By Yvonne Ridley who recalls the memorable few days she spent with the widow of legendary Sheikh Abdullah Azzam
THE trouble with military history is that it is largely penned by men for men, which is a real pity simply because the authors who write about war and conflict rarely give any focus to the roles played by women.
I came to realise this just the other day when I heard the sad news that Samira Mohyeddin had died in Jordan aged 73.
I searched for obituaries and tributes in the international media but found none and so I’ve resolved to change this by writing about this remarkable Palestinian woman.
If you’ve not heard of her before that’s hardly surprising, but if I tell you she was one of the pivotal figures in the global jihad movement I might hold your attention a little longer.
The US endorsed her Jihad
You see Samira was the wife of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the legendary Palestinian scholar who in 1981 joined the mobilisation of fighters drawn from across the Arab world to Afghanistan.
This was at a time when jihad was considered by the US and its allies to be a noble cause, so millions of dollars in cash and military aid flowed into the cause during the 1970s and 80s.
Sheikh Azzam was undoubtedly a lightning rod for that mobilisation but while he organised the mujahideen Samira became one of the most important female veterans from the 1980s Arab Afghan war.
The conflict ultimately saw the collapse and end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which had begun with tanks rolling into Kabul on 24 Dec 1979 and rolling out ten years later on 15 Feb 1989.
Certainly, the female mujahideen were extremely active during that war yet their efforts appear to have been forgotten … virtually airbrushed from the history books.
It’s not that their lack of representation from that period is deliberate but probably more of oversight by male writers more obsessed by guns, military kit, hardware and combat roles than looking at the women who introduced some order into the chaos.
It’s only in recent decades since more women journalists have gone into conflict zones, that the whole subject of warfare has carried more depth and human interest focussing on the people on the ground.
Women writers bring empathy and understanding whereas conflicts have previously been written top-down from the general’s viewpoint.
While military strategy and success are important it usually lacks humanisation, empathy or emotion and very often is caged in a tight ideological frame, blinkering authors from fresh perspectives.
So let me return to Samira Mohyeddin who succumbed to Covid-19 while in hospital in Jordan earlier in May.
My particular interest goes back to 2005 when I met her for a series of recorded video interviews while she was visiting her youngest daughter Sumayya in London.
I confess my initial interest was trying to find out what life was like being married to the great Sheikh Azzam, often credited as the architect and spiritual leader of global jihad.
However, as we talked I began to realise she was significant in her own right and had played an instrumental role during their time in Pakistan.
While the popular view of the Arab Afghan war is one of the foreign fighters being drawn to the region, this was certainly not the sole preserve of men.
Samira set up a home in Islamabad with her young family and immediately became involved in many aspects of her husband’s work.
The mother of nine gave birth to her first child, Fatima, in 1966 in Palestine with her second child Wafa being born in Jordan the following year. In 1969 she gave birth to her first son, Muhammad, followed by Hudhayfa in 1972 in Egypt, Ibrahim (1974), Summaya (1975) Hamza (1977) all born in Jordan and Mis’ab in 1984 in Islamabad.
You’ll find very little in Western media archives or in electronic reference archives like Wikipedia about Samira.
Like many significant Muslim women, it’s as though she didn’t exist despite her role in Pakistan as head of the women’s committee of the Mujahideen Services Office in Peshawar.
She was also a respected Islamic scholar in her own right. Such omissions are shameful and so I will attempt to redress the balance.
You see, Samira led an incredible life. I know because she told me, and she gave such detail back in 2005 about a life that started in Palestine and covered most of the Middle East before journeying to Pakistan.
From Palestine to Pakistan
She and a number of the other Arab and Afghan women contributed and published a number of magazines written by and for the women of the Mujahideen.
They were an organised group mainly based in Peshawar and produced a number of high quality, glossy magazines because of generous funding from Western allies and Arab networks.
She could so easily have opted for a more quiet life after the shocking assassination of Sheikh Azzam and two of her sons, Ibrahim and Muhammad, in a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989.
As the godfather of Afghanistan’s Mujahideen-led resistance to Soviet occupation, two other previous attempts had been made on his life.
The mother of nine returned to Jordan and quietly set about continuing her husband’s charitable works while expanding her own projects. Long after the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan ended, she supported refugees all over the Muslim world with humanitarian aid, orphanages and schools.
