* * *
Our Country is just beginning to speak, and I am her chosen voice. I feel that if I do not respond, if I do not come to her, she will be dumb forever ...
Ameen Rihani, The Book of Khalid (1911)
Like Greece and Rome, America is developing itself from a conflux of various nations and antithetical elements. The Melting Pot certainly has a soul. And this soul will certainly have a voice. And the voice of America... is destined to become the voice of the world. Its culture, too, its arts and its traditions, which... are being coloured and shaded, impregnated with alien influences, will embody the noblest expression of beauty and truth that the higher spirit of the Orient and the Occident combined is capable of conceiving. They will embody also a universal consciousness, multifarious, multicolour, prismatic... while every people has its own traditions, which differ more or less according to the national, social and historical influences acting upon them, they all find a common soil in America and an uncommon hospitality. And from these traditions, developing gradually into a homogeneity all-embracing, will spring the culture and the consciousness that will make America, not only a great national power, but, what is greater, an international entity. The Oriental will better recognize himself in it as well as the European. They will find their spirit reflected in its prismatic nationalism. And the American, by the same token, will be mistaken for an Oriental in the Orient, for a European in Europe, though not for any other but an American at home. For his national traditions, guided by a superior international purpose, will represent the wholesome and vital traditions of all civilized people of the world. And a nation with a thick layer of traditions is, as a rule, richer in customs and more refined in manners. Hence the cosmopolitanism of the America of the future. Hence, too, his culture, which will harmonize with, nay, reinforce, the culture of every race. This may take a hundred or two hundred years, but it is bound to come. It is the ultimate destiny of the Melting Pot - its future soul and voice.
Ameen Rihani, The Path of Vision (1921)
I. Rihanis Life
Ameen Rihani was born a Maronite Christian on 24 November 1876 in
Freike, Lebanon, a few miles to the north east of the countrys capital, Beirut, and
died there 64 years later, on 13 September 1940. The majority of those years were spent
moving between East and West, especially between Lebanon and his second home, New York,
and travelling extensively in the Arab world.
Essayist, novelist, philosopher and poet, Rihani is not only remembered for the remarkable diversity of talents which made him an outstanding interdisciplinary scholar. He was also a man who believed passionately in the oneness of the worlds religions and the brotherhood of all nations, devoting his entire life to promoting the cause of East-West understanding. Virtually able to claim dual nationality, he assimilated two widely differing cultures to an extent perhaps never achieved before him. Profound though his grasp of the modern West was, Rihani never lost sight of the rich cultural heritage into which he was born, and which was bequeathed to the world by Arab civilization. He was a dedicated liberal, but his idealism was tempered with a very practical recognition of the need for an ordered, disciplined society. And whilst firmly opposed to blind fanaticism, extremism and bigotry, he always retained a healthy respect for tradition.
Although a pioneer in more than one field and blessed with a highly charismatic personality, Ameen Rihani was a modest man who sought no personal glory in his undertakings in the service of mankind. He believed in striving tirelessly for the causes closest to his heart, and the impeccable integrity, sincerity and honesty which characterized everything he ever said or did is illustrated by his Arabic motto: Say your word and go your way.
Among his many accomplishments, he was the first Arab traveler of modern times to discover the heart of Arabia and communicate to the world the great spiritual, moral, intellectual, literary and material treasures of what he called the most fertile region in history. He enriched English with translations of such Arab poets as Imru al-Qays and Abu'l-Alal al-Ma'arri, as well as enriching his own culture by transmitting the ideas of Carlyle and the American transcendentalists in his Arabic writings. He was the first Arab to write and publish a novel in English. And he was a thinker who firmly believed in his country, Lebanon, and saw it in the context of the great Arab heritage, as he saw the Arab world in the wider context of the family of nations. He regarded himself as the beneficiary of the rich synthesis of Christian-Muslim traditions, and was fully aware of the larger perspectives of a global culture and civilization in which peace prevails and harmony exists between East and West. Thus he may be seen as moving within three concentric circles: Lebanon, the Arab world, and the world at large.
The one country outside the Arab world with which he established a particularly strong bond was the United States of America. Emigrating from Lebanon to the United States at the age of 12, Rihani arrived in Metropolitan New York in the company of his paternal uncle Abdu and his teacher Na'oum Mukarzil. The new arrivals rented a modest basement accommodation at 58 Boston Street in Lower Manhattan, and Rihani found himself exposed to a completely different world from the one he had known at home in Freike. He was a bright if somewhat truculent pupil, able to interrupt his schooling at 14 to become chief clerk, salesman and interpreter in his fathers and uncles merchandise business. He soon found this occupation tedious, and sought solace in the works of his favorite authors, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Washington Irving and Carlyle. The last two were to exert a strong influence on him as a writer in both Arabic and his adopted tongue of English, which he mastered as well as any non-native before him. Although he retained an interest in French literature, other aspects of French culture ceased to impress Rihani. Gradually even French literature left him dissatisfied as he sensed the gulf which existed between the abstract speculations of many French writers, and the hard, materialistic world which surrounded him. In the works of major English writers, however, he recognized moral and social values more refined than those upheld by the society in which he lived, and a temperament more akin to his own. But it was an American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who more than anyone was responsible for encouraging Rihanis interest in English literature, and introduced him to the nineteenth-century English writer Thomas Carlyle.
