In Our Time, The Arab Conquests

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On this week’s In Our Time they’re talking about the Islamic conquests. The author of When Baghdad Ruled and The Great Arab Conquests is one of the guests, so if you meant to read the books but never got around to it for whatever reason, might be worth a listen. As I told a friend the first few centuries of the emergence of what we know as the Islamic World (650-850) are interesting, but after that point you hit a somewhat stationary state (most of the sects and schools of Islamic law emerged during this period, even if their identity only full crystallized between 850 and 1150). Details such as how Iran was transformed into a Shia state by the Safavids in the 16th century are not trivial, but they pale in contrast to the implications for world history of a new ideology & empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus.

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  1. I happened to listen to this tonight while I was cleaning my apartment and I was struck by how much emphasis one of the authors put on language as the true defining characteristic of Arabs. I thought “Isn’t it an ancestry first and foremost?” Then I realized I didn’t know. I checked out wikipedia and it def seems this guy was pushing a language agenda.  
     
    Anyway, I know there is a lot of research concerning the influence of genetics on universal characteristics of language, but is there much known about variation in language? Given the age of the major language splits, would there be specialization as far as language styles are concerned?

  2. Egyptians were not “Arabized” genetically, only linguistically. It was said early on during the islamic conquests (I forget if it was by Muhammad) that “Anyone who speaks Arabic is an Arab”.

  3. I thought “Isn’t it an ancestry first and foremost?” Then I realized I didn’t know. I checked out wikipedia and it def seems this guy was pushing a language agenda. 
     
    no, it isn’t. the reason he was pushing the “language agenda” is because that’s how you define an arab, by their speech of arabic.* this isn’t controversial, it’s the convention. there are some racialists/ancestral theories pushed by some arab nationalists, but that’s superficial scientism that just emerged in the wake of 20th century demands that identity needs to be rooted in descent groups. the early arabs were patrilineal enough that after the first century pure arab descent was pretty irrelevant** (e.g., the founder of the ummayad caliphate in spain was half-berber on his mother’s side). 
     
    Anyway, I know there is a lot of research concerning the influence of genetics on universal characteristics of language, but is there much known about variation in language? Given the age of the major language splits, would there be specialization as far as language styles are concerned? 
     
    see here (i wouldn’t bet the house on this). 
     
    Egyptians were not “Arabized” genetically, only linguistically. It was said early on during the islamic conquests (I forget if it was by Muhammad) that “Anyone who speaks Arabic is an Arab”. 
     
    if you look at the genetic stuff there does seem to be *some* influence of the arabian migration on levantine populations. i wouldn’t be surprised if on iraqis as well. that being said, in these areas there were large arab populations on the margins dating back to antiquity. and as you note, in egypt and north africa arabicization was predominantly cultural (as evidenced by the contemporary observable arabicization of berbers today in the maghreb). there were a few specific arabian tribes that did emigrate (banu hilal, etc.), but these are exceptions to the rule…. 
     
    note: it seems that a great deal of persianization of arabs occurred in what became iran. there were large arab colonies in qom and khorosan. 
     
    * arab “dialects” can be unintelligible. i believe egyptian elite arabic is the closest to the lingua franca, while the written language is more uniform because of its elevated register. 
     
    ** the transition from the ummayads to the abbassids around 750 is often presented as an overturning of the arab ascendancy by a ethnically pluralistic dispensation which on the other hand became more universally and exclusively islamic.

  4. p.s. and if you need a concrete example because saying won’t make it so, anwar sadat had a nubian mother (obviously, take a look at him). this resulted in some racism being directed at his way since arabs are generally racist against blacks, but it didn’t prevent him being the de facto leader of the arab world as president of egypt.

  5. “arabs are generally racist against blacks”: aha, so they don’t allow portraits of The Prophet because he was partly black? Aha.

