Fearful of the emergence and spread of dissident Islamism, the Syrian regime has encouraged apolitical Islamic movements. It has permitted certain religious leaders within its political circles, such as the former grand mufti Ahmad Kuftaro and sheikh Said Ramadan Al-Buti, to establish halaqas (religious study circles) for Islamic education within sharia institutions and in mosques. It was from the midst of those halaqas, and with particular support from Kuftaro, that Munira Qubaysi founded in the 1970s the association known as Al-Qubaysiat (The Qubaysi women).
In the meanwhile, Syrian society has witnessed an Islamic awakening since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mosques, for example, began being unprecedentedly crowded, especially on Fridays and predominantly by youths, not to mention the keen attendance of women and young girls at Quranic lessons and seminars.
Perhaps it was the economic and political corruption that in part fueled “moderate” Islamic movements among the public, particularly after the Syrian regime obstructed the way to any political breakthrough. After an open-ended war against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian youth flocked to get involved in these emerging religious currents.
Al-Qubaysiyat Sisterhood was an unofficially banned association in Syria, and some of its members even suffered prosecution and detention, as had occurred with the sheikha (female sheikh) who supervised the halaqa in which I was involved. This unofficial ban persisted until 2006, when the regime allowed them to hold their halaqas in the “Assad religious institutes” within mosques.
Additionally, the Sisterhood has been hounded by the other end of the spectrum, i.e. religious scholars who repeatedly criticized “the sisters” for following the Naqshbandi oder 1, holding dhikr assemblies (gathering to praise and supplicate God in unison), singing religious chants as part of religious practice, and playing the tambourine. Many religious scholars have accused Al-Qubaysiat of being led astray in a sinful path 2.
Al-Qubaysiat have nonetheless proved capable of infiltrating Damascene society, especially its more wealthy families. Part of their success can be attributed to the conservative character of the city of Damascus, while many leaders within the Sisterhood belonged to notable families. Furthermore, the Sisterhood has been famous for investing in middle-class private schools, paying special attention to children and imparting upon them the basics of Islamic doctrine from early childhood. Damascene bourgeoisie sheikhas managed to license a huge number schools – according to sheikh Muhammad Habash in his article “Al-Qubaysiat: The Unknown File,” they were over 200. This has paved the way for them for further expansion and proliferation.
The Halaqas: The Nucleus of Al-Qubaysiat
Since my early childhood, I grew accustomed to the appearance of some women in my family and neighborhood, as well as many Damascene women: wearing white or blue hijabs, tightly bound at the chin, and a navy blue manteau 3. Never had it occurred to me to question whether this kind of attire represented a certain religious ideology or merely a traditional dress code. I also witnessed female relatives active in da’wa (preaching and missionary work), targeting mainly the young daughters of Damascene families.
I was barely seven years old when a relative of mine and I joined a halaqa for young girls. My uncle’s wife held the belief that seeking knowledge (both religious and worldly) was a righteous and heavenly deed, which is particularly well advised during the summer vacation. She assembled the daughters of the family in a small halaqa for the purpose of memorizing, reciting and understanding the meanings of Quran, learning the fundamentals of fiqh (rules of worship) and studying the prophetic traditions through Riyadh as-Salihin, 4 in addition to other activities such as chanting and performing children’s plays. This halaqa was later linked to a group of other halaqas, all of which supervised and administered by Al-Qubaysiat.
The structure of the Sisterhood consists of a large number of groups, each run by a sheikha, who is often referred to as the Big Aunt and generally revered by the female students and their families. Below her is ranked a group of muridas (disciples) whom we often called Aunti or Miss, and who are tasked with conducting each halaqa. Among the conditions for a murida to become closer to the “Big Aunt” and supervise a halaqa is seniority in the group, and the ability to memorize the entirety of Quran along with its tafsir (exegesis) and tajwid (elocution), as well as accumulating adequate knowledge of main religious fields.
