The Arab Identity



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The Arab Identity

Sadek Jawad Sulaiman



Chairman of Al-Hewar Center’s Advisory Board, Mr. Sadek Sulaiman, was invited to make the following presentation at DC International Connection, an organization that helps bring together people from all over the world to discuss a broad range of topics. The event was held at DC International’s, Fireplace Mansion in Washington on February 3, 2007. Mr. Sulaiman is the former Ambassador of Oman to the United States.

Thank you for inviting me to make this presentation. I shall speak primarily to the question of Arab identity and the Arabic culture from which it derives. I shall conclude with a comment on the state of the contemporary Arab world and the aspirations many Arabs hold for a more united, democratic, and progressive future.


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.

In the context of the definition I just outlined, let me speak first to the essential mutuality between Arabism and Islam. To begin with, the two are inseparably intertwined. It is hard to define the one without considering the other. It is hard to de-couple the two, historically, culturally, or intellectually. It is easy to see how incomplete either one would be without incorporating the other. It is easy to see, when viewed separately, how each loses an integral part of itself. Outside its Arabic repository, Islam is left with little form or substance; emptied of its Islamic content, Arabism is reduced to a culture devoid of intellectual and moral moorings.

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 opened up to humanity at large.

Thus, the Arabism, that Islam nurtured as the purveyor of its message to humankind was cultural, ethical, rational, and inclusive, for an Arabism based on racial particularity, indifferent to morality, and defiant of reason would have ill-fitted a universal Islam that emphasized ethics, appealed to reason, transcended race, rejected social stratification, and addressed itself to people everywhere. It was this cultural, ethical, rational, and inclusive character of Arabism, as prompted by Islam, that attracted peoples of other races and religions. As these 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 their native languages. They became members of an Arabic intellectual community which, though cosmopolitan in race, native tongue, and even religion, related to a common world view and a common cultural language in which they held learned discourse and authored their pioneering works of literature and science. They thus became part of a common culture, Arabism, that, like Islam, indeed, because of Islam, rejected discrimination among people based on ethnic background. Notwithstanding the environment in which these scholars lived and labored, which was despotic and often turbulent, the intellectual and moral thrust of Islam and the richness and versatility of the Arabic culture moved their souls and energized their pursuit of knowledge far beyond the social and political mores of their time.

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, and, subsequently, through translation, shared with Europe as well. Generations of intelligentsia followed in that integrative tradition, blurring the racial and accentuating the cultural, the moral and the intellectual in the Arab/Islamic experience. In time few would look back on Bukhari or Razi or Farabi or Ibn Sina or Salahuddin Al Ayoubi, all notables of non-Arab lineage, or indeed on Salman Al Farisi, the Persian companion of the Prophet, who the Prophet adopted as a member of his family, as anything but Arab.

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. "Whoever lives with a people for forty days becomes one of them," became an axiom. And a Prophetic hadith was often cited, defining as Arab any one who conversed in Arabic. This is how the extended Arab nation, today counting some 325 million people living predominantly in twenty-two separate states and comprising one fourth of the Muslim population worldwide, historically came to be formed. And thus, then as now, 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.

And 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.

At the conceptual level Islam is centered in the core concept of Tawheed, affirming God as One, Absolute, Ultimate, Eternal, Matchless, Transcendent. Tawheed, in the words of the late Professor Ismail Farouqi, is Islam's first determinant of reality, of truth, of the world, of space and time, of human history. It pervades and unifies all the various elements in Islamic thought. At the human level, Tawheed embodies three major ideas: Unity, Freedom, and Rationalism.

From Tawheed unity flows the precept that God being One, 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. No culture can evolve to civilization unless the various elements constituting it -- political, economic, social, educational, moral -- coalesce in harmony and as an integral whole, produce coherent and progressive movement forward. Tawheed, as such, harmonizes, orders, and integrates all that is Islamic in a civilizational whole.

Tawheed 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. There is no compulsion in religion, as people have been shown both paths, the right path and the wrong path, and so it is up to each person to find his/her own convictions. In the final analysis, God knows best who amongst us is more rightly guided.

Tawheed rationalism cognizes human reason and empirical observation as the proper means of comprehension. It rejects suppression of verified knowledge. It is open to new and or contrary evidence. It denies inherence of contradictions in nature. Where contradictions appear, final judgment should wait until a more thorough examination of the facts has resolved the contradiction and revealed the underlying harmony, which is the natural state of affairs. By the same token, Tawheed rationalism does not admit of contradiction between Revelation and reason.

