I might be a scientist, but I can’t seem to keep myself away from history, geography, and politics. On a basic level, I like to be informed about a variety of topics, as it enables me to recognize charlatans, demagogues, and hacks when I see them. When it comes to geopolitics, I like to follow patterns and notice the flow of history, and the best way to understand what’s happening now in complicated and tumultuous parts of the world is to understand how these places got where they are today.
With that in mind, I’d like to tackle an area of world history that entirely too few people understand: the history of the Arab world.
Much as, once upon a time, I tried to explain to my family how Canada and the United States emerged as separate countries, I’ve tried to have conversations with them about the US’s military adventures in western Asia. Unfortunately, these conversations fell flat, largely because neither of us had a clear idea of the historical context of these events. In particular, I found myself confused at the idea that nearly two dozen countries spread across two continents consider themselves “Arab” in some way, and yet they have often warred with each other in ways that Europe has not seen since the unifications of Germany and Italy in the 19th century. It certainly didn’t help that, for most Americans, the distinctions between the Arab World, the Middle East, and the Islamic world are hazy at best. I remember my father offending a Turkish waiter on a cruise ship by accidentally referring to Turkey as an “Arab country,” but the waiter didn’t clarify after accepting Dad’s apology.
It turns out that an ever-shifting pattern of colonialism, evangelism, and empire is responsible for the vast extent of Arab culture in the Old World subtropics and for the numerous divisions found therein.
A number of region references will be used throughout this article. These terms are defined here for those not already familiar with them:
- The Maghreb: A region of North Africa including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
- The Nile Watershed: The land encompassed by the modern nations of Egypt and Sudan, comprising most of the Nile watershed. Note that, historically and geographically, this region includes the modern nation of South Sudan. However, South Sudan does not identify as an Arab nation and is not dealt with in this article.
- The Horn of Africa: The easternmost peninsula of Africa, including the modern nations of Djibouti and Somalia. In an African context, this region also includes Ethiopia and Eritrea, which have a similar ethnic makeup and history, but a smaller Arab influence. Ethiopia and Eritrea are not dealt with in this article
- The Southern Levant: The region surrounding the River Jordan and not included in any of the surrounding regions, comprising the modern states of Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian territories.
- The Northern Levant: The modern states of Syria and Lebanon
- Mesopotamia: The region between and surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, comprising modern Iraq and Kuwait as well as a sizable part of what is now Turkey and Syria.
- The Trucial States: The set of small but powerful states on the Persian Gulf side of the Arabian Peninsula, comprising Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Most of these have strong but unfriendly historical ties to Iran.
- Arabian Peninsula: The portion of the Arabian Peninsula not encompassed by the categories above, including the modern nations of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman.
- Other: The distant islands of Zanzibar and the Comoros, not shown on the accompanying map, also have a strong Arab influence, and will be mentioned where appropriate.
(Map adapted from Wikipedia.)
The African regions above are particularly interesting parts of the Arab world. All of these areas were originally inhabited by Afro-Asiatic peoples speaking languages related to Arabic, such as the Berbers, Tuaregs, Somalis, and Sahrawis, and became part of the Arab world during periods of expansion and conquest from the Arabian Peninsula, as explained below. These regions, in particular the Maghreb, now have mixed ethnicities such as “Arab-Berber” and “Moorish” as their majorities. The protection of remaining cultural elements, religions, and languages from prior to the Arab conquest is a divisive and controversial issue in the Maghreb and the Nile watershed.
Areas surrounding these eight regions, such as Spain, the Caucasus, Malta, Iran, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, often have a visible Arab influence and minority. In most of these areas, Islam is the most prevalent religion. These regions, however, do not identify primarily with Arab culture, do not have Arabic as an official or majority language, and do not consider themselves Arab.
Caliphates, Sultanates, and Beyliks
Prior to the appearance of Muhammad, the Arab lands were not unified. A number of empires had held them together to various degrees in the past, most notably the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, but none of these encouraged the development of a single, unified identity for the various tribes and city-states of the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere. A common genealogy and set of trade routes united the people of the Arab world, but their cultures remained separate. In particular, the south end of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen and Oman) had a culture recognizably different from that of the north. As of the last contraction of Roman influence in the area, their politics remained separate as well. Mesopotamia, Yemen, Oman, and some other outlying areas were sometimes Persian vassal states.
