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  • Jessica Mutter

Tracing the Construction of Arab Identity in Medieval Iraq

Jessica Mutter reviews Peter Webb’s Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam

Who is an Arab? Earlier this year a handful of articles were published about the discovery of Arab ancestry through genetic testing, including one titled “DNA Analysis Proves Arabs Aren’t Entirely Arab.” Using data from National Geographic’s Genographic Project, it showed that sampled Egyptians, for example, were only 17% “Arabian” on average, while Kuwaitis were 84% Arabian, Lebanese 44%, Iranians 56%, and Tunisians 4%.

Genealogy and ancestry have always fascinated keepers of cultural and ethnic identity, and scholars of Arab history and literature are no exceptions. Let us leave aside questions of how National Geographic defined Arabian ancestry and zoom back some 1500 years. How might the great pre-Islamic Arabic poet Imru’ al-Qays have responded to this study of “Arabness,” or the percentage of Arabian ancestry among the cohort who sent their DNA to the Genographic Project? What would the scion of ‘Abbasid poetry, al-Mutanabbī, have said? We might imagine both lauding the genealogical endurance and spread of Arab stock.

If the arguments advanced in Peter Webb’s Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam are to be believed, though, we would be at least half-wrong. Al-Mutanabbī, a tenth-century Iraqi who famously claimed Yemeni heritage, might follow our original hypothesis and sing the praises of his Arab ancestors. Imru’ al-Qays, on the other hand, would likely just be confused. For as Webb shows, it turns out no one self-identified as Arab until well after the rise of Islam. Further, no one knows what “Arab” originally meant, or where the term came from, or how it came to be synonymous with inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and specifically those of the seventh-century Hijāz. Webb writes, “The history of pre-Islamic ‘Arabs’ ought therefore be approached afresh as the history of the Muslim invention of pre-Islamic ‘Arabs’,” and indeed that is what he has done here.

Webb presents his work as a study of ethnogenesis: he is far more concerned with the origins of Arab identity than with its modern iterations. He dispenses meticulously-gathered and widely-sourced evidence on the development of “Arabness” steadily throughout the book. This study of ethnogenesis is largely a study of names, naming, and the historical and political fissures between external and internal appellations. Chapters are arranged in roughly chronological order, and Webb begins with the earliest sources he can find. The first writings on pre-Islamic Arabs come largely from outside the peninsula. In our first source, from 853 BCE, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III writes of a battle against the Arba-ā from the south Syrian deserts. Later Assyrian references use the terms Aribi and Arabaa to describe nomads from the Syrian and Iraqi deserts. There were also Arbāya from Arbaa, Aribi and Aruba between Palestine and Egypt, as well as Arubu, Urbi, and other etymologically related terms.

No one inside the peninsula used these terms to describe themselves, Webb suggests. There are only eleven pre-Islamic Arabian inscriptions with the ‘/’-R-B root that seem to refer to a people: ten from Yemen and one from southern Syria. Christian Robin has proposed there are some sixty pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions using the root ‘/’-R-B, all of which seem to refer to outsiders, such as “hill-dwellers” or Bedouin mercenaries, while the inscriptions’ writers refer to themselves with identifiers like Saba’, Ḥimyar, and Ḥaḍramawt—names specifically associated with South Arabian regions or empires. Only six uses of ‘arab exist in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, according to Theodor Nöldeke’s 1899 work on the matter, and even this Webb complicates. He proves that two of Nöldeke’s examples are spuriously attributed to Imru’ al-Qays and one to Ḥassān b. Thābit, who was a companion of Muhammad and therefore not pre-Islamic. Webb finds one usage not cited by Nöldeke, leaving four. He makes a fair case for these four being possible later interpolations. Even if they are not, four uses of ‘arab does not an ethnos make.

If Arabian populations did not call themselves Arabs, then, how did they describe themselves? They mostly self-identified by tribe. Webb suggests they frequently referenced the tribal confederation of Ma‘add—perhaps the closest thing, in terms of implied population size and geographic range, to “Arab.” The pre-Islamic poet Labīd refers to Ma‘add a few times, but never uses the word Arab. Imru’ al-Qays and other pre-Islamic poets also refer to Ma‘add.

