Who are the Arabs? When did people begin calling themselves Arabs? And what was the Arabs’ role in the rise of Islam? Investigating these core questions about Arab identity and history by marshalling the widest array of Arabic sources employed hitherto, and by closely interpreting the evidence with theories of identity and ethnicity, Imagining the Arabs proposes new answers to the riddle of Arab origins and fundamental reinterpretations of early Islamic history. This book reveals that the time-honoured stereotypes which depict Arabs as ancient Arabian Bedouin are entirely misleading because the essence of Arab identity was in fact devised by Muslims during the first centuries of Islam. Arab identity emerged and evolved as groups imagined new notions of community to suit the radically changing circumstances of life in the early Caliphate. The idea of ‘the Arab’ was a device which Muslims utilised to articulate their communal identity, to negotiate post-Conquest power relations, and to explain the rise of Islam. Over Islam’s first four centuries, political elites, genealogists, poetry collectors, historians and grammarians all participated in a vibrant process of imagining and re-imagining Arab identity and history, and the sum of their works established a powerful tradition that influences Middle Eastern communities to the present day. ; Investigating the core questions about Arab identity and history, this book tackles the time-honoured stereotypes that depict Arabs as ancient Arabian Bedouin, and reveals the stories to be a myth: tales told by Muslims to recreate the past to explain the meaning of Islam and its origins. ; Acknowledgements; Note on the Text; Introduction; Part 1: The Rise of Arab Communities; 1. The Rise of Arab Communities; I. Arabs and pre-Islamic Textual Traditions; II. Arabs in Arabia: ethnogenesis, interpretations and problems; III. An Arabness pretence: pre-Islamic ‘Arab’-cognates reconsidered; 2. Pre-Islamic ‘Arabless-ness’: Arabian Identities; I. The Arabic Language: a signpost to Arabness?; II. The search for Arabs in pre-Islamic poetry; III. Contextualising the ‘Arabless’ Poetry: ethnic boundaries in pre-Islamic Arabia; IV. The rise of ‘Arab’ poetry; V. Transition from ‘Maʿadd’ to ‘Arab’: case study of Dhū Qār; VI. Pre-Islamic Arabian identity: conclusions; 3. Arabness from the Qur’an to an ethnos; I. ‘Arab’: an ethnonym resurrected?; II. The Qur’an and Arabness; III. Early Islam and the genesis of Arab identity; Part Two: The Changing Faces of Arabness in Early Islam; 4. Interpreting Arabs: defining their name and constructing their family; I. ‘Arab’ defined; II. Arabness and contested lineage; III. Arab genealogy reconsidered: kinship, gender and identity; IV. The creation of ‘traditional’ Arab genealogy; V. Defining Arabs: conclusions; 5. Arabs as a people and Arabness as an idea: 750-900 CE; I. Arabs in the early Abbasid Caliphate (132-193/750-809); II. Forging an Iraqi ‘Arab Past’; III. al-Jāhiliyya and imagining pre-Islamic Arabs; IV. Arabs and Arabia: changing relationships in the third/ninth century; 6. Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the mid-third/ninth century; I. Philologists and Arabness: changing conceptions of Arabic between the late second/eighth and fourth/tenth centuries; II. The transformation of Arabness into Bedouin-ness; III. Bedouin Arabness and the emergence of a Jāhiliyya archetype; IV. Conclusions; Imagining and Reimagining the Arabs: Conclusions; Bibliography.
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'A paradigm-shifting study…a rich and fascinating work, one that is destined to become a classic in the field.'
- American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences
Peter Webb is University Lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at Leiden University.