Muhammad `Izzuddin al-Qassam was born in 1300 H 1883-82 CE in Jabalah, a small port city along the eastern Mediterranean coastline of what is now called Syria. His father `Abdul Qader al-Qassam and grandfather Mustafa al-Qassam came from Iraq and settled in Jabalah, both were scholars of the Qadiriyyah Sufi order. His father had two wives and `Izzuddin was from the second wife and had 6 brothers and a sister. His family was religious and well respected for their knowledge in religion and mystic ways, which were widely believed during that period. `Izzuddin had informal education in Jabalah where he studied the Qur’an, mathematics, and basic Islamic education. He later attended classes in Arabic language, Prophetic traditions, jurisprudence and interpretation of the Qur’an. His father realized his interest in continuing studies and sent him to al-Azhar. Upon his return, he married Ameena Nanooe who gave birth to three daughters, `A’isha, Maymunah, and Khadeejah and one son, Muhammad.
Not long after his return from Egypt, al-Qassam headed to Turkey for higher knowledge. The aim of this journey was to learn out the techniques of disseminating knowledge among the masses, and Istanbul was, he thought, an ideal place for this, as it was the capital of the caliphate. However, al-Qassam was dismayed to find the level of ignorance in religion, touching every city and village he visited where some were not familiar with even practices of ablution and prayer. Illiteracy was rampant and he stood there in mosques preaching and teaching but to no avail, the lot there did not understand Arabic.
He could see that ignorance was the reason behind every corruption and backwardness in the Islamic regions, including his own Jabalah, and such ignorance was the reason for oppression and tyranny in the society. He therefore returned to Jabalah with unwavering determination to take up the mission of educating the masses. He began with teaching children in the mornings and adults in the evenings and employed all his energy and abilities for the cause. He knocked on doors in the village and urged people to send their children for classes and emphasized that it was more important than sending them to learn plowing in the fields or fishing at the shoreline. He even continued to deliver lectures in the mosquewhere he taught prophetic traditions and Qur’anic interpretation even after he was appointed by the military recruitment cell in Jabalah. The name of al-Qassam had become so common among the people in many cities that even women and children were familiar with it for he visited their houses, attended their functions and taught and lectured in their mosques.
People from nearby and distant villages swarmed the central mosque of the town to listen to al-Qassam’s new style of Friday’s speeches, which moved their emotions, addressed their daily concerns and presented authentic Islam. Friday Congregation speeches had usually started with praising the Sultan and commending the local civil servants, but al-Qassam changed the practice and started speeches with exhorting the people to revolt against oppression and fight against poverty by persistent hard work, cooperation, and love. His speeches exuded with the spirit of equality and abhorrence of the social stratification practices installed by the feudal system. He emphasized that the only criterion by which people are judged is that of their level of God-consciousness.
As against the movements of al-Afghani and Muhammad `Abduh, who addressed the intellectual class, al-Qassam had the precedence of being the leader in reviving the Jihad movement as a principle of unity among masses of the Islamic community.
The news of the Italian navy besieging the Libyan city of Tripoli sent shock waves among the masses in Syria who came out in massive angry demonstrations. The inflammatory words of al-Qassam who led the demonstrations in various cities and villages of the coastal part of Syria were instrumental in rousing the emotions in that part of the Islamic world. After the Italians actually occupied Libya, the strategy of al-Qassam changed from mere demonstrating and threatening to effective recruiting of volunteers among the youths to fight along side their Libyan brethren. Hundreds of youths joined al-Qassam who then wrote to the Ottoman prime minister asking for his consent to transfer the volunteers to Alexandrona from where a ship was supposed to take them to Libya. He gave ideological and military training to the youths and provided them with necessary funds and rations for themselves and their families. The batch went as far as the port city. Their wait for the ship lasted more than 40 days but no ship arrived and ultimately the volunteers dispersed. Qassam himself went up to Libya along with Shakeeb Arsalan and some of the volunteers where they met Libyan fighters to hand over the funds they had collected.
Regarding the participation of Qassam in the rebellion of the Arabs against the Ottoman Caliphate, there’s no clear evidence to that effect although it is known that he was not happy with the prevailing political, economic, social and cultural conditions. However, he was not authentically quoted to have called for separation but rather worked to reform the society in the fields neglected by the state. The Arabs had agreed unanimously on a peaceful and reforms-oriented revolution against the Ottoman state initially and opposition surfaced when their option rested upon the military revolution and the seeking of independence. The stance of al-Qassam in the Arab revolution was not documented by most of his biographies.
