This article was first published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies 28 (1996), 217-229.

A. Nizar Hamzeh and R. Hrair Dekmejian


The rise and spread of Islamist political movements have been topics of focal concern for scholars and analysts in recent decades. Since Richard Mitchell's seminal work on the Muslim Brotherhood, a plethora of writers have analyzed the attributes of both Sunni and Shi'a revivalist movements and the policies of Arab regimes and the West toward the Islamist phenomenon.1 Yet scant attention has been paid to the reactions generated within the larger Islamic community toward the Islamist groups and their militant offshoots. One such unnoticed source of reaction to political Islamism is the nebulous confraternity of Sufi orders (turuq) whose mysticism and esoteric beliefs and practices have set them apart from the exoteric revivalism and political activism of the Islamist societies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its many affiliates.

The rivalry and controversies between Sufism and its legalist and conservative detractors go back to the early epochs of Muslim history. The Sufi orders that emerged in the crisis milieu of the 12th century represented a quest for gnosis, the mystical search for truth, in contrast to the disciplined legalism and conservatism of the ulama.2 As the guardians of the Islamic tradition and ethic, the ulama were the legitimizers of power and authoritative interpreters of the law. In terms of Weberian theory, the "traditional" and "legal-rational" authority of the ulama was undermined by the free-flowing "charismatic" authority of the Sufi shaykh.3

Yet under certain historical conditions, there was considerable coincidence and coexistence between the Sufi shaykhs and the ulama.4 Furthermore, not all Sufi shaykhs and movements were quietest in the religious and political spheres. For example, the Sanusiyyah began as a Sufi movement, but in its third generation became militant in response to French and Italian imperialism.5 Nor should it be forgotten that some prominent leaders of political Islamist movements-Sudan's Mahdi, Hasan al-Banna, and Ruhollah Khomeini-began their careers as Sufis. Under the impact of the crisis conditions of their respective social milieux, these men were propelled into lives of political activism.6 In the case of Banna, his MuslimBrotherhood emerged as a mass movement in response to the social changes that brought about the decline of the Sufi orders in Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries.7

The resurgence of Islamism after the 1967 war and its subsequent use by President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt as an antidote to Nasserism brought the Muslim Brotherhood into prominence as a prelude to its emergence as a part of mainstream Islam.8 With the rise of the Brotherhood's militant offshoots, and its growing criticism of Sadat's policies of rapprochement with the West and Israel, the government sought to strengthen the Sufi movement, which by this time was presenting itself as an Islamically legitimate but politically quietist, tolerant, and spiritually vibrant alternative to political Islamism.9 This pattern of mutual accord between the state and Sufism has persisted under President Husni Mubarak.10 Similar policies of governmental support for Sufism have been discerned in Syria and Saudi Arabia.11

A dominant theme in the ideology and activities of contemporary Sunni Islamist movements is a deep-seated opposition to Sufism. Despite past instances of convergence and overlapping between Sufi and revivalist movements, their mutual antagonism has become pronounced particularly in the contemporary milieu of heightened political Islamism. The doctrinal roots of opposition to Sufism among today's Sunni Islamists are found in the writings of the eminent 13th-century Hanbali 'alim Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya.12 In his quest to purify the Muslim faith, Ibn Taymiyya vigorously opposed Sufi pantheism and such practices as the worship of saints and pilgrimages to their shrines, although he accepted a Sufism based on Islamic legalism and tradition.13 In the hands of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyya's strictures on Sufism were transformed into a comprehensive condemnation and prohibition of the Sufi orders.14 This critical stance toward Sufism and its practices can be found among the major exponents of modern Islamist thought, such as Abu al-A'la Mawdudi,15 Sayyid Qutb, 16 'Abd al-Salam Faraj, 17 and Fathi Yakan. 18 By anchoring themselves on the legalist tradition of Ibn Taymiyya, these modern-day Islamists rejected Sufi esoteric (batini) beliefs and ceremonial practices as being heretical innovations (bid'a) and superstitions (khurafa). 19 Instead of the Sufi's inner-directed mysticism, quietism, and withdrawal from the mundane, the Islamists advocate religious -political activism, where a person's piety can be outwardly demonstrated and socially validated in terms of the shari'a. Indeed, the ultimate quest of the Islamists is to capture the Islamic popular mainstream by imposing a single homogenizing ideology as a means to mobilize the masses as a prelude to achieving political control. Thus, the phenomenal growth of the Islamist movement in recent decades has threatened the populist social base of the Sufi orders. Despite their political quietism in the recent past, some Sufi groups have begun to assert themselves to defend their interests in the political arena. This paper will profile one of the most politically active of these Sufi- based societies, the Ahbash of Lebanon -a rapidly growing association with branches in many Muslim and Western countries. The analysis will focus on the controversial historical and theological origins of this movement; its social roots, leadership, and political activities in Lebanon; and the causal factors responsible for its dynamic growth in recent times.


