Issaf al-Nashashibi was born in Jerusalem in 18851 to an aristocratic family. His father, Othman al-Nashashibi, held several positions within the Ottoman Empire, including a position in the Chamber of Deputies.2 His mother, Fatima Abu Ghosh, was the daughter of Sheikh Mustafa Abu Ghosh, who headed the district of Jerusalem’s traffic route in the 19th century.3
Muhammad Issaf Ibn Othman al-Nashashibi
The Nashashibis were a very wealthy family with high social standing. Their palace, built by Issaf in 1922 in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, was a place where salons, gatherings, and cultural seminars were held.4 His father’s library contained a large collection of books, to which Issaf had access and read most heartily. This unique cultural environment influenced his upbringing and his passion for the Arabic language, which would become quite obvious later in his life.
Al-Nashashibi educated himself and was thereby able to reach an advanced level of knowledge in Arabic language and literature without the help of teachers. He was enrolled in a traditional primary school (kuttab) in Jerusalem, then moved to Beirut and studied at Dar al-Hikma School. After studying there for four years, he returned to Jerusalem.
In Beirut, al-Nashashibi was educated by the most prominent teachers in the city. One of them, Abdullah al-Bustani, a Maronite bishop of the diocese of Sidon, was an Arabic linguist, teacher, writer, and journalist, and his influence on al-Nashashibi and his linguistic style is evident in his writings. In Beirut and Jerusalem, al-Nashashibi had the opportunity to work with distinguished writers, poets, and thinkers of the Arabic language such as Shakib Arslan, Ahmed Shawqi, Khalil al-Sakakini, Hanna al-Issa, and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Shawish. He also learned French and was well acquainted with it, which helped him to read some scientific books and newspapers.
His Time as a Government and School Official
After finishing his studies in Beirut in 1905, al-Nashashibi returned to Jerusalem where, following the proclamation of the 1908 Constitution,5 he briefly edited the journal al-Asma‘i, which was founded in 1908 in Jerusalem by Hanna al-Issa. Then he began publishing articles and poems in the magazine al-Nafa’is, which was owned by Khalil Beidas, and in the magazine al-Manhal. Founded in 1912 by Muhammad Musa al-Maghribi, a prominent Palestinian journalist and publisher at the time, al-Manhal was one of the first magazines to be published in Jerusalem. It was issued monthly and lasted for one year.
Al-Nashashibi was appointed at al-Salahiyya School as a professor of the Arabic language. Then he was appointed as the principal of the Rashidiyya School in Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, he became the Inspector General of Arabic in the public education department, where he supervised the development of the curricula for teaching Arabic and managing teachers of Arabic. He also oversaw the teaching of Islamic studies.
Al-Nashashibi resigned from his work as inspector general in 1929 because of increasing problems between him and the British Department of Education in Palestine. Instead, he decided to focus on writing, lecturing, and traveling to nearby Arab countries.
In 1923, al-Nashashibi was elected as a member of the Arab Scientific Academy in Damascus (al-Majma‘ al-‘Ilmi al-‘Arabi) and he began writing for the academy’s journal in 1924.
Retirement: Freelance Writing and Lecturing
In December 1931, al-Nashashibi participated in the General Islamic Conference, held with the aim of securing Muslim support for the Palestinian cause, and he was chosen as secretary of the Call and Guidance Committee during the conference. Additionally, he participated in the Arab National Conference, also held in December of that year, where talks of the emergence of a Palestinian Arab Independence Party began to surface.
From 1937 to 1947, he published a series of chapters in the Cairo-based magazine al-Risala under the title Nuql al-Adib (Table Talk of a Man of Letters), which gained him widespread fame in the Arab world. He frequently signed his articles under pseudonyms such as “al-Qari,” “al-Sahmi,” and “Hashim al-‘Arabi.”
Struggle for the Arabic Language
As a condition of employment, the British Mandate authorities required proficiency in English. Al-Nashashibi responded to this decision by resigning from his government job as an Arabic language inspector in 1929. He countered attempts to Westernize the Arabic language, calling on people to use the classical Arabic language (fusha) in their daily life. He believed that the Arabic language was targeted as part of an effort to weaken and control the Arab population. To al-Nashashibi, Arabic was part of the national culture and must be preserved.
He was a true fighter although he did not carry a weapon; al-Nashashibi fought with words. His sharp style and strong personality made his voice heard. His articles and speeches urged freedom, independence, and resistance against the British Mandate of Palestine and the Zionist movement.
