General Information

The term Arabs refers to the peoples who speak Arabic as their native language. A Semitic people like the Jews (see Semites), Arabs form the bulk of the population of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition, there are about 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (see Arab-Israeli Wars), and more than 700,000 Arab citizens of Israel.

Estimates of the total Arab population of the countries above range from 175 to 200 million. The great majority of Arabs are Muslims, but there are significant numbers of Christian Arabs in Egypt (see Coptic Church), Lebanon, and Syria and among Palestinians. In geographical terms the Arab world includes North Africa and most of the Middle East (excluding Turkey, Israel, and Iran), a region that has been a center of civilization and crossroads of trade since prehistoric times.

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Arab History

References to Arabs as nomads and camel herders of northern Arabia appear in Assyrian inscriptions of the 9th century BC. The name was subsequently applied to all inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. From time to time Arab kingdoms arose on the fringes of the desert, including the Nabataeans at Petra in southern Jordan in the 2d century BC and Palmyra in central Syria in the 3d century AD, but no great Arab empire emerged until Islam appeared in the 7th century AD.

Although a majority of Muslims today are not Arabs, the religion was born in the Arabian Peninsula and Arabic is its mother tongue. Mecca, a place of religious pilgrimage for tribes of western Arabia and a trading center on the route between southern Arabia and the urban civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and Iraq, was the birthplace of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah (c.570-632 AD); the Muslim calendar begins with his flight to Medina in 622 because it marked the founding of a separate Muslim community. By the time of Muhammad's death, Mecca and nearly all the tribes of the peninsula had accepted Islam. A century later the lands of Islam, under Arab leadership, stretched from Spain in the west across North Africa and most of the modern Middle East into Central Asia and northern India.

There were two great Islamic dynasties of Arab origin, the Umayyads (661-750), centered in Damascus, and the Abbasids(750-1258), whose capital was Baghdad. Most Umayyad rulers insisted on Arab primacy over non-Arab converts to Islam, while the Abbasid caliphs accepted the principle of Arab and non-Arab equality as Muslims. At its height in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Abbasid caliphate was extraordinarily wealthy, dominating trade routes between Asia and Europe. Islamic civilization flourished during the Abbasid period even though the political unity of the caliphate often shattered into rival dynasties. Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic and contributed to the expansion of Arab-Persian Islamic scholarship. Islamic treatises on medicine, philosophy, and science, including Arabic translations of Plato and Aristotle, greatly influenced Christian thinkers in Europe in the 12th century by way of Muslim Spain.

The power of the Arab Abbasid family declined from the 10th century onward due to internal political and religious rivalries and victories by Christian European Crusaders seeking to recapture territory lost to Islam. The Mongol invasion of the 13th century led to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 and opened the way for the eventual rise of a great Turkish Muslim empire known as the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans took Constantinople (Istanbul) from the Byzantines in 1453 and had taken control of the Arab Middle East and most of North Africa by the end of the 16th century. Arabs remained subjects of the Ottoman Turks for over 300 years--into the 20th century.

The Arab world of today is the product of Ottoman decline, European colonialism, and Arab demands for freedom from European occupation. At the beginning of World War I all of North Africa was under French (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), Italian (Libya), or British (Egypt) domination. After World War I the League of Nations divided the Arab lands that had remained Ottoman during the war between Britain and France, with the understanding that each power would encourage the development of the peoples of the region toward self-rule. Iraq and Palestine (including part of what is now Jordan) went to Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France. Britain had suggested to Arab leaders during the war that Palestine would be included in areas to be given Arab self-determination, but British officials then promised the region to the Zionist movement, which called for a Jewish state there. The Arab lands gained their independence in stages after World War II, sometimes, as in Algeria, after long and bitter struggles. Much of Palestine became the state of Israel in May 1948, setting the stage for the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which five wars have occurred (1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982), and contributing to the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which gained prominence after the humiliating Arab losses in the 1967 war.

People and Economy

Arabs have traditionally been considered nomads, epitomized by the Bedouin of Arabia. Stereotypical portrayals of Arabs today use the image of the nomad or tribal sheikh, usually with prejudicial intent. In fact, it is difficult to generalize about Arabs in terms of appearance or way of life. Bedouin are less than 10 percent of the total Arab population. Most Arab societies are heavily urbanized, particularly the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula.

This reversal of the stereotype of the desert Arab owes much to the fact that there is little if any agriculture in such societies. Major peasant populations are found in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq, where there is water for irrigation, but even there generalizations are difficult. All these nations have heavy urban concentrations; Cairo, for example, has a population of 14 million and is still expanding. As a whole, then, Arab society today is more heavily urban than rural, as a result of major political, economic, and social changes that have occurred in the last century. In addition, there are important variations in political and religious outlooks among Arabs.

