Emirati Underground

With Israelis ready to flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Katie Wachsberger spoke to the National Library about the cutting edge of culture in the UAE

The streets of Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world's tallest building, in the background; photo by Katie Wachsberger

Four hard-core rockers are wailing away in a dimly lit garage. The long-haired, headbanging guitarist and bassist are playing faster than seems humanly possible, and the lead singer’s gravely growl sounds like the voice of Satan himself. For those who love it, the song, “Demean,” by the band Nervecell, is four minutes of Death Metal perfection.

It may be a shock for some to learn that Nervecell’s musicians do not hail from London, Stockholm, or San Francisco. Instead, the well-established group is the leading representative of a thriving Death Metal scene in the United Arab Emirates, one of Israel’s newest partners in peace in the Arab world.

If you ask Katie Wachsberger, though, there is no reason for surprise; Israelis should set aside their prior assumptions about what culture is and isn’t in the UAE. In a recent lecture that was part of the National Library’s “Reading Room” series of online events, Wachsberger uncovered the vibrant cultural scene in the Gulf nation. A research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking and the co-founder of the Unas Cultural Foundation, Wachsberger spoke to listeners from Dubai, where she spent over a month meeting with Emirati partners in the wake of the September 15 peace accord between Israel and the UAE.

Check out Katie Wachsberger’s lecture on the underground culture scene in the UAE:

The United Arab Emirates is a young country. Seven kingdoms, which had formerly been under British colonial rule, and located on the south-western reaches of the Persian Gulf, jointly founded the independent state in 1971. However, Emirati culture, as Wachsberger explained, is diverse and deep, with roots stretching back thousands of years to pre-Islamic times. As the country has grown into a cosmopolitan center for finance, trade, and business over recent decades, the cultural scene has expanded in stride. Major cultural institutions have opened branches there, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the American University in Dubai in 1995, and a planned Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.

What’s more, the Emirates is more and more a center for new creativity in visual arts, film, performance, and music–the head-thrashing Nervecell is just one example–rather than being only a passive recipient of western cultural exports. However, culture is complicated, and Emirates-based artists face their own unique challenges.

A Dubai art studio, photo by Katie Wachsberger

While the population of the UAE numbers almost ten million people, only some twelve percent are actually citizens. The rest are foreign workers and expatriates from all over the world, including South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and the rest of the Middle East. This diversity makes the country a cultural melting pot where different traditions can mix and recombine. Wachsberger cited a number of examples, including the CHI-KA women’s fashion line, created by a designer of mixed Emirati and Japanese heritage, that sells kimonos, abayas, and other clothes inspired by both cultures.

The CHI-KA shop & gallery, on Alserkal Avenue – the leading art district in Dubai, photo by Katie Wachsberger

Such innovation exists alongside traditional Emirati culture, which is largely similar to that of other Gulf Arab countries. While no longer the true popular culture of the UAE, traditional dress, dances, and music are supported by the government as part of its larger goal of preserving a certain national narrative.

“Emirati Boatman”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Although grassroots and innovative cultural projects are receiving more attention and support, they also still face a difficult path to success. Non-citizen residents, even those who have lived in the UAE for decades or generations, must have a work visa to remain in the country. For that reason, cultural entrepreneurs are obligated to quickly turn their projects into for-profit ventures, to find external support in government or academia, or to keep their day jobs and spread their work through social media rather than more standard avenues.

“Emirati Boys Playing”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Nevertheless, Wachsberger underlined that now is a moment of fascinating cultural transition in the UAE. New, critical, and innovative cultural projects are growing organically throughout the country and attracting attention at home and abroad. Artists are more optimistic about the future of Emirati culture than ever before.

The new connections between the UAE and Israel, she added, can help accelerate this momentum. Israel has a rich and robust cultural scene, with grassroots movements, activity in all the arts, and a long and developed tradition of cultural criticism. While Israelis are already imagining what peace with the UAE might mean for Israeli society, economics, and politics, the cultural effects in the Emirates could be just as deep and profound.

