A reader sent me a link to a map of the first “Arab Empire” that spanned from Southern France to Northern Africa to the borders of modern-day India and Russia for 300 years, along with a link to a Khan Academy lecture, the Rise of Islamic Empires and States, from 650 to 1450.
This was long considered, by both Arabs and non-Arabs, the Age of Arab nationalism. But more recent scholars have doubted that there was ever a time of full Arab unity because Arab cultures have been so tribal.
The map above is misleading because it ignores the tribal nature of the Middle East, which has always hindered grand generalizations about “Arabs.”
“The term ‘Arab nationalism’ is a misnomer. It represents not a genuine national movement or ideal but is a euphemism for raw imperialism. There is not and has never existed an “Arab nation” and its invocation has been nothing but a clever ploy to rally popular support behind one’s quest for regional mastery. Before the 1920s and 1930s, when Arabs began to be indoctrinated with the notion that all of them constituted one nation, there had been no general sense of “Arabism” among the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East. There was only an intricate web of local loyalties to one’s clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect, or localized ethnic minority—overarched by submission to the Ottoman sultan-caliph in his capacity as the religious and temporal head of the worldwide Muslim community.” — Misunderstanding Arab Nationalism by Efraim Karsh, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001.
The Umayyad Caliphate was not a 300-year empire but lasted just 89 years, from 661-750. Yes, it was important in spreading Islam, the Arabic language, in making Arabic the administrative language of a wide swath — 28% of the world’s population in the 7th century — creating a common currency, and briefly, a concept of Islamic unity and Arab nationalism.
“The first five centuries after the emergence of Islam, spanning the seventh through the twelfth centuries, was the age of the great Islamic empires that dominated world affairs,” wrote Eugene Rosen in “The Arabs.”
“Arabs had an international presence stretching from Iraq and Arabia to Spain and Sicily. The era of early Islam is a source of pride to all Arabs as a bygone era when the Arabs were the dominant power in the world, but resonates in particular with Islamists, who argue that the Arabs were greatest when they adhered most closely to their Muslim faith.”
But underneath the Arab nationalism and “empire” was “a severe case of tribal animosity,” according to Wikipedia, especially with the Hashimites, beginning before there even was an empire, in 624 with the Battle of Badr. Put another way, there has always been a rich diversity in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The Arabic of Northern Africa could NOT even be understood by the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent or the Arabian Peninsula. Cuisine, architecture, and musical traditions were all different.
As historian Rogan pointed out, the 89-year Umayyad dynasty, ruled from Damascus, while the Abbasid caliphate that followed and dominated the region for more than 500 years, ruled from Baghdad. Five more Arab dynasties, most prominently the Mamluks (a military caste of warriors, some of whom were not even Arabic and not even Muslim), ruled from Cairo from 1250 until the Ottomans took over in 1517. The Ottoman Turks’ seat of power was Istanbul.
“From 1517 onward, the Arabs would negotiate their place in the world through rules set in foreign capitals, a political reality that would prove one of the most defining features of modern Arab history.”
Arab nationalism existed only briefly, from the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, to the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel. Nowadays, as the region experiences numerous sectarian conflicts, civil and political warfare, the notion of “one Arab nation” seems as elusive as ever.