The Islamic segment of Lebanon's political spectrum is exceedingly complex, reflecting the country's pluralist makeup and the factionalism brought on by its environment of crisis. The factors contributing to Lebanon's instability in the 1970s and 1980s included intersectarian and interclass conflicts, Palestinian-Israeli fighting, and the proxy war fought by the neighboring countries on Lebanese soil. Within this crisis milieu, Lebanon saw the emergence of both Sunni and Shi'i Islamist groups, many engaged in political activism. 20 Among the Sunni, the activist segment of the Muslim Brotherhood is represented by Fathi Yakan's al-Jam'a al-Islamiyya, which has fought the Maronite militias and Israel. Another militant Sunni group is Shaykh Said Sha'ban's Harakat al-Tawhid, which split from the Jama'a a]-Islamiyya in 1982. 21 On the Shi'i side of the spectrum, Harakat Amal was founded in 1975 by Imam Musa al-Sadr. 22 After Sadr's disappearance in 1978, Amal lost its revivalist character and under Nabih Barri became a Shi'i political movement. The cause of Shi'i militancy was taken up by Hizballah -an umbrella organization of more than a half-dozen radical groups nurtured by Iran's revolutionary Islamic regime. 23 The Sufi segment of the Lebanese Islamic spectrum consists of seven orders: Qadiriyya, Rifdiyya, Naqshabandiyya, Shaziliyya, Badawiyya, Khalwatiyya, and Mawlawiyya. 24 Within this context, the Ahbash function as a pan-Sufi organization -the activist expression of Lebanese Sufism, supported mainly by the Qadiriyya, Rifaiyya, and Naqshabandiyya orders. 25


The Ahbash, officially known as the Society of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, or Jam'iyyat al- Mashari' al-Khayriyya al-Islamiyya, is unique and one of the most controversial Muslim associations in the contemporary spectrum of Islamic groups. The controversy surrounding this movement involves its peculiar origins and eclectic theological roots, which define the society's separate identity and determine its program of religious and political action. Indeed, the Jam'iyya has invited controversy precisely because its teachings do not fit the conventional "Islamist" or "fundamentalist" mold.

The Ahbash are the devout followers of Shaykh Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Hirari al-Shibi al- Abdari, also known as al-Habashi, signifying his Ethiopian origins-hence the appellations given to his movement: al-Ahbash and al Habashiyyin. While his detractors call him "a mysterious person"26 of Jewish origins,27 the shaykh's official biography states that he was born in al-Hirara, near Somalia, in 1920, where he studied Shafi'i jurisprudence and became a mufti in the Oromo tribal region. In 1947, Shaykh Habashi came to the Hijaz after he was expelled from Ethiopia, because his teachings were seen as a threat by Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1948, the shaykh journeyed to Jerusalem and then to Damascus to study with the Rifa'iyya and Qadiriyya orders. He settled in Beirut in 1950, and was licensed as a shaykh by al-Azhar University's branch in Lebanon.28 Originally founded by Shaykh Ahmad al-'Ajuz in 1930, the Society of Philanthropic Projects was taken over by Shaykh Habashi's followers in 1983; by the late 1980s, the society had become one of Lebanon's largest Islamic movements. During the Lebanese civil war, the Ahbash grew from a few hundred members into a large organization by infiltrating the Sunni militias and schools. When 'Abd al-Hafiz Qasim's militia disbanded in 1984, the Ahbash recruited its members into its ranks. However, the Ahbash abstained from creating a militia of its own and from involvement in intersectarian violence and fighting Israel; its main aims were proselytization and recruitment, while it displayed a commitment to moderation and political passivity.29 It was not until the early 1990s that the Ahbash entered the Lebanese political arena as a participant in the parliamentary elections of 1992.


The complex structure of Shaykh Habashi's belief system blends elements of Sunni and Shi'i theology with Sufi spiritualism. The outcome of his doctrinal eclecticism is an ideology of Islamic moderation and toleration that emphasizes Islam's innate pluralism, along with opposition to political activism and the use of violence against the ruling order. These attributes of the Ahbash creed set the group on a collision course with the political thought of Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, and the activist segments of the Muslim Brotherhood and its militant affiliates in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Lebanon. In an attempt to neutralize his critics and reinforce the legitimacy of his imama among the Sunni Muslims, Habashi traces his genealogy to the Prophet Muhammad.30 Similarly, his ideological discourse goes back to the pious ancestors (al-salaf) and the writings of Shafi'i, Ash'ari, and Maturidi. He follows Shafi'i and Ash'ari by relying on the hadith and the sunna, while placing secondary emphasis on qiyas and ijma'. Like Ash'ari and Maturidi, he insists on the unquestionable acceptance of the revealed text without asking "how" -bila kayf.31 Also, Habashi follows Ash'ari and Maturidi in believing that Islam and faith are tied closely together despite their different meanings. He defines faith as tasdiq bil-qalb (inner assent), expressed by verbal affirmation (iqrar bi'l-lisan). Islam, however, is the language of faith in the Prophet's teachings, and neither faith nor Islam is acceptable without the other.32 In regard to predestination and free will, however, Habashi takes an intermediate position between Ash'ari and Maturidi. He affirms that acts of men are created by God subject to His will and decree.33 While they are acts of God in one respect, they are also man's acts and his free choice (ikhtiyar).34 God created both good and evil and will lead astray (dalal) only those who, He knows, will choose the wrong way and will guide only those who, He knows, will choose the right way.35 Thus, Habashi follows Ash'ari in ascribing all acts to God, although like Maturidi he accords man's free will the logic of its consequences- that is, the just are saved on that basis.36


