Bandali al-Jawzi was a Palestinian scholar, historian, professor, and linguist who studied in Moscow and worked in Baku, Azerbaijan. He made significant contributions and prolific translations into Arabic. He articulated and reformulated Islamic principles in a revolutionary manner, inspiring younger scholars to explore the intellectual history of Islam.
Early Life and Education
Al-Jawzi was born on July 2, 1871, to a Christian family in Jerusalem. He reportedly had five siblings: Saliba, Qustandi, Marina, Katrina, and Helaneh (some sources say he had three).
He received his primary and secondary education at the Eastern Orthodox Monastery of the Cross (al-Musallaba) in south-central Jerusalem. He then studied at the Orthodox boarding school in Bkaftin, a village north of Lebanon with a mostly Greek Orthodox population.
Already at the age of 17, al-Jawzi had become eloquent in the Arabic language. He was an outstanding student, and in 1891, he received a church scholarship to study theology at the Religious Academy in Moscow. After three years of studies, however, al-Jawzi decided not to pursue his degree in theology or to become a priest. At the time, Russia was undergoing a cultural revival, and he had become immersed in reading about Marxism, Communism, and liberal thinking. He was captivated by history and found himself more interested in Arab nationalist and revolutionary thinking than he was in religious dogma.
Al-Jawzi enrolled (in 1895) in Kazan University and embarked on Islamic and Arabic language studies. He became known among his colleagues as a distinguished authority on subjects related to Islam and Arab thought. In 1899, he presented a master’s thesis titled “The Mu‘tazila: Historical and Theological Research in Islam.”
In 1900, a year after receiving his degree in Arabic language and Islamic studies, al-Jawzi returned to Jerusalem. In Palestine, he objected to Ottoman rules and restrictions, which he considered to be largely responsible for creating lethargic conditioning among the people. The Ottoman authorities prohibited him from settling in his homeland, and he had to return to Russia.
In Russia, in 1903, al-Jawzi married Liudmilla Lornichevna Zueva. They had seven children: Vladimir, Georgy, Boris, Anastasia, Alexandra, Tamara, and Olga. He worked at the Kazan University as assistant professor of Islamic law between 1911 and 1917. He was then appointed professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the same university, and he continued to teach there until 1920, when he and his family moved to Baku, Azerbaijan.
Initially, al-Jawzi was invited to teach Arabic language and literature at the State University of Baku. He later became dean of the university’s Oriental Faculty and was then appointed chairman of the university’s Arabic Department (at the Baku branch of the Academy of Sciences). He was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Arabic language and literature from the university’s scientific council.
As a distinguished intellectual, al-Jawzi had several opportunities to travel to other countries as part of official delegations. One such academic visit was to Iran in 1921, which gave him the chance to examine several old Arabic and Persian manuscripts. He presented them to the library of the State University of Baku.
Reconnection with Palestine
In 1909, al-Jawzi returned to Jerusalem for a one-year scholarly visit to Palestine and Greater Syria. He led a delegation of Russian students from the Kazan University who were studying the history of the Middle East and Islam.
The visit proved to be valuable for al-Jawzi, as he was able to make important connections with several influential Palestinian figures, including Issaf al-Nashashibi, Jamil al-Khalidi, and Khalil Sakakini. It has also been noted that al-Jawzi hosted the renowned Russian academician Ignaty Krachkovsky—best known for authoring the translation of the Quran into Russian—at his home in Jerusalem, together with prominent Palestinian writers and intellects. He maintained these friendships and developed solid connections with other prominent intellectuals in the following years.
Al-Jawzi would get another chance to visit Palestine in 1927. He stayed long enough to attend the seventh Palestinian National Congress in June 1928, during which he was elected to the Arab Executive Committee.
Besides the connections, these visits paved the way for al-Jawzi to teach the history of Islam at a broader scale. He would visit Palestine again one last time in 1930. During that trip, he traveled with his friends Khalil Sakakini and Adel Jaber to Egypt. He also delivered several lectures, mostly on the sociology and philosophy of the Arab world.
Language Proficiency and Superb Writing
Al-Jawzi made substantial contributions in his subjects of interest. His passion for language was particularly awe-inspiring.
In addition to Arabic, he mastered several ancient and modern languages, including Assyrian, Hebrew, Greek, French, English, German, and Russian. He also wrote and translated about 26 works, including 9 manuscripts in Russian and 2 in Arabic. He wrote books associated with Arab-Islamic history and philosophy, as well as on the Russian language and culture.
Reformist Thinker and History Teacher
Al-Jawzi’s early fascination with Arab and Islamic culture led him to become an exceptional historian. Already during his studies in Russia, he would immerse himself in studying symbols and legendary roles behind traditional thought. He probed into secret societies, conflicts, and religious texts in historic sources.
In 1928, during the time when he lived in Soviet Azerbaijan, al-Jawzi published his most famous work, The History of Intellectual Movements in Islam (Min tarikh al-harakat al-fikriyya fi al-Islam). This book traced Islamic values’ nature and development, starting from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, up to the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, and onto the early 20th century. In essence, this work has been considered as the first Marxist interpretation of the historic development of Islamic thought.
