On an early morning in the hills of Ya’bad, a man stood facing hundreds of guns as foul as those pointing them.
“Surrender yourselves!” a voice calls.
“No,” the man tells his soldiers, “We will never surrender. Open fire and die as martyrs.”
There, in the face of tyranny, the man would fight his last fight. Defiant. Constant. Fearless.
A swift warm breeze brushes through his beard, made white from hardship.
“Here it is,” he whispers, “My jihād has come at last.”
The sound of a bullet penetrates the silence, then fades slowly, echoing through the barren hills of Jerusalem.
A lifeless body is carried through the streets and lowered into the soil of a land treasured beyond measure. Thousands of mourners covering more than five kilometres follow behind. Forcing their way past police lines, they follow the vessel of a man who gave away his wealth so that others might benefit from it; a man who dedicated his life to learning to spread knowledge to others, and sacrificed his own life so that others may live. The procession follows him in death as they followed him in life, never forsaking the man who possessed every characteristic of a faithful and true believer.
In the weeks that follow, peasant guerrilla bands and urban commandos led by Qassamiyun spring up across Palestine.
The 1936 uprising had begun.
“Let there be a group among you who call [others] to goodness, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil— and it is they who will be successful.”
Muhammad ‘Izz ad-Din ibn Abdul al-Qadar al-Qassam was born in 1882 in Jebla, situated in the Latakia district in modern-day Syria. Born to a house established on Islamic principles, he was raised on the moral and religious grounds of Islam. His father owned a centre in which he taught Qur’ān, and al-Qassam was nurtured in the mosques and Islamic institutes of the city. He studied in an Islamic school until the age of 14, where he learned Qur’ān and studied prophetic traditions. He also mastered the Arabic language and how to read and write sufficiently well.
In 1902, he travelled to Cairo and became a student at the al-Azhar University, where he studied under Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, an experience given prominence in many of the contemporary biographical sketches of al-Qassam. From a young age, al-Qassam encouraged and practised self-sufficiency, one of the many moral elements he mastered along with humility, courage, asceticism, and willingness to sacrifice for a cause. This shows in the story relayed by al-Tanukhi, a close friend of al-Qassam at al-Azhar:
“We were studying at al-Azhar together and were short of money. I asked the Sheikh, ‘What will we do for funds?’” Al-Qassam asked al-Tanukhi if he had any specific abilities, and al-Tanukhi replied that he could cook nammoura, an Arab dessert. He then told al-Tanukhi to make the dessert, which he would then sell. Al-Tanukhi’s father, who was visiting Cairo at the time, passed by the university and saw them selling the food. He curiously asked what they were doing, and al-Tanukhi, embarrassed, replied, “This is what al-Qassam told me to do,” to which his father replied, “He taught you to be self-sufficient.”
Al-Qassam lived in Egypt for nine years. Then, with all his knowledge, he went back to his hometown and became a preacher in the Great Mansouri Mosque. He taught children in the day and adults at night, dedicating his time to spreading awareness and knowledge, and determined to exert himself as much as possible to the service of Islam. Al-Qassam undertook an Islamic revival in Jebla based upon the conscientious practice of religious obligations combined with orthodox voluntary practices. His unique teaching methods and insistence on piety, accompanied by a good sense of humour, made him popular, specifically among the youth.
For example, to illustrate the theme of one of his sermons on ‘He who remembers his Lord and he who does not are like the living and the dead,’ al-Qassam encouraged his disciples to grab a villager who did not pray, place him in a coffin, and carry him around Jebla. Acquaintances of al-Qassam, as well as his disciples and members of his family, described him as a man who was always smiling and laughing. Sheikh Nimr, a student of his in Haifa, described him as “an intensely active man but with a child-like charm,” adding that al-Qassam “laughed like a child, spoke with the simplicity of a child, and was a warm and impulsive person.” His wife attributed his good humour to a complete confidence and trust in Allāh: “At the worst times, he would always laugh and tell us not to worry.”
