The Qubaysi Women's Islamic Movement by Ibrahim Hamidi
Ibrahim Hamidi wrote a fine article on the Qubaysi women preachers who are spreading the word of Islam with government support in Syria. The article which originally apeared in al-Hayat on May 3, has now been translated by BBC Monitoring online:
Syrian Islamic women preachers get government nod - Arab paper
"The Qubaysi ladies take up Islamic preaching in Syria with government approval"
The followers of Miss Munirah al-Qubaysi are not confined to Syria and the Arab states. Indeed, the "Sisters" salons are to be found in Paris, Vienna, and the United States. The Qubaysis are Islamic women preachers who triggered controversies and divisions within Islamic circles in Syria. With the expansion of areas in which Qubaysi women are active in Syrian, Arab, and foreign homes, streets, and schools, tales and myths about this movement became more exciting. The controversy over the "Sisters" has finally reached the Internet where some accuse them of forming a serious secret organization, whereas others praise these women preachers as having been capable of doing what men were unable to do.
Despite the guardedness of clergymen and experts when speaking about the "Qubaysi Sisters," there is an attempt to understand their ideas, the organization to which they belong, and the organizing form that connects the preachers of all ages together.
The Qubaysi Movement created a big problem within Syrian religious circles. Some hold it to be an infidel movement and some are interested in many details of the lives of its activists. Kamal Shahin (?) writes on the Zargar Internet site [http://www.rezgar.com] that the Qubaysis consider that "the good woman is created for the home". Other critical internet articles are based on a study by Usamah al-Sayyid, who is very close to the "Al-Ahbash" group, entitled "A serious women secret organization". He discusses some of the thoughts of Munirah al-Qubaysia and Amirah Jibril, Sahar Harbi in Lebanon, and Fadiyah al-Tabba in Jordan.
In the "Muntada al-Saqifah" site [http://www.alsakifah.org/], one of the "Sisters" published a long article based on this study, saying that this group was a Sophist group named after a Syrian woman."
The study points out that the Qubaysis rely on secrecy in their Islamic call and that they do not explain the facts about their creed and ideas until the new member has spent a long time "in the field of the Islamic call." The study reveals that the "Sisters" are always eager to win over women with high positions, rich women, and daughters of big families to add them to the group. Then the member reaches the stage at which she can be trusted, they reveal further secrets to her. According to this study, they hold Ibn-Arabi and Al-Hallaj [ancient Arab Sophists] in high esteem. They stress that one should not argue with the Shaykhah [female shaykh] and loving her is part of the love for the Messenger of God [Muhammad]. The member is just a body created by God for the love of and devotion to "The Miss" [Al-Anisah, alluding to Munirah al-Qubaysi].
One of their tenets is: "No knowledge can be attained and no way to reach God without a mentor." The visit to Syria is considered a duty or a dream for anyone who is permitted to do so. The study says that the group is based on both covert and overt knowledge. The covert knowledge is called Al-Laduni [sophism: knowledge imparted directly by God through mystic intuition]." In Kuwait, a number of fatwas [Islamic religious rulings] were issued against them. The Qubaysis believe that they contributed to liberating Kuwait through prayers.
Those who oppose the Qubaysis are also of the opinion that the movement is based on the "unity of existence, the holiness of the Shaykhah, and the kissing of her hands and sometimes her feet." They believe that "everything that you aspire for exists in God," something which Shaykhah Nawal emphasizes in her book "Selections of good religious songs." She says: "Existence is your [God's] good presence." The first book says that "Our shaykhah is with us wherever we go," and that "her order is obeyed", and that "this obedience is better than obeying the father, husband, or the guardian." This is based on their tenet: "No knowledge of or way to God without an educator," and: "Who asks a shaykhah why will never succeed."
However, the Islamic deputy Habash presents a different description. He says: "It all begins with the Shaykhah. The benefit can be attained by coming closer to her and not only learning from her." Thus, the vertical structure is based on the arrangement of levels, and the more important the preacher, the higher her level will be, and she will approach the status of 'The Miss.'" However, he adds that the phenomenon is "good and it prevents immorality and extremism among women," and that Miss Munirah "imparted the spirit, which made the movement spread like mushrooms. It did not spread in a ceremonial manner but in a vertical manner. [sentence as published] It is a model for the conservative trend that endeavours to serve Islamic morals in traditional ways," which includes schools, institutions, and house meetings.