  6. er, bioIgnoramus, the hadith on the subject of Muhammad’s appearance all point out that he was, below the desert tan, very light skinned. Also his particular tribe of Arab was north Arabian, and pretended to descent from Abraham like the Jews. Muhammad had negligible Yemeni / Ethiopian / Nubian ancestry. 
     
    More interesting to me is to what degree his ancestors were Hellenistic. (Maybe he was an Atreides? :^)

  7. “When Baghdad Ruled” reminded me of a Gospel or of Tabari, in cobbling together anecdotes rather than attempting a coherent history. Which is okay if you like that sort of thing; but you’re much better off actually reading Tabari, who at least gives his chain of isnad. 
     
    As for the Rashidun age, I’m waiting for a full translation of Baladhuri. Too much of Tabari’s military history here derives comes from Sayf b. Umar, whose work is almost totally discredited. Oh yeah, and Tabari and Sayf have instructed modern Wahhabis that Shi’ism was founded by a renegade Jew. To the extent that life as a Shi’a in Sunni states is a nightmare, much of the blame is Tabari’s.

  8. “arabs are generally racist against blacks” 
     
    i didn’t mention that to single out arabs, just to emphasize that despite the fact that black arabs are subject to racism they can still be accepted as arabs (i assume turks and persians are just as racist, but since there are far fewer blacks extant in the regions where these groups dominate it probably isn’t as manifest).

  9. “the hadith on the subject of Muhammad’s appearance all point out that he was, below the desert tan, very light skinned.” Well, there you are then. A big attempt to deny the fact, like those Nazis who were part Jewish. Was he any good at basketball?

  10. Also, if you know arabic, you know the word for black and slave are the same. Razib’s comment is apropos. It’s also ironic that blacks in the past have been drawn to Islam even though some of the worst oppression and conquest came by the Arabs in ~50 years over North Africa, and they thought that somehow they were “going home.” 
     
    David, it’s a nightmare due to Mo, or several of his biographers, including al tabari but equally with Ishaq, jalalyn, etc. Thankfully many still have their real humanity, but the leaders really stifle them in numerous, dangerous ways.

  11. Arabs didn’t define themselves primarily as Arabs until the last century or two, under western nationalist influence. The primary identity was Islam, with cities, tribes, clans, sects, and language/culture groups all providing secondary identities.  
     
    There’s a big difference between having a degree of racial or national awareness, and making it into a fundamental structural principle of society.  
     
    Functionally, of course, in places where Arabic was the language of business, Arabic-speakers are favored, but that doesn’t amount to a group identity.

  12. ottoman turks also defined themselves as muslims first and foremost. not that they weren’t prejudiced against non-turks, but other groups could assimilate to that identity. interestingly they tended to prefer balkan muslims (albanians, slavs) to arabs as viziers (there was an arab vizier or two whose ethnicity was commented on as a point of aspersion). and of course they were prejudiced against blacks.

  13. John Emerson, but this period – 650-850 – includes the Umayyads, who often used Islam as a cover for Arab supremacism. They didn’t even encourage conversions, which is why so many non-Arab Muslims at this time came from households of prominent Arab families (mawla clients, ex-slaves and such). 
     
    Informed, the word for slave is just the standard Semitic ‘abd (compare Hebrew theophoric ‘Obadiah). I am interested in when ‘abd was used as a synonym for black-person. I assume it came about in the Zanj. 
     
    The Zanj would be the forerunner of Caribbean sugar plantations, and we can definitely use modern understandings of “racism” for the period when they were churning out a profit. The famous rebellion broke out in 869, a little after the period we’re discussing here. But Wikipedia claims the first rebellion broke out in 696. 
     
    Away from the Zanj, “racism” among Arabs is the more Roman-era, xenophobic sort found everywhere else in history; and I really don’t want to get into the flame war over whether this counts. Relevant to blacks, several hadiths say that Hijazi Arabs feared that Ethiopians were going to invade the Kaaba and bring about the end of the world.

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