The second core concept in Islam is Nubuwwah, or Prophethood. 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. The defining difference between an ordinary human and a prophet human is that truth is cognized in the prophet’s consciousness through divine revelation as distinct from cognition through observation, reasoning, or intuition. The Prophethood concept acknowledges that which was revealed to each prophet in his time as part of the one eternal divine message to humankind. And it stipulates that no nation was left without a prophet to show the right path. Prophet Mohammad was the last of the prophets.

The third core concept in Islam is Ma'ad, or Return. It means returning after completing a life cycle on earth, and accounting for one's conduct in life. Ma'ad, as such, indicates transformation rather than termination of an individual human's existential experience. The Qur’anic verse oft cited in the face of temporal adversity: “To God we belong, and unto Him we return” encapsulates the Ma’ad concept.

Islam’s moral framework comprises four principles that are deemed essential to the development of a wholesome society.

The first 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.

The second principle is Equality. Being equal before God, we simply cannot be unequal among ourselves. Discrimination by gender, race, or creed is rejected, and claims to autocratic authority or privilege are held invalid.

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.

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, however, has never been denied or challenged as a constitutional ideal. The Qur’an depicts Shura as the natural order of decision making on public matters in the community of the faithful.

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

At 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.

Although the foregoing is a very compressed exposition of Arabism and Islam and their historical mutuality, I have offered it by way of shedding some light on the core intellectual and moral moorings of the Arabic culture from which the Arab identity derives. This is because I believe that to understand the Arab identity, and to be able to explain it as well, it is important to understand at some depth the Arabic culture by which it is has been shaped and formed.

I have offered it to show as well that there is nothing about the Arabic culture that is averse to peace and progress, indisposed to cooperation with the others, or indifferent to the life preserving and enhancing principles and values shared universally by humankind. Indeed, nothing could be more antithetical to the essence of Arabism and Islam, the twin constituents of the Arabic culture, than political and social mores that reject peaceful coexistence and cooperation, defy morality, impede good governance, and violate human dignity.

With such a rich civilization her heritage, why has the Arab nation lagged behind the other great nations in the modern era? In many soul-searching discussions across the Arab world I have heard various reasons offered: lack of freedom, mediocrity of the educational system, despotic governance, religious and social strictures, estrangement from authentic Islam, and the more pervasively cited reason: foreign influence backing reactionary national regimes in stifling the unity impulse and thwarting democratic and progressive evolution.

All of which, I agree, are valid, though only as secondary reasons. To me, none of these factors by itself, nor all of them taken together, offers a satisfactory explanation for the Arab hiatus. That explanation comes to me more convincingly from the underlying sad reality that the Arab intelligentsia, upon whose expertise both the Arab governments and people have relied, the former for their loyalty, the latter for their leadership, have yet to sufficiently appreciate the crucial importance to their nation of uniting, democratizing, and moving progressively ahead. The Arab intelligentsia have been more prone to follow or reflect or even amplify the trend and mood of the day than to elucidate, educate, and lead. As a result, hardly anywhere in the Arab world, as yet, equal citizenship rights, democratic governance, and comprehensive human development comprise top priorities of governments or paramount public demands.

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 their entire homeland. 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 at the leadership and intelligentsia level in the welfare and destiny of the nation as a whole. As a result, contrary to popular aspirations aired fervently at the time, neither the Sudan became the granary of the Arab world, nor did the waters of the Shat-al-Arab irrigate the Arabian desert, nor did the Arab common market see the light of the day, nor were the Palestinian national rights reclaimed. If anything, the very idea of one consolidated, federal, democratic, progressive Arab state, for all intents and purposes, vanished into thin air.

Ultimately, the stark dichotomy between a proud, rich past and a fragmented and debilitated present bred deep frustration in the Arab psyche. The frustration continues to confuse reason and invoke emotional responses. It creates a tendency to act and react without due deliberation and diligence in dealing with external challenges and remedying internal shortfalls. It prompts more of placing the blame without, and less of pinpointing the responsibility within. It inclines more to winning rhetorical arguments than achieving practical results. And it perpetuates a feeling of apathy at a time most needed are rectitude and the resolve to pull oneself up by the bootstraps and exert a sustained collective effort to achieve unity, democracy, and progress as paramount pan-Arab objectives.

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, and productive, and still pregnant with ample vigor and talent, would not again 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.




Al-Hewar/The Arab-American Dialogue Winter 2007


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