The Idea of the „Arab“: Arab and Elite Identities in Early Islam

logo-project-white-310x121Early Islamic Empire Lecture Series

Peter Webb (Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Fellow, Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin)

June 17, 2015, 6:30 pm, Universität Hamburg, Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, Rm 217, 20146 Hamburg

Arabs’ play the role of the protagonist in Islam’s origin stories. Muhammad is called an Arab Prophet, the spread of Muslim rule across the Fertile Crescent is identified as ‘Arab Conquest’ and the Umayyad Caliphate has long been described as an Arab Staatsnation. Such ways in which the label ‘Arab’ is invoked, however, engender broad-brushed generalisations about early Islamic history and the identity of the first Muslims. Islam appears as basically a ‘national movement’ by which ‘Arabs’ brought their Arabian faith system into the wider Middle East, and the elites of early Islam appear as all joint-members of one single, uniform community of ‘Arabs’. Those simplified, monolithic impressions of Arab identity in early Islam clash with the status of contemporary Arabness. Modern Arabs are heterogeneous and impossible to define in tidy categories – so why should we assume that historical Arabs conversely constituted one cohesive ethnic community?

Was the idea Arab identity at the dawn of Islam contested and fluid? Who exactly called themselves ‘Arabs’ in Islam’s first centuries and what did the word mean? How did consciousness of Arab community interact with the interests of Muslim elites?

This lecture critically approaches the construct of Arab identity in early Islam. It explores the origins of the word ‘Arab’, its transformation into a term of self-reference, and the different ways in which Arabness was expressed and was marshalled by elites in the dynamic socio-political environments of late Umayyad and early Abbasid-era Iraq.

Peter Webb (PhD SOAS, University of London, 2014) is an Arabist whose research interests focus on early Islamic History and the Cultures, Literatures and Arts of the classical Muslim world. His doctoral thesis, and forthcoming book, Imagining the Arabs, explores the story of the Arab people in early Islam, examining the emergence of Arab identity, the rise and fall of Arab communities, and the ways in which Muslims creatively reconstructed the pre-Islamic past to mythologise Arab origins. He has published a number of scholarly articles and book chapters on Arabic Literature and Muslim Narratives of pre-Islamic History, and with the Saudi Archaeologist, Saad al-Rashid, he co-authored Medieval Roads to Mecca, a history of the early Hajj. Webb taught classical Arabic Literature and History at SOAS (2009-14) and at the American University of Paris (2013-14).


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