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As an ethno-national term, Arabs currently designates the Arabic-speaking population that dominates North Africa and West Asia. The Arabs are considered part of the Semitic peoples, and their migrations out of the Arabian peninsula to the rest of the Middle East in large numbers began in the seventh century. Politically, the term is also applied to the twenty-two member states of the Arab League, whose population in 2005 totaled about 300 million inhabitants, and there were several million more in Europe and North America. The Arab League was originally founded in 1945 to coordinate Arab politics and resolve common issues. The common defining features of an Arab identity include the Arabic language, a sense of shared culture, and similar historical patterns.
In pre-Islamic times, and often in the Qur’an as well, the term Arab, or A’rab, was often reserved for nomadic populations. However, over time the term came to designate all Arabic-speaking peoples. The career of the Arabs in history began with Islam in the seventh century, a coincidence that continues to give rise to much confusion about the relationship between the two. Arab Muslims in fact comprise only about 20 percent of world Muslims. And while the vast majority of Arabs are Muslims, many Arabs belong to various Christian denominations, such as Coptic, Maronite, Orthodox, and Assyrian. Also, until at least 1948 many Arab countries, such as Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria, housed large Jewish communities that were fully assimilated and largely saw themselves as part of Arab culture. The Arab world also contains many Muslim but non-Arab communities, such as the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and the Imazighen (otherwise known as Berbers) in North Africa.
The rise of Islam in Arabia early in the seventh century provided the first catalyst for unifying the various tribes and communities of the Arabian peninsula into a common, religiously defined state. The Islamic conquests following the death of Muhammad (in 632) were carried out of Arabia in the name of Islam, not Arab nationalism, but they quickly changed the political and demographic makeup of the Middle East by moving Arab populations, and imprinting Arab language and culture, over much of the region. Within less than a century after Muhammad, the domain of Islam stretched as far east as the Indian subcontinent and as far west as the Iberian peninsula. The Arabic language, being the language of the Qur’an (which for Muslims consists of the literal revelations of God) and also the language of the new ruling elites and migrating population groups, spread across immense distances over the next few centuries and came to house greatly refined poetic and cultural traditions. Because the classics of the Hellenic and Roman heritage were translated into Arabic during the Abbasid caliphate, and because the new Arabcentered Muslim civilization patronized all branches of science and philosophy, the Arabic language also became the scholarly lingua franca across vast territories stretching from Central Asia to Iberia. It retained that status throughout the European Middle Ages. In fact, the first authoritative set of rules for Arabic grammar were set down during that period by a Persian scholar, Sibawayh (d. 793).
While presiding over the vast expansion of Islam throughout the region, the Umayyad caliphate, which lasted from 661 to 750 and was seated at Damascus, had a largely Arab ruling elite and sought to exclude non-Arabs from positions of authority. As Islam became genuinely universal, the Arabs lost monopoly over it. With the rise of the Abbasid caliphate in 750, the Muslim ruling elites became ethnically mixed, reflecting the demographic mix of Muslims themselves. Reflecting the growth in importance of non-Arabs among Muslims, the Abbasids moved the center of political power farther east, establishing Baghdad and making it their capital, thereby replacing Damascus as a Muslim political center.
After more than two centuries of glory, Abbasid rule entered a long period of decline toward the end of the tenth century, even though Islam as a faith continued to spread worldwide. The remnants of the Umayyads, who had established themselves over Iberia, proclaimed a rival caliphate there, and the Fatimids, who subscribed to a version of Shi’ism, soon announced a competing claim to the caliphate after capturing Egypt. The Abbasids also lost much temporal power to successive militaristic Turkish dynasties, notably the Buyids and then the Saljuks. Nonetheless, the Abbasid caliphate was retained in Baghdad as a sort of spiritual symbol for Muslims until the Mongols captured and destroyed the city in 1258.
By that point most Arabs had already become familiar with the pattern of non-Arabs exercising effective rule over them. This pattern was exercised first by other Muslims and then by Western colonialism, and thus lasted well into the twentieth century. Insofar as most governed populations were concerned, there is little evidence that the ethnic origins of the rulers mattered much before Western colonialism. The main cities of what is now called the Arab world were ethnically mixed, although Arabs were usually the majority, and many of them were also religiously mixed, being vital nodes of global and regional trade routes.
