Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam

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Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam
عبد الرحمن حسن عزام
1st Secretary-General of the Arab League
In office
22 March 1945 – September 1952
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Abdul Khalek Hassouna
Personal details
Born (1893-03-08)March 8, 1893
Shubak al-Gharbi, Egypt
Died June 2, 1976(1976-06-02) (aged 83)

Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam (Arabic: عبد الرحمن حسن عزام‎‎) (1893–1976), also known as Azzam Pasha, was an Egyptian diplomat and politician.[1] He served as the first secretary-general of the Arab League from 22 March 1945 to September 1952.[2]

Azzam also had a long career as an ambassador and parliamentarian. He was an Egyptian nationalist and one of the foremost proponents of pan-Arab idealism, and was passionately opposed to the partition of Palestine.[3]

Early life


Abd al-Rahman Azzam's father, Hassan Bey, was born into an Arab family that rose to prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century in Shubak al-Gharbi, a village near the city of Helwan, located south of Cairo.[4] His grandfather, Salim Ali Azzam, was one of the first Arabs to become director of southern Giza, and his father, Hassan Salim Azzam, was likewise active in many governing bodies of the region.[5] Azzam's mother, Nabiha, was descended from no less distinguished a family. Her father, Khalaf al-Saudi, was a land proprietor as well as a shaykh while her mother's family descended from various tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.[5]

As biographer Ralph Coury notes, scholars and others have often concluded that Azzam's "Peninsular" origins explain his later assumption of an Arab identity. As early as 1923, one British official wrote that "The Azzam family, though settled in Egypt for some generations, come of good old Arab stock, and have always clung tenaciously to Arab traditions and ideals of life," adding that "in estimating Abdul Rahman's character, his early up-bringing and his Arab blood must never be forgotten."[6] However, as Coury has shown, the Azzams were in fact completely assimilated to village life and did not see themselves as set apart from other Egyptians. Azzam himself even once asserted that "we were not brought up with a strong consciousness of Bedouin descent. We were Arabs because we were 'sons' or 'children' of the Arabs in contrast to the Turks, but the term 'Arab' as such was used for the Bedouin and we would not apply it to one another."[7]

Childhood and education

Abd al-Rahman Azzam, the eighth of twelve children, was born on March 8, 1893 in Shubak al-Gharbi. His family were fellahin dhwati ("notable peasants") whose position was determined by the possession of land, wealth, and political power.[7] The Azzam household was frequently home to gatherings of the village elite and was where Azzam developed his interest in politics at an early age. According to his brother, Abd al-Aziz Azzam, Azzam was a "born politician" who often would stand at the top of the stairs as a child and give political speeches to his siblings.[8]

In 1903, the Azzam family moved to Helwan in order to eliminate Hassan Bey's traveling to and from the city for government meetings.[9] The various effendis that had been frequent visitors to Shubak were now neighbors of the Azzams, and the friendship that quickly developed between the effendi children and Azzam led him to insist on attending secular primary school (ibtidaiyyah) instead of studying at the Azhar.[10] Azzam remained in Helwan through secondary school and upon graduating decided to next study medicine. Of his decision, Azzam explained, "I wanted to be active in politics and I thought that I could practice medicine wherever that struggle might lead."[11] In 1912, Azzam left Egypt for London where he enrolled in St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School.

While in London, Azzam joined the Sphinx Society, a political grouping where Azzam quickly grew to prominence. However, after his first year of study, Azzam became increasingly concerned with the recent developments in the Balkans and felt compelled to contribute in some way to the Ottoman cause.[12] Unsure of how he could personally contribute, Azzam decided to leave London and head for the Balkans, spending considerable time in Istanbul, Albania, and Anatolia. Throughout his travels, Azzam made various connections with like-minded political activists. He also had the opportunity to meet and talk with many non-Egyptian Arabs.[13]

Once back in Egypt, Azzam was banned by the occupation authorities from returning to England because of his nationalist activities in both England and Egypt.[14] Instead, arrangements were made for Azzam to attend the Cairo Medical School of Qasr al-Ayni.[14] While studying in Cairo, Azzam became greatly disaffected by the British Occupation which revived his desire to leave the country and join the Ottomans.[15]

