When Arabophones Weren’t Arabs: Ibn Qutaybah and Identity Formation During the Early Period of Islam

They develop it a little more—the construction of a Bedouin ideal for the Arabs is accentuated and intensified. For people two generations before him, most of knowledge was done with limited writing and a greater recourse to oral discussion. But then by the middle of the ninth century onwards, the caliphate starts collapsing, and people actually stop calling themselves Arabs in many places—Iraq and Syria and Egypt—and they switch to other identities. He copied Arabic language and Arabic styles, but never thought of himself as an Arab. The (excellent)   introduction to Excellence of the Arabs is also available online. The books that they wrote are really considered the classics of Arabic literature. Therefore, you can’t look down on the Arabs anymore, because you’re not comparing like to like. Whilst the book is certainly polemical, I think part of his interest in writing it is to show that he knows a lot of stuff. But they had their own good culture. Later on, from the first half of the eighth century onwards, there were lots of new joiners in the idea of being an Arab. The conquest had happened, Islamization had occurred, and then a cultural question came: Which of these ancestors of our Iraqi civilization were better? This Q&A also runs over at the Library of Arabic Literature website, where you can find more about the series. And this is the question the book answers. That’s one of the interesting legacies of the book, because today it’s very common for people to associate Arab identity with the desert, and we do that because we trace the genealogy of our thinking about Arabs, and it goes back many hundreds of years, to early Europeans who read books like this one, that were adamant that Arab culture was a Bedouin thing. I think a number of the arguments of Ibn Qutaybah’s book are quite evident in the important tenth-century writer al-Masʿūdī, and looking at that, you can see that the ideas of Ibn Qutaybah are accepted by al-Masʿūdī, and people cited al-Masʿūdī going forward. When he was just a child, the caliphate suffered a major setback: There was a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, and they fought over who was going to take over the caliphate. He is writing in Arabic, participating in this Arab-created civilization, and he’s very proud to be a member of that Muslim-Arab civilization, but he’s absolutely clear that he’s not an Arab himself. What brought you to this particular text, and what’s been your relationship with it? Because if the Persians were greater, does that mean we should drop some of the things that come along with Arabness? So you can look at a chain of writing, and you can see that the ideas of Ibn Qutaybah were broadly accepted, and very few people spoke out against them very expressly in the centuries that followed. Then in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, in the ninth century, society was changing again. So the elite, who had come from Arabia via the conquest, had an idea that Arabness would be a nice way of ring-fencing their elite status. Ibn Qutaybah is a good example of that. One hundred years before Ibn Qutaybah, that was definitely the case. It’s important to open up the pre-modern period to more inquiry about the roots of Arab identity. What I think was more important was that, in the face of the political fragmentation of the caliphate, a praise of Arabness retained prestige for the Islamic world system. Many of the old elite Arab families lost power in the shift. They didn’t necessarily have the same book culture or urban culture that the Persians and the Byzantines had. And a number of the people who had written before Ibn Qutaybah had made an argument that maybe the Persians were superior—that they had been militarily defeated by the Muslim conquerors, but that they’d had a greater civilization and culture. Because for instance, in this period, you don’t have other books on Arab history. It was more of a faith movement. PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a very prolific writer of the ninth century, one of a handful of important writers. It’s an interesting dichotomy—from their perspective, they were looking at a world that was falling apart, while from our perspective, these are first flowering of Muslim writing in Arabic. So the book got around, but we really don’t have a very good idea of how many people were reading it, or how they even read it. So we have this intriguing period, where Arabness emerges to unite early Muslim conquerors, as an idea of high-status identity. PW: The easy part is to answer the question of whether he sees himself as an Arab: Absolutely not. He wanted to make Arabness great again? It’s really at the same time that Arabness was being constructed in the Middle East, so from a comparative perspective of the birth of modern nations, this book would be very helpful to people who know a lot about how Anglo Saxon identity was constructed, for instance. So when Ibn Qutaybah was an adult and writing books, it was a time of tremendous instability in the caliphate. Second: I think that, living in this turbulent time, Ibn Qutaybah saw himself as a bastion of knowledge. A lot of issues relevant to “What does Arab identity mean?” are preserved in this book. PW: The book is kind of unremarkable: I think it was making an argument that most of his contemporaries would agree with. Ibn Qutaybah was living at the beginning of a very new period in Islamic civilization, which is the emergence of this book culture. Now, what you can say is that these were a worthy people who participated in knowledge and learning. Do we know anything about Ibn Qutaybah’s readership? Over the next couple of generations, at the end of the seventh century, many social changes had occurred: New cities were built, the caliphate was being organized. Mohammed never preached to