Peter Webb on Ibn Qutaybah - When Arabophones weren’t Arabs: Ibn Qutaybah and identity formation during the early period of Islamhttps://arablit.org/2017/07/24/when-arabophones-werent-arabs-ibn-qutaybah-and-identity-formation-during-the-early-period-of-islam/amp/
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 ... 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 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.
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.
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.
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.