One of the most revealing aspects of Shaykh Habashi's thought is his acceptance of the Shi'a doctrine of legitimacy. He begins by quoting Shafi'i, that everyone who fought 'Ali was a baghi (transgressor). 37 Habashi further cites Ibn Hanbal to jus tify 'Ali's caliphate against Mu'awiya and his "faction of transgressors" (al-firqa al-baghiya) . 38 As a further step, Habashi underlines the legitimacy of all four members of the Prophet's family -Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn -by citing the canonical writings of Muslim and al-Nisa'i . 39 Equally significant is Shaykh Habashi's rejection of the use of ijtihad by some Sunni jurists to legitimize Mu'awiya's opposition to 'Ali. As a case in point, Habashi takes issue with Ibn Taymiyya's view that fighting with 'Ali against Mu'awiya was neither a duty nor a Sunna. This product of Ibn Taymiyya's ijtihad is found invalid by Habashi because of the presence of a clear Qur'anic text and hadith. In support of his position, Habashi cites the verse "fight the group that is a transgressor," along with the Prophet's hadith warning 'Ammar bin Yasir, a companion of Muhammad and 'Ali, about the faction of transgressors who would kill him. Habashi concludes that "the faction of transgressors" was that of Mu'awiya, and fighting on 'Ali's side was a duty and Sunna . 40 Furthermore, Habashi explicitly disagrees with most contemporary Sunni jurists by citing several ahadith in order to uphold the legitimacy of the imama of 'Ali and of his sons Hasan and Husayn.41 Also, Habashi upholds the teachings of Imam Husayn's son, Zayn al-'Abidin, who is held in high esteem by the Ahbash . 42 Yet, beyond his acceptance of the foregoing doctrinal positions, Habashi's closeness to Shi'ism comes from another source-his deep immersion in Sufism.


Sufism represents the essential key to understanding Habashi's thought and the ideological roots of the Ahbash movement. Habashi's veneration of 'Ali is in keeping with the special position assigned by all Sufis to the fourth caliph, who is considered the originator of Islamic mysticism as "the Knower of God" (al-'arif bi'llah) .43 Moreover, Shi'ism was an important influence on the two 12th- century Sufi orders-the Qadiriyya and Rifa'iyya -with which Habashi became associated during his formative years. The founding "saint" of Rifa'iyya, Ahmad al-Rifa'i (d. 1183), who claimed descent from 'Ali and Fatima, is venerated by the Ahbash as "al-Rifa'i al-Husayni" and "sufi salaf "-a pious mystic ancestor. 44

As a dedicated mystic, Habashi defends many centuries-old Sufi beliefs and practices that are attacked as innovations (bid'a) by the Wahhabis and other Islamist groups. To Habashi there are two types of innovation: "bad" innovations (bid'at dalala) are those against the Qur'an and Sunna and should be rejected; "good" innovations (bid'at huda) are those consistent with the Qur'an and Sunna and should be preserved, because God told his Prophet that his umma can innovate (yuhdithu) in keeping with the Qur'an and hadith, as did the "Godly religious orders" (turuq ahl Allah) -that is, the Qadiriyya and Rifa'iyya . 45 These "good" innovations include giving bay'a (allegiance) to the pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih); upholding the name of Allah by prayer and singing (tahlil); celebrating the Prophet's birthday; visiting the shrines of saintly ancestors for their blessing; praying loudly after mosque services; and keeping meditation boxes (mihrab) in the mosques .46 All these constitute a forthright restatement of Sufism as a distinct and Islamically legitimate way of life, which the Ahbash are prepared to defend against their Islamist foes.


Despite their deep Sufi roots, the Ahbash differ from traditional Sufi orders in their aggressive proselytization and political activism directed at Islamist opponents. Their religious, social, and political activism is rooted in the belief that the Islamist movement and its militant offshoots have become the self-styled defenders of Islam by representing themselves as the Islamic mainstream to the exclusion of other exponents of the faith. Thus, the Ahbash have taken the offensive in the name of Islamic pluralism to challenge the Islamist groups in doctrine, preaching, and social action; in street battles; and at the ballot box.