For his part, and in a recent press interview, Syrian Awqaf Minister Dr Ziyad-al-Din al-Ayyubi objected to calling Munirah's followers Qubaysis, denying that she is teaching wives of officials and the rich in Syria with the aim of realizing power, ensuring influence, and as a protective umbrella permitting her to acquire teaching licenses in schools and mosques and solving problems as they appear. However, Al-Buti holds a different view of Qubaysis. He says: "Syrian women are playing a distinctive role in the Islamic call and I hope men would do the same," pointing out the success of the Qubaysis has been possible for many reasons, such as "avoiding political currents, avoiding controversial areas and issues, and concentrating on Islamic unity and the spiritual side of Islam without neglecting the side of knowledge."
It was impossible to arrange for an interview with "The Miss" because many senior women preachers have never seen Munirah al-Qubaysi in their lives. The most that Al-Hayat could get was a description of "The Miss" by shaykhs who had seen her years ago and women preachers who saw her recently.
Two clergymen described to Al-Hayat the face of Munirah al-Qubaysi as looking like the Mona Lisa. Kiftaru says that she is dark and tall and she was rarely seen without a black veil. She lives in an area located between the Al-Sha'lan and Al-Rawdah Streets in Damascus, with a number of Misses and preachers who are close to her. It was said that she suffers from certain illnesses. She is called the "Biggest Shaykhah," the "Younger Miss," or the "Mother Miss." However, the most popular name is "The Miss."
At the forefront of the Qubaysis, there are a number of unmarried Misses, like Munirah. And although the frontline preachers include Amirah Jibril, sister of Ahmad Jibril, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, who was known for his leftist ideology decades ago, the other preachers are from the rich class in Damascus, including Misses Khayr juha, Muna Quwaydir, Dalal al-Shishakli (died some time ago), Nahidah taraqji, Fa'izah al-Tabba, Fatimah Ghabbaz, Nabilah al-Kuzbari, Raja Tsabihji, and Dr Sariyah al-Zayid, who was very famous for her vast knowledge, having authored a 10-volume book called "Al-Jami on the Prophet's life," and an abridged version of Al-Jami in two parts in the mid 1990's. There is also Su'ad Maybar, who teaches at the Islamic Fath [conquest] Institute and author of the book "Monotheism in the Koran and the Prophet's Tradition."
It is noteworthy that Dr Al-Buti wrote the introduction of the first edition of the Al-Jami in 1994. He said: "I congratulate the Miss who wrote this book in accordance with the ideal scientific methods in promoting the Prophet's life, the Prophet's tradition, and the Islamic jurisprudence and culture, an effort in which she surpassed men in this age."
Despite the fact that many single women are among the women preachers, nobody offered an explanation. While some of the critics of the group attribute this to the fact that "they do not want to divide their attention between a husband and The Miss," and that they prefer the after life to this mundane life, Kiftaru found this strange because "Islam rejects celibacy." However, others belittled the importance of this. They indeed think the contrary to be true, saying that the Qubaysis are active in arranging marriages and this perhaps was one of the reasons why the movement spread and attained influence through marriages between the preachers on the one hand and businessmen, influential people, and expatriates on the other. Marriages with young expatriates and expatriate businessmen helped convene Qubaysi's salons in France, Austria, and the United States.
The second degree preachers graduated from the Qubaysi schools and established elementary schools. Showing a degree of intelligence, Munirah combined the desire for investment with the desire to spread the Islamic call. She encouraged women to invest in elementary schools. According to available information, there are many elementary schools belonging to the Qubaysis. These schools are mostly called "houses," such as the Al-Farah House, which is run by Muna Quwaydir in Al-Muhajirin Neighbourhood, the Al-Na'im House, the Umar Bin-al-Khattab school in Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood, the Umar Ain-Abd-al-Aziz school in Al-Hamah Neighbourhood, and Dawhat al-Majd in Al-Maliki Neighbourhood, Al-Basha'ir in Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood, and Al-Bawadir in Kfar Susah Neighbourhood. The Al-Bawadir school headmistress says that her school is just like other private schools. It uses the Syrian Education Ministry's curricula and teaches the same syllabus. However, additional lessons are represented by religious lessons to practice religion and hold social activities outside official working hours in addition to organizing religious competitions. However, the most important element is that most of the teachers wear the hijab. The headmistress, who declined to reveal her name, said: "We teach the child good manners, truthfulness, honesty, morality, and respect for their parents."