Stories still circulate in Jebla of al-Qassam’s humility and the profound simplicity in which he lived. One of these stories mentions a time when an important official came to the town to meet al-Qassam, only to find him sharing a simple lunch with a worker at the communal hammām (public bath). ‘Izzat Darwaza, leader of the Istiqlal party described him as such: “His face was illuminated by an inner light. He was a man lacking in arrogance or self-love. He was open and available to all of the people, and the people loved him. He lived the life of a mujāhid.”
Al-Qassam devoted himself to moral reform, endlessly encouraging the community to keep regular prayers, maintain the obligatory fast, and strive to eradicate gambling and consumption of alcohol. His campaign was successful, so much so that those among the townspeople who were not previously notably practicing became either reformed or began to conform to Sharī’a standards in public. Due to his acquisition of moral authority from the Turkish authorities responsible for the district, al-Qassam was able to call upon the police in the rare cases of flagrant violations against the Sharī’a standards of the town. On a few occasions when he heard that there were mule trains smuggling alcohol through the district, al-Qassam sent out his disciples to intercept the caravans and destroy all contraband. It is said that the religious revival in al-Qassam’s Jebla reached such a point of Sharī’a legislation that the women would go out into the market on a Friday at noon unveiled, assured that they would not encounter any man, as they were all at the Jumu’a prayer.
The Italian invasion of Libya was a crucially important episode in al-Qassam’s early career and activism; the beginning of the ideological impulses that later shaped his world. His response to the event was not limited to a mere supportive prayer, but instead he responded by recruiting volunteers and raising funds to the aid of the Libyan liberation struggle. He used his status as a respected preacher to urge his people to help the Libyans suffering from the occupation. He also led several demonstrations in Jebla under the banner:
“يا رحيم يا رحمان أنصر مولانا السلطان وأكسر الاعداء الايطاليين“
“Oh Allāh, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious, grant our Muslim Sultan victory and defeat our Italian enemies!”
Al-Qassam soon decided that fundraising for jihād against the Italians was not sufficient. In June 1912, while preaching the Friday sermon at the al-Adham mosque in Jebla, he called for volunteers for jihād. Many townspeople came forward, but only those who received previous military training with the Ottomans were accepted. He then raised funds to finance the expedition and provide a modest pension for the families of the mujāhidīn for the duration of their absence. Accompanied by a number of anywhere between 60 and 250 mujāhidīn, al-Qassam made his way to Alexandretta (İskenderun). There, he was expecting provision and transport to Libya via Alexandria from the Ottoman authorities. He and his men waited there for over a month, then were eventually ordered by the Ottoman authorities to return to Syria. This was because the new government in Istanbul was occupied by the close threat of a war in the Balkans. Thus, they hastily made peace terms with Italy in 1912, whose terms included refusal of transport to potential mujāhidīn.
They returned to Syria grief-stricken that they could not fight alongside their brothers in Libya. They used part of the money raised for the aborted expedition to build a school, and the rest they set aside, which was later used in the eruption of the First World War.
“Allāh has indeed purchased from the believers their lives and wealth in exchange for Paradise.”
In 1914, al-Qassam enlisted to fight with the Ottoman army.
He was sent to a camp south of Damascus. There, he received his training and remained as chaplain, assigned to the garrison. Among the chaos of the Ottoman collapse in the Arab East, and with British forces in Syria as well as French build-ups in Lebanon, al-Qassam returned to his hometown of Jebla and initiated military training for every able-bodied man. He then sold his house in Jebla. With the proceeds of the sale, as well as the money left over from the failed jihād in Libya and donations from local landowners, he purchased arms for the Jebla militia and prepared himself for jihād. First, they fought the Alawite bands that had emerged from the mountains and had begun to occupy the orchards and farmland outside of Jebla. These Alawites had been encouraged by the French to stand against the Sunni communities of the Latakia districts, no doubt as part of the destabilising manoeuvre prior to French occupation.
By the end of the First World War, most of the Syrian-Lebanese coastal area, as well as the greater part of Northern Syria including Ladhiqiyya and the Alawite region, came under French occupation. Engaged in negotiations with their British allies over the future of the Arab Ottoman provinces, the French refused to consider or even recognise the Arabs’ demands for unity. Hence, until its eventual demise in 1920, the Damascus government extended control over only the interior of Syria.