The Ahbash ideological offensive against the Islamist thinkers is both virulent and comprehensive, beginning with Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and their contemporary disciples, Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi, and Fathi Yakan of Lebanon's al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya.47 In attacking Ibn Taymiyya, Habashi positions himself in the Ash'ari tradition, to which, he states, the majority of the Ahl al-Sunna belong.48 Habashi considers Ibn Taymiyya an exponent of "extremism" who was sent to prison by four judges representing the four schools of law; thus, he is no "shaykh al-Islam", as his followers have called him.49 In doctrinal terms, Habashi attacks lbn-Taymiyya on four central issues. The first concerns Ibn Taymiyya's prohibition as shirk of Sufi beliefs and popular practices such as al-shafa'a -appeals for intercession (al-tawassul) from the faithful to the prophets and pious ancestors by using such expressions as ya rasul Allah and ya 'Ali.50 Habashi upholds the use of these terms, along with the veneration of saintly persons and visitation of their shrines-all of which Ibn Taymiyya prohibited. Habashi also attacks Ibn Taymiyya's rejection of consensus (ijma'); opposition to Shi'ism and Sufism; and support of anthropomorphism (al-tashbih), ascribing human attributes to God.51

In essence, Habashi criticizes Ibn Taymiyya for the intolerance that he has inspired among contemporary Islamists toward different forms of Islamic expression. To Habashi this intolerance is the hallmark of Ibn Taymiyya's progeny-from the Wahhabis to the Muslim Brotherhood and its militant affiliates in Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon, which support violence "under the guise of Islamic revivalism and fundamentalism".52 In fact, Habashi opposes all political Islamists; he does not differentiate between the political gradualism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the tactics of its revolutionary offshoots such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra, Tanzim al- Jihad, and al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya.

Three interrelated factors fuel Habashi's unremitting opposition to the contemporary Sunni Islamists, much of it imbedded in his Sufism. The first is his total opposition to violence, including revolutionary action against constituted authority. The second is Habashi's eschewal of the goal of all political Islamists: that is, the establishment of an Islamic order, "because the Muslims are not prepared for it" 53 and "there is no way to appoint a caliph at the present time".54 The third factor is Habashi's opposition to takfir, the charge of unbelief leveled by the Islamists against other Muslims.

In his blanket opposition to takfir, Habashi attacks the absolutist standards of the Islamists who follow Ibn Taymiyyah in determining a Muslim's "Muslimness".55 Instead, he posits a relativistic standard based on moderation (al-i'tidal). Thus, if a person fulfills all the Islamic obligations, he or she is a muslim kamil -a complete Muslim. However, should a Muslim violate some prohibitions but believe in God, he is still a believer and not a kafir; and should such individuals ask forgiveness, God will forgive them. While "faithful sinners" will be punished by God for their transgressions, they will not be excluded from paradise.56

Similarly, Habashi opposes the Islamist practice of takfir in denouncing rulers, as inspired by Qutb's concept of al-jahiliyya, which Habashi finds responsible for "the most horrible acts of violence" by al- Jama'a al-Islamiyya in Egypt, and the groups led by 'Ali Bil-Haj in Algeria and Rashid al-Ghannushi in Tunisia.57 Habashi rejects as "dangerous" the application of strict Islamist standards to judge leaders and governments. For example, he takes issue with Shaykh Ibn Baz of Saudi Arabia for denouncing the late Gamal Abdel Nasser as a kafir.58 He vehemently attacks Fathi Yakan, the leader of Lebanon's al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, for asserting that rulers who do not govern by the shari'a are kuffar, as are their followers.59 In a bid to discredit Islamists such as Yakan, Habashi charges them with following the Kharijite practice of fighting rulers by using the shari'a and the extremist methods employed by the Bahshamiyya.60

By leveling the charge of Kharijite extremism at their Islamist opponents, the Ahbash depict the whole spectrum of political Islamist groups as "deviators" (firaq al-dalal), as distinct from the proponents of moderation-" those who are saved" (firqa al-najiya) by following the correct path.61


The "correct path" as defined by Shaykh Habashi involves knowledge of "the necessary science of religion," which recognizes the primacy of revelation (naql), complemented by reason (aql).62 This science of religion is binding upon all "authorized" preachers (mukallaf), who must know the thirteen attributes of divinity: al-Wujud (existence), al-Qiyam (resurrection), al-Wahdaniyya (unicity), al-Baqa' (eternity), al-Qiyam bi'l-nafs (resurrection of the soul), al- Mukhalafa li'l-hawadith (God's will over events), al-Qudra (capability), al-Irada (will), al-'Ilm (knowledge), al-Hayat (life), al-Sam' (hearing), al-Basar (vision), and al-Kalam (Allah's Word).63 Knowledge of the science of religion, particularly 'ilm al-tawhid, is considered more important than the different schools of jurisprudence. Its components are: (1) faith in God and his Prophet; (2) faith in the hadith and Sunna; (3) knowledge of God's attributes, without anthropomorphism (al-tajsim); (4) knowledge of deviations from Islam, such as kufr; and (5) knowledge of the rules and regulations of prayer and purity.64 A deep knowledge of the faith comes not simply from reading the holy scriptures but also through the teachings of "a trustworthy 'alim".65 Superficial understanding of the texts can lead to ignorance of Islam and to extremism.66 By stressing the pivotal role of an "authorized" 'alim, Habashi comes close to emulating the guidance function of the Shi'i mujtahid, as distinct from the Sunni Islamist view of the ulama.

