites in the history of modern Palestine was because they refused to talk about their resistance activities, even after 30 or 40 years of the war of 1948 and the dismantling of their organization. They considered this as a part of their allegiance and their oath to Allah.

It was only after some of them, as Sobhi Yassin, Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir and Ibrahim Sheikh Khalil, decided to talk in the late 1960s, that we came to know about this side of the history of Islamic military resistance in Palestine. The writer of these lines has had the chance to examine documents in the British National Archives (i.e., Public Records Office), which show how the British intelligence failed to know the executors of several Qassamite operations even after years of conducting them.

On another hand, this organization, which started in Haifa, was characterized by recruiting members from different social strata, especially peasants, workers and nomads. It was interesting that its first leadership which was formed in 1928 included, besides al-Qassam, four persons: Al-Abed Qasim, Mahmud Za’rourah, Muhammad al-Saleh and Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir, who were all peasants. Later, the leadership was expanded to include 12 members and it continued to operate till 1948.

Moreover, it was impressive that any member of the Organization had to pay a specified subscription (10 pennies). Yet as he assumed higher positions, he had to pay more.  Many of al-Qassam comrades reached the extent of donating all their income after they met their essential daily needs. Al-Qassam movement only accepted “Halal” money and did not succumb to any foreign party.

According to one Qassamite (Sobhi Yassin), al-Qassam formed five specialized units which included: buying weapons, training, espionage, propaganda and political communications. Upon the declaration of the organization, it had 1,000 pieces of weapons.

The fourth point is that declaring Jihad against the British occupation and the martyrdom of al-Qassam with two of his comrades (Yusuf Zibawi and Muhammad Hanafi) in the battle of Ya’bad on 20/11/1935 marked the history of modern Palestine.

Al-Qassam’s martyrdom shocked Palestine and his mammoth funeral was a remarkable day in its history. The comments on his martyrdom made by contemporary historians such as Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza, Akram Zu‘aiter and ‘Omar Abu al-Nasr, were indeed amazing. In this context ‘Ajaj Nwayhid said that upon the martyrdom of al-Qassam, Palestine “witnessed a second spiritual birth where the picture of al-Qassam and his disciples became a token; heavenly stars lighting not only Palestine but the whole Arab region. Women bore Qassamite spirit more than men did”!!

Al-Qassam provided a unique model for Palestinians as he declared revolution and was among its first martyrs. Al-Qassam was right when he said before the battle began that he, together with his comrades, would be the spark which would ignite the revolution all over the country. Indeed, his martyrdom was the beginning rather than the end of his movement. It is possible to say that the three martyrs (al-Qassam “the Syrian”, Zibawi “the Palestinian” and Muhammad Hanafi “the Egyptian”) sent a message to the world that the Jihad in Palestine and facing the Zionist project, is an Islamic and Arab issue (besides its universal dimension), which is not confined to Palestinians.

The fifth and last point is that many historians stop at al-Qassam’s martyrdom and do not mention the impact of his organization and the important role it played in the Palestinian Revolt 1936 and even in the war of 1948.

Actually, it was al-Qassam organization “al-Jihadiyyah” which kindled the Revolt in Palestine, after the operation it executed on 15/4/1936 under the command of Farhan al-Sa‘di, al-Qassam’s successor. In addition, it was al-Qassam organization itself which ignited the second phase of this Revolt, on 26/9/1937, when two of its members, Muhammad Abu Ja‘b and Sheikh Mahmud Dirawi, assassinated Louis Andrews—the British governor of the Galilee (North Palestine).

During the Revolt, the Qassamites led the areas of north Palestine as well as parts of Nablus province. These indeed were the most active regions and witnessed the most powerful operations.

Among the prominent leaders of the Revolt in north Palestine was Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir aided by Qassamite field commanders including Muhammad al-Safuri, Sulaiman ‘Abd al-Jabbar, ‘Abdullah al-Asbah, ‘Abdullah al-Sha‘er, Tawfiq Ibrahim and Mahmud Salem.

In Nablus province, Sheikh ‘Atiyyah Ahmad ‘Awad led the Revolt in west Jenin till his martyrdom when he was succeeded by Sheikh Yusuf Abu Durrah. In east Jenin, Sheikh Muhammad Saleh al-Hamad led the Revolt, while ‘Abd al-Fattah Muhammad succeeded him after his martyrdom and they were all Qassamites. In a study conducted by the writer examining the documents of the Revolt in Palestine in its second phase (1937-1939) it was clear that around two thirds of the military operations were executed in Qassamite areas of influence.

Further, Qassamites participated in the war of 1948 within the Army of al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (lit. The Holy Jihad) or with the Salvation Army, depending on where they lived, when they were not able to assume leadership. However, leaders such as Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir, Abu Ibrahim al-Saghir, Muhammad al-Safuri and Surur Borhom have done their best in the areas where they operated.

This article briefly highlighted the experience of al-Qassam and his comrades, yet there are other stances and themes which are beyond this limited scope. It remains important to reiterate that the mainstream Islamic trend which is still active in Palestine was there from the beginning, it was not accidental and did not come late; it is deep and wide in the Palestinian national movement and struggle.

Translated by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations

The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera net on 16/12/2010

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 3/1/2011