Arabs are the largest single ethnic group in the Middle East and North Africa, number-ing around 325 million people living in 22 countries that make up the League of Arab States, including Somalia, Djibouti, and the Comoros Islands. In addition, there are important Arab minorities in Turkey, Iran, and Israel as well as in a number of Saharan and Sahel states in Africa including Mali, Niger, and Chad. Arabs have had a long historical presence in East Africa where they founded several trade cities, and as a result, there are Arab minorities in Kenya and Tanzania, especially on the island of Zanzibar.
Arabic is the largest and most wide-spread Semitic language today. Most Arabs are Muslims, and Arabic is closely tied to the religion as it is the language of the Qur’an and Islamic practice. Arabs com-prise around 20 percent of Muslims world-wide. There are between 20 million and 30 million Christian and Jewish Arabs and, in Lebanon, Christians make up around 44 percent of the total population.
Since the foundation of Israel in 1948, many Jewish Arabs have immigrated, leav-ing behind small communities numbering only in the few hundreds or few thousands. Arab ethnicity is difﬁcult to deﬁne, and it is generally accepted that it is primarily based on speaking the Arabic language. The language serves as a means of separa-tion into regional dialects, but is also the unifying force in the form of classical/liter-ary Arabic (Fusha). A modiﬁed form of Fusha called Modern Standard Arabic is used in print and broadcast media.
In the Qur’an (and the Bible), Arabs are the descendants of the patriarch Ibrahim (Abraham) and his Egyptian bondwoman Hajar (Hagar) through their son Isma‘il (Ishmael) and are thus close cousins to the Hebrews. In Arabic sources, Isma‘il founded the various North Arabian tribes including that of the Prophet Muhammad, which are collectively called the ‘Arab al-Musta‘arabah or the Arabized Arabs. Qahtan (the Biblical Joktan) was the founder of the ‘Arab al-‘Arabah or Ara-bian Arabs who are the South Arabian tribes.
The rivalry between northern (Qaysi/‘Adnani) and southern (Yamani) tribes played a major role in Arab history. Arabs originated in the Arabian Penin-sula, and the ﬁrst recorded use of the term “Arab” is found in an Assyrian inscription dated 853 BCE; Shalmaneser III notes that among those he defeated was Jindibu, king of the Arabs, at the Battle of Qarqar. Set-tled populations in South Arabia formed states early and were in contact with Egypt, while in the Arab (Persian) Gulf, South Arabian peoples traded with India, Iran, and Mesopotamia.
Copper from Oman and frankincense and myrrh from Dhufar were the major items traded. South Arabians established the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia around 400 BCE. There were a number of South Arabian states, but among the best known were Sabaean and Himyarite that ruled Yemen and the Hadramawt from the fourth century BCE to the rise of Islam. North Arabian king-doms such the Nabateans emerged in the fourth century BCE, controlling trade between Yemen and the Mediterranean.
The oasis city of Tadmur (Palmyra) controlled the trade from Iraq and assisted the Romans in their wars against Persia. The Palmyrene queen Zenobia (ruled 267–274), brieﬂy challenged Roman rule over the eastern parts of the Empire including Egypt. The Roman emperor Marcus Julius Philipus (ruled 244–249) was born in what is today southern Syria and was known as Philip the Arab.
In the ﬁfth century CE, several Arab buffer states arose on the borders between the Roman and Persian empires. The Bani Ghassan served the Romans/Byzantines and the Lakhamids served the Persians. The Kingdom of Kinda in what is today Saudi Arabia remained outside of imperial control and brieﬂy united much of Arabia, but it was eventually destroyed by the Lakhamids. The last prince of Kinda, the poet Imru’ al-Qays, sought the help of Emperor Justinian I (ruled 527–565) to reclaim his throne.
