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Arabs in the Mirror

Arabs in the Mirror
Images and Self-Images from Pre-Islamic to Modern Times

A fascinating look at how Arabs have sought to define their own identity and how they have been viewed by others from pre-Islamic times to the last decades of the twentieth century.

April 2008
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224 pages | 6 x 9 |

To bring new perspectives to the question of Arab identity, Iraqi-born scholar Nissim Rejwan has assembled this fascinating collection of writings by Arab and Western intellectuals, who try to define what it means to be Arab. He begins with pre-Islamic times and continues to the last decades of the twentieth century, quoting thinkers ranging from Ibn Khaldun to modern writers such as al-Ansari, Haykal, Ahmad Amin, al-'Azm, and Said. Through their works, Rejwan shows how Arabs have grappled with such significant issues as the influence of Islam, the rise of nationalism, the quest for democracy, women's status, the younger generation, Egypt's place in the Arab world, Israel's role in Middle Eastern conflict, and the West's "cultural invasion."

By letting Arabs speak for themselves, Arabs in the Mirror refutes a prominent Western stereotype—that Arabs are incapable of self-reflection or self-government. On the contrary, it reveals a rich tradition of self-criticism and self-knowledge in the Arab world.

  • Prologue. The Bedouin, the Camel, the Sand, and the Palm Tree
  • One. Identity and Self-Definition
  • Two. Ibn Khaldun's Appraisal Appraised
  • Three. "Arabizing the Arabs"
  • Four. Self-Images Old and New
  • Five. Calls for "Critical Self-Analysis"
  • Six. Unity in Diversity
  • Seven. The Quest for Democracy
  • Eight. Resources and Development
  • Nine. The Social Scene
  • Ten. The Case of Egypt
  • Eleven. The West's Inroads
  • Twelve. The Difference Israel Has Made
  • Thirteen. New Lessons for Old
  • Fourteen. The Intellectuals
  • Appendix. Portraits in a Mirror: Three Fictional Versions
  • Index

Nissim Rejwan is Research Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


The Arabian Peninsula is the cradle of the Semitic family of peoples, who later became known as the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Assyrians, and the Phoenicians; it is one of the driest and hottest areas in the world. In the words of Philip Hitti, an Arab historian: "Though sandwiched between seas on the east and west, those bodies of water are too narrow to break the climatic continuity of the Afro-Asian rainless continental masses. The ocean on the south does bring rains, but the burning winds which seasonally lash the land leave very little moisture for the interior. The bracing and delightful east wind has always provided a favorite theme for Arabian poets" (History of the Arabs, 17).


Poetry was considered the highest manifestation of Arab culture in the century preceding Islam, so much so that the well-known Persian historian and geographer Ibn Wadhih al-Ya'qubi, in his book Kitab al-Buldan (Book of Countries), wrote that poetry among the Arabs had taken the place of science, philosophy, history, and everything else. If an Arab had a bright idea, he would express it in a few verses.


The Arabs of the pre-Islamic era were people of a poetic bent, and Arabic nurtured many a great poet, although their land was not one of flowers and nightingales, but only thorns and sand. Since poetry was esteemed as the highest manifestation of culture, Arab poets were always on the lookout for a suitable spot to present their poems. The finest poems were inscribed on posters and hung on the walls of the Ka'ba during their annual rendezvous. The Ka'ba (Arabic, "square building" or "cube") is Islam's most sacred sanctuary and pilgrimage site, located in the Great Mosque in Mecca. The Qur'an states that the Ka'ba was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael; it houses the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), the most venerated place for Muslims. These posters hung on the walls of the Ka'ba were called mu'allaqat (hanging verses), and the poets rewarded with such display became famous. Imr'ul-Qais and other poets of early Islam were among those thus honored. They were the authors of "the seven hanging pieces" (al-mu'allaqat el-Sab'), which eventually found a place of honor on the walls of the Ka'ba and in history.


It is important to add here, however, that there are still serious doubts about the authenticity of the mu'allaqat. In 1926, Dr. Taha Hussein, who in his life was known as "the doyen of Arabic literature," published a book titled Fil Shi'r al-Jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry). In his introduction and in the course of the book, the author tries to prove that all this poetry—which, he says, was so abundant that one could imagine that all the ancients were poets—had been fabricated. He reaches the conclusion, in fact, that this poetry "proves nothing and tells nothing and should not be used, as it has been, as an instrument in the study of the Koran and the Hadith. "There is no doubt," Taha Hussein asserts, "that this poetry was tailored and invented all of a piece so that the culema (religious savants) might prove by it what they had set out to prove" (quoted in Nissim Rejwan, Arabs Face the Modern World, 47, 48).