A descendent of the Crusaders, the hostile French general Henri Gouraud entered Syria and kicked the grave of Saladin in Damascus, claiming that the Crusaders had returned to take their revenge and finally gain victory. Though dated back six or seven centuries prior, the Crusaders never forgot how Saladin defeated them, forcing them to leave the Levant. As a man overwhelmed by his keenness to fight in the path of Allāh, al-Qassam refused to tolerate any humiliation of Islam or accept any actions that demeaned it. In response to this humiliation against Saladin, as well as the French occupation, Arab patriots, including al-Qassam, took to the forests, mountains, and orchards of Northern Syria, where they established bases of resistance.
Al-Qassam’s group, which was based in the village of Zanqufa, consisted mainly of his disciples and a handful of relatives. During this time, al-Qassam seized the opportunity to introduce his followers to a combined religious and military training regimen, which implanted a strong sense of jihād within them. Each month, he would teach his men a new verse from the Qur’ān, helping them to commit the verse to memory and thoroughly explaining its meaning. But the overall position of the mujāhidīn began deteriorating as the French increasingly consolidated their hold on the district, specifically due to the large population of pro-French Alawites. Landowners who were either serving with al-Qassam or funding the mujāhidīn from Jebla were put under severe pressure by the French to either pay their taxes or lose their property. This caused major division, which led to quarrels in the village mosque where the mujāhidīn and their supporters met. Al-Qassam, who was greatly upset by the feud, understood that the French were succeeding in their attempt to spread corruption and divide the Muslims. Keen on preventing any discord among his Muslim brothers, he famously declared, “We are here to fight the French, not to quarrel among each other.” This statement shows that al-Qassam was indeed a righteous person, as the true believers support one another and strengthen the bond of unity among them. True believers denounce sectarianism and the creation of divisions within the Dīn, and instead adhere to the Qur’ān and the practices of the Prophet.
Regrettably, the landowning fighters abandoned al-Qassam, which left only the poor mujāhidīn remaining. He and his men left their post and moved towards Aleppo. There, they fought under the command of Ibrahim Hananu, who had been fighting French forces in Northern Syria since the San Remo conference, which had repudiated the Arab’s demands for an independent Arab kingdom and instead awarded France the mandate for all of the Levant, excluding only Palestine.
On alert for any developing resistance, the French sent a delegation to negotiate with al- Qassam, offering him land, position, and money. He sternly declined their offer, refusing to accept any form of bribery from the enemies of Islam. The Syrians remained defiant for two years after the initial occupation, up until the great battle that took place near Damascus, which was consequently seized following the martyrdom of Yusuf al-Azma. Upon invading the Levant, the French divided it into four major sections: the Damascus state, the Aleppo state, the Alawite state (in the Latakia), and the Druze state, located near the Mountain of the Druze. These four states were formed in an attempt to divide the Muslims, thus making it easier for the invaders to control them in accordance to their ancient rule of ‘divide and conquer’; a strategy which, unfortunately, has been proven to be effective in many Islamic states. Following the fall of Damascus, the French military court sentenced Sheikh ‘Izz ad-Din to death, which forced him to flee the French-occupied Syria. Accompanied by a few of his relatives and disciples, al-Qassam travelled to Palestine.
“The believers, both men and women, are guardians of one another…”
Al-Qassam arrived in Haifa, Palestine in 1921.
From this point onwards, what is significant in the story of al-Qassam was his total commitment to Palestine, which became his home. His sight was now focused on serving its people and ensuring the survival of its future. He dedicated his time and efforts towards serving its farmers and peasants by setting up night schools for its illiterate casual labourers, as well as raising funds for the unemployed to help them start a new working life. Holding the position of preacher at al-Istiqlal mosque (the biggest mosque on the inlet from the Mediterranean Sea), al-Qassam mixed with delinquents, as well as social and religious outcasts, seeking to rehabilitate them. He faced no difficulty in establishing a new life in Palestine, where he lived with his wife and children in the Old Quarter of Haifa.
