views updated May 17 2018




The Arab world is usually considered to be comprised of the following nineteen countries: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. There are also significant Arab populations in Iran, Turkey, East Africa, South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. The total population of Arabs in the world is roughly 160 million (Eickelman 1987), or about 3 percent of the world's population. This large ethnic group has a very heterogeneous population, but there are a number of characteristics that a majority of Arabs share.


Perhaps the most common Arab characteristic is adherence to the Islamic faith. Muslim Arabs comprize about 93 percent of the Arab population and belong to several different sects including Shia (Ithna Ashari and Ismaili), Alawi, Zaidi, and Sunni, which is the largest. The other 7 percent of Arabs are largely Christian or Druze.

The link between Arabs and Islam has deep historical roots. It was among Arabs early in the seventh century that Mohammed preached the tenets of Islam. Mohammed's successors quickly spread the word of Allah into Southwest Asia, across North Africa and into Spain, into Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and to the east coast of Africa. Wherever Muslims went, they left elements of Arab culture along with their religion. The cultures of the assimilated territories, which included Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian populations, were not only influenced by the Arab invaders and their religion, but, in turn, substantially influenced the nature of Arab culture.

The conquered populations were subjugated politically, but their administrative skills, crafts, arts, and worldviews gradually transformed their conquerors. This transformation of Arab identity and tradition has been a continuing process for over 1,300 years. Pre-Islamic poetry indicates that in the year 600 "Arab" referred to the Semitic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Quranic usage and other Arabian sources suggest that the word referred primarily to the pastoral Bedouin tribes of the region. Even though camel-herding pastoral nomads were only a minority during Mohammed's lifetime, it seems clear that Arabs were an important social and political force. Their rich oral literature, especially their poetry, and their rejection of authoritarian political forms presented a powerful cultural ideal. Nevertheless, townspeople and others often used the term "Arab" in a pejorative sense. Southern Arabians, both farmers and urban residents, probably did not at first regard themselves as Arab. They probably only adopted this identity when there were political and economic advantages to doing so after the adoption of Islam.

The early Islamic period was a time when Arab identity meant that one belonged to an all-encompassing patrilineal descent system. Membership in an Arab descent group brought recognition, honor, and certain privileges, such as exemption from some taxes. The significance attributed to one s genealogical ties has not prevented Arab societies from assimilating non-Arabs into Arab society, a practice that has remained important throughout Arab history. In the first years after the Arab conquest, it was common to convert to Islam and become an Arab at the same time by forming a relationship with an Arab tribe. Later, converting to Islam and acquiring Arab identity became separate processes. Islamization continued, but it was no longer tied to Arabization.

Muslim Arab leaders created great empires that lasted hundreds of years. Following Mohammed, the Umayyid dynasty was established in Damascus in 661 and lasted until 750. Religious and ethnic minorities were given a large measure of self-rule under Umayyid domination. The succeeding ʿAbbāsid dynasty ruled the Muslim world from Baghdad, its capital, for nearly 500 years, of which the first 200 (750-950) are called the Golden Age of Arab civilization.

Arab rulers brought intellectual Jews, Christians, Greeks, Persians, and Indians to Baghdad and other centers of learning during the ʿAbbāsid dynasty. These foreign intellectuals contributed elements from their own cultures to the development of Arab culture. The works of Plato and Aristotle were translated from Greek into Arabic before they were translated into other European languages. Indian scientists brought the concept of "zero" to the Arabs, who combined it with Arabic numerals and transmitted the mathematical systems of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to Europe. There are also many other important scientific discoveries that can be traced to the ʿAbbāsid dynasty. ʿAbbāsid scientists disproved Euclid's theory that the eye emanates rays, ʿAbbāsid chemists introduced such concepts as "alkali" and "alcohol," and ʿAbbāsid medical scholars compiled the world's first medical encyclopedia. What was happening throughout the world at that time was being recorded and passed on to later civilizations by Arab historians.

The ʿAbbāsid Empire was declining by the thirteenth century. Largely because of European colonization of North and South America, European trade with the Arab world virtually stopped and did not resume until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The outlying provinces of the empire were the first to break away. Then, the Arabs were pushed out of Spain. Invading Turks and Mongols from the north destroyed not only the cities and towns in their path, but also irrigation systems. The Arab economy never recovered from the destruction. By the sixteenth century, Seljuk and Ottoman Turkish invaders conquered the remaining Arab territories; they ruled until World War I, when the Turkish Empire in turn disintegrated.