Paradoxically, Carlyle was the author who first instilled in Rihani a desire to know more about Muhammad. After reading Carlyles essay on the Prophet in Heroes and Hero-Worship, he became determined to find out more about his own people and their cultural background. His interest in the Arabs was furthered still more by reading Washington Irvings The Alhambra. Thus, a mind shaped by the influences of America, France and England was blended with something of the Oriental imagination. Rihani began to dream of the glory of his past, his Arab cultural heritage, and to find in it sustenance for his life in the present. This was in marked contrast to the images of his heritage that had pervaded his early life, as he relates in his Introduction to Muluk al-Arab (Arab Kings), published in 1924:
As a child, I knew little about the Arabs, and what little I knew was derived from what mothers tell their children about the Bedouin in an attempt to frighten them into behaving properly (Shush, the Bedouin is here). Consequently, when I arrived in America I had nothing but fear for those whose language I speak and whose blood runs in my veins. The only other culture I knew anything about was the French, and this only superficially, my information being derived from the French school I attended in Lebanon which taught me that France was the greatest nation in the world, the noblest, richest, and most advanced; the centre of civilization, beauty and light; a peacock among nations, strutting majestically among the domestic fowls of the worlds barnyard After arriving in America, I became an admirer of the vitality of the American people, of the freedom they enjoyed in their thought, speech and deeds, but at the same time grew to fear their intense materialistic activity, their acquisitiveness.
Throughout his life Rihani was a most eloquent and
persuasive speaker, and at the age of 19 he decided to make use of this talent by joining
a travelling theatre troupe. When, after he had spent a year playing a variety of roles
including Hamlet and Macbeth, the troupe moved its base to Kansas City, Ameen returned to
New York to attend high school and then law school. It was around this time that he met
and befriended the poets Edwin Markham and Richard le Gallienne, and the writer Michel
Monhan. In 1898 he returned to Lebanon for two years to learn Arabic and rediscover his
roots, teaching English to support himself. Back in New York again, he began writing in an
Arabic local paper called al-Hoda, and two others, al-Islah and al-Ayyam.
With these writings he began establishing himself as an implacable critic of Arab social
traditions, and of the stagnant state of religion, politics and philosophy in the Arab
world. However, it was a hard-hitting speech titled Religious Tolerance,
delivered to the Maronite Society in New York in February 1900, and the considerable stir
it caused, that first brought him a measure of renown among the Levantine immigrant
community in New York. The result was the formation of a circle of friends in support of
In 1902 Rihanis first published book appeared, Nubza fith-Thawra El-Faransiya (A Treatise on the French Revolution), an Arabic work published by al-Hoda. A year later this was followed by Al-Mouhalafa at-tulatiyya Fil- Mamlaka al-Hayawanniya (The Triple Alliance in the Animal Kingdom), illustrated with eight symbolic caricatures drawn by Rihani himself. The latter book, a critique of religious thought, was confiscated and burned on its release, and Rihani was excommunicated.
Shortly afterwards one of his most important works was published: his English translation of the verse of the 11th-century blind Arab poet al-Maarri, entitled The Quatrains of Abul-Ala. A revised version under the title of The Luzumiyat was published in 1918. Half a century earlier, Edward Fitzgerald had made famous the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; now Rihani was doing the West arguably an even greater service with his very fine renderings of a great poet who, like the translator, and perhaps more than any other voice in all Islamic literature, strongly advocated the unity of all religions. The following extracts are taken from the revised translation of 1918:
Upon the threshing-floor of life I burn
Beside the Winnower a word to learn;
And only this: Mans of the soil and sun,
And to the soil and sun he shall return.
And like a spiders house or sparrows nest,
The Sultans palace, though upon the crest
Of glorys mountain, soon or late must go:
Ay, all abodes to ruin are addrest.
So, too, the creeds of Man: the one prevails
Until the other comes; and this one fails
When that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome world
Will always want the latest fairy-tales.
Seek not the Tavern of Belief, my friend,
Until the Sakis there their morals mend;
A lie imbibed a thousand lies will breed,
And thoult become a Saki in the end.
* * *
Now, mosques and churches - even a Kaaba Stone,
Korans and Bibles - even a martyrs bone,-
All these and more my heart can tolerate,
For my religions love, and love alone.
Having re-established his Lebanese home in Freike, the
town of his birth, Rihani set about creating an ambiance conducive to visionary thought
and discussion. Its main distinguishing feature was a huge hand-made Egyptian tent which
he pitched on the roof of the kitchen apartment. Lavishly decorated with Arabesque designs
and Arabic poems, it could accommodate as much furniture as a bed-sitting-room. This was
the scene of many a stimulating literary gathering over the next three decades.