Pre-Islamic history is usually called the Jahiliyah Period in Arabic, meaning the Age of Ignorance, indicating ignorance of Islam. It is also called Ayyam al-‘Arab or Time of the Bedouin because Bedouin tribes and their conﬂicts dominated the events. The Prophet Muhammad was born around the year 571 in Makkah to the rul-ing Quraysh tribe. He was orphaned early in his life and was raised ﬁrst by his grand-father ‘Abd al-Mutalib and then by his paternal uncle Abu Talib. Muhammad was uncomfortable with the religion of hisfathers andtooktodeepmeditation. In 610, he had the ﬁrst revelation of the Qur’an during the month of Ramadan and declared that he was chosen to be the Prophet of God.
In 622, Muhammad was invited to come to the oasis of Yathrib (Madinah) and help settle the dispute between its main tribes. In Yathrib, Muhammad effec-tively became both the head of the new religious community and of a new state that challenged Makkah’s position in Arabia. Muhammad was able to defeat coalitions formed by the Quraysh and entered Makkah in triumph in 630. The Prophet died in 632, and Abu Bakr, a long-time friend and one of the ﬁrst converts to Islam, was elected to be the Prophet’s Suc-cessor or Khalifah.
After a short period of consolidation, the Arabs set out to challenge the power of the Byzantines and the Persians, and by 636, Syria and, in 642, Egypt were taken from the Byzantines; by 652, most of PersiawasinArabhands.The Arabs continued to expand after the establish-ment of the Arab Muslim ﬁrst imperial dynasty the Umayyads (660–661 to 750).
The Umayyads moved the capital from Madinah to Damascus in Syria. The Umayyad period brought the Arabs into contact with Hellenistic and Persian cul-tures, helping to forge a larger Islamic identity. Under the Umayyads, the Arabs successfully expanded into North Africa and by 711 had conquered the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain. Initially, the new empire relied on the people and institu-tions of the old empires they conquered, but during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik (ruled 685–705) the government was Arabized; Arabic replaced Greek and Persian in ofﬁcial government records.
TheUmayyadswereunabletodeal effectively with the continual rivalries between Qays and Yaman and the growing dissatisfaction among recent converts to Islam who did not have equal rights with Arabs. The descendants of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib rose in a rebellion that weakened Umayyad rule. Eventually, the Umayyads fell to their distant relatives, the ‘Abbasids, in 750. The Umayyads continued in a sepa-rate state in Spain, which lasted from 755 to 1031. The Umayyads of Spain produced one of the most remarkable societies of their time, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews living together in tolerance. The cul-tural dialogue of Umayyad Spain or the convenvincia remains unique and one of Islam’s greatest periods.
The ‘Abbasids moved the capital of the empire to Baghdad in Iraq and styled their government on the Persian model. The position of Wazir or chief minister was adopted by al-Mansur (ruled 754–775) and was ﬁrst held by the Persian Barmakid fam-ily. During the ‘Abbasid period, the position of Khalifah became more of a ﬁgurehead as powerful military commanders called Sultans took control of the government.
The empire broke into numerous small states ruled by local dynasties, though most continued to give ofﬁcial recognition of the ‘Abbasids as their overlords. The last ‘Abbasid Khalifah al-Mu‘atasim (ruled 1242–1258) was killed by the Mongol Hu¨ lagu¨ Khan at the fall of Baghdad in 1258. A branch of the ‘Abbasid family was saved by the Mamluks of Egypt where they would be ﬁgureheads until 1517, when the Ottomans conquered Egypt and forced the last of the ‘Abbasids to sign over the title of Khalifah to the Ottoman Sultan.
Arabs have a long history of cultural contributions in literature, architecture, ﬁne arts, and music. Arabic became the language not only of literature and reli-gion, but also of medicine, optics, biology, history, geography, astronomy, and lin-guistics for the vast Muslim society. Many non-Arabs contributed to the corpus of Arabic literature. Even today, most reli-gious scholarship on Islam is written and studied in Arabic, no matter the origin of the person.