Al-Nashashibi participated in most of the celebrations held in Palestine, especially those held for national or cultural events. His speeches were characterized as revolutionary and energized people into taking action to preserve their homeland. He wrote many poems and literary articles that lamented the divisions and weakness of Arab nations, calling on them to unite their goals and bear arms to achieve independence for themselves and Palestine.
Al-Nashashibi lived during a time of intense conflict between those advocating for changes in the Arabic language to reflect modern times and those advocating for the conservation of the language. He called for changes to the language that would actually preserve it from eventual corruption and decay that he feared would occur. Specifically, he called for a renewal that would develop and progress Arab civilization in literary and linguistic ways, not one that would eliminate the Arabic language and mainly adopt colloquial dialects or that would abolish traditional rhyme in poetry by calling it “freestyle.”
During his lifetime, he earned the title Adib al-‘Arabiyya (the foremost Arabic scholar). Palestinian educator al-Sakakini described him as “the Lisan al-‘Arab dictionary walking on two legs.”6
Al-Nashashibi moved to Cairo in 1947, where he quickly drew a circle of intellectuals. He died in Cairo on January 22, 1948. He was buried there in the cemetery of ‘Abd al-Qadir Bey Mukhtar, after a huge funeral was held for him and many notable figures attended. He did not marry or have children. He devoted his life to the Arabic language and to Islam through writing and teaching.
Dar Issaf Nashashibi
After his death, during the Nakba (Catastrophe), al-Nashashibi’s personal library was looted and stolen. Interviewed for a documentary on the subject, his nephew, Nasser Nashashibi, bemoaned the “treasures of literature that were stolen from the house of my uncle, Issaf Nashashibi, which was unique; it was known for its wealth. Rare copies of manuscripts, of the Quran, or the hadiths. What happens with his books? What happens with his private library? Where is it? Who took it?”7
As Israel historian Ilan Pappé explains in the same documentary, during and after the 1948 War, there was both random, unauthorized individual looting as well as a systematic, organized, official collection of such valuable private libraries in the city by “the official looters.”8 From May 1948 to March 1949, the National Library sent teams to emptied homes of Palestinians throughout the city to collect private libraries and transfer them to the library.9 Al-Nashashibi’s invaluable collection was likely among them.
Al-Nashashibi’s family palace later was used as the headquarters of the French Consulate and then in 1964 as the headquarters of the German Archeological Institute.
In 1982, Hind al-Husseini bought it and it became part of Dar al-Tifl al-Arabi.
In 1986, the scholar Ishaq al-Husseini established a research institute on the premises and it became Dar Issaf Nashashibi for Culture, Arts, and Literature. The library has extensive rare holdings, including many from the Husseini family, some from the private library of al-Nashashibi himself, as well as those of other cultural figures (Fawzi Youssef, Aref al-Aref, and other intellectuals). The library houses several thousand printed books and a collection of over 800 manuscripts in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Persian, as well as newspapers that date back to 1967. The manuscripts are largely on Islamic religion and sciences and Arabic language and literature. The collection of Quranic manuscripts is unique in Palestine. A printed catalog of the library holdings was published in 2002 by Bashir Barakat, the chief archivist at the time.
The center also holds cultural activities such as concerts, plays, poetry readings, films, and art exhibits.
- 1947: The Gold Medal of Merit, Lebanese government, in recognition of his efforts to advance the Arabic language
- 1990: The Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature; the Palestine Liberation Organization
“Amthal Abi Tamam” [The proverbs of Abu Tamam]. al-Nafa’is (1912).
Majmu‘at al-Nashashibi [The Nashashibi collection]. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1923.
Qalb ‘Arabi wa-‘aql Urubi [An Arab heart and a European mind]. Jerusalem: Matba‘at Bayt al-Maqdis, 1924.
Naql al-adib [Table talk of a man of letters]. Beirut: Dar al-Rayhani li-l-Tiba‘a wa-l-Nashr, n.d.
Kalima fi al-lugha al-‘Arabiyya [A few words regarding the Arabic language]. Jerusalem: Matba‘at Bayt al-Maqdis, 1925.
al-Bustan [The garden]. Cairo: Matba‘at al-Ma‘arif bi-Misr, 1928.
Abbasi, Mustafa. “‘Guardians’ of the Road: Abu Ghush Family in the Jerusalem Mountains during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” The Jerusalem Quarterly 78 (2019).
Abdelal, Wael. Hamas and the Media: Politics and Strategy. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Abu Elayan, Yasir. “Studies of Arab Scholar Muhammad Issaf al-Nashashibi.” [In Arabic.] Jerusalem: Center for Islamic Research, Dar al-Tifl al-Arabi, 1987.