In 1910, stopping off in Paris on his way back to New York, he met Kahlil Gibran for the first time. Gibran, seven years his junior and the author some years later of The Prophet, one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, looked upon Rihani rather like an elder brother; in their correspondence he referred to him as al-Mualem, meaning teacher. Along with Gibrans friend, the sculptor Yusuf al-Huwayik, the two men discussed an ambitious plan for an opera house in Beirut, to be crowned by twin domes symbolizing the reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. Although this project never materialized, the affinity of vision between Rihani and Gibran formed the basis of an enduring friendship when they came together again in America. Like Gibran, Rihani was an artist of no small accomplishment, with a special talent for sketches and caricatures. However, as a young man he developed neuritis which forced him to give up graphic art and concentrate on writing, though that too gave him pain. It was on Rihanis advice that Gibran moved from Boston to New York in 1912, and together they founded al-Arrabitah (The Pen Bond), a literary society for Arab emigrés. Originally designated as chairman, Rihani subsequently declined to become a member, finding himself too involved on the world stage by the time of its inaugural meeting in 1920.
In 1913 Rihani and Najeeb Diab represented the emigrant Lebanese at the first Arab Congress in Paris, the first of many such ambassadorial activities undertaken by Rihani. Two years later he met his bride-to-be, Bertha Case, an American artist, whom he married shortly before his 40th birthday. During World War I he traveled to Europe as correspondent of two magazines published by The New York Times. He also met with former US President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the fate of Palestine, a subject in which retained an intense interest for the remainder of his life.
A fervent opponent of the Ottoman regime, especially in the countries of the Near East, Rihani used a visit to Mexico in 1917 to urge local Syrian and Lebanese expatriates to support the cause of the Allies against that of the Axis powers, which included Ottoman Turkey. Since Mexico was on the side of the Axis powers at the time, this earned him a period in jail, after which he was thrown out of the country as an undesirable alien. But his words had the desired effect: many volunteers for the Allied forces came forward from the community to which he had addressed himself.
From then on, Ameen Rihanis distinguished literary career to which I shall return in some depth took second place to his career as a roving Arab ambassador and mediator, articulating the Arab cause to Westerners and bringing Western ideas to the Arabs. Much of his travelling was in the little-known territories of the Arabian peninsula, on the verge of being catapulted into the 20th century by the discovery of oil.
By the time he died in September 1940, Rihani had met and held talks with numerous kings and heads of state, and had won a wide variety of honors and decorations in recognition of his endeavors and achievements. His death, the result of a poisonous infection following a serious bicycle accident, was universally mourned.
II. Rihanis Work and Influence in Arabic Literature
Rihani is generally regarded as the most prominent
member of the Lebanese-American or al-Mahjer school of modern
literature and thought, which includes Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy. He was one of the
pioneers in writing about the Arab Renaissance, and the subjects he covered range from
modern American painting to Russian ballet. He also demonstrated great foresight in his
choice of political and social issues upon which to concentrate, for these same issues
were destined to have a continuing relevance in world affairs right up to the present day.
He was a true champion of Arab interests both economic and political, recording his
experiences in three books which became the most authoritative account of the Arabian
peninsula to date, and which have never been surpassed in accuracy of interpretive vision.
As the first modern traveler in Arabic literature, he revived a venerable tradition of
travel works established by Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battuta and others, and in English he proved a
worthy successor to men like TE Lawrence, Burton, Doughty and Thesiger.
Rihani developed the art of the essay in modern Arabic and made it into a pliable literary vehicle that had far-reaching influence on the development of modern Arabic prose and journalism. His American education was a crucial factor in this, since both the form and the content of his essays bear the unmistakable influence of the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whom he read avidly in his teens.
He was both a Romantic and a Realist. On the one hand he firmly rejected the ills of society, and was both a literary rebel and a lover of nature and of all things simple; but on the other hand he talked not of escapist solutions but of aims and objectives, and championed not idealistic causes but science, technology, progress: an intellectual and practical stance underpinned by a vision and an intuition that kept him in firm touch with the real needs of his people. As a critic, he expressed the utmost contempt for linguistic scholasticism, and for Romanticism in the form of woolly sentimentality. He reserved his most vitriolic attacks for the Arab neo-Classicists, and was one of the first to call for socially committed poetry. A poet, he argued, should be fully involved with the lives of those around him, as in the noble Bedouin tradition established long before the advent of Islam.
Rihani was in his mid-twenties when it became clear to him that the decay of Arab society was primarily due to ignorance and sectarian fanaticism, and that sweeping intellectual, spiritual and material reform was needed. His willingness to articulate these radical views in his speeches and his writings alike won him many enemies, but more importantly it brought out of the woodwork those many Arabs who shared his beliefs.