As for the hijab colors, which ranged between white, light blue or dark blue, it has been said that it signifies a distinction between students and muridas according to their status in the hierarchy of the Sisterhood. A new student would wear a white hijab, a Miss a light blue one, and a Big Aunt a dark blue or black one. However, I also noticed that some wear dark blue hijab as an expression of their belief in the Qubaysi thought, regardless of their status within the Sisterhood itself. This is at least what one of the Misses told me.
It was usual that all halaqas occasionally gather at the home of one of the students’ or Misses’, or in some villa in the countryside of Damascus. These gatherings would be either to observe certain religious occasions (such as the birth of the Prophet), perform prayers and dhikr, or periodically celebrate the girls who have finished memorizing the Holy Quran.
As a child aspiring to please her Misses, I used to feel extremely jealous of those who completed memorizing the Quran. It was an atmosphere fraught with competition among the girls, all of whom dreaming of winning the title hafiza (which means both guardian and memorizer) of the Holy Quran. Despite my attempts to complete certain parts of the Quran, I have not succeeded in winning that title. But I now reckon that my childish conception of a halaqa was limited to being around my cousins, which made the whole attendance a matter of socialization, spending quality time and participating in entertaining activities.
By the the time I became a seventh grader, all of the students in the halaqa, including my relatives, had been hijabi, except for me. It has been a custom that some families, in line with religious beliefs and social norms, get their daughters to wear the hijab as they reach puberty. In this sense, a family collusion began to encircle me, with a well-established belief that it is time for me to wear the hijab, especially that I have become an adult and thus accountable before God for my actions.
I did not have control over my choices, or the autonomy to make my own decisions. At some point in 1996, I found myself standing before the Big Aunt, within a special ceremony held specifically for me. She dressed me the amta (swaddle) – which is a small piece of white cloth placed over the head, helping the hijab hold still and preventing it from sliding off. She then dressed me a white hijab that was bound at the chin.
Yielding to the orders of the Aunt and my family, I continued to wear the hijab for a whole. However, subsequent circumstances led me from under their wing, as I engaged in entirely different social environments later on. A few non-hijabi school friends, who hailed from moderately religious Damascene families, had a huge influence on my thought, which led me to rebel against the will of the Big Aunt, growing more and more detached from the religious halaqas until I cut off my relationship with mine, only a year after my hijab ceremony.
During my middle school years, I joined another halaqa under the influence of my neighborhood friend Nour 5, who used to host the students in her home in Al-Midan. I was not persistent in my attendance, compared to what I used to during primary school years. I ultimately withdrew entirely from the halaqas during high school, which culminated in my choosing to take off the hijab by 2001.
Returning to the Fold
In 2005, during my university years, my friend Reem introduced me to Miss Hiba, a Damascene Qubaysia who hails from a distinguished Midani family. I later became close friends with Hiba, who then supervised me in a series of new halaqas for three years.
By then, the halaqas were no longer a place for frivolousness and play, as they had been during my childhood. With this new halaqa, I grew more aware of the essence of the Islamic faith, and I found the opportunity to perform congregational prayer, observe religious rites, and get closer to God through attaining a greater understanding of Islam, all of which encouraged me to go back and engage in the lessons once again.
Aunt Hiba used to host a weekly session in her home. She would initiate each session by welcoming the halaqa students, then begins praying, praising God and blessing the Prophet, before proceeding to the heart of the matter – be it fiqh, tafsir, or a biography of one of the heroes of early Islam (Prophet Muhammad’s companions).
As for the Big Aunt, her turn was second to Hiba’s. She would elaborate what Hiba said before her, or press on to another subject in fiqh, or provide advice, counseling and sermon. She would conclude the session as it had begun: by giving praise to God and blessing upon the Prophet. Sometimes there would be some religious songs performed to the beat of a tambourine.
The patterns of social relations that prevailed among the girls was striking, especially those supervised by Aunt Hiba. Social relations were founded on the principle of fraternity, that is, they were all sisters in Islam, and it is their religious duty treat each other with the utmost respect and support. This was also reflected between the Misses and their students, whereby Aunt Hiba managed to build strong relationships with her students and their families, paying them visits and occasionally checking on them, as well as listening to each girl’s problems and helping her overcome them.