Guided by their Sufi origins, the Ahbash present themselves as apostles of moderation -a desirable alternative to the Islamists' doctrinal strictness and political militancy. The Ahbash vision is a society of normalcy and stability, where social and religious pluralism is the mode for Muslims among themselves and in their relations with non-Muslims. In discourse, the Ahbash emphasize the need for civility and moderation at the individual, societal, and state levels.67

The political stance of the Ahbash organization as presented by its president, Shaykh Husam Karakira, accepts Lebanon's confessional system and the primacy of serving Lebanon's national interests.68. It rejects violence and the politicization of Islam in favor of participation in politics "as public service" within the Lebanese political system. The Ahbash pledge loyalty to Lebanon as an Arab country and support its armed forces as the defenders of its citizens, their families, and the country itself.69 In opposing the establishment of an Islamic order, the Ahbash are committed to coexistence with the Christian communities. Consistent with his Sufi beliefs, Habashi extolls al- rahbaniyya -the fraternity of mystics-as "a virtuous way" that is also practiced by the monastic "followers of Christ."70

Equally mild is the foreign-policy orientation and world outlook of the Ahbash. While supporting the liberation of the "security zone" in the South through United Nations Resolution 425 and affirming "Palestinian rights," the Ahbash literature makes no reference to jihad or the use of force against Israel "unless it is necessary".71 I Nor are the Ahbash angry at the West; on the contrary, they recommend that their members study Western learning and science in order to achieve a "civilized" Islamic society.72

A close correspondence exists between the content of the Ahbash message (da'wa) and the social roots of its expanding constituency within and outside Lebanon. Beginning as a small philanthropic and spiritualist movement among the Sunni lower stratum, the Ahbash have come into the mainstream of Lebanon's Sunni community in direct rivalry with the Islamist organizations. 73 Indeed, by positioning themselves as a non-militant alternative to the Islamists, the Ahbash have emerged as a Sunni middle- class movement that attracts intellectuals, professionals, and businessmen, particularly the traditional Sunni commercial families of the urban centers. 74 Among these social groups, the Ahbash call for religious moderation, political civility, and peace has had a powerful resonance after fifteen years of civil war and bloodshed. Indeed, there has been a convergence between the values, aspirations, and socioeconomic interests of the Sunni middle classes and the contents of Shaykh Habashi's message-that is, intersectarian accord and political stability; an enlightened Islamic spiritualism within a modern secularist framework; a Lebanese identity wedded to Arab nationalism; and an accommodating attitude toward the Arab regimes, particularly the Syrian government.

Clearly, the Ahbash see themselves as fighting for the soul of the Sunni community. Their immediate goal is to build an organization of 100,000 members,75 to be recruited mainly from the young generation of Sunnis.76 While the Ahbash lack the social-services network of Hizballah, they have concentrated on building mosques and schools, which provide venues to spread their da'wa and philanthropic activities. In addition to religious education, Ahbash schools offer vocational programs, computer training, sports activities, and instruction in English as a second language.77 The organization has its headquarters at Markaz al-Shaykh al-Iskandarani, based in Beirut's Burj Abi Haydar Mosque, at the heart of the Sunni community. This is a strategically advantageous location, surrounded by quarters inhabited by Ahbash members and with easy access to the different segments of the Sunni community. Beyond Beirut, Ahbash followers are concentrated in the Sunni communities of Tripoli, Sidon, Biqa, and 'Iqlim al-Kharrub in the Shuf. In recent years, the Ahbash have gained ascendance over nine mosques, including Burj Abi Haydar and 'Ali bin Abi Talib in Beirut, al-Siddiq in Tripoli, and Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in Sidon. Also, the Ahbash have established thirty overseas branches in a dozen countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Jordan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States.78

The Ahbash are led by a group of shaykhs and some laymen. At the apex is its saintly founder, 'Allama Shaykh 'Abdallah al-Habashi; the administrative functions are carried out by Shaykh Husam Karakira, who serves as president of the organization. As vice presidents, Shaykhs Samir al-Qadi, Usama al- Sayyid, and Khalid Hunayna head the branches in North Lebanon, Biqa, and South Lebanon, respectively. Shaykh 'Abd al-Qadir al-Fakhani leads the Ahbash in 'Iqlim al-Kharrub and is chief editor of the journal Manar al-Huda. The public relations of the Ahbash are conducted by Dr. 'Adnan Trabulsi, a layman educated at Kiev University.

In their religious practices, the Ahbash unabashedly follow Sufi mystical traditions, which are denounced by Yakan's Islamists as bid'a. In their ceremonies, the Ahbash use two musical bands bearing the names of ancient Sufi orders: "al-Rifa'iyya" and "al-Jilaniyya." Shaykh Habashi and his followers go on retreats (khalwa) for meditation and fasting, in keeping with esoteric Sufi practices. The Prophet's birthday -al-mawlid- is celebrated, and mystical dancing sessions are held to unite the faithful with their creator.


