Scholars of Lebanon collectively grieved at the news of the passing of Kamal Salibi, eminent historian, professor, and prolific author, on Thursday, 1 September, 2011. Salibi spent most of his academic career as a faculty member of the Department of History and Archeology at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 1953 until 1998, at which point he was appointed Professor Emeritus. Not only did he help shape the world view of undergraduates for over four successive decades, one would be hard pressed to find a single graduate student of Lebanon– or, indeed, trained in the historiography of the Middle East– in any academy whose intellectual foundations were not in considerable part laid by reading one of the dozen monographs Salibi published during a long and illustrious career.
Kamal Suleiman Salibi was born in Beirut in 1929, while Lebanon was under French mandate,. He was raised during a tumultuous time when the country’s historical and confessional narratives were being shaped, manipulated, negotiated, and imparted. He would spend the ensuing decades unraveling Lebanon’s fraught historical record, systematically pulling on the different threads that together compose the national mythology of Lebanon. Educated at former American missionary schools in the mountain villages of Bhamdoun and Broummana, he attended AUB as an undergraduate. In 1953, he received his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
Both revered and, in some instances, reviled for his scholarship, one nevertheless cannot dispute the profound and lasting impact he has had inasmuch as he was, quite simply, the most influential English-language historian of modern Lebanon (though he also published in other languages). His doctoral thesis, “Maronite Historians and Lebanon’s Medieval History,” was supervised by prominent Orientalist Bernard Lewis and ultimately became his first book, Maronite Historians of Medieval Lebanon (1959). But it was arguably Salibi’s two 1976 publications, Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976 and The Modern History of Lebanon, that helped cement his reputation as an iconoclastic scholar of Lebanon’s history and regional position. Always questioning, inquisitive and, in private, critical of his own position as “historian,” Salibi would later revisit and reevaluate many of his earlier assumptions. This produced what would for a long time be considered the definitive history of Lebanon, A House of Many Mansions: A History of Lebanon Reconsidered (1990), which detailed Lebanon as a mosaic of interconnected communities, rather than the result of one particular group’s dominance. Significantly, A House of Many Mansions began to dismantle the foundational myths of the various Lebanese communities as well as those of the state as a whole.
Throughout his half-century long career, his scholarship was consistently a double helix of historical and religious studies. In addition to remaining an active participant in the field of Lebanese history, Salibi continued to examine broader religious and confessional questions, particularly those relating to Christianity in the Middle East and Muslim-Christian relations in the region. In 1985 he published The Bible Came from Arabia, a heavily researched yet highly controversial study that re-examined Old Testament texts in their original language to conclude the events it portrayed– and by extension the development of Judaism– occurred in the Arabian Peninsula rather than in Palestine. This was in 1990 followed by Conspiracy in Jerusalem: The Hidden Origins of Jesus, which in part built on and fleshed out some of the arguments of his previous book.
In the early 1990s, Kamal Salibi moved to Amman, Jordan, where from 1994-2003 he served as Director of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS), and upon retirement was appointed its Honorary President for Life. Inasmuch as RIIFS operated under royal auspices (its patron was Prince Hasan bin Talal), some viewed this appointment as another controversial move by Salibi. While in Amman, he wrote The Modern History of Jordan, which went through three editions between 1993 and 2006. Salibi also continued to publish prolifically. His output included The Historicity of Biblical Israel: Studies in 1 & 2 Samuel, Secrets of the Bible People and A History of Arabia.
His students constituted a global audience. They sat in his classroom at AUB, in the courses he taught as visiting faculty at SOAS, Harvard, Manchester, Oxford and Smith College, and attended his countless lectures delivered all over the world. No collection of books on Lebanon was complete without at least one title by Salibi. Throughout his career, he was committed to writing accessibly to ensure his audience would include non-specialists and non-academics. Salibi demonstrated his fluency in both historical and theoretical bodies of literature by writing books that were challenging yet inviting and enjoyable. Colleagues considered themselves his students as well, particularly after a rigorous debate. For a great many, Salibi’s A House of Many Mansions was an intellectual anchor, while for others it was his 1985 ten-page essay, “East Side Story, West Side Story,” that rocked their world. Salibi’s historical work on Lebanon was crucial in demonstrating the myriad ways in which history is assembled and deployed to serve state and elite needs, even while critics took him to task for being too focused on tribe or sect as a unit of analysis. Even his later, more controversial works on Biblical history did not alter the reputation he enjoyed as a leading critical and thoughtful intellect.
But Salibi’s students existed outside of the classroom as well. They included his neighbors in Hamra, the area in which he lived in Beirut, in the apartment he took over from his parents. They included a gathering of elderly Ras Beiruti women, to whom he was invited to give an informal talk about the changes he had witnessed Ras Beirut undergoing over the decades. He additionally lent his reputation to several activist causes in Lebanon. Towards the end of his life he was one of the first three Lebanese citizens (chosen for the example they would set) to remove their sect (madhdhab) from Lebanese census records. He kept a copy of his new ID (ikhraj al-qayd), which listed his madhdhab as “/”, framed near the front door of his Ras Beirut apartment.
Salibi believed that sectarian politics had poisoned Lebanon and that by removing his madhdhab he was telling others that “we” do not have to be beholden to them. He proudly showed his framed ID to a young doctoral student who interviewed him in his home for her dissertation not long ago. She recalls that during the interview, “despite the fact that he stopped twice to take different medications, he demonstrated his effervescent knowledge of Lebanese history with humor and passion… and told me to always keep reading.”