In Search of the Arab Soul

A History of the Arab Peoples

by Albert Hourani
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 551 pp., $24.95

To write a history of the Arabs as distinct from that of the other peoples with whom their affairs have been inextricably entwined is no easy matter. Since the seventh century and the advent of Islam, when the Arabs emerged from the Arabian Peninsula to conquer an empire in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, the history of the Arabs has been inseparable from the history of Islam. In the seventh century, the Arabian Peninsula was bordered to the east and north by two great empires, the Sassanian and the Byzantine. We do not know a great deal about the Arabs at this time. They were a people partially settled in oases towns, partially nomadic; they shared a form of loose tribal organization that emphasized the primacy of leading families and noble lineage. They worshiped a variety of deities, until Mohammed, establishing control over both Medina and Mecca, imposed a monotheistic religion. They were tied together primarily by language; several dialects of Arabic were beginning to resemble one another, and the Arabic of the Koran soon became a model for the Arabic that spread throughout the Middle East.

At least initially, Arabs dominated the empire that was created by Mohammed and his successors, and Arabic became the language of government, bureaucracy, religion, and scholarship, and of the educated elites. There was a strong sense of a distinctive Arab identity deriving not only from the Arabic language but from the power and influence of the leading Arab families within the empire. The Umayyad dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries, by drawing largely on Arabs to fill the administrative positions in the empire, gave a distinctive Arab character to its rule. But under the succeeding dynasty of the Abbasids, whose leaders, initially messianic, developed a more inclusive idea of empire, the Islamic world expanded, linking the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea basins, and exclusive Arab control could no longer be maintained.

Many non-Arabs were eager to identify with the Arab ruling group, yet the Islamic culture that emerged, although it was given its distinctiveness by the nature of Mohammed’s prophetic message and its Arab background, was also much influenced by the cultures of the conquered peoples. Methods of administration including tax collecting were borrowed from the Persians and the Byzantines. The Persians helped to shape Arab literary forms and sensibility and contributed extensively to Islamic philosophy and sciences and to Arabic grammar. Islamic philosophy was influenced by the discovery of the works of the Greek neo-Platonists and by the religious disputation that took place among the Christians and Jews who were among the conquered peoples.

Arabic became the language of ethnically quite different people in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa, who had not previously been Arabic speakers; and it remained for centuries the language of religious learning and scholarship. But after the tenth century, Persian reemerged in Iran as the language of imaginative literature and sometimes of the court. The Ottomans spoke Turkish. From the middle of the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.