A Semitic people (see SEMITES) who originated in the Arabian peninsula but now comprise the ethnic majority in many West Asian and North African states. The term is first found in ASSYRIAN documents of the mid-9th century BC, but was not used by the Arabs until the 4th century AD.
The word ‘Arab’ means ‘nomad’ and was originally synonymous with BEDOUIN, the people who dominated the Arabian peninsula into the early modern period. It was the domestication of the camel, during the mid-2nd millennium BC, that made the nomadic lifestyle possible. Today the term Arab applies to all speakers of the Arabic language, regardless of lifestyle. However, ancient Arabian peoples such as the SABAEANS, QATABIANS and MINAEANS, who spoke Arabic dialects but were sedentary agriculturalists, are not usually described as Arabs.
In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the Arabs fought frequent wars with the Assyrians, who deported many of them to Palestine. In contrast, they were often allied with the BABYLONIANS. Ancient Arab tribes included the Adbell, Badana, Marsimani, KINDAH and Thamud.
Although they were not initially a great trading nation themselves, the Arabs’ nomadic skills and desert knowledge were employed by more settled peoples to trade across Arabia and into Mesopotamia, Africa and the Levant. Command of the great caravan routes brought considerable wealth to the Arab tribes and led to the rise of great trading cities such as Mecca and Medina, as well as to the development of significant social and cultural divisions between settled and nomadic Arabs, differences which led to some degree of tension.
Prior to the 7th century AD the Arabs were rarely a unified people, although occasional tribal confederations arose and harassed their neighbours. The most aggressive of these confederations was the Qedar. It was the rise of Islam during the 620s and 630s, however, that acted as the great unifying factor in Arab history, and the Bedouin tribes were at the forefront of the subsequent Islamic conquests. Prior to this, Arab religion had been polytheistic (initially animistic), although Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity had made considerable inroads.
Warfare had always played a large part in Arab life: raiding rival tribes was an important way for warriors to win status and wealth. After unifying and converting the Arabs to Islam, Muhammad (c. 570–632) managed to suppress inter-tribal warfare (though the tradition soon re-asserted itself among the Bedouin). The caliphs (‘successors’) who followed Muhammad as religious and political leaders of the Arabs found an outlet for their martial tradition by attacking the neighbouring BYZANTINE and PERSIAN empires, which had only recently ended a mutually destructive war. By the death of the second caliph, Uthman, in 656, the Arabs had conquered the Persian empire and driven the Byzantines out of Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
“The Arabs keep … pledges more religiously than almost any other people”
Herodotus, 5th century BC
By the early 8th century the Arab caliphate stretched from the Pyrenees to the Indus. Arab unity, however, was already strained. A disputed succession to the caliphate in 661 led Islam to split into its two main branches, the majority Sunnites and the minority Shi'ites. Political unity lasted until 750; when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs, an Umayyad prince fled to Spain and set up an independent emirate. After this the political fragmentation of the Arab-Islamic world proceeded steadily and irreversibly Nonetheless, the Abbasid caliphate (750–1256) was the period of the Arabs’ greatest cultural achievements. Not least of these was the preservation of much of the philosophy and scientific knowledge of the Classical world at a time when it had been all but forgotten in Christian Europe.
The conquests enabled a great expansion of the Arab identity. Through conquest, large numbers of Arabs settled in Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and northern Sudan, North Africa, Spain, Persia and northern India. With the sole exception of Spain, all of these areas became permanently Islamized. As translation of the Koran is forbidden, Islam became a powerful agent for spreading the Arabic language, and through it, Arab culture and identity. Most of the conquered peoples eventually became Arabized, the most notable exceptions being the Persians, MOORS and KURDS. Even in Spain, however, an Arab influence remains in evidence in language, architecture and cuisine.
Many areas of Arab settlement later fell under the control of expansionist powers such as the SELJUKS, OTTOMANS, BRITISH and FRENCH. It Was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that a resurgent Arab nationalism emerged, which culminated in the creation of independent Arab nationalities such as the LEBANESE, IORDANIANS, IRAQIS and (briefly) PALESTINIANS. This pan-Arabian nationalistic feeling perhaps reached its highest point with the formation of the Arab League in 1945, although the shortlived United Arab Republic (1958–61) can be seen as another expression of these sentiments. Ultimately, however, nationalism and unification have not always gone hand in hand, and many Arab nations have clashed over issues such as territorial rights, foreign policy, and the status of Israel.
There has also been tension between the traditional Arab monarchies and the newer Arab republics, and the sheer scale of Arab dispersal has made unity difficult. Most Arab nations, however, are united in their support of the Palestinians and their opposition to the ISRAELIS, and over the last 25 years Islamic fundamentalism has grown into a new form of Pan-Arab nationalism. Culturally, Arabs remain united by Islam and the Arabic language.
In the ancient period the tribe and clan were the basis of Arab society, and in many regions this continues, particularly in rural areas and amongst the gradually decreasing numbers of Bedouin. Traditional Arab Islamic culture is very strong in many rural areas. There was also a great tradition of pre-Islamic poetry. Urban life, however, has led to both the disintegration of the tribal system and the exposure of many Arabs to Western culture. Many Arab states have introduced policies designed to counter these new influences and reinvigorate Arab/Islamic culture. A number of Arab/Islamic groups are hostile to Western powers such as the USA and the UK, which are perceived as being pro-Israeli. Arab-Western tensions have also risen in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA perpetrated by terrorists of the al-Qaeda network, which aims to end Western influence in the Arabian peninsula.
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