Antun Sa'adah from the early 1930s developed the most multi-layered perspective-vision of the continuity and development of the Syrian nation since earliest antiquity, among all the writers of
Lebanon-Syria who were exploring ancient history on their own account. The general atmosphere of these discourses was liberal and constructive, even though these intellectuals wrote under French rule. For both Lebanonist, and the Sa'adist pan-Syrian, particularists, military prowess such as the nation demonstrated in antiquity against Westerners had no inherent value in
its own right and was subordinate to transformation of the economic process, the dynamic progression towards an economically self-sustaining nation-state
participating in an international modern economy.
The discussion below will draw from, compare and distinguish (a) two of the main works of Antun Sa'adeh, (b) his ex-disciple Sa'id 'Aql's dense, allusive, esoteric introduction to Qadmus (1st ed. 1947) and (c) a wider range of Christian Lebanese and particularist Muslim Egyptian writers.
Sa'adeh and his particularist Lebanese rivals focused on the breakthrough by the "Phoenicians" of coastal lands, most of them brought together in 1920 within General Gouraud's Greater Lebanon, to an
international mercantile economy. While the Lebanonists came to stress Lebanon's ancient cultures and even religions, Sa'adeh's main interest in the ancient period is clearly in technological and intellectual innovations that led from agriculture to the emergence of towns and cities with industries, medicine etc [NU 79].
A region-wide perspective of Arab World particularism after 1918 brings out the diversity within Sa'adah's view of continuous national history. Sa'adah formulated a conceptualization of the 20th
century particularist nation's religious and cultural continuity with the ancient forefathers, and then through its historical periods of adhesion to the monotheistic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that was more dynamic than that of Muhammad Husayn Haykal and most other Egyptian particularist writers. Egyptian neo-pagan particularists tended to think of the continuity in terms of cultural or religious survivals - the local Muslim saints of rural Egypt as successors to Pharaonic local gods, female rites of mourning in the more isolated areas of the countryside as a continuation of ancient Pharaonic customs opposed to Arab Islam, and the forms marriage celebrations took in modern Egypt as common to both Egyptian Copts and Muslims but different from those of Christians or Muslims beyond Egypt's borders because they in fact descended from Pharaonic archetypes that had existed before there were Copts or Muslims in Egypt etc. The continuity argued is fragmentary since the Egyptian-particularist
litterateurs seized on aesthetic or folk-ritual parallels as a continuity of the Nation down all ages of its history. The same apparent continuities of popular rural folklore and religious rites were also stressed by Maronite
particularists from 1930 as traditional Christianity weakened under impact from secular France. In contrast, Sa'adah also traced - and directed more analysis to - the development of Syria down the ages as an economic continuity: the cumulative development of stages of economic technologies from antiquity onwards did integrate and construct a Syrian Nation, in his Particularist vision of history.
Sa'adah connected pagan antiquity to the later functioning of the Fertile Crescent Suraqiyans in their Christian, Islamic and modern periods. His approval of Syrian antiquity is generally futuristic and thus can be qualified and conditional. Sa'adah does not shrink from hard-headed recognition of the unpleasant aspects of previous pagan Syrian worship. Those mythologies and rites expressed the Syrian nation's recurring "social heroism. the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the good of society" which is "at the heart of the Syrian psychology since the beginning of history":
The roots of the principle of individual sacrifice for the general good are to be found in the sacrifices that the Canaanites (among them the Phoenicians) made to Moloch and Dagon, which some scholars abhorred because of their cruelty that fitted the elementary level of civilization [of that
stage]. In reality, [such human sacrifices] represented the principle of the Collective being ransomed by offering up the individual as a slain sacrifice in order to gain the god's pleasure and appeal to his feelings so that he rains down his blessing [bounty] upon the homeland and nation. This principle that is fundamental to every society that is worthy to survive and develop and which appeared in a bestial form in the age of Moloch, is the very principle which reappeared in the teachings of [Jesus] Christ in its developed form purified of the delusions of the ancient ages that obtained at the dawn of history [Ris, pp. 87-88].
The Christian Period
Jesus is a figure with important connotations in Antun Sa'adeh's representation of the unbroken continuity of the Suraqiyan nation down its history to our era. Sa'adeh perhaps had some residual affect as a born Orthodox to this figure within whom Christian religion locates the
Divine. This, though, raises the problematic of whether Antun Sa'adeh or even his freethinking father could be classified as Christian, and in what sense given Sa'adeh's radical deconstruction of the Old Testament in his writings. The function Jesus has in Sa'adeh's ideology of history put him in the same category as other human great Suraqiyans who carried forward the Nation's development of economic skills and instruments.
