Shaykh Ahmad 'Arif al-Zayn and others in a September 1927 issue of al-Irfan. Photo via Jadaliyya.

Included in the published proceedings of a 1979 conference at the American University of Beirut on "Intellectual Life in the Arab East, 1890-1939: Unexpected Dimension," is an essay by Tarif Khalidi on the Sidon-based early twentieth century journal
al-Irfan. "My interest in Jabal 'Amil," Khalidi wrote in his acknowledgments to the essay "owes most to al-Imam al-Sayyid Musa al-Sadr to whom this study is dedicated." And he ends his essay by writing: "The nahda of Jabal 'Amil as reflected in the magazine, is a subject worthy of thorough assessment This ought to be done soon, while the scholar can still interview living members of that fascinating generation." Below, an excerpt about the oppositional litterateurs of early twentieth century Jabal 'Amil.  

… attention should be paid to a vigorous literary and religious movement which flourished in Jabal ‘Amil in the mid to late thirties and crystallized around what is called ‘Usbat al-Adab al-’Amili, a literary fraternity that has yet to receive its due recognition in the history of modern Arabic literature and of the Nahda in general. This fraternity was first founded in Najaf, in the late twenties or early thirties, by a group of what one might call “angry young shaykhs” in revolt against the ‘ulama’ establishment…. 

The moving spirit behind it was al-Shaykh ‘Ali al-Zayn from Jibshit, a young Najaf-educated scholar and a noted wit. In May, 1937, Shaykh ‘Ali published a fraternity manifesto in al-'Irfan in which he set forth the basic principles of his group. Characterizing the atmosphere of his times as “feudal”, “reactionary” and “anti-democratic” (an early use of the Arabic word raj’i and a revival of the word dimuqrati), the Shaykh seemed to be declaring war on several fronts simultaneously. A theory of poetry and literary criticism was advanced because literature, in the view of this fraternity, was to become the chief vehicle of the political struggle against the ‘ulama’, the ruling landlords and the Mandate. The poetry of which the fraternity approved was defined as simple in diction and faithful to everyday reality. Thus, a fraternity member, ‘Abd al-Latif Sharara, made a scathing attack on the litterateurs of Jabal ‘Amil, ridiculing them for their descriptions of Europe as seen from “the cafes of Nabatiyyah” and arguing the the “power of passion” is essential for literary perfection. Poets taken to task for paying insufficient attention to the unity of the qasida, and for building their qasidas up, line by independent line. Poets are also criticized for dealing with theoretical subjects that can better be dealt with in essay form, or with antiquated subjects and in imitation of the style of Abu Tamman or al-Sayyid al-Himyari.   
The poetry unleashed by Shaykh ‘Ali and his fraternity was cast in certain philosophic mould which might be described as liberal sceptic. This masked a deeper political struggle against foreign domination, sectarianism and religious obscurantism, this last being especially note-worthy for our purposes in this study. The attack on the ‘ulama’, part of general onslaught on all men of religion, is made in the name of the higher principles of that religion. Several shaykh-members of his fraternity, claiming that they remained pious Muslims, “defrocked” themselves one after the other, causing an outcry in the ‘ulama’ establishment. The pride and joy of Shi’ite theology and law, the principle of itjihad itself, was ridiculed for having become an empty, chaotic and antiquated slogan. Genuine Islam must be continuously open to knowledge and to other Islamic sects. 

It has been suggested that the fraternity received some of its notions of literary criticism from the Arab literary clubs in North and South America. The suffocating environment of Najaf, however, must be judged an equally important cause. Moreover, conditions in Jabal ‘Amil inspired a poetic style and diction all their own. The introduction of certain ‘Amili colloquialisms into the poetry lent it great simplicity, beauty and repeatability. The hilarious anticlericalism of one poet drove an enraged ‘alim to issue a fatwa licensing his murder for unbelief (kufr). The fraternity had carried radicalism into the ‘ulama’ class.  

Tarif Khalidi, “Shaykh Ahmad ‘Arif Al-Zayn and al-‘Irfan,” in Intellectual Life in the Arab East, 1890–1939, ed. Marwan R. Buheiry (Beirut: American University of Beirut, Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, 1981), pp. 116-117.  


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