To make it short, he did not take part in the revolution brought about by al-Hussein b. Ali, the Shareef of Makkah, who had been promised kingship of the Arab world if he assisted the British in their fight against the Turks in the Middle East during the first world war. Qassam was working in the recruitment cell of the Ottoman army in Jabalah during that period and was transferred to Damascus when the first world war erupted in 1914.
-The Struggle Against the French
British forces failed to enter Palestine till July 1917 due to the resistance offered by the Ottoman forces. After al-Shareef Hussein of Makkah declared war against the Ottoman in 1916, the Turkish forces found themselves attacked from two fronts, British invaders from outside and Arab subjects from inside. Though the Turks sent envoys to the Shareef in Makkah and showed him a copy of the Sykes Picot agreement between France and Britain to share and colonize the Arab world, the Shareef was not convinced and sought clarification from the British. Britain denied what was published in the agreement and the Shareef believed the sham and expelled the Turkish envoys. Soon, Britain gave its promise to the Jews to establish aJewish state in Palestine, this was met with anger initially, but the Arabs were pacified when Britain assured them that this promise would not impinge on its obligations towards them.
The French navy occupied al-Laziqiyya port and the other cities along the Syrian coast in Oct 1918. Qassam was the first to take up his gun against the French in that area. It is agreed that the Arab states in general, and the rural areas in particular, were – during the Ottoman reign – very poor and devoid of even rudimentary industries. The civilization that peaked during the `Abbasid and Ayyubi era, came to a standstill; and then declined drastically towards the end of the Ottoman reign. Suffice it to say that 90% of the wealth was in the hands of the feudalists and those who worked to collect the taxes for the state. However, neither economic hardships nor the absence of a leader, after removal of the Ottoman caliph, prevented al-Qassam and his counterparts in the struggle from performing their duty against the French occupation.
Qassam gave back the mosque its old mission of being, other than a place of worship and a school where people learn their religion, a center to call for Jihad. Then came the question of procurement of weapons. Qassam set an example by selling his own house for that purpose. The third stage was that of imparting military training to the volunteers in a sea gulf south to Jabalah as al-Qassam had received military training during his stint in the Ottoman army. In the fourth stage Qassam had to move to the surrounding mountains because of the French spies. This was too challenging for the French so they attempted to win al-Qassam over with promises of blanket amnesty and appointment as a judge in his hometown, but he rejected all the offers. They French-loyalist Alawite regime in Damascus sentenced al-Qassam to death in absentia and published his name along with others among the Mujahideen. His group was not the only one battling against the French; three other groups fought the French in Syria and had established contacts with each other to coordinate work. The famous raid in Banya area by al-Qassam inflicted heavy causalities on the French, followed by another defeat for the French near al-Neeha village. This drove the French to attack coastal villages and commit a massacre against unarmed villagers 170 of whom were shot dead in one village alone. The regime in Damascus blamed al-Qassam and his group for the suffering of the peasant population and placed a reward of 10,000 Liras on his head. The struggle subsided as supplies were cut off by the villagers due to their anxiety of the consequences. The French resorted to burning crops and demolishing houses in order to terrorize the peasant population away from supporting the fighters. The political leadership too vanished in Damascus with the departure of King Faisal to Iraq. Al-Qassam shifted his Jihadist activities to Haifa in Palestine after a brief stay in Akka in Palestine.
Al-Qassam reached Palestine in 1920, and was appointed a teacher in Haifa in April 1921. A taxi driver drove his wife and children from Beirut faking that they were his wife and children. After his martyrdom, a broadcast by the Arab Party recognized al-Qassam’s family in Haifa as consisting of 3 daughters, a son of 9 years, wife, sister and his mother. He nurtured the culture of Jihad in the children of the school where he worked as a teacher in Haifa.
