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 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

[Islamic jurisprudence] of comparisons and priorities.
3- Contributing, along with Sheikh ‘Abdul Rahman ‘Abdul Khaliq, to spreading moderate Salafi thought, particularly in Kuwait, giving it a dynamic and open spirit.
4- Taking part in guiding the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood on Palestine towards a more methodical and effective approach.
5- Taking care of students and youths, and honing their energies for the Islamic vision for Palestine.
6- Helping direct the institutional and legal structure of Islamic work for Palestine, particularly as concerns Hamas.

Sheikh ‘Umar was one of the pioneers of the Islamic awakening in Kuwait. After he arrived there in the summer of 1965, he and his friend Sheikh ‘Abdul Rahman ‘Abdul Khaliq took the initiative and began preaching in mosques and schools in Kuwait, at a time when mosques in the country were desolate, while Islamic movements were afraid from persecution by the Nasser regime. But with the success of these two sheikhs, the barrier of fear was broken, and the Islamic movements were reinvigorated.

Sheikh ‘Umar was among the first to present religious activity in schools in a popular and favorable format, becoming the pioneering patron of Islamic groups in schools, which grew to include in their activities cultural contests, stage plays, Islamic Nashid (songs) and sports, in addition to interesting religious lessons, whereby students live their daily lives in an Islamic environment and spirit. Sheikh ‘Umar  had successful experiences at al-Mutannabi middle school beginning with the academic year 1965/1966, then at the Khalid ibn al-Walid middle school and the ‘Abdullah al-Salem high school where Khalid Mish‘al was one of the Sheikh’s students. Mish‘al later on became in charge of the al-Jama‘ah al-Islamiyyah [The Islamic Group] in his school for two consecutive years, under the supervision of Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar.

In the ten years after his arrival in Kuwait, Sheikh ‘Umar did not join any Islamic movement. But the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood benefited greatly from his efforts in reviving and spreading their message. Sheikh al-Ashqar was not a master orator, compared to prominent Islamic speakers at the time, such as Sheikh Hassan Ayyoub, Sheikh Tayis al-Jumaily and Sheikh Ahmad al-Qattan. Yet he was one of the most distinctive among them in presenting ideas and visions, and in guiding policies and activities, and most capable when it came to addressing minds and intellects. For this reason, he had many devotees from among that segment of people preoccupied with promoting and developing Islamic preaching and activism.

Sheikh al-Ashqar had a laudable role in demonstrating the integral and intrinsic role between seeking an Islamic renaissance and the liberation of Palestine, and exposing the plans for peaceful settlements with Israel and their dangers, particularly the Camp David Accords and the events that followed. Sheikh ‘Umar  also worked on providing guidance and counsel to Islamic opposition activism in Muslim countries, on how to deal with ruling regimes, and on focusing on the fiqh of priorities.

The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait succeeded in convincing Sheikh ‘Umar to join its ranks in 1975. Sheikh ‘Umar and Suleiman Hamad, the leader of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait from 1974 until the end of 1989 (the Palestinian Brotherhood merged with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood in 1978), formed a distinguished pair that is credited for precipitating a quantum leap in Islamic activism for the Palestinian issue, not only in Kuwait, but also wherever Palestinian activism thrived.

The two men were brought together by the concern of Islamic action and working for the Palestinian issue, and were in agreement on caring for youths, encouraging them and giving them the opportunity to lead, and were supported by a distinct group of young people such as Khalid Mish‘al.

Sheikh ‘Umar  was part of a group of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait that was preoccupied with developing Islamic activism for Palestine, and the attempt to open new horizons for it, a group that sought to think outside the box, sometimes swimming against the current. This group met periodically, but without a formal framework that would have restricted its dynamism and thinking. The group was metaphorically called “The Mastermind,” as it did not have a specific official name. The group brought together leaders such as Suleiman Hamad, Khalid Mish‘al, Sami Khatir and Jamal ‘Issa. Its earliest meetings date back to the late seventies. The group was behind many ideas, programs and plans that contributed to developing Islamic activism for Palestine.