Another important and unifying characteristic of Arabs is a common language. Arabic, like Hebrew, is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic Family. Evidence of its first use appears in accounts of wars in 853 b.c. Arabic became a high-status language in the early Islamic centuries. It also became widely used in trade and commerce. Over the centuries, it became the predominant religious language of the world's Muslims. Even though most Muslims cannot speak Arabic today, it is revered as the language that God chose to reveal the Quran, and, because of this, it has profoundly influenced the language and thought of all Muslims.

Arabic has developed into at least two distinct forms. Classical Arabic is the religious and literary language. It is spoken and written throughout the Arab world and serves as a bond among all literate Muslims. Colloquial Arabic, an informal spoken language, varies by dialect from region to region, and is not always mutually intelligible. Both forms of the language are in use today and provide an important force for Arab cohesion.


Although unified by language and some cultural attributes, Arabs have been politically divided since the first Islamic centuries. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, most of the Arabic-speaking regions of the Middle East and North Africa were turned into Ottoman provinces. There were relatively few economic, political, or intellectual achievements that were inherently Arab during Ottoman rule. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, there were some attempts to emulate the perceived achievements of European civilization. It was at this time that the idea of Arabism, perhaps as a counterpart to European nationalist movements, began to emerge. It was not until after World War II, however, that Arabs once again ruled their own lands, and by then the imported system of political nationalism had divided the Arabs into separate states, which undermined the political unity (i.e., the Arabism), of the ethnic group as a whole.

Arab culture developed in the desert among the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, who lived either as tribal nomads or town folk. Town folk were strongly influenced by Bedouin values and practices. Mohammed was a townsman, but his tribe, the Quraysh, included many Bedouin, and Mohammed and his followers adhered to many pre-Islamic tribal traditions. These traditions, arising within the harsh environment of the desert, included strict codes of proper economic and social behavior, which were legitimized by Islam and became part of Arab culture.

Traditionally, Bedouin moved often, living in tents and earning their living as stock breeders, transporters, or traders. They produced the livestock for much of the sedentary Arab world, raising camels, horses, and donkeys as beasts of burden and sheep and goats for food, clothing, and manure. As transporters, they moved products from the countryside to towns and between settlements not connected by roads. As traders, they provided a link between villages and towns, bringing to the villagers manufactured utensils and products that were not available locally. Their relationships with settled people were based on reciprocity and followed carefully defined rules of protocol.

A completely different facet of Arab culture developed along the Mediterranean shore, where Arabs had direct contact with the cultures of Europe. Compromise replaced rigidity, and religious fundamentalism gave way to accommodation and the acceptance of new ideas. There were thriving economies in the cities of Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Tunis, Algiers, and Casablanca, which offered the traditional Arab the possibility of entering new professions. Attending universities became an option for a changing population. European-styled nationalism replaced tribal allegiance and European imperialism.

Urban Life

About half of Muslim Arabs live in cities and towns. They have a greater variety of occupations, weaker family ties, greater freedom for women to leave the home, fewer arranged marriages, and fewer social pressures to conform to religious practices than do nonurban Arabs. The social structure of the urban Muslim Arab is considerably more complex than that of his desert or village counterpart.

Arabs who live in towns are also experiencing changes in their traditional patterns of living, but to a lesser degree than the city dwellers. Nomads, villagers, and urban traders meet in the suq (marketplace) to exchange goods and products. Representatives of government agencies (e.g., tax collectors, army conscriptors, police, and irrigation officers) make contacts with most of the population in the towns.

The townspeople are disdainful of the villagers. Town residents are more religiously conservative and more intimately involved in their kin network than urban dwellers are. The ideal values of the nomad are not so strong in the town. There is less concern with hospitality and defiance and more concern with symbols of economic prosperityproperty, wealth, and education. Family honor remains important, however, and women continue to live a secluded life under the watchful eyes of husbands, brothers, and fathers.

Rural Life

Most Arabs are farmers who live between the two extremes of the desert on the one hand, with its conservative rigidity, and the cities and towns on the other hand, with their changing traditions and practices. The Arab village is usually composed of walled, mud-floored homes built of mud bricks. These homes hide the villagers' insecurities from strangers and provide an intimate environment in which strong family ties are nurtured.