Mawlid al-Nabi: The Birth of the Prophet of Islam

A look at the miraculous tales and sacred biographies of Muhammad, in honor of "Mawlid"

A 1746 Ottoman copy of Qadi Iyad’s Kitab al-Shifa, one of the most popular handbooks on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with marginal glosses in Turkish, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us very little about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Although the sacred text describes his revelation, his mission, and his relation to the long history of prophecy that preceded him, the events that make up Muhammad’s own biography appear at most as hints and allusions, passing references that follow no clear chronology; the Quran’s concerns, after all, lie elsewhere.

It was up to later generations of scholars to piece together the relevant Quranic passages and oral hadith traditions to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography. A critical question, among others, concerns Muhammad’s birth. When, where, and under what circumstances did that world-changing event in human history take place?

A late 18th century Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

Today, Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Mawlid al-Nabi, on the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal, which corresponds this year to October 29th. The holiday originated hundreds of years after Muhammad’s own birth in the sixth century; some of the earliest Mawlid accounts describe the state-sponsored celebrations held by the Ismaili Fatamid dynasty, which ruled Egypt and surrounding territories from 969 to 1171. Nonetheless, Mawlid observances, whether with family at home or with large public festivities, are now common throughout the world.

One of the central elements of many Mawlids, historically and today, is the recitation of narratives describing the ancestry, birth, and early life of the Prophet. The earliest biographies of Muhammad, such as Ibn Hisham’s (d. 833) recension of a work, now lost, by Ibn Ishaq, already describe the birth as a miraculous event. For instance, Ibn Hisham includes a tradition that the Prophet’s mother Amina had a visionary experience during her pregnancy. However, the early biographers are much more interested in describing Muhammad’s military victories than his birth, and birth narratives play a minor role in their accounts overall.

True Mawlid texts have a far different orientation. Abu al-Hasan al-Bakri’s Kitab al-Anwar (the Book of Lights), one of the earliest and most influential of such works, is a representative example. Almost nothing is known of the author himself, though he must have lived sometime before the end of the ninth century CE. Al-Bakri’s entertaining and dramatic work recounts gripping scenes and extensive dialogue even when such descriptions have no basis in earlier sources. The work’s main subjects are the preexistence of Muhammad’s divine light before creation and its passage through the generations, as well as his birth and infancy. Kitab al-Anwar concludes with Muhammad’s marriage to his wife Khadija; his revelation, prophetic mission, victories, and leadership are not mentioned at all. Kitab al-Anwar, like later works written in its model, “reflects the devotional reframing of the Prophet’s life,” as Marion Holmes Katz has written, “in which priority is accorded to his major life-cycle crises, rather than to his public career as the Messenger of God.”

An 1802 copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, from Saloniki, the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Bakri’s account of the birth itself, for instance, is narrated from Amina’s own perspective. A white bird rubs against her heart, removing all the pains of labor, and she drinks a miraculously-appearing white liquid that causes light to shine from her. Women bearing perfume and angels appear. Then, after the birth, clouds descend twice to take the infant: once he returns having traveled across the entire world, and the second time he is presented to all earlier prophets and blessed with a quality of each. Finally, Ridwan, the guardian of paradise, arrives and stamps his shoulder with the seal of prophecy.

Kitab al-Anwar was quite popular; reports abound of the book circulating widely in medieval book markets. However, al-Bakri also attracted the ire of scholarly authorities. Among others, the important historian and Quran commentator Ibn Kathir (c. 1300-1373) denounced him saying “the lies produced in al-Bakri’s sira are an offence and a grave sin; their fabricator has fallen into the category of those warned by the prophet: ‘He who reports lies about me deliberately shall be condemned to Hell.’” Today as well, Mawlid narratives, and the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday overall, are condemned as unlawful innovation in certain corners of the Islamic world.

An 1815 Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

The Islam and Middle East collection of the National Library of Israel is home to over a dozen manuscript copies of and commentaries on another of the most popular works on the life and birth of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the Kitab al-Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa (“The Remedy by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One”), written by the scholar and jurist Iyad ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, known as Qadi Iyad. The son of a prominent scholarly family, he was born in the North African city of Ceuta in 1083 and pursued his studies there and in Muslim Spain. Iyad served as a judge (qadi), and authored numerous works on Hadith, law, biography, and history.

