Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Peter Webb's "Imagining the Arabs"

Peter Webb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS, University of London. Alongside his first monograph, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam, he has written numerous articles on Arabic literature and Muslim narratives of pre-Islamic history, and he is also preparing translations and critical editions of three medieval Arabic texts about pre-Islamic Arabia.

Webb applied the “Page 99 Test” to Imagining the Arabs and reported the following:
Imagining the Arabs is a study of Arab origins and Arab identity, investigating the central questions of who are the Arabs, where did they come from, and what did it mean to be an Arab? Cogent answers to these questions have been obscured hitherto by the too frequent and too flippant use of the name ‘Arab’ to label manifold peoples across history. ‘Arab’ can signify all the people of Arabia, the name is also tagged to Muslim Conquerors in the wider Middle East; writers speak of ‘Arab pagans’, ‘Arab Christians’ and ‘Arab Muslims’; everyone in pre-Islamic Arabia is called an ‘Arab’, but so are the first Muslims; and while ‘Arabs’ are often associated with Bedouin, medieval Baghdadids, Damascenes and Cairenes are called ‘Arabs’ too. Middle Eastern history traces a tremendous ebb and flow of change wrought by momentous events across a vast area and long span of time, but ‘Arabs’ are treated as a constant: a community whose existence seems curiously impervious to change. History, in short, has too many ‘Arabs’, and there are too few critical questions as to what the name means and how Arab community evolved. Imagining the Arabs re-opens the case, using anthropological theories of ethnicity and identity to reappraise the vast store of Arabic literature and adduce a new model for Arab ethnogenesis.

Given the complexities of the task, it is perhaps not surprising that page 99 of Imagining the Arabs leads the reader to endnotes of Chapter 2 where technical questions about the early Arabic language are housed. The question of language looms significant: on a theoretical level, do members of one ethnic community need to speak the same language, and/or are all speakers of one language members of one ethnic community, ipso facto? We find that Arabic and the Arabs are somewhere in between. The evidence for early Arabic is also curiously distributed: there are only about a dozen Arabic-script texts datable to the pre-Islamic period, whilst, as note 27 on pg. 99 discusses,
At least fifty-five Arabic inscriptions and graffito (not including the monumental inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock or the vast numbers of coins) are expressly dated to the first century of Islam; a further fifteen undated inscriptions are ascribed to the first century AH. Well over half of the total date from 73/693 to 100/718 ... Islamic-era inscriptions are often longer than the pre-Islamic as well.
Inscriptions closely mirror other evidence, prompting a radical rethink about the emergence of Arab communal consciousness. The first people who called themselves Arabs seem in fact to have been the early Caliphate’s elite who rigorously distinguished themselves from Bedouin. Being Arab did not signify an antique sense of Arabian nomadic origin, but was instead a novel means for early Muslims to express what it meant to belong to their exclusive elite group in Islam’s mostly urban empire. Arabness emerged as an end-product of Islam’s remarkable success whereby the new religion, conquest and reorganisation of the Middle East created new senses of community, and the knotty intertwining of ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ identities which we still apprehend today is a product of Arabness’ rich and multifaceted history traced in Imagining the Arabs.
Learn more about Imagining the Arabs at the Edinburgh University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue