Rabat has become home to a scholar from Syria who was forced to flee his country in 2011, following his opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And whilst he remains active and influential on the Syrian scene, this public personality from the Prophetic line, is a more discreet figure these days.
As soon as the door of the small villa opened, fashioned in a classic Rabatie style, the strong fragrance of Oud could be smelt. It emanated from Shaykh Muhammad Abu’l Huda Al-Yaqoubi, a major figure in the Sunni world. A spiritual guide and jurist, he heads the Syrian Shadhili Sufi Order – an order which is one of the largest and most influential in the world, both in terms of its size and with respect to its history. The Shaykh, with his smart turban, pale complexion, red-white beard, and blue eyes, alternates between “I” and “we” with majesty. Befitting for an order tracing its lineage directly to the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] through his grandson Hassan Ibn Ali. With absolutely exquisite politeness, he apologises for the thousands of religious books stacked from floor to ceiling: “I just had them delivered; I did not have time to put them in order.”
“I feel good here”
“I feel very good here, the country where I have roots. I am a descendant of Moulay Idris, founder of Fez”, clarifies this scholar, now in his early fifties, whose ancestors migrated some 150 years ago from Morocco to Algeria, eventually settling in Syria. He himself was forced to make a journey in the opposite direction in 2011, escaping the regime of Bashar al-Assad. With his newfound life in Morocco, he continues to devote his energies towards the religion. When we meet he had just returned from Taounate, where he had led an evening Mawlid gathering. His eyes light up at the mention of that night. As they do when he remembers some of the meetings he had with Ahmed Toufiq, Minister of Endowments; who is himself a Sufi; Shaykh Hamza, the Spiritual Master of the Boutchichi Order; but also King Mohammed VI, to whom he addressed on one Ramadan evening in 2012, the subject of differences between fatwa [legal opinion] and qada [law].
Such meetings occur due to the prestige of his origins and previous offices he has held. Son and grandson of preeminent religious leaders, the Shaykh began preaching at the age of fifteen in his hometown of Damascus. Later, during a sojourn in Europe, he was appointed Mufti of Sweden when he lived there in the 1990s. When he resettled in Syria in 2006, he became a teacher in the famous Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. A published author of books spanning topics within Islamic law ranging from pricing and court protocols, this jurist, who is affiliated to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, has recently had a small collection of inspired, and unparalleled, prayers upon the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] published by a Moroccan publishing house. The Shaykh is not remiss in his appreciation of the welfare shown to him in Morocco, where mosques and schools regularly invite him to undertake interventions, yet none of which manages to make him forget his status, of one who is living in exile.
Mufti, No Thanks
In the heavily policed and subdued world that Syrian theologians and religious authorities function, Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi has long been a thorn in the authority’s side. When he was offered the title of Mufti of Damascus in 2006, he refused, perceiving it as a way of becoming co-opted by the regime. A few years later, a sermon supporting the revolution in Tunisia, coupled with a scathing critique of the Salafi doctrine – coming as it did at a time when the Syrian government was trying to appease its relations with Saudi Arabia – earned him interrogations. Nevertheless, it was the Syrian uprising that broke out in March 2011, which permanently galvanised his opposition. As soon as the first demonstrations began, he sent a letter, through a mutual friend, to President Bashar al-Assad, whom he had previously met. In the letter, he asked, amongst other things, for the release of several political prisoners, as well as insisting on the removal of officials who were involved in the repression, from their posts. During our interview he told me, “I wanted to preserve national unity before it was too late.” By April 2011, the civilian death toll was mounting and Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi delivered his first sermon directly addressing this subject, to a congregation of more than a thousand, overseen by armed police. He adopted a moderate tone to avoid inflaming the already simmering tensions. In early May 2011, he took the opportunity during a speech he was giving to a small gathering, which was being filmed, to condemn the regime more adamantly. From that moment on, agents of the security forces were camped outside his home. Thereafter, for almost a month, he lived furtively from guesthouse to guesthouse, and deliberately avoided going home, until word reached him from a friend within the security cadre that the intelligence services had him permanently on their radar. In June of that year he fled to Turkey, and eventually ended up in Morocco. Shortly after, his family of four children joined him, following a detour through Jordan.
From Morocco, he issues fatwas for Syrian rebel fighters
Subsequently, Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi’s life took a turn common to many political opponents who find themselves living in exile. From abroad he began issuing statements, some of which rocked Syrian public opinion. Such as when he suggested that the killing of the popular Shaykh Al-Buti, who was known to be close to the regime in Syria and was killed in a bombing in 2013, might have been an operation conducted by Syria’s security services. Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi tells me about Shaykh al-Buti that, “He whispered that he was preparing for his defection,” without masking his hostility towards Shaykh Al-Buti, nor his sadness upon learning of his passing. In 2013, Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi was briefly appointed to the National Council – an opposition body – but then sidelined by the Muslim Brotherhood. From Morocco the Shaykh issues dozens of fatwas for the moderate rebel fighters, among whom he retains some influence, in a country where the Sufi tradition still holds strong. “A sensitive exercise because on the ground the anger is high”, explains the one who explicitly condemned the capturing of foreigners and the killing of prisoners of war. Initially. his plan was to create ‘a coalition for the building of civilisations’ in partnership with other Syrian Sufis, entering into arrangements with armed moderate groups too. He finally opted to build a sustainable relief operation to help civilians, and created a charity focussed on international aid efforts, whose work has so far seen it build and run a hospital inside Syria, fully-functional bakeries in liberated areas to the north of Aleppo, as well as schools in refugee camps in Jordan.
While awaiting Ghazali
The troubling fertilisation of terrorism on the ground in Syria also pushed the Shaykh to respond. Unlike his fatwas during the early days of the uprising – such as the fatwa he issued on Al-Jazeera in 2011 against the regime – nowadays many of his public appearances in the Arab and American media focus on denouncing the actions of terrorist groups. When asked about this, his look becomes resigned, “To them I am a heretic, see how they are destroying the shrines.” Nonetheless, he is insistent that defeating terrorism in Syria is impossible without the departure of Bashar al-Assad. “The majority of executives of Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda) were released by the regime, who quickly released the radicals but not the democratic opponents.” And just as he sent a letter to Bashar al-Assad in 2011, in November 2014 he wrote an open letter addressed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of The Islamic State – commonly referred to as Da’esh – in which he decried, on religious grounds, forced conversions, excommunication, torture and other practices occurring in cities held by the jihadists.
One can sense that this life of opposition is one which Shaykh Al-Yaqoubi would rather do without. His greatest wish remains to be able to one-day resume his lessons in the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, especially those dedicated to Imam Al-Ghazali, a figure he particularly cherishes. Meanwhile, his beliefs and religious convictions underscore his commitment. “I put mercy and the preservation of life at the centre of my actions,” he stresses, and pontificates that his role in a liberated Syria will be, above all, “To absorb all this accumulated anger, and let it diffuse within him.” In a closing, more muted tone, he offers, enigmatically, smiling, with a whisper, “The heart can sometimes do things that politics is unable to…”
* Original article appeared in weekly French magazine “TelQuel” on 22nd Jan 2015; reproduced online on 14th February 2015: http://telquel.ma/2015/02/14/cheikh-en-exil_1433823