Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- The name al-Ahbash, recently mentioned in the media in connection to the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, refers to The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects in Lebanon which was founded by A Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al Hirari, nicknamed “al Habashi”, referring to his Ethiopian origin. Born in the city of al Hirara , near Somalia , al Hirari settled in Lebanon in 1950 where he taught religious studies and cultivated a personal following.
Maintaining strong relations with the Syrian government, the groups leader, Nizar al Halabi was killed in 1995 by Ahmad Abdul Karim al Saaid, known as Abu Mihjin, who headed “Asbat al Ansar”or the League of Partisans. The latter was sentenced to death in absentia for his crime.
In April 2001, al Ahbash organized a series of public rallies to counter demonstrations called by those opposed to Syria”s presence in Lebanon on the anniversary of the civil war. Members took to the streets dressed in black and wearing face paint and masks, the al-Ahbash members chanted pro-Syrian slogans before the TV cameras while waving nail-encrusted broomsticks, kitchen knives, brass knuckles, chains, axes, old rusted swords and hammers.
Released on Friday, the UN report into the assassination of Hariri featured the name of three brothers, Ahmad Abd al Al, an active member of al Ahbash currently in Lebanese custody, Walid, a member of the Presidential Guard, and Mahmud, also member of al Ahbash who, according to the investigation telephoned Lebanese President Emile Lahoud moments before the bombing which targeted Hariri’s convoy on February 14 th 2005. Mahmud was arrested on Sunday on a warrant issued by Magistrate Judge Sai Mirza. Police in Beirut also raised a sweet shop in Tariq al Jadidah neighbourhood owned by Hashem Mahmud Alian, allegedly a member of al Ahbash where hand grenades were found and confiscates and Alian arrested.
According to Dar al Iftaa in Beirut , the Lebanese state mufti’s administration, Abdullah al Hirari was “a man hostile to those who did not share his views, even his predecessors such as Sheikh Ibn Taymiya and Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab. He was nicknamed the Sheikh of strife.”
On its internet site, the group explains how its name was originally “used to indicate the students and supporters of sheikh al Hirari. In reality, al Ahbash are an organization called The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects.”
“The Association rejects the Takfir ideology and opposes the use of violence against the ruling authorities and the killing of the elderly, women, and children. It does not depend on any government for financial support and rejects the takfir ideologies that denounce Muslims as infidels”.
According to the site, the former Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Mukhtar al Alayli, had recognized the religious knowledge of al Hirari and helped him settle in Lebanon and teach in its mosques.
Listing the group”s accomplishments, the site mentions the schools and colleges it has founded around Lebanon and the university it established. Members are alleged to live as far as North America and Europe where they run a number of religious schools. Al Ahbash run their own radio station which broadcasts religious programs in Lebanon. Sheikh Abdullah al Habashi is married to four women and has two children, a boy and a girl, the site added.
Based in Burj Abi Haidar in west Beirut , the group maintains centers across Europe , including Switzerland , France , The Netherlands, Sweden , Denmark , and German, and several US states.
Al Ahbash entered the Lebanese political arena in 1992 when its candidate Dr. Adnan Trabulisi was elected to the Lebanese parliament.
Dar al Iftaa has accused the group of following the Khawarij, an Islamic sect in the 7 th and 8 th centuries in Southern Iraq and being extreme in their denunciation of their predecessors without taking into consideration the regulations around takfir.