Ihsan Abbas

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Ihsan Abbas
Ihsan Abbas.jpg
Born (1920-12-02)December 2, 1920
Ayn Ghazal, Mandatory Palestine
Died January 29, 2003(2003-01-29) (aged 82)
Amman, Jordan
Cause of death Natural causes
Residence Middle East
Awards King Faisal International Prize
Academic background
Alma mater Cairo University
Arab College
Influences Ibn Hazm, Kahlil Gibran
Academic work
Era 20th century
Main interests Arabic literature, Islamic jurisprudence

Ihsan Abbas (December 2, 1920 – January 29, 2003) was a Palestinian professor at the American University of Beirut,[1] and was considered a premier figure of Arabic and Islamic studies in the East and West during the 20th century.[2] During his career, Abbas was renowned as one of the foremost scholars of Arabic language and literature and was a respected literary critic.[3] Upon his death, Abbas was eulogized by University College London historian Lawrence Conrad as a custodian of Arabic heritage and culture, and a figure whose scholarship had dominated the Middle East's intellectual and cultural life for decades.[4]


Abbas was born in the former Palestinain village of Ayn Ghazal near Haifa on December 2, 1920,[4] though the village's population was forced to leave in 1948 at the time of the 1948 War, and was subsequently destroyed during Operation Shoter. As a child, the only books in his family's impoverished home were the Qur'an and a famous 15th-century Arabic encyclopedia known as Al-Mustatraf; Abbas would often sadden at the mention of the latter due to the memories it brought him.[5] Growing up in Palestine, Abbas completed high school in Haifa and Acre before attending the Arab College in Jerusalem from 1937 to 1941.[6] Abbas then spent the next four years teaching at a college in Safed and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Arabic literature from Cairo University in 1950; for the next ten years, Abbas traveled between his study at Cairo where he earned a Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy, and his work at Gordon Memorial College or, as it became known during his tenure, the University of Khartoum.[6] Abbas' master's thesis focused on Arabic literary culture in Sicily, while his doctoral dissertation was on the subject of religious asceticism and its influence in Umayyad culture.[4] At the end of his tenure in Sudan, he was appointed to a professorship position in the Arabic literature department at the American University of Beirut, a post which he held until his retirement in 1985. Abbas remained active, performing post-retirement research projects for the University of Jordan, especially on Andalusian Arabic literature and the translation of world literature to the Arabic language.[6]

Abbas was often at the center of intellectual life wherever he was living, and camaraderie with his colleagues was an important part of his life. Abbas was an avid participant in the cafe gatherings of Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo during the 1950s and 1960s.[4] In the midst of the Lebanese Civil War in 1981, perhaps the primary intellectual activity in Beirut which continued despite the conflict was a weekly meeting of intellectuals and academics at Abbas' house.[5]

Abbas died in Amman, Jordan on January 29, 2003, at the age of 82 after a prolonged illness. On December 14, 2005, a day-long seminar was held at Birzeit University in Birzeit in honor of and to discuss Abbas' lifetime achievements and contributions to the fields of Arabic and Islamic studies; attendees included visiting scholars from Hebron University, Bethlehem University and An-Najah National University.[7]


Abbas was a critic of the focus on the North–South divide, emphasizing improvement of quality of life in the Third World rather than conflict between the north and the south.[8] Abbas was also distinguished as a Palestinian figure who defended contributions to Arabic and Islamic studies by Israeli scholarship, on one occasion reacting angrily to when a student claimed that Israeli academia was unable to master the Arabic language, a claim that Abbas found to be racist.[4]

Abbas, like most other historians of Arab literature, held the view that classical biography and autobiography in the Arabic language tended to reduce the subject to a type rather than an individual.[9] He also echoed the sentiment that in Arabic poetry, the description of the city as a genre and the details of urban life revealed the writer's ideological biases.[10] Abbas was also a defender of Kahlil Gibran's maligned Al-Mawakib, considering it a measuring stick for the literature produced by the Arabic renaissance in the United States.[3]


