Neo-traditionalist Sufi religious movement

Association of Islamic Charitable Projects
جمعية المشاريع الخيرية الإسلامية
Jamʿīyah al-Mashārīʿ al-Khayrīyah al-ʾIslāmīyah
Association of Islamic Charitable Projects logo.png
LeaderShaykh Hussam Qaraqira
Founded1930s (as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects)
1983 (as Al-Ahbash)
Religious pluralism
ReligionSunni neo-traditionalism (Ash'ari, Rifaʽi, Sufi)
Parliament of Lebanon
2 / 128
Website (English) (Arabic)
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Al-Ahbash written in calligraphic script

Al-Ahbash (Arabic: الأحباش, al-aḥbāsh, English: "The Ethiopians"), also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (Arabic: جمعية المشاريع الخيرية الإسلامية, Jamʿīyah al-Mashārīʿ al-Khayrīyah al-ʾIslāmīyah, AICP)[1] is a neo-traditionalist Sufi religious movement which was founded in the mid-1980s.[2] The group follow the teachings of Ethiopian scholar Abdullah al-Harari.[2] Due to the group's origins and activity in Lebanon, the Ahbash have been described as the "activist expression of Lebanese Sufism."[3]

The Ahbash have been noted for their ardent criticism of conservative strains of Islam, including the Salafi movement and Wahhabism.[4][1] The movement has been described as one of the "most controversial Muslim associations" among modern Islamic groups[3] and, within Sunni Islam, opponents of the Ahbash have frequently referred to the movement as unorthodox and deviant.[4][5]


Emblem used by the North American branch

The AICP was founded in the 1930s by Ahmad al-Ajuz[6] and arrived in Lebanon in the 1950s, where "they blended Sunni and Shi'a theology with Sufi spiritualism into a doctrinal eclecticism that preached nonviolence and political quietism."[7] The AICP remained without a leader until the 1980s when Abdullah al-Harari became the nominal head of the organization[8] and was taken over by Al-Ahbash in 1983.[3]

Al-Ahbash was founded in the suburb of Bourj Abu Haidar, in West Beirut, as a small philanthropic and spiritualist movement among the Sunni lower classes.[3] From there they spread throughout Lebanon to Tripoli, Akkar and Iqlim al-Kharrub in the Chouf, where they founded educational and religious institutions.[9] Beginning in the 1990s, Ahbash propelled from a minority group to the largest Sunni religious organization in Lebanon, mainly due to Syrian government backing[10]—having close links to Syrian intelligence.[11] The Syrians supported and promoted the Ahbash in order to limit the influence of radical and fundamentalist Sunni movements in Lebanon.[12][13][14] Their growth was also aided by the forcible seizure and control of many prominent mosques in West Beirut in the early 1980s, despite the protests of Dar al-Fatwa (the official body for Lebanon's Sunni Muslims).[12][13] At the end of the 1990s there were close to 250,000 Ahbash members worldwide, according to a high-ranking Ahbash activist.[1]

Several public figures became Ahbash members when it emerged in France beginning in 1991, such as rapper Kery James or Abd Samad Moussaoui.[15]

On 31 August 1995, members of a Salafi jihadi group called "Osbat al-Ansar" killed the leader of Al-Ahbash, Sheikh Nizar Halabi,[16][3][17] who was reportedly being groomed by the Syrians to become Lebanon's Grand Mufti.[13] His murder led to a heavy-handed Syrian response—concluding with the gruesome public execution of his assassins in 1997.[18]

It has been compared to the Turkish Gülen movement.[19]

Religious beliefs

Al-Ahbash beliefs are an interpretation of Islam combining elements of Sunni Islam and Shia Islam with Sufi spiritualism.[3] Al-Ahbash follows the Shafi school and Ash'ari theology, their Sufi aspect is derived from the Rifa'i brotherhood.[10] The group rejects Islamist figures such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb. It advocates Islamic pluralism, and opposition to political activism (its slogan is "the resounding voice of moderation").[3] It also promotes its beliefs internationally through a major internet presence and regional offices, notably in the United States.[20]

In Canada and the United States, the Al-Ahbash pray using the South-east direction[21] in contrast to the majority of the Muslims in the region who pray facing the North-east direction in their mosques.[21][22][23]

Doctrinal aspects


Shaykh Habashi's syncretic teachings draw upon a conflation of different branches of Islamic theology, and thereby elude unambiguous classification. In an address to his followers, Shaykh Habashi stated that "[w]e are Ash'aris and Shafi'is. The Ash'ariyya is the basis of our belief, and the Shfi'iyya is our daily code."[1] According to Thomas Pierret, Ahbash's ideology "can be termed 'neo-traditionalist', in that it aims to preserve the Islamic heritage of the Ottoman era[10] - which they consider themselves to be the inheritors."[20]