Few non-Arab ancient historians wrote about Arabia, and the traces in Herodotus's Histories (430 BC), Dio Cassius's History of Rome (AD 220), and Ammianus Marcellinus's Roman History (AD 380) are, with the possible exception of the last, hardly worth mentioning. Following are a few passages from Ammianus.


At this time also the Saracens, a race whom it is never desirable to have either for friends or enemies, ranging up and down the country, if ever they found anything, plundered it in a moment, like rapacious hawks who, if from on high they behold any prey, carry it off with a rapid swoop, or, if they fail in their attempt, do not tarry. And although, in recounting the career of the Prince Marcus, and once or twice subsequently, I remember having discussed the manners of this people, nevertheless I will now briefly enumerate a few more particulars concerning them.

Among these tribes, whose primary origin is derived from the cataracts of the Nile and the borders of the Blemmyae [a nomadic Nubian tribe], all the men are warriors of equal rank; half naked, clad in colored cloaks down to the waist, overrunning different countries, with the aid of swift and active horses and speedy camels, alike in times of peace and war. Nor does any member of their tribe ever take plow in hand or cultivate a tree, or seek food by the tillage of the land; but they are perpetually wandering over various and extensive districts, having no home, no fixed abode or laws; nor can they endure to remain long in the same climate, no one district or country pleasing them for a continuance.

Their life is one continued wandering; their wives are hired, on special covenant, for a fixed time; and that there may be some appearance of marriage in the business, the intended wife, under the name of a dowry, offers a spear and a tent to her husband, with a right to quit him after a fixed day, if she should choose to do so. And it is inconceivable with what eagerness the individuals of both sexes give themselves up to matrimonial pleasures.

But as long as they live they wander about with such extensive and perpetual migrations, that the woman is married in one place, brings forth her children in another, and rears them at a distance from either place, no opportunity of remaining quiet being ever granted to her. They all live on venison, and are further supported on a great abundance of milk, and on many kinds of herbs, and on whatever birds they can catch by fowling. And we have seen a great many of them wholly ignorant of the use of either corn or wine. (The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, translated by C. D. Yonge, 11-12)


Similarly superficial depictions of pre-Islamic Arabians and their way of life are to be found. The relatively few accounts in later works of history are equally brief, Arabic sources not excluded, except perhaps by their lengthy and typically ornamental prose. Of the more recent Arab historians, however, the one who has produced the most comprehensive though briefest summary has been Philip Hitti, the Lebanese American author of the monumental History of the Arabs, first published in 1937, updated throughout nine later editions, and still the standard one-volume history of its kind.


About the population of central and northern Arabia in the pre-Islamic era, Bernard Lewis writes that the dominant feature of this population was Bedouin tribalism: "In Bedouin society, the social unit is the group, not the individual. The latter has rights and duties only as a member of his group. The group is held together externally by the need for self-defence against the hardships and dangers of desert life, internally by the blood-tie of descent in the male line which is the basic social bond. . . . The tribe does not usually admit of private landed property, but exercises collective rights over pastures, water sources, etc." (Lewis, The Arabs in History, 29).


In his book Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam, Francesco Gabrieli rightly says that it is impossible to deal with Muhammad and his achievement without knowing something about the environment in which he was born, which "he partly revolutionized or altered profoundly and partly retained and consolidated." Following a brief description of this environment, Gabrieli asserts that "beside this poor nomadic Arab way of life, biblical and classical tradition knew of more advanced and civilized Arab states in the south of the peninsula"—the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba and the Himyarite kings of Arabia Felix, "the owners of fabled wealth." According to Gabrieli, these two contrasting pictures—the prevalent nomadism and rudimentary conditions of the north and the sedentary and advanced agricultural states of the south—"reflect exactly the dual historical, geographic, economic and sociological aspects of ancient Arabia" (25).


