The Anti-Sectarian Politics of Ahmad ‘Arif al-Zayn and his Majallat al-‘Irfan

By Pascal Abidor
Submitted to Session P4044 (The Shi'ah of Lebanon: Inter-Confessional Discourse and Relations, 2015 Annual Meeting
Middle East/Near East Studies;
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This paper examines the anti-sectarian politics of the Shi‘i modernist, reformist intellectual Ahmed ‘Arif al-Zayn (1884-1960) during the French Mandate of Lebanon. As the founder, publisher, editor of and a major contributor to the journal al-‘Irfan, al-Zayn was a central figure in the early 20th century history of the Shiites in Lebanon. Al-Zayn was well known as a staunch opponent to the French Mandate and the sectarian political system it was establishing. Contemporary archival sources indicate that the Mandatory authorities were concerned with the potentially dangerous effects of his ideas amongst the Shi‘i community of Jabal ‘Amil – the historical name for what would become Lebanon’s “South”. As an alternative to Shi‘i incorporation into Lebanon, up until the late 1930’s al-Zayn promoted in al-‘Irfan the idea of Jabal ‘Amil’s inclusion within an independent, Arab-led polity in Greater Syria.

Al-Zayn was in a seemingly contradictory position, however, in which he promoted a political agenda for a specific sect (the Shi‘is) against a sectarian political system. Al-Zayn skirted this contradiction by speaking not merely for and about Shi‘is but about Jabal ‘Amil as well; a region which also includes Christian and Sunni populations as well. The pages of al-‘Irfan are filled with articles on the history of Jabal ‘Amil which simultaneously seek to insert the Jabal ‘Amil and the Shi‘is into the historical narratives that constitute the foundational myths of Lebanon while also emphasizing the non-sectarian character of pre-Mandate politics and daily life. Through portrayals of Jabal ‘Amil in al-‘Irfan, whether edited primary sources or historical essays, al-Zayn sought to demonstrate that a post-Ottoman politics and society could be formed that would be mutually beneficial to all religious groups.

This paper examines the non-sectarian politics of Ahmed ‘Arif al-Zayn by examining his contributions to and the editorial decisions he made while publishing al-‘Irfan from 1909 until Lebanon’s independence in 1943. I argue that Ahmad ‘Arif al-Zayn should be considered first and foremost as a political activist and that this fact is most evident in his quest to subvert France’s imperialist designs for Lebanon by his consistent attacks on sectarianism and his advocacy of a viable alternative. Al-Zayn’s position is indicative of a genuine, non-sectarian political perspective amongst the Shi‘is years before institutional political forms took hold, sectarian or otherwise. This political perspective unproblematically placed intra-confessional solidarity alongside cross-confessional cooperation and tolerance in a manner that could be drawn upon to great benefit today.