Sa'id Aql, when he first wrote Qadums, was still a member of the Syrian nationalist party founded by Antun Sa'adeh and in fact wrote a national anthem of the future Greater Syria for the party.(1) What were hints in his preface to Qadmus are developed in much clearer detail in Antun Sa'adeh's al-Islam fi Risalatayh al-Masihiyyah wa al-Muhammadiyyah, written in 1941-1942, although because of the sensitive nature of the subject Sa'adah's language does not lack ambiguities.  Muhammad Husayn

Haykal in Egypt suggested that Judaism borrowed its central historical and metaphysical beliefs from ancient Pharaonic Egypt - and cites the "story" of Moses being cast upon the Nile as derived from the older Pharaonic religious myth of Sekht's betrayal of Osiris and his casting of him upon the River and Osiris's rescue by Isis. Aql possibly hints that monotheism was originated by Phoenicians resident in Egypt and from there adopted by the Hebrews. However, Sa'adeh ascribed not merely Hebrew law but Hebrew religion to a process of cultural borrowing from the Syrians rather than divine revelation from God.  Syria was "a land of original civilization acquainted with civil law; then there came [to Syria] the Jews who borrowed from the Syrians the religious doctrine, that of the god who sees but is not seen, the creater of heavens and earth and he who knows the unseen, and made" [this concept of God] "the source of law." "The Mosaic code is taken from the Canaanites, as we previously had ascertained in this study."(2)

Sa'adeh's argument that Hebrew religion derived from the pre-existing pagan religion of the particularist nation was not original but something of an intellectual fashion among Egyptian as well as Syrian/Lebanese particularists in the 1930s and 1940s. Thus it was that an anonymous reviewer concluded in an al-Majallah al-Judidah of 1934 from a reading of Beasted that "the principles of modern views in philosophy, and religion and ethics all from the ancient Egyptians, for the civilization of the Pharaohs existed before the civilization of the Hebrews by more than 3000 years.  The Egyptian culture played the greatest role in the adaptation [sic] of the culture the Hebrews represented in the Old Testament (al-Torah).  Many of the ideas that the Old Testament (al-Torah) contains can be traced back to their ancient Egyptian origins.  It is not simply a question of the concept alone; the style of expressing it also is taken from the ancient Egyptians" - thus the Song of Songs is little more than a translation.(3) The substance of Sa'adeh's claim about Judaism's origin is we repeat, hardly original.  But Sa'adeh is original and does differ from Egyptian neo-pagan particularists in the thoroughness with which he thinks out the implications of his claims and the conclusion he draws from it. The writer in the modernist-particularist al-Majallah al-Jadidah in Egypt for all his radical socialist belief in the superiority of Twentieth century secular civilization in effect endorses Judaism in proudly arguing its Pharaonic origin and exalts those covenants in ancient Egyptian religion that anticipated it to the extent of welcoming the destruction of other alternative streams of Egyptian Pharaonic religious experience.  Monotheism was the creation of the Egyptian mind long before Akhenatun, argued the writer yet "while it is true that many men of thought repudiated polytheism and embraced monotheism… [his was a] liberation resolved to make monotheism the state religion.  Therefore he attacked the ancient gods and obliterated them from existence and destroyed the temples and extirpated widespread customs and inherited traditions and motivated the people to worship 'Aton' the single God creator of the heavens and the Earth alike, who bears a comparable resemblance to the God of the Hebrews" [Notes 298].  Despite the attempt to imply radical modernising … in Akhenations violent elimination of the old gods and customs the anti-traditionalism is on balance lost in the endorsement of the tradition of religion that Judaism represented, and which culminated in Islam.  Indeed, the writer claims that Akhenatun anticipated a kind of 'Sufism" that sounds remarkably like modern Egyptian Islam and mimes that religion's socio-economic injunctions and institutions. In contrast, Sa'adeh not merely claimed that Judaism originated from Syrian pagan thought but argued that it represented its worst and most decadent aspect. The question of an Egyptian - Pharaonic origin (through which Aql hinted indirect Syrian origins) of the faith of the Hebrews does not arise for Sa'adeh as it does for 'Aql in that Sa'adeh unlike Aql or Muhammad Haykal, the writers of al-Majallah al-Jadidah, and other Egyptian neo-pagan particularists, does not accept that the Hebrews ever were in Egypt. Following Gaetani's Studi di storia orientale, (Milan 1911) Sa'adeh argues "on the basis of geographies, geological and historical researches" that "the Jews or Hebrews never were in Egypt. For [Gaetani] proves that the Hebrews were nothing but nomadic tribes situated in the North East of Syria in an area that was anciently called 'Misru' and that the Jews deliberately confused this region with the Egypt we know today to expand their history and to benefit from the tale of Joseph which they derived from Mesopotamia but the events of which they set between Egypt and Syria.

