Perplexitas Arabica

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991).

Issue: Fall 1991

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991).  551 pp., $24.95.

David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991 [hardback edition published in 1989]).  464 pp., $12.95

"What is an Arab?"  The difficulty in answering this characteristically concise question posed by Bernard Lewis at the very beginning of his now classic 1958 book, The Arabs in History, has bedeviled most of the writing about the Arab world in modern times.  The problem boils down to this: while there is an adequate linguistic definition of what an Arab is, there is also a metaphysical dimension to the term that constantly intrudes upon this more basic criterion.  Thus, at the simplest level, as Lewis and others have noted, an Arab is one who speaks Arabic as his or her mother tongue. 

So far so good.  While Jews, Copts, or other minorities living in the heart of Araby, and for whom Arabic is their mother language, would obviously constitute exceptions, the definition is broadly workable.

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