Al-Ahbash (Arabic: الأحباش‎ / al-aḥbash / English: "The Ethiopians"), also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (AICP) (Arabic: جمعية المشاريع الخيرية الإسلامية‎ / jam'iyyat al-mashari' al-khayriyya al-Islamiyya)[1] is a Sufi religious movement which was founded in the mid-1980s.[2] The group follow the teachings of Ethiopian scholar Abdullah al-Harari.[2] Due to the group’s origins and activity in Lebanon, the Ahbash have been described as the "activist expression of Lebanese Sufism".[3]

The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects

جمعية المشاريع الخيرية الإسلامية
jam'iyyat al-mashari' al-khayriyya al-Islamiyya
LeaderShaykh Hussam Qaraqira
Beirut, Lebanon
IdeologyReligious pluralism
ReligionSunni Islam (Ash'ari, Sufi)


The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects was founded in the 1930s by Ahmad al-Ajuz,[4] According to Gary Gambill the AICP arrived in Lebanon in the 1950s, where he says "they blended Sunni and Shi'a theology with Sufi spiritualism into a doctrinal eclecticism that preached nonviolence and political quietism".[5] The AICP remained without a leader until the 1980s when Abdullah al-Harari became the nominal head of the organization.[6] and was taken over by Al-Ahbash in 1983.[3]

Al-Ahbash was founded in the suburb of Bourj Abu Haidar, in West Beirut, as a small philanthropic and spiritualist movement among the Sunni lower classes.[3] From there they spread throughout Lebanon to Tripoli, Akkar and Iqlim Al-Kharrub in the Chouf, where they founded educational and religious institutions.[7] Beginning in the 1990s, Ahbash propelled from a minority group to the largest Sunni religious organization in Lebanon mainly due to Syrian government backing[8]—having close links to Syrian intelligence.[9] The Syrians supported and promoted the Ahbash in order to limit the influence of radical and fundamentalist Sunni movements in Lebanon.[10][11][12] There growth was also aided by the forcible seizure and control of many prominent mosques in West Beirut in the early 1980s, despite the protests of Dar al-Fatwa (the official body for Lebanon's Sunni Muslims).[10][11] At the end of the 1990s there were close to 250,000 Ahbash members worldwide, according to a high-ranking Ahbash activist.[1] While the Ahbash still owe their original growth to the Syrians, politically, they are in an undeclared alliance with Mustaqbal, perhaps for reasons of current political expediency.[13]

Several public figures became Ahbash members when it emerged in France beginning in 1991, such as rapper Kery James or Abd Samad Moussaoui.[14]

In 1995, members of a Salafi jihadi group called "Osbat al-Ansar" killed the leader of Al-Ahbash, Sheikh Nizar Halabi,[3][15] who was reportedly being groomed by the Syrians to become Lebanon's Grand Mufti.[11] His murder led to a heavy-handed Syrian response—concluding with the gruesome public execution of his assassins in 1997.[16]

It has been compared to the Turkish Gülen movement.[17]

Religious beliefs

Al-Ahbash beliefs are an interpretation of Islam combining elements of Sunni Islam and Sufism. Their religious ideology is very much in line with the traditional Sunni doctrines, although the groups sometimes unrestrained use of takfir has brought them under dissension by the wider Islamic community.[3] Al-Ahbash follows the Shafi school and Ash'ari theology, their Sufi aspect is derived from the Rifa'i brotherhood.[8] The group rejects Islamist figures such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb. It advocates Islamic pluralism, and opposition to political activism (its slogan is "the resounding voice of moderation").[3] It also promotes its beliefs internationally through a major internet presence and regional offices, notably in the United States.[18]

Doctrinal aspects


Shaykh Habashi's syncretic teachings draw upon a conflation of different branches of Islamic theology, and thereby elude unambiguous classification. In an address to his followers, Shaykh Habashi stated that "[w]e are Ash'aris and Shafi'is. The Ash'ariyya is the basis of our belief, and the Shfi'iyya is our daily code."[1] According to Thomas Pierret, Ahbash's ideology "can be termed "neo-tradionalist", in that it aims to preserve the Islamic heritage of the Ottoman era[8] - which they consider themselves to be the inheritors."[18]