In the same fashion in which Mohammed Husayn Hykal suggests that the Biblical and Quranic Moses is heavily a non-historical figure derived from Pharaonic Mythology, Sa'adeh in his turn describes Joseph as having lacked biographical substance and to have in reality been not a living Hebrew but a Hebrew adaptation of a Mesopotamian myth.  The fact that the Hebrews never had been in Egypt, explicates the "non-existence of any mention or evidence of that tragedy of the Red Sea to which the Old Testament refers to and which the Quran confirms.  There is not a single Pharaoh who perished in the sea while pursuing an alien people fleeing from Egypt.  The only time in which the Egyptians pursued an alien people was when the Egyptians rose up against the Syrian Hyksos State and overpowered it so that the Hylsos returned to Syria with the Egyptians in pursuit. The Egyptians gave battle to them in the valley of Megiddo and followed them to the North.  Some historians of the Hebrews have tried to create in link between their history and the history of the Hyksos but the historical evidences have run counter to this attempt which is not the first of its kind of the Hebrews to expropriate the histories of other peoples".  Thus, Sa'adeh in passing indicates that the narratives of the lives of the Prophets and of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament are unreliable guides to historical events; that central incidents are merely adaptations of the myths of neighbouring Syrian peoples - or outright historical falsification aiming at nationalist self-glorification.  Like Haykal, Sa'adeh cuts away at the root any possibility of discussion that the Hebrew prophets were messengers of a divine revelation, discussion to be based on the nature of their teachings and their independence of or similarity to neighbouring pagan cults, simply by indicating that there is not historical evidence that the prophets ever existed.  Discussion of their messages as in any sense embodying any kind of factual truth becomes, thereby, meaningless.  [Sa'adeh has thus moved about as far as Haykal had two decades before from the position of Abraham's religion that the messages of Hebrew prophets were authorities revelations from a supreme god directly delivered to humanity through actual human beings for whose existence reliable historical attestation exists.

Both Antun Sa'adeh and Haykal denied the old orthodox Muslim or Christian distinction between the divine monotheism of the Hebrew prophets and the human, erroneous, polytheist cults of neighbouring peoples, asserting that pagan cults evolved into Hebrew beliefs through cultural borrowing. Sa'adah's denial that the Hebrews ever had been in Egypt in fact demonstrates not a difference from, but the similarity of his analysis to, Haykal's thought frame, for both writers suggest heavy, dependant, Hebrew cultural and religious borrowing from their respective Syrian and Pharaonic particularist nations in the same transient period.  Sa'adeh notes the lack of any indication in the Old Testament of the laws that the Hebrews had followed prior to the revelations to Moses, that the necessity for the proclamation of the simple prohibitions of the ten commandments 'indicates that the Jews had not known or practiced as a general rule for their life such elementary injunctions" of "the civilized social organisation as honouring one's father and mother or that one should not steal or lie or been false witness or commit adultery.  The Hebrew tradition itself thus proves that the Hebrews had had no previous contact with the Egyptians since they would in that case have been "followers of the customs and laws of an Egyptian civilization" for the Egyptians were an advanced people who had  founded a state".  Since they had never encountered the Egyptians, however, the Hebrews came to Syria "without having [previously] known its advanced aspects because they were in a condition of barbaric nomadism and had never become civilized [become adapted to urban life] either in Egypt or any other place. Because this was the case, they used to resemble the Arabs in every way as regards their social needs and level.  They had no laws or general institutions to regulate their dealings or punish their criminals instead of leaving it to the custom of vengeance to deal with them.  When they found themselves on the border of Syrian civilization and fully resolved to enter it and get civilized" in Syria, they found that their first need was a law to unify their amorphous tribal society and provide elementary social regulations.  Hence they adopted the developed Canaanite law that had long existed in the areas of Syria into which their tribes moved.   Unlike Haykal, Sa'adeh could here have strengthened the claim that the Judeo-Christian and hence Islamic religious traditions had not broken the particularist modern homeland's population's religio-cultural continuity with their pagan forefathers simply by arguing not merely that the ideas of the Hebrews were of Syrian origin but that the Hebrews themselves always were, or became, Syrian and that their thought had eventually had became wholly Syrian at all points. He does not do this however.  The nomadic barbarianism of the Hebrews sets them apart from the values of the mainstream of Syrian civilization and by its inherent socio-economic determinism made them distort these Syrian laws and institutions they adopted: in their disorganised and retarded nomadic society, unifying laws transcending the chaos of tribe could not be imposed by a non-existent police, judiciary, or bureaucracy.  They had to be forcibly subdued to observance of the Canaanite law by its transformation into a divinely-revealed religious code invested with "a terrible invisible, hidden authority: God, Yahweh who will take vengeance on those who transgress the laws of the fathers.

