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Imagining the Arabs

Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam

Peter Webb

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A new interpretation of Arab origins and the historical roots of Arab identity

Who are the Arabs? When did people begin calling themselves Arabs? And what was the Arabs’ role in the rise of Islam? Investigating these core questions about Arab identity and history through close interpretation of pre-Islamic evidence and the extensive Arabic literary corpus in tandem with theories of identity and ethnicity prompts new answers to the riddle of Arab origins and fundamental reinterpretations of early Islamic history.

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Note on the Text
Part 1: The Rise of Arab Communities
1. The Rise of Arab Communities
I. Arabs and pre-Islamic Textual Traditions
II. Arabs in Arabia: ethnogenesis, interpretations and problems
III. An Arabness pretence: pre-Islamic ‘Arab’-cognates reconsidered
2. Pre-Islamic ‘Arabless-ness’: Arabian Identities
I. The Arabic Language: a signpost to Arabness?
II. The search for Arabs in pre-Islamic poetry
III. Contextualising the ‘Arabless’ Poetry: ethnic boundaries in pre-Islamic Arabia
IV. The rise of ‘Arab’ poetry
V. Transition from ‘Maʿadd’ to ‘Arab’: case study of Dhū Qār
VI. Pre-Islamic Arabian identity: conclusions
3. Arabness from the Qur’an to an ethnos
I. ‘Arab’: an ethnonym resurrected?
II. The Qur’an and Arabness
III. Early Islam and the genesis of Arab identity
Part Two: The Changing Faces of Arabness in Early Islam
4. Interpreting Arabs: defining their name and constructing their family
I. ‘Arab’ defined
II. Arabness and contested lineage
III. Arab genealogy reconsidered: kinship, gender and identity
IV. The creation of ‘traditional’ Arab genealogy
V. Defining Arabs: conclusions
5. Arabs as a people and Arabness as an idea: 750-900 CE
I. Arabs in the early Abbasid Caliphate (132-193/750-809)
II. Forging an Iraqi ‘Arab Past’
III. al-Jāhiliyya and imagining pre-Islamic Arabs
IV. Arabs and Arabia: changing relationships in the third/ninth century
6. Philologists, ‘Bedouinisation’ and the ‘Archetypal Arab’ after the mid-third/ninth century
I. Philologists and Arabness: changing conceptions of Arabic between the late second/eighth and fourth/tenth centuries
II. The transformation of Arabness into Bedouin-ness
III. Bedouin Arabness and the emergence of a Jāhiliyya archetype
IV. Conclusions
Imagining and Reimagining the Arabs: Conclusions

About the Author

Peter Webb is University Lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at Leiden University.


'A paradigm-shifting study…a rich and fascinating work, one that is destined to become a classic in the field.'

- Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences
'A wide-ranging and ambitious book.'
- Philip Wood, Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā

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