She leaves behind a legacy of love, wisdom and kindness. Like her late husband (1941-1989), she had a great impact on anyone privileged enough to meet her in person and touched the lives of many, many more across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
“She was an inspiration and a leader in her own right,” said her son-in-law Anas Abdullah, who married her youngest daughter Sumayya in 1990. Sumayya flew out from the family home in London to join her mother in her final hours when Samira was surrounded by her surviving family of three daughters and three sons, grandchildren and countless other relatives.
“She was much more than a mother and a wife,” Abdullah told me. “She was guided by Allah. During Ramadan, none of us could compete with her level of fasting, worship and recitation of the Qur’an. By the end of each Ramadan, she would have completed reading the Qur’an at least six or seven times.”
Roots from the West Bank
Like her husband, who was born in the West Bank city of Jenin, Samira Mohyeddin never forgot her Palestinian roots and worked tirelessly to help the refugees from her homeland. Her capacity to support others was not restricted to Palestine, from where her family was forced to leave during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Had Israel not seized Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank during that war, the world would probably never have heard of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, and Samira would have probably remained the anonymous wife of a university lecturer. Ironically, it was the Zionists who inadvertently gave birth to the man whose name became synonymous with global jihad.
When we met in London, Samira and I spent hours over several days talking frankly about her personal life. She gave me the impression that she was a feisty teenager when she married the rising Muslim scholar Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. He was a few years older than Samira, and she was adamant that she was not going to be overwhelmed by his personality.
Her description of those early years of marriage was filled with amusing anecdotes about how they both learned to compromise and understand each other. It developed into a formidable partnership and one which would remain unbroken until the day of his murder at the age of 48.
It was her conservatism that first attracted Sheikh Azzam’s attention. “I searched for a religiously observant girl to marry, and I found a girl who wore a headscarf covering two-thirds of her hair and a robe covering her knees,” he recalled later. “So I said, hold on, this girl is a saint! I tried to dress her in a long robe to cover the part below her knees, but then a battle erupted between me and her mother; fortunately, I came out victorious.”
Samira’s recollection of how she met her husband is in the 2020 book, The Caravan by Thomas Hegghammer. “I was born in the house of Sheikh Abdullah’s sister… We later left for Tulkarem and he happened to have been there studying. He visited us once, and three days later, his father asked for my hand in marriage.”
To be fair Hegghammer, at least, has included details about the active women of the Mujahideen in his book and the role played by Samira.
At the time of our interview in London, the war in Iraq had spiralled out of control and the deaths of civilians, the creation of Iraqi refugees and the continued instability of the Middle East was causing her great concern. Like her husband, she knew that the strength of the region lay in unity and the concept of the Ummah (global Islamic community); she was dismayed at the disunity of the Muslim world.
In his own rallying call, Join the Caravan, Azzam had urged Muslims to defend victims of aggression in the Middle East and Asia, and free Muslim lands from Western foreign domination while upholding the faith of Islam. However, Samira insisted that her husband would not have supported terrorist atrocities like those of 11 September 2001, or the 2005 London bombings, for example.
She blamed a lack of Islamic knowledge on terrorist attacks and told me that the actions of those involved could never be compared to the “pure jihad” of her husband. I am quite certain she would have been appalled at the emergence of Daesh and the behaviour of some rogue Muslim groups in Syria who today try to skew Islam in order to justify their actions.
While it was true that the sheikh inspired and mobilised Arabs to go to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, she explained, the birth of Al-Qaida and the consequences of the 9/11 attacks could not be put at his door. Samira made it crystal clear that the loss of innocent lives, regardless of faith, was a cause of great concern to her, and that it would have been to her husband.
Samira was at heart a great humanitarian and educator who focused her attention on disasters, man-made and natural, as she stood up for widows and orphans and the dispossessed. When we spoke, she also expressed concern at the way the Western media had attempted to hijack her husband’s legacy to give the impression that he was an Islamic extremist who promoted terrorism.
She was dismayed so many terrorist groups and organisations had incorporated the Azzam name on their websites, cells and fighting units in Sudan, Iraq, Syria and other Muslim countries. It was something, she felt, betrayed the image of a man who had distinct redlines over the rules of jihad.
This irritated her throughout her final years. In one of her last interviews, she told Anadolu Agency that Sheikh Azzam “never permitted attacks on peaceful civilians, Russian or otherwise. He always said, ‘We only fight those who are hostile to us and who are occupying our land.’ We never even knew where the word ‘terrorism’ came from.”
