By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Hamas’s leaders in the diaspora were visibly grief-stricken as they bade farewell to the late scholar Sheikh ‘Umar Suleiman al-Ashqar, as he was laid down into his final resting place on 10/8/2012 – a grief they carried with them into his funeral service afterwards. For the first time, Hamas’s leadership has explicitly declared that al-Ashqar was one of its founding pillars. The late scholar was also mourned by Hamas’s leaders within the Palestinian territories, as well as Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and a large number of scholars. Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar’s death was indeed a great loss to the community of Muslim scholars and scholarship across the Islamic world.
To be sure, the significance of Sheikh ‘Umar ’s Islamic scholarship is renowned by many, particularly in the areas of Islamic creed (‘Aqidah), jurisprudence, and spiritual purification. Many who attend conferences and meetings pertaining to Islamic studies are aware of how this scholar’s views were received with much respect and appreciation, and how he was often seen as ahead of his fellow scholars.
But what many do not know about him is his leading role in Islamic activism for the Palestinian issue, particularly his role in founding Hamas, drafting strategies for its work and following up and guiding its policies until his death.
The late Sheikh ‘Umar was a first-class scholar, who wrote more than 50 books on Islamic law and various other contemporary topics, and co-authored a number of other books, in addition to writing a wealth of scholarly essays and presenting research papers in dozens of conferences in the Arab world, Asia, Europe and America. His books, especially in the area of Islamic creed (‘Aqidah), are very significant and widely used as references, and are among the bestselling books in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the rest of the Arab world.
A few months ago, as part of a project we are preparing on the history of Islamic movement in Palestine, we had the chance to chronicle the experience of Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar in preaching and activism for the Palestinian issue. This has revealed an important role that the late scholar was keen on not mentioning because his intention, as he mentioned, was to serve Allah alone and because he did not want any publicity for his work. After his death, however, Hamas mourned him officially as one of its senior founders. During his funeral service, Khalid Mish‘al spoke at length about Sheikh ‘Umar’s major role within Hamas. We will refer to the most prominent roles played by Sheikh ‘Umar in Islamic preaching and activism below.
Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar came from a religious family environment. His brother Muhammad was one of the foremost Islamic law scholars in Palestine as well. The late Sheikh ‘Umar was educated in the Salafi tradition, learning closely under several prominent scholars such as ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Bin Baz, Nasir al-Din al-Albani, and Muhammad al-Shanqeeti. He graduated from Madina, KSA, but he completed his PhD at al-Azhar University in Cairo.
On the other hand, the late scholar read many contemporary works on preaching and activism, especially books by the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb; Sheikh ‘Umar regarded this Islamic group with respect and admiration. In parallel, al-Ashqar took a keen interest in the effort for Islamic renaissance and the liberation of Palestine.
This background helped forge a serious personality in Sheikh al-Ashqar, a deeply spiritual personality with an open and realistic Salafi worldview, and a highly dynamic character that interacted with events and strived for change.
The leading contributions of Sheikh ‘Umar span the following fields:
1- A wealth of exceptional Islamic books that occupy an important place in the Islamic library.
2- Contributing to disseminating the thought of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a focus on the educational aspects, the correct understanding of Islamic creed, and the fiqh