In his Arabic writings he warned his own people and his Arab brethren against the many dangers threatening them and the ambitions of other nations with regard to their own integrity. He appealed to them to be wary of the wealth that was about to descend on them. He warned them against disunity and encouraged them to consolidate and develop their spiritual and moral values as well as their human and material resources, and he bitterly attacked religious prejudice, political extremism and divisive tribal loyalties. He urged them to unite and together promote a philanthropic spirit in reforming and modernizing their societies so that the Arab people would be able to play an important role in the modern world without sacrificing the moral and spiritual heritage which has been their mainstay ever since the dawn of history. He also tried to acquaint the Arabs with the best in Western society, especially the tradition of personal freedom and intellectual liberty, cultural achievements, and the application of modern techniques to social and economic functions. Such a versatile man inevitably addressed himself to a wide variety of topics when he took up his pen. His writings were all the more substantial because, even in their diversity, they were firmly rooted in his breadth of knowledge. Thus he could write convincingly on history, politics, social affairs, literary criticism, theatre, oratory, music and painting, and his literary ventures covered the novel, the short story, the essay, poetry, biography and personal reminiscences, travel books and translations. His most successful Arabic works in the various literary genres are as follows: Novels: The Muleteer and the Monk; The Chronicle of Repentance; Short story: The Lily of al-Ghour; Essays: A Rihani Compendium; Extremism and Reform; Criticism: Literature and Art; Oriental an Occidental Profiles; History: A History of Modern Najd; The Disasters, Feisal the First; Poetry: A Voice Crying in the Valleys; Theater: The Loyalty of Time; Travel: Arab Monarchs ; Heart of Lebanon; Heart of Iraq; The Far Maghrib; The Light of Andalusia.
The most controversial of his works was Antom Ush-Shouraa (You Poets), in which he fiercely criticizes the woeful and spineless state of Arabic poetry. His influence on later generations of Arab poets was largely structural, especially as regards unity of theme and division of a piece into shorter or longer stanzas. His use of short sentences, repetitive phrases and invocations, in a manner not unlike the Holy Qur'an, and of images and metaphors taken from nature, was also influential, as were his less successful attempts to charge his poetry with emotion. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of modern Arabic poetry through his early literary activity in the United States, which was an inspiring example to the young immigrant talent around him, and by helping to establish the Romantic trend and rebelling against the old, outmoded ways. Perhaps most important of all, he was the first consciously to write prose poetry in Arabic, earning himself the Arabic title of Father of Prose Poetry.
If Rihanis essays were influenced by Emerson and Thoreau his use of free verse owes even more to another American mentor, Walt Whitman, as he himself was the first to acknowledge. The prose poem was an ideal vehicle for a young writer eager to express himself in verse but impatient with the strictures of Arabic meters, which a late education in Arabic prevented Rihani from using well. The following example of his prose poetry, which I have translated into English, is called In Defense of Light':
Light! Light! May it shine in our hearts, no matter how dark the world.
May it stream forth from our hearts, no matter how gloomy the horizons.
At night my lowly hut in the valley is poorly candle-lit,
Yet my eye sees all the light in the world and reflects it therein.
And if the storm should uproot my hut like a tree, and bear it to the mouth of the river,
There among the rocks is a cave, an impenetrable haven from the storm,
There, too, the light of the sun and the stars.
And if the skies become dark, and the stars and the planets are seen no more,
Yet is there light everlasting within this human heart.
May light shine in our hearts, no matter how gloomy the horizons.
Kahlil Gibran was the first to recognize the debt owed to Rihani by his successors, indeed, Rihani and Gibran were the inspiration for every Arab writing in English after them. It is no exaggeration to say that these two men made the most important intellectual and literary contribution to the revitalization of Arab intellectual life in the first quarter of the 20th century. Rihanis thought and writings are seminal in the influence they continue to exercise in the fields of art, and social, political and religious thought in the Arab world. Had his voice been listened to more attentively, the political and social tragedies in the region over the past 50 years would have been diminished and might even have been averted altogether. Indeed, it is my contention that the Middle East of today, and students of its problems worldwide, still have much to learn from Ameen Rihani.
III. Rihanis English Works
A man of Rihanis caliber clearly needed to speak
to the world in more than one language. In English he was able to reach a vaster
readership, and in his writings he constantly defended the right of the Arab world to live
with dignity, freedom and independence. He never tired of explaining the historical
contribution of the Arab people, and constantly proclaimed their desire to reach an
understanding with the Western democratic world in order to build a global society and a
better future. He warned his brethren in the West of the cancerous materialistic
tendencies threatening the dedication to freedom and peace on which everything else of
value in Western society depends, and invited them to discover that spirituality which is
the great tradition inherent in Eastern civilizations. And as an advocate without rancor.,
he stressed the need for the world finally to show justice towards the East. Like few men
in history, he was able to view the East and the West in parallel. Never seeing the one to
the disadvantage of the other, he endeavored always to bring the virtues of both into
Not only was he the first Arab ever to write a novel in English, he was also the first Arab to write English verse. The most notable of his English writings are the novel, The Book of Khalid, which influenced many Arab authors including Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy; his excellent translations of the verse of Abul-Ala' al-Maarri, already mentioned; his own Sufi poetry included in A Chant of Mystics and other poems; his social and reformist essays in The Path of Vision; and his matchless travel trilogy, Ibn Saoud of Arabia: His People and His Land, Around the Coasts of Arabia, and Arabian Peak and Desert: Travels in al-Yaman.