Poetry is an Arab art, and few people enjoy both making and listening to verse as much as Arabs. During the pre-Islamic period, poetry had already emerged as the primary Arab art form in the Suspended Odes or al-Mu‘allaqat. The Classical period of Arab-Islamic literature produced a long list of poets who developed such forms as satire, elegy, panegyric, and the ode. Princes such as Firas al-Hamadani of Aleppo became famous, and collections or Diwans of poetry were edited and pub-lished in large numbers. Another format at which the Arabs excelled was rhymed prose or belle lettre.‘AliibnHazm’s (d. 1064) works on courtly love greatly inﬂuenced that of medieval Europe.
The Qur’an and its commentaries (Tafsir) were important not only in under-standing and developing law, but also for a better understanding of the language. Grammars were written to help instruct non-Arabs in proper style and pronuncia-tion, and the language of the Qur’an remains a standard few have been able to match. The Syrian poet al-Mutannabi (d. 965) earned his name (meaning “prophet-like”) for being able to compose poetry said to equal the high standards of the Qur’an.
Arabs also developed literature on the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as well as on mystical Islam (Suﬁsm). The works of al-Ghazali (d. 1111) were an attempt to reconcile mysticism with orthodox belief and the folly of philosophy. In the Arab West, ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) responded to al-Ghazali to defend human reason with his book Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive Son of Awake)which later served as a model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Arabs adopted and adapted the writings of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato through translations into Arabic. Al-Kindi (d. 873) and al-Farabi (d. 951) gave the works of Plato an Islamic bent and developed his Repub-lic into the Islamic ideal state al-Madinah al-Mufadilah. In Muslim Spain, ibn Rushd (d. 1119) wrote on philosophy and reason, and his works greatly inﬂuenced Thomas Aquinas and the rise of European thought.
Arabs produced a large corpus of his-tories, geographies, and travel narratives. The North African Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) produced the ﬁrst social theory of history in the Muqaddimah (Prologue)tohis monumental history of the Berber dynas-ties. Ibn Battutah (d. 1368–1369) wrote an extensive and detailed description of his numerous travels. His accounts of the Kingdom of Mali still serve as valuable information on it and its culture.
Arabic literature suffered a decline with the rise of Turkish and Persian dynasties and the subsequent elevation of both Turkishand Persiantothe levelofcourtlan-guages. The Arabic literary revival began in the 19th century, with Egypt and the Levant being the main centers. Arabs not only revived ancient forms such as poetry, but quickly adopted new literary forms from the West such as the novel, short story, plays, and free-verse poetry. Cairo became the center for literary publications because its upper class had the ﬁnances and the desire to patronize journals, newspapers, andbookpublishinghouses.Arabsfrom Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine moved to Cairo to pursue their careers.
Egyptians took the lead and major authors such as Taha Hussein (d. 1973), Tawﬁq al-Hakim (d. 1987), and Nagib Mahfuz (d. 2006) became well read both in and out of the Arab world, and Nagib Mah-fuz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. The Syrian poet Adonis (b. 1930) has taken modern Arabic poetry to unknown limits, breaking standard conven-tions, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature four times since 2005.
Arabic music is one of the major musics of the world, and there are a wide variety of forms today. Arabic music developed in the early Islamic period to include not only indigenous Arab styles of the Arabian Peninsula, but also instruments and scales adopted from the Byzantines and Persians and based on a system of modes/scales or maqamat.
The composer/teacher Ziryab arrived in Muslim Spain in 822 after falling out with the ‘Abbasids. He introduced a number of innovations to Arabic music, including adding a string to the ‘ud and developing the muwashshahat form of zajal. Muwashshahat became a major source for the medieval European trouba-dour music, and the Andalusian ibn Quzman (d. 1160) is considered the ﬁrst troubadour.
Arabic music was also revived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s, the Egyptian Umm Kulthum (d. 1975) established a reputation unchal-lenged in her ability to produce tarab (a state of ecstasy) in her listeners. The Egyptian composer/singer Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1991) was the oppo-site of Umm Kulthum, including a wide range of Western innovations in his music.