Sheikh ‘Umar and Khalid Mish‘al traveled to Sudan in 1980, where they had the chance to closely examine the experience of the Islamic movement there. This experience was considered advanced compared to others, and Sheikh al-Ashqar and Mish‘al both benefited greatly from it (at the levels of administration, education, organization, activism as well as in political terms) to develop the work of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh ‘Umar also studied the experience of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the behest of his colleagues, through some of the figures who were active in or close to the PLO.

In 1983, Sheikh ‘Umar participated in a founding conference for Islamic action for Palestine, along with certain leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan and Palestine. The conference adopted several intellectual and methodological guidelines for Islamic action for Palestine. Two years later, the Palestine Apparatus was created, under the Muslim Brotherhood. It was this organization that went on to found, lead and support Hamas, coordinating among its various geographical operation areas (in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and abroad), and providing it with logistical support, particularly from outside Palestine. Sheikh ‘Umar was of course one of the founding pillars of this endeavor.

As we learned from our own observations and interviews, Sheikh ‘Umar  played a crucial role in perpetuating institutional work in Hamas and respect for the decisions of advisory and leadership bodies. Sheikh ‘Umar himself was considered by Hamas as a model of discipline. In 1989, he was elected president of the first Shura Council of Hamas. Sheikh ‘Umar tried to decline this assignment, but his brethren strongly insisted. He was moved by this and ultimately, he felt compelled to accept.

According to al-Ashqar, through this post, he did not hesitate to implement rigorous oversight over the leaders of the organization and to hold them accountable, taking measures against anyone proven to be negligent or in breach, whatever their position, which is actually what happened with some of the senior leaders. He saw that all this has contributed to creating a positive internal climate that allows for accountability and even punishment, in a fraternal atmosphere that was far from making matters about persons in and of themselves.

The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (1990-1991) and its repercussions did great damage to Palestinian Islamic action in the Gulf state. Yet the fact that many from the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait had to move to other countries helped reinvigorate the Islamic project for Palestine in several countries abroad. Sheikh ‘Umar thus moved to Jordan, where he maintained his influential and dynamic role in the Hamas movement, through his position as a scholar, and through the advisory and judicial bodies of the organization – all while Sheikh ‘Umar insisted often on not assuming any leadership positions. In truth, if he had wanted that, then he would have easily gotten it, as Khalid Mish‘al said.

Nevertheless, Hamas’s leadership continued to consider al-Ashqar an authority that they consulted on many affairs, and their relationship remained strong until Hamas’s leadership was forced to leave Jordan in 1999, which undermined the ability for communication between them to be maintained afterwards.

Sheikh ‘Umar  al-Ashqar went on to fulfill his desire to continue his academic work and took the post of professor at the University of Jordan, and the Dean of the Faculty of Shari‘a at Zarqa University. In the last years of his life, al-Ashqar dedicated himself to research and writing. But the late scholar remained part of Hamas, and Hamas remained part of him, and he continued to play roles that were commensurate with his circumstances and health condition, until he passed away.

It seems that the nature of Hamas’s activities abroad, in terms of living in complex security conditions, and the need for secrecy to achieve ease of movement and flexibility in its activities, meant that many of its senior leaders remained unknown (and they did not want to be known) at the political level and in the media. Sheikh ‘Umar  al-Ashqar was one such leader, who, in addition to the above, wanted to be active away from the limelight, and wanted to put the youths in charge. The same applies to Suleiman Hamad, who was one of the founding pillars and who is still on his sickbed. The same can also be said, one way or the other, about a number of Hamas leaders in the West Bank, such as the late Hassan al-Qiq.

Perhaps the above raises for Hamas the need to reconsider its position on what can be revealed about its rich experience abroad. This would shed the light on an important part of the struggle for Palestine, giving credit where it is due for its figures, and allowing them to take their rightful place in Palestine’s modern history.

The original Arabic article appeared on Al on 25/8/2012 

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 4/9/2012