the early community that, You are Arabs, and this is your religion. He expresses in the book that I am not an Arab. PW: What the book does, somewhat deftly, is say that the Arabs had a very learned culture before Islam. This reflects how Arab identity was being conceptualized in the ninth century. They articulated a sense of Arab culture around an idealized Bedouin community. And I think they were extremely successful, because people still speak Arabic between Morocco and Western Iran. We’re looking at a transition to a much more bibliophilic culture. They stopped using Arabness to mark their own identity. What do we know about other texts or figures that Excellence of the Arabs influenced, or to what extent it played a role in Arab group-identity formation? Ibn Qutaybah comes 150 years after the time when Arabness was a marker for the elite, who then had some heritage that went back to Arabia. PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a compiler. Instead, his status came from the mastery of the culture and mastery of the language without actually needing to forge a genealogy and pretend he was an Arab. How do we articulate what it means to belong to a certain ethnos, and also specifically what did the Muslims in the ninth century think about Arabs? What were the boundaries of that community? Yet his works are neither translated nor well-known in English. If the ideas were so accepted by his contemporaries, why make the argument and write this book? Ibn Qutaybah also, I think, thought of himself as a bastion of great knowledge, and he believed that people needed to hear what he knew. So all this evidence that had been spoken about in the generation before—I think they felt it was time to start compiling it. PW: He also lived at a tricky period. So the social boundaries of the ninth century were starting to blur. This is an important point. At this point, when Ibn Qutaybah was writing, the elites of the caliphate were really dropping the whole notion that we need to be proper Arabs, and the idea that kinship with Arabs was related to legitimate political authority. It shows us that, although they spoke Arabic, and participated in this Arabic cultural community, they didn’t necessarily think they were Arabs themselves. There was an educational, and also a cultural-conservation approach. We still don’t have answers. But I would not want to say that Ibn Qutaybah had a decisive role in making the argument stick. The elites of the era decided to call themselves Arabs in a certain way, and then they needed to think about what that identity would entail. As far as we can tell, in the early mobilization of the first Muslims and their conquests, Arabness was not part of that mobilization. What is also intriguing in the ninth and tenth centuries, or Ibn Qutaybah’s time, is that among his immediate contemporaries and those who came after them, they stopped calling themselves Arabs. The same sort of processes that were happening in Europe were going on in the East as well. As a result of their war, Baghdad was sieged and very badly damaged, and the Iraqi countryside was very badly damaged, and there were all sorts of political problems, social problems, political problems, and a changing of the guard. I think it would probably be very intriguing for them to look at how Arabness was being constructed. PW: It’s a commentary on a process that had been happening about 100, 150 years before Ibn Qutaybah’s time. And as the winning caliph was originally based in Eastern Iran, he brought a lot of Easterners with him into Baghdad, and they too reorganized the power structure. It was difficult to decide: What do you need to be to be an Arab? This learned culture was different from all the other civilizations, but it was certainly not inferior. I think one of the things that modern scholarship on the period needs to do more work on is to think about how we can go about researching the readership of the books. Do you have to come from a genealogy that is considered Arab? Does that mean that Islam was an outsider religion? It was once a very important social asset. He particularly critiques the book for creating an idealized notion of Arab greatness that really doesn’t hold water. PW: People who are learning Arabic, and are able to use the bilingual text as the Loeb library did for Latin and Greek, are a huge readership and quite important. Reading pre-modern texts about Arabness is quite important to help us see where this identity came from, how Arab identity was constructed. If you were an Arab, that meant you were on top, in early Islam. You were not an Arab, even if you spoke Arabic. This particular book does not seem to be very extensively quoted. This was the time when the Muslim world started fragmenting into regional kingdoms. Would you consider The Excellence of the Arabs seminal in the creation of a shared Arab identity? I think there was a novelty, as well as a belief that we should start writing stuff down. By this time, lots of assimilation had occurred, lots of conversion to Islam. So these Bedouin stereotypes have been much embedded in our thinking, thanks to the fact that we’ve read these kinds of books—that were creating a Bedouin stereotype relevant to ninth-century urban Iraqis. Ibn Qutaybah and the ninth century was when things started getting written down in books in a really serious manner. In the generations before Ibn Qutayban, these arguments had been fairly well thrashed out by all sorts of people. To think about: What did early Muslims think Arab identity meant? And we have a nice volume here, because it deals with questions that are of enduring interest. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Sunday Submissions: Emerging Translator MentorshipsCategories: classics, Library of Arabic Literature How would you articulate this central question: “Who are the Arabs?” or “Why are the Arabs so great?” or “Why should the Arabs rule over us?”