The Syrian Farid al-Atrash (d. 1974) was an accomplished ‘ud composer and player and wrote a large number of songs both light and popular as well those with strong classical inﬂuences. The Syrian singer Sabah al-Fakhri (b. 1933) carries on the classical style of music, noted for his abil-ity to induce tarab among his listeners. Today, Arab music includes a range of popular styles: Khaliji from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Rai from Algeria, and Jil from Egypt as well as Arabic rap.
Calligraphy is a well-developed Arab art, and it is not only used in books, but in decoration on buildings. Six “classic hands” or calligraphic styles were devel-oped, and that of ibn Bawwab (d. 1031) became the standard for others to imitate. The Arab West developed its own styles called maghribi and andalusi from which the Arabic script in West Africa, sudani or ‘ajami, developed. In addition to the beauty of the calligraphy, many books include illumination and miniatures were a specialty of books produced in the Islamic world. Miniature illustrations arose in the 13th century in Iraq at a time when large numbers of manuscripts were produced. Miniatures were quickly adop-ted by the Persians and Turks, who developed the art form in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Arab architecture has developed over a wide geographical area responding to cli-mate and available building materials. There is no single Arab type, and Arab architecture is inﬂuenced by the classic traditions of Rome (stone) and Persia (brick). The typical Arab house is built around a central courtyard where much of the housework is done.
The courtyard can be simple as in a rural farmhouse, or elaborate with side iwans (alcoves) such as in houses in Damascus. Courtyards in urban homes were paved in stone such as marble and included a fountain and often-times fruit trees such as lemon. In the Arab Gulf, houses had a wind tower that helped catch the slightest breeze and funnel it into the house.
In Yemen and the Hadramawt, houses were built in mud brick as much as ﬁve stories tall. Most Arab palaces con-sist of a series of pavilions in large gardens of ﬂowering trees and bushes and ﬂowing water from fountains in an attempt to imi-tate heaven; the Arabic word for garden, junaynah, is a diminutive of the word for paradise, jannah.
Mosques, madrasahs (Islamic schools), hospitals, fountains, and other such public buildings developed over the centuries, incorporating local inﬂuences as well as those of Rome, Iran, and Central Asia. Public buildings served as a means for the upper class to demonstrate both their wealth and their generosity. Regional styles developed such as “Andalusian” Muslim Spain and North Africa and “Mamluk” in Egypt and Syria. The Otto-man Turks had a profound inﬂuence on public buildings in the Arab world bet-ween the 16th century and the early 20th century, when they ruled most of the Middle East and North Africa.
Modern history of the Arabs begins in the 19th century with the rise of Arab nationalism and European colonization. Muhammad ‘Ali’s (d. 1848) period of rule in Egypt marks the beginning of the modern era. He arrived in Egypt in 1801 with theOttomanarmysenttoexpelthe French. Muhammad ‘Ali destroyed the last of the Mamluks and set about reforming the army along European lines. He came to the aid of the Ottomans and defeated the Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula 1814 and added the Sudan to Egypt in 1820.
He expanded into Syria in 1831 and was quickly able to advance into Anatolia, where he defeated the Ottoman army. The European powers forced him to return to Egypt, giving up control of Syria to the Ottomans. However, the brief period of Egyptian occupation forced the Ottomans to begin their own reforms. Between 1839 and 1876, the Tanzimat (Reform Movement) tried to modernize the Ottoman government and army.
A number of new acts were promulgated, including equality between all citizens of the empire and a national assembly. How-ever, the movement was killed when the new Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II (ruled 1876–1909) came to the throne in 1876. Suspicious and reactionary, he dissolved the parliament and ruled by decree until he was overthrown by the Young Turks in 1908.
The Arab provinces of the empire had been stripped from the Sultan one by one by the European powers; Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, Egypt in 1881, and Libya in 1911. The Arab Gulf rulers had been placed under British protection by a series of treaties in the 19th century, and Britain occupied Aden in 1839 in order to help protect British shipping to India. Euro-peans were interested in the Levant, the French in Lebanon and the British in Pal-estine, though they were not able to detach them from the empire.