Shaykh Habashi in his books and lectures blends[24][25][26][27][28] elements of Sunni and Shi'a theological doctrines with Sufi spiritualism by supporting the legitimacy of Imam Ali and his descendants while condemning Mu'awiyya, the caliph and governor of Damascus, and his son Yazid as "seditious" thus adopting Shi'ite tradition whereas setting apart from all other Sunni jurists.[3][6][8][29][30] Although not explicitly stated, Sufism plays also an important role in al-Ahbash's doctrine as demonstrated by the practice of several Sufi traditions such as the pilgrimage to holy men's tombs (Ziyarat), mystical dancing sessions, use of musical bands in religious ceremonies[31] and the support of three Sufi Tariqas.[3] The contention that it is a primarily Sufi movement,[3] however, has been disputed.[1]


Mustafa Kabla and Haggai Erlich identify "moderation" (wasatiyyah) as the key word in al-Ahbash's "necessary science of religion"[3] and instance the group's twelve-goal platform whose second item calls for "[p]reaching moderation [...] and good behavior as ways of implementing religious principles, while combating extremism and zeal."[1] This position is also reflected in the groups's decided opposition to the Salafist movement and Islamist thinkers, namely Sayyid Qutb, Muhammed ibn 'Abd-al-Wahhab, and Ibn Taymiyyah.[1][3]

Rejection of anthropomorphism

One further critical cleavage is al-Ahbash's strict rejection of any form of anthropomorphism of God of which they accuse Wahhabis.[1] Consequently, Shaykh Habashi holds that "it does not befit God to speak like that, and his word is not a voice or letters"[32] and that therefore, the Qur'an contains the word of God but could be written only after "Gabriel listened to His word, understood it, and passed it on to the prophets and the angels."[1][27][28] This is a highly controversial point of view within Islam which is not fully compatible with the consensus of Sunnis, and Wahhabis accuse Ahbash of doubt regarding the origin of the Qur'an.[1] Another famous example regards the interpretations of the Qur'anic sentence describing God seated on his throne after creating the world. According to Wahhabi texts, this means that he literally sat on his throne; however, according to Shaykh Habashi, copying the Mu'tazila school of thought, it meant that he took control of the world.[33][34]

Separation of religion and state

The arguably most important split, however, is the question of the relation between religion, politics, and the state. Departing from most Islamic writings on this topic, al-Ahbash advocates a separation of religion and state and thereby rejects the idea of an Islamic state. Al-Fakhani, an AICP representative said "Most of our states are Islamic and Muslims wish the presence of an Islamic state, but the regional and international conditions do not allow it."[35] Consequently, the group repeatedly emphasized the need for Muslim-Christian co-existence and tolerance towards other religious groups in Lebanon.[1]


The tolerant stance in Al-Ahbash's public rhetoric is doubted by some Muslim groups, orthodox Sunni in particular. They accuse the group of an excessive use of Takfir – the act of declaring another Muslim an unbeliever – and thereby of the provocation of inner-Islamic tensions.[20][36][37][38] Al-Ahbash has mainly used takfir against Wahhabi and Salafi leaders.[37][39] According to Tariq Ramadan, Al-Ahbash "adherents carry on a permanent double discourse: to Western questioners, they claim to support the emancipation of women and laicism to oppose the "fundamentalists" (all the issues they know are sensitive and useful for getting them recognized). However, within Muslim communities, they carry on an extremely intransigent and closed discourse, usually treating most of the principal Muslim ulama as kuffar by which they mean "unbeliever,' "impious people"). They base their teachings on interpretations recognized as deviant by all other schools of thought and all other scholars of note (for example, their singular understanding of the meaning of the name of God, or their assertion that the Qur'anic Text was interpreted by the angel Gabriel, or the practice of praying to the dead). Their approach on very specific points of doctrine (such as those we have referred to) is hostile and usually violent."[40]

Political positions

As a political party, when al-Ahbash ran for the 1992 Lebanese parliamentary elections, this constituency enabled its candidate, Adnan Trabulsi, to win a seat in a Beirut district after the Ahbash and Hezbollah concluded an undeclared alliance in Beirut that assured the election of their respective candidates.[3] However, Trabulsi lost in the subsequent 1996 elections.[41] In 2018, Trabulsi was again elected to serve on the Lebanese Parliament.