The fundamental factor that has propelled the Ahbash into dynamic religious proselytization and electoral politics is their fear of the aggressive political activism of the Islamist societies. In an unprecedented step in 1992, the Ahbash ran two candidates in Lebanon's parliamentary elections, one of whom, Dr. Trabulsi, won a seat in Beirut. Despite their commitment to pacifism and moderation, the Ahbash are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with what they call "Hizb al-Ikhwan" -the Brotherhood Party" -particularly Fathi Yakan's al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya and its transnational allies. Beyond their doctrinal and ideological conflicts, al-Ahbash and al-Jama'a have engaged in bloody clashes around the 'Umar al-Kabir Mosque in Sidon and the 'Isa bin Maryam Mosque in Tripoli.79 Spokesmen for al-Jama'a and its Egyptian Islamist allies have denounced Shaykh Habashi as "an individual who plans to divide the Sunnis of Lebanon".80 Yakan has accused the Ahbash of serving Zionism and protecting its interests in the Middle East.81 He has also attacked Habashi for deviating from the Prophet's teachings by following the Mu'tazila and for his categorical rejection of Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, and Sayyid Qutb. 82 Yakan further criticizes the Ahbash for their wholesale use of takfir -an accusation of unbelief (kufr) against their enemies; he calls them "the denouncer's faction" (al-firqa al-mukaffira).83 The fact is that both al-Ahbash and al- Jama'a are engaged in mutual takfir, refusing to recognize each other's Islamic legitimacy.


In contrast to their profound enmity toward Yakan's Jamaa al-Islamiyya, the Ahbash have "normal" and "friendly" relations with Hizballah, while expressing misgivings about the latter's violent activities.84 Despite their doctrinal sympathy with 'Ali and Shi'ism, the Ahbash are careful not to appear too close to the Shi'a, which risks alienating their Sunni constituency, as happened to Shaykh Sha'ban of Harakat al-Tawhid of Tripoli.85 Yet in the 1992 parliamentary elections, the Ahbash and Hizballah concluded an undeclared alliance in Beirut that assured the election of their respective candidates, 'Adnan Trabulsi and Muhammad Burjawi.86 While maintaining amicable ties, the Ahbash have been singularly reluctant to support Hizballah's call for an Iranian-style Islamic order in Lebanon as a substitute for its present consociational system. In view of their strong endorsement of consociationalism and their opposition to an Islamic state, the Ahbash have found a natural ally in the Amal movement, which also shares with the Ahbash a proSyrian orientation. These shared interests prompted the Ahbash to support the election of Amal leader Nabih Barri as speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. 87

With respect to Lebanon's Sunni religious establishment-the Sunni Juridical Office-the Ahbash maintain an uncooperative attitude. This stance is prompted by the Ahbash's desire to have one of their shaykhs appointed by the government as the chief Sunni mufti of Lebanon -a position now held by an acting mufti, Muhammad Rashid Qabbani.88

Within the Sufi movement, the Ahbash enjoy the support of three traditional Sufi orders that Shaykh Habashi considers Turuq Ahl Allah-Qadiriyya, Rifaiyya, and Naqshabandiyya.89 The growing ties of cooperation between the Ahbash and the Naqshabandi order were manifested in a meeting in December 1993 between Shaykh Habashi and Muhammad 'Uthman Siraj al-Din. The two leaders announced a coalition between "two Islamic powers" dedicated to fighting the "Islamic Jama'a" and the "Hizb al-lkhwan," particularly "the ideology of Sayyid Qutb and others who have deviated from the consensus of the umma."90 The conclusion of such a Sufi alliance against the political Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies is politically significant, given the large following of the Naqshabandi order throughout the Islamic world.

However, not all Sufi orders are acceptable to the Ahbash. Such recently founded Sufi orders as al- Badawiyya, al-Khalwatiyya, and al-Mawlawiyya, with few followers in Lebanon, remain outside the pale of Shaykh Habashi's Turuq Ahl Allah. And the Shaziliyya order's practices are denounced by Habashi as "bad innovations" that go against the Qur'an and the Sunna, particularly the Shaziliyya use of superstitions and magic in their tahlil and dhikr.91

The Ahbash enjoy excellent relations with most Arab governments, particularly with the Syrian authorities. They see Syria as the protector of Lebanon from Israel and the defender of Lebanese unity.92 Their pro-Syrian stance and nonmilitant attitude toward Arab regimes and Israel have made the Ahbash suspect in the Islamists' eyes and brought accusations of taking financial support from Israel, the West, and some Arab governments.93 These accusations have been vehemently rejected by Ahbash leaders.94

The Ahbash suffered a major setback when their president, Shaykh Nizar al-Halabi, was assassinated on 31 August 1995, by unknown assailants. The society's vice president, Shaykh Husam Karakira, immediately became president amid growing polarization between the Ahbash and its Islamist opponents. 95