Though many people believe al-Qassam to have been Palestinian, it is imperative to recognise that he was not. Truly righteous Muslims do not give importance to nationality, nor is their desire to aid one another limited by artificial, geographical, or political borders. Al-Qassam gave no importance to nationalism, but sought to unite the Muslims under the only banner that mattered: the banner of Islam. He was described as a man “uninfected by the nationalist disease” and sensitive to what he perceived as backwardness and moral debasement among the Muslims. He firmly emphasised that the only possible way in which Muslims could progress and liberate themselves from foreign oppression and occupation would be through the revival of Islam.
Al-Qassam would study the men who seemed most concentrated in their prayers and invocations, and most responsive to his preaching. He would visit them in their homes and award them with further discussion and observation. Invariably, these men were mostly illiterate and without formal education: railway and construction workers, artisans, stevedores, and shopkeepers. He formed them into dozens of circles, each circle unknown to the other, where he taught them to read by using the Qur’ān as text. Meanwhile, he preached to them their duty towards, and the inevitability of, jihād. Many of his followers were in fact former tenants recently driven off their land by exclusion policies of the Jewish National Fund, or by their inability to meet the demands of rising rents in the land boom stimulated by continuous Zionist purchases.
“Do not be like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs had come to them; those will have a great punishment.”
For 15 years, al-Qassam worked day and night enlightening the people of Haifa and its neighbouring villages of the great danger that threatened their existence: the oppressive British mandate forces, whom, with the Balfour declaration in hand, gave exclusive permission to Jewish colonists to settle in Palestine. Al-Qassam recognised this as a perilously menacing act, and strived to make people aware of it. This proved to be difficult, as many Palestinians welcomed and celebrated the British troops that had entered Palestine when it was mandated to Britain. This was due to the famous reputation of the British at that time, which was that they were a civilised and tolerant people, especially when compared with the barbaric and brutal practices of the French forces. Heedless of their true intentions, the Palestinians believed that the British would enlighten them and spread knowledge, bringing them modern technology and solving their problems with contemporary solutions. Behind closed doors, however, the British had already collaborated with the French to divide the Arab colonies between them — a division accomplished as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Al-Qassam warned his people about the British and to be wary of their sly intentions, not to be taken in by their sugar-coated words and empty promises. He also warned them about the colonial settlers, as he foresaw that their emigration to Palestine would result in them usurping the land. Several Arabs ignored his warnings, regarding the Jewish settlers as guests and welcoming them as people of the Scripture. An example of such ideologies was published in the Makkan newspaper Al-Qiblah in 1918, in an article where Arabs were urged to welcome the Jewish migrants, and to be friendly and hospitable towards them.
Al-Qassam was just and equitable in all aspects of his life. He never gave false testimony, nor was he willing to hide evidence for fear of his own safety. He devoted his life to striving against what was false and deceptive, doing everything in his power to eradicate all oppressive practices. He gathered forces and spent several years fighting the Zionist and British colonisers in Palestine, intent on freeing the Holy Land from occupation.
“Among the believers are men who have proven true to what they pledged to Allāh. Some of them have fulfilled their pledge with their lives, others are waiting their turn. They have never changed their commitment in the least.”
Sheikh al-Qassam and his companions proceeded to Ain Jalut, the valley where the Muslims won against the Mongol invasion several centuries prior. In this location, he delivered his last call: “In the name of Allāh, on this blessed day we announce our revolution against the British occupation.” Meanwhile, the British forces gathered 400 soldiers and began canvasing the area to locate al-Qassam.
They hunted him and a dozen of his fighters for 10 days, eventually surrounding them in a cave near Ya’bad.
There, on the 20th of November, 1935, he was assassinated, aged 52.
His defiance and the manner of his death electrified the Palestinian people, and his death became a major contributing factor to the 1936-1939 Palestinian revolt.
An obituary was published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram following al-Qassam’s death, eulogising him as a martyr with the following statement:
“I heard you preaching from up in the pulpit, summoning to the sword … Through your death, you are more eloquent than you ever were in life.”
His body lies buried in Haifa.