Mt. Lebanon: Holy Land or Den of Heretics?

Two weeks ago I participated in a memorial conference at the American University of Beirut (AUB) dedicated to Dr. Kamal Salibi and his legacy. On what would have been his 83rd birthday in what was once the campus chapel, he was feted (and mourned) by his colleagues, friends, family, his pastor and such luminaries as HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan, patron of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies (of which Dr. Salibi was founding director), former Lebanese Prime Minister and Ras Beirut neighbor Fouad Siniora, and AUB President Peter Dorman.

Dr. Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn speaks in memory of Dr. Kamal Salibi (pictured behind him) at a memorial service in honor of Dr. Salibi on May 2, 2012 at Assembly Hall, American University of Beirut.

Among his colleagues to speak at the ceremony was his prize student Dr. Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn who organized an academic conference to coincide with the memorial.

One of lessons I have learned during my study and teaching of Islamic history is that there are a multiplicity of views among those who might otherwise be lumped together by ethnic, religious or social origins. In the American Midwest we should be aware of this. For example, one of the most famous trials in American history– the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925– pitted two lawyers from small towns in the Midwest, both of whom were Democrats. However, one was an agnostic modernizer, Clarence Darrow, who was in favor of the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the other, William Jennings Bryan, opposed it vigorously partly because he thought it undermined the Bible. Interestingly, a similar debate ripped through the Syrian Protestant College (which later became AUB) in the early 1880s when the administration of the college fired several professors for praising Darwin. The college also expelled several students including Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914), a luminary of the Arab literary renaissance, and Ibrahim al-Salibi (Kamal Salibi’s grandfather) who was a medical student and had to finish his studies in Istanbul.

The organizers of the conference were judicious enough to put two of us on a panel that illustrated the insight that intellectual, political, even moral orientations derive from something more than just one’s education, religious upbringing, social context, political proclivities, and ethnic background. My presentation concerned Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), who is the focus of most of my current research and writing. Nabulusi was one of the most important Arab intellectuals of his time. Like most of his scholarly counterparts, he memorized the Qur’an at an early age and then mastered a host of other Islamic fields of learning including hadith studies, Quranic commentary, mysticism and law as well as allied fields such as Arabic grammar and rhetoric and poetry. He also dabbled in more secular subjects such as dream interpretation, architectural aesthetics and agronomy. He made his most indelible mark as a Sufi mystic and defender of the ideas of Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) who was the foremost exponent of the Sufi metaphysical concept of “unity of being”. Nabulusi probably expended his most energy as a tireless defender–  through treatise after treatise– of popular practices associated with Sufism including tomb visitation, listening to music, and the consumption of tobacco and coffee. Nabulusi was not a religious free-thinker like Clarence Darrow, but he believed that the spiritual life and the here-and-now were not in contradiction. According to Nabulusi, one should be pious and live life to its fullest. His approach was in contradiction, however, with a literalist, austere understanding of religion in general, and Islam in particular, which ran through Damascus in his own day and probably has run through all religious societies before his time and since.

My colleague on the panel, Dr. Suleiman Mourad of Smith College, presented the case– as it were– for the prosecution. Mourad’s focus was on a Sunni legal scholar of the 14th century, Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya’s education was probably much like Nabulusi’s and both were raised in Damascus and made their marks there as vocal exponents of very different views. Where Nabulusi celebrated tomb visitation and opposed the narrow legalism of many of his contemporaries, Ibn Taymiyya placed the law above all else and chastised those who engaged in any behavior that could be construed as a replacement or substitute for God, such as a ritual, an image, or a popular practice (such as tomb visitation). Had these two lived at the same time, they would have created the kind of courtroom drama that Jennings Bryan and Darrow did.

Mount Lebanon: holy land or den of heretics?

Unbeknownst to me before this conference, they did clash over a place if not at the same time. For Nabulusi, Mt. Lebanon, in whose shadows we were meeting, represented a sacred land. It was chock full of shrines devoted to prophets and religious figures from Noah, Seth, and Mary, mother of Jesus, to local mystics whose influence extended only into the neighboring valley. As any visitor to Lebanon knows, its majestic peaks, lush valleys, secret caves, and crystalline sink holes easily seduce the eyes and animate the heart. No wonder, then, that Nabulusi returned to Lebanon more than twice during a series a travels he took in the late 17th century.

In an fun- and fact-filled meditation on Ibn Taymiyya’s attitudes toward the same mountainous region, Dr. Mourad demonstrated how a land, its people and their practices can be an enemy. According to Ibn Taymiyya, not only was Mt. Lebanon a haven for Christians and heretics (Shi’is, Alawis, and Druze) but it had seduced Sunnis, some of whom visited sites and relished the area’s nature beauty in the same vein as Nabulusi centuries later. Ibn Taymiyya was the intellectual standard-bearer for a series of Mamluk (the ruling regime of his time) attacks on Lebanon and its people. The Mamluks eventually gave up trying to “Sunnize” the area and their successors, the Ottomans, never even tried. But not Ibn Taymiyya. To his dying day, he advocated jihad against the Mountain.

So many questions spring from these insights. What makes for the Darrows and Nabulusis, on the one hand, and the Jennings Bryans and Ibn Taymiyyas,  on the other? Are there “liberal” and “conservative” trends in all societies that reveal themselves more forcefully at some times than at others? How determinative are social forces, on the one hand, and individual personalities, on the other, in making for such intellectual trajectories? “Liberal” and “conservative” are probably not the most precise ways of characterizing such varied intellectual sentiments. Are there better terms that are more precise but not so specific as to disallow the recognition of patterns across the time and place?

More questions than answers.

I am certain, however, that Lebanon is a holy land with the added burden of all that is unholy and accompanies that designation.


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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