Home »

A Family’s History by Tarif Khalidi

October 2020

The history of families is a notoriously difficult subject. In the Arabic-Islamic world in particular the attachment to genealogy has been so deep that it has overcome the strictures of the Qur’an and of Prophetic Hadith. In numerous Arab homes, from Morocco to Iraq, one will find, prominently displayed, a “family tree” that allegedly traces descent from some eponymous hero of the “Golden Age”. But why is it a notoriously difficult subject? Because the stronger the attachment of a family to a time and a place, the more determined it is to construct and, by constructing, to invent a history of belonging. The “family tree” is of course the most common way of displaying that belonging, but it can in no wise be regarded as certain proof of lineage unless each branch of that tree, and each bird on that branch, is attested elsewhere in say histories, biographies or court documents. The tree by itself is no proof. This must be posited as a caveat before we begin this step-by-step sketch of the family’s history.

The Khalidis assert that they are descended from Khalid ibn al-Walid, a towering conqueror of early Islam, a Meccan aristocrat and an eleventh-hour Muslim, who retained in many of his character traits something of the rebelliousness of the pre-Islamic period, its attachment to freedom, its epic spirit. Did he die childless, as many early and modern accounts claim? Well, not quite, because a poet from Aleppo, who died in 1153, called al-Qaysarani al-Khalidi, traced his ancestry back to Khalid. This is mentioned in a famous biographical dictionary of the thirteenth century. All we can say at this point is that the claim to descent from Khalid was alive and well in the Twelfth Century.

What is the earliest attested mention of someone called al-Khalidi in Jerusalem? This occurs in a MS on jurisprudence in the Khalidiyya Library (no. 963 in the Catalogue) written by a certain Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Rahman ibn `Abd al-`Aziz al-Khalidi who through internal evidence lived in the mid-Eleventh Century, and most probably before the Crusader occupation of the city in 1099. That occupation, we know, caused a mass exodus from Jerusalem, and its families were scattered in all directions. A family tradition has it that the Khalidis sought refuge in the village of Dayr `Uthman, in the province of Nablus, then returned to Jerusalem after Saladin recaptured the city on October 2, 1187. When they came back they were known as Dayris or as Dayri/Khalidis, but this remains a mere possibility because unattested in the sources.

The third stage in the pre-Modern period is the one best attested in the sources and its members may be confidently put forth as the direct ancestors of the modern family. The series begins with a man called Shams al-Din Muhammad ibn `Abdullah al-`Absi al-Dayri al-Maqdisi. He was born in Jerusalem around the year 1343 and died there on November 2, 1424. His father was a merchant, originally from a Nablus district called al-Dayr. Encouraged by his father, Muhammad studied in Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo, then became Hanafite Mufti of Jerusalem and a distinguished scholar and teacher. The Mamluk Sultan al-Mu’ayyad Shaykh summoned him to Cairo to act as Chief Hanafite Judge of the Empire (The Empire had 4 chief judges for each of the four Sunni schools of law [madhahib]). We are told that because of his honesty and integrity he antagonized several Mamluk emirs. So he thought it prudent to resign his judgeship, which lasted from 1416 to 1419, and assumed the post of rector of the Khaniqah [a Sufi college and retreat] called al-Mu’ayyadiyyah and died while on a visit to Jerusalem. He was reputed for his learning and honesty but the sources also speak of his “prodigious vanity.” 

Two of Muhammad’s five sons achieved the same renown as their father: Sa`d al-Din Sa`d who was born in Jerusalem in 1367 and died in Cairo in 1463, thus living to a great old age for that era. He succeeded his father both as chief judge of the Empire and as rector of the Khaniqah. He is said to have accepted the post of chief judge, which lasted from 1438 to 1462, only on condition that no emir or other influential person would interfere in the administration of his work. The sources stress his intelligence and learning.

The second son, Burhan al-Din Ibrahim, was born in Jerusalem in 1407 and died in Cairo in 1471. He had accompanied his father to Cairo when the latter was appointed chief judge, and studied in that city. Before becoming chief judge he occupied numerous positions as professor, deputy judge, and several governmental posts in the Mamluk administration, and was also, like his brother and father, rector of the Khaniqah Mu’ayyadiyya. His learning and his honesty were widely commented upon.

This trio of father and two sons were the first in a long of a scholarly Jerusalem dynasty that has remained unbroken and well attested in the biographical dictionaries and court records until the present day. Their lineage back to the Khalidis of the Eleventh Century is unattested, but their connection with the long line of judges, muftis and scholars who followed is richly documented. Many of these descendants had careers in both Cairo and Jerusalem, and when the Ottomans replaced the Mamluks as overlords of Syria and Egypt, the Dayris continued to fulfill the same functions, both in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire.

It is almost certain that the Dayris became Dayri-Khalidis in the mid-Seventeenth century, at a time when many families of notables throughout the Arab world were also stretching their lineages back to distinguished ancestors. The reasons are not entirely clear but may have had something to do with a surge of Arab proto-national feeling among these city notables that needs further investigation, a feeling that in any case was never entirely absent from consciousness and explains the later appeal of Arab nationalism.

