Arabic has been both a unifying and a divisive force in the Arab world

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Arabic has been both a unifying and a divisive force in the Arab world

Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and… by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yale University Press, US $35.00, Pp 630, April 2019, ISBN 978-0300180282

Arabs is a fresh look at the 3,000-year-old history of the Arab peoples that is woven around the Arabic language. According to one of the greatest Muslim sociologists Ibn Khaldun, it was ‘asabiyya’ that always played an important role in ‘group solidarity’ in Arabia. ‘Asabiyya’ was the high Arabic language par excellence. In Arabs, Tim Mackintosh-Smith traces the history of Arabia to the origins of the Arabic language more than a thousand years before the birth of Prophet of Islam Muhammad, unlike other historians who begin their narrative with the rise of Islam. Mackintosh-Smith focuses on how Arabic has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia. He reveals how linguistic developments –such as Muhammad’s use of writing — have helped or hindered the progress of Arab history. He argues that the Arabic language remains a source of both unity and disunity.

In Arabs, Mackintosh-Smith divides the three millennia of recorded Arab history into three historical phases or waves of unity. These three waves shape the larger sections of Arabs into three groups, unequal in years. He argues that the scale of these waves, however, has been far greater than the Khaldunian one of tribe or dynasty. The first wave (Emergence and Revolution from 900 BC to 630 AD), was ancient, slow, but deep. It was one of ethnic self-awareness, swelling over a millennium before Islam. Mackintosh-Smith says that the beginnings of the first wave, of self-awareness, are obscure and hard to fix in time. He says that it seems that with the increased mobility that came from domesticating camels as pack-animals, and with Arabs working in long-distance transport and trade, a language had to form that could be understood by speakers of different North Arabian dialects (South Arabians spoke another group of languages, distantly related but incomprehensible to the northerners; the distance was something like that between German and Italian).

The second wave (Dominance and Decline from 630AD to 1350AD) was a tsunami of physical expansion, the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries and their aftermath, that dissipated as quickly as it began and ended in a long lull but left behind rich and enduring sediment of language. The first and second waves overlap a couple of centuries. Mackintosh-Smith says that at some time well before the fifth century AD and possibly in the central peninsula, a high form of the unified northern language also took shape. This — the asabiyya was no everyday speech but a mystical tongue used for oracle giving and recitation of poetry — Those who could command this special tongue — above all the shai’r (poet) but in its oldest sense probably more like a seer or a shaman — could attract followers. In the time of raids, the shair also played the role of Whitman’s poem, ‘the most deadly force of the war… he can make every word he speaks draw blood. The dust raised by Islam’s impetuous entry in the field of history blots out a lot of what was there before. And yet a few features are clear in the murk that extends from that earliest mention of Arabs in 853 BC to their sudden appearance in the international spotlight.

The third wave (Eclipse and emergence from 1350AD to now), powered by dormant forces that were awakened by nationalist movements in nineteenth-century Europe, was one of the rediscovery of the ethnic, cultural — and, later, cultic — self. That last wave is still breaking now. Mackintosh-Smith says that, during the third wave, for Arabs, the way to nationhood, from anonymity to a new unanimity, would be a hard one. The nineteenth-century Nahdah — arising or awakening — emerged from earlier European ideas of linguistic-ethnic-territorial nationalism. But it was largely an awakening of intellectuals — most Arabs slept on. He says that nationalism failed to gather the Arab world or to unite the Arabic world. In more recent decades, some Arabs have pursued the mirage of unity by unity by an older path — the one that led to Islam. Today, however, language, identity, and the ideal of unity are still as interwoven as they were in the ages of pre-Islamic praise-poetry and of Quranic revelation. ‘Asabiyyah’ — the high language — is regarded by most Arabs as the most significant unifying factor of the Arab world.

Arabs is a much-needed addition to the existing literature on Arab history and language that provides new perspectives and insights. Tim Mackintosh-Smith shows how the Arabic language played a far bigger role in Arab history than Islam. Arabic has been both a unifying and a divisive force throughout history. He does not talk about kings, queens, and princes or their courts and wars. He weaves history around the people, their language, culture, and social life. This provides several new perspectives on Arab history. Arabs makes it easier for us to understand the nature and direction of change in the Arab lands. Mackintosh-Smith is an astute observer of the Arabic-speaking world. This brilliant and fascinating history book will change the way we analyze the happenings in the Arab world. At the same time, it may even generate some controversies.

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