It is notable that, in his refutation of Rashid al-Khuri's philo-Islamic dismissal of Christianity as world-denying and opposed to economic activity, Sa'adah argues the direct opposite. Thus, Sa'adah quotes in full the NT parable of the nobleman who entrusted a pound to each of ten servants in his absence. Upon his return after receiving his kingdom, the noble grants the servant who gained with his pound ten pounds authority over ten cities, but took away the pound of he who had laid it up for safekeeping in a napkin: "unto every one who hath shall be given, and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him" [Luke 19:26] [Ris, p. 53]. True, Sa'adah here does not directly state
that this endorsement of economic enterprise by Jesus was a continuation of
Syrian attitudes dating from the pagan period. However, we know from his earlier Nushu' al-Umam that Sa'adah had a high regard for the international trade and economic enterprise developed by the Phoenicians which he termed the "Syrian Revolution." In Sa'adah's representation, Jesus was very much the mercantile coastal Syrian and a precursor of the modern world's robust free enterprise and capitalism.
Representation of the Classical Arabo-Muslim Period
Both Sa'adah and 'Aql are strongly positive in their assessments of Mu'awiyah, the founder of Islam's second, Umayyad, dynasty which moved Arab political power from the Hijaz to Damascus. For 'Aql he is "Muwawiyah the Great". For Sa'adah, that leader, although originally an Arab [peninsular Arabian], had been Syrianized, "had become the son of an environment other than the Arab environment," during the twenty years he had spent in Syria as Governor. "Statesmanship, constitutional, civil and personal law had attained in Syria the most highly developed level the world
had known" and its land and society duly moulded Mu'awiyah into a representative of this Syrian social and economic civilization, in Sa'adah's analysis. It was to the influence of the Syrian environment that Mu'awiyah owed the "political far-sightedness" that enabled him to defeat [fourth Rightly-Guided "Rashid" Caliph] 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib, an outcome that Sa'adah
regards here as a victory for Syrian secular civilization over Arabism and rigid Islamism. (" 'Ali the Hashimite was closer to the Prophet and of more importance from the religious viewpoint"). Mu'awiyah's victory effected a transition from "the tribal state" or "the religious state," the highest
stage of upward development al-irtiqa' that a Semitic people could achieve in the Arabian desert, to a virtually secular "Umawi Islamo-Syrian state" [NU pp. 126-7]. Mu'awiyah founded in effect a Syrian secularist dynasty which "developed the state in Islam momentously" - " the credit for bringing into existence the temporal political orientation in the Islamic states must go to the Umayyad Syrian Islamic State" [NU 127]. In contrast to the Syrian Umayyad state, the ensuing 'Abbasid Caliphate centered in Baghdad represented a retrogression from secularism back to semi-nomadic Arabian theocracy [NU pp 127-128], although it too was basically "Syrian".
In ending the Islamic theocratic state, Mu'awiyah in Sa'adah's analytical frame was only executing a natural law since although Arabia and Syria in the Arabian period had been in a non-national religious state, that had been "an artificial society made up of two or more natural societies." Thus, "Arabs who settled in Syria became part of Syria's natural society and turned their backs completely on the desert" [NU p. 152].
Following the propaganda of the next Muslim dynasty that replaced the Umayyads, Lebanese Christians were accustomed to regard Mu'awiyah and the Damascene dynasty he founded as representing lukewarmness in religion and a professional, manipulative attitude to the political kingdom. The somewhat secularist Maronite Karam Malham Karam, a fine fiction-writer, wrote an admiring sketch of the "maturity, depth and cunning" of Mu'awiyah's methods of government: "he subjected Islam to his own purposes but enriched it also with conquest and property, bequeathing a kingdom with far-extending boundaries, of formidable power" ["Mu'awiyah, Dhalikal-Mitma" (That Ambitious Mu'awiyah) in Karam Malham Karam, "Manahil al-Adab al-'Arabi" anthologies series, Matba'at Sadir, n.d. p. 23]. But there are some interesting differences between Malham and Sa'id 'Aql's assessment of the Ummayad and Sa'adah's contiguous view that "it is certain
that the political state in Islam was the Umayyad Syrian state" [NU p. 127]. For 'Aql too the dynasty that Mu'awiyah established in power in Damascus "gave to the East, by its sway, a political baptism in the most perfect sense that politics has ever known. an extraordinary machine of government was created. that had an extended conquest that was able to plant in the three continents standards that never ceased to shade knowledge for the length of an entire age of the world" ['Aql p. 440]. Sa'adah and 'Aql both, then, agree on the political brilliance and effectiveness of the