The flexible Canaanite law that, as a human-originated code, could change in response to social and economic development, thus was altered into a rigid religious law that inherently could not develop because it was the command of an all-knowing, all-powerful, infallible God.(4) In the sphere of purely religious beliefs - the conception of a monotheistic god - the Hebrews were as dependent borrowing from Syrian civilization as they were in the sphere of law.  Like the later Quranic account of God, the Hebrew view that "God is one, unseen, yet seeing everything, with power over [to do] everything is a very ancient Syrian concept which the Jews adopted as a belief.  So, also, is the concept of resurrection and reward and punishment and the obligation to do good and avoid evil."(5) Although Sa'adeh did make one passing reference to Moses' spiritually reformative mission [as contrasted to the idolatry prevalent around the Hebrews], he does not appear to have believed that the Hebrews made any positive original contribution to the body of beliefs that they borrowed from the Syrians which Sa'adeh makes clear did not in any case expressed Syrian thought at its best. When the Hebrews encountered it, Syrian religion or at least the particular variants with which they met, had fallen into a period of 'decadence': the insensate 'idols which those around (the Jews) had taken as god which they could worship in the period of decadence when they previously had been symbols for matters vital within the society. Although the Jews adopted the monotheistic god primarily to exact internal obedience to the law, the Yahweh concept gave impetus to a tribal spirit that they directed against out groups. The concept of a living, invisible, all-seeing, creative god strengthened their own morale while terrorising their enemies because it embodied an awesome power over life that contrasted to the feebleness of the idols of their neighbours.(6) But although an effective form for Hebrew tribalism or racism, the Yahweh concept represented no real advance upon the degenerate forms of Syrian religion within which it had emerged.  Due to their 'primary condition' the Jews "understood God and His oneness in a simplistic fashion and made him very like a living idol or totem who while invisible would be the private property of the Israelite tribe… symbolising their personality as an imitation of the other tribes or peoples with whom they had contact. It was a step above the totemism of animals, plants or matter and yet thus 'god' was not much more developed among them than idols.  Their worship of and contact with him was most akin to the worship  of idols.  They used to consult him in their wars as the idol worshippers cited to consult their gods in their wars.  God was their private deity as every people, nation or tribe had its own particular god.  He was for them 'The God of Israel' or 'the God of Jacob and his progeny'… As [any] idols used to fight for their worshippers… thus Yahweh used to fight for the Jews…Thus his function was not much higher than that of an idol."(7)

Conceptually and ethically hardly an advance upon decadent idolatrous forms of Syrian religion, from which it derived, Yahweh worship in Syria had retrogressive intellectual and cultural side effects which previous idolatrous degeneration of Syrian paganism had not occasioned.  Yehwehism, by petrifying Syrian law into a extra-human final, revealed, emanations of an authoritative divine revelation, 'rigidified moral philosophy also and invalidated the principle of the great Syrian philosopher Zenon which held that thought, or intellect is the essence of human life". "The view of life became morally and philosophically founded upon the law…  Thus there occurred in Syrian society, a violent collision between the Syrian outlook and the Mosaic code which began to overpower the factor of intellect through the power of the concept of God upon which it relied" as that concept of godhood triumphed over the concept of the gods of the ancient myths and idols."(8) Christ and Christianity thus represent the resurgence of Syrian civilization, in the face of the retrogression inflicted upon it by the spread of Jewish though.  Of course Christ had to make some concession because the Hebrew concept of God had gained such acceptance at the expense of the Syrian exercise of poorly human rational thought, Christ had to clothe in religious language (the claim to be Messiah promised from God) his "moral message" that "restored the Syrian view of life holding that the intellect should be made the sovereign source of history."(9) Jesus was, however, not a Jew insisted Sa'adeh nor did he have any Jewish forefather: "rather he was a Syrian speaking and addressing the masses in Syria.(10) Jesus had denied that the Christ could be called the son of David.(11)
Sa'adeh's siting of Judaism and Jesus have dynamism and coherence, especially when juxtaposed to the obvious apologetic defensiveness vis-à-vis Islam revealed in neo-Pharaonist claims that well-known universal teachings of Islam like the talqin and faith in the hereafter or monotheism etc are in modern Egypt a continuing Pharaonic spiritualism.  Sa'adeh is not apologetic in his description of ancient Syrian paganism: his argument that the Syrian nation has never lost its cultural continuity with it reads more convincingly than Pharaonism. Instead of looking back at a golden age as Pharaonic nationalists tended to do, from which all history must be a decline, Sa'adeh squarely faces the 'bestial form' that the religious principle of the sacrifice of the individual took in Canaanite Syria, the 'delusions of the ancient ages which obtained at the dawn of history." He is unapologetic here, as in his recognition of the currency of temple prostitution in the religion of the ancient Semitic world, because he views all history as evolutionary progression toward the urbanised industrial nation state. But he also cites such wholly valid and exemplary definitive expressions of the sprit of sacrifice by ancient Syrians as the Captain of a fleet of the ships forming the Phoenician commercial fleet who saw Greek ships overtaking him and sank himself in his own ship rather than through its capture give the Greeks access to certain markets that would procure them minerals.(12) It was this very Phoenician spirit of  social heroism and individual sacrifice that made possible "the imposition of the authority of the Hyksos Syrians and then the Phoenician states over the coast of East and North Africa and the islands of the Mediterranean Sea and Spain and the coast of France around the Mediterranean."(13)