The modern idea of Arab nationalism began to emerge in the nineteenth century, when much of the Arab World was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, centered in Istanbul. The original tracts of Arab nationalist intellectuals show that Arabism was often viewed as compatible with an Islamic identity. The early Arab nationalists, many of whom were Christians, focused on reviving Arab high culture and called for more autonomy and local rule within the Ottoman system. Western models of nationalism clearly influenced these ideas, and within the Ottoman system concurrently informed Turkish nationalism, as it later would be advocated by the Committee of Union and Progress, or the Young Turks. The rise of Young Turks into positions of dominance in the empire shortly before World War I helped deepen Arab hostility to an empire they had lived with for four centuries, since the Young Turks tended to treat the Arab provinces more as colonies of a Turkish center. Moreover, such policies as imposing the Turkish language was at odds with the rising Arab cultural sentiment and the accompanying romanticization of an Arab golden age.
Still, at the beginning of World War I, most Arabs did not appear willing to abandon the empire, even though they had become open to suggestions. Such suggestions came during the war, when the British government persuaded Husayn Bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, to declare an Arab rebellion with the promise that the Arabs would gain independence after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Arab elites and their peoples did not take a unified stance on the rebellion, but they supported it after it became successful.
The aftermath of the war was a bitter disappointment for most Arabs. Rather than gaining independence, the Arab East was divided up between Britain and France. In addition, Egypt had been under British domination since 1882; most of the rest of north Africa had come under French control at various points during the nineteenth century; Libya was already under Italian control; the gulf region was already designated as a British protectorate. Thus virtually the entire Arab world emerged from World War I as a constellation of colonies of European powers.
Arab countries gained independence at various points over the following few decades, but the usual model of power transfer was from a colonial administration to a narrowly based national elite in each country, often clustered around a monarchy. These elites were preoccupied with survival in power, which usually meant maintaining alliances with their former colonial patrons. The failure of the Arab armies to secure Palestine for Arabs in 1948 undermined that system by vastly exposing the weakness of the new regimes, as well as their ineptitude, corruption, subservience to foreign interests, and lack of concern about national interests and common Arab issues. Further, the Palestine debacle highlighted the impotence of a divided Arab World and provided Arabs at large a single great cause around which they could make a unified stand.
During the two decades following the Palestine war of 1948, the era of older postindependence regimes came to an end in most of the Arab World, with the old systems being overthrown in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and placed on the defensive in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The new era was characterized by populism. The most successful figure here was the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. His adoption of pan-Arabism galvanized Arab public opinion everywhere, and his successful challenge to colonial powers by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956 and surviving the following tripartite invasion by Britain, France, and Israel, gave Arabs a rare vision of modern success against enemies set on controlling their national wealth and keeping them weak and divided.
The era unleashed by these new regimes also fostered the growth of ideals of social justice, socialism, agrarian reforms, and better distribution of social wealth. However, most of the new ruling elites in places such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, or Algeria, whose members had to a great extent come from humble social backgrounds, maintained a dictatorial, albeit populist, style of rule. The catastrophic defeat of three Arab armies against Israel in 1967 revealed the continuing vulnerability of the Arabs. It also helped undermine pan-Arab ideals, whose anticolonial, antiimperialist, and social-justice-oriented content began to be taken up by growing Islamic movements since the mid1970s. Further undermining pan-Arab ideals were the great disparities among Arab countries caused by oil wealth, with the lion’s share going to less populated countries, while the vast majority of Arabs lived in less resourceful, underdeveloped countries.
In spite of the continuing division and lack of coordination among Arab governments, a sense of common Arab identity has been maintained in the public sphere by a media revolution, which started out in the 1990s with the launching of the satellite television station Al Jazeera, based in Qatar. Its success was followed by several imitators and also forced many official governmental media outlets to exhibit more openness so that they could retain their audiences. In recent years satellite dishes have become the most striking feature of the streetscapes of many Arab cities, testifying to an intense interest in uncontrolled information, free dialogue, and a more open public sphere. Common issues include the unresolved question of Palestine and, more recently, of Iraq, which, after undergoing three catastrophic wars in about two decades, again fell under direct foreign control. The new media also foster discussions about other common issues, such as democratization and political reform, the role of Islam in politics and social life, and the status of women. Cultural life in music, the arts, and literature has also remained vibrant, with major figures in each field usually becoming celebrated across the Arab World. Novelists such as Naguib Mahfouz, Abdelrahman Munif, or Ghassan Kanafani are considered important literary figures across the Arab World, as are the poets Mahmoud Darwish or Adnois, for example. Similarly in music it is usual for some singers to attain a pan-Arab appeal in spite of differences in dialects. These include some established singers like Fairuz or Warda, along with more recent talents that are showcased on pan-Arab satellite stations— although none has surpassed the enduring appeal of Umm Kulthum. The notion that there is a common Arab culture and identity remains strong, as does the desire felt among ordinary Arabs for better governance and coordination among Arab countries. There is less conviction, however, that pan-Arab feeling can easily translate into a political union.
- Cleveland, William L. 2004. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Hitti, Philip. 2002. History of the Arabs. 10th ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Hourani, Albert. 2003. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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