Abbas was a celebrated man of letters and a prolific writer during his lifetime. He republished Ibn Bassam's 12th-century biographical dictionary of the Arabian Peninsula's intellectuals, editing it into eight "mammoth" volumes.[11] Abbas' analysis of Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati's poetry and the significance of Bayati's references to Sisyphus and Prometheus was criticized as Shmuel Moreh; Abbas saw the references as being philosophical allegory, while Moreh tied them to the fall of the Iraqi Communist Party.[12] Abbas contributed significantly to the history of Arabic literature and writers, and was responsible for collecting and compiling the work of Abd al-Hamid al-Katib in 1988,[13] uncovering archived letters between the Umayyad secretary and the empire's last caliph which shed light on the inner workings of the dynasty in its last days.[14] He was also one of the few writers to critically analyze the Kharijites, a now extinct sect of Islam.[15] Though reserved in revealing his own beliefs, Abbas adhered to Sunni Islam and leaned toward the Zahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence. He was responsible for reviving the works of Ibn Hazm, one of the main philosophers of the school and of Islam in general, editing and republishing many of them and even uncovering previously unpublished works on Ibn Hazm's legal theory from various archives; Abbas' 1983 edition of Ibn Hazm's book on legal theory Ihkam is considered a key moment in Arab intellectual history and the modernist revival of Zahirite legal method.[16]

Abbas also participated in a number of collaborative projects during his career. He served, alongside Clifford Edmund Bosworth, Jacob Lassner, Ehsan Yarshater and Franz Rosenthal, on the editorial board for William Montgomery Watt's book Muhammad at Mecca, itself a partial translation and summary of Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari's History of the Prophets and Kings.[17][18] From 1951 to 1952, Abbas assisted fellow scholar Ahmad Amin and his student Shawqi Daif in editing and republishing an anthology of Egyptian contributions to Arabic poetry during the Middle Ages,[19] which had previously been thought to be minimal or non-existent.[20]

Abbas earned the King Faisal International Prize from the King Faisal Foundation in 1980.[6] He was also a significant contributor to the cultural magazine Al-Arabi, and was the Arabic translator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Edited and republished works[edit]