There have been numerous smearing statements about Al-Qubaysiat, which focused mainly on the principle of blind obedience to the Big Aunt. I cannot confirm the blind part; I witnessed it to be rather respectful and honorable. The Big Aunts often enjoyed an esteemed status, which made their words highly trusted among the students. Many used to consult with them and discuss personal matters, including marriage and education. This stemmed rather from the girls’ faith in the Aunts’ piety and wisdom, which is the result of seniority in the Sisterhood, scientific and religious knowledgeability, and old age.
What truly struck me, however, was the belief that Big Aunts are psychic. I still recall the words of the student who told me “The Aunt can read our thoughts,” warning me of talking about her in secret because she would hear what I am saying. The strange part is that the other students went on to confirm this.
Additionally, the students believed that God has revealed the Unseen to the Big Aunt. Students would often consult with her in order to be guided through the midterm and final exams. In turn, she would weirdly grab a textbook, close her eyes, mutter some verses, then open the textbook and indicate the paragraphs about which the exam questions will be. I tried later to address these bizarre beliefs with the Big Aunt, but I did not dare for fear that this would upset her.
Nowadays, the world of social media is awash with pages and videos containing incorrect information about Al-Qubaysiat. There are claims that the students kiss the feet of their Big Aunts, and are forced to show servility to them. In the social media, the Misses practice magic and sorcery, abstain from marriage, and only appeal to beautiful and noble girls… These rumors perpetuate the notion that students and muridas are helpless and gullible. The truth is to the contrary. Girls in the halaqas, students and misses, were educated, cultured and active citizens in public affairs, and some of them were married and enjoy social stature.
In Ramadan of 2008, I was with the students in Aunt Hiba’s house, performing the taraweeh prayer. After we finished, the Big Aunt revealed to me her intention of dressing me in hijab. I told her that I needed some time, but she insisted on her position, announcing her wish to the halaqa’s girls and their families, who were more than 60 women. They soon gathered around me, and placed the amta and the white hijab once again on my head. I immediately remembered the first time I was forced into a hijab ceremony, and how similarly forceful this second one felt.
I returned home, and decided to not yield to the Big Aunt’s whims this time, despite the caution that disobedience would result in excommunication. But I refused to put on a hijab just because she deems it appropriate. I had to bid farewell to the halaqa soon, which was indeed my last encounter with the Sisterhood.
Oscillating Between Religion and Politics
Every now and then, I come across comments and views expressed through social media with respect to Al-Qubaysiat, especially after they appeared in Syrian state media meeting with Bashar al-Assad and his Minister of Awkaf (religious Affairs) in 2012.
Since that time, there has been an open platform to attack Al-Qubaysiat, while others opted to categorically confront the attackers. Between attacks and defense, rumors spread like wildfire, and mystery continues to shroud their real motivations. The regime had deliberately portrayed them as apologists for its dictatorship, thus complicit in its brutality against civilians. Numerous questions have been raised regarding whether they had any political position, or whether they are merely an apolitical religious movement. Syrian state media issued, later in 2014, footage of them declaring their loyalty to Bashar al-Assad and “renewing the pledge of their allegiance” to his rule from under the dome of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
Throughout my time with the Sisterhood, they have always been keen on holding dhikr assemblies secretly in one of the sisters’ houses. They were prohibited from gathering in public and were anxious about prosecution by the security forces. We often resorted to speaking in code as we discussed where and when to hold our halaqa. What exactly led Al-Qubaysiat to later declare support for the Syrian regime?
I am still unable to have a definitive take on Al-Qubaysiat’s politics, despite what the Syrian regime and its media have claimed over the past few years. It must be made clear, first, that many women dress in white hijabs and navy blue manteaus without necessarily belonging to Al-Qubaysiyat. Consequently, we cannot generalize and hastily determine, as many did, that all of those who appeared in the videos are members of the Sisterhood.
