KNOWN affectionately by thousands in Syria and around the world as “Samahtu Shaykh”which literally meaning something akin to ‘His Eminence’ in English – Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, the Grand Mufti of Syria, passed away in Damascus, leaving behind a legacy very few men can rival in this day and age. He was, in the oft used expression, many things to many people: Mufti, scholar, Sufi sheikh, Interfaith advocate, and beloved husband, father and grandfather. His legacy is as tangible as the huge Abu Nur mosque and institute nestled in the foothills of Mt Rasyun, and as widespread as the international community of Muslims he helped teach and inspire during a career spanning over fifty years.
Born in 1912 in the Abu Nur neighborhood, which would later be known primarily for Sheikh Ahmed and the Abu Nur institute he originated and presided over, he was the son of noted scholar and head of the Naqshbandi tariqa, Sheikh Amin Kuftaro. Before Sheikh Amin’s death in 1958, it was clear he had designated his son, Sheikh Ahmed, to take over his office as sheikh of the Tariqa. Before the age of thirty, Sheikh Ahmed assumed the mantle of Murshidoithe Tariqa. Several years later, owing in great part to his remarkable memory and scholastic prowess, he assumed the position of Grand Mufti of Damascus in 1951. By 1963 he became Grand Mufti of Syria. Whether he liked the idea or not he was thrust into prominence in the corridors of power. In his position as Grand Mufti he would be Syria’s de facto representative of Islam in an Arab world that was turning ever more secular and politicized. Sheikh Ahmed did not shy from such responsibilities. Over the years, amidst the power struggles and sometimes bloody sectarian strife that rocked the Middle East, the Sheikh would become well known for his pragmatism. Many are the stories circulated about the Mufti’s use of wisdom, foresight and humor to represent Islam. He repeatedly emphasized the need for sane and balanced discussion at a time when many chose more violent courses of action. When, for example, he met with Syrian President Hafiz ai-Asad during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, he was asked pointedly and in rather veiled language whether anyone was thinking of becoming Ayatollah of Syria. The reference was clearly aimed directly at the Mufti. Sheikh Ahmed thought for a moment and answered, “There can’t be an ayatollah in Syria, because there isn’t a Shah …” The president laughed and the matter was dropped.
It was Sheikh Ahmed’s diplomatic finesse that enabled him to handle both the affairs of his religious office and the more politicized affairs of state, and to chart a course for Islam in Syria without compromising the tenets of faith. Abu Nur Institute remained open in Syria during times when radical Islam and the Baathist regime were at loggerheads. Even today, it remains open for classes, worship and gatherings of dhikr in an age where most mosques are closed between prayers and after Isha.
It is his role in Interfaith and ecumenical dialogue that is perhaps best remembered. He tirelessly emphasized the similarity between the world’s major monotheistic religions in order to bring about constructive dialogue. He was invited to many countries around the world as an unofficial ambassador of Islam. These visits culminated in 1985 with a visit to the Pope in Rome. Even in his later years, as his health began to wane, he made a point of traveling around the world to speak on Islam and its role in the brotherhood of humanity.
During most of his life he also gave weekly lectures before Juma’ prayer every Friday. Leaders of Islamic and other religious institutions were often invited to speak alongside the sheikh at these weekly majalis. Guests over the years included the late Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, the controversial Louis Farrakhan, Sheikh Nazim al-Qubrusi and Sheikh Habib Ali Jifri. Often well known spiritual leaders of other faiths were invited to speak as well. These gatherings were presented to a packed mosque, and offered simultaneous translations in English, Russian and French and broadcast on local television. The kernel of these lectures was the sheikh’s ongoing commentary of the Qur’an which he managed to complete more than four times during a long and productive life.
Nor was the sheikh averse to contro- versy. In his tireless role as inter-faith advocate he announced during the sixties that Abu Nur was commemora- ting the birth of Christ and he invited leaders from the Syrian and Lebanese Christian communities. An uproar naturally ensued, but left no doubt who ecumenical dialogue’s strongest sup- porter was. A later comment on the nature of Jesus perhaps summarized Sheikh Ahmed’s views most succinctly: “If a Muslim does not acknowledge Sayyidna Isa (Jesus), then his Islam is for naught”
His travels as a representative of such tolerant Islam took him to Europe, the States and Japan, among other places. In 1990 he was invited to address the Assembly of World Religions sponsored by the United Nations in San Francisco. The lectures he gave on Islam and interfaith topics were collected and translated into a volume entitled: The Way of Truth.
Although he was often criticized for being too political or overly compromising in his dealings with political figures, Sheikh Ahmed commented: “Islam and political authority are twins, neither one thrives without the other. Islam is the foundation, whilst power is its guardian. Whatever lacks a foundation, crumbles and whatever lacks power is waylaid.”
The Sheikh’s long and productive life bequeaths a substantial legacy to the Muslim community worldwide and to those striving to recognize mankind’s similarities rather than differences. A virtual library oivideo and audio lectures during the course of his life, in addition to books such as The Way of Truth, Min Hadi al-Qur’an al-Karim (his Friday tofsirlessons) and a selection of the Hikam ‘Ata ‘iyya are perhaps the least of his contributions. His true legacy lies in the hearts of the millions he touched through his life as a spiritual guide, teacher and ambassador of Islam. It is fitting testament that the neighborhood where he was born, the Abu Nur district, which was originally named after an officer under the command of Saladin; should become so intimately connected with Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro. Yet another mantle has been passed on, and worn with dignity, wisdom and faith.
Samahtu Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro is succeeded by his son, Salah Kuftaro. May he continue upon the path blazed by his illustrious father. Even the most optimistic of us though, can’t help but feel that one light of nobility, learning and faith has gone out Allah yarhumu.