Shaykh Habashi in his books and lectures blends[19][20][21][22][23] elements of Sunni and Shi'a theological doctrines with Sufi spiritualism by supporting the legitimacy of Imam Ali and his descendants while condemning Mu'awiyya, the caliph and governor of Damascus, and his son Yazid as "seditious" thus adopting Shi'ite tradition whereas setting apart from all other Sunni jurists.[3][4][6][24][25] Although not explicitly stated, Sufism plays also an important role in al-Ahbash's doctrine as demonstrated by the practice of several Sufi traditions such as the pilgrimage to holy men's tombs (Ziyarat), mystical dancing sessions, use of musical bands in religious ceremonies[26] and the support of three Sufi Tariqas.[3] The contention that it is a primarily Sufi movement,[3] however, has been disputed.[1]


Mustafa Kabla and Haggai Erlich identify "moderation" (wasatiyyah) as the key word in al-Ahbash's "necessary science of religion"[3] and instance the group's twelve-goal platform whose second item calls for "[p]reaching moderation [...] and good behavior as ways of implementing religious principles, while combating extremism and zeal.".[1] This position is also reflected in the groups's decided opposition to the Salafist movement and Islamist thinkers, namely Sayyid Qutb, Muhammed ibn 'Abd-al-Wahhab, and Ibn Taymiyyah.[1][3]

Rejection of anthropomorphism

One further critical cleavage is al-Ahbash's strict rejection of any form of anthropomorphism of God which they accuse Wahhabis of.[1] Consequently, Shaykh Habashi holds that "it does not befit God to speak like that, and his word is not a voice or letters"[27] and that therefore, the Qur'an contains the word of God but could be written only after "Gabriel listened to His word, understood it, and passed it on to the prophets and the angels."[1][22][23] This is a highly controversial point of view within Islam which is not fully compatible with the consensus of Sunnis, and Wahhabis accuse Ahbash of doubt regarding the origin of the Qur'an.[1] Another famous example regards the interpretations of the Qur'anic sentence describing God seated on his throne after creating the world. According to Wahhabi texts, this means that he literally sat on his throne; however, according to Shaykh Habashi, copying the Mu'tazila school of thought, it meant that he took control of the world.[28][29]

Separation of religion and state

The arguably most important split, however, is the question of the relation between religion, politics, and the state. Departing from most Islamic writings on this topic, al-Ahbash advocates a separation of religion and state and thereby rejects the idea of an Islamic state. Al-Fakhani, an AICP representative 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."[30] Consequently, the group repeatedly emphasized the need for Muslim-Christian co-existence and tolerance towards other religious groups in Lebanon.[1]


The tolerant stance in Al-Ahbash's public rhetoric is doubted by some Muslim groups, orthodox Sunni in particular. They accuse the group of an excessive use of Takfir – the act of declaring another Muslim an unbeliever – and thereby of the provocation of inner-Islamic tensions.[18][31][32][33] Al-Ahbash has mainly used takfir against Wahhabi and Salafi leaders.[32][34] According to Tariq Ramadan, Al-Ahbash "adherents carry on a permanent double discourse: to Western questioners, they claim to support the emancipation of women and laicism to oppose the "fundamentalists" (all the issues they know are sensitive and useful for getting them recognized). However, within Muslim communities, they carry on an extremely intransigent and closed discourse, usually treating most of the principal Muslim ulama as kuffar *by which they mean "unbeliever,' "impious people"). They base their teachings on interpretations recognized as deviant by all other schools of thought and all other scholars of note (for example, their singular understanding of the meaning of the name of God, or their assertion that the Qur'anic Text was interpreted by the angel Gabriel, or the practice of praying to the dead). Their approach on very specific points of doctrine (such as those we have referred to) is hostile and usually violent."[35]

Political positions

As a political party, when al-Ahbash ran for the 1992 Lebanese parliamentary elections, this constituency enabled its candidate, Adnan Trabulsi, to win a seat in a Beirut district after the Ahbash and Hezbollah concluded an undeclared alliance in Beirut that assured the election of their respective candidates.[3] However, Trabulsi lost in the subsequent 1996 elections.[36] In 2018, Trabulsi was again elected to serve on the Lebanese Parliament.