Haifa had remained neglected till the 19th century when it started receiving many immigrants and foreign expatriates. Christian missionaries too came to Haifa and at least 100 German families are known to have settled in Haifa at that time. The modern history of Haifa commenced at the launching of the Hijaz railway track, which linked it to Damascus and Hijaz in 1905 and later when the first train from Egypt reached it in 1918. The port city also was the route through which Iraqi oil poured into oil tankers to reach Europe through the Mediterranean after being refined in Haifa. In 1933, the port was expanded to become the second important port in the Mediterranean after that of Marseilles and became a lifeline for Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran and other Asian countries. Workers from Syria and Egypt flocked to the city and its commerce life prospered to see Syrian businessmen competing successfully against their Jewish counterparts. Due to these privileged circumstances in the city, laborers organized themselves into unions and established welfare funds and cooperative societies. It is worth mentioning that these workers were good Muslims and attended speeches in the mosques regularly. This gave al-Qassam ample opportunity to alert these Muslims to the danger of the Jewish immigration.
Qassam took up teaching in the Islamic girl’s school first and in al-Burj Islamic School later. Both schools were run by the Islamic society in Haifa and he worked there receiving a salary of 4 or 5 pounds. His students spoke later how al-Qassam, in addition to the teaching of the prescribed syllabus, conducted exercises to cultivate desired Islamic qualities using theatrical plays, as one of the tools, where heroic Islamic characters like that of Salahuddin and famous Islamic battles of Hitteen and `Ayn-Jalut were enacted. He also gave attention to vocational training among the students and spoke of the necessity of having trained farmers, carpenters, etc, who contribute to what he called the economy of war. He employed interactive techniques in teaching and engaged the students in discussions. The school was run on purely commercial basis. Qassam continued working there till 1925 when he resigned due to his objections to the school’s policy of using violent punishment for the students and curtailment of the scouts’ activities in the school. Apart from his teaching job, Qassam also worked among the laborers and peasants, educating them. He also delivered lectures at the mosque inspiring many.
-Imam of the Istiqlal Mosque
Al-Qassam became the Imam of the Istiqlal mosque in 1925. The Sheikh’s fame reached there before him. People from surrounding villages flocked to listen to his speeches on Jihad. Initially the people initially were not able to appreciate the importance of Jihad for they had been stagnant. They were bewildered as to whom to believe. Some leaders trusted the British due to their ignorance and others looked for personal advantages in their support of the British. But al-Qassam declared from the Istiqlal mosque that the British were the real enemies who should be driven out of Palestine. In one Friday congregation speech in 1927, he warned against failing to appreciate the gravity of the Jewish immigration to Palestine and exhorted the people to treat them as enemies and not as guests like what the Shareef of Makkah pronounced. He called upon the people to declare civil disobedience to the British who kept misleading the people through some leaders that the Jewish dream of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was not realizable. He also criticized the policy of the High Islamic Council of concentrating on decorating mosques and directed the people to spare their money for the purchase of weapons to defend the same mosques. Once he even suggested postponement of the Hajj obligation and spend ing the money needed for buying weapons to defend the land. He was incensed when rumors of a Jewish attack on the mosque in 1929 made the senior citizens of the city suggest calling upon the British to provide a security force for the mosque and said in that occasion that mosques are to be protected by the believers only and called the suggestion a cowardly one and an indication of meekness and subservience. The authorities called him for questioning over this issue which he did not deny and the city declared a general strike when he was put in custody.
-Preparations for Jihad
Al-Qassam used his contacts in the mosque to assess the national resources and competence for Jihad against the British and Jewish enemies and found out that the local potential was superior to that of the enemies and it therefore confirmed his idea of military means in the struggle. The number of Jews in 1922 was 83,000 and formed 11% of the total population of Palestine which became 16% by 1931. The British forces, which protected the Jews, asked for reinforcements that came from the command center in Egypt. During the 1936 revolution, the British forces were helpless in controlling the state of affairs and the Mujahideen all but succeeded in liberating vast areas of Palestine had it not been for the pressure exerted by those British-appointed regimes who continued spreading dispiriting propaganda that the British forces were militarily superior to the Arabs.
Al-Qassam while focused on Jihad did not neglect other important issues in his Islamic revival mission: Islamic creed, removal of innovations, and countering un-Islamic ideological movements.
Haifa was the hub of two devious cults, Bahaism and Qadiyanism, the former originated in Iran and then banished to Haifa by the Caliph; the second was born in the Punjab province of India and whose followers settled near Akka in Palestine. Both cults received support from the British. Al-Qassam worked to expose these sects and their designs against the Ummah.
In the meantime, Qassam applied for, and became a marriage official, as the post promised wide interaction with the masses.
