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Ahmad Faris Ash-Shedyaq
Faris has been one of the prominent figures of the nineteenth century, and one of the great scholars of the Arabic language and literature. He likes to call himself “Alferiaq." It’s a combination of his first and last name.
Faris has been born in Lebanon in 1805, to a Catholic family called Ash-Shedyaq. It’s a Greek word refers to a prominent religious title. He studies in elementary school, and then at the hands of his older brother Ass’ad. He was an adept in languages and literature. Then his father died; and he started working in the book printing industry. Faris took advantage of God’s gift of beautiful handwriting; he took up calligraphy as a profession. This move made him a constant friend of the book. This vocation honed his talents, especially in his knowledge of English, French and Turkish in addition to his proficiency in Arabic. He wrote an English grammar book titled “Appetizing Firstling in English Language Grammar.” He followed it by another titled: “Conversation Medium in both Languages Arabic and English.” He also wrote, “Support of the Narrator in French Syntax.”
During his childhood, Ash-Shedyaq moved between - what it will be called later-Lebanon and Syria. Then he set sail to Malta- the bastion of Christian missionary. There, Anglican missionaries have taught the arts of preaching Christianity. While there, he wrote his first book “The Means to Know the Conditions of Malta." Then traveled to Egypt, and worked as an editor in the Egyptian newspaper the Facts. He has also met some Azhar scholars like the erudite Nasrallah Trabelsi and Sheikh Mohammed Shihabuddine Al-Halabi. It’s at their hands and other scholars from whom he has acquired more Arabic Science.
The most important milestone event in the life of Ash-Shedyaq has been the death of his brother Ass’ad. The latter has been held captive for six years in the monastery of Qannoubine for changing from Catholicism to Protestantism. This is an important event that has left a gaping wound in Ash-Shedyaq heart. His long pages of writing have bled ink in his books in contempt and taunt of the Christians clergy. Once, he has told about his stay in a monastery with some monks. “I could see the monks’ stubbornness, their difference of opinions, the demeaning each other, and their constant complains to the abbot for baseless trivial matters. The blatant ignorance of everyone is so obvious; none of those in the monastery could write a meaningful text in any subject. Even the abbot himself did not know how to write one single line in Arabic!!”
At another instance, he wrote the following: “Look how many monasteries we have in our country, and how many of these places house monks!! However, I haven’t seen anyone of them excel in any branch of science. Furthermore, you never hear anything good about them; you hear only what discredit and disgrace man and his honor.”
He wrote again to bemoan the ignorance of the clergy, giving evidence of the prosaic Arabic translation of the Scriptures. “The book of Psalms is filled with solecism, grammatical mistakes and errors. The reason behind such a debacle in translation is the person who has rendered it into Arabic doesn’t master the target language. The same thing applies to the rest, and all the books printed in your country. Do you think that solecism, and lapsus calami are features of the religion and its traits and obligations? Do you also believe that rhetoric will lead you to disbelief, atheism, heterodoxy and corruption? Did you suppose that these mentioned verses in the book of Psalms will hinder a Muslim scholar from arguing and challenging your claims? Is there any blood running in your veins that would stir you up to love exquisite and enchanting language? Since you started reading the Psalms in primary school, your brains have been saturated with solecism, and your minds poisoned with jargon. This disorder will remain with you until you become adults and reach old age.”
The hatred of Ash-Shedyaq for the clergy, and his poking fun at their ignorance and fanaticism led him to criticize the ritual of Christian churches. He wondered at many practices that have astonished him. To this effect, he writes: “The churches’ people usually have particular days in which they bring out their effigies and statues. Despite their heavy weights and sizes, zealots and religious enthusiasts will carry them on their shoulders, running vociferously in the streets. While everyone would like to seek refuge in a cave in the belly of the earth to avoid the intense heat of the sun, revelers lit candles ahead of these processions.