Rihanis novel in English, The Book of Khalid, illustrated by Kahlil Gibran, was the forerunner of the latters most famous work, The Prophet. It is a philosophical and largely autobiographical work which represents a passionate plea for the reconciliation of the material and the spiritual, of East and West, of Christianity and Islam. Like many a pioneering endeavor it achieved little success in itself, having perhaps as many defects as virtues. Yet this extraordinary book remains possibly the most complete account in English of the modern liberated Arab. Rihanis protagonist, an irreverent and at times blasphemous young Arab from Ba'albek named Khalid, follows a circular path which takes him from Lebanon to America and finally back to the Middle East. His westward journey, which he undertakes with a companion named Shakib, is compared to the way of the cross: The voyage to America is the Via Dolorosa of the emigrant; and the Port of Beirut, the verminous hostelries of Marseilles, the island of Ellis in New York, are the three stations thereof. The three sections of the book correspond to the three levels of the spiritual quest for awareness, hence the dedication to my Brother Man, my Mother Nature and my Maker God.
Once in New York, the wonder-working, wealth-worshipping City, the two young men make their way to the Syrian quarter, where they rent a room in a cellar as deep and dark and damp as could be found. Almost immediately the place is flooded, causing Khalid to ask: Think you that the inhabitants of this New World are better off than those of the Old? Can you imagine mankind living in a huge cellar of a world and you and I pumping the water out of its bottom? - I can see the palaces on which you waste your rhymes, but mankind lives in them only in the flesh. The soul, I tell you, still occupies the basement, even the sub-cellar. The soul, Shakib, is kept below, although the high places are vacant.
This flooded cellar image is not Rihanis final word on his adopted land, however. Though his critique of the country is undoubtedly devastating, he nevertheless sees great possibilities in America. Writing during the tub-thumping, jingoistic years of Teddy Roosevelts presidency, Rihani was shocked and appalled by the crudeness and cruel materialism he saw around him; but the central character in his novel, finding himself behind bars, writes a letter which looks ahead to an America which might yet fulfil its gigantic promise:
... the Americans are neither Pagans - which is consoling - nor fetish-worshipping heathens: they are all true and honest votaries of Mammon, their great God, their one and only God. And is it not natural that the Demiurgic Dollar should be the national Deity of America? Have not deities been always conceived after mans needs and aspirations?
... Change the needs and aspirations of the Americans, therefore, and you will have changed their worship, their national Deity, and even their Government. And, believe me, this change is coming; people get tired of their gods as of everything else. Ay, the time will come, when a man in this America shall not suffer for not being a seeker and lover and defender of the Dollar...
... my faith in man... is as strong as my faith in God. And as strong, too, perhaps, is my faith in the future world-ruling destiny of America. To these United States shall the Nations of the World turn one day for the best model of good Government; in these United States the well-springs of the higher aspirations of the soul shall quench the thirst of every race-traveler on the highway of emancipation; and from these United States the sun and moon of a great Faith and a great Art shall rise upon mankind.
...Ay, in this New World, the higher Superman shall rise... From his transcendental height, the Superman of America shall ray forth in every direction the divine light, which shall mellow and purify the spirit of Nations and strengthen and sweeten the spirit of men. In this New World, I tell you, he shall be born, but he shall not be an American in the Democratic sense. He shall be nor of the Old World nor of the New; he shall be, my Brothers, of both.
The Book of Khalid, for all its flaws, remains an
unjustly neglected work, having a message of continuing relevance as we move closer to the
21st century. The influence it exercised on other Arabs is more important than its success
or otherwise as a novel, a literary form with which Rihani did not feel fully at ease. He
was, nonetheless, a master of several other forms, and of all his works, his three travel
books perhaps best encapsulate his special talent as a writer and communicator.
Ibn Saoud of Arabia: His People and His Land, the first book in the trilogy, is an impression rather than a biography of the great Arab leader, Sultan, King and Imam of Najd in the first few decades of this century. Published in 1928, it is an account- of a journey made by the author through Najd, now Saudi Arabia, the first part of which was spent in the company of Ibn Saud. Rihani was there to act as mediator between Ibn Saud and the British in a boundary dispute and negotiations for an oil concession. As the second part of the title implies, the book is not solely biographical, though it does contain some illuminating insights into the larger-than-life character of the eponymous King. It is more a study of Arab life, an account of sights and people encountered on the journey, including many characteristically pithy observations on the Arab adjusting to 20th-century ways.
