Sa’adeh’s refutation of ‘Lebanese nationalism’

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The Indisputable Historical and Sociological Fact

Part II

By Dr. Edmond Melhem

In his book Nushu’ al-Umam (The Genesis of Nations), Sa’adeh had discussed, in the light of contemporary sociological and anthropological findings, the attributes of nationhood and the evolution of societies. As a result of his analysis, he came up with his own theory of nationalism by which he departed from cultural and romantic theorists of nationalism.(1) According to his theory, the nation is a social fact(2), historically evolved through continuous interaction between a group of people who share a common life within the confines of a specific geographic environment. In his words, the nation is defined as
a group of people who share a common life (i.e., have common interests, common destiny, common psycho-physical characteristics) within a well-defined territory which, through its interaction with them in the process of evolution, imparts to them certain special traits and characteristics that distinguish them from other groups. (3)

In accordance with the above definition of the nation, Sa’adeh, it can be claimed, could not perceive of Lebanon as a separate nation because it had not evolved naturally in a well-defined environment. Indeed, Lebanon cannot be described as forming a separate territory from geographical Syria. Moreover, one cannot separate the history of the inhabitants of present-day Lebanon from the history of ethnic and religious groups within the immediate environment. Neither one can separate the social and economic factors that unite Lebanon with other countries of the Arab world.

Whereas Sa’adeh could not perceive of Lebanon as a separate nation, he was positive in speaking about the “reality” of natural Syria. This latter, according to his ideology, is an ethnic-historical as well as a geographical reality. In his explanation of the fourth basic principle of the SSNP, Sa’adeh determined that:

The common stocks, Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hittites, Metanni and Akkadians whose reality and blending are an indisputable historical and scientific fact, constitute the ethnic-psychological-historical-cultural basis of Syria’s unity; whereas the regions of natural Syria (the Fertile Crescent) constitute a geographic-agricultural-economic-strategic unity.(4)

It may be inferred here that the Syrian nation, according to Sa’adeh, represents the ethnic-cultural unity of all these peoples. The Syrian people were the outcome of their interaction in a geographic area [the Fertile Crescent] throughout history. This conclusion was stated by Sa’adeh himself. The Syrian nation, he asserted, “is the final outcome of the long history of all the people that have settled in Syria, inhabited it, interacted with each other and finally became fused in one people.”(5)

In the light of the foregoing, a few points need to be made. First, it is true that all these groups settled in the Fertile Crescent and interacted together, but their amalgamation in one people has not been a matter acknowledged by the majority of the people of Syria. Certain groups, such as the Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds and Circassians, still maintain distinct cultures and loyalties and still claim to be distinct peoples. In this context, it is of some interest to quote Professor Munir Khoury who makes the following comment concerning the historic peoples and the ethno-cultural background of many countries of the Arab world, particularly Lebanon:

In spite of all the forces that have worked toward the amalgamation of these peoples, one can still see the living residues of the past manifesting themselves in racial, linguistic and religious differences. Probably nowhere in the world have the historic peoples and forefathers of today’s man been as well preserved and maintained as they have in the Near East. Even in the case of those ethnic groups who have become extinct, their culture, in one form or another, is still preserved.”(6)

The second point to be made relates to the historical starting-point at which, according to Sa’adeh, the history of the Syrian people began. Sa’adeh did not identify the history of Syria with Arab history. Instead, he considered this latter history as one chapter in the history of the Syrian nation. The process of interaction between all the peoples who lived in the Fertile Crescent started “with the people of the Neolithic age who preceded the Canaanites and Chaldeans in settling this land, and continued through to the Akkadians, the Canaanites, the Chaldeans, Assyrians, Arameans, Amorites, and Hittites.”(7) To some critics, such as Labib Zuwiyya Yamak, this meant that Sa’adeh excluded the Arabs “from the ethnic compound that has created the Syrian nation…”(8) Indeed; Sa’adeh insisted that the Syrians had acquired their distinct personality before the Arabs conquered Syria. Nevertheless, a thorough reading of his theorization of the nation will reveal that the Arabs can be included in the ethnic compound of Syria. Sa’adeh theorized that the historical process of social intermingling of peoples within their geographic environment never stops. New groups of immigrants or settlers would be assimilated and become an integral part of the nation. The same thing happened to the Arab tribes who, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, pressed forward in every direction in order to spread the new faith. In time, by fusion and inter-marriage, the Arabs who settled in Syria became absorbed. They gave Syria a new faith as well as a new language and they added to the existing racial compound an Arab blood.

