Mohamed Bencheneb

While I was zapping between the many Turkish TV channels I receive (I am not addicted to Turkish soaps, not to all :-)) I heard the word “doshman” (dusman in Turkish) which we happen to use in Kabyle. I thought how interesting; not only the word is Turkish but it kept almost the same meaning after being “Kabyle-ised”. This reminded me of Benecheb’s book on Turkish words in Algerian dardja.

Mohammed ben Larbi ben Boucheneb, a.k.a. Mohamed Bencheneb was born in October 26th, 1869 in Ain Dehab, Medea, Algeria. His paternal  family came from Bursa, Turkey. And his maternal grand-father, Bash Tazi Ahmed Tbidji, was the Qaid of Righa (between Medea and Miliana) and worked for the Ottomans before joining Emir abdelkader for whom he worked until his death.

Following excellent primary studies in Arabic (at the Muslim madrassa) and French (French school), Bencheneb was the first Muslim to enter the high school (lycee) of Medea which, now, is named after him. He then moved to Algiers in 1886 and joined its Teachers’ College, the ENS of Bouzareah. He graduated 2 years later as a teacher of French language. His first position was in Sidi Ali Tamdjert, next to Medea, where he taught during 4 years.

Back to Algiers in 1892, he started teaching at Sheikh Ibrahim Fateh’s school. At the same time, he registered again at the ENS. He also attended Cheikh Abdelhalim Bensmaya’s Arabic and Islamic sciences lessons and received a degree in Arabic literature from Algiers University. In 1894, he started teaching Arabic at Algiers university.
Bencheneb moved to Constantine in 1898 and replaced Cheikh Abdelkader Medjaoui at the “madrassa el Kettania”, but he stayed there only 3 years as he went back to Algiers to teach in the “madrassa Thaalbia”. In 1904, he started teaching عروض at the university.

Bencheneb became a lecturer at the university of Algiers in 1908 and, in 1920, he wrote two theses (one I mentioned above and the other on Abbasid poet Abu Dulama) for which he received the doctorate. He was therefore the first Algerian to hold a doctorate under French occupation.

In 1924, Bencheneb became a professor at the university of Algiers (faculty of literature) and stopped teaching at the “Thaalbia” school. A year later, he led Arabic language examination jury in Constantine, and also the baccalaureate exam committee in Tunis.

Mohamed Bencheneb corresponded with many Orientalists and scholars. In 1928, he was Algeria’s representative at an Orientalists’ conference in Morocco and gave a speech on Ibn ElQunfudh ElQasantini and his “الفارسية في مبادئ الدولة الحفصية” book. He also gave a speech, in Arabic this time, on Al Jahiz “رأي غريب في القرآن منسوب للجاحظ”. He also represented the government at the 17th conference of Orientalist in Oxford. There he talked about Andalusian literature and its history, and the life of “أبي جعفر أحمد بن كاتبة الأندلسي”.

Mohamed Bencheneb was a polyglot, he spoke Arabic, Turkish, French, Italian, Latin, Farsi, Hebrew, English, Spanish and German. He was a member of the Damascus Arabic language Academy and published his work in its journal. He was also a member of French Academie of Sciences and a teacher in College de France. He got elected as a member of the French Academy of Colonial Sciences and received France’s Legion d’Honneur.

Mohamed Bencheneb died in February 5, 1929 at the age of 59. He was preparing a comparative study on Abu Alaa El Maarri, Milton and Dante when he was admitted in Mustapha Pacha hospital. He’s buried in Sidi Abderahmane Ethaalbi cemetery in Algiers.

Tributes by other people:
Mohamed Bencheneb was the first Algerian to teach in university. And many of those Orientalist and Arab scholars whom he met learnt to respect him and his work. Below are some of their testimonies:

Mohamed Kurd: “I saw him giving his speech in French at the Orientalists conference. He was in his national clothes: a yellow turban, a huge wide belt, large pants and a coat […] I was charmed by the magic of his words and his in-depth research. I thought I was listening to some great French scholar with an Arab soul and an Islamic culture […] Allah gave him a collection of written and spoken eloquence and a great share of knowledge and wit […] He combined two cultures and spoke many languages.”

Alfred: “Bencheneb was faithful to his religion and his Islamic traditions. He never considered applying for the French citizenship as this would have obliged him to part from Islam rules.”

Mohamed Said Zahiri: “I met the Cheikh in 1922 for the first time. I was a student in Zeitouna and he was the director of the baccalaureate exam committee. Everyone was surprised, a committee led by an Algerian Muslim who wears traditional Algerian clothes. I was so happy and proud. Then I visited him with some Algerian comrades and we asked him how he’d do if prayer time comes while in a meeting. He answered that he’d ask everyone to take some rest and he’d go pray while his colleagues would be smoking a cigarette”.

His work:
Mohamed Bencheneb specialised in Arabic linguistics and their history. He preferred “simple” literature to the more sophisticated one which was very common at a certain time. He worked on finding new Arabic vocabulary to make sure no alien words are introduced in the language. He also wanted to show what the world owes to the Islamic civilisation and that’s why he wrote on Muslim pedagogy in 1897 and translated El Ghazali‘s letter to a disciple in 1901.

Bencheneb wrote many books and articles both in Arabic and French. Among which we can find:
– تحفة الأدب في ميزان أشعار العرب
– تاريخ الرجال الذين رووا صحيح البخاري وبلغوه الجزائر
– معجم بأسماء ما نشر في المغرب الأقصى ونقدها
– رحلة الورتيلاني
– رسالة في المنطق
– رموز الاختصار العربية with more than 100 Arabic abbreviations.
– أبو دلامة، حياته و شعره
– فهرس خزانة الكتب المخطوطة بالجامع الكبير والجامع الصغير بالجزائر
– مجموع أمثال العوام بأرض الجزائر والمغرب listing and commenting more than 3000 Algerian proverbs which were used around Algiers and Medea.
– الألفاظ التركية والفارسية الباقية في اللهجة الجزائرية republished recently in Algeria.
– ما أخذه دانتي من الأصول الإسلامية في كتابه ديفينا كوميديا

And he revised (صحح) and/or translated some older books:
– البستان في علماء تلمسان لابن مريم
– عنوان الدراية في علماء بجاية
– طبقات علماء أفريقية لأبي ذر الخشني
– الذخيرة السنية في تاريخ الدول المرينية

A conference on his life was organised a few months ago in Medea.


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