Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro (rahimahullah)
by Gibril Fouad Haddad
(Obituary originally written by request of Islamica Magazine)
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Samahat al-Mufti Ahmad ibn Shaykh Amin Kuftaro ibn Mulla Musa al-Kurdi al-Shafi`i (1912-2004) was born in Damascus the capital of Syria, on Mount Qasyoun, in the neighborhood of Abu al-Nur named after one of the officers of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (the great saintly and scholarly leader "Saladin"), Abu al-Nur Qaraja al-Salahi, in the district known as al-Salihiyya or "The Righteous District," in reference to the many friends of Allah that are buried there.
In 1927 Shaykh Ahmad's father, Shaykh Amin Kuftaro (d. 1938) succeeded Shaykh Amin al-Zamalkani as head of the Tariqa Naqshbandiyya in Damascus. The latter had succeeded the great Shaykh `Isa al-Kurdi (d. 1911). Shaykh Ahmad benefited from his father's guidance and was helped by a prodigious memory. He memorized the Qur'an at an early age and about ten thousand verses of poetry on the various sciences of the Shari`a according to the old mnemonic methods that put all the important mother-texts (ummahat al-mutun) into verse for easier memorization.
Shaykh Ahmad lived through the great upheavals of his country: the two world wars, the departure of the Turks from Damascus in the year 1920 and the coming of the French in the name of protectorate, followed by the Syrian insurgency against the French occupation - actively supported by the great Ulema of the time - until the last French soldier left in the year 1946, eleven years after the death of the great Sufi hadith Master Shaykh Badr al-Din al-Hasani who had been a key inspiration in the insurgency. Shaykh Ahmad no doubt viewed his own Fall, 2003 fatwa approving of any attacks on the American occupants in Iraq as a revival of that legacy.
Shaykh Ahmad's father married him with a Kurdish woman from a pious family when he turned 16. She was 14 and bore him all his children, nine boys and three girls. Shaykh Ahmad also took a second wife later in life.
In 1935, three years before Shaykh Amin died, when Ahmad was only 23, Shaykh Amin had alread chosen him to succeed him in the office of spiritual guide or Murshid in the Tariqa. Shaykh Ahmad climbed the echelons of leadership and not only succeeded his father but became in 1951 Mufti of Damascus then, in 1963, Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic. From its beginnings as a place of worship and retreat the mosque of Abu al-Nur developed into an institute for religious education in 1975 (the Ma`had for men and women), and a charity, Jam`iyyat al-Ansar al-Khayriyya.
Shaykh Ahmad played a lively advisory role at different levels of power in Syria and the Arab world, notably through his long-time friendship with the late President Hafiz al-Assad, without taking sides nor espousing particular views beyond the overriding imperative fostered by the Rabitat al-Ulama': to protect and strengthen Islam in the society and the individual. He summarized his political philosophy thus: "Islam and political authority are twins, neither of which thrives without the other. Islam is the foundation and power the guardian. What lacks foundation crumbles and what lacks a guardian gets waylaid." Thus it is both as a Muslim and an Arab that he reiterated time and again to his audiences at home and abroad, especially in the United States, the responsibility of the world to help the Palestinians in their plight.
In 1979 an assassination attempt against three of Shaykh Ahmad's sons took the life of one of them, his anticipated successor of accomplished learning, Shaykh Zahir. But the Shaykh's mettle was tested to the limit by the dark years of 1980-1982 during which he pleaded for moderation and strove to spare the religious institutions and symbols of his country the irrevocable damage caused by the fitna. After the Shaykh passed away he was succeeded by his youngest son, Shaykh Salah.
In his lifetime of weekly one-to-two-hour pre-Jumu`a lectures in commentary of the Qur'an at Abu al-Nur Mosque, Shaykh Ahmad concluded no less than four full commentaries of the Qur'an, broadcast to the four levels of the 15,000-capacity mosque by close-circuit TV and simulatenously translated into English, French, and Russian. This feat is recorded in audio and video in full. One of the students of the Shaykh published an anthology of these lessons under the title Min Hadyi al-Qur'an al-Karim, possibly the only book published under the name of the Shaykh. Shaykh Ahmad liberally shared the podium with various guests from all over the world whom he would have address the congregation, from the late Shaykh Ahmad Ya Sin to American televangelists and Louis Farrakhan to Sufi Shuyukh such as al-Habib `Ali al-Jafri and my own beloved teacher, Shaykh Nazim, whom Samahat al-Mufti affectionately nicknamed the Shaykh of Shaykhs.
Shaykh Amin's original didactic method had been summed up by one book in particular: Imam al-Sha`rani's al-Mizan al-Kubra, written as a defense and illustration of the Four Sunni Schools against fanatical allegiance to a particular school and a defense of sufism. Similarly Shaykh Ahmad de-emphasized Madhhabism as can be gleaned by Abu al-Nur's comparative approach to the teaching of Islamic law. To the President of Iran, al-Khatami, who had requested him to add the fifth, twelver-Imami School of law to the syllabus the Mufti reportedly replied, tongue in cheek, "I thought you were going to help me do away with differences and divisions but you are asking me to add to them instead!"
But Shaykh Ahmad's greatest innovation, no doubt, was his stand for inter-faith dialogue, "actively striving to unite the human family... [and] working to achieve better understanding and cooperation amongst the people of the heavenly religions" in the words of his website [http://www.kuftaro.org]. One day in the sixties, before his fifty-third year, he announced that his mosque would celebrate the birth of Christ and he invited the Christian religious leaders of Syria and Lebanon to the celebration. A scandal ensued, fanned by naysayers on both sides. When the dust settled Shaykh Ahmad had become the single most powerful interlocutor of the Christians in the Muslim world.
This rhetorical gift ultimately led to his official invitation to the Vatican where John Paul II received him in 1985, one in a series of historical meetings and travels to the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Shaykh Ahmad attended fifty-five international conferences out of a total of two hundred invitations, including a June, 1989, two-week lecture tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department to religious centers and leaders in Washington D.C., the Northeast, and Florida. In 1990 he gave two seminal talks at the United Nations-sponsored Assembly of World Religions in San Fransisco: "The Quran Extends its Hand to Mankind" and "Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century." [More at http://www.sunnah.org/history/Scholars/shaikh_ahmad_kuftaro.htm] His summation of this message can be seen in his address titled "Islam and Christianity: Two Religions, One God" [http://www.al-bushra.org/mos-chr/kuftaro.html].
Samahat al-Mufti often recalled that the Pope had said to him, "Every day I read the Qur'an." His repartee came in the form of an answer to an European ambassador that had asked him, "What is the Christian population of Syria?" "Fourteen million," the Mufti answered - meaning, its totality instead of the expected 14% of the country! He then explained: "Any Muslim that does not believe in our liege-lord the Christ, his Islam is nil." Sahih. May Allah have mercy on this extraordinary leader of wisdom, learning, and good humor in our time who strove to address each segment of humankind in the fittest way he saw for its advancement out of the darkness of disbelief and into the light of faith.