There are three factors which may assist to varying degrees in determining whether someone is considered Arab or not:
The relative importance of these factors is estimated differently by different groups. Most people who consider themselves Arabs do so on the basis of the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions, but some members of groups which fulfill both criteria reject the identity on the basis of the genealogical definition. Not many people consider themselves Arab on the basis of the political definition without the linguistic one—thus, Kurds or Berbers usually identify themselves as non-Arab—but some do (for instance, some Berbers do consider themselves Arabs and Arab nationalists saw the Kurds as Arabs).
According to Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xviii), "The essence of Arabian culture is wrapped up in:
- the Arabic language...
And thus "An Arab, in the modern sense of the word, is one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arabian tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture."
On its formation in 1946, the Arab League defined an "Arab" as follows:
- "An Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples."
The genealogical definition was widely used in medieval times (Ibn Khaldun, for instance, does not use the word Arab to refer to "Arabized" peoples, but only to those of originally Arabian descent), but is usually no longer considered to be particularly significant.
Most, but not all, Arabs are Muslims. Most American Arabs (about two-thirds) are Christian Arabs, particularly from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.
During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Arabs (specifically the Umayyads, and later Abbasids) forged an empire whose borders touched southern France in the west, China in the east, Asia Minor in the north, and the Sudan in the south. This was one of the largest land empires in history. Throughout much of this area, the Arabs spread the religion of Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and assimilation. Many groups came to be known as "Arabs" not through descent but through Arabisation. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term. Many Arabs in Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere became Arab through cultural diffusion.
Arab nationalism declares that Arabs are united in a shared history, culture and language. Arab nationalists believe that Arab identity encompasses more than outward physical characteristics, race or religion. A related ideology, Pan-Arabism, calls for all Arab lands to be united as one state. Not all Arabs agree with these definitions; Lebanese Maronites, for example, often reject the Arab label in favor of a narrower Maronite nationalism. Furthermore, many Arabic-speaking Christians disagree with that label. Thus, some Copts in Egypt and Assyrians in Iraq, for instance, do not perceive themselves as Arabs. However, many Christians in the Arab world do consider themselves ethnically Arab. For example, some Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Syria and Lebanon consider themselves Arabs. These "Ethnic" Arabs should be distinguished from ethnic Assyrians, Copts, Armenians etc. who have histories that differ greatly from that of the Arab Christians.
In Islamic and Jewish tradition, Arabs are a Semitic people who trace their ancestry from Ismael (Ismail), a son of the ancient patriarch Abraham and Hagar. Medieval Arab genealogists divided the Arabs into two groups:
- the "original Arabs" of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan (identified with the biblical Joktan). The Qahtanites are said to have migrated the land of Yemen following the destruction of the Dam of Ma'rib (Sad Ma'rib). The Qahtanite Arabs were responsible for the ancient civilizations of Yemen including the biblically renowned Sheba (a descendent of Qahtan).
- The "Arabized Arabs" (musta`ribah) of North Arabia, descending from Adnan, supposed to be a descendant of Ishmael through Kedar. The Arabic language as it is spoken today in its classical Quranic form was the result of a mix between the original Arabic tongue of Qahtan and the northern Arabic which borrowed from other northern Semitic languages from the Levant. See Qahtanite.
The term Arab in history
Arabs are first mentioned in writing in an Assyrian inscription of 853 BC, where Shalmaneser III lists a King Gindibu of matu arbaai (Arab land) as among the people he defeated at the Battle of Karkar.
See also: Semitic, Ababda, Pan-Arabism, Arab League, Palestinian, Bedouin, Arabic language, Arabic alphabet, Arabia, Arab World, Nabataeans, Lakhmids, Ghassanids
The meaning of the term Arab
According to one explanation, the word Arab means clear; clear as in comprehensible rather than as in pure. Bedouin elders still use this term with the same meaning; those whose speech they comprehend (ie Arabic-speakers) they call Arab, and those whose speech is of unknown meaning to them, they call Ajam (ajam or ajami). In the Persian Gulf region, the term Ajam is often used to refer to the Persians.
Another explanation derives the word from an old Semitic stem `.R.B., with a metathetical alternative `.B.R., both meaning travelling around the land, that is, nomadic. From that root, the terms Arab(Arabi) and Hebrew(Ebri), meaning nomads, are derived.
- Habib Hassan Touma (1996). The Music of the Arab's, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340888.