Whatever their sources of support, there is no doubt that the Ahbash have emerged as important political actors in Lebanon and within the Islamic orbit. They present a clear alternative to the powerful Islamist trend and, as such, are likely to attract a considerable following among those Sunni Muslims who are searching for a middle way out of the bloody conflict between the Arab regimes and the Islamist societies. Moreover, within their pluralist framework, the Ahbash can accommodate individuals who desire a retreat into spiritualism, as well as conventional Muslims and secularists who have adopted the lifestyles of modern society. As an alternative to conservative Islamism, the Ahbash and similar groups could well emerge as the voice of the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, which favor the establishment of liberal regimes in the Arab world.96 Despite the general expectation that the Sufi orders would decline as a result of modernization and industrialization, the Ahbash have demonstrated that Sufi traditions possess special strengths in societies such as Lebanon's, where a high degree of religious pluralism prevails.97

A. Nizar Hamzeh is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon. R. Hrair Dekmejian is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Universi ty of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif. 90089-0044, U.S.A.


1 Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). Back
2 Michael Gilsenan, Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10-11. Back
3 Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organizations, trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 328-33, 358-73. For an overview of Sufi orders, see Dale F. Eickelman, The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1981), 222-35. Back
4 Gilsenan, Saint and Sufi, 12. Back
5 R. Stephen Humphreys, "The Contemporary Resurgence in the Context of Modem Islam,' in Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, ed. Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982), 74-75. Back
6 R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 64, 210. Back
7 Gilsenan, Saint and Sufi, 203-5. Back
8 john L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 132-33. Back
9 Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1986), 65-68,79-81. Back
10 Ibid., 81-88. Back
11 Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution, 150. For a penetrating analysis of Sufism and other branches of Islam, see Muhammad 'Abid al-Jabiri, Takwin al-'Aql al-'Arabi (Formation of the Arab Mind), 4th ed., 2 vols. (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-'Arabiyya, 1989); and idem, Bunyat al- 'Aql al-'Arabi (Structure of the Arab Mind), 2nd ed. (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-'Arabiyya, 1987). Back
12 Majmu'a Fatawa Shaykh al-IsIam Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, 37 vols. (Compilation of Legal Opinions of Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya), ed. and comp. 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Qasim, (n.p., n.d.), 11:5-24, 401-33, 27:106-11, 114-288, 314-444. Back
13 Recent research has shown that Ibn Taymiyya and other Hanbali jurists were not as opposed to Sufism as once believed, and that some Hanbali ulama were well-known Sufis. See George Makdisi, "Hanbalite Islam," in Studies on Islam, ed. and trans. Merlin L. Swartz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 247-51.Back
14Shaykh Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Kitab al-Tawhid, trans. Isma'il Raji al Faruqi (Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House,1979), 25, 64, 68.Back
15S . Abul A'la Maududi, A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam, trans. Al-Ash'ari (Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1981),135-36.Back
16Beyond Sayyid Qutb's advocacy of militancy, his understanding of a worshiper's relationship toward God sets him apart from Sufibeliefs and practices. See Sayyid Qutb, Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), 6 vols., 9th ed. (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1980), vol. 4,parts 12-18:2139, vol. 5, parts 19-25:2577-78, 2603-2812.Back
17Jansen, Neglected Duty, 9- 10.Back
18Fathi Yakan, Al-Mawsu'a al-Harakiyya (Encyclopedia of Movements) (Amman: Dar al-Bashir, 1983), 259-67.Back
19For a comprehensive Islamist critique of Sufism, see 'Uthman 'Ali Hasan, Mawaqif Ahl al-Sunna min al-Manahij al-Mukhalifa Lahum(Positions of the Sunni Toward Dissenting Views) (Riyadh: Dar al-Watan lil-Nashar, 1413/1983), 54-102.Back
20For an overview, see A. Nizar Hamzeh and R. Hrair Dekmejian, "The Islamic Spectrum of Lebanese Politics," Journal of South Asianand Middle Eastern Affairs, XVI, 3 (Spring 1993): 25-42.Back
21Marius Deeb, Militant Islamic Movements in Lebanon: Origins, Social Basis and Ideology (Washington, D.C.: Center for ContemporaryArab Studies, 1986), 5-9.Back
22Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987), 13-83.Back
