When is an Arab not an Arab?
Recent and ongoing research at Leiden and elsewhere is changing the way we think about the words “Arab”, “Arabian” and “Muslim” in early Islam and before. Ed Hayes reflects on recent conversations with colleagues to consider “what’s in a name”?
“Try it! If you say it a hundred times it doesn’t make sense anymore!”
What a blast from the past! My children had discovered something that I remember from when I was little: if you repeat a word enough, you begin to lose sight of its meaning, overwhelmed by the arbitrary stream of sounds that clog your mouth. This was a spontaneous intuition of the flaws in what philosophers call the Cratylian view of language.
Cratylus, a 5th century BCE Greek philosopher, thought that the sound of a word was integrally tied to the essence of the thing it referred to. Like anyone else, academics sometimes get stuck in the rut of believing that the words we use are essentially true, but it is a habit of mind we need to be watchful for.
I have been thinking about these issues a lot recently because in June, our Embedding Conquest research group at Leiden University enjoyed a visit from Robert Hoyland, a professor at New York University who has made a career out of interpreting the very patchy and allusive evidence for the rise of Islam in Arabia, and the nature of Arabia before the Prophet Muhammad came and brought the world-shifting message of the Quran to the Arabians.
In the room were three other specialists of early and pre-Islamic Arabia at Leiden University: Ahmad al-Jallad, Peter Webb and Marijn van Putten. On the table for discussion were a whole slew of mysterious and fascinating issues of naming and categorization stretching over a couple of millennia: from several centuries before Christ, until the high middle ages of classical Islam.
Over such expanses of time, what language or languages can we call “Arabic”, as opposed to earlier forms like Nabatean Arabic or the various dialects of old Arabic written in the Safaitic script, and who can we call “Arabs”?
When the Quran calls itself an Arabic Quran, what does it mean by it, and how is that different from the Arabic used by the diverse peoples of Arabia before and after Muhammad? If Arabia before Islam was monotheistic (and archaeology and inscriptions indicate a steady move towards monotheism well before Islam) what should we call these monotheists: Christian, Jewish, Judeo-Christian, or home-grown Arabian monotheists?
Were the polytheists mentioned often in the Quran (mushrikūn) really polytheistic, or was that just a way of insulting the perceived impurity of the beliefs of the people around at the time? After all, the Quran certainly has a polemic against Trinitarian Christians who saw fit to split God into three.
The problem is, that the hard evidence (archaeology, documents, coins) for pre- and early-Islamic Arabia is very bare, compared, say to Roman Britain, or Golden Age Holland. More archaeological surveys are needed, and linguists, archaeologists and specialists in inscriptions need to be trained and supported to make sense of the evidence that exists.
In the meantime, and assuming we will never come across an early Arabian Genizah or Meccan Domesday Book, at some point we have to make a call on these tricky points. And when we do, it leads us down a road that determines further choices and interpretations.
The accurate and evidence-based naming of groups and identities is not a merely academic question. Even if you agree with an earlier guest of ours, Fred Donner, that Muhammad led an essentially ecumenical movement of “believers” rather than Muslims with a capital “M”, which included Jews, Christians and Arabian monotheists, it is clear that at some point, early Muslim governments themselves had to make a call on who was Muslim, and who was not: who was “in” and who was “out” of the category and therefore the ruling class of the “Arab” or “Muslim”, even though these categories were always fluid and in the process of construction.
In the case of the category of “Muslim,” the floodgates soon opened, and people of all origins (even non-Arabs) could engineer their own upward mobility through conversion to Islam, and it was no longer possible for governments to police who was a Muslim and who was not – though apparently this does not stop even our own governments today from trying.
In today’s world, too, things like identification documents, marriage, taxation and government employment are structured according to which category you fall into (your gender, nationality, age, race, or religion). The categorization of your identity greatly influences the path of your life.
In early Islam, too, the administration of the new empire was guided by categories which made sense to the conquering elites: tribe, language, religious community, and level of involvement in the conquest. What kind of monotheist you were made a big difference to your daily life.
Now it falls upon historians, linguists, and archaeologists to interpret the surviving traces of these earlier categories – categories which are often very different from modern understandings of what it means to be, for example, Arab, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.