The Ahbash are also allied to the other major Shia party, the Amal Movement.[3]


The group are seen as being controversial within Islam for its anti-Salafi religious stance, as their Sufi and other beliefs are seen as heretical.[3][18][37] As a result, they are commonly described by Wahhabis as combining "Sufi polytheism, shirk, with Shi'i covert anti-Sunna tactics".[38] They are also viewed by other Muslims groups as being favoured by the governments of the United States, Europe, Ethiopia, and Australia, who "do indeed welcome the Ahbash activities among their Muslim citizens."[39] They have been described as a sect by various commentators,[35][37][40][41] while others see them as a valid religious movement.[4][6] The AICP claims to run its Islamic schools in affiliation with Al-Azhar,[38] a claim which has been denied by Al-Azhar.[42][43][44][45][46]


In 2011, the Australian National Imams Council accused the Muslim Community Radio Incorporated as being associated with Al-Ahbash, which they described as a fringe cult organisation and violent, and made public announcement for government officials not to renew its broadcasting license.[47] However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority granted a 5-year license in 2011, which drew criticism from Islamic groups.[48] In 2006, the Imam of Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Taj El-Din Hilaly, threatened to back out of the Howard Government's, Muslim Community Reference Group because of the inclusion of Dr. Mustapha Kara-Ali, who was affiliated with Al-Ahbash.[49][50]


In 2003, Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa describing the Ahbash as "deviant" that sought to "corrupt the Muslim creed and incite sedition amongst the Muslim Ummah. Moreover, they are paid agents to the enemies of Islam." In 2007, Egypt also arrested 22 men for seeking to spread the Ahbash faith in the country.[42]


In 2012, Muslim protesters in Addis Ababa accused the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi of promoting Al-Ahbash among the Muslim population of the country.[51]


In 2008, several Berlin based Muslim organizations were not granted municipal permits to build mosques, however, Al-Ahbash (AICP) was granted a permit stipulating that proposed building of the mosque's architectural structure keeping the 19th century structural of the neighboring houses.[52]


During the 1990s fighting broke out between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Ahbash in what became known as the "war of the mosques". The fighting was started due to the brotherhood believing that Jordan's Ministry of Religious Endowments were giving precedence to Al-Ahbash members being allowed to teach in mosques from which they themselves were banned.[53]


Due to its strong historical links with the Syrian government of the al-Assad family, the Ahbash have often been in conflict with the Lebanese supporters of the anti-Syrian Hariri family and in 2005 at least two of its members were initially implicated—jailed and later released—in the Assassination of Rafic Hariri.[54] The Ahbash also strongly opposed and demonstrated against the Cedar Revolution that was triggered by Hariri's assassination.[55][56] Ahbash reportedly remains neutral in the Syrian Civil War, despite pressure from both sides.[57]

In 2010, Ahbash and Hezbollah members were involved in a street battle which was perceived to be over parking issues. Both groups later met to form a joint compensation fund for the victims of the conflict.[58] However, despite this instance of violence, the Ahbash have "normal" and "friendly" relations with Hezbollah. The Ahbash have also engaged in bloody clashes in Sidon and Tripoli, in the 1990s, against the rival Sunni Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyah.[3]

North America

The Al-Ahbash pray using the South-east direction in Canada and the United States[59] versus majority of the Muslims who pray towards Qiblah using the North-east direction in their mosques.[59][60][61]

Saudi Arabia

Former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz declared Ahbash a "deviant faction".[62]


Roman Silantiev states that the mufti of Ukraine, Ahmad Tamim, a Lebanese citizen, has been accused of belonging to the "sinister sect" of Ahbash by his opponents, however, his opponents find it difficult to define the heresy of Ahbash. Ahmad Tamim's opponent mufti Said Ismaigilov allegedly has links to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.[63]

See also


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  2. ^ a b Seddon, David (2004). A political and economic dictionary of the Middle East (1st ed.). Routledge. p. 22. ISBN 978-1857432121.
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External links