Philip Khuri Hitti was born in a small Maronite Christian village, called Shemlan, in Lebanon, in 1886. In his town, most people were farmers, and he was expected to become one too. But one day, at the age of nine, Hitti hurt himself on a donkey. After this painful accident, his parents decided to send him to school.

A few years later, the brilliant young man started teaching in different towns close to Shemlan. Eager to learn, he pursued his undergraduate studies in Beirut. In 1908, he earned his first degree from the American University of Beirut. Hitti was teaching at the university when he was offered an opportunity to travel to the United States.

After attending the World Student Christian Federation conference in Lebanon in 1911 as a delegate, Hitti was invited to the subsequent session held in Lake Mohonk, New York in 1913. In a 1971 interview with Aramco World, he recalled the experience of arriving in the US for the first time: “The Lake Mohonk, where I had a conference, remains in my mind as a bit of heaven on earth. It was held at a hotel, set on the shore of the lake, the first I had ever seen,” he mused. “I’ve never returned to that spot. I always wanted to keep that picture in my mind.” Adding: “The daughter of Woodrow Wilson was a delegate with us at the conference. Imagine—a boy from Lebanon meeting the daughter of the President of the United States.”

Hitti decided to stay in the United States and pursued a PhD at Columbia University. His minor was history and sociology, and his major was Semitic languages. He also lectured in the Department of Oriental Languages. Within two years, he was able to submit his dissertation on Arab history, a topic he had a lifelong interest in. At that time though, there were few resources about his subject of choice and little to no research, textbooks, or modern studies were available.

In 1920, after completing his dissertation, Hitti realized that no one was teaching Arab history in his home country. So, he decided to go back to Lebanon and took a position at the American University of Beirut. But, once again, the more developed research system in the United States attracted the dedicated historian.

In 1940, Hitti became the first Director of Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies program.

In 1926, he returned to the US and started working at Princeton University, where he proposed courses on the Near East and Arabic, Turkish, and Persian languages. In 1940, Hitti became the first Director of Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies program and created classes on the literature, history, religion, economics, sociology, politics, and arts of the region. At the time, a very small number of American universities were offering similar classes. Hitti is often credited for being the creator of Arab Studies in the United States.

Indeed, Hitti’s work encouraged many academicians and students to introduce the same programs in other universities. Throughout his career, he trained generations of scholars that went on to become major intellectuals in the Middle East. Many of them perceived him as the one who “secured for Arab Studies a safe place in the curriculum” and who “was a constant source of inspiration to all who were privileged to sit at his feet.”[1] In 1945, he served as adviser to the Arab delegations during the United Nations organizational meeting in San Francisco.

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Whatever Hitti was working on, his goal remained the same: to reveal the particularities and accomplishments of Arab culture to Americans. He also considered Arabic literature to be among the richest in the world and believed it was unfortunate that very few Americans were aware of it.

Known for his enthusiastic interest in imparting and promoting Arab history and culture, in 1927, the publishing firm Macmillan asked Hitti to prepare a book on the subject. “In my youthful enthusiasm, I said, ‘Sure. In three years, I’ll give it to you.’ It took me ten years to prepare the book,” he told Aramco World.

In the same interview, Hiiti adds that the publisher asked him how many copies should be printed and he answered, “100 copies.” “Who is going to read 100 copies?” replied the publisher. Hitti shared that his heart sank after hearing this response, as he had spent many years on what would become a widely celebrated text. Macmillan clearly had underestimated the power of the book, which is still in print today.

“History of the Arabs” was published for the first time in 1937. The book succeeded in shedding light on the richness of Arab culture.

“History of the Arabs” was published for the first time in 1937. The book succeeded in shedding light on the richness of Arab culture. It explained both the rise of Islam in the Middle Ages, and Arab contributions to Western culture. Hitti demonstrated that between 850 and 1150 AD, Arabs were one of the most cultivated civilizations in the whole world. Their literature and discoveries in the fields of science, philosophy, and mathematics were translated into many languages and used in European universities.

Hitti also revealed important information about the Druze faith, a religion which combines elements of Shia Islam, Gnosticism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other philosophies and beliefs and was an enigma for many researchers. His book, “The Origins of the Druze People and Religion,” published in 1928, explored the ethnoreligious group’s dogma and rituals. This population, settled in the Lebanese mountains from the 11th century, had always been a mystery to the academic world until then. The book was among the first to feature extracts from sacred Druze writings.

Finally, the religion of Islam occupied an important place in Hitti’s research. The book “Islam and the West: A Historical Cultural Survey” explores the relation between the Western and Islamic worlds throughout centuries. The first Islamic studies courses were launched in the predominantly Christian West by ecclesiastics eager to know more about the Muslim doctrine in order to attack it. In the 12th century, the first translation or adaptation of the Koran into Latin was also developed. Eventually, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Arab-Islamic studies in Europe became more objective and unbiased.

An authority in exploring the evolution of the relationship between Islam and the West, the historian Hitti had the ability to break down cultural barriers, as he created landmark scholarly works that were among the first to delve into such topics. And while the two worlds still have much to discover about each other, Hitti’s books remain an excellent resource to build on this mutual understanding.

Philip K. Hitti’s Works

[1] Yehonathan Brodski. The Sheikh of Princeton: Philip Hitti and the Tides of History page 4 ed, 2015 (The University of Texas at Austin), p.4.