Posted by: Ha Ana Za | March 7, 2008

What makes an Arab an Arab?

No…this is not a riddle or some lame joke but actually a serious question and does not only apply to Arabs but to every other nationality, ethnicity, culture or race out there. The question is what is it that defines you in that awkward box that you tick on a census or equal opportunities form?
Al-Jazz has been running a series of articles surrounding Arab Unity and one of these was What makes an Arab?

Sati al Husri seemed to think that:

Every individual who belongs to the Arab countries and speaks Arabic is an Arab. He is so, regardless of the name of the country whose citizenship he officially holds. He is so, regardless of the religion he professes or the sect he belongs to. He is so,regardless of his ancestry, lineage or the roots of the family to which he belongs to. He is an Arab.

That seems to be a very cut and dry explanation for what it is to be something and seems to lay everything at the door of langauge. But what about those living abroad who don’t speak their original language or indeed those living in the Arab world who haven’t mastered the language properly?

In the Al-Jazz article one of the contrubutors gives an anwer which certainly expands the question beyond its ordinary boundaries

Khaled Bahaaeldin, 37, surgeon – Egyptian

“I believe that Arab identity is the product of a historical interaction among people sharing a geographically unpartitioned area.

This interaction comprises theological, cultural, linguistic and political components, each of which takes precedence in a particular historical era. But I have to stress that the ‘intra-actions’ between Arabs have never been due to a singular component.

Indeed, the Arab inhabitants of the Middle East, despite the obvious chauvinisms, could claim communality with each other.”

I believe that the root of this identity lies also in values, religion, habits, attitudes etc. Also a certain unconditional love for a place that seems a little crazy at the best of times.


  1. good post, Arabism..if we could name it so is exactly what you described, it’s a combination of ethnic, historical, cultural factors, an Arab is someone who is ethnically Arab, or a member of the Arab culture, which includes a common history, common customs.

    it more or less paralels the idea of the latin american, they might not be all of “latin” origin, but they share the land, the past, the present and the future.

    identity isn’t only based on ethnicity.

  2. I believe the last sentence says it all my friend🙂

  3. that’s a very interesting post🙂
    you summed it up to: values, attitudes, habbits… i don’t think it is true, you have 22 Arab countires and every single one of them has those mentioned in a totally different way.

    religion: let’s see there are: Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Druz, 3alaweyeen, Wahabyeen… etc. no matter how we feel towards one or more of them it doesn’t make them less Arab.

    what’s the answer… i don’t know, but i would probably say: An Arab is a person that has Arabic blood in them, and is officialy an Arab? coz Shakira has Arabic blood but she is defenitely not an Arab🙂

  4. Thanks Ammar…this is what I was trying to get across, identity isn’t just ethnicity but more something that we construct ourselves and also something we can destroy ourselves.

    KJ..hehe..I thought most people would emphasize with that point🙂

    Wonders: How can you just put it down to blood…as you point out Shakira certainly is no Arab…I don’t deny that identity is more complicated that just values, attitudes etc but these certainly play a part

  5. I am not putting it down to blood, but i think it is the first thing to look for, then one should have official acknowledgement. the way i see it is that the answer shouldn’t be too complex.

    for example why am i jordanian? coz i am of Jordanian blood and i have the passport. Same applies for being Arab, i think.🙂

  6. I took two political science courses that dealt with this very same subject, and trust me, its not just a lame question, its a real identity issue, and we debated this not only between arabs but between poli sci students who weren’t arab. let me tell you that in my class of “arabs” each person had as different a definition as they did personalities. Orientalism might say that Arabs are those that a) live in a certain region (the middle east) b) speak arabic language and c) overall, have a predominant muslim religion subscription.

    Then of course we attack this theory because even though these might be OVER-ARCHING elements that unite most, its not like there aren’t arabs living elsewhere, arab athiests, or people who consider themselves arab that speak other ethnic languages.

    its a tough question. For me, Arabic isn’t even my first language, but i consider myself Arab because i do speak arabic, and my parents speak arabic. If i didn’t care what my parents were and connected myself to them, then i could dis-attach myself from being “arab”.

  7. Arabs are people who live on the Arabian peninsula. Yemenis, Omanis, Emiratis, Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis… to a lesser extent Bahrainis… but nobody else. Moroccans, Libyans, Sudanese, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Tunisians and Israelis are not Arab. Americans are not English. Guatemalans are not Spanish. Haitians are not French. The idea that all people who speak Arabic are Arabs arose recently in the 19th century or thereabouts. It was a political ploy designed to try and unite Arabic speaking countries against Ottomans, Zionists, Persians and Western European Imperial powers as well as the USA. If you go back to 1700… NOBODY in Egypt, or Somalia, or Algeria would call themselves Arab. Few in the Turkish (Ottoman) provinces of Syria or Palestine would use the title, either. The idea that all these people are somehow the same is a recent sad invention. It’s a shame, too, because Egyptian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Carthaginian, Babylonian etc culture is so much more rich and interesting than Arab culture. Yet it is being intentionally subverted and forgotten in favor of Arabness due to political reasons.

  8. An Arab is someone with blood descent from the Arabian Peninsula and the Syrian desert, (the children of Ishmael). Truly, there was a process of Arabization that took place in the conquered Arab territories, but these are Arabized Arabs who overtime believe themselves to be Arabs, which is not looked down upon. So yes, they are a real ethnic group just as the Han Chinese are and other groups. Overtime, people have begun to use the term Arab to refer to a people who share a common culture, linguistic tradition, and political system. However, this does not check out for many minority groups who live within the Arab territories (Assyrians, Kurds, Berbers, etc.). These minority groups do share an “semi-Arab” culture just by living within their respective Arab country, but this does not make them Arab. Just as a French family, for example, that decides to move to Egypt has a child in Egypt. Yes, he is a citizen of Egypt, but he is not an Arab he is French. This is why at times non-Arab countries that had interest in colonizing would refer to specific populations as Arab and others not, because their people were living there as well as other ancient ethnic groups. Hope, this clears things up.

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