Libyan resistance: 1915–1923

Azzam actively participated in the Libyan resistance against the Italians from 1915–1923. In December 1915, Azzam left Egypt to join Nuri Bery and a group of Ottoman officers who were leading a Sanusi army in fighting against the British.[16] After the fighting ceased and Sayyid Idris and the British signed a peace treaty in 1917, Nuri Bey and Azzam transferred to Tripolitania where they hoped to build up a centralized authority.[16] On 18 November 1918, leaders met at al-Qasabat and proclaimed the founding of a Tripolitanian Republic. Following numerous negotiations between the Italians and Tripolitanian chiefs, on 1 June 1919, the Fundamental Law of Tripolitania was enacted, granting the natives full Italian nationality with all civil and political rights pertaining to it. Despite the agreement, the Italians refused to implement the law which consequently led to the formation of a National Reform Party. Led by Azzam, this group was formed in order to pressure the Italians to put the law into effect.[16] The Italians refused to concede, and in January 1923, Azzam accompanied Sayyid Idris into exile in Egypt.[17] By 1924, opposition in Tripolitania had sufficiently waned and the Italians remained militarily victorious.[16]

Azzam's tenure spent participating in the Libyan Resistance is credited for his turn to Arabism. In 1970, Azzam noted: "When I was a boy, I was an Egyptian Muslim. Being an Egyptian and Muslim didn't change. But from 1919 on, with Syria and Iraq gone, I started talking of Arabism. Living with the bedouin, etc. worked gradually to make me a supporter for something Arabic. The Tripolitanian Republic decisively marked the shift to Arabism."[18]

Wafd membership: 1923–1932

Azzam's return to Egypt coincided with the numerous debates taking place between the Wafd, the Palace, and the British regarding the new constitution. Hoping to reestablish himself in Egypt, Azzam ran for office in 1924 and was elected to parliament as a member of the Wafd.[19] As a parliamentarian, Azzam rose to prominence through his articulate writings for the party's newspaper.

Due to his time spent in Libya, the Wafd often chose Azzam to represent the party at official meetings and international conferences. His most important trip made as an Egyptian-Wafd representative was to the General Islamic Conference in Jerusalem in 1931. Because members of the Azhar and Sidqi ministry were strongly opposed to two of the conference's main agenda items–the idea of creating a new Islamic University in Jerusalem and restoration of the Caliphate–the Egyptian government refused to send an official delegate to the meeting.[20] Still, Azzam and several other members of the Egyptian opposition attended the conference. Azzam took an active role in the proceedings and was elected to the Executive Committee of the Congress which discussed the question of Arab nationalism at length. This conference is one of the first instances in which Arab nationalists included Egypt as part of the Arab nation.[21]

In November 1932, Azzam made a decisive break along with several other party members from the Wafd. While some viewed him as a traitor, Azzam maintained that changes in his own opinions were to blame.[22]

By then, Azzam's reputation for knowledge of Arab affairs was highly valued, and he soon became a member of the Palace entourage that gathered around King Faruq.


After breaking with the Wafd, Azzam joined the elite ranks of liberals – all Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist dissidents – who had supported Liberal proposals for a coalition government in 1932.[23] In 1936, 'Ali Mahir appointed Azzam as Egyptian Minister to Iraq and Iran, and in 1937, the Nahhas ministry increased Azzam's diplomatic role to include that of Egyptian Minister of Saudi Arabia.[24]

Arab League: 1945–1952

In 1945, Azzam was selected to be the first Secretary General of the Arab League. One of Azzam's first acts as secretary-general was to condemn anti-Jewish rioting in Egypt of November 2–3, 1945 during which Jewish and other non-Muslim owned shops were destroyed and the Ashkenazi synagogue in Cairo's Muski quarter was set aflame.[25]

On 2 March 1946, in an address to The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, Azzam explained the Arab League’s attitude towards the Palestine question and rejected the Zionist claim to Palestine:

Our brother has gone to Europe and to the West and come back something else. He has come back with a totally different conception of things, West and not Eastern. That doesn't mean that we are necessarily quarreling with anyone who comes from the West. But the Jew, our old cousin, coming back with imperialistic ideas, with materialistic ideas, with reactionary or revolutionary ideas and trying to implement them first by British pressure and then by American pressure, and then by terrorism on his own part – he is not the old cousin and we do not extend to him a very good welcome. The Zionist, the new Jew, wants to dominate and he pretends that he has got a particular civilizing mission with which he returns to a backward, degenerate race in order to put the elements of progress into an area which wants no progress. Well, that has been the pretension of every power that wanted to colonize and aimed at domination. The excuse has always been that the people are backward and that he has got a human mission to put them forward. The Arabs simply stand and say NO. We are not reactionary and we are not backward. Even if we are ignorant, the difference between ignorance and knowledge is ten years in school. We are a living, vitally strong nation, we are in our renaissance; we are producing as many children as any nation in the world. We still have our brains. We have a heritage of civilization and of spiritual life. We are not going to allow ourselves to be controlled either by great nations or small nations or dispersed nations.[26]