This seems to be a representative story because it sheds light on the spreading of the Qubaysi schools. Al-Bawadir school was established in 1977. It was an ordinary school. However, Al-Mallah family had a small school in the Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood and it was always successful because of its emphasis on religion and its efforts to protect people's traditions. The headmistress says: "In 1999, my brothers bought this school. We added many classrooms because it became very popular."
The middle class families preferred these schools to others because the fees of other private schools amount to several thousands of dollars compared to a few tens of dollars in Al-Bawadir and other similar schools. Thus, the economic dimension is combined with the moral dimension in making these schools successful and spreading them in large numbers in Damascus and other towns. A secular parent said: "I used to send my children to a Christian private school but my son once asked me whether he was a Christian or Muslim. I then decided to transfer him to the Umar Bin-al-Khattab School in the Al-Mazzah neighbourhood."
The Qubaysis supervise the teaching of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren from an early age and in a conservative manner. This continues in later phases through religious lessons and mosque lectures. They also take care of them through charity and people's contributions, offering some medical services in the Salamah Hospital, which is situated behind the American Embassy and which is affiliated with it. The Qubaysis also provide some books on their thought in bookshops they own such as the Al-Salam bookshop in the Al-Baramikah Neighbourhood in the centre of Damascus.
A girl from the Al-Qanawat Neighbourhood in old Damascus say that most of the teachers were pretty and from the Qubaysis and that the mathematics schoolteacher tried to convince her to wear the hijab. She says: "The Miss used to wear the black blue overcoat and the dark blue headdress. Under the overcoat, she wore a blue skirt and a white blouse and thick stockings and heelless black shoes." She adds: "She once asked me if I would withstand the heat of summer in such clothes? I said: No. Then she said: What about the fire of hell? When she failed to convince me of wearing the hijab, a number of hijab-wearing women invited me to a birthday party for one of them but I was surprised to find that the entire discussion was on the need to wear the hijab."
The home activities of the Qubaysis depend on the surroundings in terms of security, politics, and religion in the country and in the region. The latest three decades have seen them move from open activities, giving lessons in mosques and schools, to confining their activities to private homes. Habash says that their most prominent characteristic was "their keeping away from politics, whether in support of or against the regime. The group has not been involved in any act against the country." We must understand that this period witnessed fierce armed struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood organization and the authorities in the late 1970's and in the early 1980's.
While independent experts think that the Qubaysis constitute the female shadow of political Islam, Habash says: "They have no political project. They resorted to secret activities because of Syria's circumstances in the 1980's. This means that they are not an organization but cells that grow in a spiral and mushrooming manner.
What is meant by secrecy is that in the previous years, the Qubaysis were cautious while moving about or gathering in private homes to give religious lessons periodically. They were careful not to come out in large numbers after the end of the class and that the class should not be attended by more than six students, except on public holidays such as the Prophet's birthday or the Laylat al-Qadr. It is believed that religious and social occasions provided an opportunity to win over new members. It is said that the rank of the Qubaysi woman is characterized by the colour of her attire. The darker the colour the closer the preacher becomes to Miss Munirah. However, it is certain that the unified and official uniform is the dark blue coat with a dark blue headdress under which the Qubaysi woman wears a piece of cloth to pull her hair together. Some of the Qubaysis wear a black veil, thick stockings, and heelless black shoes. The preachers emphasize that the eyebrows should not be plucked and no makeup should be placed on the face.
Al-Buti says: "They wear dark blue hijab to distinguish themselves from others. The veil is not compulsory. There is no compulsion until the girl is confirmed in religion and then she can wear the veil if she likes."
It was no coincidence that Miss Munirah should have chosen the dark blue colour because there was a widespread belief that this colour was a middle ground between black and white, between extremism and moderation. Al-Buti says: "They have intellectual and scientific approaches because most of them are graduates from universities as well as medical and engineering schools. They are open to ideas and are far from being extremist."
