views updated May 14 2018


A person who speaks Arabic as a first language and self-identifies as Arab.

Arabs comprise less than one-quarter of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Arabic is a Semitic language, as are Aramaic, Hebrew, Amharic, and some other languages. In its original Arabic meaning, an Arab is a pastoral nomad. Before the introduction of Islam in the seventh century c.e., Arabs participated in most ancient Near Eastern civilizations as traders, auxiliary warriors, and as providers of camels and other desert produce. They migrated with their extended kin and animals, following seasonal patterns of available water and vegetation, and made a sophisticated adaptation to arid environments. Poetry, their main artistic expression, presented their most strongly held beliefs and values: bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak, defiance toward the strong, hospitality to the guest, generosity to the needy, loyalty to the kin grouping, and fidelity in keeping promises. Most early Arabs were animists or ancestor-worshipers, but some adopted Judaism or Christianity before the advent of Islam.

Islam came to humanity through the last Messenger of God, Muhammad, an Arab of the Quraysh tribe (570632 c.e.) who profoundly affected not only the Arabs but world history. Arab clans took part in the early conquests to extend Islamic rule into the Fertile Crescent and across North Africa as far west as Morocco and Spain (711 c.e.) and eastward to the borders of India and China. The Arabic language and the Islamic religion were widely adopted by non-Arab conquered peoples, some of whom intermarried with Arabs.

Politically, the term "Arab" has been applied to all citizens of states in which Arabic is now the official language, whether or not they are native Arabic speakers. These "Arab" states, listed from west to east in North Africa and the Middle East, include: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Culturally, the term has also been applied to persons of Arab descent living outside the Arab world.

Arab identity can mask linguistic and other ethnic identities in North Africa and the Middle East. Culturally and linguistically, Iranians (Farsi), Pakistanis (Urdu), and Afghanis (Pashtun) are not Arabs, although they employ Arabic script in writing their languages. The Turks, leaders of the Ottoman Empire since the fifteenth century, are not Arabs, and before the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the 1920s, they too wrote Turkish using Arabic calligraphy. The term "Arab" has also been used as a racial designation, in some cases used in racial profiling after 11 September 2001.

During the late 1800s Arab nationalism began to emerge in Beirut student societies. Some Arabs called for the restoration of Arab rule in the caliphate, as it was then claimed by the Ottoman sultans. In World War I, a family of Arabs (Hashimites) led by the Sharif of Mecca and Amir Husayn, a
Sayyid and descendant of Muhammad, revolted against Ottoman rule and freed parts of the Hijaz (Arabia), Palestine, and Syria. Aided by Britain, these Arabs hoped that they might form a united Arab state in the Arabian peninsula and the Fertile Crescent, but Britain honored other promises it had made to its allies (especially France) and to the Zionist movement. Husayn took but later lost control of the Hijaz; his son Faisal I ibn Hussein briefly ruled in Syria (until the French mandate took over in 1920) but was then made king of Iraq; another son, Abdallah, was given an emirate called Trans-jordan (now the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan). In the peace settlement that ended World War I, Arabs in Syria and Lebanon were placed under a League of Nations mandate administered by France;
Britain held similar mandates in Palestine (initially including Transjordan) and Iraq. These mandates were intended to be temporary means for Arabs to govern themselves, but the winning of independence from European control between 1932 and 1946 did not facilitate Arab unification. Arab energies from 1900 to about 1950 were devoted mainly to achieving independence and to unifying the Arabic-speaking states. Continuing these efforts, the League of Arab States was created in 1945, with Egypt assuming a leadership role. In its first major test, the League failed to protect the Palestinians from the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel.

"Arab Nationalism" is a term used by anticolonial, nationalist leaders throughout the Middle East, especially recognized when Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first postindependence leader of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal and succeeded in gaining Egyptian control over the canal despite imperial pressure from Britain and France, allied with Israel. Generally political efforts at Arab union and federations have not succeeded, but inter-Arab pacts to create customs and telecommunications unions have been implemented. Arab success in imposing an oil embargo on the United States during and after the October 1973 war with Israel raised hopes for Arab unity. However, Egypt's separate peace with Israel in 1979; the division of Arab countries over the Lebanese Civil War (19751990); the IranIraq War (19801988); Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (Gulf Crisis, 19901991); and two Gulf wars all pointed to deep-seated divisions among Arab governments and peoples. Petroleum revenues have enriched some Arab regimes, but on the whole the Arab people have not prospered. In the second American war against Iraq in 2003, Arab nationalism was revived in the widespread response of the Arab world to what was described as an "invasion" and "occupation" of Arab territory. New Arab television networks, such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, have facilitated this revived solidarity.

Historically, appeals to the Arab Nation have come from Palestinian nationalists, whose lack of a territorial base makes Arab nationalism a matter of essential politics. The juxtaposition of "Arab" and "Israeli" in the usually hyphenated "ArabIsraeli conflict" adds to the sense of the Arabs being constituted as a single nation.

Arab nationalism has been a secular movement, with religion either irrelevant or kept separate from politics. Although people may still respond emotionally to the call for Arab unity, the political dynamic is shifting away from Arab nationalism to political alternatives framed by Islamic discourse, generally referred to as "Islamist," meaning the political use of the Islamic faith.

If Arabs have been deeply frustrated by their failure to unite, they still take pride in their historical achievements, their culture, notably their language and literature, their role in the development and spread of Islam, and their keen family loyalty, generosity, and hospitality.


Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. Islamic Society in Practice, 2d edition. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr. A Concise History of the Middle East, 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, revised 10th edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Hourani, Albert. History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2002.

Ibrahim, Saad Eddin, and Hopkins, Nicholas S., eds. Arab Society: Social Science Perspectives. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1985.

Musallam, Basim. The Arabs: A Living History. London: Collins/Harvill, 1983.

Nydell, Margaret K. (Omar). Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners, 3d edition. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2002.

Polk, William R. The Arab World Today, 5th edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Arthur Goldschmidt

Updated by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban


views updated Jun 08 2018

Ar·ab / ˈarəb/ • n. 1. a member of a Semitic people, originally from the Arabian peninsula and neighboring territories, inhabiting much of the Middle East and North Africa.2. an Arabian horse.• adj. of or relating to Arabia and the people of Arabia: Arab countries.


views updated May 29 2018

Arab Peoples of many nationalities, found predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa, who share a common heritage in the religion of Islam and their language (Arabic). The patriarchal family is the basic social unit in a strongly traditional culture that has been little affected by external influences. Wealth from oil has brought rapid modernization in some Arab countries, but a great deal of economic inequality exists.


views updated May 14 2018

Arab XIV. — L. Arab(u)s — Gr. Áraps, Arab- — Arab. 'arab.
So arabesque XVII. — F. — It. arabesco, f. arabo :- L. Arabus. Arabian XIV. f. OF. arabi or L. Arab(i)us — Gr. Arábios. Arabic, Araby (-Y3 ) XIV. — (O)F. — L. — Gr.

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