Muhammad’s founding of the religion of Islam in approximately 610 ACE did not go smoothly, but before long he had evaded his persecutors from the Hejaz region (now western Saudi Arabia) and spread his faith, and with it its unified model of governance, to the Arabian Peninsula and Trucial States regions. Islam also came to Sudan and the Horn of Africa, the outskirts of the former Empire of Ethiopia, and to Egypt, though the Coptic Christian culture there resisted Muhammad’s efforts violently. After his death in 632, special councils (called majlis) elected new leaders to take his place, called Caliphs, and referred to the lands where Islam and the Caliphs held sway as the Caliphate. Muhammad’s family, the influential Banu Hashem clan, would be a respected source of leadership for subsets of the Arab people, including the first Caliphs, to this day.
The first several Caliphates, called the Rashidun Caliphates, lasted from 632 to 661 and cleaved to this model. During this period, Muhammad’s empire grew to encompass much of the Maghreb, Mesopotamia, and the Northern and Southern Levant, and even extended well outside of the lands currently dominated by Arabs, into Persia (modern Iran), Anatolia (modern Turkey), and the Caucasus, displacing Persian control. People of Arab descent moved into all of these lands. It was at this time that the first large influxes of Arabs into the Nile watershed and the Maghreb occurred, during which Arabs attempted to “Arabize” the native Berber populations, with varying degrees of success.
After the Rashidun Caliphs, the Umayyad dynasty took over leadership of Islam and its empire, changing the elected power structure into a monarchy. This was an extremely unpopular move, since the Umayyads were not descendants of Muhammad, and many Muslims did not regard them as legitimate. Those who accepted their authority became the Sunni Muslims; the others, the Shia. Their perceived illegitimacy was so great that much of the Caliphate began open revolt, and the Umayyads had to effectively reconquer their own empire. Using loyal Syrian troops, the Umayyads succeeded, igniting a feud between Syria and Iraq and expanding the Caliphate’s territory across the Maghreb, into Spain, and all the way to the Indus River in Pakistan, bringing with it populations of Arabs. Notably, the Umayyads treated non-Arabs within their conquered lands with contempt, helping to unify the Arab cultural identity as well as encouraging other, distantly related people to claim it.
In 750, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, and the remaining Umayyads fled to Hispania, re-establishing their caliphate in present-day Spain. The Abbasid Caliphate was established based on Abbas’s credentials as the descendant of Muhammad’s uncle and the support of the non-Arab population of the Caliphate, including the Persians, Berbers, and Mamluks. In 751, the Ibadi sect formed an imamate in Oman, which would remain there until the 1950s. From 909 to 1171, a third, Fatimid Caliphate formed in the Maghreb and the Northern Levant, claiming status through descent from Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and eventually confining the Abbasids to Mesopotamia.
The much better treatment of non-Arab peoples in the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates led to these peoples’ ascent through the ranks of power, and from there to increased demands for regional autonomy, which the Abbasids were forced to grant in 940. As a direct result, the caliphates began to fragment, and the Mamluks of Egypt and the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia established sultanates, becoming the main rivals of the Byzantine Empire. Though the two gained and lost territory to each other constantly, by 1081, the Seljuk Turks controlled most of Anatolia, the Northern Levant, and the Trucial States. In 1154, Oman became the first independent Arab state via the actions of the Nabhani dynasty, though the relationship between the capital Muscat and the Ibadi Imamate of the interior was tense. By 1250, the Abbasids in Egypt were reduced to a ceremonial, priestly caste.
The balance of power between the Seljuks, Mamluks, Abbasids, Fatimids, and Byzantines was not to last. The arrival of the Mongol Horde from the east damaged the fortunes of most of these groups, while the Byzantine-sponsored Crusader States of Antioch and Jerusalem came and went. In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the Abbasids’ capital, and by 1300, the Seljuk holds in Anatolia and elsewhere were fragmented into small fiefdoms, or beyliks. Many of these beyliks had become vassal states of the burgeoning Mongol khanate, whose northern extensions also harried Europe.
The Arabs’ experience with the Caliphate solidified the Arab identity in a vast swath of the world, from Marrakesh to Muscat, in a way that being repeatedly conquered after the Caliphate’s fall could not destroy. Much as with other peoples who experienced a period of ascendance followed by periods of suppression—the Polish, the Armenians, the Tibetans—the identity and cultural heritage formed during the ascendance sustained them until it could be properly reclaimed. For the Arabs, that reclamation would have to wait another several centuries, as other outside empires were about to claim dominion over their lands.
Part 2 of this article will cover the time between the rise of the Ottoman Empire and 2011, and the formation of the modern Arab world’s borders.