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The Death of Syria’s Mystery Woman

Munira al-Qubaysi, the controversial founder of the cultlike 'Qubaysiyat' order, leaves behind a strong but quiet legacy

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The Death of Syria’s Mystery Woman
Members of the Qubaysiyat women’s group meet Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in 2014. (Syrian Presidency)

On Dec. 25, as Christmas festivities were underway around the world, one of the most quietly influential Muslim women of the past century took her final breaths. Munira al-Qubaysi, a Syrian Islamic scholar known to her many followers as “al-anisa,” or “the teacher,” died in Damascus at 89. A respected cultural and religious figure inside Syria, al-Qubaysi was also the founder of a transnational religious order bearing her name, membership of which is exclusive to Muslim women, known collectively as the Qubaysiyat. Though her death went largely unreported outside Syria, it marks the end of a significant and controversial chapter in Syria’s history under the Assad regime, as the movement attempted to reconcile religiosity with political suppression.

The Qubaysiyat have been a secretive, at times underground, revivalist Islamic movement. The group has focused on promoting conservative religious education alongside the secular curriculum taught throughout Syria’s public school system. At first, it did so through underground cells, teaching “lessons” in private homes. But since the early 2000s, when Bashar al-Assad came to power and loosened the country’s restrictions on private schools and colleges, educational institutions run or influenced by the Qubaysiyat have become ubiquitous in Syria, often recognizable by their female teachers, who wear distinctive navy veils. The movement remains largely unknown to the broader world, yet it is believed to boast tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of disciples within Syria, as well as in franchises across the Middle East and even as far afield as Europe and the Americas. At the center of it all has been the towering figure of al-Qubaysi, a woman as influential within the group as she has been mysterious.

Laila, a co-author of this essay, was herself on course to become a member of the group after being actively recruited by them on two separate occasions. Her recollections offer rare insight into the cult-like “protocols” of the group and the red lines that lead to a member’s ex-communication.

In 2005, Laila was a regular attendant of a neighborhood mosque in Damascus and a student at one of the private college-level religious (sharia learning) institutions. This made her a de facto member in the general pool, or “halaqa,” of potential recruits into the group. One day, a friend of Laila’s, known by her dress and demeanor to be “a formal Qubaysi,” invited Laila to attend a private session with the group insiders. The occasion involved helping to organize a trip and a ceremony for a teenage girl “hafizah” (someone who has memorized the entire Quran, considered a high achievement that is celebrated and honored by the hafizah’s family and community). Laila attended the event, which was held at a private farm in the countryside. There, she was approached again and invited to another event, this time located outside of Damascus at the home of one of the senior teachers, in an opulent villa that boasted two swimming pools, among other luxuries. This was Laila’s induction into the group’s private inner circle. It was there that Laila witnessed what was, to her, an unprecedented level of fealty and reverence expressed by members toward the hierarchical chain of the group, aimed at receiving “baraka” (blessings). Disciples sought to drink from the teacher’s glass of water after she had sipped from it. When Laila voiced reservations about doing the same, her friend reprimanded her. With that, Laila ceased attending the meetings, at least with the same halaqa.

A short while later, an acquaintance at the religious institute invited Laila to a function. This time, the woman cautioned her up front about the importance of the “qudwa,” or “exemplar;” and of revering, emulating and obeying the leader without questioning her way of practicing Islam.

Laila attended, but again the experience was short-lived, as she was unable to adhere to the seemingly blind devotion to the teachers.

The Qubaysiyat closely guard the protocols and rituals of their membership, but family members who have watched wives, mothers, sisters or daughters burrow deeper into the organization do occasionally complain openly about the group’s peculiar ideas and practices. One such family lamented to New Lines that their daughter — let us call her Suha — was navigating a troubled marriage when she fell into the group and embraced it wholeheartedly. Though the entire family identified as conservative Sunni Muslims, the parents and adult siblings felt Suha was “coming home with strange ideas” after joining the Qubaysiyat, ideas that sometimes bordered on superstition and junk science.

For her part, Suha, who divorced a neglectful husband and committed herself to raising her two teenage daughters on her own, credited her fellow Qubaysiyat with helping her both financially and emotionally, and even helping to secure an appropriate marriage into a “good family” for her college-aged daughter. Suha continues to be devoted to the group and says she has witnessed many cases of women in all kinds of distress — poverty, divorce, single motherhood, and so on — who have been “absorbed and bolstered” by the Qubaysiyat.

One of the main features of the group is its hybrid hierarchical structure, which draws from the general pool of recruits. The latter can be found among members of the public across the country’s institutions and mosques, especially in Damascus, where the group is most active. When it first started in the 1970s, its handful of recruiters targeted society’s well-placed women: the wives, mothers and daughters of the wealthy, the influential and the well-to-do. Observers from that generation recall a sort of “soft conversion” that overtook Syrian society, with the matriarch in a family growing more observant, religious and stern, then pushing other members of her family in that direction, especially the men, during an era that also witnessed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood along with their brutal suppression, culminating in the 1982 massacre by the Assad regime of thousands of people in the city of Hama.

By the early 1980s, just before members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-government Islamist groups went into exile following a failed uprising against then-President Hafez al-Assad, it was commonly said that almost every conservative woman in Damascus was either a disciple of the Qubaysiyat, attended their classes occasionally or at the very least admired them. The group had sunk deeper roots into Syrian society than many who had chosen to challenge the regime directly. Today, the knotted veil and loose dress of the Qubaysiyat have become symbolic of urban Damascene culture as a whole.