Qassam became the President of the Muslim Society set up in 1928 which he used as a new platform for educating the youth, as well as a base to train young men in the use of weaponry. The Muslim Youth organization was a corollary to the launching of the Christian youth Society in Palestine.
Haifa, being the largest port in Palestine and a station along the Hijaz railway track, was the destination of thousands of peasants who were displaced from their villages; they inhabited tin-roofed houses. Qassam worked hard among these poor people to guide, educate and infuse them with faith-derived dignity to make them among the first to answer his call for Jihad. He established a school for these illiterate laborers, which played a tremendous role in spreading national awareness in their ranks. He was always close to them, visiting their houses and attending their functions. He and al-Qassab co-authored a book in which they analyzed and censured innovations in detail, They dispatched their work to 17 scholars representing the four main schools of jurisprudence in Syria, Beirut, Iraq and Egypt, who all agreed on the necessity of discarding these practices.
But the main cause of his life was Jihad. He called openly in his speeches from the mosque to fight the British occupation and its supporters. The British mandate authority summoned him to question him on his interpretation of the verse “And prepare against them (O believers) whatever you are able of power and of steeds (of war) to terrify thereby Allah’s enemy, and your enemy, and those others besides them whom you do not know. Allah knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of Allah will be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged” – (Al-Anfal: 60) and he answered that it was a verse of the Qur’an which cannot be taken in parts and that he was duty-bound to explain it correctly. In a speech, he exhorted the congregation to battle the enemies and when asked how they could do it when they possessed no weapons, he replied, ‘by killing them and seizing their weapons.’ Once he brought a pistol inside a mosque in Jenine and said that whoever believes in Allah and the Day of Judgment should own one like this, showing the pistol to the congregation.
He had read widely on the subjects of the Prophet’s battles, history of Islamic conquests, biographies of the leaders among the Companions of the prophet and the chronicles of the martyrs of Jihad; he also studied the Islamic history of later centuries and the reasons of strength and weakness during them. His insight into the state of affairs and his prescription of remedies worried the British as it was the first time they faced this type of political Islam which took interest in current circumstances and political developments. They never objected to Islamic rites in mosques or outside but were stunned by a pristine brand of men who took up the society’s issues and expressed Islam’s political views.
The Jihadist culture of al-Qassam had a genuine Islamic outlook even in adopting the more comprehensive term of Jihad over other expressions of similar connotations like those of struggle, revolution, etc. The slogan adopted by al-Qassam’s company of “this is Jihad for victory or martyrdom” shows the difference between Jihad and other wars and confrontations witnessed in the near history. He instructed each of his company to carry a copy of the Qur’an to read during spare time and stressed on the importance of learning by heart the verses that motivate one to Jihad. The same attention was given to the study of Jihad-oriented prophetic traditions, Islamic conquests, and biographies of Mujahideen companions of theProphet and others of the following times. Another important aspect of this culture was in identifying Jihad as a comprehensive nurturing element of a person that includes Islamic manners after fulfilling the obligations. Helping the poor, feeding the needy and visiting the sick are virtues that were as important as Jihad. While recruiting, he focused on the poor sections of the society, particularly those among the peasant and labourer class, for they resembled the followers of the Prophets who were mostly poor people who had no wealth or posts and status in life to worry themselves with.
He used secrecy and caution in recruiting volunteers, as not everyone showing eagerness to join Jihad would be fit for membership to a formation surrounded by shrewd enemies. He saw that every one seeming fit to join the formation should display qualities of readiness to sacrifice his life in the path of Allah. This was done at the mosque where he scrutinized the faces, studied the characters and exchanged visits before allowing someone to join. He then initiated the recruit into a group of five people, appointing a head for each such band. He conducted evening classes to eradicate illiteracy among these people and advised measures to improve their living standards. He also worked on aberrant youths and reformed them to become active in the work of Jihad; Hassan al-Bayer was an example of these. Three years of painstaking work resulted in the formation of 12 such bands that operated singly. The number of the members of each band was raised to 9 later in the fifties. Historians differed on the number of those enrolled in al-Qassam’s formations; some mentioned they numbered around 400 while others suggested they were more than one thousand.
The general command assigned tasks to specialized groups in the formation and there were groups to perform particular duties; for example there was a group involved in procuring weapons, another for gathering intelligence and others for military training, political liaison and finance.
