Fadel al-Rubai: Challenging the Myths of Orientalism


An Iraqi National Museum employee guides visitors inside the Assyrian Hall in Baghdad. (Photo: AFP – Ali Al Saadi)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Iraqi anthropologist and historian Fadel al-Rubai has produced a powerful body of work directly challenging orientalist interpretations of Arab and Muslim history and local Arab think tanks. Al-Akhbar talked to him about his controversial theories and future projects.
After many years of exile, Iraq intellectual and former communist Fadel al-Rubai finally settled in the Netherlands. His living near Leiden University Library, which contains thousands of anonymous Arabic manuscripts, encouraged him to examine ancient Arab history from an anthropological point of view. He found himself in front of a huge record filled with historical mistakes and sins. From that moment on, the author of The Funeral Dinner decided to reconstruct old Arabic narratives, focusing particularly on rectifying the history of Palestine.
Thus, he started his encyclopedic project with his book The Imagined Palestine: Land of the Torah in Old Yemen, in which he refuted orientalist theories of biblical Palestine. He used the story of the Babylonian enslavement of the Jews as a key to redesign the landscape of the area. He discovered that the enslavement took place in Yemen, not Palestine.
When asked about the sources for his controversial thesis, he referred to the old Hebrew Torah, historical inscriptions, pre-Islamic poetry, as well as al-Hamadani’s Sifat Jazeerat al-Arab (The Status of the Arabian Peninsula),which is one of the most important historical references, though long ignored. Al-Rubai states, “The geographical description of the region by al-Hamadani fully coincides with the texts of the Hebrew Torah.”

Al-Rubai excitedly asks, “Why don’t archaeologists and historians speak up on the Himyarite inscriptions that were discovered in Palestinian sites?” And responds: “This is because Arab history had been written by non-Arabs. The orientalist reading of the Torah, which reinforced false beliefs, eradicated Arab narratives. Thus, narratives by al-Tabari, al-Masoudi, and Ibn al-Atheer were rendered mythical narratives, which resulted in a derogatory view of the texts of Arabic narrators. My mission is to separate the mythical from the historical.”

The surprise does not end here. The author of Heroes Without History daringly says, “Give me one example in which old Jerusalem is mentioned in the Torah.” He notes that the city used to be called Ilia not Jerusalem. Therefore, there is no narrative text on Jerusalem prior to the Islamic conquest.

The Torah, according to what al-Rubai has documented, refers to old Jerusalem as located in Yemen and not in Palestine. He explains, “This is what the Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions have proven, for they refer to nine enslavement campaigns that took place in Yemen, not Palestine.” But why have historical narratives documented that the Babylonian enslavement incident as having occurred in Palestine?

Fadel al-Rubai

Al-Rubai, who authored The Truth Behind the Babylonian Enslavement, says, “The reason lies in the monopoly over this tragic story, which was later used in the Holocaust narrative as a continuation of the historical persecution of the Jews, thus reinforcing their role as historical victims. All we need to do is to go back to the history of al-Tabari, which clearly mentions that Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion was of Yemen and not Palestine.”

Based on these controversial revelations, al-Rubai solidly concludes in his thesis that Judaism is an old Arabic religion, and the Torah is a Yemeni book. He also concludes that old Jerusalem is not present-day Jerusalem. It is located in Yemen and not Asir, as the late intellectual Kamal al-Salibi concluded in his book The Bible Came from Arabia.

Al-Rubai says, “I am not under the illusion that these ideas will prevail soon, given the presence of an enormous media power that dominates the historical narrative. It is enough to seek the documentation of our history from a critical perspective, away from the orientalist lie. Perhaps what Edward Said has accomplished in that regard has shaken this perception to a great extent.”

Al-Rubai is currently working on several projects: The Truth Behind the Babylonian Enslavement: Assyrian Campaigns on the Arab Peninsula and Yemen and The Golden Ghazal of Kaaba: Blood Relations in Islam. He is also putting the final touches on The Great Mourning, a book that examines the history of wailing and physical violence. In this book, al-Rubai dates the Ashura ritual’s origins to 5000BC in the “mourning of Tammuz and Ishtar in Mesopotamia, and Isis and Osiris in Pharonic Egypt.”

Al-Rubai explains, “This mourning is part of a wailing culture that has continued to this day. Thus it is not an innovation, the way some sects view it. The ritual of weeping on Tammuz later reached houses of worship and took different forms of expression.” Another book soon to be published is titled Isaf and Naila: The Myth of Eternal Love in Pre-Islam.

Al-Rubai is not optimistic that official Arab research centers will adopt his controversial ideas. He describes these centers as “a waste of time and effort.” He aspires to the emergence of an Arab anthropological school that abolishes orientalist theses by refuting their false statements and elaborating historical research paradigms at universities that shake present views of Islamic and Arab history.

The formation of the Intellectuals Against Forgery movement among a group of Arab anthropologists is the first attempt in this vein. Its mission is to found a critical discourse on the Torah and to launch a website that would become a space for debate and counter historiography.

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