Though the Arabic language pre-dates the Common Era, Arabic culture was first spread in the Middle East beginning in the 2nd century as ethnically Arab Christians such as the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Banu Judham began migrating into the Northern Arabian desert and the Levant. The Arabic language gained greater prominence with the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD as the language of the Qur'an, and Arabic language and culture were more widely disseminated as a result of early Islamic expansion.
"Arab" is defined independently of religious identity, and pre-dates the rise of Islam, with historically attested Arab Christian kingdoms and Arab Jews. The earliest documented use of the word "Arab" as defining a group of people dates from the 9th century BCE. Islamized but non-Arabized peoples, and therefore the majority of the world's Muslims, do not form part of the Arab World but comprise what is the geographically larger and diverse Muslim World.
In the modern era, defining who is an Arab is done on the grounds of one or more of the following three criteria:
The relative importance of these three factors is estimated differently by different groups and frequently disputed. Some combine aspects of each definition, as done by Habib Hassan Touma, who defines an Arab "in the modern sense of the word", as "one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arab tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture." Most people who consider themselves Arab do so based on the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions. Few people consider themselves Arab based on the political definition without the linguistic one; thus few Kurds and Berbers identify as Arab. But some do, for instance some Berbers also consider themselves Arab (v. e.g. Gellner, Ernest and Micaud, Charles, Eds. Arabs and Berbers: from tribe to nation in North Africa. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1972). Some religious minorities within the Middle East and North Africa who have Arabic or any of its varieties as their primary community language, such as Egyptian Copts, may not identify as Arabs.
The Arab League at its formation in 1946 defined Arab as "a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples".
The relation of and is complicated further by the notion of "lost Arabs" mentioned in the Qur'an as punished for their disbelief. All contemporary Arabs were considered as descended from two ancestors, Qahtan and Adnan.
Versteegh (1997) is uncertain whether to ascribe this distinction to the memory of a real difference of origin of the two groups, but it is certain that the difference was strongly felt in early Islamic times. Even in Islamic Spain there was enmity between the Qays of the northern and the Kalb of the southern group. The so-called Himyarite language described by Al-Hamdani (died 946) appears to be a special case of language contact between the two groups, an originally north Arabic dialect spoken in the south, and influenced by Old South Arabian.
During the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs forged an Arab Empire (under the Rashidun and Umayyads, and later the Abbasids) whose borders touched southern France in the west, China in the east, Asia Minor in the north, and the Sudan in the south. This was one of the largest land empires in history. In much of this area, the Arabs spread Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and cultural assimilation. Many groups became known as "Arabs" through this process of Arabization rather than through descent. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term: cultural Arab vs. ethnic Arab.Arab nationalism declares that Arabs are united in a shared history, culture and language. A related ideology, Pan-Arabism, calls for all Arab lands to be united as one state. Arab nationalism has often competed for existence with regional nationalism in the Middle East, such as Lebanese and Egyptian.
Early Semites, such as the Arameans, Akkadians and Canaanites, built civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Levant; genetically, they often interlapped and mixed. Slowly, however, they lost their political domination of the Near East due to internal turmoil and attacks by non-Semitic peoples. Although the Semites eventually lost political control of the Middle East to the Persian Empire, the Aramaic language remained the lingua Franca of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Aramaic itself was replaced by Greek as the Middle East's prestige language following the conquest of Alexander the Great.
The first written attestation of the ethnonym "Arab" occurs in an Assyrian inscription of 853 BCE, where Shalmaneser III lists a King Gindibu of mâtu arbâi (Arab land) as among the people he defeated at the Battle of Karkar. Some of the names given in these texts are Aramaic, while others are the first attestations of Proto-Arabic dialects. In fact several different ethnonyms are found in Assyrian texts that are conventionally translated "Arab": Arabi, Arubu, Aribi and Urbi. The Hebrew Bible occasionally refers to `Arvi peoples (or variants thereof), translated as "Arab" or "Arabian". The scope of the term at that early stage is unclear, but it seems to have referred to various desert-dwelling Semitic tribes in the Syrian Desert and Arabia.
Proto-Arabic, or Ancient North Arabian, texts give a clearer picture of the Arabs' emergence. The earliest are written in variants of epigraphic south Arabian musnad script, including the 8th century BCE Hasaean inscriptions of eastern Saudi Arabia, the 6th century BCE Lihyanite texts of southeastern Saudi Arabia and the Thamudic texts found throughout Arabia and the Sinai (not in reality connected with Thamud).
