Al-Qassam: History of an Icon of Resistance

Al-Qassam: History of an Icon of Resistance


This November, 2009, Arabs and Palestinians are commemorating Sheikh Izzedin Al-Qassam’s 74th anniversary. This article sheds light on the life and history of one of the major icons of resistance and liberation movements in Palestine and the Arab world.

The Sheikh taught that if Muslims did not help themselves, no one else would help them.

Despite the passage of nearly three quarters of a century since his death, the memory of Sheikh Izzedin Al-Qassam still lives on in the collective conscience of many Muslims, especially in the Arab world.

Seen largely as an icon of Islam-inspired resistance against oppression, political tyranny, and foreign occupation, the Sheikh continues to be a source of inspiration for thousands of young Muslims who have come to follow his way.

Hence, it is no coincidence that the military wing of the Palestinian Hamas liberation movement, the Izzedin Al-Qassam Brigades, was named after him.

Unlike many`ulamaa’ (Muslim scholars) of his time, Sheikh Al-Qassam succeeded remarkably in combining religious enlightenment with  political consciousness and armed resistance against the French occupation forces in Syria in the 1920s and later against the British mandate army in Palestine in the early 1930s.

In his numerous sermons in both Syria and Palestine, the Sheikh  taught that if Muslims did not help themselves, no one else would help them, and that Muslims ought to empower themselves in every possible way.

Freedom and Independence
The Sheikh was often quoted as saying, “wherever the name of Allah is invoked, this is my country”.

He also taught that true unity could only be realized under the banner of Islam.

“Without Islam”, he said, “we are merely disconnected tribes, each preoccupied with its own narrow considerations.”

The Sheikh totally rejected the concept of territorial nationalism, saying that nationalism was merely an advanced degree of tribalism whereas Islam unifies Muslims under the banner of its sublime universal message of brotherhood under the sovereignty of God.

The Sheikh was often quoted as saying, “wherever the name of Allah is invoked, this is my country”.

Biographers differ as to the exact date of his birth. However, it is widely assumed that he was born around 1880 at a small village called Jableh near the northern city of Latakia along the Syrian coast.

At an early age, the young Izzedin joined the local religious school at the village, learning the basics of Arabic, as well as the Qur’an and Hadith (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammed peace be upon him).

Then a few years later, probably at the age of 15 or 16, he went to Cairo to study the Shari`ah disciplines at Al-Azhar University.

He stayed in Egypt for nine years during which he broadened his horizons and became well-acquainted with contemporary conditions throughout the Muslim world. At the age of 25, he returned to Syria where he began teaching and preaching at local mosques.

However, unlike many of his contemporary `ulamaa’ , the Sheikh’s attention was not solely  focused on  teaching Shari`ah and fighting illiteracy.

He also was preparing the Umma for resisting and repulsing the onslaught of Western invasions and occupations, which no Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa was able to escape.

In the early 1920s, when the Italian armies occupied Libya, the Sheikh instigated the people to rise up against Western colonialism.

Fighting Occupation
The Sheikh knew that the French were closing in on him.
He would even lead protests against Italians, exhorting people to donate money for the Libyan Mujahedeen.

According to one account, the Sheikh sold his own home in his native village of Jableh in order to purchase weapons to support the Libyan resistance under the command of Sheikh Omar Al-Mukhtar.

When the Syrian people began rising up against the French occupation, Sheikh Al-Qassam was at the forefront of the revolution, infuriating the occupation authorities.

At the beginning, the French tried the “carrot approach” with him, but he rejected rather contemptuously French solicitations and any form of cooperation with the colonialist governments.

Faced with his uncompromising attitude toward them, the French forces tried to assassinate him. However, after months of hiding and fighting, the Sheikh knew that the French were closing in on him.

He decided to move to Damascus where he took part in the famous battle of  “Maysaloun”, where the outnumbered and poor-armed small Syrian force  tried desperately to repulse the French invaders, but to no avail.

In Palestine
Al-Qassam was a great tactician as he was preparing for a long struggle against the British mandate authorities.

As the French were hounding the Sheikh and other leaders of the Syrian uprising, Izzedin Al-Qassam decided to move southward to Haifa, Palestine, in 1922.

In Palestine, the Sheikh was soon able to win the hearts of ordinary people, and he became the Imam and preacher of the Al-Istiklal Mosque in the city.

In his sermons, the Sheikh taught that Muslims ought to repulse and actively resist foreign invaders, such as the French in Syria and the British in Palestine, saying that any Muslim who falls dead fighting the invaders would be a living martyr in the companionship of prophets and saints.

In addition to his role in fostering religious learning and Muslim awareness, the Sheikh traveled throughout Palestine, urging the people to prepare for Jihad (holy striving) against the British mandate authorities, which were allowing large numbers of Jewish immigrants to settle in Palestine to implement the infamous Balfour Declaration.

The Sheikh was a firm believer in Muslim empowerment. In 1929, it was rumored that Jewish immigrants were planning to burn down the Al-Istiklal Mosque in Haifa.

Some of his followers suggested that they contact the British authorities to foil the Jewish plan.

However, the Sheikh adamantly refused the suggestion, saying that Muslims ought to defend their mosques with their own blood.

A mosque that is protected by the enemy is not worth maintaining, he said.

He also urged the people of Palestine to sell even their wives’ jewelry and buy weapons to defend their land, honor, and dignity.

One day, as he was preaching, he showed a gun he was hiding under his robe, telling the audience “he among you who truly believes in God and the Day of Judgment should own one like this”.

The Sheikh did not like excessive decorations of Mosques, saying that money ought to be spent on procuring weapons to fight the invaders.

He knew that Zionists were planning to take over Palestine and annihilate or expel its people. His prophecy has been amply vindicated.

Al-Qassam was a great tactician as he was preparing for a long struggle against the British mandate authorities. This, he realized, required immense resources, national unity and resilience.

“If we do not help ourselves, none is going to help you”, he would always warn the resistance fighters.

In 1934 til 1935, the resistance operations were beginning to make one success after the other as the Sheikh-led operations spread in the regions of Tulkarm, Nablus, and Jenin.

The Mujahedeen hunted down a number of British officers, attacked British army garrisons, and liquidated collaborators who informed on the resistance.

Al-Qassam’s Death

The successes of the resistance generated a lot of enthusiasm among ordinary people, prompting many young people to join the ranks of the Mujahedeen.

Predictably, this infuriated the British authorities, which reacted by launching a witch-hunt campaign against him.

However, instead of escaping or hiding, the Sheikh formally declared the revolution in the woods of the town of Ya’abud near Jenin.

Soon, however, the British forces were able to locate the Sheikh and his fellow fighters. In addition, a large force was dispatched in an effort to get him dead or alive.

However, the Sheikh refused to surrender and a fierce battle ensued in which many British soldiers lost their lives.

On November 20, the body of Sheikh and those of some of his companions were found at the battleground

His martyrdom shocked Palestine in its entirety as tens of thousands of people took part in his funeral procession in Haifa.

Khalid Amayreh is a journalist living in Palestine. He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Southern Illinois in 1983. Since the 1990s, Mr. Amayreh has been working and writing for several news outlets among which is, Al-Ahram Weekly, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), and Middle East International. He can be reached through [email protected].


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