Sunday, 4 November 2012

What is an Arab?

What is an Arab?

By Freddie Oufi


WHAT is an Arab? It must be one of the most difficult Ethnic terms to define. There are as many definitions as there are dictionaries. Asking “Arabic” people this question one hears of definitions and opinions that etymologically brackets the terms within Christian, Muslim as well as Jewish context. The Oxford English Dictionary attaches more importance to defining Arabic horses. It has nevertheless the following defining terms: Araby: a native of Arabia, and Arab: one of a Semitic race inhabiting Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries. Both definitions leave the enquirer none the wiser. Are Palestinian Christians Arabs? Are Jewish Iraqi Arabs? Although Arabs collectively maybe a nation but there is no Arabic nationality in the legal sense. A man who calls himself an Arab could hold Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi or any number of the “Arabic” countries passport but none them identifies him as an Arab national.

If however, there is no legal status as an Arab we are confronted by a quandary; an Arab has Arabic pride on his conscious with many bonds that bind him towards other Arabs living or dead. There is also the unifying factor of the Arabic language. There is Arab speaking Jew of Iraq or Egypt or the Arabic speaking Christian of Lebanon. Are they Arabs? I am sure there will be as many different answers as there are questions from these people and more from their Muslim neighbours. I can even ask whether the Arabic-speaking Muslim of Egypt and Algeria an Arab? Many of those questioned do consider themselves Arab but not all, especially some Lebanese who think they are Phoenicians. Is a Christian Lebanese of equal Arab status as the Muslim Shi’a Hezbollah fighter from Southern Lebanon both could be holding Lebanese passports? If looks can tell us anything, looking at the above photos can it solve our conundrum?

Further complications arise when, in Iraq for instance; colloquially, people distinguish the Bedouin from indigenous peasantry by name “Arab”; classifying and separating their ethnicity from the rest of Iraqi people. Perhaps then this suggests that speaking Arabic is not the criteria but some other indigenous nomadic background. I believe this is where the clue lies. The mere speaker of Arabic or Semitic or a native of the Arabia (Where ever that is defined) is not enough a criteria for an Arab definition as we shall see further.

Some Arab leaders defined an Arab in these words: "Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is brought up in our culture and takes pride in our glory is one of us." We may compare with this a definition from a well-qualified Western source, Professor Gibb of Oxford: "All those are Arabs for whom the central fact of history is the mission of Muhammad and the memory of the Arab Empire and who in addition cherish the Arabic tongue and its cultural heritage as their common possession." Both definition gives the meaning both cultural and religious significance without getting into the “heart” of the word. Our search must now be both historical and linguistic so we can we arrive at the meaning of this elusive definition. We need to go back to biblical time and come forward. 

During the course of these centuries the significance and meaning of the word has steadily changed with a standard usage completely lost. Some people think the etymology of the word has Semitic roots meaning “West” for people who come from west of the Euphrates River but I think is highly improbable. The word was used by the Arabs themselves, but reputed to be an untrusting kind, they hardly likely to tell others where they are from. By connecting it with the Hebrew word for dark or Steppe land “Arabha” or “Erebh” meaning disorganised seems a more plausible preposition. “The association with nomadism is borne out by the fact that the Arabs themselves seem to have used the word at an early date to distinguish the Bedouin from the Arabic-speaking town and village dwellers and indeed continue to do so to some extent at the present day” THE ARABS IN HISTORY, By BERNARD LEWIS, ; OU paper. In fact the first account of Arabia and Arabs is found in the tenth chapter of Genesis where many of the tribes of the area are mentioned by name with “Arab” making its first mention in an Assyrian inscription in 850 BC. From then on there are frequent reference to Aribi, Arabu and Urbi indicative of a nomadic and desert origin because they concerned Camels or tributes to their Assyrian lords. For our enquiry this also tells us they are nomadic people inhabited the far north of the Arabian peninsula on the borders of Syro-Arabian desert. From the Syrian historical records we deduct that these areas do not include the flourishing sedentary civilisation of south-western Arabia. The inhabitants in later books of the Old Testament would, however, identify them around 530 BC when the terms Arabaya begin to appear and later as commanders in Xerxes’ Persian army.

From now on this argument becomes messy - very messy and I blame the ancient Greek for this! If you have enjoyed this article so far then read on…

We learn from early Greek writings, around 400 BC when the word Arabia was first used combining all the Semitic people of the peninsula, analogues to Italia and Germania and later Britannia. Under the same heading they included the people from the eastern desert of Egypt between the Nile and Red Sea. To make things more complicated, the Byzantium in later times, called the whole of the Muslim nations as Saracens who as we all know (or do we?) come from a desert tribe in the Sinai. Contact between Romans and Arabs was so close, Philip of Arabia “the Arab” (Syrian) became Caesar who even presided over the capital’s millennial celebrations. As I understand, it was not until late pre-Christian centuries we find the Arabs or the Bedouins of the desert using the word. This is applied to the Nomadic indigenous people rather that the sedentary town or village folk. By the very nature of their Nomadic life evidence of their presence is found all over the peninsula. With time, however, due to their migratory life, we now confuse them as two or more separate people of North and South Arabia. In fact as I believe they are one and the same tribal people but are traders, warriors, hunters and by their way of life obviously illiterate.