The Nabataeans were nomadic newcomers who moved into territory vacated by the Edomites -- Semites who settled the region centuries before them. Their early inscriptions were in Aramaic, but gradually switched to Arabic, and since they had writing, it was they who made the first inscriptions in Arabic. The Nabataean Alphabet was adopted by Arabs to the south, and evolved into modern Arabic script around the 4th century. This is attested by Safaitic inscriptions (beginning in the 1st century BCE) and the many Arabic personal names in Nabataean inscriptions. From about the 2nd century BCE, a few inscriptions from Qaryat al-Faw (near Sulayyil) reveal a dialect which is no longer considered "proto-Arabic", but pre-classical Arabic.
In Sassanid times, Arabia Petraea was a border province between the Roman and Persian empires, and from the early centuries AD was increasingly affected by Arab influence, notably with the Ghassanids migrating north from the 3rd century.
Greeks and Romans referred to all the nomadic population of the desert in the Near East as Arabi. The Greeks called Yemen "Arabia Felix. The Romans called the vassal nomadic states within the Roman Empire "Arabia Petraea" after the city of Petra, and called unconquered deserts bordering the empire to the south and east Arabia Magna.
Muslims of Medina referred to the nomadic tribes of the deserts as the A'raab, and considered themselves sedentary, but were aware of their close racial bonds. The term "A'raab' mirrors the term Assyrians used to describe the closely related nomads they defeated in Syria.
The Qur'an does not use the word , only the nisba adjective . The Qur'an calls itself , "Arabic", and , "clear". The two qualities are connected for example in ayat 43.2-3, "By the clear Book: We have made it an Arabic recitation in order that you may understand". The Qur'an became regarded as the prime example of the , the language of the Arabs. The term has the same root and refers to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. The plural noun refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in ayat 9.97, "the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy".
Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, referred to the language, and to the Arab Bedouins, carrying a negative connotation due to the Qur'anic verdict just cited. But after the Islamic conquest of the 8th century, the language of the nomadic Arabs became regarded as the most pure by the grammarians following Abi Ishaq, and the term , "language of the Arabs", denoted the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.
Caliph Abd al-Malik established Arabic as the Caliphate's official language in 686. This reform greatly influenced the conquered non-Arab peoples and fueled the Arabization of the region. However, the Arabs' higher status among non-Arab Muslim converts and the latter's obligation to pay heavy taxes caused resentment. Caliph Umar II strove to resolve the conflict when he came to power in 717. He rectified the situation, demanding that all Muslims be treated as equals but, his intended reforms did not take effect as he died after only three years of rule. By now, discontent swept the region and a bloody uprising occurred in which the Abbasids came to power and moved the capital to Baghdad. The Abbasids were also Arabs (descendants of Muhammad's uncle Abbas) and unlike the Ummayads, they had the support of non-Arab Islamic groups. Through Islam and Arabic as the language of administration the Levantine and Iraqi populations were eventually Arabized.
Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima distinguishes between sedentary Muslims who used to be nomadic Arabs and the Bedouin nomadic Arabs of the desert. He used the term "formerly-nomadic" Arabs and refers to sedentary Muslims by the region or city they lived in, as in Egyptians, Spaniards and Yemenis. The Christians of Italy and the Crusaders preferred the term Saracens for all the Arabs and Muslims of that time. The Christians of Iberia used the term Moor to describe all the Arabs and Muslims of that time.
The Umayyid Caliphs starting with Mu'awiyah Ibn Abi Sufyaan were the first Arab force to conquer the North African region, however most of them where in Damascus (The Levant) at this time and not in North Africa. It is not until their removal from Damascus by the Abbasid Caliphs will they enter Spain/Andalus and then North Africa after their expulsion from Spain/Andalus.
Uqbah Ibn Naafi' and his forces (Banu Fahr) subdued Kusayla (a Berber chief) after the first Berber apostacy in the Aures Mountain region in modern day Algeria. This led to many bloody battles between the Arab Banu Fahr and the Apostates of the region. Uqbah Ibn Naafi' the chief of the Muslim forces was slain during these battles and buried in what will later be known as the city of Sidi Uqbah in the province of Biskra,Algeria. Uqbah Ibn Naafi', a companion of Muhammad, The Prophet of Islam and the Banu Fahr build the city of Qayrawan in modern day Tunisia and the city of Uqbah ibn Naafi' in modern day Algeria
Idris I, fell into a quarrel with the Abbasids and fled Egypt for the Maghreb. With the support of the Berber of the Region they established the Idrisid dynasty which was located in modern day Morocco and Algeria.