The second book, entitled Around the Coasts of Arabia, describes a journey covering the coastal territories of Al-Hijaz, Asir, Kuwait, Bahrain, Aden and the Protectorates. As in the previous book, the author visits these lands and records his adventures and his impressions of each; he also supplies the reader with copious historical background information on these countries, each of which proves to have its own distinct religious, political and social set-up. Rihanis clear objective is again to promote Western understanding of the Arab and the problems he faces in the 20th century.
Only one country is not visited in the course of the first and second books, and the trilogy is duly completed by Arabian Peak and Desert: Travels in al-Yaman. An entire book is devoted to the country now known as North Yemen, chiefly because access was harder to gain there than anywhere else in Arabia. The author was detained at some length in the capital, San'a, a detailed description of which consequently occupies most of the book. In al-Yaman, as in other parts of the Arabian peninsula, Rihani found respect and acceptance as no non-Muslim had done before him.
In 1921, Rihani published two works which demonstrate his prowess as an essayist and poet in English. The first of these was The Path of Vision, a collection of essays illustrating basic differences, especially in philosophy and way of life, between East and West and between Christianity and Islam. Its central message is a heartfelt plea for each to be willing to learn from the other, and for a harmonious relationship between the two. The book contains several references to Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, and much of it is imbued with their transcendentalist philosophy of the unity of existence, in particular mans oneness with nature. In Citizen and Yogi, Rihani asks:
What avails it to know that I am free, if I can not realize this freedom in a definite, specific existence? But can it be realized wholly by a revolt only against a hierarchy or a state? It depends upon the nature and scope of the revolt. If we are concerned in breaking the fetters that are fastened upon our bodies and souls by external agencies only, we are doomed to failure. But if we become aware of the fetters, which we, in the sub-consciousness of centuries of submission, have fastened upon the spirit within us and strive to free ourselves of them first, then we are certain to triumph. For freedom of the spirit is the cornerstone of all freedom. And this can be attained only by realizing its human limitations and recognizing its divine claim. It might be said too that freedom is to spirit what gravity is to matter. It is inherent in it and limited, yea, fettered by it. To know and recognize this truth, is to rise to the highest form of freedom.
This acknowledgement of the limits of earthly existence
shows us an intellect rooted in reality, and inclining to practical solutions illumined by
intuitive vision, rather than to escapism or sophistry like most of Rihanis Arab
contemporary verse-writers. One is reminded of Emerson in his Journals: If
you cannot be free, be as free as you can.
In another essay called Change and Exchange, Rihani writes of the importance of tradition both in the West and in the East:
... even a thick layer of traditions, which may be productive, among better things, of tropic indolence and fatality, is better than no tradition at all. And as between a modern Oriental who has lost his attractive qualities, his native virtues, who has relinquished the purer spiritual heritage of his race, and an Oriental of the old type, however steeped in superstition and religious cant, I, for one, prefer the latter.
But both will find new inspiration and power, if they turn, not to the gods of materialism, not to the masters of the Machine, but to the torch-bearers of intellectual and spiritual progress lighted by the higher mind and fed by the purer spirit of Europe and America. This is the noble tradition, which, in every social and political upheaval, should be preserved and upheld. It is a tradition that never becomes effete; and though only a few uphold it in times of stress and storm, it never fails ultimately of its purpose.
One of the most important recurring themes of Rihanis Arabic writings is religious intolerance and bigotry, a subject on which he wrote relatively little in English. In The Path of Vision his attitude reveals itself less in scathing attacks than in the occasional telling ironical observation. In an essay entitled Over Ancient Babylon for example, he muses on the coming of modern transport to the Arab world:
Meanwhile, the doctors of the Mohammedan law, the ulema of Islam, will scan their sacred books to see if aught therein is mentioned about the railroad and the aeroplane. And if, after straining their theological faculties, they cannot find, expressed or implied, a divine sanction of these inventions, they will forthwith curse them from the pulpit.
The other English work of Rihanis published in 1921, A Chant of Mystics and other poems, is a collection of his verse with an essentially spiritual, Sufi message of longing for mystical union. The following lines from the title poem not only express one of the essential features of the Sufi way, but echo the main theme of The Path of Vision and, indeed, many other of Rihanis writings:
We are not of the East or the West;
No boundaries exist in our breast:
We are free.
Nor Crescent nor Cross we adore;
Nor Budha nor Christ we implore;
Nor Muslem nor Jew we abhor;
We are free.