Al-Jawzi’s examination of the history of Islam, on the one hand, and the sociological and anthropological perspectives on the ideology and political economy inherent within, on the other, were unparalleled. He examined the work of (mostly Soviet) scholars who specialized in languages and literature of the Eastern world. In this regard, al-Jawzi may well have been the first to lay the foundations for the study of “Orientalism,” 50 years before Edward Said would produce his groundbreaking book by that title.
Just as he inspired subsequent generations, al-Jawzi’s own writings were influenced by influential Islamic reformers who preceded him, namely, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. His analysis of intellectual domination stood out in the way that—more than critiquing the Western influence—he pinpointed the failings of the local and regional scholars of Islam. He noted:
[T]he history of the East, the social and intellectual life of its people in general, and that of the Islamic people in particular, are subject to the same laws and factors to which the life and history of the Western nations are subject. The nations of the East have passed and will continue to pass through the same social stages and changes as Western nations. For there is no difference in this sense between the East and the West, and one is not innately superior to the other.1
His writing drew upon principles of social justice and universality as founded by the Prophet Muhammad. In al-Jawzi’s view, those principles go beyond Islam and Arabism and serve society at large.
In addition to his book, al-Jawzi published many articles in the Lebanese journals al-Athar and al-Kulliyya and the Egyptian journals al-Hilal, al-Muqtataf, and al-Rabita al-Sharqiyya. He wrote more than 50 articles for the Azerbaijan encyclopedia.
Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi paid tribute to al-Jawzi’s contributions to scholarship in his field: “Palestinian historical writing in the twentieth century can be traced back to two intellectuals of the nineteenth-century Nahda: Ruhi Khalidi and Bandali al-Jawzi.”2
Islam Is More than a Religion
Although al-Jawzi was raised as an Orthodox Christian, he clearly admired the principles of Islam. He was especially impressed with the religion’s commitment to social justice and equality. In essence, he looked at Islam as a key progression toward the optimum goal of a classless society. He considered its principles to embody the highest standards for human rights and dignity. However, he was wary of possible misinterpretations of the principles of Islam. He encouraged Muslims to steer away from dogma and tradition and to shift toward a reformist, modernist, and intellectual approach.
Islam is more than a religion, al-Jawzi insisted; it is also a social and economic system. He considered the Prophet Muhammad as a major influence in building a more socialist society, drawing on the fact that the Prophet had strongly objected to social hierarchies. With that said, al-Jawzi had reservations about the teachings, too. For example, he had noted that the Prophet “was not an enemy of slavery nor an advocate of the necessity of complete equality of women.”3
After considerable research, al-Jawzi concluded that the followers of Islam missed several of the religion’s principles that represented much of the reformist ideals the Prophet had embodied. Al-Jawzi opposed the traditional interpretations of Islam and noted that many of them have helped elites maintain their privileged positions. He asserted, in more than one way and in several languages, the social goals and significant impact of Islam on revolutionary movements.
In 1932, al-Jawzi was diagnosed with heart disease. He took a temporary leave of absence from work and retired from the university after a while. During his convalescence and until his death, he spent much of his time writing and publishing academic articles. He passed away in Baku, Azerbaijan, in early 1942.
Cummings, Alex Sayf. “From Bethlehem to Baku: Bandali Jawzi and the Origins of Postmodernism.” Tropics of Meta: Histography for the Masses. January 27, 2011.
al-Jawzi, Bandali. The History of Intellectual Movements in Islam. [In Arabic.] Beirut: 1928.
Al Jazeera. “Bandali Saliba al-Jawzi … A Connoisseur Exploring Arab and Islamic Heritage.” [In Arabic.] May 25, 2008.
Khalidi, Tarif. “The Books in My Life: A Memoir. Part 2.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 74 (Summer 2018).
Manna, Adel. The Notables of Palestine at the End of the Ottoman Period, 1800-1918. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995.
Nuweihed al-Hout, Bayan. Political Leadership and Institutions in Palestine (1917–1948). [In Arabic.] Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Jawzi, Bandali, Saliba (1871–1942).” Accessed August 21, 2021.
Palestinian Journeys. “Bendali Saliba al-Jawzi.” Accessed August 18, 2021.
Palestinian Teachers Association in Lebanon. “The Jerusalemite Thinker Bandali Saliba al-Jawzi (1871–1942).” [In Arabic.] Last modified April 20, 2014.
Sonn, Tamara. “Bandali al-Jawzi’s Intellectual History of Islam: An Original Interpretation from Azerbaijan.” Islamic Studies 33, no. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn 1994): 203–26.
Sonn, Tamara. Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Yaghi, ‘Abd al-Rahman. Life of Modern Palestinian Literature until the Crisis. Beirut: Lebanon Trading Office, 1968.
Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 43.
Bandali al-Jawzi, The History of Intellectual Movements in Islam [in Arabic] (Beirut: 1928), 33.