The Umayyad Dynasty eventually fell after much infighting and mismanagement left them weak to invading European forces from France. This led to the wholesale murder, expulsion, and destruction of both the Muslim Arabs and Non-Arabs as well as much of the monuments and literature which they left behind. The Banu Umayya clan then fled with the rest of the Muslims to the Maghreb region.
The Banu Hilal was a populous Arab tribal confederation, organized by the Fatimids. They struck in Libya, reducing the Zenata Berbers (a clan that claimed Yemeni ancestry from pre-Islamic periods) and the Sanhaja berber confederation to small coastal towns. The Banu Hilal, Banu Muqal, Banu Jashm and other smaller tribes eventually Settled in modern Morocco and Algeria.
The Banu Sulyam is another Bedouin tribal confederation from Nejd which followed through the trials of Banu Hilal and helped them defeat the Zirids in the Battle of Gabis in 1052 AD, and finally took Kairuan in 1057 Ad. The Banu Sulaym mainly settled and completely Arabized Libya.
A branch of the Rabi'ah tribe settled in north Sudan and slowly Arabized the Makurian kingdom in modern Sudan until 1315 AD when the Banu Kanz inherited the kingdom of Makuria and paved the way for the Arabization of the Sudan, that was completed by the arrival of the Jaalin and Juhayna Arab tribes.
The Banu Maqil is a Yemeni nomadic tribe that settled in Tunisia in the 13th century. The Banu Hassan a Maqil branch moved into the Sanhaja region in whats today the Western Sahara and Mauritania, they fought a thirty years war on the side of the Lamtuna Arabized Berbers who claimed Himyarite ancestry (from the early Islamic invasions) defeating the Sanhaja berbers and Arabizing Mauritania.
Medieval Arab genealogists divided Arabs into three groups:
Book of Jubilees 20:13 And Ishmael and his sons, and the sons of Keturah and their sons, went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of Babylon in all the land which is towards the East facing the desert. And these mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites.
Before the coming of Islam, most Arabs followed a religion with a number of deities, including Hubal, Wadd, Allāt, Manat, and Uzza. Some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism. A few individuals, the hanifs, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of monotheism unaffiliated with any particular religion. The most prominent Arab Christian kingdoms were the Ghassanid and Lakhmid kingdoms. When Himyarite kings converted to Judaism in the late 4th century, the elites of the other prominent Arab kingdom, the Kindites, being Himyirite vassals, apparently also converted (at least partly). With the expansion of Islam, polytheistic Arabs were rapidly Islamized, and polytheistic traditions disappeared.
Today, Sunni Islam dominates in most areas, overwhelmingly so in North Africa. Shia Islam is dominant in southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. Shia Muslims are also believed to be in the majority in Bahrain, and substantial Shi'a populations exist in Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, northern Syria, the al-Batinah region in Oman, and in northern Yemen. The Druze community, concentrated in the Levant, follow a faith that was originally an offshoot of Ismaili Shia Islam, and are also Arab.
Christians make up 5.5% of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon they number about 39% of the population, in Syria 10%. In Palestine before the creation of Israel estimates ranged as high as 20%, but is now 3.8% due to mass emigration. In Israel Arab Christians constitute 2.1% (roughly 10% of the Palestinian Arab population). In Jordan they around 7%. Most North and South American Arabs are Christian, as are about half of Arabs in Australia who come particularly from Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.
Jews from Arab countries – mainly Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews – are today usually not categorised as Arab. Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality". Prior to the emergence of the term Mizrahi, the term "Arab Jews" (Yehudim ‘Áravim, יהודים ערבים) was sometimes used to describe Jews of the Arab world. The term is rarely used today. The few remaining Jews in the Arab countries reside mostly in Morocco and Tunisia. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, following the creation of the state of Israel, most of these Jews left or were expelled from their countries of birth and are now mostly concentrated in Israel. Some immigrated to France, where they form the largest Jewish community, outnumbering European Jews, but relatively few to the United States. See Jewish exodus from Arab lands.
Language and culture