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Arab Academy of Damascus


Center for Arabic studies.

Modeled on the Académie Française, the Academy of Arab Learning in Damascus (al-Majma al-Ilmi al-Arabi bi Dimashq) was established in June 1919 as a center for Arabic linguistics and studies in literature and the humanities. It was part of a concerted effort by the government of the newly established Kingdom of Syria to make Arabic the language of administration, the armed forces, high culture, and education within its boundaries. Its founders included Amin Suwayd, Anis Sallum, Saʿid al-Karmi, Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi, Isa al-Maʿluf, Dimitri Qandalaft, Izz al-Din al-Tanuhi, and Muhammad Kurd Ali (who was its president). Influential nationalists such as Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar, Rashid Baqdunis, and Faris al-Khuri were early members.

The academy, headquartered in the historic Adiliyya School (al-Madrasa al-Adiliyya), sponsored public lectures on a wide range of cultural subjects and supervised the editing of important Arabic-language texts. In addition, it was responsible for overseeing the extensive collection of manuscripts and books that had been gathered by Shaykh Tahir al-Jaza'iri during the final decades of the nineteenth century in the adjacent Zahiriyya School (alMadrasa al-Zahiriyya), as well as for administering the Syrian National Museum. By the spring of 1920, growing fiscal difficulties forced the government of King Faisal to cut back funding for the organization, which disbanded later that summer.

In early September 1920, Kurd Ali proposed to the French mandatory authorities that the academy reopen. The high commissioner, who saw the proposal as an opportunity to split Damascus's intelligentsia, immediately approved the proposal. Successive mandatory governors provided generous financial support for the organization, severely limiting its ability to serve either as a forum for open political debate or as an incubator of Arab nationalist sentiment. Nevertheless, the academy's cultural activities flourished under French patronage. A journal (Majalla al-Majma al-Ilmi al-Arabi) appeared in January 1921, along with a series of critical editions of writings by prominent Arab authors. The academy merged with the Syrian University in June 1923, and was reincorporated as a research institute for the study of formal Arabic language (al-lugha alfusha) three years later. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the academy organized international festivals celebrating the contributions of major Arab literary figures. By the 1950s the circle of corresponding members had expanded to include such influential Western scholars as Carl Brockelmann, Ignaz Goldziher, Snouck Hurgronje, and Louis Massignon.

see also kurd ali, muhammad; shahbandar, abd al-rahman.

Fred H. Lawson

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