Al-Ahbash or the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (jam’iyyat al-mashari’ al-khayriyya al-islamiyya) is a Sufi religious movement which was founded in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. The name attributed to the founder of the group, Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, known as al-Habashi (Abyssinian), since he was a Sunni cleric who came to Lebanon from Ethiopia (Habashah).
By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
The group introduces itself as “Ash’ari Shafi’ie” following the Sufi approach, the Rifa’iyya and Qadiriyya orders. However, Sufism didn’t prevent al-Ahbash from dwelling on political action, despite the fact that the Association is based on Islamic Charitable activities which is concerned of public affairs and it is not a political party of military militia, as said Sheikh Abdul Qader al-Fakhani , the spokesperson of the Association in an exclusive interview with Islamistage.
The group has recently resumed its political activities through visits by representatives of the associations to high level political leaders and figures of Lebanese parties.
Meanwhile, members of al-Ahbash were engaged in June 2014 in limited armed clashes with extremist group that opened fire on a Mosque belonging to Al-Ahbash in Ain Helweh’s Palestinian Camp, near Sidon, South Lebanon. This incident came after in the aftermath of the assassination of Sheikh Arsan Suleiman, one of the Association’s officials in Ain Helweh Camp on 9 April 2014.
Al -Fakhani, the spokesperson of the Association, commented on the assassination of Sheikh Suleiman, by saying that those “who committed this crime are enemies of the Association’s line”, but he refused to accuse any side and leaved the matter in the hands of the Lebanese Judiciary, Lebanese security agencies and the Palestinian factions that control the camp.
Al-Fakhani who stressed on his association’s good relations with Palestinian factions, affirmed that al-Ahbash have a strong presence in Ain Helweh Camp and that they have a Mosque and a school, in addition to their presence in the rest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
It is worth noting that Sheikh Nizar al-Halabi, the former president of the Ahbash association was killed on August 31, 1995 by a Salafi Jihadist group, linked to al-Qaeda and called “Usbat al-Ansar”.
When asked whether Al-Ahbash has been harassed by salafists in Beirut or in other regions, Al-Fakhani pointed out that Jabhat al-Nusra has recently, confiscated Al-Rifai Mosque in Tripoli and belonging to the Association, raising its flag on the top of the mosque.
When asked whether he feels secured in Tarik al-Jadideh area, Sheikh Al-Fakhani answered that al-Ahbash has 10 centers in Tarik al-Jadideh area and that most of the Beiruti families have members in their Association.
Tarik al-Jadideh is a famous area in West Beirut, bounded by Beirut’s Southern Suburb (al-Dahiyeh), from one side and overlapping with Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camps from the other side. Due to its location, Tarik al-Jadideh was the stronghold of PLO and the residence of its leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut until 1982.
Although the majority of its population is from the Sunni sect, Tarik al-Jadideh still joins some people of Shiite and Druze sects. Most of the population supports the Future Movement, with significant presence of Salafi, Al- Jamaa Al-Islamiya and Ahbash groups.
Al-Fakhani added that the ideological and historical hostility between al-Ahbash from one side and Salafists and Wahabists from other side is well known, as well as between his group from one side and Al- Jamaa Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Lebanon from the other side.
The Sufi orientation of Ahbash put them in an inevitable hostile attitude with the Salafis, the Wahhabis in particular, because the latter denounce the Sufi orders and their rituals. The late Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Ibn Baaz has issued a fatwa late in the 1980s against Sheikh Abdullah al-Habashi.
The doctrines of the Ahbash which they say they belong to Sunni Ash’ari theology make them at odds with the Wahhabis, who adopt some of the doctrines of analogy. The hostility between Al-Ahbash and Al- Jamaa Islamiyya is due to the rejection of Sheikh Harari of the Muslim Brotherhood ideas, especially the ideas of Sayyid Qutb. Al- Fakhani explains the position of his group towards the political Islam that calls for the establishment of an Islamic state and the application of the law.
He said: “Most of our states are Islamic and Muslims wish the presence of an Islamic state, but the regional and international conditions do not allow it.” He added: “The association is characterized by moderate Islamic orientation, and we were one of the first who talked about the dangers of extremism, 30 years ago. Extremism destroys communities and dismantle the nations.”
The spokesman stated that his group is not busy with politics and its main focus is on the institutional educational and social work because “the priority is for education and the society’s righteousness begins with the individual righteousness”.
Al-Ahbash representatives have run for the parliamentary elections of 1992 and they won a seat in Beirut, but they failed to keep it in the next elections due to domination of the late PM Rafik Hariri on Beirut’s parliamentary seats.
When I asked Sheikh Al-Fakhani about the association vision towards the revolutions of the “Arab Spring”, he responded: “Oh God, avoid us the seditions (al-fitan).What is happening in the Arab world are destroying seditions and we wish that God protects our countries. Some of these seditions are implemented, by the name of religion. “
I tried to corner Sheikh Fakhani, saying that their opponents accuse them of backing the rulers and regimes, he responded: “We don’t waste our time in worrying of the others analyzes and visions. What concerns us is the path that satisfies us.”
When asked him about their strong relationship with the Syrian regime before the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon in 2005, Al-Fahkhani denied that this relationship was distinctive and said it was an ordinary relationship and the association did not benefit from it during the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
As for the fact relationship between the group and the Syrian regime today, the spokesman avoided to answer a direct answer and said: “We are busy with our situation and our institutions, and would prefer not to engage in politics.”
Regarding Al-Ahbash position of the Syrian crisis, his answer came more ambiguous by saying: “We ask God to save Syria from sedition.”
Al- Fakhani refused to acknowledge the decline of his group following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and he confirmed that the presence of the association is growing in terms of their followers and their institutions in Beirut, Bekaa, North and South of Lebanon, despite the political changes that took place since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon two months later.
It is noteworthy that two members of the Al-Ahbash were arrested for about three years in Al-Hariri case and then they have been released.
About the relationship with Hezbollah after limited clashes between the two groups in August 2010 in Beirut, al- Fakhani said that they have good relations and that incident became a history.
When asked about the relationship with the “Future Movement”k lead by former PM Saad Hariri, which rivaled on the same Sunni ground in Lebanon, Al-Ahbash spokesman responded that the relationship is good. I asked him to define the word “good” he explained that there are no tensions and problems between the two sides.
Al- Fakhani asserted that the association has good relations with most of the parties in Lebanon, including Christians, from the “Free Patriotic Movement” and its leader General Michel Aoun, to the former President Amin Gemayel, head of the Phalangist Party.
Regarding Al-Ahbash position towards the Shiite he said that they are part of the Muslim nation despite disagreements, stressing that the love of the family of the Prophet Muhammad is a religious duty.
Al-Fakhani admitted that his association is some sort of self-distancing and avoiding the problems and controversies and that media exposure is limited to religious, educational and scout activities. He revealed on the implementation of three new educational projects, including the establishment of a large campus for the “Global University” in Khaldeh, near Beirut.
Al-Ahbash claim that they can mobilize 10,000 votes in Beirut, 6,000 in Tripoli, and 1,000 in the Western Bekaa. But sources in the Future Movement said that the Ahbash vote in Beirut “is no more than 5,000.”