Umayyads of Damascus as rulers of men, and as statesmen who built up a compound bureaucracy. But Sa'adeh's focus is more on the effects of Umayyad power for the development of the Syrian nation: he had less affection than Karam and 'Aql for the wider community of Arabic speech and its roles under the emblems of Islam in universal history. In contrast to one debunking, anti-romanticist outburst from Amin al-Rayhani that the Damascus-based Umayyads were simply another predatory dynasty that ruled Syria to the misfortune of its inhabitants and failed utterly to establish an administrative and institutional framework that could knit the far-flung Arab empire together, Sa'adah did praise their dynasty as mounting "the single effective attempt to bind the outlying areas of the Empire to the
center - something of which the Abbasid Syrian state did not understand the importance and did not attempt to achieve until the effective authority of the Abbasid Khalifah (Caliph) often stopped at the limits of the city of Baghdad" [NU p. 127]. For Sa'adeh, though, the Arabs' enterprise of binding together the lands they conquered was pointless when it went beyond the bounds of Syria and 'Iraq. On the other hand, 'Aql does not see Mu'awiyah or the Umayyad achievement as simply representing and developing the pre-existing Syrian socio-economic and political culture to the extent of Sa'adah. He does like him in part evaluate Umayyad Damascus as deriving its spirit from "a Syrian milieu that was heir to an exceptional experience" ['Aql p. 439]. But the scope is widened: 'Aql brings his Mediterraneanism into play to visualize the Umayyads as fulfilling the Orient's desire to "rejoin" ("overtake") the "exceptional experience" of the "science of the politics of men," to which the way had been shown by the speculation of the Greeks and the experience of the Romans ['Aql p. 439]. Sa'adah perhaps would view the Umayyads within a narrower frame. Sa'adah was skeptical of the Greeks' dream of participatory democracy, which he savagely remarked to have in the Athens of Pericles "abolished, or nearly abolished the state" [[NU p. 115]] and to have produced a "tyranny of the public." In contrast, "the practical Syrian mentality was not inclined to speculations unsound from the practical viewpoint. For that reason it was content to remain a mere spectator to the Greek experience of a popular rule by the whole
people" [NU p. 114]. But Sa'adah undoubtedly would have accepted that Syria on the eve of the Arab conquest was in part an heir of the Roman Experience of government and law as Rome itself was the heir of Carthage and Syria.
The real difference between these two ideologists is that while Sa'adah assumed that Umayyad government and culture was simply the pre-existing civilization developing out of its own inherent dynamism with the main Arabian contribution being one of religious and linguistic forms, 'Aql sees the Umayyads as contributing Arab and Islamic elements that were original and constructive. For 'Aql Islam was authentically represented by Mu'awiyah who "made his heart rule through a deadly Hijazian ardor that smashed and demolished the idols in the name of the one Allah" ['Aql p. 439]. The immense governmental machine of the Umayyads could function because of its ability to fuse together elements of its diverse origins: that was itself a particular "originality of knowing the exact blending of the elements of the synthesis" ['Aql p. 440]. Islam was not simply of emblemic significance for Umayyad Syria then although hereditary.
Patterns and Perspective
Egyptian neo-Pharaonic particularist writers after 1918 failed, despite the non-sectarianism of their equal tributes to Pharaonic paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam as all one Egyptian continuity, to radically secularize and socialize religious needs. The increasing scope they gave to Islam as one aesthetic post-religious heritage thus opened the way for particularist Egypt's assimilation to unrealistic pan-Islamism after 1930. With Sa'adah the knitting together of all stages of the Nation's history, and their secularization, is the final, irreversible focus that highlights the development of material, economic activity as the integrant of nationhood. While Sa'adah was a distinguished, wide-ranging, muscular macro-historian, he lacked the attraction of the Catholic Sa'id 'Aql to universalist religious ideologies and polities, including paradoxically, even that of classical Arab Islam. For Sa'adeh, the natural community or (muttahad) was the key to viable, effective states in history. Sa'adah stressed the decisive role of a geographical and socio-economic environment in producing the cultural and national characteristics of people and then in replacing those when they moved into a new moulding environment beyond their first matrix. Empires with universalist pretences thus tend to disappear but states framing the single continuous homeland recur down its history.
Anouar Abdel Malek (Anwar 'Abd al-Malik), Anthologie de la Litterature Arabe Contemporaine. (Paris: Editions de Seuil 1965) [for 'Aql].
Antun Sa'adeh, al-Islam fi Risalatayhi al-Masihiyyah wal-Muhammadiyyah, (2nd ed. Bayrut n.p. 1958).
----------------. Nushu' al-Umam, (5th ed. Bayrut: Syrian Nationalist Party, nd).
Karam Malham Karam, "Manahil al-Adab al-'Arabi" anthologies series, Matba'at Sadir n.d.
History, Continuities and the Bases for Political Communities in the Thought of
Antun Sa'adeh and Sa'id 'Aql