The Kitab al-Shifa is arranged by topic, collecting sources from the Quran and Hadith on the Prophet Muhammad, along with the author’s commentary, on various themes. For example, different sections are dedicated to God’s kindness and gentleness toward Muhammad; the Prophet’s matchless character, intellect, and physique, as well as his ability to predict the future. Rather than a traditional biography, the Kitab al-Shifa is more of a handbook of traditions and remains a popular devotional text.

This is true of the chapter devoted to Muhammad’s birth as well, in which Qadi Iyad collects stories stretching back to al-Bakri and other sources. Iyad recounts how a light that outshined the stars in its brilliance issued from the Prophet when he was born; how because of his presence, his wet-nurse Halima always had abundant milk for him, and her animals were fertile and abundant as well; and how those who ate with him were never left unsatisfied. As befits a man who would change the course of history, all of nature and the works of man convulsed at his arrival. As the translation of Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley puts it:

These are the wonders that took place on the night he was born: the arcade of [the Persian emperor] Khusrow shook and its balconies fell down, the waters of Lake Tiberias ebbed, and the flame of Persia, which had not been put out for a thousand years, was extinguished.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

A Bahrain Mystery in the National Library Collection

A mysterious 80 year old document which recently surfaced in our collections emphasizes the geopolitical significance of Bahrain. But what is it doing here?

Bahrain in a First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

In October of 1940, the Italian air force launched a daring nighttime strike on the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Flying over 2500 miles from a base in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian planes dropped eighty-four bombs on the country’s important oil refinery. While the government had considered the possibility that the refinery might be attacked, the fear was sabotage, not bombardment. Brilliantly illuminated at night to deter intruders on foot, it was the perfect aerial target.

While mostly forgotten today, the bombing–Bahrain’s most direct experience of World War II– thrust the island nation into the international spotlight. With rule over the territory passing between Iran, Portugal, and various Arab dynasties for centuries, Britain formalized its control in 1892. In subsequent decades, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the British position in Bahrain, and throughout the Gulf, seemed unshakable.

However, the Russian emigre intellectual, scholar, and political analyst Basile Nikitine saw the Italian attack as an important turning point. Sitting down at his desk in occupied Paris, Nikitine drafted an article, intended for publication in the French press, underlining Bahrain’s overlooked geopolitical significance. The islands, he wrote,

have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from grand politics, who could be interested in them, really, aside from a few rarified specialists? However, obscure though it may be, this small point on the map of the Middle East serves as an important link in the imperial system of Great Britain. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

The first oil well in Bahrain, operated by American-owned BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, circa 1931. Photographed by members of BAPCO and the Bahraini government.

In the wake of the historic peace accord between Israel and Bahrain, the Gulf nation, and its ties to regional politics, has gained a new prominence in the minds of Israelis. Now is the perfect time to reconsider Nikitine’s essay–and to try to solve the riddles it contains. Never published, the text, three dense, loose-leaf pages written in French and accompanied by a pen and ink map, is preserved in the National Library archives. Who was Basile Nikitine? And how did this bit of Bahrain’s history make its way to Jerusalem?

Born in 1885 in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Nikitine studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in Moscow, Paris, and Saint Petersburg, practicing his language skills during frequent trips to the region. After graduation, he joined the Russian Foreign Ministry and spent the majority of his diplomatic service in Iran, traveling widely throughout the country. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Nikitine left Tehran for Paris, pursuing a career as a scholar and writer, where he would remain until his death in 1960.

A First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

Nikitine’s scholarship focused on Kurdish language, culture, and history, and he made numerous important contributions to the field. Due to his diplomatic experience, he was also intimately familiar with modern Iranian arts and letters; his memoir, The Iran that I Have Known, recounts his friendships with the country’s leading writers and thinkers.

