Butros Bustani

(1819- 1883) 


From The Arab Awakening, George Antonius, G P Putnam's Sons, 1946. 


Born in Lebanon in a Christian family, Butros Bustani received the best education which was then available and learned other languages besides Arabic. At the age of ten he entered the monastic college at 'Ain Waraqa where he was taught Syriac and Latin, as well as the canonical sciences and the science of the Arabic language. At school he stood out among his contemporaries both for his character and for the brilliance of his attainments, and the monks selected him for a scholarship at the Maronite College in Rome. He was willing to go, but his widowed mother wept at the thought of her son being sent away, and so he remained in Lebanon. He became a teacher and found time to learn English. In 1984 he went to Beirut where he met the American Protestant missionaries Eli Smith and Dr Cornelius van Dyck.   


His friendship with these missionaries led Bustani to adopt the Presbyterian faith. From then his activities became closely linked to those of the American mission. He accepted employment as teacher at the training college in 'Abay and wrote books for use in schools. He was asked to help Eli Smith translate the Bible into Arabic and so he applied himself to learn Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in addition to perfecting his Syriac and Latin. He had learned Italian in school and French along the way. Translating the Bible formed his principle occupation for the next ten years. 


Even before completing the task, he started on the first of his two magna opera: the compilation of a dictionary of the Arabic language which appeared in 1870 in two volumes under the name of Muhit al-Muhit (Circumference of the Ocean). While he was busy almost single handedly with its compilation, he realized that its size would put it beyond the reach of the large majority of young students, so he prepared an abridgment as he went along,  which appeared soon after as Qutr al-Muhit (The Diameter of the Ocean).  


His second great work was an Arabic encyclopedia. He began this task a few years after the publication of his dictionaries, and made full use of the available European sources. But it was much more than a mere compilation and translation, as it contains a great deal of information drawn form Arabic literary and historical sources and shows evidence of original and industrious research. Six volumes had appeared at the time of his death in 1883. 


In 1860 a sectarian conflict in Lebanon,  the culmination of a peasant uprising which began in the north of Lebanon as a rebellion of Maronite peasants against their Christian overlords, soon spread to the south of the country where the rebellion changed its character, with Druzes turning against the Maronites.  380 Christian villages and 560 churches were destroyed, and 20,000 Christians were killed. The Druzes and Muslims also suffered heavy losses.  Bustani sought to appease the parties by means of a newspaper he founded in Beirut that year. It was a small weekly publication called Nafir Suriya (Clarion of Syria). It was the first political journal ever published in the country and was mainly devoted to the preaching of concord between the different creeds, and of union in the pursuit of knowledge. He argued week after week that knowledge leads to enlightenment, and that in turn to the death of fanaticism and the birth of ideals held in common.  This call had not been sounded before, and is credited with planting the germ of the national idea. 


Three years later Bustani founded a school he called al-Madrasa al-Wataniya (the National School), to provide boys of all creeds with an education based on religious tolerance and patriotic ideals. He was fortunate to engage Nasif al-Yaziji as principal teacher of Arabic. The school quickly achieved fame and attracted pupils from all parts of Syria


In 1870, having published his great dictionary, he founded al-Jenan, a fortnightly literary and political review, the purpose of which was again to fight fanaticism and preach understanding and unity for the sake of the national welfare.  The review was published regularly for the rest of his lifetime.  


Bustani's influence derived as much from the example of his life as from the diffusion of his published works. He practiced what he preached with effortless consistency and with the serenity of disinterested conviction. Even during the massacres of 1860 when religious hatred convulsed Lebanon, he kept his head, not from indifference, but because he saw that the fundamental cause of the trouble was intolerance born of ignorance, and that the only way to make peace among the sects was by promoting  knowledge. 


He worked indefatigably. He was 56 when he began to compose his encyclopedia in the midst of other occupations. The world around him was showing signs of responding to his voice. But the task he had set himself was more than his strength would stand. He died suddenly of heart failure one night, as he was working on his encyclopedia, and was found prostrate on the floor with a pen in his hand and a litter of books around him.