Alferiaq moved again to Malta, to work with Americans and British missionaries. There he became a Protestant. He translated the book of “Prayers” in 1840, which included a set of songs that have been recited in Protestant churches. In 1848, the Bible Society invited him to translate the Bible into Arabic. He traveled to England and France, and completed a full translation thereof. The Archbishop Joseph Ad-Dibbs described it as “the most accurate Arabic translation of the Bible.” However, this bible became neglected later because of his conversion to Islam. It was soon replaced by the translation of the famous Vandyke, now in the hands of various Arab churches.
The translation of the Bible made him the most knowledgeable persons of the minute details of the book. Hence, it has placed in front of him a lot of religious problems. These, he will compile many of them in 1865 in a book called: “Interpretation Argument in Gospel Contradiction.” He has embarked on a comparison between the Gospel of Matthew and other Bibles in 176 texts. He has documented the contradictions, oddities, and errors, and then concluded by saying: “The head of the Roman church has taken the best step to prevent the public from reciting these books. Accordingly, anyone who reads them will soon see clearly how contrary to the reality they are. Furthermore, whoever reads them and doesn’t realize their fallacies, a blind man is far better than he is.”
After his conversion to Islam, Ash-Shedyaq also wrote another book of over 700 pages in the criticism of the first part of the Bible. He titled it called: “The Torah in Retroactive Mirror.” He gave his son the manuscript and asked him to protect it, and never publish it before his death. The writer died; the house burned down, and the manuscript was lost.
Two years before his conversion to Islam, Ash-Shedyaq wrote the book “Leg over Leg." Within its pages, he uncovered the tip of the iceberg in the lost manuscript “Mirror." In fact, he has voiced his denunciation of some of the unacceptable information mentioned in the Holy Writ. Such facts will be utterly rejected by minds liberated from the bondage of blind imitation. “The Torah has mentioned the following on the account of Almighty God. “Fill the earth and multiply.” The exaggerated term is used here; filling the earth with human beings necessitates its devastation and not its urbanization.”
He wrote askance denouncing some repulsive biblical information printed about prophets. “Now, is it lawful for the Prince of the mountain when he grows old; and his clothes no longer keeping him warm; to seek a beautiful virgin to warm himself by the heat of her body, as did King David? [See the Book of Kings (1) 1 / 1-3]. Furthermore, would it be possible if he has fought the Druze and defeated them to kill their married women and their children and spare their virgins for the enjoyment of his virile soldiers, as Moses did to the people of Madyan as has been mentioned in Chapter thirty-one of the Book of Numbers? Or is it permissible for him to marry a thousand women among Queens and servants as Solomon did? Or is it warranted for one of the governors to kill every man, woman and baby of his enemies as Saul did to the Giants in the Jehovah of hosts did? [Samuel (1 15) / 2-3]” Perish the thoughts; Allah is indeed far above such a thing.
One day, Ash-Shedyaq spoke to some his co-religionists; he said admonishing and reproving: «As understanding is concerned, I don’t think you understand what you read in the Bible. What is the meaning of the foreskin when Saul asked David one hundred prepuces of the people of Palestine dowry for his daughter? “Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men slew two hundred men of the Philistines. David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in the full tale to the king, that he might be the king's son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.” See Samuel (1) verse 18/27]. There are women here, and I'm embarrassed to explain the meaning of the term lest women will cringe.” However, on another occasion he has eventually explained it to the women. Suddenly, one of them grabbed the book and threw it on the ground saying: “God forbids that this speech is the word of God.”
In the tome «Leg over Leg» - one of the most important books of Ash-Shedyaq, the reader will note the bitter critique of Christianity, its books and the situations of its clergy. In contrast, the author shows a clear fondness to Islam and Muslims. Once, he compared Muslims to his own people, the Christians. He said: “It seems that the Franks when misfortune befalls them do not entrust their affairs to God. Christians show a great deal of religiosity, and courage. However, no sooner death has felled one of them; they will forget him quickly. Submitting to the will of Allah is the characteristics of the Muslims, and the word Islam is enough evidence thereof.”