On the other hand, according to the assistant to Minister of Awqaf Salma Ayyash, the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad “transferred religious activities of women from private homes, where they is darkness and unclarity, to the mosques where there is light and regulation.” Having worked in secret for decades, Al-Qubaysiat Sisterhood has probably made some concessions for the sake of working in public. In the spring of 2014, Salma Ayyash became the first woman preacher to be appointed as assistant to the Syrian Minister of Awkaf. Furthermore, many of the Sisterhood’s leading figures had long been infamous loyalists, including Khuloud Khadim Srouji, Sawsan Fallaha, and Amira Jibreel. These could have influenced the Sisterhood’s politics too.
Finally, economic factors must be taken into consideration. True, the Sisterhood now attracts all economic sectors and is no longer as confined within the bourgeoisie as it had been used to be. But it is still connected to a network of merchants and holders of financial capital in Damascus, wherein many rich men make their alms-giving –whether as their religious duty or as charity– through their wives and daughters who are members of the Sisterhood. These merchants have undoubtedly strong ties with the Syrian regime, which will certainly reflect on the politics of Al-Qubaysiat.
Until this day, there have not been any official statement by Al-Qubaysiat leaders regarding their position on what is happening in Syria. They do not want to be aligned with any political party, and prefer to limit their work to da’wa only. The Syrian regime, however, did not hesitate to promote the notion that Al-Qubaysiat do support his rule. It needed to convey to the world the message that moderate Islamist movements are protected under, and allied with, his rule in Damascus.
At the end of the day, there are as many loyalist Qubaysiat as there are dissident ones. The Sisterhood has not survived the severe political schism and division which resulted from the recent polarization. Neither was it spared from being part of the regime’s political games.
It has been eight years since I left my last halaqa. They have passed so quickly that I feel that I just left. I still recall the atmosphere of the lessons and trips I had spent with the girls, as well as the words of the Big Aunt when she used to jokingly tell me: “Come sit next to me… Stay close…”
Although the Qubaysiat have been the topic to innumerable rumors, I am not here to defend or attack them, even if I ultimately disagree with them. Differences do not spoil amity, and I still appreciate the religious teaching I had received from them, and the time I had spent with my Misses and fellow students.
I attempted a while ago to check on the Big Aunt, Aunt Hiba and the rest of the fellows. I have tried several times but failed to learn much about the girls, but I heard that the Aunts still reside in Damascus, and are still as active in the da’wa.
- 1. Naqshbandism is a spiritual order of Sufism founded by sheikh Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, aka Shah Naqshband, who became the namesake of the order. It is the only order to trace its spiritual lineage to Prophet Muhammad. Sheikh Muhammad Amin Kuftaro was a champion of Naqshbandism in Damascus, as he founded an expansive institute dedicated to religious scholarship and Naqshbandi practices within the Abun-Nour Mosque. Sheikh Kuftaro was also concerned with spiritual education and purification of soul, attracting more and more people from different parts of the world. He considered mysticism and spiritual education through Quran to be a means, not an end, emphasizing that it is but a method that assists Muslims in redeeming their souls, purifying their hearts and strengthening their will.
- 2. Sheikh Osama Sayyed wrote a lengthy study titled A Comprehensive Study on the Secret and Dangerous Women’s Organization of Munira Qubaysi, Amira Jibreel, Sahar Halabi, Fadia Tabbaa and Suad Meibar, which was published on the internet and included outright attacks on the Sisterhood by way of using quotations and hearsay attributed to them. Additionally, in his book Encyclopedia of Responses to Contemporary Ideologies, Ali bin Nayef Shahoud went as far as declaring Al-Qubaysiat as infidels.
- 3. Manteau is an originally French word used in Damascus to denote the long coat that covers the entire woman’s body down to her ankles.
- 4. Riyadh as-Salihin (or The Meadows of the Righteous) is a compilation of hadith, aggregated by imam Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi. It contains a total of 1,903 hadiths, divided across 372 chapters and covering a variety of religious issues. The Riyadh was designated an essential reading by the Misses of the halaqas due to its relative ease and inclusion of a glossary for unclear vocabulary.
- 5. All names mentioned are pseudonym.