Arab Encyclopedia. s.v. “al-Bustani (‘Abd Allah).” [In Arabic.] Accessed March 21, 2021.
al-‘Awdat, Ya‘qub. Min a‘lam al-fikr wa-l-adab fi Filastin [Among the esteemed thinkers and laureates of Palestine]. Amman: 1976.
Dar Issaf Nashashibi Facebook page. [In Arabic.]
Dar Issaf Nashashibi for Culture, Arts, and Literature webpage. [In Arabic.]
Encyclopedia Palestina. s.v. “Muhammad Musa al-Maghribi.” [In Arabic.] October 28, 2015.
Halaby, Mona Hajjar, “Out of the Public Eye: Adel Jabre’s Long Journey from Ottomanism to Binationalism.” Jerusalem Quarterly 52 (Winter 2013): 6–24.
al-Husseini, Ishaq Musa. The Scholar of the Arabic Language Muhammad Is‘af al-Nashashibi. [In Arabic.] Jerusalem: Center for Islamic Research, Dar al-Tifl al-Arabi, 1987.
al-Hut, Bayan Nuwayhid. The Political Leadership and Institutions in Palestine, 1917–1948. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1981.
“Is‘af al-Nashashibi: The Arabic Knight.” [In Arabic.] Al Jazeera documentary. YouTube, November 20, 2017.
Makdisi, Ussama. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.
The National Library of Israel. “al-Manhal.” Accessed March 21, 2021.
Nuwayhid, ‘Ajaj. Rijal min Filastin [Men from Palestine]. Beirut: Manshurat Filistin al-Muhtalla, 1981.
Palestinian American Research Center (PARC). “Resources: Archives and Libraries of Jerusalem: Is‘af al-Nashashibi Library.” Accessed April 6, 2021.
Palestinian Journeys. “Isaaf al-Nashashibi.” Accessed April 6, 2021.
Shahin, Ahmad Omar.Muhammad Is‘af al-Nashashibi. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Dar al-Mubtada’ li-l-Tiba‘a wa-l-Nashr, 1992.
Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1908–1975. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Taleb, Si Ahmed. La Colonisation de la Palestine (1835–1914). BoD: Books on Demand, 2017.
Ziadeh, Nicola. Complete Works: Eminent Arabs. [In Arabic.] Beirut: al-Dar al-Ahlia for Publishing and Distribution, 2002.
Historians differ as to whether he was born in 1885 or 1882.
The Ottoman Parliament (or General Assembly) had two houses: a Chamber of Notables and a Chamber of Deputies. Members of the former, considered a senate, were appointed by the sultan for a life term. The latter was considered to be the lower house of the Ottoman Parliament; members were to be elected for a four-year term (with the possibility of serving multiple terms). Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1908–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 176–77; The Ottoman Constitution, December 23, 1876, Boğaziçi University, Atatürk Institute of Modern Turkish History (translator unknown).
Some have described Sheikh Mustafa as the one who “controlled the Jerusalem mountains.”
Today, the library of Dar Issaf Nashashibi for Culture, Arts, and Literature has a tremendous collection of valuable books.
The 1908 Constitution was in fact a restoration of the first Ottoman Constitution of 1876, which Sultan Abdul Hamid II had approved in 1876 under pressure from a group of revolutionaries called the Young Turks and had established individual rights and equality for all Ottoman subjects regardless of religion, laying the groundwork for the establishment and convening of the first Ottoman Parliament in March 1877. It was highly significant insofar as it was the first written constitution in the Muslim world to create a legislative body. As a city under Ottoman rule, Jerusalem also sent delegates to the parliament (see Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi). By the spring of 1878, however, the sultan had suspended the constitution to eliminate political opposition to his rule. When the Young Turks ultimately revolted in 1908, they forced the sultan to reinstate the constitution, which had political repercussions throughout all the Ottoman-ruled areas, including Jerusalem. See Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Ergun Odzbudun, s.v. “Ottoman Constitution of 1876,” Oxford Constitutional Law.
“Isaaf al-Nashashibi,” Palestinian Journeys. Lisan al-‘Arab, one of the best known dictionaries of classical Arabic as well as one of the most comprehensive, is a 13th-century reference work composed by the North African lexicographer Ibn Manzur (d. 1312).
The Great Book Robbery: Chronicles of a Cultural Destruction, directed by Benny Brunner (Al Jazeera English, 2007–12).
The Great Book Robbery.
Ofer Aderet, “People of the (Stolen) Book: Did Israel’s National Library Engage in Systematic Theft?” Haaretz, January 2, 2015.