However, along with his academic research, from 1920 on Nikitine also wrote for the popular press. His articles covered a host of topics, from Soviet spying on the Russian emigre community, Afghanistan in international politics, Japan’s economic potential, the potato in Russian folklore, and more. Employed at the Banque Nationale Francaise du Commerce Exterieur, his freelance journalism served to supplement his income, and this extra cash only became more essential after the Nazi occupation and the installment of the Vichy regime in 1940. Nikitine remained in Paris and in his job at the bank, and continued writing for now pro-German French newspapers.

The original draft of Nikitine’s article in French, preserved in the archives of the National Library of Israel

This background helps explain the character of Nikitine’s essay, written only a few months after the fall of France in June. The tone is overwhelmingly anti-British. Nikitine argued that British influence in Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf overall, was weakening and predicted the ultimate end of British supremacy in the region. The most serious challenge to the British position came in the wake of the failed Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, never ratified, which would have turned all of Iran into a British protectorate. Nikitine argued that this overreaching was instrumental in the 1921 coup d’etat that saw the downfall of the Qajar dynasty and brought the former army colonel Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in 1925. In the wake of the coup, Reza Shah pursued ties with other European powers; on the eve of World War II, Germany was the country’s biggest trading partner.

Against this backdrop, Nikitine saw Bahrain as a critical point of conflict. In 1927, Iran appealed to the League of Nations to assert its sovereignty over Bahrain, a claim that the British strongly rejected, saying that the island was under imperial protection. “It is well known that Great Britain always finds its ‘irrefutable’ arguments,” Nikitine wrote, dismissing the British arguments as cynical and guided by the narrow interests of securing its naval power, “above all if it sees salt water in abundance.”

A pen and ink map which accompanied Nikitine’s article, the National Library of Israel collections

This conflict over Bahrain, he continued, could spell the end of British dominance in the Gulf. “Politically, the position of Great Britain is no longer unassailable,” he wrote. Fascist Italy was seizing territory on the African coast of the Red Sea, leaving important British positions, like Bahrain, vulnerable. Nikitine predicts that “Arabia, which has been carefully maintained in the British orbit, could detach itself, especially if one considers the fact that Aden, the key to British strategy, is more and more exposed to Italian attacks.”

In the end, history did not align with Nikitine’s analysis: in August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union that June, the USSR and Great Britain jointly occupied Iran, overthrew Reza Shah, and installed his son on the throne. Britain, and later America, remained overwhelmingly influential in Iran and the Gulf for decades to come.

Nikitine stayed in Paris throughout the war and until the end of his life. There seems to be no indication that he came to Israel or was involved in the National Library in any way; this is the only document written by him in the Library’s archives. The essay likely arrived at the Library in 1962 or 1963, just a few years after the author’s death. However, the precise date is a matter of guesswork; the Library’s catalogue does not record exactly when the essay entered the collection, who donated it, or under what circumstances. The mystery of how Nikitine’s work came to Jerusalem remains unsolved.


Here is the complete translation of the article:

The British Empire: Threatened in the Bahrain Islands

Without fear of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the Islands of Bahrain, the target of a recent visit by Italian bombers, have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

First and foremost, a few words to acquaint the reader with Bahrain’s geographic and ethnic setting. One of an archipelago of islands including Bahrain, Moharraq, Omm Na’san, Sitra, and Nabi Salih, it is situated on the southwest coast of the Gulf, in the rift separating Qatar from Asia; 552 square kilometers, a hot and humid climate, with no rain. There are a 100,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in cities: Manama (25,000), Bodayya (8,000), Moharraq (20,000), and Hadd (8,000). Arabic is the only spoken and written language (L’annuaire de Monde Musalman). [The inhabitants are] pearl fishers and farmers.

Within this framework (which due to its latitudes involuntarily evokes a novel by Josef Conrad) let us see how the political events that today are worthy of having a few lines dedicated to them, have come about.