As for the economic situation, the Arabs' economy at that time centered on animal husbandry and agriculture, where the latter was possible. Trade and exchange were carried on mainly with foreign lands; the Arabs of both Yemen and Hijaz engaged in this activity. The Arabs also arranged fairs in the form of seasonal bazaars. But the true basis of society was agriculture; according to Lewis, ancient inscriptions,


with their frequent references to dams, canals, boundary problems and landed property, suggest a high degree of development. Besides cereals the southern Arabians produced myrrh, incense and other spices and aromatics. These last were their main export, and in the Mediterranean lands the spices of southern Arabia . . . led to its almost legendary reputation as a land of wealth and prosperity—the Arabia Eudaemon or Arabia Felix of the classical world. The spices of Arabia have many echoes in the literature of the West, from the "thesauris arabicis" of Horace to the "perfumes of Arabia" of Shakespeare and Milton's "spicy shores of Araby the blest." (The Arabs in History, 25)


In Arabia, the horse is a luxury animal whose feeding and care constitute a problem for the man of the desert. For the nomad, according to Hitti, the camel is certainly the most useful. "Without it the desert could not be conceived of as a habitable place. The camel is the nomad's nourisher, his vehicle of transportation and his medium of exchange. The dowry of the bride, the price of blood, the profit of gambling, the wealth of a sheikh, are all computed in terms of camels. To him the camel is more than 'the ship of the desert'; it is the special gift of Allah—so much so that some students of the scene called the Bedouin 'the parasite of the camel'" (24).


"Over all the living things of the desert," Hitti concludes,


the Bedouin, the camel and the palm are the triumvirate that rules supreme; and together with the sand they constitute the four great actors in the drama of its existence. To its denizen the desert is more than a habitat: it is the custodian of his sacred tradition, the preserver of the purity of his speech and blood and his first and foremost line of defence against encroachment from the outside world. Its scarcity of water, scorching heat, trackless roads, lack of food-supply—all enemies in normal times—prove staunch allies in time of danger. Little wonder then that the Arabian has rarely bent his neck to a foreign yoke. (24)


On the subject of religion, Gabrieli, summarizing the work of Muslim antiquarians and the fragmentary evidence of pagan poetry, writes that the religion of the greater part of the peninsula Arabs was "an elementary polydaemonism with elements of fetishism." The Arabs, he explains, "worshipped a varied pantheon of divinities none of which had ever assumed any human form, and not one of whom had ever been able to rise above the others to produce monotheism" (Muhammad and Islam, 39).


Hitti puts it slightly differently. The rudiments of Semitic religion, he writes, developed in the oases, rather than in the sandy land, and centered upon stones and springs, forerunners of the Black Stone (in the Ka'ba) and the Zamzam (a sacred well) in Islam and of Bethel in the Old Testament. Religion sits very lightly indeed on the Bedouin's heart. In the judgment of the Qur'an (9:98), "the desert Arabians are most confirmed in unbelief and hypocrisy." Up to the present day, they have never paid much more than lip service in homage to the Prophet (History of the Arabs, 26).


The clan is the basis of Bedouin society. As Gabrieli puts it, the tribal bond was


the essence, the only solid and accepted social structure of these primitive living conditions of Arabia in the centuries immediately preceding Muhammad . . . The tribe is the self-sufficient cell of the embryonic political and social life; it is the only structure to which the individualistic and anarchically inclined mentality of the Bedouin will in the nature of things submit; it guarantees support for him; thanks to the collective security in property disputes and blood feuds, it offers him personal protection; it also satisfies his vanity and desire for glory in its genealogical and marital traditions. (Muhammad and Islam, 30)


On clan organization, Hitti has this to say: "Every tent represents a family; an encampment of tents forms a hayy; members of one hayy constitute a clan (qawm). A number of kindred clans grouped together make a tribe (qabilah). All members of the same clan consider each other as of one blood, submit to the authority of but one chief—the senior member of the clan—and use one battle-cry."


In his comprehensive historical survey The Middle East, Bernard Lewis observes that "the ancient Arabs, like the ancient Israelites depicted in the books of Judges and Samuel, mistrusted kings and the institution of kingship." In Arabia, the tribal chief was the one who ruled. The choice of a tribal chief, however, was not bound by any rule of succession: "The chief of the tribe was usually chosen from members of a single family seen as noble. Often this family was holy as well as noble, and the descendants of a sheikhly family might enjoy the hereditary custodianship of a local shrine or sacred object. The choice was personal and was made for personal qualities—the ability to evoke and retain loyalty" (140, 142).



“This book is unique in that it lets its subjects speak for themselves, allowing readers to share some of the most intimate thoughts of the Arabs. . . . The work humanizes a people who have frequently been dismissed by many in the West as without culture and the capacity for reflection. This, in my view, is what makes the book a very significant contribution to the field. . . . It should broadly appeal to the general reader in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Relationships with the Arab world are central to all of these regions.”
Joseph V. Montville, Senior Fellow and Chair, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, and Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, American University


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