The Qur’ān is the first (probably) peninsular source to call itself ‘arabī, but it does not do so in the context of race or ethnos. Nor does Qur’ānic ‘arabī describe Mecca, Muhammad or Abraham: the term ‘arabī in the Qur’ān refers only to language. Webb looks closely at Q 41:44, which declares it is not an ajamī Qur’ān. Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 767), an early Qur’ānic exegete, interprets the line before it as suggesting Muhammad is ‘arabī, instead of the Qur’an being ‘arabī, thus giving Muhammad an ‘arabī identity that is not necessarily obvious in the Qur’ān’s wording. But otherwise he associates the root ‘-R-B in the Qur’ān with the spoken language of a group, not an ethnicity. In Q 9:128, “There has come to you a messenger from among yourselves,” Muqātil makes no connection to Arabness, but later exegetes such as al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1143), and al-Qurṭubī (d. 1273) explicitly connect the verse to Arab genealogy.

Peter Webb’s Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam.  Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Webb argues that the idea of “Arabness” formed among Muslim scholars, mostly in Iraq, over the course of less than 200 years, beginning in the Umayyad era. Webb supports Fred Donner’s thesis that the followers of Muhammad were more aptly described as “Believers” during the early decades of the movement, and only under the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) began accruing practices, beliefs and other signifiers such as the term “Muslim” that came to define Islam as a new and district religion. Webb argues that the idea of “Arabness” also emerged as a part of this shift. Indeed, the book aptly demonstrates, the term “Arab” was not used by non-Arabic writers to describe Muslim conquerors until the Umayyad era.

Referring to Muslims as ‘arab instead of by tribe or tribal confederation served to paper over the geographical and sectarian divisions that were laid bare during and after the first and second fitnas, evoking the Qur’ān, the Arabic language, and ultimately Islam as sources of identity instead. Yet Umayyad-era poets continued to reference Ma‘add “as a term of the ultimate collective identity” alongside and sometimes instead of Arab. Several Umayyad caliphs are described as leaders of Ma‘add, while Arabness is only referenced sporadically. Webb argues that usage of both terms represents a large-scale shift in terminology and identity, from “Ma‘add” in the seventh century to “Arab” in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Webb also examines the connections between pre-Islamic Arabia and Iraq. Pre-Islamic Iraq is given a focus on and connection with Arabia, in opposition to the Ma‘addite sources who create barriers between themselves and the Iraqi/Babylonian rulers. Al-Ya ‘qūbī, al-Ṭabarī, and al-Mas‘ūdī all trace the Arabs’ arrival in Iraq to the reign of Nebuchadnazzar, who, they write, led a campaign into Arabia to massacre the Arabs, and relocated the survivors to al-Ḥīra, where the Muslim armies eventually founded Kūfa in 636 CE. Other “Arab” groups like the Nabaṭ were also traced to Hīra. Webb writes that, “To create Arab history, the Muslim narratives appropriate real events of the distant past and reformat them in an Arab guise. For instance, they elide memory of the Roman capture of Palmyra in 272 CE and rewrite it as the victory of an Iraqī Arab king Jadhīma ibn Mālik al-Abrash.” This ninth/tenth century phenomenon involved the three scholars above, Ṭabarī, Ya ‘qūbī, and Mas‘ūdī, but was “lambasted” by al-Jāḥiẓ and Ibn Sallām al-Jumaḥī. The invention of history and genealogy, then, may have been something of a battleground among scholars in Iraq during this period. Al-Jāḥiẓ, writing in the early ninth century, includes an anecdote about a man faking lineage from Kinda in his Kitāb al–Ḥayawān. To Webb, al-Jāḥiẓ’s Risāla fī Manāqib al-Turk demonstrates how the Arabs came together to decide on a common ancestry. Al- Jāḥiẓ associates Arab identity with Arab land—soil, air, water. The construction of Arab identity was discussed openly during this era, never after it, Webb says, though he doesn’t clarify this, and fails to cite anyone but al-Jāḥiẓ as an example.