  1. ^ Samir Kassir, Beirut, p. 472. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. ISBN 9780520256682
  2. ^ "Eight scholars from around world to be awarded honorary degrees". The University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 14, 1993.
  3. ^ a b Suheil Bushrui, "Jubran Khalil Jubran." Taken from "Essays in Arabic Literary Biography: 1850-1950," p. 184. Vol. 3 of Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, Band 17. Eds. Roger M. A. Allen, Joseph Edmund Lowry and Devin J. Stewart. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010. ISBN 9783447061414
  4. ^ a b c d e Lawrence Conrad, "Ihsan Abbas: Custodian of Arabic Heritage and Culture." Al-Qantara, vol. xxvi, iss. #1, pp. 5-17. 2005.
  5. ^ a b Ulrich Marzolph, "Medieval Knowledge in Modern Reading: A Fifteenth Century Arabic Encyclopedia of Omni Re Scibili." Taken from Pre-modern Encyclopaedic Texts: Proceedings of the Second Comers Congress, Groningen, 1–4 July 1996., pg. 407. Ed. Peter Binkley. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1997. ISBN 9789004108301
  6. ^ a b c d Ihsan Abbas. Hosted at Visit Palestine; information provided courtesy of AllforPalestine. Copyright © 2013 Alternative Business Solutions ABS. Accessed 4 June 2013.
  7. ^ A Study Day at Birzeit University entitled “Ihsan Abbas in the Eyes of Researchers”. Birzeit University 1996-2013. Accessed 4 June 2013.
  8. ^ Amin Malak, "Colonial Encounters or Clash of Civilizations? Taken from A Sea for Encounters: Essays Towards a Postcolonial Commonwealth, p. 247. Vol. 117 of Cross/cultures : readings in the post/colonial literatures in English. Ed. Stella Borg Barthet. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. ISBN 9789042027640
  9. ^ Susanne Enderwitz, "From curriculum vitae to self-narration: Fiction in Arabic autobiography." Taken from Story-telling in the Framework of Non-fictional Arabic Literature, p. 6. Ed. Stefan Leder. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998. ISBN 9783447040341
  10. ^ Mahmoud Darwish, "Exile's Poet." Taken from Mahmoud Darwish, Exile's Poet: Critical Essays, p. 28. Eds. Hala Khamis Nassar and Najat Rahman. Interlink Books, 2008. ISBN 9781566566643
  11. ^ Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in Conflict, pp. 18-19. Vol. 9 of Medieval Iberian Peninsula: Texts and studies. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1993. ISBN 9789004098688
  12. ^ Shmuel Moreh, Modern Arabic Poetry: 1800 - 1970; the Development of Its Forms and Themes Under the Influence of Western Literature, p. 256. Vol. 5 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1976. ISBN 9789004047952
  13. ^ Ehsan Yarshater, "The Persian presence in the Islamic world," p. 57. Vol. 13 of Giorgio Levi Della Vida conferences. Eds. Richard Hovannisian and Georges Sabagh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780521591850
  14. ^ Ṣāliḥ Saʻīd Āghā, The Revolution which Toppled the Umayyads: Neither Arab Nor ʻAbbāsid, p. 200. Vol. 50 of Islamic History and Civilization Series. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2003. ISBN 9789004129948
  15. ^ Hussam S. Timani, Modern Intellectual Readings of the Kharijites, p. 84. Vol. 262 of American University Studies, Series VII: Theology and Religion. Bern: Peter Lang, 2008.ISBN 9780820497013
  16. ^ Adam Sabra, "Ibn Hazm's Literalism: A Critique of Islamic Legal Theory." Taken from: Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba: The Life and Works of a Controversial Thinker, p. 98. Vol. 103 of Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1: The Near and Middle East. Eds. Camilla Adang, Maribel Fierro, and Sabine Schmidtke. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9789004234246
  17. ^ The History of al-Tabari. Albany: State University of New York Press. Accessed 1 June 2013.
  18. ^ Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld: The Banū Sāsān in Arabic Society and Literature, p. vii. Part 2 of The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld: The Banū Sāsān in Arabic Society and Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1976. ISBN 9789004045026
  19. ^ A. M. H. Mazyad, Ahmad Amin, page 47. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1963.
  20. ^ A. M. H. Mazyad, Ahmad Amin, pg. 48.
  21. ^ Aziz al-Azmeh, "Mortal Enemies, Invisible Neighbors: Northerners in Andalusi Eyes." Taken from The Legacy of Muslim Spain, p. 270. Vol. 12 of Handbook of Oriental Studies : The Near and Middle East. Eds. Salma Jayyusi and Manuela Marín. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1994. ISBN 9789004095991
  22. ^ Wilferd Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, p. 110. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780521646963
  23. ^ F. Matthew Caswell, The Slave Girls of Baghdad: The Qiyan in the Early Abbasid Era, p. 311. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011. ISBN 9781848855779
  24. ^ Rina Drory, Models and Contacts: Arabic Literature and Its Impact on Medieval Jewish Culture, p. 238. Vol. 25 of Brill's series in Jewish studies. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2000. ISBN 9789004117389
  25. ^ Otto Zwartjes, Love Songs from Al-Andalus: History, Structure, and Meaning of the Kharja, p. 334. Vol. 11 of Medieval Iberian Peninsula, Texts and Studies. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1997. ISBN 9789004106949
  26. ^ Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode, p. 359. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. ISBN 9780253215369
  27. ^ Kevin Reinhart, "Failures of Practice or Failures of Faith: Are Non-Muslims Subject to Sharia?" Taken from Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others, p. 31. Ed. Mohammad Hassan Khalil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. ISBN 9780199945412
  28. ^ a b c Sarah Stroumsa, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn Al-Rawāndī, Abū Bakr Al-Rāzī and Their Impact on Islamic Thought, p. 243. Vol. 35 of Islamic philosophy, theology, and science: Texts and studies. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1999. ISBN 9789004113749
  29. ^ Ross Brann, Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain, p. 163. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780691146737
  30. ^ Jocelyn Sharley, "Public Displays of Affection: Male Homoerotic Desire and Sociability in Medieval Arabic Literature." Taken from Islam and Homosexuality, vol. 1, p. 53. Ed. Samar Habib. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010. ISBN 9780313379031
  31. ^ Clifford Edmund Bosworth, p. 347.

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