PW: It’s certainly not a question of why the Arabs should rule over us. From the LAL website. We find bits and pieces of that process of imagining an Arab identity through early literature, but this is one of the very few books that sets it out all in one place, as a monograph on the Arabs. And that, which was then attached to Islam, became the stereotype of the Arabs ever since. PW: That’s difficult to answer. Which was: Looking back, over the three-hundred-year history that they were aware of in the ninth century, they knew there had been a Persian Empire, and a Byzantine Empire—which they called the Romans—and that the Arabs were a people somewhat apart from this, in Arabia. The book should also be interesting to   people who study medieval history of the rest of the world, because this was a time, in the post-Roman world, in which the identities of the modern European nations — the Franks, the Anglo Saxons, and even German identities — were being constructed in Europe. So there was a shift going on. Peter Webb: The reason I was asked to do it was because the research for my PhD, and the book I finished last year [Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam], were trying to think about Arab identity and the construction of Arab identity at the early period of Islam. In this first part of a two-part discussion, Webb speaks talks about the construction of Arab identity during the early period of Islam, the importance of translating Ibn Quataybah, and why this book should be interesting to those who study medieval history. People tended to incorporate bits and pieces of Arab identity into much bigger writings, but this is one of the first monographs on that topic. One was that the definition of what it meant to be an Arab was being increasingly tied to a sense of Arab genealogy as articulated by his contemporaries, who claimed there was a closed-ended family tree of what the Arabs are, and if you aren’t genealogically related, or couldn’t claim a kinship. What they needed to try to do, in response, was articulate a system where they could be proud of the Islamic heritage and not have to look down on Arabs culturally. They were slowly going through the process of othering the Arabs, and constructing an idealized Bedouin identity for the Arabs. So I’d worked quite extensively with this text. One: After this civil war, the caliphate never really recovered its power. Peter Webb, a lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at the University of Leiden, is author of Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (2016), and editor-translator of the entertaining second part of the Library of Arabic Literature’s   The Excellence of the Arabs, “Excellence of Arab Learning.”
In our two-part discussion with the translator of the first half, Sarah Savant (one, two), we talked about the challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah, his central place in Western scholarship, and his apparent incapacity for humor. Because what the Arabs were good at was separate from what the Persians or what the Byzantines were good at. I think he thought there was a dumbing down in society, that society wasn’t as smart as it was in the days before the civil war, and that people like him, who had retained at least some of that knowledge, better write it down now. I think medievalists in general might otherwise take the idea of Arab identity as something fixed. They established a discourse that survived, even though it didn’t help the political strength of the caliphate. What did it mean when one called oneself Arab? He never tried to become an Arab. In the pre-Islamic period, quite interestingly, there’s really no evidence that the populations in Arabia used the word “Arab” as a means to define community or set an idea of solidarity. So the more we know about them, and the more we understand about why they were created, the better we can appraise Arabness as an identity today. The stereotypes we hold about Arabs today are directly relatable to books like these. Who do you think should read this book? As far as I can tell, many of the people who participated in the Muslim conquest in the seventh century decided to find a new sort of unity as Arabs. So it’s nice to get Ibn Qutaybah on the map. He certainly has opponents in mind. PW: Probably not. All this happened when Ibn Qutaybah was between five and ten years old. That’s one direct quote of the book I have found, from an author living quite far away—traveling between what would be modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan—who read the book and says that Ibn Qutaybah’s claim that Arabs are better than all other people for certain aspects of Bedouin knowledge is not true, because there are plenty of other Bedouin people who have that same knowledge. However, I think it was Al-Bīrūnī, a Central Asian writer at the end of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, who does quote the book directly, and he actually doesn’t think much of it. Your introduction, with Sarah Bowen Savant, refers to a central question Ibn Qutaybah’s text addresses. They wanted a sense of Arab identity that would be independent of the fragmenting politics of the ninth century. What was more at stake at this point was more of a cultural question. Then they came in and brought Islam, and now we are all proud beneficiaries of this. In Ibn Qutaybah’s time, two salient things happened. Ibn Qutaybah is not ethnically Arab, but is there a sense in which he would’ve considered himself part of a larger, developing Arab-ness? He looks back nostalgically to a time before he was born, when the Abbasid Caliphate was doing really well, and it was great. So what was particular about him as a writer was his knowledge-and-vocabulary showcasing? But this book is a very Ibn Qutayabah-esque sort of job. Then you look at tenth-century and eleventh-century writing, and the writing that comes after, and they basically carry on with the same tune. That’s the background. But we’ll see, in this sort of book, that it was anything but. For those who are just going to look at the English side of things, I think people who are interested in the idea of Arab identity should look at this book because Arab identity is a big topic, but what’s intriguing is that people are very quick to see the constructedness and the weird contours of Arab identity in the modern era, but we kind of assume that in the old days, Arabs were Arabs, and they were desert people. And in fact, you could make the point that it was superior, in terms of their knowledge of language, their knowledge of natural phenomena, their poetry. The solution was: If we conceptualize the Arabs not as necessarily ourselves, but as this imagined community in pre-Islamic Arabia, and if we think about them as a people who have a peculiar culture and peculiar kinds of knowledge that are separate and independent from all other civilizations, then there’s no point in comparing them to the Persians or the Byzantines. Was it something that they would read bits of, or memorize parts of and distribute that way? My research has led me to look at how the dawn of Islam, or the first three generations after Islam, were really a formative period in defining a sense of Arab identity that we still understand today. Part 1 of the book is a much more argumentative section, while my part, Part 2, is a more evidential section. So instead of “Make Arabness great again,” it’s “Let’s prove why it’s the best thing, let’s hold on to this as an aspect of culture.” As opposed to a political platform associated with it. It wasn’t as if Ibn Qutaybah’s argument would’ve ruffled feathers—there weren’t Persian resistance movements poised to take over the caliphate as this book was being written. Two things are important for the context. Why do think this particular text — unremarkable as you say it was — is important to have in the Library of Arabic Literature collection?