On May 11, 1948 Azzam warned the Egyptian government that owing to public pressure and strategic issues it would be difficult for Arab leaders to avoid intervention in the Palestine War, and that Egypt could find itself isolated if it did not act in concert with its neighbors. Azzam believed that King Abdullah of Jordan had decided to move his forces into Palestine on 15 May regardless of what the other Arabs did and would occupy the Arab part of Palestine whilst blaming other Arab states for failure. King Farouk of Egypt resolved to contain Abdullah and prevent him from gaining further influence and power in the Arab arena.[27] Six days after the Arab intervention in the conflict began, Azzam told reporters "We are fighting for an Arab Palestine. Whatever the outcome the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like. In areas where they predominate they will have complete autonomy."[28]

Controversy over "war of extermination" quote

One day after the State of Israel declared itself as an independent nation (14 May 1948), troops and assorted volunteers from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Transjordan, entered Palestine, joining several thousand Palestinians. This marks the beginning of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.[29] A regularly cited claim is that Azzam declared on that day or on the eve of the war:

The source of the quotation is usually given as a press conference in Cairo, which some versions say was broadcast by the BBC.[30] An Egyptian writer in 1961 maintained that the quotation was "completely out of context". He wrote that "Azzam actually said that he feared that if the people of Palestine were to be forcibly and against all right dispossessed, a tragedy comparable to the Mongol invasions and the Crusades might not be avoidable. ... The reference to the Crusaders and the Mongols aptly describes the view of the foreign Zionist invaders shared by most Arabs."[31]

In 2010, doubt over the provenance of the quotation was voiced by Joffe and Romirowsky[32] and by Morris.[33]

The truth about the quotation was reported on Wikipedia late in 2010 and was later the subject of an article published by David Barnett and Efraim Karsh.[34][35] Azzam's words were found to have come from a time several months earlier, in an October 11, 1947 interview in the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar el-Yom.

In that interview he is reported as saying:

At the time Azzam gave the interview, the United Nations UNSCOP commission had presented its report recommending that Palestine be partitioned into an Arab State, a Jewish State, and a special regime for Jerusalem. However, no decision had yet been made by the UN, and no Arab state had yet decided to intervene in Palestine with its regular armed forces. After the partition resolution had been passed, the comparison of the Zionists to the Mongols and the Crusaders was repeated when Azzam told a rally of students in Cairo in early December of that year that, "The Arabs conquered the Tartars and the Crusaders and they are now ready to defeat the new enemy," echoing sentiments he had expressed to a journalist the previous day.[36]

The Akhbar el-Yom quotation, without its initial caveat, appeared in English in a Jewish Agency memorandum in February 1948.[37] During the next few years, the same partial sentence appeared in its correct 1947 setting in several books.[38] However, by 1952, many publications, including one published by the Israeli government, had moved its date to 1948.[39] In this incorrect setting, it has appeared in hundreds of books and thousands of websites.[34]

Views on Arab unity

According to historians Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Azzam denied that the Egyptian nation was a continuation of Pharaonic Egypt. Instead he believed that "modern Egypt had been shaped primarily by 'Arab religion, customs, language, and culture.'"[40] Accordingly, he asserted a racial basis for Egyptian identification with the Arabs.


Vincent Sheean points out in his introduction to the book The Eternal Message of Muhammad (published by Azzam in Arabic in 1938 under the title The Hero of Heroes or the most Prominent Attribute of the Prophet Muhammad) "In Damascus as well as in Djakarta, Istanbul and Baghdad, this man is known for valour of spirit and elevation of mind ... he combines in the best Islamic mode, the aspects of thought and action, like the Muslim warriors of another time who are typified for us Westerners by the figure of Saladin." In the book Azzam extols the Prophet's virtues of bravery, love, the ability to forgive, and eloquence in pursuit of the diplomatic resolution of conflict and argues that Islam is incompatible with racism or fanatical attachment to "tribe, nation, color, language, or culture".[41]

Malcolm X's reading of The Eternal Message of Muhammad and his meeting with Azzam Pasha are vividly recounted in his autobiography. These events marked the point in his life at which Malcolm X turned towards orthodox traditional Islam.


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  5. 5.0 5.1 Coury, 1998, p. 16.
  6. Coury, 1998, p. 22.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Coury, 1998, p. 24.
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  18. Coury, 1988, p. 69
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  21. Gershoni and Jankowski, 1995, p. 150
  22. Coury, 1998, p. 257
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  37. Jewish Agency for Palestine, Memorandum on acts of Arab aggression to alter by force the settlement on the future government of Palestine approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Submitted to the United Nations Palestine Commission. Lake Success, New York. February 2, 1948. A copy appears in UN document S/710.
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External links

Preceded by
Secretary-General of the Arab League
Succeeded by
Abdul Khlek Hassouna