“When my 20-something-year-old daughter comes home one day wearing the hijab, and slowly grows more religious, how can I, her mother, not wear a hijab also?” recalled one Damascene whose entire family converted from secularists to observant Muslims after their daughter joined the Qubaysiyat. Her statement echoes the experience of many families from that time.

To this day, the upper echelons among the Qubaysiyats’ teachers come from well-heeled, influential families who reach out to and recruit women from lower social strata through education and moral support.

Al-Qubaysi’s death last month prompted a rare moment of convergence among Syrians otherwise polarized by the country’s brutal conflict. Both regime and opposition figures alike issued statements of mourning. For many supporters of the Syrian revolution, the group was tarnished by the decision in the early years of the uprising by leaders of the Qubaysiyat to be photographed meeting with Assad. The organization itself has exhibited fractures amid the pressure of a conflict that has impacted every sector of Syrian society, with divisions emerging among rank-and-file members over how to respond to the cataclysm of the war and their own leaders’ pragmatic relationship with the Syrian regime.

As for al-Qubaysi herself, she remained an enigma up until her death. Public images of her are unavailable, though photos of her disciples wearing their distinctive navy hijabs and dark manteaus can be found online. Al-Qubaysi never made public appearances or spoke directly to the press. In 2006, a veteran Syrian journalist, Ibrahim Hamidi, attempted with many other journalists to interview her for a profile about the movement. Like others before and after him, he failed to gain access to the reclusive leader, but his subsequent article did contain a rare physical description of her, relayed to him by figures close to her inner circle. In this report, she was described simply as a tall, tan-skinned woman, well-known to her close followers for the warm, enigmatic smile she wore behind her veil.

In a country as opaque as Assad’s Syria, the relative secrecy of a figure like al-Qubaysi has fostered conspiracies that she herself only ever existed as a myth or as part of a plot by the mukhabarat, Syria’s network of shadowy intelligence agencies, to manipulate and control Syrian society.

Some details about al-Qubaysi’s background are, however, known for certain. She was born in 1933 to a mercantile Damascene family of six boys and four girls. Her father’s family is believed to have had roots in Palestine and arrived in Syria in the early 1900s. Most of her life is thought to have been spent in Damascus, in the upper-middle-class parts of a district known as Muhajireen. At least two of her close family members have also risen to become Damascene notables: her paternal uncle, Mohammed Kheir, a close religious disciple of Syria’s former Grand Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro, and a younger brother, Mohammed Bahjat, a respected scholar specializing in ancient Levantine languages.

Al-Qubaysi’s own career — exceptional for a woman of her time — infused a strong religious education into a secular curriculum. She studied natural sciences at the University of Damascus. Yet she was also close to her religious uncle, following him to become involved in Syria’s then-nascent religious brotherhoods and embarking on a career of teaching and proselytism. In the early 1960s, the Baath Party began a program of heavy-handed secularization of Syrian society. Al-Qubaysi fell victim to this policy and, for a time, was banned from teaching. By all accounts, this ban only increased her interest in the Islamic revival movement then growing in Syrian society, bringing her closer to her uncle’s associate, the influential Kuftaro.

Her command of both secular and religious knowledge won al-Qubaysi respect from intellectuals and religious figures alike within Syria. Though she later fell out with Kuftaro’s followers, she remained on good terms with him and his family until his death in 2004. In a statement mourning her passing, the Ahmed Kuftaro Foundation referred to al-Qubaysi warmly as “the virtuous educator, the Hajjah [Pilgrim] Munira, daughter of Subhi Qubaysi.” Notably, and unusually for women in a deeply conservative society, al-Qubaysi (like many of her group’s leadership) never married — devoting her entire life instead to the cause of women’s education.

Overall, the Qubaysiyat’s status as a women’s-only movement drawn from urban Damascene society helped it escape the wrath of the mukhabarat, as did its silence on political matters. Yet its abandonment of politics led the movement toward other avenues of influence over Syrian society. The organization would come to influence the social scene in Damascus through a network of affordable private schools that offered high-quality education to young women, many of whom were drawn from the city’s conservative upper class. The growth of the movement reflected al-Qubaysi’s own organizational genius, employing tools like strategic marriages with elite figures, well-placed gifts and the acquisition and refurbishment of old properties to serve as schools. At its peak, nearly 40% of private girls’ schools and tutoring services in Damascus are believed to have been run by the organization.

With the Arab Spring and the onset of the Syrian revolution, the Qubaysiyat were forced for the first time into the political limelight. Like many other religious movements in Syria, the group was divided between leaders who sought to accommodate the regime and rank-and-file members who often sympathized with the opposition. In December 2012, leaders from the group were forced to break their public silence on the uprising to attend a meeting with Assad, where, implicitly, they projected support for the regime by appearing with its leader. A few days later, a protest video by ostensible Qubaysiyat disciples was uploaded to YouTube titled, “Free Women of Damascus Defect from the Qubaysiyat” — a complaint against what many saw as collaboration with an increasingly murderous dictatorship.

Perhaps inevitably, the Qubaysiyat has become more entrenched with the regime in the years since that event. In 2014, Salma Ayyash, a leader in the group, was appointed as assistant to Mohammed Abdul Sattar al-Sayed, the Syrian government’s minister of endowments. There was no public protest against this appointment from within the movement. More changes would soon follow. In 2018, the same ministry announced the nationalization of the Qubaysiyat and its activities, a development that signaled to many the end of the movement as an independent entity. Since then, the Qubaysiyat has come under the umbrella of a government that has, in the wake of the conflict, sought to extend its influence into every remaining corner of Syrian society.

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