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The strands of Arabia: how a people and religion were built on language

Language, poetry and syntax are inextricably intertwined with Arabian history – modern Arab leaders have tried to master its linguistic forms precisely because they matter so much.

“There were probably Arabs before there was Arabia,” writes Tim Mackintosh-Smith in his extraordinary new survey of these peoples. After all, what does the word “Arab” even mean? For Arabs themselves the term remains elusive: the Egyptian writer and public intellectual Taha Hussein argued that the people to whom the label applied were “in utter confusion” over its meaning.

This etymological uncertainty is not immediately cleared up by the historical record. The first reference to Arabs as a distinct group comes in 853 BC after the Battle of Qarqar, in which the Assyrian King, Shalmaneser III, led an army against the ruler of Damascus, Hadadezer. Recording events in cuneiform, Assyrian scribes noted an alliance of different “kings” supporting Hadadezer, among whom was the “Arab” Gindibu leading 1,000 men on camelback.

Mackintosh-Smith notes, however, that approximately 1,200 years passed before Arabs used the term to describe themselves. References appeared during the intervening years in Greek and Hebrew records too. Thereafter the emergent Arabs, nestled at the top of the Arabian Peninsula and just below the so-called Fertile Crescent, are treated as a useful counterweight for jockeying empires – Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian – as much as they are considered a nuisance. A few centuries later it was at roughly this physical juncture across the northern Arabia Peninsula and the southern Levant where the first records of Arabs talking about themselves began to emerge in Nabataean script, a precursor to Arabic. These records are, according to Mackintosh-Smith, the “first home-grown Arabic documents”.

Nabataean rule extended southwards along the western Arabian coast. At its most southerly point, about 300 miles south-west of Petra, was the Nabataeans’ second city, Mada’in Saleh, which became an urban settlement from the 1st century CE. In modern-day Saudi Arabia the site has been declared by conservative clerics a “cursed area”, due to stories in the Quran that suggest the original inhabitants had been damned by God.

Today a much larger expanse has come to be known as the “Arab world”, although precisely what constitutes the Arab peoples remains poorly defined. That is the subject of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book, which seeks to interrogate their origins and formation into a civilisation of sorts.

His aim is “not to stare down semantic wells” but to instead explore “whom [the Arabs] resembled and how they fitted into the wider human environment”. The subject has been well-trodden by historians of the region but Mackintosh-Smith nonetheless manages to offer a distinct thesis. This is done in two ways: the first is that he (rightly) regards historians as being blinkered by an Islamo-centric view of the region. “An academic disconnect between Islamic and pre-Islamic studies has meant that most scholars do not see the dots that make the bigger picture,” he writes, “let alone try to join them up.”

Mackintosh-Smith provides a degree of continuity between these phases, with his chronological parameters spanning an equal amount of time both before and after the advent of Islam. As he points out, “Muhammad’s life [circa 570 to 632 CE] straddles the precise midpoint of recorded Arab history.” Viewed in this way, he argues that Islam, the most recent and febrile child of the Abrahamic traditions, has roots that lie deep in time and all over the Peninsula.

The second, more original and interesting, way in which the author adds to our understanding of the Arabs is by using the Arabic language as the primary tool of interrogation. “Language is the thread that all would-be Arab leaders have tried to grasp,” he argues. It is the one commonality he sees across a vast and varied civilisation of essentially different people with divergent habits, customs and traits.

Nevertheless, “This is a history of Arabs, not of Arabic,” he writes. “But to follow the linguistic thread through is to explore the deepest stand of ‘being Arab’ in all its different senses.” What results is an etymological journey tied to peoples and times ranging from Nabataean script through to Imam Ahmad of Yemen’s lampooning of Nasserist socialism when he withdrew from a political confederation with Egypt and Syria in 1961.

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Given that language, poetry and syntax are inextricably intertwined with Arabian history, his approach speaks to the fundamental nature of the Arab world. Modern Arab leaders have tried to master its linguistic forms precisely because they matter so much. When the health of King Hussein of Jordan began to fail in January 1999 he installed his son, Abdullah, as the Crown Prince. The appointment was broadly welcomed at home, but there were concerns about how Abdullah might be received – not for any ostensibly political reason, but because of his seemingly poor grasp of classical Arabic.

For demagogues without the trappings of office, command of Arabic prose has often burnished their claims to authenticity. Official addresses from jihadi leaders are therefore almost always given in classical Arabic. Indeed, al-Qaeda often mocked the clumsy, slack-jawed oratory of George W Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. By contrast, Osama bin Laden’s envenomed messages may have been bloodcurdling, but were packaged in altogether more elegant metaphors and idiomatic rhythms. The same is true for the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also spoke in classical Arabic forms in 2014 when declaring the establishment of the caliphate, in what was surely one of the most dramatic pieces of contemporary Arab theatre.