Arab villagers grow only what they need to eat or tradecereal grains, vegetables, livestock, and cotton. They are often in debt, and seldom have enough money to pay off their debts or to save for investments. Villagers live by tradition and lack the incentives, knowledge, or security to make changes. Change is seen as disruptive and threatening to the harmonious relationship that Arabs have established with their environment and their fellow villagers. Village values stem from the ideal values of the nomad. Unlike the Bedouin, villagers will relate to nonkin, but loyalty to the group is as strong as it is among the tribesmen. As among the Bedouin, village segments may also feud with each other. Similarly, standards of hospitality are high among villagers, as is awareness of family honor. The villager lives in an extended family in which family life is tightly controlled. Each family member has a defined role, and there is little individual deviation. Like the Bedouin, the villager finds security in the family during times of economic hardship and in old age. Changes in individual roles, such as when a son goes off to work in a town, often weaken the family socioeconomic system.

Children are a family's greatest asset, providing the parents with a work force and social security. The patrilineal system is reflected by Islamic rules of inheritance, which give more to boys than to girls, particularly in terms of real estate. A girl's value is linked to her function of tying one family to another through marriage, and to her primary role as a mother. Births are celebrated, particularly those of boys. Births are often accompanied by non-Islamic rituals such as burying the placenta to protect the mother and baby from enemy spirits or dressing boys as girls to decieve evil spirits. A child's first possession is often an amulet to ward off malevolence, and the first word a baby hears is "Allah."

Boys are circumcised at age 7, a ritual event that formally brings the boy into the religious community. Animistic rituals may also accompany this ceremony. Circumcisions, or clitoridectomies of girls, if they are performed, are not accompanied by any public ceremonies.

Arab boys and girls are treated very differently. Boys are given great affection and are pampered by their mothers. Girls are also given affection, but are weaned much earlier than boys and are not pampered. A mother is viewed as a symbol of warmth and love throughout a child's life. A father is viewed as a stern disciplinarian who administers corporal punishment and instills a degree of fear within his children. Boys are especially taughtoften harshlyto obey and respect older males.

Children are given adult responsibilities and sex-specific socialization early in life. Boys work in the fields, and girls help their mothers cook and care for siblings. Adolescents have no contact with the opposite sex outside the family, and girls are watched closely to protect their chastity. A girl's primary protector is her older brother, who continues to watch over his sister even after she is married.

Marriages are arranged by parents. Girls marry between the ages of 14 and 19, whereas boys are usually somewhat older. Marriages establish important ties within one's own kin group or with other lineages that have economic or status advantages. Marriage is endogamous within one's kin group. The preferred match is between brothers' children. Bride and groom often meet for the first time on the day of the wedding, when the bride-wealth (mahr ) is determined and a marriage contract is signed.

The lives of Arab village men and women are very distinct. Men work in the fields, women in the home. For social contact, men go to coffee houses, but women visit neighbors and relatives or receive such visits in their own homes. Men and women often eat separately, and they always pray separately.

Arab villagers follow a mixture of Islamic folk beliefs and rituals. Religion provides explanation for many unknown and uncontrollable events in their lives. God's will dictates the direction of life and provides divine authority for action. Religion confirms changes in social status, for example, at circumcision and marriage. It provides hope for a better life after death. Religious festivals, such as ʿId al-Adhha, ʿId al-Fitr and, for Shia Arabs, Muharram, break the monotony of village life. Men worship at a mosque. Women, often not allowed in mosques, attend ceremonies conducted in a home by female religious leaders.

Cultural Change

Change is occurring at a rapid pace throughout the Arab world. The Bedouin have had to deal with the many changes arising from oil-based economiesoil fields, trucks, and other forms of transportation, for example. Road building has also decreased the degree of isolation of thousands of villages and increased the number of contacts between villagers and the outside world. Radios bring new ideas to Bedouin and villager alike. Land reform has brought new systems of landownership, agricultural credit, and new farming technology. Overcrowding and diminishing economic opportunities in the village have prompted many villagers to migrate to the towns and cities. Migration from poorer Arab countries to oil-rich states has also become an economic opportunity and an important source of revenue for millions of Arabs.

See alsoBedouin; Copts; Druze; Jacobites; Mandeans; Nestorians; Palestinians; Syriacs


Atiyeh, George N., ed. (1977). Arab and American Cultures. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Bacharach, Jere L. (1984). A Middle East Studies Handbook. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Bates, Daniel C, and Amal Rassam (1983). Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Beck, Lois, and Nikki Keddie, eds. (1978). Women in the Muslim World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carmichael, Joel (1977). Arabs Today. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Eickelman, Dale F. (1987). "Arab Society: Tradition and the Present." In The Middle East, edited by Michael Adams. Handbooks to the Modern World. New York: Facts on File.