23On aspects of Shi'a radicalism, see Martin Kramer, ed., Shi'ism, Resistance and Revolution (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987).Back
24Muhammad Darnikha, Al-Turuq al-Sufiyya (The Sufi Orders) (Tripoli: Dar al-Insha' li'l-Sahafa wal-Nashr, 1984), 87-286.Back
25 Manar al-Hudd, June-July 1993, 34; ibid., December 1992-February 1993, 3 1-33; ibid., November 1992,41.Back
26Al-Muslimun, 20 November 1992, 3.Back
27Manar al-Hudd, December 1992-January 1993, 4 1.Back
28See interview with 'Abd al-Rahman al-Habashi, son of Shaykh Habashi and president of the Ahbash in Australia, in ibid., 32-34. Seealso al-Shira', 27 July 1992, 30-3 1.Back
29Al-Nahar, 8 December 1992, 11.Back
30Shaykh 'Abdallah al-Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan (Explicit Declaration) (Beirut: Jam'iyyat al-Mashari', 1990), 195.Back
31Ibid., 24.Back
32Ibid., 28, 30.Back
33 Shaykh 'Abdallah al-Habashi, Al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (The Correct Path) (Beirut: Burj Abi Haydar Mosque, 1984), 34.Back
34Ibid., 31.Back
35Ibid., 32.Back
36Ibid., 30.Back
37Ibid., 88; see also Shaykh 'Abdallah al-Habashi, Al-Kafil bi-'Ilm al-Din al-Daruri (The Guarantor of the Necessary Science of Faith)(Beirut: Burj Abi Haydar Mosque, 1984), 46.Back
38Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 90.Back
39Ibid., 111. Habashi does not give much importance to the Hanafi and Maliki Schools of Law.Back
40Ibid., 107; see also Manar al-Hudd, April-May 1993, 45.Back
41Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 86, 88, 105. These ahadith are: "For whosoever I am master, this Ali is his master; 0 God support whosoever isloyal to him and fight whosoever is fighting him," and "Hasan from me and Husayn from 'Ali."Back
42Manar al-Hudd, November 1992, 32; ibid., April 1993, 37.Back
43Ibid., November 1992, 18.Back
44Ibid., December 1992-January 1993, 24-25.Back
45Ibid., April-May 1993, 36-37; Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 74.Back
46Manar al-Hudd, April-May 1993, 36-37.Back
47Hasan al-Banna' is the sole Islamist who is spared criticism.Back
48Shaykh 'Abdallah al-Habashi, Al-Durar al-Sunniyya fi al-radd 'ala Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (The Sunna Jewels in Response to Ahmad ibnTaymiyya) (Beirut: Jam'iyya al-Mashari', 1990), 5.Back
49Ibid., 10.Back
50 Ibid., 25; idem, Sirat al-Mustaqim, 55. Back
51 Habashi, Durar al-Sunniyya, 51; idem, Sirat al-Mustaqim, 50. Manar al-Huda, May- June 1993, 47. Ibn Taymiyya's followers do not regard him as an anthropomorphist. Back
52 Mandr al-Huda, April-May 1993, 45. Back
53 Al-Nahar, 12 September 1992, 11. Back
54 Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 118. Back
55 While requiring strict standards to differentiate the Muslims from the Tatars, Ibn Taymiyya was reluctant to use takfir, as is done frequently by some contemporary militant Islamists. For a discussion of takfir, see R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution, Ist ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 40, 92-95. Back
56 Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 32. Back
57 Manar al-Huda, April-May 1993, 45-46. Back
58 Ibid., 47. Back
59 Ibid., 48. Back
60 Ibid. Back
61 Ibid., 49. Back
62 Ibid., May-June 1993, 46; see also Habashi, al-Kafil, 5-11. Back
63 Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 28. Back
64 Ibid., 24. Back
65 Ibid., 25. Back
66 Manar al-Huda, April-May 1993, 49. Back
67 Ibid. Back
68 AI-Safir, 19 November 1992, 3. Back
69 Ibid. Back
70 Habashi, Sarih al-Bayan, 76. Back
71 Ibid., 169; see also Manar al-Huda, December 1992-January 1993, 42. Back
72 Manar al-Huda, November 1992, 6; ibid., April-May 1993, 6. Back
73 AI-Nahar, 12 September 1992, 11. Back
74 Ibid. Back
75 Ibid. Back
76 AI-Nahar, 9 December 1992, 113. Back
77 Manar al-Huda, August-September 1992, 12-13. Back
78 AI-Shira', 27 July 1992, 30-3 1; Manar al-Huda, November 1992, 59. Back
79 Manar al-Hudd, December 1992-January 1993, 41. Back
80 AI-Muslimun, 20 November 1993, 3; Manar al-Huda, December 1992-January 1993, 41. Back
81 Al-Muslimun, 20 November 1992, 3. Back
82 Yakan, Al-Mawsu'a al-Harakiyya, 259. Back
83 Ibid., 267. Back
84 AI-Masira, 27 December 1992, 15. Back
85 Ibid. Back
86 AI-Shira', 7 September 1992, 20. Back
87 Al-Safir, I October 1992, 4. Back
88 AI-Shira', 5 October 1992, 16-17; see also, al-Muslimun, 30 November 1992, 3. Back
89 Manar al-Huda, November 1992, 41; ibid., June-July 1993, 37. Back
90 Ibid., December 1992-February 1993, 31-33. Back
91 Ibid., 35. Back
92 AI-Safir, 10 September 1992, 3; Manar al-Huda, August-September 1993, 30-32. Back
93 AI-Muslimun, 30 November 1992, 3. Back
94 Manar al-Huda, August-September 1992, 12. Back
95 Al-Nahar, 9 October 1995, 6. Back
96 On the preconditions of liberal Islamic regimes, see Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 357-59. Back
97 On the adaptability of the Sufi orders to modem societies, see John Obert Voll, "Sufi Orders:' The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, 4 vols., ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4:116. Back

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