Rihanis finest poetic oeuvre in English, however, is undoubtedly his translations of the 11th-century Milton of Arabia, Abu'l Ala al-Ma'arri, a quotation from which has already been given. It is, however, pertinent to ask why Rihani chose to translate al-Maarri in particular rather than any other representatives of the great poetic tradition of Islam. Clearly he felt a strong personal affinity with this most rational and intellectual of Arab poets, but his reasons ran deeper than that. Rihani himself elaborates in his preface to The Luzumiyat:
Abul Ala, beside being a poet and scholar of the first rank, was also one of the foremost thinkers of his age. Very little is said of his teachings, his characteristics, his many-sided intellect, in the biographies I have read. The fact that he was a liberal thinker, a trenchant writer,- free, candid, downright, independent, skeptical withal,- answers for the neglect on the part of the Mohammedan doctors who, when they do discuss him, try to conceal from the world what his poems unquestionably reveal. I am speaking, of course, of the neglect after his death. For during his lifetime he was much honored
...we find in the Luzumiyat his dominant ideas on religion, for instance, being a superstition; wine, an unmitigated evil; virtue, its own reward; the cremation of the dead, a virtue; the slaughter or even the torture of animals, a crime; doubt, a way to truth; reason, the only prophet and guide;- we find these ideas clothed in various images and expressed in varied forms, but unmistakable in whatever guise we find them.
Finally, two other English works by Rihani are also worthy of mention. The first of these is The Descent of Bolshevism, a short book published in 1921, tracing the ideology of the Bolshevik revolution and placing it in its historical and philosophical context. The second work is The Fate of Palestine, a collection of illuminating essays about an issue which Rihani rightly predicted would develop into a calamitous problem if the world continued to let it ride; written during the two decades following the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine, these essays were first published as a collection and given an overall title by the authors brother in 1967.
4. The Achievement of Ameen Rihani
Any assessment of Ameen Rihanis achievement
remains incomplete without addressing the problem lying at the center of his life: the
problem of his religious beliefs.
Being religious, according to the theologian Paul Tillich, is being ultimately concerned. By such a definition ignoring sectarianism, all great writers are religious: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare Goethe, Dostoevsky, Yeats ... But being religious in this larger sense does not of itself ensure greatness in the arts, nor can greatness in literature be determined by literary standards alone. He who takes up his pen must invoke standards relating to mans highest moral aspirations. A great writers religion is thus inseparable from the powers that magnify him beyond other men.
Rihanis religion was close to the Sufi doctrine of the Unity of Being and the redemptive power of universal love, which Rihani calls Greater Love. His was an earnest belief in oneness in the fullest sense: the oneness of God, the oneness of Nature, the oneness of Man, the oneness of all religions. In his Literary Will, written in Arabic in September 1931, he declares:
I am a believer in the unity of religion, for in its mirror I see reflected the images of all Prophets and Messengers: Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Baha'ullah... They have all come from one source, and their faces merge and unite and become reflected in one unified face, a most holy symbol representing the face of God Himself. I counsel you to adhere to unity. In theoretical terms, religion is that luminous living link between man and his one and only God. In spiritual terms, religion is the joy derived from discovering, without mediation, the mysteries that lie behind this unique link. In practical terms, religion is, above all, the recognition of the Divine Truth spoken by whoever has taught a single letter from the book of love, of piety, and of charitable deeds. It is also in following the example of those teachers and emulating them in thought, word and deed - each of us according to his capacity; for God has burdened no soul with more than it can endure.
Rihanis belief in Progressive Revelation and in
the continuity of divine guidance suggest an affinity with the teaching of the Bahai
Faith, which he discusses at length in The Book of Khalid. Dr Victor al-Kik lends
weight to this idea in a recent book entitled Ameen Rihani: Promoter of Religious and
World Unity, arguing that Rihani was directly influenced by the teachings of
Abdul-Baha, the son of the founder of the Bahai Faith, whose visit to
the United States in 1911-1912 was the subject of widespread publicity.
Abdul-Baha was indeed accorded the very warmest of receptions by the Syrian
and Lebanese communities in America, who hailed him as the Great Teacher from the
Whatever ones philosophical and religious persuasions, it is impossible to deny the achievements of Ameen Rihani. He demands to be saluted as a tireless seeker after truth, a visionary who fought unswervingly for a world-conception, a writer of protean accomplishment whose ideas about God, religion and mans salvation exhibit a remarkable integrity and unity of purpose.
5. The Legacy of Rihani
Rihani was fortunate in having a family that preserved
his manuscripts and writings, and created in his honor, through purely individual effort,
a Rihani Museum in his home town of Freike. Unique in the Arab world, the museum houses
photographs, documents, books, manuscripts and memorabilia, and preserves in great detail
not only the life of this exceptionally versatile Arab, but also an accurate historical
record of Ameen Rihanis times and the history of the Arab world of which he was both
a maker and an inseparable part.
One of the most moving historical relics to be seen at the museum is a small remnant of the black cloth that covers the Kaaba stone in Mecca, given to Rihani by King Husein of the Hijaz in place of the title of Emir, which he would not accept. Another is the personal sword of Ibn Saud, used by the great Arab leader himself in the Najd campaign, although it dates back to the 8th century AD; this was a gift from Ibn Saud in recognition of services rendered to the Arabian nation by Rihani.
The treasure trove of manuscripts in the museum, five in Arabic and eighteen in English, represents a wealth of unpublished material covering some 6650 pages in all. Among them are some substantial works throwing light on important political, social and literary affairs during Rihanis life. Titles include Arabias Contribution to Civilization, Iraq during the Days of King Feisal I, In the Land of the Mayas, and Letters to Uncle Sam.