It is obvious that recently, the authorities encouraged the Qubaysis not to give lessons at homes by giving them licenses for open instead of secret classes. Salah-al-Din Kiftaru says: "Holding classes in private homes is terrifying. The national regime must reach these places with its tools and monitoring equipment. Therefore, the state has the right to prevent classes in private homes but not in mosques. Recently, the authorities allowed the Qubaysis to give lectures in the mosques of Al-Muhammadi, Badr, and Sa'd in Al-Maliki Neighbourhood. Al-Buti says that a number of shaykhs informed the authorities that it would be "in our interest to approve their working in the open. Give them documents enabling them to work in the open because their work is upright and nationalist. It is flawless and has nothing to do with politics."
The sons of Kiftaru and Al-Buti agree that the Qubaysi sisters always mention President Bashar al-Asad in their prayers without referring to politics. Al-Buti says: "Their loyalty to the homeland is immense."
Munirah was born in Damascus in 1933. She is one of a 10-member family: six boys - Bahjat, Walid, Muwaffaq, Mahir, Mumtaz, and Radwan - and they work in trade and in professions requiring high qualifications; and four girls, who are all housewives. Munirah studied in Damascus schools until she graduated in natural sciences. She used her degree to teach at the Al-Muhajirin Neighbourhood schools and other Damascus areas.
In the early 1960's she began to combine preaching with teaching because of her closeness to the Abu-al-Nur mosque, which belonged to the late Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Kiftaru. His son Hasan said: "As a result of her preaching activities, she was prevented from teaching in schools. This prevention by the then leftist government resulted in two things: The first was that Munirah resided at the Abu-al-Nur Mosque and started to learn at the hand of Kiftaru; and the second was her attending the Islamic Shari'ah College at the Damascus University.
Observers differ over what happened later. A researcher wrote that The rise of Wafa, the daughter of the late mufti Kiftaru, as a preacher at the Al-Nur Mosque and the sharp rivalry between the two women forced Munirah to leave the mosque and establish her own path and gather her followers independently, in terms of thought and finance.
Dr Mahmud Kiftaru, the second son of the late Mufti, said: "On the contrary, Wafa was a student of Miss Munirah and there was a difference in age, exceeding 20 years between the two, and this rules out any rivalry." Over the past two decades, Munirah al-Qubaysi's activities were either open or secret but by combining both kinds of activity, she was able to expand her work in Syrian governorates before her thoughts crossed the borders of Syria at first and then spread to the Arab world with the result that her followers exceeded 75,000 girls, according to estimates by observers and shaykhs.
Deputy Muhammad Habash says: "One of the reasons for Miss Munirah's success was her refusal to clash with any other group." She had good relations with Kuftaru and attended his intellectual meetings and learned his Sophist methods. Indeed, his son Salah-al-Din, director of the Abu-al-Nur complex, remembers how she asked him to be left alone with the body of Mufti Kiftaru at the Dar-al-Shifa Hospital after he died in the late 2004. He said that she remained by his side for over one and half hours."
Salah-al-Din adds: "Her relations with our family are old because her uncle Abu-al-Khayr al-Qubaysi was a companion of my grandfather Shaykh Amin." However, she also had intellectual, religious, and personal relations with the great thinker Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti. Indeed, he was very enthusiastic in his support for "the sisters who were a model in culture, religion, nationalism, and high ideals." She also had good relations with the followers of Shaykh Abd-al-Karim al-Rifa'i whose school is run by his daughter Sariyah and his son Usamah in the Kfar Susah Neighbourhood.
Munirah has never been distant from the Islamic Fath Institute, which is affiliated with the Al-Azhar University, and his rector the Damascus Mufti Shaykh Abd-al-Fattah al-Bazim and one of the institute's great figures Shaykh Hasan Farfur. She also had relations with the followers of Shaykh Badr-al-Din al-Hasani and the man who held an important position at the institute, Shaykh Abu-al-Khayr Shukri. Habash says: "Each of the religious groups in the country claims that she belongs to it or is close to it." Perhaps her success is attributed to the fact that most, if not all, of the wives or daughters of the senior shaykhs are from the Qubaysi preachers.
Source: Al-Hayat website, London, in Arabic 3 May 06