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

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 a two-part discussion with Webb’s co-translator 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. 

In this first part of a two-part discussion, Webb 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.

The (excellent)  introduction to Excellence of the Arabs is also available online.

What brought you to this particular text, and what’s been your relationship with it?

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. So I’d worked quite extensively with this text.

To think about: What did early Muslims think Arab identity meant? What did it mean when one called oneself Arab? What were the boundaries of that community?

Would you consider The Excellence of the Arabs seminal in the creation of a shared Arab identity?

PW: It’s a commentary on a process that had been happening about 100, 150 years before Ibn Qutaybah’s time. 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.

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. 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. Because for instance, in this period, you don’t have other books on Arab 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.

Your introduction, with Sarah Bowen Savant, refers to a central question Ibn Qutaybah’s text addresses. 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. 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.

What was more at stake at this point was more of a cultural question. 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 conquest had happened, Islamization had occurred, and then a cultural question came: Which of these ancestors of our Iraqi civilization were better? 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.

This is an important point. Because if the Persians were greater, does that mean we should drop some of the things that come along with Arabness? Does that mean that Islam was an outsider religion? 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.

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. Because what the Arabs were good at was separate from what the Persians or what the Byzantines were good at.

Therefore, you can’t look down on the Arabs anymore, because you’re not comparing like to like. Now, what you can say is that these were a worthy people who participated in knowledge and learning. They didn’t necessarily have the same book culture or urban culture that the Persians and the Byzantines had. But they had their own good culture. Then they came in and brought Islam, and now we are all proud beneficiaries of this.

And this is the question the book answers.

PW: What the book does, somewhat deftly, is say that the Arabs had a very learned culture before Islam. This learned culture was different from all the other civilizations, but it was certainly not inferior. 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.

They articulated a sense of Arab culture around an idealized Bedouin community. And that, which was then attached to Islam, became the stereotype of the Arabs ever since. 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.

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.

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?

PW: The book is kind of unremarkable: I think it was making an argument that most of his contemporaries would agree with. In the generations before Ibn Qutayban, these arguments had been fairly well thrashed out by all sorts of people.

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. They develop it a little more—the construction of a Bedouin ideal for the Arabs is accentuated and intensified. 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. 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.

But I would not want to say that Ibn Qutaybah had a decisive role in making the argument stick.

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.

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?

PW: The easy part is to answer the question of whether he sees himself as an Arab: Absolutely not. He expresses in the book that I am not an Arab. 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. This reflects how Arab identity was being conceptualized in the ninth century.

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. 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. Mohammed never preached to the early community that, You are Arabs, and this is your religion. As far as we can tell, in the early mobilization of the first Muslims and their conquests, Arabness was not part of that mobilization. It was more of a faith movement.

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. 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.

That’s the background. 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. It was once a very important social asset. If you were an Arab, that meant you were on top, in early Islam. One hundred years before Ibn Qutaybah, that was definitely the case.

Later on, from the first half of the eighth century onwards, there were lots of new joiners in the idea of being an Arab. Then in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, in the ninth century, society was changing again. By this time, lots of assimilation had occurred, lots of conversion to Islam. So the social boundaries of the ninth century were starting to blur. It was difficult to decide: What do you need to be to be an Arab? Do you have to come from a genealogy that is considered Arab? So there was a shift going on.

In Ibn Qutaybah’s time, two salient things happened. 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. You were not an Arab, even if you spoke Arabic.

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. They stopped using Arabness to mark their own identity.

So we have this intriguing period, where Arabness emerges to unite early Muslim conquerors, as an idea of high-status identity. 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.

Ibn Qutaybah is a good example of that. He never tried to become an Arab. He copied Arabic language and Arabic styles, but never thought of himself as an Arab. 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.

If the ideas were so accepted by his contemporaries, why make the argument and write this book?

PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a compiler. 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. He certainly has opponents in mind. Part 1 of the book is a much more argumentative section, while my part, Part 2, is a more evidential section. But this book is a very Ibn Qutayabah-esque sort of job.

Ibn Qutaybah was living at the beginning of a very new period in Islamic civilization, which is the emergence of this book culture. For people two generations before him, most of knowledge was done with limited writing and a greater recourse to oral discussion.

Ibn Qutaybah and the ninth century was when things started getting written down in books in a really serious manner. I think there was a novelty, as well as a belief that we should start writing stuff down. So all this evidence that had been spoken about in the generation before—I think they felt it was time to start compiling it. 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.

We’re looking at a transition to a much more bibliophilic culture.

So what was particular about him as a writer was his knowledge-and-vocabulary showcasing?

PW: He also lived at a tricky period.

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. 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.

Many of the old elite Arab families lost power in the shift. 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. All this happened when Ibn Qutaybah was between five and ten years old.

Two things are important for the context. One: After this civil war, the caliphate never really recovered its power. This was the time when the Muslim world started fragmenting into regional kingdoms. 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. He looks back nostalgically to a time before he was born, when the Abbasid Caliphate was doing really well, and it was great. 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. There was an educational, and also a cultural-conservation approach.

He wanted to make Arabness great again?

PW: Probably not. 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.

They wanted a sense of Arab identity that would be independent of the fragmenting politics of the ninth century. 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.

And I think they were extremely successful, because people still speak Arabic between Morocco and Western Iran. The books that they wrote are really considered the classics of Arabic literature. 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.

They established a discourse that survived, even though it didn’t help the political strength of the caliphate.

Do we know anything about Ibn Qutaybah’s readership?

PW: That’s difficult to answer. 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.

This particular book does not seem to be very extensively quoted.

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. He particularly critiques the book for creating an idealized notion of Arab greatness that really doesn’t hold water.

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.

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. Was it something that they would read bits of, or memorize parts of and distribute that way? We still don’t have answers.

Why do think this particular text — unremarkable as you say it was — is important to have in the Library of Arabic Literature collection?

PW: Ibn Qutaybah was a very prolific writer of the ninth century, one of a handful of important writers. Yet his works are neither translated nor well-known in English. So it’s nice to get Ibn Qutaybah on the map. And we have a nice volume here, because it deals with questions that are of enduring interest.

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? It shows us that, although they spoke Arabic, and participated in this Arabic cultural community, they didn’t necessarily think they were Arabs themselves. They were slowly going through the process of othering the Arabs, and constructing an idealized Bedouin identity for the Arabs. A lot of issues relevant to “What does Arab identity mean?” are preserved in this book.

Who do you think should read this book?

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.

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.

Reading pre-modern texts about Arabness is quite important to help us see where this identity came from, how Arab identity was constructed. It’s important to open up the pre-modern period to more inquiry about the roots of Arab identity. The stereotypes we hold about Arabs today are directly relatable to books like these. 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 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. 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. I think it would probably be very intriguing for them to look at how Arabness was being constructed.

I think medievalists in general might otherwise take the idea of Arab identity as something fixed. But we’ll see, in this sort of book, that it was anything but. The same sort of processes that were happening in Europe were going on in the East as well.

This Q&A also runs over at the Library of Arabic Literature website, where you can find more about the series.

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Categories: classics, Library of Arabic Literature

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