Without going too far, one can distinguish two phases in the modern history of Bahrain: undisputed British supremacy from 1900 to 1927, and its weakening after this date. This chronological division corresponds to the general evolution of British interests in the Middle East. The predominance of Great Britain, before its decline, rested on its privileged position in Persia, which, even after the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, gave Albion influence over the entire southern zone of the country to the Gulf, since the Arabian coast, divided up into numerous small principalities, was also ruled according to a system of concessions and protectorate treaties, some more formal than others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, obtaining an oil concession in Iran depended on these links to Great Britain. This was so much the case that His Majesty’s Consul General in Bouchir was also the English Resident for the Gulf, with the status, de facto, if not de jure, of a Viceroy. As with all the consular agents in southern Iran, he was a high-ranking military officer, with links to the Crown of India rather than the Foreign Office.

As for Bahrain, the succeeding sheikh, in accordance with the treaty of 1880, put it under British protection with a political agent subject to the Resident of Bouchir, alongside himself. Since 1923, the Sheikh of Bahrain has been Hamd, the son of Isa-ben-Ali. (He visited London in 1936).

Yet, even during the time of its uncontested supremacy, British susceptibility was upset by the grand project of the German Baghdad railway that planned its terminus in Kuwait on the Gulf, an area that Great Britain had always considered its “hunting grounds.” This time it was only a warning, and Great Britain retained it position – reaffirmed after the Great War by bringing Iraq under its mandate and by the creation of an Arab kingdom in Mecca (the fruits of Lawrence’s efforts).

It should be noted however that the high point of British success, was the beginning of a succession of failures. First there was the failure in Tehran, where the treaty making Persia a thinly disguised protectorate, that was agreed upon by Sir Percy Cox (who had become a minister after having been the Resident at Bouchir, where the German consul Wassmuss had given the English a hard time) and Vossug-ed-Dowleh, could never be ratified. It is fair to assume that this attempt contributed to the polarization of patriotic sentiments and created an atmosphere, where it was enough for one coup d’etat that took place in 1921 by a military officer, to ensure that Iran, guided by the man who became its future sovereign (in 1925), would resolutely follow the path to political independence. This caused a change in the balance of power and Great Britain was obligated to abandon its positions in Iran, one after the other: the privilege of issuance [a banking term] at the Imperial Bank of Persia, the extraterritoriality of the Indo-European telegraph line; capitulations; customs facilities; etc. At the same time, the state of affairs in the Arab states was worsening: In Iraq–the mandate caused nothing but troubles and it searched for another formula; in Arabia–Ibn Saud removed the English representatives from Mecca. The latter immediately hastened to conclude a treaty with him in Jeddah, in 1926.

It is here that the question of the Bahrain islands comes back to the fore. One of the stipulations of that treaty could be understood to mean that Great Britain had some rights in Bahrain. Tehran did not accept this and lodged its protest with the League of Nations. Alas, this act, which like so many others in Geneva, only has symbolic value, was never followed up in terms of the Persian claim. This was repeated, however, in 1930, when Standard Oil was granted an oil concession in Bahrain. Persia (Iran after 1935) argued by standing up for its rights from the 18th century, when it exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. Great Britain responded that since then, the dynasty of sheikhs that were vassals of Iran was evicted by another group coming from the Arabian Peninsula, and that in general, the policing necessary for the Gulf (traffic in arms and slaves) could not be guaranteed by anyone except for His Majesty’s navy, etc. The intention here is not to judge the judicial proceedings. It is well known that Great Britain always finds its “irrefutable” arguments when the topic is a place “acquired” by it on any point on the globe, above all if it sees salt water in abundance.” [sea]…On the contrary, it should be noted that Iran did not allow itself to be rebuffed by this negative reaction and was not long in exacting its revenge. In 1931 Tehran revoked the right of British aircraft to fly over Iranian territory. Imperial Airways was thus obliged to abandon its airport in Bouchir. At the same time, Tehran revoked the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and brokered a revised contract with much more advantageous terms. Finally, Tehran ordered warships from Italian shipyards. These warships would henceforth form the nucleus of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, where policing would be effected by the sovereign power in its territorial waters.  Is it necessary to add that that the Persian character of the Gulf is singularly reinforced by the fact that the Transiranian which starts at the north end of the Caspian Sea flows to its southern endpoint in the Gulf at the bay of Khormoussa where a port — Bandar Shapur — was built? For its part, Great Britain was forced to establish a new itinerary for Imperial Airways with a stopover at Bahrain and Sharjah. In addition, in 1935 Great Britain removed its naval stations at Basidu and Henjam near the Iranian coast. In 1938, for the first time in British maritime history, the grand naval exercises took place in the Gulf. The theme was…the defense of Bahrain.

