Arab Origins: Identity, History and Islam

by Dr Peter Webb

20 Jul 2015

Ethnic identities are prime examples of the paradoxes embedded within human existence. On one hand, ethnicity supposedly defines us and binds us to our communities, but it is also an idea which we can shape and change. To an extent, our parents’ ethnicity and the land of our birth impose an identity upon us and determine a trajectory for our lives, but we can also try to integrate into different groups and rethink who we are. Likewise, members of one ethnic community do tend to rally around a shared set of established values, beliefs and behaviours, but the touchstones of an ethnic identity can change dramatically over time. Ethnicities are natural, inasmuch as groups seek to demarcate themselves from others, but ethnicities are also plastic since their membership and meaning can be manipulated. An ethnic identity is accordingly both a capricious intellectual construct and a potent force that shapes how people organise themselves and interact with others. When studying a group of people, it is therefore imperative to investigate how they have perceived themselves across time, and the subject of my research, funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015-18), pursues the origin of Arabs and questions what being an Arab meant during the formative centuries of Islam.

For many years, academics have treated the ‘Arabs’ as a homogenous bloc of humanity, defining them as a predominantly Bedouin people inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula since Antiquity. It is commonly maintained that in the 7th century AD the fortunes of the ‘Arabs’ were radically transformed when they embraced a new faith (Islam), and embarked on a lightning-fast burst of conquest by which they settled across the Middle East and laid the groundwork for today’s Arab World. Studies assumed that militarised nomadism was the original form of Arab life, that the pre-Islamic Arabs possessed a form of ethnic and/or cultural unity which enabled their conquests, and that the same sense of Arabness united the first generations of Muslims too. But such assumptions overlook the inherent variability of ethnic identities, and take Arab identity as a ‘given’, one of the constants that did not change despite the tumultuous transformations of imperial fortunes and religious movements accompanying the rise of Islam. It would be remarkable for a social group at the centre of those changes to maintain one cohesive (and culturally conservative) community, and I suspected that Arab history has been approached too simplistically.

My hypothesis was bolstered by recent anthropological research in the modern Middle East. Those studies demonstrated that modern Arabs are heterogeneous and impossible to define in tidy categories – so why should we continue to assume that pre-modern Arabs conversely constituted one cohesive ethnic community? The challenge calls for a radical reappraisal of the literature and history about early Islam, applying the theoretical rigour of modern methodology to interrogate the notion of Arab identity embedded in those sources and to evaluate the social impact of the new faith and empire.

Starting from first principles, my research began with broad questions: who exactly called themselves ‘Arabs’ in Islam’s first centuries and what did the word mean? Was Arab identity at the dawn of Islam contested and fluid? How did consciousness of Arab community interact with the interests of Muslim elites? My findings unearthed some unexpected results. Since the 9th century BC, various Middle Eastern peoples used words resembling ‘Arab’ to describe nomads, but this terminology exclusively connoted the idea of distant outsider, and never referred to one specific ethnic group. People only began to callthemselves ‘Arabs’ and to use it as a means to express group solidarity after the dawn of Islam in the 7thcentury AD. It seems that the Muslim faith originally spread amongst different groups living in what is now the Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Iraq, and the very first Muslims saw themselves as a broad-based faith community (akin to Christians), instead of one interrelated ethnic group possessing an exclusive religion (akin to Judaism). But the situation soon changed: over two or three generations, the Muslim conquerors sought to maintain their distinctiveness from subject populations by developing strategies to segregate themselves, including the creation of a novel sense of belonging to an ‘Arab’ community. Arab identity became widely expressed in the early 8th century to connote conqueror elite status and it also laid claim to Islam as the ‘Arab faith’, since very few of the conquered peoples converted during Islam’s first century.

Akin to other ethnic identities around the world, Arabness would keep changing as Muslim societies developed. The original Arab-Muslim elites were geographically widespread and sometimes violently vied against each other, so Arabness remained contested for several centuries as Muslim groups had to forget their diverse pasts in order to forge consensus of ‘Arab unity’. Moreover, when the conquered peoples began converting during the 8th-10th centuries, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that Islam was exclusively an ‘Arab faith’, and Arab and Muslim identities began to separate.

I present a new narrative of Arab origins and development up to the 10th century in my forthcoming book, Imagining the Arabs. My British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship will expand the enquiry into two directions: community and myth. I will first drill deeper into the origins of Arab community by investigating the specific pathways which distinct pre-Islamic groups took to become ‘Arabs’ in early Islam. This research, drawn from early Arabic poetry, historical and genealogical sources, uncovers the different responses individuals and groups articulated when confronted by the opportunity to embrace an Arab identity. Some resisted becoming Arabs, others sought to enhance their prestige within the new community, and others faced the question of whether an ‘Arab’ had to be Muslim.

My project’s second component turns to the mythology invoked to create the Arab/Muslim community. Communities need to construct a shared sense of the past to gel their members into one cohesive group, and because a given group’s members usually hail from diverse backgrounds, that sense of past unity is quite often imaginary. In the Arab case, the familiar impressions of their origin as pre-Islamic Bedouin astride camels in the desert is one such myth which Muslims created to forget the fact that consciousness of Arab identity only coalesced in the Islamic-era, and to understand the place of Islam in the sweep of world history. My project critically reviews the vast corpus of medieval Arabic literature about Arab history via narratological, mythopoeic and aesthetic theories to uncover how Muslims forged notions of their origins and identities by converting memories of pre-Islam into Islamic origin myths.


On ethnic identity:

Jenkins, Richard, Rethinking Ethnicity (2nd Ed). London: Sage, 2008.

Geary, Patrick, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.

Pohl, Walter, Clemens Gantner and Richard Payne (Eds), Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

Smith, Anthony, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

On Arabs and early Islam:

al-Azmeh, Aziz, The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.

Donner, Fred, Muhammad and the Believers. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2012.

Hoyland, Robert, ‘Arab kings, Arab tribes and the beginnings of Arab historical memory in Late Roman Epigraphy’, in H. Cotton et al (Eds), From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009, 374-400.

Macdonald, Michael (Ed), Literacy and Identity in Pre-Islamic Arabia, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Webb, Peter, Imagining the Arabs: Ethnic Identity and the Rise of Islam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, forthcoming.

Peter Webb is an Arabist who studies the cultures, literatures and history of the classical Muslim world. His research focuses on the evolution of Arab and Muslim identities and the constructions of the pre-Islamic past (al-Jāhiliyya) in Muslim thought, the subjects of his forthcoming book, Imagining the Arabs, and articles in Der IslamStudia Islamica and in collected volumes. He received his PhD (2014) at SOAS, University of London, and will return to SOAS as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow (2015-2018). Prior to his academic career, Peter practiced as a solicitor at Clifford Chance LLP.

Sign up to our email newsletters