Philip HITTI “The Sheikh”
Philip Khoury Hitti was born in Chemlane. Southern Metn, on the 24th of June 1886. His parents Iskandar Hitti and Saada born Nawfal had eight children, six boys and two girls. They sent Philip to the village school while he was still very young. Like other poor village schools, this one had no walls, its roof was thatched and its benches were carved out of stone. The village priest was both headmaster and sole teacher and used his stick freely as an instrument of learning. In his opinion, schooling was complete when a child could read psalms in Arabic and in Syriac.
When he was eight Philip was rushed to the American Hospital in Beirut with an infected fracture. Village shepherds had first treated his fracture since there were no doctors in his area and shepherds had had some experience of setting their flocks' bones. The doctor at the hospital, Dr. Post, saved his gangrenous arm and set him on the road to a new life by advising his parents that given his weakened physical state, Philip ought to pursue an intellectual rather than a manual career if he hoped to earn a living. He helped Philip register at the school of the American Presbyterian Mission in Souk el Gharb next to Chemlane.
His schooling completed, Philip taught at local village schools for three years, saving up for his first year of university in Beirut. He graduated from the American University with a B.A. in 1908, becoming a professor of history between 1908 and 1913.
He was a delegate at the conference of the World Christian Student Federation held in Istanbul in 1910.
In 1913 he went as a delegate to a conference of the same federation in Lake Mohonk in New York State, nominated by Howard Bliss, the president of the American University. Bliss had also offered him a year's scholarship for a master's degree in the United States and had allowed him to keep his teaching salary. Philip registered at Columbia University from which he obtained a Ph.D. in history. His thesis was a translation of the first part of Al Baladhuri's work Futuh al Buldan.
He worked as a librarian and in the registry office at the university to supplement his small income. He met his wife to be, Mary George from Waterbury, Connecticut, when she and a friend came to register for summer courses. They were married in 1918 and had a daughter they named Viola.
After obtaining his doctorate, he was made a lecturer at the Department of Oriental Languages at Columbia until 1920.
Between 1915 and 1920 he was president of the Intercollegiate Club of New York City. In 1916 he founded the Syrian Educational Society of which he became president. He was the first to think of providing professional advice to foreign students coming to the United States for higher education.
He returned to the American University of Beirut in 1920 as a professor of oriental history.
He moved back to the United States in 1926 accepting the post of assistant professor at Princeton University. He was made an associate professor in 1929.
In 1936 he was made Professor of Semitic Literature at the William and Annie S. Paton Foundation. Princeton University held a special series of seminars on the Middle East in the summers of 1935, 1938 and 1941 and Professor Hitti was named president of the Department of Oriental Languages and Literature in 1944.
He founded the Near East study program and remained its director until he retired in 1957, the year he was appointed Medieval Academy Visiting Professor at Harvard.
Under the direction of Professor Hitti, the Department of Oriental Languages and Literature became the leading center for Islamic studies in the Western hemisphere. Attracting the support of numerous personalities and famous institutions, Professor Hitti was able to develop a faculty that taught Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindu, and Chinese languages, ancient Semitic languages and a wide variety of courses on Islamic history and culture. He built up the best Islamic reference library in the West; Princeton's collection of Arabic manuscripts is the most important collection outside the Middle East.
In 1947 he also founded the Department of Near Eastern Studies, a first in the United States, where students could study for a B.A., a Masters or a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies.
Beginning in 1948 he instituted annual conferences on the Near East, bringing together representatives from industry, government and academia that all shared a common interest in the region. In this way, he was able to build new links between Princeton and the non-academic world and opened a whole new set of doors for faculty and students.
His translations of Al Bahaduri and Usamah and his monograph on the Druze have become references, cited in all academic circles. His opus magnum, History of the Arabs was re-edited six times and was followed by History of Syria, Lebanon in History, and The Near East in History.
His works are too extensive to enumerate, as are the honors he has received and the positions he has held; the following list is therefore far from complete.
- Member, 1941-1952, Cultural Commission of the East and West Council of the Syrian and Lebanese American Federation of the Eastern States.
- President, 1949-1954, Committee on Near Eastern Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies.
- President, 1949-1954, American Middle East Relief.
- Member, from 1951, American Friends of the Middle East.
- Secretary, Alumni Association of the American Geographic Society.
- Member, Linguistic Society of America.
- Member, American Historical Association.
- Director, 1927-1931, and membership president, 1939 - 40, American Oriental Society.
- President, 1957, American Mediaeval Academy.
- President, 1947, Al Majmah al elmi al Arabi in Damascus; Islamic Research Association; Indo-Arab Culture Association in Bombay.
- President, 1953, Dairatul-Maarif il Osmania in Hyderabad.
- Associate member, 1934, and honorary professor, 1946, American Schools for Oriental Research.
- Administrator, 1942, Donations for Education in the Near East.
- Administrator, 1945, American University of Beirut.
- Administrator, 1946, The Lebanon College of Suq al Gharb.
- Editor-in-chief of eighteen volumes of the Princeton Oriental Series.
- Special Editor, 1934, of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary.
- Consultant editor, Speculum.
- Editor, Al Majallah al-Arabiyah.
- Contributing editor, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Encyclopedia Americana, Social Science Abstracts, and consultant editor for the Arabic version of Reader's Digest: Al Moukhtar.
He traveled throughout the United States giving conferences in some of the country's most prestigious universities, as well as in institutions in the Middle East and Brazil, notably at the University of Sao Paolo.
He was a consultant to major corporations and institutions including the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, the Arabian-American Oil Company, the Atlantic Refining Company and the Ford Foundation.
He was an advisor to the Iraqi delegation and to other Arab states at the San Francisco conference in 1945 that saw the creation of the United Nations.
While at Princeton he received Prince Saud Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud who later became king of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdullah of Iraq in 1945, Prince Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1947, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1950, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1954.
He is the author of the following works:
- The Origins of the Druze People and Religion: with Extracts from their Sacred Writings, 1928
- History of the Arabs, 1937
- History of Syria: including Lebanon and Palestine, 1957
- The Arabs, 1960
- The Near East in History, 1961
- Islam and the West, 1962
- Lebanon in History, 1967
- Makers of Arab History, 1968
- Islam: a Way of Life, 1970
- Capital cities of Arab Islam, 1973
His students have always nicknamed him 'The Sheikh'.
He died on 21 December 1978 in Princeton, New Jersey.
He has received many distinctions and awards:
- Medal of Honor for Lebanese Merit, 1940
- Officer of the Order of the Cedar, 1946
- Order of Merit, First Degree, from the Syrian government, 1954
- Daniel Bliss Medal, the highest distinction awarded by the Alumni Association of the American University of Beirut, 1954
- Commander of the Order of the Cedar, 1956