The Ahbash are also allied to the Amal Movement, a Shia party,[3] and Mustaqbal.[42]


The group are seen as being controversial within Islam for its anti-Salafi religious stance, as their Sufi and other beliefs are seen as heretical.[3][20][43] As a result, they are commonly described by Wahhabis as combining "Sufi polytheism, shirk, with Shi'i covert anti-Sunna tactics".[44] They are also viewed by other Muslims groups as being favoured by the governments of the United States, Europe, Ethiopia, and Australia, who "do indeed welcome the Ahbash activities among their Muslim citizens."[45] They have been described as a sect by various commentators,[40][43][46][47] while others see them as a valid religious movement.[6][8] The AICP runs a network of Islamic schools in affiliation with Al-Azhar according to Kabha and Erlich[44] although a range of scholars from the latter institution, including previous Presidents and Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, have described the Al-Ahbash movement as deviant and unorthodox in their edicts or Fatwas (an official statement or order from an Islamic religious leader),[48][49][50] and members of the movement were arrested "attempting to spread their beliefs on the campuses of Al-Azhar University" under the Egyptian penal code.[50]


In 2011, the Australian National Imams Council accused the Muslim Community Radio Incorporated as being associated with Al-Ahbash, which they described as a fringe cult organisation and violent, and made public announcement for government officials not to renew its broadcasting license.[51] However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority granted a 5-year license in 2011, which drew criticism from Islamic groups.[52] In 2006, the Imam of Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Taj El-Din Hilaly, threatened to back out of the Howard Government's, Muslim Community Reference Group because of the inclusion of Dr. Mustapha Kara-Ali, who was affiliated with Al-Ahbash.[53][54]


In 2003, Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa describing the Ahbash as "deviant" that sought to "corrupt the Muslim creed and incite sedition amongst the Muslim Ummah. Moreover, they are paid agents to the enemies of Islam." In 2007, Egypt also arrested 22 men for seeking to spread the Ahbash faith in the country.[50]


In 2012, Muslim protesters in Addis Ababa accused the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi of promoting Al-Ahbash among the Muslim population of the country.[4]


During the 1990s fighting broke out between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Ahbash in what became known as the "war of the mosques". The fighting was started due to the brotherhood believing that Jordan's Ministry of Religious Endowments were giving precedence to Al-Ahbash members being allowed to teach in mosques from which they themselves were banned.[55]


Due to its strong historical links with the Syrian government of the al-Assad family, the Ahbash have often been in conflict with the Lebanese supporters of the anti-Syrian Hariri family and in 2005 at least two of its members were initially implicated—jailed and later released—in the Assassination of Rafic Hariri.[56] The Ahbash also strongly opposed and demonstrated against the Cedar Revolution that was triggered by Hariri's assassination.[57][58] Ahbash reportedly remains neutral in the Syrian Civil War, despite pressure from both sides.[59]

In 2010, Ahbash and Hezbollah members were involved in a street battle which was perceived to be over parking issues. Both groups later met to form a joint compensation fund for the victims of the conflict.[60] However, despite this instance of violence, the Ahbash have "normal" and "friendly" relations with Hezbollah. The Ahbash have also engaged in bloody clashes in Sidon and Tripoli, in the 1990s, against the rival Sunni Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyah.[3]

Saudi Arabia

Former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz declared Ahbash a "deviant faction".[61]


Roman Silantiev states that the mufti of Ukraine, Ahmad Tamim, a Lebanese citizen, has been accused of belonging to the "sinister sect" of Ahbash by his opponents, however, his opponents find it difficult to define the heresy of Ahbash. Ahmad Tamim's opponent mufti Said Ismaigilov allegedly has links to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.[62]