In the midst of such diversity the two basic elements uniting most Arabs are the Arabic language and Islam. Though spoken Arabic differs from country to country, the written language forms a cultural basis for all Arabs. Islam does the same for many, with Arabic being the language of the Koran, the revealed word of God delivered through the prophet Muhammad. Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims (see Sunnites). A minority are Shiites. The division of Islam into two main branches is the result of a dispute over succession to the caliphate that goes back to the 7th century and has led to certain doctrinal differences between the two branches. The major Shiite country is non-Arab Iran, but there are large numbers of Shiites in Iraq (where they form a majority) and in Lebanon (where Shiites are now the biggest single religious group). Shiite tensions are due partly to Iranian efforts to promote Shiite Islam in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and partly to the fact that Shiites, who form the economic underclass in many Arab nations, feel that they have been discriminated against by the Sunnite majority.

Although traditional tribal life has nearly disappeared, tribal values and identity retain some importance, especially when linked to Islam. Descent from the clan of the prophet Muhammad or from one of the first Arab tribes to accept Islam still carries great prestige. Many villages and towns contain prominent families with common links to tribal ancestors. Blood ties contribute to the formation of political factions. These types of relationships are less prevalent in cities; even there, however, leading families may seek to intermarry their children to preserve traditional bonds, and many urban families retain ties to their villages.

Nevertheless, the importance of kinship has been weakened by the rapid expansion of urban society, by modern educational systems, and by the creation of centralized governments whose bureaucracies are often the major source of employment for university graduates. Many educated young people choose spouses from among fellow classmates, a development that reflects especially the expansion of educational and professional opportunities for women. It is not uncommon for young people to become engaged and then wait a year or two to marry because they cannot find or afford suitable housing immediately. In the past the bride would have become part of the husband's family's household, a custom still followed in many villages.

This rapid pace of urbanization and social change has been encouraged by economic constraints found in many Arab societies. Except for oil, there are few natural resources to be exploited for industrial development. Agricultural productivity is generally high in Arab countries, but productive land is scarce in some regions because of the lack of water, and droughts and rising demand have increased the possibility of conflicts over water resources shared by neighboring countries. Fewer opportunities in agriculture, coupled with social modernization, have caused young people to flock to major cities seeking education and employment. This has placed serious strains on governmental abilities to respond to social needs.

This process has been exacerbated by another factor--the rapid rate of population growth in many Arab countries. Most have a rate of increase near 3 percent annually, as compared to rates of growth in Western Europe of under 1 percent. These growth rates reflect the impact of modern medicine and social services that have lessened infant mortality. The tendency to smaller families found in Western urban societies has not occurred because of the prevalence of traditional attitudes favoring large families, particularly among the poor and in areas where tribal values prevail. Oman has a growth rate approaching 5 percent, and even a rate of 2.3 percent for Egypt means that nearly 1.4 million Egyptians are born every year in a country where agricultural land comprises only 12 percent of the total land area, forcing further urban congestion and the need to import more food to maintain subsistence levels. This inability to feed the population from indigenous resources leads to increased indebtedness and a diversion of funds from development.

One final element in this equation is the large number of young people in these expanding populations. For example, 48 percent of all Syrians are under 15 years of age, a not unrepresentative statistic suggesting that future problems of unemployment and food shortages will be greater than they are now. These population indices suggest great potential for social unrest, and the failure of many secular Arab regimes to fulfill their promises of economic prosperity and national strength have contributed to the increasing adherence to Islam by young people in some Arab societies. Among the young, in particular, Arab inability to regain the territories lost in the 1967 war with Israel led to questioning of the secular ideologies that had dominated regional politics during the post-World War II era, while a growing gap between rich and poor and the spread of education increased demands for greater participation in largely undemocratic political systems.

Modern Politics and Social Issues

The men who led the Arab independence movements after World War I were usually secularists. Although many of them, such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, were Pan-Arab nationalists who advocated the creation of a single Arab nation, they believed it essential that their countries adopt many aspects of Western civilization, such as secular laws, parliamentary government, and the like. These views challenged the primacy of Islam in everyday life. Islamic law (Sharia) makes no distinction between religious and temporal power. Muslims believe that all law derives from the Koran, and that God's word must therefore apply to all aspects of life. The gradual relegation of Islam to the realm of personal status, a process that began during the period of Western dominance, continued as Arab nations gained independence under nationalist leaders who believed that Islam lacked answers to the problems confronting modern society and national development.

Many devout Arab Muslims disagreed. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was formed in Egypt as early as 1929 to meet the needs of Egyptians uprooted by modern economic and cultural inroads into traditional Egyptian life. A central tenet of all such Muslim groups is the belief that Western economic and social values cannot restore past Arab greatness and that Muslim societies must be based on principles derived from their own roots. Beyond this, such groups often differ on the type of society they envisage and how to achieve it. Some organizations advocate the violent overthrow of existing regimes; others spread their views by peaceful means. The call to Islam has special appeal to those who are the victims rather than the beneficiaries of modernization. Many others who have rejected membership in such groups have returned to the private religious duties of Islam, such as praying five times daily, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslim organizations see the West as the real threat to Islamic stability. Most see Israel as an agent of the West in the Middle East. Even secular Arabs who admire the West and fear reintroduction of a Muslim theocracy nevertheless often feel angered at what they perceive as Western and especially American ignorance of and unconcern for Arab concerns. The Palestinian uprising (Intifada) launched in December 1987 created new awareness of the problem and contributed to the signing of the 1993 accord between Israel and the PLO.

