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Imagining the ArabsArab Identity and the Rise of Islam$
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Peter Webb

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781474408264

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474408264.001.0001

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Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the Mid-Third/Ninth Century

Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the Mid-Third/Ninth Century

(p.294) 6 Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the Mid-Third/Ninth Century
Imagining the Arabs

Peter Webb

Edinburgh University Press

How was Arab identity imagined in a world where most Middle Eastern populations stopped calling themselves Arabs? After the mid-ninth century AD, descriptions of Arabs proliferated in Arabic literature, whilst Arab identity as a social/political asset was in decline. In this period, the key spokesmen for the idea of Arabness were philologists who fundamentally reworked impressions of Arab identity as part of new theories about the Arabic language. Diachronic survey of the development of Arabic philology from the late eighth to eleventh centuries reveals shifting intentions and values which standardised the Arabic language via a unique process that focused on the idealisation of Bedouin as paragons of the ‘original Arabs’. Studying Arabic philology within its socio-historical contexts reveals how the grammarians transcended language study and forged paradigmatic changes to the ways Arab history and culture are interpreted. The novel association of Arab with Bedouin became a popular theme in Arabic literature from the early tenth century, and the weight of the resultant writings comprehensively transformed Arabness from the former expression of urban/Muslim elite identity in early Islam to a desert/Bedouin pre-Islamic identity which has cast a long shadow on the notion of Arab identity to the present.

Keywords:   Arabic language, Arabic grammar, language and identity, Bedouin, Arab identity, al-Jāḥiẓ, Sībawayh

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