See also


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  2. ^ a b Seddon, David (2004). A political and economic dictionary of the Middle East (1st ed.). Routledge. p. 22. ISBN 978-1857432121.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Hamzeh, A. Nizar; Dekmejian, R. Hrair (1996). "A Sufi Response to Political Islamism: Al-Ahbash of Lebanon". International Journal of Middle East Studies. Beirut: American University of Beirut. 28: 217–229. doi:10.1017/S0020743800063145. S2CID 154765577. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Maasho, Aaron (11 May 2012). "Ethiopian Muslims protest government 'interference'". Reuters Africa. Archived from the original on 13 May 2012.
  5. ^ Abbink, Jon (3 July 2014). "Religious freedom and the political order: the Ethiopian 'secular state' and the containment of Muslim identity politics". Journal of Eastern African Studies. 8 (3): 346–365. doi:10.1080/17531055.2014.917855. ISSN 1753-1055. S2CID 33389563.
  6. ^ a b c Rubin, Barry (2009). Guide to Islamist Movements. M.E. Sharpe. p. 322. ISBN 978-0765617477.
  7. ^ Gambill, Gary C. (2009). Barry M. Rubin (ed.). Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisi. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0230605879.
  8. ^ a b c Rougier, Bernard (2007). Everyday jihad: the rise of militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon. Harvard University Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0674025295.
  9. ^ Sfei, Antoine; Olivier Roy (2008). The Columbia world dictionary of Islamism. Columbia University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0231146401.
  10. ^ a b c Pierret, Thomas (2010). "Al-Ahbash". Basic Reference. Scotland, UK: Edinburgh Academics. 28: 217–229. doi:10.1017/S0020743800063145. S2CID 154765577. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  11. ^ Raphaël Lefèvre (April 2014). "The Roots of Crisis in Northern Lebanon" (PDF). Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. p. 8. Retrieved 28 October 2014.
  12. ^ a b Dietrich Jung (18 September 2004). Jung, Dietrich (ed.). The Middle East and Palestine: Global Politics and Regional Conflict. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 156. ISBN 9781403982124.
  13. ^ a b c Gary C. Gambill (December 2007). "Islamist Groups in Lebanon" (PDF). Middle East Review of International Affairs. 11 (4): 44. Retrieved 12 April 2015.
  14. ^ Nicholas Blanford (25 August 2006). Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East. I.B.Tauris. p. 177. ISBN 9780857714053.
  15. ^ Amghar, Samir; Boubekeur, Amel; Emerson, Emerson (2007). European Islam: The Challenges for Society and Public Policy. Centre for European Policy Studies. p. 29. ISBN 978-9290797104.
  16. ^ Middle East International No 508, 8 September 1995, Publishers Lord Mayhew, Dennis Walters MP; G.H.Jansen pp.13-14
  17. ^ Rubin, Barry M. (2008). Chronologies of Modern Terrorism. M.E. Sharpe. p. 265. ISBN 978-0765620477.
  18. ^ Gary C. Gambill (December 2007). "Islamist Groups in Lebanon" (PDF). Middle East Review of International Affairs. 11 (4): 46. Retrieved 12 April 2015.
  19. ^ Mukerrem, Miftah. "Turkey and Ethiopia at Crossroads: Ahbashism and Gulenism". Insamer. Archived from the original on 2018-07-04. Retrieved 2018-07-04.
  20. ^ a b c d Pierret, Thomas (2005). "Internet in a Sectarian Islamic Context" (PDF). ISIM Review. The Netherlands: International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (Spring 2005): 15. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  21. ^ a b Macklin, William R. (May 25, 1994). "Which Way Mecca? It's Relative The Issue Divides Muslims Here. Is It Southeast? Northeast?". The Philadelphia Inquirer. May 25, 1994. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  22. ^ A Group of Islamic Researchers (September 25, 2007). "Al-Ahbash: Evolution and Beliefs". Islam Online. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  23. ^ al-Habashi, Shaykh 'Abdallah (1990). Sarih al-Bayan (Explicit Declaration). Beirut, Lebanon: Jam'iyyat al-Mashari'. pp. 86, 88, 90, 105 ('These ahadith are: "For whosoever I am master, this Ali is his master, O God support whosoever is"'), 111 ('Habashi does not give much importance to the Hanafi and Maliki Schools of Law'), 107, 195.
  24. ^ Manar Al-Huda. Beirut, Lebanon: Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. 1992–93 [November 1992, 32; April 1993, 37; April–May 1993, 45].{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: untitled periodical (link)
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  26. ^ a b al-Habashi, Shaykh 'Abdallah. Bughyat al-talib. Beirut, Lebanon: Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. p. 31.
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  29. ^ Marshall, Paul; Shea, Nina (2011). Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 356. ISBN 978-0199812288.
  30. ^ "A Sufi Response to Political Islamism" by R. Hrair Dekmejian & A. Nizar Hamzeh, p.225.
  31. ^ Cited in Kabla and Erlich 2006: 531
  32. ^ Mustafa Kabha; Haggai Erlich (November 2006). Al-Ahbash and Wahhabiyya: Interpretations of Islam (PDF). Cambridge University Press. p. 531. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  33. ^ Patrick Desplat; Terje Østebø (18 April 2013). Muslim Ethiopia: The Christian Legacy, Identity Politics, and Islamic Reformism. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 181. ISBN 9781137322098.
