A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kamal Salibi, 1929-2011

The preeminent historian of modern Lebanon, Kamal Salibi, died September 1 at the age of 82. Appreciations of him can be found at The Daily Star, and at Jadaliyya. His Wikipedia entry is here.

His works on the modern history of Lebanon (including one called The Modern History of Lebanon), and other work on modern Jordan published during his time in Amman, cement his reputation as a major historian of the modern Arab world  Coming from Lebanon's rather small Protestant community, he was a persistent critic of Lebanon's sectarian system, which he saw as at the root of many of its modern problems. A graduate of AUB with a doctorate from SOAS, where he worked under Bernard Lewis, his reputation as a historian of modern Lebanon is secure.

Since the 1980s, however, he pursued another subject which, I fear, may cast a certain shadow over his reputation; the Jadaliyya and Wikipedia articles linked above mention it: he became convinced that the events of the Bible, including the location of such sites as Jerusalem and the Jordan, all took place not in Palestine but in Arabia. He used arguments over the Semitic roots of various toponyms to make his case, convincing very few, since the argument flies in the face of all the historical and archaeological evidence.  Beyond the sheer heterodoxy of the idea, it did not sit well with Saudi Arabia, who suspected it could be used by Israel to make territorial claims against the Kingdom (though Israeli Biblical scholars naturally ignored it). I've read some of his work on the subject, and found it overly reliant on etymology as opposed to evidence. When a specialist in one field, modern history, wanders off the reservation into another as a new hobbyhorse, the results can be unfortunate. His particular preoccupation with this eccentric theory of the Bible should, however, in no way diminish his reputation as a historian of both modern Lebanon and modern Jordan, or as an influential teacher of generations of AUB historians.

I have met him and heard him speak, though I believe only once in each case, and am sure he was a great teacher; even when off on his Biblical theory he could be persuasive, and he will be missed.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

RIP. I was stubborn enough to read The Modern History of Lebanon in Arabic, although for all I knew it was written originally in English. A good exercise, however, for an Arabist interested in Lebanon.