Indeed, Sa’adeh emphasized that Syria is an Arab nation (in a linguistic sense) and belongs to the Arab world.(9) To those who accused him of being anti-Arab, Sa’adeh replied: “We are the forehead of the Arab world as well as its breast, sword and shield. We are the protectors of Arabic (language) and the source of intellectual radiation in the entire Arab World.”(10) Sa’adeh was also proud to speak about the Syrians’ cultural and literacy heritage after the adoption of Arabic as their national language.(11)

Accordingly, Sa’adeh, it can be safely maintained, could only view Lebanon as a political existence necessitated by historical circumstances. In his theory of nationhood, he distinguished between the nation as a social community or a ‘natural’ society(12) and the state as a “political thing”.(13) The nation, he argued, can coincide with the state, but this may not be always the case. A nation can be divided into several states as had happened to Syria, or it may co-exist with other nations under one state or empire. On this basis, Sa’adeh could tolerate the existence of the Lebanese state without contradicting his belief in the Syrian nation. Hence, he declared:

We respect the existence of Lebanon… as a political existence which has been necessitated by religious and political consideration. However, we believe that the Lebanese are Syrian nationals and form an indivisible part of the original Syrian nation… a part of its history, life, community, social and economic cycle, and ethnic background.(14)


(1)Sa’adeh discussed, in chapter seven of his book, a number of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ theories of nationalism, particularly those of: Morrison MacIver, Ernest Renan, Pascal Mancini, Count Gobineau, E Jenks, Ernest Barker (British historian and classical scholar), R. Johannet, Israel Zangwill, F. Hertz and others. On the one hand, he accepted some of their propositions and incorporated them into his own theory. For example, he adopted the notion of “community” from Morrison MacIver, an American sociologist, whose work, Community: A Sociological Study, (London: Macmillan & Co., 1917), offered one of the earliest and most extensive studies of nationalism. He also adopted the notion of “solidarity” from Ernest Renan (a nineteenth-century French thinker and critic who concerned himself with the question of nationality) as discussed in his famous work: Qu’est-ce Qu’une nation?, Paris, 1882. Thus, Sa’adeh defined nationalism as a form of solidarity, the solidarity of the nation, which he termed asabiyyah and distinguished it from Ibn Khaldun’s term (i.e., asabiyyah) by relating it to a particular form of consciousness, which he called “national consciousness”. In other words, the asabiyyah of nationalism, as perceived by Sa’adeh, is not merely a fanatical zeal or an arrogance arising from religious or primitive beliefs. Nor is a form of totemism or some chauvinism of blood and race, but “a latent and sincere sentiment, a living feeling and a firm affection for the life that man has framed for himself” (quoted in Adel Beshara, op. cit., p. 78). On the other hand, Sa’adeh rejected propositions that race, language, literature, tradition, religion, and history would be considered as basic determinants of nationality. In particular, he rejected the theories of Count Gobineau and Chamberlain, the forefathers of national socialism who considered race as an attribute of nationality. For the same reason, he reproached Pascal Mancini who used the term “race” in his definition of the nation.
(2)By this Sa’adeh meant that Syria was a multiracial society. This society did not derive from one specific racial origin, but from intermixing of different races, generated by migrations and intermarriages. It was a product of an ethnic unity.
(3)Quoted in Yamak, op. cit., p. 79.
(4)Haytham Kader, Ibid., p. 35.
(5)Ibid., p. 34.
(6)Munir Khoury, What is wrong with Lebanon ? , Beirut: Al-Hamra Publishers, 1990, p. 16.
(7)Quoted in Haytham Kader, op. cit., p. 34.
(8)Labib Zuwiyya Yamak, The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 84.
(9)Antun Sa’adeh. al-Muhadarat al-’Ashr (The Ten Lectures). Beirut: SSNP, 1976, p. 77.
(10)Quoted in Rabee’h Y. Debs, “Secularism in the Writing of Antun Sa’adeh (Origin and Development)”, op. cit., p. 66.
(11)Antun Sa’adeh, al-Muhadarat al ’Ashr (the Ten Lectures), op. cit., pp. 77-78.
(12)Sa’adeh adopted the notion of “natural society” from Pascal Mancini. See Nushu’ al-Umam (The Genesis of Nations), Beirut: SSNP, 1976, p. 150.
(13)Sa’adeh viewed the state as a cultural aspect of human society the function of which is to care about the politics of society and to organize the relationships between its parts into a system [of government] that designates the rights and duties [of citizens]. See his work, Nushu’ al-Umam (The Genesis of Nations), ibid., p. 90.
(14)Quoted in Nadim K. Makdisi, The Syrian National Party: A Case Study of the First Inroads of National Socialism in the Arab World, Unpub. Ph.D. Diss, American University of Beirut, 1960, p. 74.

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