The Arabs in History
The Arabs in History
What is an Arab? Ethnic terms are notoriously difficult to define, and Arab is not among the easiest. One possible definition may be set aside at once. The Arabs may be a nation; they are not as yet a nationality in the legal sense. A man who calls himself an Arab may be described in his passport as of Syrian or Lebanese, Palestinian or Egyptian, Iraqi or Sa'ūdī-Arabian nationality, but not Arab. There are Arab states, and indeed a League of Arab states, but as yet no single Arab State, of which all Arabs are nationals.
But if Arabism has no legal content, it is none the less real. The pride of the Arab in his Arabdom, his consciousness of the bonds that bind him to other Arabs past and present, are no less intense. Is the unifying factor then one of language--is an Arab simply one who speaks Arabic as his mother tongue? It is a simple and at first sight a satisfying answer--yet there are difficulties. Is the Arabic-speaking Jew of Iraq or the Yemen or the Arabic-speaking Christian of Egypt or Lebanon an Arab? The enquirer could receive different answers amongst these people themselves and among their Muslim neighbours. Is even the Arabic-speaking Muslim of Egypt an Arab? Many consider themselves such, but not all, and the term Arab is still used colloquially in both Egypt and Iraq to distinguish the Bedouin of the surrounding deserts from the indigenous peasantry of the great river valleys. In some quarters the repellent word Arabophone is used to distinguish those who merely speak Arabic from those who are truly Arabs.
A gathering of Arab leaders some years ago defined an Arab in these words: "Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is brought up in our culture and takes pride in our glory is one of us." We may compare with this a definition from a well-qualified Western source, Professor Gibb of Oxford: "All those are Arabs for whom the central fact of history is the mission of Muhammad and the memory of the Arab Empire . . .