Early life and family
Bashir was born in 1767 in Ghazir, a village in the Keserwan region of Mount Lebanon. He was the son of Qasim ibn Umar ibn Haydar ibn Husayn Shihab of the Shihab dynasty, which had inherited the super tax farm of Mount Lebanon, also known as the Mount Lebanon Emirate, from their Druze kinsmen, the Ma'an dynasty in 1697. Although the Shihab family was ostensibly Sunni Muslim, some members of the family had converted to the Maronite Catholic Church. Bashir was among the first members of his extended family to be born a Christian.
In 1768, when Bashir was still an infant, his father Qasim died. Bashir's mother remarried, and he and his elder brother Hasan were entrusted to the care of tutors and nannies. The children were raised in poverty and did not benefit from the privileges of a princely birth; their branch of the family was relatively poor. Bashir and Hasan developed feelings of mistrust from their childhoods that made them wary of their companions and of members of their own family. Leadership of Qasim's branch of the family was taken up by Hasan. The latter had a reputation for being cruel and aloof. Bashir, meanwhile, grew to become a cunning, stubborn and clever opportunist who was more able to control his temper and conceal his callousness. He sought out wealth working with his cousin Emir Yusuf in Deir al-Qamar, the virtual capital of Mount Lebanon, where he also gained an education. Bashir's personal qualities established him as a leading figure in the Shihabi court where he engaged in political intrigues. His activity in Deir al-Qamar attracted the attention of Qasim Jumblatt, Yusuf's main adversary, who sought to install Bashir at the head of the Emirate. When probed on the subject by the Jumblatt sheikhs, Bashir was noncommittal but left room for negotiations; his hesitance was a result of his financial destitution.
Marriages and children
Bashir II's financial fortunes changed in 1787 when he was dispatched to Hasbaya to inventory the assets of Yusuf's maternal uncle, Bashir ibn Najm, the son of Najm Shihab, leader of the Sunni Muslim, Hasbaya-based branch of the clan. Yusuf killed Bashir ibn Najm for backing the revolt against him led by Yusuf's brother Ahmad. During Bashir II assignment in Hasbaya, he married Bashir ibn Najm's wealthy widow, Shams. She was also known as "Hubus" and "Shams al-Madid", the latter of which translates in Arabic as "sun of the long day". Bashir II had previously encountered Shams on a hunting trip to Kfar Nabrakh, but at the time she was arranged by her father, Muhammad Shihab, to be married to Bashir ibn Najm, his nephew. With the latter, Shams had a son named Nasim and a daughter named Khadduj. Although Bashir II was a Christian and Shams was a Muslim, members of the Shihab family typically married within the family and with the Druze Abu'l Lama clan, regardless of religion. As a result of his marriage to Shams, Bashir II gained considerable wealth. Shams later had three sons with him: Qasim, Khalil and Amin (listed in order of birth).
In 1829, Shams died, and Bashir had a mausoleum built for her nestled in the orchards of Beit el-Din. Afterward, a friend of Bashir from Sidon named Ibrahim al-Jawhari set out to find a new wife for Bashir. Al-Jawhari already knew a Circassian slave girl named Hisn Jihan in Istanbul. She was the daughter of a certain Abdullah Afruz al-Sharkasi, but had been kidnapped by Turkish slave dealers and sold to a certain Luman Bey, who was known to have treated her like a daughter. Al-Jawhari suggested that Bashir marry Jihan. Bashir agreed, but also instructed al-Jawhari to buy her and three other slave girls in case Jihan was not to his satisfaction. In 1833, al-Jawhari brought Jihan (then aged 15) and three other slave girls, Kulhinar, Shafkizar and Maryam, to Bashir. The latter was enthralled by Jihan, married her and built a palace for her in Beit el-Din. Jihan was a Muslim and Bashir had her convert to the Maronite Church before the marriage.
According to contemporary chroniclers of the time, Jihan was seclusive and only left her residence fully veiled, was a loving wife to Bashir, wielded significant influence over him and was reputed for her enchantment and charitable efforts with Mount Lebanon's inhabitants. She became known as sa'adat al-sitt, which translates as "her excellency, the lady". Jihan had two daughters with Bashir, Sa'da and Sa'ud. The other slave girls from Istanbul were married off to Bashir's relatives or associates; Kulhinar was married to Bashir's son Qasim, Shafkizar was married to Bashir's kinsmen Mansur Shihab of Wadi Shahrour and Maryam was married to a certain Agha Nahra al-Bishi'lani of Salima.