All that remains to be said is a word about oil. In 1938, Standard Oil of California, together with Texas Oil, formed a company called Cal-Tex for exploiting the oilfields and the refinery (25,000 barrels a day). The question has always been, why the oilfields prospected by an Englishman, Major Holmes, were not made an English concession? Maybe the presence of an American company in Bahrain, whose sovereignty was under discussion, did not displease Great Britain – it was procuring Yankee complicity, and at the same time, most of the managers were English and production (from 45,000 tons in 1934 to 1,100,000 tons in 1939) was under British control. 

There is one certain thing that emerges from this most complicated affair, and it is with this that we will conclude. Politically speaking, the position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf is no longer unassailable. This started due to the firm attitude of Iran, as we have just seen. Tomorrow, [the political status of Great Britain] could be even less stable as a result of strategic events that could unfold in the Red Sea or because of the extraordinary Italian exploit (a flight of 4500 km) that could foreshadow options that were unimaginable up till now. Arabia, which was carefully kept within the orbit of Great Britain, could detach itself, especially if one also considers the position of Aden, the key to British strategy, which is becoming more and more exposed to Italian attacks.

But, with the Persian Gulf breaking away from the English sphere of influence, it is the supply of petrol from Iraq (already threatened in Haifa) and from Iran, which would be completely disrupted. There is no need to emphasize the gravity of this hypothesis.

Thank You for Smoking: Abd al-Ghani Al-Nabulsi and the Ottoman Tobacco Controversy

A seventeenth-century Muslim intellectual's staunch defense of smoking sheds light on the practice's connection to modernity and the concept of recreation

A man smoking a water pipe from Jerusalem, 1875, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

The Middle East is in love with cigarettes. Even as tobacco use is declining globally, in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh — as well as in Tel Aviv — smoking remains widespread, and in some countries is even increasing. According to a recent report, Jordan, for one, has one of the highest rates of tobacco consumption in the world: more than 80% of Jordanian men are regular smokers, averaging 23 cigarettes a day.

Although tobacco seems woven into the fabric of daily life in the region today, it was not always so. When tobacco, native to the new world, was first introduced in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the topic of fierce disagreement. Was tobacco healthy or harmful? Is smoking permissible in Islam, or should it be forbidden?

Preachers, poets, religious leaders, and government officials all weighed in on the debate. But one of the most prominent voices belonged to Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, a unique figure and an influential Damascene scholar, mystic, and intellectual. Al-Nabulsi wrote a treatise in praise of smoking, Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān (“Making peace between brothers on the issue of legalizing smoking”); a 1774 manuscript of the book, copied from the author’s own handwritten version, is just one of the many works by al-Nabulsi in the collection of the National Library of Israel. How did this reclusive Sufi come to be one of tobacco’s main defenders?

The opening page of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s 1682 defense of smoking Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān, the National Library of Israel collections

When tobacco first came to the Middle East via Europe, it was considered an innovative medical treatment for everything from burns to poisoning. However, by the first decade of the seventeenth century, as more and more men and women took up recreational smoking, resistance to the practice also increased. One of the basic issues that tobacco faced, from a religious perspective, was that, as a novel product, it was not mentioned in the Quran, the hadith literature about the Prophet Muhammad and his sayings, or in the authoritative codes of Islamic law.

In the face of this silence, tobacco’s numerous opponents pounced. Reasoning from analogy–qiyas, a common method in Islamic jurisprudence–they argued that tobacco could be compared to that other prohibited substance, alcohol. Tobacco, critics argued, produced similar intoxicating effects, as exemplified by the dizziness suffered by new smokers.

