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What is an Arab?

After reading my article, Muslim Does Not Mean Arab a reader wrote to ask this question: "What, precisely, is an Arab?"

I thought others might have the same question after reading the article.

Here is my answer.


In one sense, the questions of ethnicity can probably never be answered with any technical precision. It is like asking, what is a Moor? What is a Jew? Who knows? The Sephardic Jews may very well be Spanish, and the Ashkenazi Jews Slavic, (at least mixtures), although they go to a lot of trouble to demonstrate they are "genetically" Jewish.

But what's the point. The whole idea of ethnicity is one I wish were banished from the world, because, except to those who study history, cultural anthropology, or medicine (some diseases are prevalent in some ethnic lines) what difference does it make what (ethnically) somebody is? Yet how many people believe they must practice certain things, wear certain things, believe certain things, and live certain places because they are a ___ (fill in your favorite ethnicity).

While ethnicity is probably technically meaningless, and ought not to have any bearing on how any individual determines who and what they are, we cannot ignore it, because most people do think it is significant and do make their choices based on it. It is that fact that is the significance of ethnicity and the only one I know how to answer. Ethnically, people are whatever they believe they are and its only significance is what they make of it.

So, what is an Arab? An Arab is someone who believes they are a member of the genetic line descended from Shem (Semitic), one of the three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) of the Biblical Noah. According to this belief, all Semitic people descend from Shem, Black people from Ham, and white people from Japheth, which would include the Persians, for example, because they are not Semitic. Where the Orientals came from is not addressed by this theory.

Abraham came nine generations after Shem (Genesis 11), and had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The Arabs and Jews both believe the Arabs descended from Ishmael and the Jews from Isaac, so they are both, "Semites," or Semitic. (I've always wondered why they don't call themselves Ishmaelites and Isaacites.)

A couple of oddities. Egyptians consider themselves Arabs, but technically they cannot be. Egyptians already existed at the time of Ishmael and one Egyptian, Hagar, was his mother. The name "Jew" is derived from the tribe Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, (Israel), who is one of the two sons of Isaac (Jacob and Esau). But the Jews usually consider anyone descended from Isaac Jewish, although how anyone would know who is descended from Isaac is a great mystery, and Esau was the father of the Edomites, which is another story.

The term Arab is actually Assyrian in origin and refers to nomads or camel herders. The term came to mean anyone living in the Arabian Peninsula, (between 9 and 1 BC). Less than 10% of Arabs are actually Bedouin (herding tent dwellers), however. Today, Arab means anyone whose language is Arabic (or believes they are of Arab descent, whatever that actually is). In reality they, like almost any other supposed, "ethnic group," are comprised of people of diverse origins artificially connected by history, tradition, language, religion, geography, or culture.

And this, from Arabs :

"Arabs form the bulk of the population of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition, there are about 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ... and more than 700,000 Arab citizens of Israel."

Here, I think, is an interesting fact I know from personal experience which illustrates ethnicity is really a matter of self-identification, and very unscientific. There is a rare form of autoimmune disease, (pemphigus vulgaris), common to two very different "ethnic groups," which seem about as diverse as possible. The two groups it is associated with are Jews and Scandinavians. Now what is their common ethnic origin?

—(02/11/10)