Eickelman, Dale F. (1989). The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Faris, Nabih Amin, ed. (1963). The Arab Heritage. New York: Russell & Russell.

Friedlander, Jonathan, ed. (1981). The Middle East: The Image and the Reality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gulick, John, ed. (1965). "Dimensions of Cultural Change in the Middle East." Human Organization 24 (Special Issue).

Hopkins, Nicholas, and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, eds. (1985). Arab Society: Social Science Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hourani, Albert (1991). A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press. Reprint. 1992. New York: Warner Books.

Knapp, Wilfred (1977). North-West Africa: A Political and Economic Survey. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lutifiyya, Abdulla M., and Charles W. Churchill, eds. (1970). Readings in Arab Middle Eastern Societies and Cultures. The Hague: Mouton.

Mansfield, Peter (1980). The Middle East: A Political and Economic Survey. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mostyn, Trevor, and Albert Hourani, eds. (1988). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nydell, Margaret K. (1987). Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners. Yarmouth, Me.: Intercultural Press.

Raban, Jonathan (1979). Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sweet, Louise E. (1971). The Central Middle East. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Weekes, Richard V. (1984). "Arabs." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 35-45. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.



views updated May 18 2018



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 Quran as well, the term Arab, or Arab, 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 Quran (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 Arab-centered 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 Shiism, 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 romanti-cization 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, anti-imperialist, and social-justice-oriented content began to be taken up by growing Islamic movements since the mid-1970s. Further undermining pan-Arab ideals were the great disparities among Arab countries caused by oil wealth, with the lions 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 stationsalthough 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.

SEE ALSO Pan-Arabism


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.

Mohammed A. Bamyeh


views updated May 14 2018


The heyday of occultism, especially astrology and alchemy, occurred among the Arab race at the time when the Moors established their empire in the Spanish peninsula. In the eighth century an Arabian mystic revived the dreams and speculations of the alchemists and discovered some important secrets. Geber, who flourished about 720-750, is reputed to have written upwards of five hundred works on the Philosophers' Stone and the elixir of life. His researches in these occult subjects proved fruitless, but though the secrets of immortal life and boundless wealth eluded him, he discovered silver nitrate, corrosive sublimate, red oxide of mercury, and nitric acid, for he was a brilliant chemist.

His tenets included a belief that a preparation of gold would heal all diseases in animals and plants, as well as in human beings; that the metals were affected with maladies, except the pure, supreme, and precious gold; and that the Philosophers' Stone had often been discovered, but its fortunate discoverers would not reveal the secret to blind, incredulous, and unworthy man.

Geber's Summa Perfectionis, a manual for the alchemical student, has been frequently translated. One English version, of which there is a copy in the library of the British Museum, London, was published by an English enthusiast, Richard Russell, at "the Star, in New Market, in Wapping, near the Dock," in 1686. Geber's true name was Abou Moussah Djafar, to which was added Al Sofi, or "The Wise," and he was a native of Houran in Mesopotamia. He was followed by Avicenna, Averroes, and others equally gifted and fortunate.

According to Geber and his successors, the metals were not only compound creatures, but they were also all composed of the same two substances. By the nineteenth century, European chemists like William Prout and Humphry Davy were propounding similar ideas. "The improvements," stated Davy, "taking place in the methods of examining bodies, are constantly changing the opinions of chemists with respect to their nature, and there is no reason to suppose that any real indestructible principle has yet been discovered. Matter may ultimately be found to be the same in essence, differing only in the arrangement of its particles; or two or three simple substances may produce all the varieties of compound bodies." The ancient ideas, of Demetrius the Greek physicist and of Geber the Arabian polypharmist are still hovering about the horizon of chemistry. In the twentieth century, successful nuclear fission has validated the transmutation of metals.