When we met, I had only recently converted to Islam and so had lots of questions, especially about “jihad” and its meaning and the role of women in conflict. She was very patient with me, and spent time explaining the concept of the word which was, and still is, greeted with hysteria by elements of the media. Jihad means “struggle”, it’s as simple as that.
Her liberal views on women in war also chimed with those of her husband, most notably that jihad is an individual obligation, not only — in those days — in Afghanistan, but also most certainly in Palestine. Although socially conservative, Samira was a strong supporter of women’s empowerment through Islam and her classes in Peshawar were extremely popular.
The emancipation of women in Peshawar during the eighties was partly down to Samira’s influence; she was a great role model among the female Mujahideen who settled there. Her actions also reflected the connection that she and her husband had to the Muslim Brotherhood (he joined the movement in 1953) which was known for its active female members and participation from its founding days.
I know that the term “Islamist feminist” doesn’t translate well in the Arab world, but the sheikh was a great promoter of women’s rights; Samira and their daughters are perhaps the best adverts for this. What she lacked in formal education she more than made up in her later years by being an avid reader, especially on Islamic issues.
While some Salafist-leaning Mujahideen would keep their womenfolk in total seclusion, she told me how she and her daughters were encouraged to immerse themselves in education and be active in the community.
Samira, I believe, was in her element and led the way as a role model and educator for other women and girls, despite the obvious hardships of living on the edge of a war zone with a young family.
She influenced the establishment of Arab schools, hospitals, community hubs for both Afghan and Arab women. She was at the head of these networks.
The arrival in Peshawar of another pioneer of Islamic feminism, Zaynab Al-Ghazali, in November 1985 caused great excitement.
Her views were published by the numerous women’s magazines to which Samira contributed on a regular basis. I wonder if those magazines were kept in an archive as a record of what the Mujahideen women achieved?
Like most women whose husbands fought on the front lines, Samira was often concerned for Sheikh Azzam’s well-being and safety. She told me how, on his return from one military engagement, she revealed that she had prayed for his safe deliverance. The shared humour and respect they had for each other were reflected by her recollection that, “He admonished me for praying for his safe return, asking why would I deny him martyrdom and therefore Paradise.”
Leading the Afghan Arab jihad from the front was a precarious life, and so, at the height of one battle, he decided to write his will in which he referenced Samira several times.
He wrote: “You were patient with me and you stuck by me through thick and thin with patience and courage. From you, I got the support I needed to carry on this jihad… Had it not been for your patience, I would never have been able to bear this burden alone.”
He went on to praise her for her lack of complaints, her disinterest in material possessions and her shunning of extravagant ways, before concluding: “I pray to Allah that he unites us in Paradise as He united us in life.”
Pakistan’s ISI tried to kill her husband
I remember asking her who was behind the plot to assassinate her husband on 24 November 1989; it is still one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the region.
She speculated about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Israel’s Mossad, the US and other Western intelligence agencies as well as Saudi and Jordanian intelligence.
Azzam was such a revered personality who inspired others about the importance of the Islamic Ummah above authoritarian Arab and Muslim states, that he could be regarded as a threat by them all, as well as their Western allies. She pointed out that her husband had the ability to mobilise and motivate Muslims of all ages, helping them to rediscover their faith and purpose in life.
Samira continued to honour her husband’s memory by living a modest life after his death. She never remarried, which is hardly surprising; who could have stepped into her husband’s shoes?
I remember her response when I asked if the issue of polygamy had ever been raised between them. She smiled and told me that family was all-important to her husband and despite the many offers of marriage made to the sheikh by admiring fathers, he turned them all down on the grounds that he did not give enough time to Samira.
“He said to me, ‘How, on the Day of Judgment, could I justify taking on another wife when I didn’t have enough time to spend with you?’ Polygamy was simply not an issue for us.”
By the time we concluded our interview I felt as though I’d been given an insight into the private life of an extremely devoted couple whose life could have been so different had it not been for the Six-Day War, launched pre-emptively by Israel in June 1967.
As I conclude this latest obituary on her life, it has proved near impossible to do justice to her name, and so I would urge others, especially women, to write their own memories of Samira and publish them online and on social media.
It is important for the world to know more about her and the undeniable role that she played in Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s drive to unite the Muslim world as one Ummah.
His legacy continued through her, for sure, but her own contribution to the welfare of refugees, in particular, has changed countless lives around the world. They will undoubtedly remember her name … and so should we.
Samira Mohyeddin (1948-2021): Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un — Indeed, we belong to God, and to Him is our return.
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