Arab nationalism grew in the 19th cen-tury, and many young Arab men were edu-cated in foreign mission schools or went to Europe to complete their education. While in Europe, they formed a number of secret societies and began publishing nationalist materials to distribute back home. When the Young Turks came to power, their Turkish nationalism clashed with Arab nationalism and, when World War I started, many Arab citizens reluctantly fought for the Turks. In 1916, the Sharif of Makkah declared the Arab Revolt and joined the Allies.
Following the war, the Arabs thought they would be able to have their indepen-dence, with Damascus as the capital. However, neither France nor Great Britain would allow an independent Arab state, and instead Arab provinces became man-dates with the British in charge of Pales-tine, Transjordan, and Iraq, and France in charge of Lebanon and Syria.
The British declared Egypt an “independent” Sultan-ate at the start of hostilities in 1914. In 1919, Egyptians rose in revolt when their delegation to the Peace Conference was refused a seat, and by 1921, the British had negotiated Egyptian independence, but Great Britain still controlled most of the country’s affairs. Great Britain granted Iraq independence in 1932, and Jordan was granted its independence in 1946.
The Syrians rose in rebellion in 1925 and, though crushed by 1927, the rebellion forced France to allow elections for a national parliament, which the opposition won. Syria became in-dependent in 1944, though French troops stayed until 1946 and Lebanon became inde-pendent in 1943. Only Saudi Arabia and Northern Yemen were independent and not occupied by foreigners.
Morocco was the last of the North Afri-can states to fall under European control and, in 1912, split between France and Spain while the city of Tangiers was inter-nationalized. Morocco was a protectorate with a French resident general who was to work with the Moroccan Sultan, though in reality the resident general administered the country.
In 1927, Muhammad V became the Sultan, and he formed an alli-ance with those Moroccans who wanted to see the end of foreign rule. He was exiled in 1953 and the French tried to replace him, but were forced to return him in 1955 and, in 1956, Morocco became indepen-dent as did Tunisia. Algerians fought a long war of independence with France, which they won in 1962.
Mauritania gained its independence in 1960, and the last of the Arab world to receive full independence were the Gulf States in 1970.Much of recent Arab history has been driven by the Palestinian conﬂict with Israel. With roots in promises made during World War I, the conﬂict has not been resolved. Of the nearly 1 million Palesti-nians in 1948, two-thirds were made refu-gee in the ﬁrst war.
The Arabs have fought three major wars with Israel, in 1948, 1967, and 1973, as well as a number other conﬂicts such as 1956, when Israel joined the British and French attack on Egypt as a result of Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasr’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and the 1978, 1982, and 2006 Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the 2008–2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Some Arab states had diplomatic ties with Israel following the 1990–1991 Gulf War; but relations remain stagnant, and as long as the conﬂict in Palestine continues, diplomatic repre-sentation is difﬁcult. Mauritania cut its dip-lomatic ties with Israel following the 2008–2009 invasion of Gaza.
Arab states include a range of different political systems, from monarchies to republics. Meaningful political participa-tion is limited, and most Arab counties are accused of human rights abuses. Cen-sorship of the media still occurs, although general wide access to satellite television makes censorship less important.
Since the 1980s, governments have been chal-lenged by the rise of militant Islamism. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military parade in 1981 by Islamic militants, and Algeria fought a civil war from 1991 to 2002 with several different Islamist groups. All of the Arab states have had to deal with bombings or other acts of violence perpe-trated by organizations such as Al Qaeda.
John A. Shoup
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Andrews, Peter, with excerpts from Odette du Puigaudeau. “The Hassaniya-Speaking Nomads: Tekna, Trearza, and Brakna.” In Afri-can Nomadic Architecture: Space, Gender, and Power, edited by Labelle Prussin. Wash-ington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press and National Museum of African Art, 1995.
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Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Aribic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Univer-sity of Chicago Press, 1997.