Kamal Suleiman Salibi was a prominent Lebanese historian, professor of history at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the founding Director (later Honorary President) of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman, Jordan died he was 82.. He was a lifetime bachelor, who devoted his life to books.
Born to a Protestant family in Beirut, Salibi’s family came from the Lebanese village of Bhamdoun in French Mandatory Lebanon. After studying at French missionary schools in Bhamdoun and Broummana, he completed his secondary education at the Prep School in Beirut (now International College), and his BA in History and Political Science from AUB, before moving to the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS (University of London) where he earned his PhD in history in 1953 under the supervision of historian Bernard Lewis. His dissertation was subsequently published under the title Maronite Historians of Mediaeval Lebanon. 
After his graduation from SOAS, Salibi joined AUB as bibliographer of
the Arab Studies Program. He then became professor in the Department of
History and Archaeology where he joined other prominent and already
established historians such as Nicholas Ziadeh and Zein Zein. In 1965,
he published The Modern History of Lebanon, which was
subsequently translated into Arabic, Russian, and French. Salibi
eventually became one of the pillars of the history department,
mentoring, training and supervising many students who later became
authorities in their own right.
In 1982 Salibi finalised his book, The Bible Came from Arabia, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
It was translated into German at the same time as the original English
version was being published in London. Salibi wrote subsequent works on
biblical issues using the same etymological and geographic methodology.
Some of his books are today considered classics, notably A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (1988) and The Modern History of Jordan (1993). In 1994, Salibi helped found the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman,
Jordan, and became its director from 1997 until 2004, following his
retirement from AUB. He was associated as a consultant with the Druze Heritage Foundation.
He retired from the Department of History and Archeology at the
American University of Beirut in 1998, and became professor emeritus.
He moved to Amman in the early 1990s and became director of the
Institute for Interfaith Studies there from 1994 to 2003. He believed
Lebanon’s Christian community had an important role to play in building a
Lebanon distinct from its Islamic ambiance, but was free of the
fanatical Christianity characteristic of many of his Maronite
He dismantled the foundational myths which many of Lebanon’s
communities were attached to, and replaced them with a complex portrait
of the nation as an intricate mosaic of disparate but interconnected
communities, over which no one group exerted dominance.
He was strongly opposed to sectarian politics, believing that it had
been the ruin of his country, and was one of the first Lebanese to
remove his sect (madhdhab) identification from the Lebanese census records. He pinned a copy of his new ID, which has ‘I’ for his madhdhab outside his apartment in Ras Beirut.
Arabian Judah theory
Kamal Salibi wrote three books advocating the controversial “Israel in Arabia” theory. In this view, the place names of the Hebrew Bible actually allude to places in southwest Arabia; many of them were later reinterpreted to refer to places in Palestine, when the Arabian Hebrews migrated to what is now called Eretz Israel, and where they established the Hasmonean kingdom under Simon Maccabaeus in the second century B.C. In this new Israel, they switched from Hebrew to Aramaic. It was this switch in language that created the confusions which lead to the distortion of the immigrants’ stories. He also argued that ‘Lebanon’ itself in high antiquity was a place in the Southern Arabian peninsula-
The (literally) central identification of the theory is that the
geographical feature referred to as הירדן, the “Jordan”, which is
usually taken to refer to the Jordan River,
although never actually described as a “river” in the Hebrew text,
actually means the great West Arabian Escarpment, known as the Sarawat Mountains. The area of ancient Israel is then identified with the land on either side of the southern section of the escarpment that is, the southern Hejaz and ‘Asir, from Ta’if down to the border with Yemen.
The theory has not been widely accepted anywhere, and embarrassed many of his colleagues. and several academic reviewers criticised Cape
for having accepted “The Bible Came from Arabia” for publication.
Salibi argued that early epigraphic evidence used to vindicate the
Biblical stories has been misread. Mesha, the Moabite ruler who celebrated a victory over the kingdom of Israel in a stone inscription, the Mesha stele found in 1868, was, according to Salibi, an Arabian, and Moab was a village ‘south (yemen) of Rabin’ near Mecca. The words translated ‘many days’ actually meant ‘south of Rabin’.
He shared the view of such scholars as Thomas L. Thompson
that there is a severe mismatch between the Biblical narrative and the
archaeological findings in Palestine. Thompson’s explanation was to
discount the Bible as literal history but Salibi’s was to locate the
centre of Jewish culture further south.
His theory has been both attacked and supported for its supposed
implications for modern political affairs, although Salibi himself has
made no such connection. Tudor Parfitt
wrote “It is dangerous because Salibi’s ideas have all sorts of
implications, not least in terms of the legitimacy of the State of
Israel”. Since the theory casts no doubt on the existence, location or legitimacy of the Hasmonean
kingdom, nor rewrites in any way the history of Palestine in the last
2200 years or more, it can only have that implication for those who take
literally the divine award of the Promised Land to Abraham and his successors.
The location of the Promised Land
is discussed in chapter 15 of “The Bible Came from Arabia”. Salibi
argues that the description in the Bible is of an extensive tract of
land, substantially larger than Palestine which includes a very varied
landscape, ranging from well-watered mountain-tops via fertile valleys
and foothills to lowland deserts. In the southern part of Arabia there
are recently-active volcanoes, near to which are, presumably, the buried remains of Sodom and Gomorrah.
- Maronite Historians of Mediaeval Lebanon, Beirut, AUB Oriental Series 34, 1959
- The Modern History of Lebanon, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965
- Crossroads to Civil War, Lebanon 1958-1976, Beirut, Caravan Books, 1976
- Syria under Islam: Empire on Trial 634-1097, Beirut, Caravan Books, 1977
- A History of Arabia, Beirut, Caravan Books, 1980
- The Bible Came from Arabia, London, Jonathan Cape, 1985
- Secrets of the Bible People, London, Saqi Books, 1988
- Who Was Jesus?: Conspiracy in Jerusalem, London, I.B. Tauris, 1988
- A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, London, I.B. Tauris, 1988
- The Historicity of Biblical Israel, London, NABU Publications, 1998
- The Historicity of Biblical Israel (second edition), Beirut, Dar Nelson, 2009
- The Modern History of Jordan, London, I.B. Tauris, 1993
- A Bird on an Oak Tree” (Arabic طائر على سنديانة), Amman, Ashshoroq Publishers, 2002
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