Remembering Boutros Al-Boustani: A Visionary

The Center for Lebanese Heritage launches a collection of Al-Boustani’s works.

By Hanan Nasser

Dubbed “the teacher,” Al-Boustani was among the first leaders of the Arab renaissance or Al-Nahda and is regarded as a leading scholar and educator, and an avant-garde feminist.

The Center for Lebanese Heritage has published a collection of the works of Lebanese pioneer educator and one of the leaders of the Arab renaissance Boutros Al-Boustani to mark the bicentennial of his birth.

The distinctive aspect of the book, The Teacher Boutros Al-Boustani: In his Own Words, compiled by lawyer and professor Hyam G. Mallat, is that each chapter includes an introduction written by Al-Boustani himself explaining the objectives and reasons behind each one of his publications.

The excerpts are taken from the original works in their first editions from Mallat’s private collection, which he inherited from his grandfather, the famed “Poet of the Cedars” Chebli Mallat. 

Dubbed “the teacher,” Al-Boustani was among the first leaders of the Arab renaissance or Al-Nahda, and is regarded as a leading scholar and educator, and an avant-garde feminist.

“In celebration of the bicentennial of Al-Boustani’s birth, I had an idea [to document] his writings tackling several topics, which formed a cultural project on his part for the Lebanese society during the 19th century,” Mallat said. The publications cover a range of themes which Mallat divided by textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias and translations.

Director of the Center for Lebanese Heritage Henri Zoghaib, who wrote the foreword to the book, said that among the goals of the center is to “publish Lebanese heritage with all its facets – tangible and intangible.” Hence its decision to publish the book in celebration of Al-Boustani’s lasting legacy and contributions to his society.  

Al-Boustani embraced modernity in all of its facets, positioning himself as a pro-feminist in a traditional society, marked by his famous 1849 lecture “A Lecture on the Education of Women,” which highlights the role of women in the advancement of society as a whole.

Indeed, his wife Raheel Ata took on an active role alongside her husband in managing the National School, which he founded. Ata herself was educated at the American missionary girls’ school, run by Sarah Huntington Smith. The school led to the establishment of the American School for Girls, the precursor of the American Junior College for Women (now LAU).

Al-Boustani also collaborated considerably with the Presbyterian missionaries and was influenced by the modernity that the missionaries introduced to the Lebanese society at the time, Mallat said, such as education, teaching and translation.

Al-Boustani is credited with the publication of the Arab world’s first Arabic dictionaries and Arabic encyclopedia Da’erat Al Maaref starting with six volumes. The main goal behind those publications was to “facilitate the Arabic language for native speakers,” Zoghaib said. He even developed a mini encyclopedia for students, he added.

When it came to implementing a progressive education and social principles that aimed to develop and enlighten the Lebanese society, Al-Boustani brought his own philosophy to bear.

He called for the separation of religion and state and adopted a secular approach to education – a philosophy embodied in the National School. Zoghaib stressed that the “secular and national principles adopted by Boutros are still valid today and must be applied in our schools.”

Mallat said that the school is listed among Al-Boustani’s major accomplishments, and he includes details of its structure and bylaws. “His school is an affirmation of [one of] his lectures in which he addressed the Lebanese cautioning them against falling into the pitfalls” of division, Mallat said.

If anything, the work resembles a time capsule in which Mallat gives Al-Boustani a voice to explain his work, reminding the Lebanese public of the principles that should inform the present – principles that he himself championed: coexistence and tolerance.

The book launch for The Teacher Boutros Al-Boustani: In his Own Words, will be held on Thursday, September 26 at 12:00 p.m. on LAU Beirut campus.