Subhi Yaseen mentions that the formation had, by the end of 1935, stockpiled 1000 guns and arranged for an armament base in coastal Syria and a meeting was held on that day in which a resolution to launch overt Jihad was passed.
Al-Qassam and his men never adopted any name for their movement nor approved a constitution; they didn’t even register the names of the members.
The Haifa group was the only formation al-Qassam succeeded in organizing while other bands were organized and headed by those who were influenced by the call towards Jihad. The committees appointed for different tasks by al-Qassam were temporary arrangements for the short goal of launching Jihad from Haifa only.
Qassam maintained good relations with most of the Palestinian leaders at that time but never revealed to any of them what he intended or planned to do. He looked forward to having influential and rich people in the group but he recognized they were more acclimatized to being at the helm of affairs and would without any doubt refrain from joining a group led by a peasant or a poor laborer. On the opposite front, having received permission by the British to come in, the Jews were pouring into Palestine from European and other countries, their numbers were steadily rising, and they were acting with increasing confidence. On the other hand the Palestinian and Arab leaders were insisting on peaceful negotiations, while their enemies were planning the establishment of an Israeli State.
-In the Field of Jihad
Beginnings of Jihad were in the form of operations at individual or band levels. Although Qassam was not involved in other Jihadi groups, he was deeply upset when the British hanged the martyrs of the Buraq revolution in 1930. There were others of al-Qassam’s students who participated in the revolution like `Abdullah al-Asbah and Sheikh Farmhand al-Sa`di from Safad and Jenine respectively. The period from 1931 to 1935 witnessed many operations that proved al-Qassam had a hand in the increasing resistance around Haifa and even further north of Palestine. The British were angered and alarmed. They and the Jews raised the level of alertness and sent their spies to find out who was behind the spiraling numbers of operations against Jewish targets but could not ascertain the link between al-Qassam and the attackers. They even summoned him to the police station in Haifa and interrogated him but he was released; they could not indict him due to dearth of evidence towards his involvement.
Ibrahim al-Sheikh, the closest associate of al-Qassam in his Jihadist mission, said that al-Qassam in the beginning of 1935 saw that the colonization had kept strict vigilance over their movements and he feared an untimely arrest of the elite of his companions, many others of his associates confirmed these fears. The un-ceasing Jewish immigration to Palestine was another factor that impelled al-Qassam to proclaim Jihad openly against the Jews and the British. The British high commissioner in Palestine wrote then to the colonies’ ministry in Britain that one-fifth of the Palestinian villagers no more owned lands and that the number of unemployed laborers in the cities was mounting. In 1935, the discovery of a huge consignment of arms being smuggled for the Jews through the port of Yafa drove al-Qassam to declare Jihad openly, knowing that if they did not launch Jihad, the Jews would be the ones whould start attacking them.
In his last speech in the Istiqlal mosque, he appealed for open Jihad, an hour before the authorities came searching for him but, by then, he had seen off his family and left for the hills. A car had been waiting for him in front of the mosque after the speech and he was never seen in Haifa after that. Qassam and his close associates stayed in a cave near the village and an incident in which a Jewish policeman was killed on November1935 alerted the authorities to the link between al-Qassam’s absence from Haifa and the presence of a Jihadist cell in the area. Spies were moving around to locate them and a few skirmishes resulted with the police forces searching them.
One morning, as they had taken refuge in a village, one of Qassam’s assistants, Badawi, spotted policemen advancing against their positions. He alerted his colleagues to take positions and started firing. There were 9 of them and the police force numbered 200 to 400. But al-Qassam ordered him to stretch out on the ground. He then signaled them to retreat and move inside the forest behind them. He ordered his men to avoid firing at the Arab policemen who were put on the front lines by the British. The density of the tree cover in the forest helped the men to change their positions throughout the battle that lasted from the early morning to late afternoon. The men could have got away or surrendered particularly after the British commander offered them reprieve if they surrendered but they were all determined to fight till death. Al-Qassam died along with three of his men in the battle and the rest were wounded and arrested.
Those who were arrested during the operation were taken to court where they confessed to taking up arms and fighting the British occupation; thus giving an eye opener to the people of the obligation of Jihad and sacrifice. The Qassamites later didn’t put down their arms after his death but launched the 1936-39 revolution under the leadership of Sheikh Farhan al-Sa`di.