The Arabians also taught that the metals are composed of mercury and sulphur in different proportions. They toiled away at making many medicines out of the various mixtures and reactions from the few available chemicals. They believed in transmutation, but they did not strive to effect it. It belonged to their creed rather than to their practice. They were hardworking scientific artisans with their pestles and mortars, their crucibles and furnaces, their alembics and aludels, their vessels for infusion, for decoration, for cohobation, sublimation, fixation, lixiviation, filtration, and coagulation. They believed in transmutation, in the first matter, and in the correspondence of the metals with the planets, to say nothing of potable gold. It is not known where the ancient Arabians derived the sublimer articles of their scientific faith. Perhaps they were the conjectures of their ancestors according to the faith. Perhaps they had them from the Fatimites of Northern Africa, among whose local predecessors it has been seen that it is just possible the doctrine of the four elements and their mutual convertibility may have arisen. Perhaps they drew them from Greece, modifying and adapting them to their own specific forms of matter, mercury, sulphur, and arsenic.

Arabian Astrology

Astrology was also employed by the oracles of Spain. Al-Battani was celebrated for his astronomical science, as were many others; and in geometry, arithmetic, algebraical calculations, and the theory of music, the list of Asiatic and Spanish practitioners is long, but only known by their lives and principal writings. The works of Ptolemy also exercised the ingenuity of the Arabians. But judicial astrology, or the art of foretelling future events from the position and influences of the stars, was a favorite pursuit; and many of their philosophers dedicated all their labors to this futile but lucrative inquiry. They often spoke highly of the iatro-mathematical discipline, which could control the disorders to which man was subject and regulate the events of life.

The tenets of Islam, which inculcate an unreserved submission to the overruling destinies of heaven, are evidently adverse to the lessons of astrology; but this by no means hindered the practitioners of old Spain and Arabia from attaining a high standard of perfection in the art, which they perhaps first learned from the peoples of Chaldea, the past masters of the ancient world in astronomical science, in divination, and the secrets of prophecy. But in Arab Spain, where the tenets of Islam were perhaps more lightly esteemed than in their original home, magic unquestionably reached a higher if not more thoughtful standard.

From the Greeks, still in search of science, the Arabs turned their attention to the books of the sages who are esteemed the primitive instructors of mankind, among whom Hermes was deemed the first. They mention the works written by him, or rather by them, as they suppose, like other authors, that there were three of the name. To one the imposing appellation of "Trismegistus" has been given, and the Arabians, presumably from some ancient records, minutely described his character and person. Illustrating their astrological discipline, they also published some writings ascribed to the Persian Zoroaster.


Hutin, Serge. A History of Alchemy. New York: Walker, 1963. Reprint, New York: Tower Books, n.d.

Jabir ibn Hayyan. The Works of Geber. London: Printed for William Cooper, 1686.

Muhammad ibn Umail al-Tamini. Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1933.


views updated May 29 2018


A Semitic language–speaking people who originated in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs are referred to in inscriptions of other Middle Eastern cultures as early as the eighth century b.c.e. The word "Arab" may come from Araba, a little territory in the southern Hijaz, or from a Semitic root connoting nomadism. Pre-Islamic (to mid-seventh century c.e.) Arabs were adherents of various animistic or idolatrous cults, as well as of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. Starting in the eighth century c.e., successive Arab conquests incorporated most of Western Asia and North Africa, as well as Spain, Sicily, and parts of France, spreading Islam and absorbing indigenous peoples and languages. The Arabs became the teachers of the West, their mastery of astronomy, geography, medicine, and mathematics allowing Europeans to educate themselves in these domains. During almost six centuries, Arab supremacy in scientific, cultural, and political domains made Arabic the most widespread lingua franca in the world.

The Arab empire disintegrated progressively, with the establishment of small independent kingdoms and with the advent of the Turkish Seljuks, who weakened the power of Baghdad. Three centuries later, the Mongols put an end to the Abbasid Caliphate. The Arab-language peoples entered then a period of decline until a movement of renaissance (al-Nahda) arose in the nineteenth century. This consciousness had already begun stirring at the time of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition, which made the Arab world aware of the military and technological power of Europe. Reverting to themes that had been current in the thirteenth century, some Arab thinkers thought of an Islamic renaissance as a necessary return to sources. The Arab language, spoken in all Arab countries, though with regional dialects, became the focus of a polemic on Arab identity, culture, and history.

After World War II, pro-independence Arab movements succeeded in prevailing politically, giving birth to new independent states. Today the term "Arab" refers (with a few exceptions) to the peoples of the Arabic-speaking countries, whatever their ethnic origins, and to the Arabs of the diaspora, mainly in Europe and North America. There are twenty-two states in the League of Arab States, with an estimated 290 million inhabitants.

SEE ALSO Abbasids;Islam;League of Arab States;Seljuks.