On the other hand, anti-Israeli pronouncements have often served to create a false impression of unity when real agreement was lacking. The Arab League, formed in 1945, has been more a forum for Arab infighting than a framework for cooperation. Arabs genuinely feel common bonds based on language and a shared historical and cultural legacy, but they also identify themselves as Egyptians, Iraqis, and so on. Their ideological differences reflect the wide range of governing systems in the Arab world, from socialist regimes to oil-rich monarchies.

Complicating factors for the region have been the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), tensions between Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, regional involvement in Lebanon, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As of 1990, more than 60 percent of the proved oil reserves of the globe could be found in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, which contains nearly half of the world's reserves. Oil has been exported from the Arab world since the 1930s, but only with the creation of the Organization pf Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960 and the Libyan revolution of 1969 did these countries begin to determine oil prices themselves. Although only eight Arab nations are substantial oil producers and OPEC has several non-Arab members, the organization is usually associated with Arab oil; the oil shortages of 1973-74 resulted from Saudi anger at U.S. policy during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Overproduction drove down prices in the 1980s and early 1990s, weakening OPEC's clout and the ability of the oil-producing Arab states to provide aid and jobs for the poorer Arab nations. The Arab world is likely to long remain the center of world oil production, however, a fact that contributed to the international response to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and to the ongoing efforts to destroy Iraq's nuclear capability.

Future Prospects

The Arab world holds potential for both growth and conflict. Some Arab efforts to promote more unified approaches to common problems have been made in recent years, including the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (1981) and the Arab Maghrib Union 1989), and the shaky union of the Yemens. Efforts to forge Arab unity are strained by competition among Iraq, Syria, and Egypt for leadership of the Arab world, and the varied Arab reactions to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait shattered the myth of such unity. Prospects for regional stability improved somewhat with the ending of the cold war and the signing of the 1993 and 1994 accords between the PLO and Israel, the 1994 accord between Israel and Jordan, and other Arab moves toward peace with Israel. The impact of population growth on development is a crucial factor, as is the emergence in many Arab countries of radical, populist Muslim movements with mass support. Such movements have been kept under uneasy restraint in some nations, as in Jordan, or have been ruthlessly suppressed, as in Algeria. In one Arab nation, Sudan, they have won power.

Charles D. Smith

Anderson, L., et al., The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991); Beck, L., and Keddie, N., eds., Women in the Muslim World (1978); Esposito, J. L., The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (1993); Hamada, L. B., Understanding the Arab World (1990); Hourani, A., A History of the Arab Peoples (1991; repr. 1992); Lamb, D., The Arabs (1987); Landau, Jacob M., The Politics of Pan-Islam: Ideology and Organization, rev. ed. (1994); Lewis, B., The Arabs in History, 6th ed. (1993) and Islam and the West (1993); Mackey, S., Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs (1993); Mansfield, P., The Arabs, rev. ed. (1992); Smith, C. D., Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2d ed. (1992); Sonn, T., Between Qur'an and Crown (1990); Viorst, M., Sandcastles: The Arabs in

Also, if you are studying Islamic subject, see:
Islam, Muhammad
Koran, Qur'an
Pillars of Faith
Testament of Abraham
Revelation - Hadiths from Book 1 of al-Bukhari
Belief - Hadiths from Book 2 of al-Bukhari
Knowledge - Hadiths from Book 3 of al-Bukhari
Times of the Prayers - Hadiths from Book 10 of al-Bukhari
Shortening the Prayers (At-Taqseer) - Hadiths from Book 20 of al-Bukhari
Pilgrimmage (Hajj) - Hadiths from Book 26 of al-Bukhari
Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihad) - Hadiths of Book 52 of al-Bukhari
ONENESS, UNIQUENESS OF ALLAH (TAWHEED) - Hadiths of Book 93 of al-Bukhari
Hanafiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Malikiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Shafi'iyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Hanbaliyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Maturidiyyah Theology (Sunni)
Ash'ariyyah Theology (Sunni)
Mutazilah Theology
Ja'fari Theology (Shia)
Nusayriyyah Theology (Shia)
Zaydiyyah Theology (Shia)
Imams (Shia)
Qarmatiyyah (Shia)
Ishmael, Ismail
Early Islamic History Outline
Kaaba, Black Stone
Sunnites, Sunni
Shiites, Shia
Sahih, al-Bukhari
Abu Bakr
Fatimids (Shia)
Ismailis (Shia)
Islamic Calendar
Interactive Muslim Calendar

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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