I had the privilege of collecting these items during the period when I was Chairman and Professor in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. I collaborated with the Rihani family, and in particular with Albert Rihani, in classifying them and placing them in the AUB library for future scholars to explore and study. My task would have been much more difficult had it not been for the expert assistance of Col. Jack Capps from West Point, who at the time was Distinguished Visiting Professor in English Literature at the American University of Beirut.
It is greatly to be hoped that this auspicious occasion of the 50th anniversary of Rihanis death will lead to renewed interest in the important contribution he made in developing cultural links between the Arab world and the West. For history shows that the Arab influence on Western civilization has been crucial, fuelling at vital stages the progress and development that has led to the creation of the modern world.
It would be true to say that the Arab awakening which began in Lebanon more than a century ago, after years of near-stagnation, looked towards the West as if claiming an ancient debt. For human civilization is a progressive process in which the past lives in the present and the present in the future, and in which all races and nations participate. Ameen Rihani, whom we honor today as our teacher and pioneer, was a formidable intellectual force in shaping and revitalizing the modern Arab intellectual renaissance, and his enlightened and common-sense views remain an important legacy for Lebanon, for the Arabs and indeed for the world as a whole.
Rihanis Unpublished Manuscripts
I. In Arabic:
Ideas of Early Days. 1898-1908. Literary and political essays published in Arabic newspapers and magazines in New York and Sao Paulo. 150 printed pages.
Ourselves and Our Newspapers. 1901. An article criticizing Lebanese and Syrian emigrant journalists in America. 20 printed pages.
Letters to King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. 1920-1940. Some 200 letters dealing with a variety of political and economic subjects, including the discovery of oil in Arabia, frontier problems between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Yemen, the obstacles to Arab unity, modern methods of education in the Arab world, the Palestine problem, and the importance of accurate coverage of Arab activity reported to the news media of Europe and America. 350 typewritten and handwritten pages.
Political Letters. 1922-1940. A collection of letters sent to the rulers and leaders of Arab states. 200 handwritten pages.
Rihanis Literary Will. 1931. A summary of Rihanis literary and political views. 15 handwritten pages. (Edited by S B Bushrui and A Mutlak)
Mays Case . 1938. A defence of May Ziadah, the Lebanese writer, explaining her difficulties during the tragic days of 1938. 120 typewritten pages. (Edited by S B Bushrui and A Mutlak)
II. In English:
Letters, Literary and Political. 1900-1940. Some 500 letters dealing with Rihanis literary and political life as well as his more personal affairs. Approximately 1000 typewritten and handwritten pages.
In the Land of the Mayas. 1914. A social study describing the vanished Mayan culture, written following Rihanis visit to Mexico. 53 typewritten pages.
Wadjah. 1915. A verse tragedy concerning Imam Ali. 88 pages. (Edited by J DAmico and A Baramki)
The Lore of the Arabian Nights. 1915. An essay discussing the heroes, the djinn, and the women of the tales, and examining the three principal translations of the tales into English. 94 typewritten pages.
Turkey and Islam in the War. 1915-1917. Eight chapters dealing with the political aspects of the Turkish revolution before World War I and the consequences of the Arab revolt during the war.
Letters to Uncle Sam. 1916. Four letters revealing Rihanis opinions of the Allies in World War I and his efforts to encourage the Lebanese and Syrians to side with the Allies against Germany. 54 typewritten pages.
Jahan. 1917. A novel about a young Turkish girl in love with a German officer during World War I. 99 typewritten pages. (Edited by E Boecker)
Letters to Bertha Case Rihani. 1917-1927. Approximately 200 letters from Rihani to his wife, dealing with love and friendship and giving views on literature, art and politics. 300 handwritten pages.
Critical Studies of Art. 1918-1921. Essays on early 20th century American painters (Oberhard, Troy Keny, Simons, et al.) and characteristics of the American stage. Most were originally published in literary magazines in the United States, some were translated into French, German and Italian. 250 printed pages.
The Poetry of Arabia. 1930. A definition of classical Arabic poetry with a dissertation on Arabic rhythms. Manuscript includes translations of pre-Islamic poets such as Shanfara, Imru al-Qays and others. 35 typewritten pages.
Iraq During the Days of King Feisal I. 1936. A study of Iraq, the Hashemite family, and the problem of the Kurds. 582 typewritten pages.
A Book of Poetry. 1921-1940. A collection of poems written subsequent to the appearance of A Chant of Mystics. 230 typewritten pages. (Edited by J Capps)
Critical Studies of Dancing. A collection of essays on interpretive dancing, folk-dancing, and ballet. Subjects include Isadora Duncan and Russian ballet. 100 typewritten pages.
Arabia's Contribution to Civilization. A study of the influence of Arab culture on European literature and philosophy. 100 typewritten pages.
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