Sunday, January 3, 2010

What is the Arab identity?


n the modern era, defining who is an Arab is done on the grounds of one or more of the following three criteria:

* Genealogical: someone who can trace his or her ancestry to the tribes of Arabia - the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula - and the Syrian Desert. This definition was the definition used in medieval times, for example by Ibn Khaldun,[dubious – discuss][citation needed] but has decreased in importance as more people have come to identify as Arabs.

* Linguistic: someone whose first language, and by extension cultural expression, is Arabic, including any of its varieties. This definition covers more than 300 million people. Certain groups that fulfill this criterion reject this definition on the basis of non-Arab ancestry, such an example may be seen in the way that Egyptians identify themselves.

* Political: in the modern nationalist era, any person who is a citizen of a country where Arabic is either the national language or one of the official languages, and/or a citizen of a country which may simply be a member of the Arab League (thereby having Arabic as an official government language, even if not used by the majority of the population). This definition would cover over 300 million people. It may be the most contested definition, as it is the most simplistic one. It would exclude the entire Arab diaspora outside of the Arab world, but include not only people with Arab ancestry (Gulf Arabs and others, such as Bedouins, where they may exist) or who identify themselves as Arabs, but would also include Arabized groups who do not identify themselves as Arabs (including many Lebanese and many Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims) and even non-Arabized ethnic minorities who have remained non-Arabic-speaking (such as the Berbers in Morocco, Kurds in Iraq, or the Somali majority of Arab League member Somalia).

Traditional Bedouin

The relative importance of these three factors is estimated differently by different groups and frequently disputed. Some combine aspects of each definition, as done by Habib Hassan Touma,[19] who defines an Arab "in the modern sense of the word", as "one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arab tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture." Most people who consider themselves Arab do so based on the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions. Few people consider themselves Arab based on the political definition without also having Arabic as a language. Thus few Kurds and Berbers identify as Arab, although for instance some Berbers also consider themselves Arab (see for example: Gellner, Ernest and Micaud, Charles, Eds. Arabs and Berbers: from tribe to nation in North Africa. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1972). Some religious minorities within Western Asia and North Africa who speak Arabic or any of its varieties as their primary community language, such as Egyptian Copts and Lebanese Christians, may not identify as Arabs.

The Arab League at its formation in 1946 defined Arab as "a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples".

The relation of ʿarab and ʾaʿrāb is complicated further by the notion of "lost Arabs" al-ʿArab al-ba'ida mentioned in the Qur'an as punished for their disbelief. All contemporary Arabs were considered as descended from two ancestors, Qahtan and Adnan.

Versteegh (1997) is uncertain whether to ascribe this distinction to the memory of a real difference of origin of the two groups, but it is certain that the difference was strongly felt in early Islamic times. Even in Islamic Spain there was enmity between the Qays of the northern and the Kalb of the southern group. The so-called Himyarite language described by Al-Hamdani (died 946) appears to be a special case of language contact between the two groups, an originally north Arabic dialect spoken in the south, and influenced by Old South Arabian.

During the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs forged an Arab Empire (under the Rashidun and Umayyads, and later the Abbasids) whose borders touched southern France in the west, China in the east, Asia Minor in the north, and the Sudan in the south. This was one of the largest land empires in history. In much of this area, the Arabs spread Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and cultural assimilation. Many groups became known as "Arabs" through this process of Arabization rather than through descent. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term: cultural Arab vs. ethnic Arab. Arab nationalism declares that Arabs are united in a shared history, culture and language. A related ideology, Pan-Arabism, calls for all Arab lands to be united as one state. Arab nationalism has often competed for existence with regional nationalism in the Middle East, such as Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian nationalism.

How is it possible to define the Arab identity in our society when it is increasingly so narrowly identified with Islam? Unfortunately, Westerners believe that being Arab necessarily means being Muslim. What a mistake they make! Overloaded by the news media, our minds do not stop accumulating such falsities. Amongst 1.6 billion Muslims throughout the world, Arabs represent only a minority today.

Misinterpretations of Islam and injustices committed in its name have led to many misunderstandings regarding the actual realities of the Arab world. I have made a great effort to accept realities without making any judgments. This has allowed me to adopt a better approach to understanding the problem that continues to feed the flame of hatred in the hearts of humans. If only we look at things simply, Islam is nothing other than the third monotheist religion born in this region.


I traveled widely for many years in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, studying the differences and similarities of these regions. I portrayed the difficult everyday life of the people of these countries moving between war and faith, in unadorned and very personal shots and says, 'Seen from outside, the Arab world looks like a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment, and Islam seems to be the dominating power. Seen from inside, everything is different.

Samer Mohdad ... In Search of the Arab Identity On my trips to Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia I am searching for traces of past civilizations and the vestiges of old traditions in contemporary everyday life, marked as it is by centuries of clashes between and a mingling of different religions and cultures, of destruction and reconstruction, preservation and adaptation.

It is undeniable that it is a region plagued by more important problems: war, lack of food for displaced persons, the construction of new infrastructure and so on... For me, it is absolutely necessary to memorize such moments and learn to read them. This will give us a better understanding of our situation and help guide us towards a constructive future.

The The Arab images foundation® is a non-profit organization dedicated to the safeguarding of modern and contemporary visual arts in the Arab world, and has done important work in the field of civil society development by highlighting the daily life of local populations in the Middle East and North Africa. Using photography, it aims to show what usually stays out of the mainstream media's focus. http://www.arabimages.com

Arab Images Auction is an online auctions web site dedicated to vintage and fine art Photographic prints from the Arab World. http://www.auction.arabimages.com