Their Arabic language was to a greater extent an oral language only written by inscription. This would seem to suggest that the Alphabetic Arabic language we know today may not be Arabic after all. Arabic had a poetic nature recited mainly by the poet himself or by a rawi or reciter. Arabic was almost a “cousin” to Aramaic. Aramaic writing was more a kin to Hebrew. The Arabs depended on sedentary people to write for them such items as trading documents and receipts of tributes amongst other writings. “The balance between nomadic and sedentary peoples was precarious. Although they were a minority of the population, it was the camel-nomads, mobile and carrying arms, who, together with merchant groups in the towns, dominated the cultivators and craftsmen” Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples,p.10, 1991, Faber and Faber Limited. We had to wait for the rise of Islam to learn more about the use of the word from information gathered mainly from central and northern Arabia. We can also detect that the concentration of Islamic activities were in the Northern half of the peninsula in the Syrian/Iraq borders. As a historical source The Qur’an also confirms that the exclusive use of the term Arab was the Nomads and never the townsfolk of Mecca and Medina. Yet the language of Mecca and Medina and other towns as well as the Qur’an itself is described as Arabic. It was for later scribes to claim that god had “climactically, and for all time…was the very music of power” Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword, p. 15, Tom Holland 2012, that god revealed His purposes to humanity in Arabic. Arabic had suddenly acquired a sanctified resonance.

It was the Arab speaking Muslim world which conquered the lands of the Parthian kingdom and was to dominate right across Northern Africa reaching the edges of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. With this hegemony came Muslim religious influences as well as Arabic ethnical Culture. The Jews and the Christians accompanying this warring army were to have an acculturative effect in the Arabic way of life without proselytising into the Muslim religion. The confluence of a vast number of varieties of people with different race and languages the Muslims exercised their influence as rulers and masters. The distinction between Nomads and townsfolk became blurred and Arabic gradually came to identify all those who spoke the Arabic language. With the increasing number of people converting to Islam, Arabic gradually transgressed to more of a universal Islamic ideology identified by faith. Culture and administration was to later effect a change to a heterogeneous race with the wars of conquest coming to an end.

Contribution to "Arab medicine", "Arab philosophy", etc. of those who were of Arab descent, however, was relatively small. The architects of these particular cultures were the Christians and Jews while gradually “Islamic” as becoming associated more with culture as much as with religion. The variegated culture of that Empire produced by men of many races and religions, but in the Arabic language and conditioned by Arab taste and tradition. The spread of Islam, however, also meant the spread of Arabic whether colloquial or classical as in the writing of the Qur’an. This was to take further hold with the arrival of the Turks when all marginal languages west of Persia ceased their significance. This would effectively blend further the different backgrounds and religious affiliations effectively harmonising the heterogeneousness of the communities. This meant that definition of Arabic identity split into two. One bearing the Nomadic origin of the Bedouins as the true Arabs and the other was becoming a social rather than an ethnic term.

As one can imagine, however, that with such an austere and dominating majority as the Ottomans, the minority faiths were organised along religio-political lines with their own leadership and laws. The majority belonged to the Ummat al-Islām, a primarily Muslim Turkish community. Sometimes these were subdivided into Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi or even towns man and peasants. The Arab was also applied to non-Arab nomads (of Kurdish or Turkoman extraction were ethnically termed Arab. Abnā al-'Arab or Awlād al-'Arab applied to the Arabic-speaking townspeople and peasantry to distinguish them from the Turkish ruling class on the one hand and the nomads or Arabs proper on the other. Since the start of the Ottoman rule of the Arabs in 1517 this ethnic division especially in colloquial Arabic has remained unchanged although its singnificancy has diminished.

Since the growth of Arab nationalism and the nostalgic regards to bygone Arab glory the Arab speaking people there remains a strong pride in “Arabism”. The exception to this is Egypt where it’s standing, if not in its solidarity to the Arab cause, but more importantly has put strains on its ethnical coherence in the Arab world. Although in a strange sort of way or perhaps because of its large population it can exert enormous pressure and indeed can still bring great pressure to bear on Arab political status quo.

To sum up then: As I see it the terms Arabic was the cumulative terms used by the Greeks later Romans to combine the whole of the Semitic people under one label. In Arabia itself it seems to have been limited to the nomads although the common language of sedentary and nomad Arabians was called Arabic. In my opinion, despite the fact that the Nomadic Arabs spoke Arabic but were illiterate as it was an oral language only. The Arabic language may have been named Arabic when in fact it may not have been; as Arabic was probably only a vocal language and the written language that came to be called Arabic was a result of writing down Arabic narration. Although according to a later, but still controversial claim, Hira, a tribal settlement, but later where Mohamed received his first revelations, was where the Arabs learnt to put their language in writing.

The people who were true Arabic irrespective whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish were and are Arabic only by social association with their old masters; as a result of their demarcated and social testimonials given to them by the Turks. 

Although drawing this conclusion may cause many raised eyebrows, but with the current knowledge at my disposal I firmly believe it.




Unknown said...

Nice post, the best. thank you.

OUFI said...

Hi Unknown, Thank you for your comments. Any thoughts on Arab status confusion?

DesertFox said...


What you wrote is for sure, very interesting.

Perhaps your summation (3rd Para from the end) is correct to a certain extent and by that I mean that Arabic was spoken and written by educated people living in the part of the world that is now called Arabian Peninsula. The Nomads didn’t know how to write so they depended on people such as Jews who lived there as traders to do the writing for them, like secretaries today.

Your article is a good one but how many will get to read it and comment?


OUFI said...

The sedentary town folk would have been mainly pagans but with a good percentage of them literate.
As for the Arab Nomads although they were illiterate but by all accounts they were good traders. Their activities date back from around 830 BC providing Camels and such like to Assyrian Army for profit. They were also in part vassals with almost feudal dependence on the nobility of these early dynasties.
I hope the blog will add to its readership in time as it matures.