Webb concludes his study with an examination of the relationship between Arab and Bedouin identities. He focuses on al-Jāḥiẓ’s al-Bayān wa-l-tabyīn, writing that “al-Jāḥiẓ marshals both space and time to categorically distance ideal Arabic from his own urban, third/ninth-century Iraq,” constructing Bedouin Arabic as the closest thing in ‘Abbasid Iraq to the Arabic of Muhammad and the Qur’an. Webb writes that this is a radical departure from previous constructions of Arab identity, which considered Bedouin Arabic impure. Earlier grammarians did not present Arabic as a language mainly preserved by Bedouins (e.g. the grammatical work of Sībawayh, d. 796, in which the Bedouin are barely mentioned), but al-Jāḥiẓ’s perspective becomes normative in the ninth century. The scholar Ibn Fāris (d. 1004) wrote that there were three ways to truly know Arabic: 1) having Arab parents of pure lineage, 2) ‘inspiration’ (talqīn) of the sort that Ishmael had when God inspired him to learn Arabic, and 3) relying on “trustworthy, honest narrators.” Most people only had the third option, which essentially amounted to reading Ibn Fāris’s book, as Webb notes. Perhaps a mere stroke of marketing genius is responsible for centuries of literature idealizing the noble Bedouin.

This monograph is peppered with observations that are interesting individually but which are not strong enough to support the bold claims the book makes. Webb’s many innovative arguments, of which only a few have been noted in this review, are sometimes based on loose connections, and several remain to be confirmed. In fact, his evidence comes close to contradicting itself on occasion. Nonetheless, by the end of the book, there is enough evidence to amount to a preponderance that the term ‘Arab’ and the attendant identities and identity politics that have arisen around it are almost entirely an edifice built by a coterie of ‘Abbasid-era scholars in ninth-century Iraq. Even if some of Webb’s evidence is later refuted, enough of it is or will likely be confirmed that the book’s many interrelated theses cannot be ignored. Theories of collective fabrication of and in Islamic history are, of course, a longstanding revisionist tradition, particularly in the fields of hadith studies and Islamic origins. But Webb’s project looks very different from many other revisionist works—the evidence he brings to bear on his topic is collectively more sound and more precisely matched to his conclusions than the works of more thoroughgoing skeptics such as Patricia Crone or John Wansbrough.

The many great and small conclusions in this book contain massive ramifications for several fields, including Qur’ānic studies, genealogy, classical and post-classical Arabic literature, and especially the study of Islamic history and historiography from the formative era to the modern period. Pre-Islamic history and society can no longer be conceived of as “Arab” in identity. Indeed, this book calls into question the field’s use of the term “Arab” to describe any phenomenon or people prior to the ninth century CE. For instance, using the term “the Arab conquests” or equating “early Islamic” with “Arab” is all but impossible after reading this book. Scholars of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic will need to reconsider their understanding of social and genealogical ties during this era, and perhaps reexamine the way their sources discuss collective identity. Scholars of the Qur’ān will find Webb’s arguments about Qur’ānic ‘arabī compelling in light of the debate around this term. In the post-formative era, sources discussing “Arabness” should be examined in a new light—one fully cognizant of the construction of that identity, and what was incorporated into it and jettisoned from it in centuries prior.

This brings us to a final question: with what should we replace the term “Arab,” if anything? “Arabian” is a variation of the same problem. “Muslim” never was synonymous with “Arab,” even during the conquest period (which, according to Donner and Webb, would still have been the “Believer” era). Ma‘add is one possibility. Scholars could be even more precise and use only specific tribal names such as Ṭayyi’ or Kinda. Even National Geographic shies away from “Arab” in its genealogical project, preferring “Arabian,” likely in view of subtle connotations related to contemporary geographical and political boundaries. But perhaps it is too late: the glory of the Arabs and the attendant attributes of Arabness have been retold in historical and literary works for over a millennium, and to replace “Arab” with another term would also require reconsideration of “Arabian,” “Arabic,” and even modern terms such as “pan-Arabism.” From Webb’s perspective, the article referencing DNA testing was correct: Arabs aren’t really Arabs, since the term originated outside the peninsula and was defined and constructed retroactively by Iraqi scholars seeking to construct an Islamic heritage. But when it comes to Arabs, what’s in a name? Imru’ al-Qays, by any other name, would still stop and weep.


Jessica Mutter is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Religion at Bowdoin College.


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