Speaking of the Christians in the Levant and how they have been affected by good Muslim manners he said: “It should be mentioned here that Christians born in the land of Islam and follow Muslim customs and morals are no match to them in eloquence, literature, beauty, civility and etiquette, and hygiene. They [i.e. Christians] are most active in travel, dealing and trades and more aggressive and fortitude in arduous business. Muslim people are known for their contentment and asceticism, while the Christians for their insatiable greed.”
When Ash-Shedyaq used to mention Prophet (PBUH) in several places in the book «Leg over Leg», he used to pay homage to him by praising him in awe and appreciation. He never hesitated to call him (the Prophet). Such magnificent speech comes only from a loving person who is proud of the Prophet (PBUH), and his esteemed is companions.
Muhammad Sadeq Pasha the Bey of Tunis - the title of the acting leader then – has extended him an invitation his country. There he met Sheikh al-Islam Mohammed bin Khoja. Together, they had lengthy talks that have ended with As-Shedyaq embracing Islam in 1857. From that moment on, he added the name of the Prophet (PBUH) to his, to read: «Ahmad Faris As-Shedyaq.” Henceforth, he began defending Islam through his newspaper “Al-Jawa’eb” which has become an indispensable instrument for intellectuals and politicians in the capitals of the West and the East.
In “Al-Jawa’eb”, As-Shedyaq helped defend Islam long and hard. He wrote about an issue debated at length among intellectuals at that time. It was whether the reality of Islam is relevant to modern civilization. “Is there anyone who is aware of some people who claim that the Islamic approach does not apply to the rules of progress? At the same time, there are those who advocate this approach, do not permit departing ways with it.”
In Contrast, Ash-Shedyaq has warned Muslims against getting carried away or fooled by the sight of progress in the West. Such progress shouldn’t be linked in any way to Christianity. “If you look at the essence of the Christians’ religion, you’ll realize that it forbids progress and serious pursuits. The Gospel tells a story about Jesus ordering his disciples not to care about tomorrow. For that reason, Christians in the early centuries have embraced asceticism. They never rise to perform noble deeds, nor care about commendable acts. There are also many other verses in the four Gospels and in the Disciples messages. They have the same merit as the previous verse in inciting to inactivity and reclusion and the lack of concern for earning a living.”
When the news reached Ash-Shedyaq of an apostatizing Muslim, he wrote that this apostate “is of the general public who doesn’t differentiate between the verse: (Allah - there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep,) and between the words of the Psalms: “Awake, O Lord. Why do you sleep?” Refer to Psalm 44/23. We judge that his renouncing monotheism to the Trinity hasn’t been based on insight and rationale and the pursuit of truth, but on whimsical and impulsive decision.”
Ash-Shedyaq has left an abundant library in Arab Science and travel literature, including interesting books we have mentioned before. His book “Spy on the Dictionary” [Al-Jasous Ala Al-Qamous] criticized Firozabadi’s encompassing dictionary [Al-Qamous Al-Muheet]. He authored another in the art of syntax and grammar he has titled: “Comprehensive Guide for the Student” [Ghuniyat At-Taleb]. Other books include “Secret of the Nights in Inversion and Substitution," and “Collection of Every Humorous Meaning.” His writings revealed a great talent and flowing penmanship in addition to books filled with useful science. Ash-Shedyaq has been an unrivaled knight in the charm of poetry. The qualities of the stories and articles are quite rich; he has well over 22 thousand verses of poetry to his credit.
In 1887, Ahmad Faris Ash-Shedyaq died in Constantinople, and his body has been transferred to Beirut. They prayed over his remain in the Omari mosque in the presence of dignitaries and writers. May the mercy of Allah be upon him, and may his soul rests in peace.
Dr. Munqith Bin Mahmoud Al-Sakkar
Researcher at Muslim World League
Translated by Sadok Salehi
Translator at Muslim World League