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How Do We Recognize the Arab Identity

posted on: Mar 30, 2017

By Sadek Jawad Sulaiman


The Arabs are defined by their culture, not by race; and their culture is defined by its essential twin constituents of Arabism and Islam. To most of the Arabs, Islam is their indigenous religion; to all of the Arabs, Islam is their indigenous civilization. The Arab identity, as such, is a culturally defined identity, which means being Arab is being someone whose mother culture, or dominant culture, is Arabism. Beyond that, he or she might be of any ancestry, of any religion or philosophical persuasion, and a citizen of any country in the world. Being Arab does not contradict with being non-Muslim or non-Semitic or not being a citizen of an Arab state.

What is Arabism? As it has evolved historically under Islam, Arabism is one of many national cultures that were augmented by the advent and spread of Islam. However, since Arabism was the culture that received and gave expression to the Islamic message at inception, it became, and remains to this day, distinctively the authoritative repository of Islamic creed and thought. The Qur’an describes itself as Arabic, notably where it appeals to reason, knowledge, and morality as requisites in the inquiry for truth and the effort for self improvement. This is because the Arabs of the time, though cognizant of these values, as evidenced by some of their pre-Islamic literature, ignored them, and remained mired in tribal rivalry and an arrogant lifestyle. Islam called upon the Arabs to reinstate ethics, reason, and brotherhood in their life; beyond that, it prodded them to rise to a culture that transcended tribalism and race and to open up to humanity.

Thus, the Arabism that Islam nurtured as the purveyor of its message to humankind was cultural, ethical, rational, and inclusive. It was this cultural, ethical, rational, and inclusive character of Arabism, as prompted by Islam that attracted peoples of other races and religions. As other peoples embraced Islam and took to studying it through learning Arabic and reading the Qur’an, they became Arabized, in much the same way as people of various ethnic backgrounds embracing the American experience and learning the English language become Americanized.

One remarkable outcome of the “Arabization” trend was that many scholars of non Arab descent became proficient in Arabic and authored their intellectual product in it, rather than in their native languages. They became members of an Arabic intellectual community although they were cosmopolitan in race, native tongue, and even religion, Thus they became part of a common culture, Arabism, that, like Islam, indeed, because of Islam, rejected discrimination among people based on ethnic background.

Our scholars traversed the vast Islamic world, using in what they wrote, debated, and taught, the Arabic language, thereby enriching it all the more. Through their enterprise, uninterrupted through five centuries, Arabism and Islam, providing culture and thought, coalesced. As a result, a yet unprecedented wealth of recorded knowledge was commonly generated and shared throughout the Muslim world in the Arabic language.

Thus, historically, Arabism, like Islam, transcended race and ethnic origin. People from all over the known world who came in contact with and lived the Arabic cultural experience became Arabized. Thus, to be Arab is not to assert a racial lineage or a religious affiliation. Rather, it was and is to affirm affinity with a great culture that received, lived, and conveyed to the world a great religion. The culture and the religion coalesced to offer humankind one of her greatest civilizations. What is Islam, the other twin constituent of the Arabic culture from which the Arab identity derives? As both a religion and a civilization, Islam’s basic perspective may be comprehended at three distinct levels: the conceptual, the moral, and the practical.                 

The Conceptual Level

1. The first Core Concept is “Tawheed”, or Oneness. It affirms that God is One, Absolute, Ultimate, Eternal, Matchless, Transcendent. ‘Tawheed’ or Oneness is Islam’s first determinant of reality, of truth, of the world, of space and time and of human history. It pervades and unifies all the various elements in Islamic thought. At the human level, it embodies three major ideas: Unity, Freedom, and Rationalism.

Unity means that God is one and all creation is one, governed by the selfsame laws of nature; the divine message is one and humanity is one as well. No civilization can arise without unity.

Freedom establishes the precept that a human’s ultimate allegiance is to none other than God: subservient to God alone, a person is freed from subservience to any fellow human; hence, all humans are created equal and must be treated as such.

Rationalism recognizes human reason as the proper means of comprehension. By the same token, rationalism does not admit contradiction between Revelation and reason.

2. The second Core Concept is Prophecy. Simply stated, it affirms that guidance for humankind, i.e. the moral direction sustaining the human experience and moving it forward, has come from God, historically through prophets, who were human themselves.

3. The third core concept is Ma’ad, or Return. It means returning after completing a life cycle on earth, and accounting for one’s conduct in life. The Quranic verse cited in the face of temporal adversity: “To God we belong, and unto Him we return” .

The Moral Level. On that level there are four principles. .

1. The first principle is Justice. God being innately just, justice must be upheld in every human activity. Without justice no human transaction is essentially valid or beneficial. The accumulation of injustice leads to the disintegration of society. Conversely, with justice societies are helped to endure and prosper.

2. The second principle is Equality. Being equal before God, we simply cannot be unequal among ourselves. Discrimination by gender, race, or creed is rejected.

3. The third is the principle of Human Dignity. Humanity is divinely endowed with dignity, hence human beings, as distinct from human actions, should not be humiliated or condemned.

4. The fourth principle in the Islamic moral code is Shura, or consultative governance. While Shura did not historically evolve in Islam as a democratic process, nor was it given significant weight in Islamic governance, it has never been denied or challenged as a constitutional ideal. The Qur’an depicts Shura as the natural order of decision making.

In the Islamic perspective, all human rights and obligations— personal, familial, national, and international ensue from these four principles of Justice, Equality, Human Dignity, and Shura.

The Practical Level

Islam places great emphasis on time tested values that are universally beneficial, that is, irrespective of race, culture, or creed. Some such values are: knowledge, cooperation, prosperity, compassion, faith, integrity, and physical as well as mental well-being. These values are by no means exclusive to Islam; Muslims call them Islamic only in the sense that Islam has underscored them as well, as essential to the healthy development and ultimately the survival of human society. Accordingly, I believe that to understand the Arab identity, it is important to understand at some depth the Arabic culture by which it is has been shaped and defined.

Early in the second half of the twentieth century, with the advent of considerable oil wealth, the build-up of professional cadres, and a popular impulse for unity, opportunities arose before the Arabs to unite, democratize, and invest substantially in human development across the entire Arab world. But the opportunities came and went, withering away in the face of parochial selfishness, petty inter-state quarrels, inadequate understanding of the modern world, and generally a less than an enlightened interest in the welfare and destiny of the nation as a whole. 

Yet, notwithstanding the adversity, debilitating and demoralizing as it is, the Arab identity, defined by the Arabic culture with its twin constituents of Arabism, and Islam, still stands distinctively as one of the outstanding identities in the human matrix. By the same token, though deficient and frustrated, the Arab nation is by no means defeated or disabled beyond a realistic potentiality for unity and renaissance. I find it hard to concede that this great nation, once so rich, vibrant, productive, and pregnant with vigor and talent, would not join the ranks of great nations.

The Arabs once gave the world a full fledged civilization that enhanced many national cultures; they can yet contribute significantly to the human enterprise. They can yet rise to take their proper place under the sun and play their part in augmenting human progress. That kind of opportunity is never denied by history to a nation that finds her soul and works her will with unity, industry, integrity, and wisdom. The Arabs, too, have that opportunity before them. Proud of their identity and culture, and if intent as well on rising up the ranks of nations, they must pull together and claim that opportunity before long.