From the Sixteenth until the Eighteenth centuries, the family supplied all the rectors of the Madrasa Farisiyya in Jerusalem; its rectors were appointed by an edict issued by the Sultan in Istanbul. They also seem to have monopolized the office of Chief Clerk of the Shari`a Court in Jerusalem and of Deputy Judge of the city right until the end of the Nineteenth century. The family was Ottoman in sentiment right until the very end of Ottoman rule in 1917.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries were particularly rich in prominent sons and daughters of the family, now numbering perhaps a few hundreds. Among them, two women played crucial roles, the first in establishing the core collection of MSS and the second in housing that collection in the Mamluk mausoleum which has been the site of the Khalidi Library since 1900. The first lady, Tarafanda Khanum, joined her husband Muhammad Sun`allah, in establishing around 260 MSS as a pious endowment or waqf, dated February 4, 1787. About a hundred years later, the second lady, Khadijah Khanum, left a considerable sum of money in her will in order to refurbish the mausoleum and house the collection in it, a task accomplished by her son, Hajj Raghib, in 1900.

Scholars do not, in general lead “exciting” lives. Hence, in selecting to highlight the following four biographies from the Nineteenth Century, I chose judges, jurists and scholars whose lives impacted the political life of their age.

The first was Musa Shafiq [d. 1831], grandson of Sun`allah mentioned above. Musa Shafiq rose in the judiciary ranks of the Ottoman Empire until he became Judge of Medina, a prestigious appointment given the sanctity of the city in Muslim culture. He then became Chief Military Judge [Kaziasker] of Anatolia, the second highest judiciary post in the Empire, and ex-officio member of the Imperial Council. On July 17, 1798 he addressed an open letter to the notables of Palestine, informing them of the fall of Alexandria in the hands of Napoleon and warning them that the ultimate goal of those “accursed French” was the conquest of Jerusalem. Musa Shafiq must of course have seen Napoleon’s expedition as a latter-day crusade. Exactly a hundred years later, other Khalidis were publicly warning of the dangers of Zionism.

Musa Shafiq’s other intervention in politics came some 28 years later when, as Kaziasker of Anatolia, he issued a legal opinion [fatwa] which permitted the Sultan Mahmud II to abolish the Janissary Corps in 1826, and to form a modern army.

The second Khalidi in this list is Muhammad-`Ali [d.1864, nephew of Musa Shafiq. He succeeded his father as Chief Clerk of the Shari`a Court and Deputy Judge of Jerusalem. During the Russian-Ottoman war of 1828-29, an edict arrived from Istanbul ordering the execution of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and his clergy. Relations between the family and the Christian communities had always been cordial so, at great risk to himself, Muhammad-`Ali disobeyed the imperial order and hid the Patriarch and his clergy in a cave near the Bab al-`Amud [Gate of the Column known also as Jaffa Gate]. As that war came to an end, everyone applauded his action. In appreciation, a large portrait in oil still hangs outside the office of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The third is Yusuf Dia Pasha Khalidi [d.1906], son of Muhammad-`Ali. He was probably the first in the family to receive both a traditional Islamic as well as a European education. Joining Ottoman civil service, he rose to become governor of Anatolian Kurdistan (qaimaqam (T kaymakam) of a qada (T. kaza) in the Bitlis region, and later of other qadas), where he composed the very first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary. He was the first mayor of Jerusalem [1867-1873] and deputy for Jerusalem in the first Ottoman Parliament [1876-1878]. Yusuf Dia was a reformer and constitutionalist and a friend of the celebrated Muslim reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. He also taught for some years as a lecturer at the University of Vienna where he edited the Diwan of Labid, a major pre-Islamic poet. His correspondence with Theodor Herzl and his warnings against Zionist colonization in Palestine are well known to modern historians of Palestine.

The fourth Khalidi in this list is Ruhi (1864-1913), nephew of Yusuf Dia and in many ways his disciple. Like his uncle, he first received an elementary religious education in Jerusalem but supplemented this with a more “modern” education in Tripoli, Beirut and finally at the Sultani College [ Mekteb Sultani] in Istanbul, a prestigious institution. Graduating with flying colors, he was immediately offered judicial posts in Palestine which he adamantly refused, insisting against strong parental objections (especially his doting mother) on completing his education in Europe. So he finally ended up in what was to become Sciences Po where, an impoverished student, he studied European history and international relations. He was also active in Orientalist circles and his critique of Orientalist discourse in several of his writings is arguably among the very earliest attempts by an Arab writer to come to grips with the Orientalists. He was appointed Consul-General of the Ottoman Empire in Bordeaux (1898-1908) returned to Jerusalem after the 1908 Revolution, was elected deputy for Jerusalem in the Ottoman parliament, and eventually became its deputy speaker.

Ruhi was a prolific author on an astonishingly wide spectrum of topics: comparative literature, international relations, history, chemistry, linguistics and the geography and ethnography of the Muslim world. His work entitled Zionism is the first field study of Zionist colonization in Palestine. His collected works, presently [2020] being edited, will help to establish him as a leading light of the Arab Nahda, or Awakening, of the 19th century.

There is nothing here on the Khalidis of the 20th and 21st centuries.  A future family chronicler will need to oblige.