It is, however, interesting to note that Sa'adah's dynamic concept of the particularist nation's ancient spirit of sacrifice finding a new and more satisfactory expression through Christianity was to some extent parallel in the thought of Misr al-Fatat.  One, central manifestation for Sa'adeh of the "principle of individual sacrifice" that "has closely accompanied Syrian civilization in all its periods and was the more influential factor in its flourishing and its far-extending influence"(14) is the sexuality enjoined by Jesus Christ.  It is clear that Sa'adeh regarded the original inspiration for Jesus' teaching on this question to be the pre-existing which is to say pagan Syrian environment and way of life that over the ages has always orientated the attitudes of those resident in Syria in a particular direction: "the Syrian moral view manifested in the teachings of the Messiah and the more developed of the teaching of Muhammad.  So it is that most Muhammad Syrians do not incline to polygamy or immersion in sensual lusts in contrast to Muslims, for instance, in Africa where the mixture of peoples and the nature of the land makes society more inclined to frivolity and instinctive actions."(15) Jesus' teaching on relations between man and woman Sa'adeh stressed were enunciated "on the basis that the entity of the family as known in Syria is the foundation of society" that this "Syrian family concept" provided the foundations for Jesus' injunctions on marriage, divorce and adultery.(16) The sexual expression of the individual is for Sa'adeh a precondition for the renaissance of the collective of the nation since "the man of whose vitality a substantial amount is directed away from nourishing beneficial mechanical, industrial, scientific, literary, artistic, social and economic works has little consequence from his strength which thereby is diverted from what is most beneficial for society."(17)

Sa'adeh does not simply speak in generalized terms when he condemns "the spread of indecency and the loosening of the family bond, which are the basis of society." Jesus, in forbidding divorce except in the case of adultery was combating the specific injustice of men who observed the letter of the religious law only to break its spirit by repudiating a woman out of "a hidden desire to marry another woman to maximise physical pleasure" and thus casting the reprodiated wife into temptation: but it clearly it is less the suffering of individual woman than the wholly generalised social affects of the diversion of energies from the collective that worries him since such actions are taken "without regard to the social consequences increasing the consumption of vital powers that could better have been spent in cultural and socio-economic endeavours."(18) He therefore is opposed to sensuality as such rather than the suffering it might occasion for individuals and he believes society should decisively reduce its scope ["prune"] it so that the vital energies of the vine could be directed to nourishing its fruit so that the crop of the vine be increased many times. (19)


(1) "Brutukalat Hukama al-Kaslik," Sabah al-Khayta Bryant 26/1/1976 pp. 18-19; Jamil Saraya: "Nash'at al-Hizb al-Qawmi al-Surig" in Kamal H. Karpat (ed.) Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East p. 100.
(2) Antun Sa'adeh, al-Islam fi-Risalatayhi, Beirut: SSNP Publication, 1978, p. 65.
(3) "Fajr al-Damir - Kitab Jadid bl-Mistuluji Heavy Breasted" al-Majallah al-Jadidah April 1934, No 4 3rd year pp. 98-99].
(4) Sa'adeh, al-Islam fi-Risalatayhi, pp. 41-42.
(5) Ibid, p. 112.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid, p. 113.
(8) Ibid, p. 65.
(9) Ibid, p. 66.
(10) Ibid, p. 18.
(11) Ibid, p. 19.
(12) Ibid, p. 88.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Ibid, p. 92.
(16) Ibid, p. 74.
(17) Ibid, p. 74.
(18) Ibid, p. 73.
(19) Ibid, p. 74.
Syrian and Egyptian Particularist Thought:
Continuity with Paganism vs Monotheistic Religion
Dennis Walker