  34. ^ "Al-Ahbash: Their Ideology and Evolution". The Levant News. 18 December 2015. Retrieved 12 July 2017.
  35. ^ Mul’ataa, Yuunus Hajji (May 12, 2012). ""Ahbashism", Government and Ethiopian Muslim Protests" (PDF). Ethiomedia. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 4, 2016. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  36. ^ a b Rougier, Bernard (2015-10-13). The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS. Princeton University Press. p. 88. ISBN 9781400873579. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  37. ^ Pall, Zoltan (2013). Lebanese Salafis Between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalization and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon. Amsterdam University Press. pp. 44–47. ISBN 978-9089644510.
  38. ^ Policy Studies, Lebanese Center for (1994). "The Beirut Review: A Journal on Lebanon and the Middle East". The Beirut Review: A Journal on Lebanon and the Middle East (7): 124. {{cite journal}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  39. ^ a b Ramadan, Tariq (2004). Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-19-517111-2.
  40. ^ Hamzeh and Demekjian 1996: 225; el Khazen 2003: 620, Table 2
  41. ^[bare URL PDF]
  42. ^ a b Grayling, A. C. (2010). Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century. Basic Books. p. 139. ISBN 978-0230623064.
  43. ^ a b Mustafa Kabha; Haggai Erlich (November 2006). Al-Ahbash and Wahhabiyya: Interpretations of Islam (PDF). Cambridge University Press. p. 529. Retrieved 27 October 2014. (Refers to Al-Ahbash's own monthly magazine, Manar Al-Huda 93 (December 2000): 36-42 and their other sources and web-sites.)
  44. ^ Mustafa Kabha; Haggai Erlich (November 2006). Al-Ahbash and Wahhabiyya: Interpretations of Islam (PDF). Cambridge University Press. pp. 527–8. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  45. ^ "Syria and the Hariri assassination". The Economist (print edition). 27 October 2005.
  46. ^ Roy, Oliver (2006). Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Columbia University Press. p. 227. ISBN 0231134991.
  47. ^ Liz Fuller (September 14, 2016). "Analysis: Grozny Fatwa On 'True Believers' Triggers Major Controversy". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/RFE/RL, Inc. Retrieved March 27, 2017. (Excerpt: "Conference participants, who included Ahmed El-Tayeb, rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar Islamic University, adopted a fatwa stipulating that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four madhhabs (legal schools)......It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam professed in Saudi Arabia as a "dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect," along with the extremist group Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.")
  48. ^ Yawar, Athar Ahmed (2020). From Madness to Eternity: Psychiatry and Sufi Healing in the Postmodern World. London, United Kingdom: UCL (University College London). p. 166. Retrieved March 2, 2021. (Refers to the fatwās against the Ahbash from a range of scholars, including Ali Gomaa, the Mufti of Egypt (fatwā dated 1999), and Ahmad Umar Hashim, the president of Al-Azhar University (2001).)
  49. ^ a b c "Egypt arrests 22 men for corrupting Islam"- Reuters, 13 December 2007. ("The source said they belong to the al-Ahbash sect – which has a significant following in Lebanon and strong historical ties to Syria – and which is considered unorthodox by many Islamic clerics including the ones at Al-Azhar.")
  50. ^ O'Brien, Natalie (9 January 2011). "Muslims call for 'radical' radio station to be closed". Sydney Morning Herald.
  51. ^ Norrie, Justin (22 May 2011). "Muslim radio stays on airwaves". Sydney Morning Herald.
  52. ^ "Divided, angry Muslim advisory body meets". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 26 February 2006.
  53. ^ Kerbaj, Richard. "Howard's Muslim advisory team split". WWRN. The Australian.
  54. ^ Tal, Nahman (2005). Radical Islam in Egypt and Jordan. Sussex Academic Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-1845190989.
  55. ^ Elise Knutsen (20 March 2015). "STL defense strategy takes shape in Sabaa questioning". The Daily Star (Lebanon). Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  56. ^ Barry Rubin, Guide to Islamist Movements, pp.322-323.
  57. ^ David Gardner, I.B. Tauris, Last chance: the Middle East in the balance, 15 June 2009, the University of Michigan, pp. 135, 140.
  58. ^ Choufi, Firas (January 29, 2013). "Lebanon: Al-Ahbash Retreat from Politics". Al-Akhbar. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  59. ^ "Hezbollah, Al Ahbash chiefs meet over Borj Abi Haidar incident". Yalibnan. 30 August 2010.
  60. ^ Rougier, Bernard (2007). Everyday Jihad. Harvard University Press. p. 296. ISBN 9780674025295. Retrieved 11 April 2016. bin baz ahbash.
  61. ^ Silantiev, Roman (17 September 2014). "Nationwide Ambitions". Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Retrieved 12 February 2017.

External links

  • Association of Islamic Charitable Projects official US site