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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Advocacy and Social Movements

Sheikha Munira Al-Qubaysi: Managing a Feminist Islamic Revivalist Movement in Authoritarian Syria

Sheikha Munira Qubaysi is not a household name when it comes to recalling influential people in the Middle East. However, her recent passing shook the region to its core since her prominence was both seen and felt throughout modern Syria as she has led at least two generations of Muslim women in an Islamic revivalist movement. The followers of her movement are often referred to as al-Qubaysiyyat.[1] Qubaysi conceived of this group in 1960s Syria as the country was recovering from the colonial period and re-imagining national identity away from the increasingly failing ideology of secular-nationalism. She found that the failures of the state towards the population, especially women, were due to a lack of spiritual grounding- a vacuum she aimed to fill.

As Islam was regaining ground as a driving ideological force in the region, Qubaysi filled this aching void with a unique form of Islamic revivalism- one that centered around female scholarship and independence from the male religious establishment. Sheikha Munira and her movement’s continued success and ascendance in Syrian society has not only shaped generations of women amounting to over one hundred thousand followers,[2] but it has also established a precedent for female religious scholarship in the greater Middle East. Although Qubaysi began as an anti-colonial Islamic revivalist focused on religious purity and female empowerment, her thought leadership has given her legitimacy within the nation-state and allowed her to safely navigate the secular Ba’athist and Alawite regime. Qubaysi’s movement may seem inconsequential because of its apolitical nature, however its large national, social, and cultural impact has led to the unprecedented creation of a modern movement founded on female religious authority that continues to shape Syrian society today.

Despite the significant impact Qubaysi has had on Syrian women for over the last 50 years, she remains elusive from the public eye. Qubaysi has been meticulous, organized, and comprehensive in her movement building- establishing schools, spearheading the publishing of female Islamic scholarship, and organized several business ventures and social service programs to ensure the independence and legitimacy of her movement and followers in the nation-state. Her creation of a rigid hierarchy that delineates women of greater Islamic knowledge and agents of da’wa (calling people to Islam) from those who are still students has a physical manifestation in the state of modesty of the woman and the color of her hijab indicated from black to navy to blue to white in descending order of rank.

Qubaysi’s coalition building, operations, and negotiations with the regime tend to stay underground for fear of political retribution throughout the years. She sought to manage the organization as one for female empowerment among male dominated religious thought leadership, creating a public space for female religious authority while also balancing against the rise of political Islam and the growing tensions between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Qubaysi’s ascendance amid this balancing act has become highly revered, her character and leadership often compared to the ultimate model exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Making of a Movement

Qubaysi was born in 1933 to a conservative upper-class family of ten children in Damascus. Her upper-class upbringing in a family of wealthy merchants gave her a very comfortable and privileged lifestyle early on in her life that she later used to gain access to other wealthy Damascene homes. Despite Qubaysi being one of four girls, her family prioritized learning and science at an early age for both male and female children. Surprisingly, her father sent Qubaysi to a government school instead of a religious school at a time when many in the conservative upper-class refused to send their male children, let alone females. During the colonial period, the fundamental civic order dictated mediated hierarchies of power between the secular French system and the religious establishment as well as the overarching dominance of men.[3] However, Qubaysi’s circumstances gave her exposure outside of the private sphere traditional to women of the upper-class in Syria at the time. Witnessing the ineffective forms of progress imposed by western imperialism on the Syrian population and the inability of the religious authorities to preserve a sense of identity greatly mobilized Sheikha Munira from an early age. The constant clash of identities within Syrian society during the mandate period between French sympathizers, secular-nationalists, and the religious elite created a fundamental attitude within Qubaysi to establish a community that will direct people to live well and prosper according to a pure form of Islamic tradition.

Shaykh Ahmad Kaftaru, the late Grand Mufti of Syria, motivated her passion for Islamic revivalism in Syria and assisted her with that mission by ensuring she got a comprehensive Islamic education.[4] Many male students became jealous of her since she was able to infiltrate the traditionally male religious elite structure as a woman and was treated with remarkable distinction by Shaykh Ahmad Kaftaru. Rather, she sought to only derive from female religious authority and construct a hierarchy enabling women to rely on other women and not men- starting with herself. After the Ba’athist coup in 1963 and during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qubaysi moved away from being a student to a teacher and leader, using the knowledge she gained from the most learned male scholars of Damascus to educate other women. She began her formal preaching or da’wa away from traditionally male dominated religious spaces to initiate her own movement, jama’at al-anisat. Because of Qubaysi’s family name, reputation, and wealth, as well as her previous access and prestige in the male religious establishment, she was able to gain access into the homes of other wealthy Damascene families of esteem, lineage, authority, and money.