People resting and smoking at a roadside stall near Jerusalem, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

Other than such scriptural arguments, critics claimed that tobacco was detrimental to health: reducing strength, causing bad breath, and dulling the senses. Smokers also were dirty, their clothes covered in smudges and ash. What’s more, this physical contamination, it was claimed, was accompanied by an even more dire moral impurity. Smoking caused idleness, and its newness– “deviating innovation” (bid‘a in Arabic)– was taken as inherently threatening. As James Grehan has written in a comprehensive article on the subject:

In the most extravagant visions, the fire and smoke that accompanied the act of lighting a pipe conjured up hellfire and eternal damnation. Critics warned that smokers would appear on the Day of Judgment with blackened faces and hookahs hung around their necks; until that time, they would burn in their graves, like the tobacco in their pipes.

The opposition to tobacco was not limited to intellectual circles and the arguments of the learned. The Ottoman authorities made numerous attempts to prohibit and confiscate tobacco. Though ultimately unsuccessful, these crackdowns were accompanied by brutal and bloody enforcement of the rules.

Nabulsi did not start out as smoking’s premier champion. Born in Damascus in 1641 to a family originally from Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi was a prolific Sufi mystic and scholar who authored over 250 works. Extremely wide-ranging in his interests and expertise, al-Nabulsi wrote commentaries on books by earlier mystics, especially the thirteenth century master Ibn Arabi, as well as poetry, travelogues, books on architecture and agriculture, and law. In his lifetime and for more than a century after his death, al-Nabulsi remained profoundly influential, both through his writings and a wide circle of students. It is no wonder then that the National Library houses manuscripts of twenty-six of his works, as well as several others that he himself copied or owned.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise “‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa,” the National Library of Israel collections.

Al-Nabulsi defended smoking against its detractors on multiple fronts; while he only became a smoker himself during the course of his travels to Mecca over a decade later, his arguments were already forceful and fully formed when he composed the book in 1682.

Concerning health, al-Nabulsi denied that there was a link between smoking and illness, and argued that the physicians who prescribed tobacco as a remedy knew their business much better than critics untrained in medicine.

In fact, his book on smoking opens with just such medical arguments. In the first lines of the composition, al-Nabulsi praises God that tobacco is good for the body: drying the humors, removing phlegm, helping the intestines digest food, improving the mind, and all kinds of other benefits. “Apart from these, its usefulness against poison has been demonstrated in the medical literature,” he adds, “especially against the poison of the scorpion.”

But his more interesting arguments touched on tobacco’s status in Islamic law. He countered the claims of those who dismissed tobacco as a “deviating innovation,” saying that they were deluded by prejudice, ignorance, and knee-jerk conservatism. Al-Nabulsi writes that he chose to author the treatise not because he likes smoking or in order to join the debate on tobacco for its own sake, but rather to find the truth of the issue. He rejects the use of qiyas by those who argued against tobacco, and says if no scriptural source explicitly bans the substance, it should be permitted. While the context here only concerns the permissibility of smoking, the distinction between the truth and the law, and between the sublime mystics who perceive the former and the more limited doctors of the law who deal with the latter, is a central and recurring theme of al-Nabulsi’s thought.

At heart, and fascinatingly, al-Nabulsi’s arguments amount to a defense of a value that to us is quite familiar, but which was then a new and radical concept: fun. In making room for smoking, Nabulsi was also arguing that greater space be given to private life and private enjoyment, so long as it did not explicitly violate the strictures of Islamic law.

To a great degree, al-Nabulsi was following in the wake of social changes that were already underway. Tobacco, like coffee before it, became so popular precisely because it was convivial, encouraging conversation and the blurring of social boundaries; this was especially true in the coffeehouse, where members of different classes could meet, relax, and talk, their gatherings fueled by the stimulants in their smoke and drink. Writing on the cusp of modernity, al-Nabulsi was defending not just smoking but a central part of what it meant to be modern itself.