Sheikh Tahir ibn Salih ibn Ahmad Al-Jazairi was born in Damascus on 20 Rabie II, 1268 AH, corresponding to 1852. He is known as Al-Jazairi (which means the Algerian) as he was of Algerian origins. His father belonged to a family which shared in fighting the French occupation of Algeria in 1830, and continued to do so for over 16 years. However, when the Algerian resistance could no longer carry its campaign, 500 of their families were sent into exiles and they settled in Damascus. Otherwise the family is known as Al-Hassani, as it traces its ancestry to Al-Hassan ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson.
Tahir’s father, Sheikh Salih Al-Jazairi was a scholar of good standing. When he got to be known in Damascus, he was appointed as the mufti of the Maliki school of Fiqh, which means that he was the scholar to issue rulings in accordance with this school. He was also teaching the Hadith in the Umayyad Mosque, the largest and most ancient mosque in Damascus. But he was also known to be interested in other areas, such as astronomy and history, achieving a high standard in astronomy. He was the author of several works, particularly in Fiqh. He died in 1868.
Tahir Al-Jazairi’s early learning was under his father who initiated him in Islamic studies as well as Arabic. He then went to primary and preparatory schools, and showed great promise. He was gifted for languages, learning Persian and Turkish in addition to Arabic, and attaining a high standard in all three, to the extent that he could right poetry in them all.
Parallel with this, he continued to learn Islamic studies under his father and under Sheikh Abd Al-Ghani Al-Ghunaymi (1807-1881) whose influence on Tahir was far-reaching. Indeed, it was thanks to Sheikh Abd Al-Ghani that Tahir Al-Jazairi did not pursue the Sufi trend to which his family belonged. In fact, Sheikh Abd Al-Ghani himself was brought up in a tradition that valued Sufi trends and his family belonged to a branch of the Shathili Sufism, but he left all that and devoted himself to the study of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Thus, Tahir Al-Jazairi benefited a great deal from studying under Sheikh Abd Al-Ghani as he was able to pursue pure Islamic learning, studying Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, Qur’anic commentary, Hadith, as well as Arabic linguistics.
At the same time, Tahir Al-Jazairi attended a formal secondary school, where he studied several subjects, such as mathematics, physics, history and geography, and he added to the three languages he knew by studying Syriac, Hebrew, and the Berber language which was the mother tongue of his family. In addition, he learned French and was able to speak it well. To appreciate the extent of his achievements, we quote Muhammad Kurd Ali, a scholar of high renown who had studied under Tahir Al-Jazairi: "He was well abreast of Islamic disciplines, and the history of different creeds and sects. He was without peers in Arab and Islamic history, well-versed in the lives and times of its main figures, and the debates and works of its scholars. In language and literature, he certainly was the leading figure, just as he was in Islamic disciplines, particularly Qur’anic commentary and Hadith." Despite his poverty, he was able to have a personal library which included several thousand volumes and a number of rare manuscripts.
Tahir Al-Jazairi was very religious, devoting all his time to the pursuit of studies and learning. He showed little interest in material luxuries. In fact, he was always giving what little he had to poor and needy people, living a very simple life. When he was in Cairo during World War I, some of his friends tried to persuade him to buy a new overcoat of the type worn by religious scholars. When they insisted, he said to one of them, "You want me to spend money on buying a new overcoat when people in Damascus are starving!"
In 1878, Tahir Al-Jazairi worked as a teacher in a primary school, where he began to disseminate his reformist ideas, advocating the need to spread education. To him there was no other way to help Islamic society to remove the shackles of ignorance and backwardness. Later in the same year, he joined a few of his friends in forming the Islamic Charitable Society, which was intended as an educational and social society. The idea was to meet the need to counter the activities of the Christian missionary organizations which came from Europe and started to establish missionary schools. The Society was able to recruit a number of well-known figures in Damascus, but an even more useful gain was the fact that it gained support from Midhat Pasha, the governor of Damascus. Thus, the Society was able to take possession of a number of buildings which made endowments for educational purposes, undertook necessary repairs and within four months started 8 primary schools for boys and two for girls. The Society soon became an education department affiliated to the Ottoman administration in Syria. Tahir Al-Jazairi was appointed Inspector of primary schools. In this role, he was able to author a number of textbooks in different disciplines.
Tahir Al-Jazairi also recruited his friends’ help and the governor in another highly important project which aimed to collect all book manuscripts in one place. This meant collecting these from different mosques and private homes. His idea was that these manuscripts were too valuable to be allowed to be left in private hands where they could be stolen or sold cheaply to agents of foreign countries. He chose Al-Thahiriyah School, built in 1291, close to the Umayyad Mosque. The school was later transformed into a public library with the same name. It continues to function today, with wide reputation for the treasures of manuscripts it has. This reputation owes much to Tahir Al-Jazairi who prevailed on his friend, Ottoman Governor Abd Al-Raoof Pasha to buy for it whatever he could of valuable books and manuscripts. He also encouraged many people to buy books and give them to the library as a gift.
He tried hard to replicate this effort in other towns and cities. Wherever he traveled, he encouraged the local population to have a public library of their own. He would cite the example of other cities which took a lead in this direction in order to stir competition. Thus, libraries were started in Hamah, Tripoli, and Hums. Acknowledging his efforts in this area, the Ottoman administration appointed him inspector of libraries in Syria and Jerusalem. He was thus able to help Sheikh Raghib Al-Khalidi to establish the Al-Khalidiyah library.
At the same time, Tahir Al-Jazairi used to preach the need for social reform among students. This did not go down well with the authorities. Hence, he was sacked from his post as inspector of schools in 1886. He then resigned from his teaching job at the preparatory school of which he was co-founder. Although he was offered other jobs, he refused them all, because he wanted the freedom of action and expression. This meant that he had to endure a life of poverty for the rest of his life. When things were hard, he would sell some of his books to meet his living expenses. But even then, he was selective with his buyers. He would sell only to a library or to someone who would appreciate the value of the book he was buying. He would sell a book at half the price offered by a foreign consular office, or even less, to ensure that the book remains in Muslim hands.
Tahir Al-Jazairi formed a study circle which met every week after Friday prayers at the home of Rafeeq Al-Athm. The circle included a number of the best Islamic scholars of the time, together with many dignitaries of society and many young people, some of whom were later to play important roles in the Syrian public life. To name but a few, we mention Sheikh Jamal Al-Deen Al-Qasimi who wrote a voluminous commentary on the Qur’an, Shukri Al-Quwatli, who later became president of Syria, Faris Al-Khouri, a Christian who became prime minister, Muhib Al-Deen Al-Khateeb, later to become a notable Islamic scholar and editor of an Islamic magazine. The aim of this circle was to learn modern disciplines, study Islamic history and thought, as well as Arabic literature. Another aim was the advocacy of Islamic social and moral values, and to take from the West only what is compatible with Islam. The circle continued after Al-Jazairi traveled to Egypt in 1907 to live there for nearly 12 years. By that time, he felt that the Ottoman authorities were against him, and that he might be imprisoned. He returned after the end of the First World War in 1918.
Tahir Al-Jazairi was the author of a large number of books, some of which were textbooks for schools in different subjects. In Islamic scholarship, he felt that the time did not require new books. The need was for familiarization with the books and ideas already in existence. Therefore, he produced either summaries of older books in different speicalizations, or pamphlets tackling numerous subjects. These were all very useful at a time when Muslim societies were stirring to wake up after a long period during which intellectual scholarship was largely dormant.
Tahir Al-Jazairi died in Damascus in 1920. May God shower His mercy on him.