The 1980s brought a tense period of conflict between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood leading to the massacre of hundreds of thousands and the jailing and repression of many more. Hafiz eventually allowed an Islamic revitalization within Sunni civil society after the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime’s greatest opposition, and their banishment from Syria. The regime began condoning a “palpable religious revivalism… despite the fact that the regime’s system of authoritarian rule is supposedly secular and bans the politicization of religion”.[5] They strategically allowed re-Islamization to occur outside of the Muslim Brotherhood context as long as it fit with the government’s political agenda of regime maintenance.[6] Qubaysi and her movement were not necessarily welcomed with open arms by the regime, but this change in policy did allow the group a degree of social capital to be able to negotiate their presence within the society and nation-state. Qubaysi asserted their Islamic group’s purpose to be strictly apolitical and were gradually allowed to teach within schools and mosques through their network of anisat across Damascus.[7] Through Sheikha Munira’s leadership, the regime allowed the Qubaysiyyat “ascendance and increasing authority in Syrian society” because of their apolitical nature and goal of Islamic revival and female empowerment, as well as their internal structure consisting of all women which presented as non-threatening.[8] As the Assad regime began to “co-opt and later accommodate and empower, the apolitical Islamic organizations that remained… a number of these Islamic populist Sufi groups have become prominent parts of the Syrian social landscape”.[9]

Qubaysi was keenly aware of the Syrian political climate, but she did find the value in negotiating with the regime to assert some activities in the public space. Before the 2011 Arab Spring, she managed to keep the group away from overt displays of political engagement and allegiance to or condemnation of the government regime.[10] Her insistence at maintaining a neutral religious movement that is not vested in governmental politics did not protect them completely in the context of a repressive regime. However, by the mid-2000’s Qubaysi shifted from operating mostly underground with most of their teaching activities conducted in secrecy and in the privacy of individual home, to establishing private schools and conducting halaqat in mosques around Damascus.[11] She was also the driving force behind the relaxing the restrictions around wearing hijab under the Bashar regime.[12] Because of Sheikha Munira’s political savvy, her efforts at establishing social legitimacy of her movement while maintaining its apolitical mission allowed her legal permission to host classes and meetings in mosques since 2006.[13] The regime granting limited permission to move their preaching and teaching from secret circles to public venues, mosques, and school was in the government’s best interest. Both parties were aware that if the Qubaysiyyat were to preach in public, they could be more easily monitored, and therefore less threatening than when preaching in secrecy. Qubaysi’s focus was to change the fabric of Syrian society through religious education and practice, not to have any political voice, and that has served her well as operations have normalized since the regime has solidified its power again.

A Global Movement Around a Central Figure

              Until today Qubaysi’s influence is estimated to have reached several hundred thousand adherents within Syria and her movement’s presence is confirmed in at least twelve other countries.[14] Their publications include writings for the general public on religious topics of popular concern as well as multi-volume scholarly commentaries on every discipline and branch in Islam which have reached an audience of millions in the Middle East and beyond.[15] They also have near exclusive control over the country’s youth Quranic memorization program conducted in a majority of mosques throughout Damascus.[16] This large scale impact can also be seen in the social fabric of the nation-state itself. At a time when Syrian society had a crisis of identity and consciousness in the post-colonial era and in the middle of a repressive secularist regime, many turned to Islamic revivalism as a new social order to apply to the chaos.

Sheikha Munira was a product of her circumstances as she navigated what she perceived to be the moral abyss Syrian women were subjected to and wanted to not only aid them with the tools to reach up and away from that empty way of life, but to also uplift them by providing authority to their voices and legitimacy to their names. Although her vision is clearly derived from her journey, the degree of following and loyalty she earned can only be attributed to who she is personally to her hundreds of thousands of followers, even when she has only met a handful. She established a meticulously and strategically defined organization that can be sustained for generations to come and survive long after she has passed. Yet mourning her has been deeply felt as she was many women’s savior who gave them a purpose in life and a moral high ground to embrace in their public and private lives. 

  1. [1]Omar, Al-Qubaysiyyat, 348
  1. [2]Ibid
  1. [3]Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 116
  1. [4]Musa, Al-Qubaysiyyat Series
  1. [5]Khatib et al, State and Islam in Baathist Syria, 29
  1. [6]Khatib et al, State and Islam in Baathist Syria, 31
  1. [7]Omar, Al-Qubaysiyyat, 347
  1. [8]Ibid
  1. [9]Khatib et al, State and Islam in Baathist Syria, 31
  1. [10]Omar, Al-Qubaysiyyat, 352
  1. [11]Ibid
  1. [12]The Muslim 500, Sheikha Munira Qubeysi
  1. [13]Ibid
  1. [14]Islam, The Qubaysiyyat, 161
  1. [15]Ibid
  1. [16]The Muslim 500, Sheikha Munira Qubeysi

Islam, S., 2011. The Qubaysiyyāt: The Growth of an International Muslim Women’s Revivalist Movement from Syria 1960–2008. In: M. Bano and H. Kalmbach, eds., Women, Leadership, andMosques: Changes in Contemporary Authority, 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, pp.161–183.

Khatib, Line, et al. State and Islam in Baathist Syria: Confrontation or Co-Operation? Univ. of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, 2012.

“Munira Qubeysi.” The Muslim 500. Accessed December 17, 2020.

Musa, Mohammed Khair. “Al-Qubaysiyyat: the Series” Al-Jazeera, February 2nd– March 23rd, 2020.

Omar, Sara. “Al-Qubaysiyyāt: Negotiating Female Religious Authority in Damascus.” The Muslim World, vol. 103, no. 3, 2013, pp. 347–362., doi:10.1111/muwo.12018.

Thompson, E. (2000). Colonial Citizens. Columbia University Press.