Nasif al-Yaziji

(1800- 1871) 


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


Born in 1800 in Kfar Shima, a mountain village in Lebanon, to a Christian family who had known better days.  He played a significant role in the revitalization of Arabic literary traditions. 


The education he received in his childhood was the formal, uninspiring kind, but it did not stifle his genius. His natural curiosity, whetted but not satisfied by the lessons of the village priest, drove him to seek knowledge elsewhere. Books were not available in print, so his only recourse was to study the manuscripts stored in monastic libraries. Thanks to the name he had earned for himself by his diligence, he was allowed to have access to the manuscripts and even to borrow them, and he made full use of this facility. He had a great capacity for work and a prodigious memory; and whenever he encountered a text that seemed to him worthy of close study he would learn it by heart or copy it out by hand. (Several of these copies are  in the archives of the Yaziji family). His exploration of libraries took him into the heart of the lost world of classical Arabic literature, and revealed to him the desolation wrought by the centuries. From that point, the problem of how to revive the past became his dominant interest.  


The notable facts of his career are as follows: at the age of sixteen he was selected for the post of secretary to a high ecclesiastic, but his tenure lasted only two or three years, and he went on from that to pursue his studies independently. 


In his late twenties he accepted employment in the chancery of the Amir Bashir Shihab, the Druze autocrat of Mt Lebanon in whose service he remained until 1840, when the Amir had to leave the country and go into exile. By that time he had achieved fame as a master of the  Arabic language. He had already written a great deal, chiefly in verse, of which several volumes were later published . The outstanding excellence of his work lay in their purity of style and the example they set in new standards of literary expression. The American Protestant missionaries in Syria turned to him for help in the production of books dealing with the science of the Arabic language. The Books he wrote on grammar, rhetoric, logic and prosody were intended for the schools of the  American Mission, but they were adopted by a far larger circle of teachers and students, and continued long after his death to govern the teaching of the science of Arabic.  


In 1863 Yaziji was the principal teacher of Arabic at al-Madrasa al-Wataniya (the National School), which was  founded by Butros Bustani. 


Nasif Yazeji's influence was not confined to the diffusion of his printed works. When he came to live in Beirut, his house became the haunt of an every growing crowd of admirers who, in accordance with the Arab custom, would flock to hear him discourse on the beauty of the Arabic language; it was the love of his intellectual life, the only language he knew, and he died without learning another. This limitation, constraining the movement of his mind into a single channel, gave it the force of a torrent. He was untiring in his advocacy of a revival of the old literature, and he succeeded in convincing a large circle of disciples that it was the way to salvation. The novelty of his  preaching was all the more striking as it addressed itself to Arabs of all creeds, to Christians and Muslims, and urged them at a time when religious fanaticism was still violent, to remember the inheritance they had in common and build up a fraternal future on its foundations.  


He brought up his twelve children, boys and girls, on those ideas, transferring to them his enthusiasm. His son Ibrahim al-Yazigi voiced the first  call to Arab national emancipation from Ottoman rule.