Language as theatre is a defining feature of Arab culture. Within this context, poetry has always occupied a special place and represents one of the earliest types of recorded Arabic. “To understand its power,” Mackintosh-Smith writes, “you must forget the rarefied and marginal place of poetry in the English-speaking world. For Arabs poetry was (and to some extent still is) a mass medium, as ubiquitous as satellite TV and as beguiling as Hollywood.”

Pre-Islamic Arabia was dominated by the shai’r – poet – who occupied that very space of celebrity and public figure. It was into this environment that Muhammad emerged in Mecca as a prophet, bringing with him the message of Islam. Indeed, Muslims believe that the first word of revelation from God to his messenger was iqra, meaning recite. It underscored two important factors that define the Arab experience: literary form, and the oral tradition as a source of both collective memory and law. The former pre-dates Islam but is also the basis of the Quran’s claim to possess the direct, unadulterated word of God. The latter explains how Muslims believe those words have been preserved.

The Quran employed the highest forms of rhetorical Arabic prose, and the word of Islam would soon overturn established mores of culture, belief and language in the pagan society into which it arrived. Islam’s holy text “is the masterpiece of the Arabic language and, in a sense, the centrepiece of the Arab story”, writes Mackintosh-Smith. The linguistic dimensions of the Quran form the basis of its chief claim to have originated from a cosmic source. Indeed, the author argues, “the Quran was Muhammad’s main miracle. But for Arabs, it was enough.” It was certainly enough for the prophet’s early followers, but their numbers were small and the community of believers in Mecca were both beleaguered and boycotted. Their detractors dismissed Muhammad as another shai’r or worse, a kahin – those who are inspired by Satan and so mix truths with falsehoods.

God is said to have responded to the allegations against his messenger by challenging those who doubted the Quran’s divine provenance. He asks, “Or do they say [about the Prophet], ‘He invented it?’ Say, ‘Then bring forth a surah [verse] like it and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.’” For Muslims, the challenge went unmet and is ongoing – a testament to the living, linguistic miracle of the Quran’s literary form.

Related to this is the nature of God’s relationship with his messenger, underscoring the centrality of the oral tradition. Muslim belief holds that God instructed the angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) to bring his word from the heavens to Earth, before Muhammad recited it. These verses were then conveyed to Muhammad’s followers, who learned them by rote.

The tradition continues to this day, with those who memorise the entirety of the Quran earning the appellation of hafiz, or guardian. This is instructive because it reveals precisely what Muslims believe is being protected – that is, the Quran itself.

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The real strength of this study is that it does not shy away from addressing the contestations and controversies of the modern Arab experience. There is, for example, a significant discussion of the era of renewed Arab empowerment that came in the early 20th century. It was underwritten by independence and the embrace of political romanticism fuelled by Baathist beliefs, pan-Arabism and Nasserism, which later gave way to the frustrations of religious millenarianism, repression and reactionaries.

Mackintosh-Smith has produced a book of value to experts and students of the region while remaining accessible to interested non-expert readers. He constantly connects literary or religious history to the contemporary. For example, a discussion on the nomadic nature of the Bedouin and their traditional undermining of state institutions leads him to conclude that “the central nomad institution – the raid, the ghazw – is still very much alive”. The means may have changed, he argues, but the tradition has not. Readers are told to consider “the image of camel-borne loyalists causing mayhem among the Tahrir Square protesters in Cairo in 2011”, or the “latest Toyota pick-ups mounted with heavy-calibre machine guns”.

Even when discussing the Islamic testament of faith, he notes that it is broadcast from minarets across the Middle East no fewer than five times a day. The same is true of the declaration about God’s inherent greatness. “They are uttered constantly as interjections,” he notes. “Over his life, a Muslim will hear and pronounce them countless times: if he had just one mosque within earshot and lived to 70, he would be told that God is great three-quarters of a million times.”

The interplay of these ancient oral traditions, faith, and language is ubiquitous within the contemporary Arab experience – a series of overlapping phenomena of which few external chroniclers can make much sense. For the Muslims of the Arab world, Mackintosh-Smith writes, “It is almost as hard to stop believing as it is to stop breathing.” 

Shiraz Maher is director at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London and a New Statesman contributing writer

Arabs: A 3,000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires
Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Yale University Press, 656pp, £25

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation