When do the Arabs become the Muslims?

Okay, so almost kind of back to writing regularly … a few weeks later than expected.  My apologies, once again.  As I mentioned in my last post, I was back in the UK two weeks ago, in order to participate in the Heraclians conference in Oxford, and then last week, my sister was hooded and graduated with her PhD (woo!), so there was much (slightly soggy) celebrating.

I admit, I feel a bit out of practice with this whole ‘blogging’ thing, so in order to get back into the swing of things, I’m going to talk a bit about something that struck me during the conference – the question of when the Arabs became the Muslims?

The question from the historical sources is pretty easy to answer – the two terms never match up quite complete.  Instead, the nascent Muslim community referred to themselves as the believers for most of the first two centuries at least, and the outside sources, those produced by the various Christian and Jewish communities of the Near East in particular, tended to use the terms Saracen or Hagarene even as late as the Crusader period.  In fact, both the term “Arab” and the term “Muslim” are fairly unusual in outside source material – Syriac has a word “taiyoyo” which is usually translated as either Arab or Muslim, depending on the context, but linguistically, appears to be a reference to a specific Arabian tribe with whom the grammarians were familiar (with the term becoming generalized for the whole Arabian peninsula over time, but when exactly this happens is up for debate).

But the point of this question is more to do with the study of history than the sources themselves – it struck me during this conference, which focused mainly on material from the seventh and eighth centuries, that whether we referred to the peoples of the Arabian peninsula who followed Muhammad (peace be upon him) as “Arabs” or “Muslims” seemed to switch from speaker to speaker.

For myself, from anytime after c. 610, I tend to refer to them as “Muslims,” which has less to do with the term “Muslims” than my issues with the term “Arab.”  “Arab” is an irregular Arabic plural of the term “arabi,” and in Qur’anic and early Islamic sources appears to be used for the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula.  In other words, in contemporary Arabia, “Arab” referred to a particular group of “Arabians,” and I see no reason not to carry on with that distinction, particularly when I have another word ready at hand to refer to the religio-political movement that arose out of Mecca and Medina – Muslims.  Generally speaking in my published and presented work, when I want to refer to Arabians generally (that is, any people from the Arabian peninsula), I call them Arabians.

But on average, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I’m in the minority.  Particularly for the period of the first two Islamic centuries (so the seventh and eighth centuries CE), I’d guess more modern scholars call them “Arabs” than “Muslims.”  I admit, I was slightly taken aback by this when I noticed it in the conference, although that’s probably because I’ve been out of direct academic work for nearly two years – I don’t think this is a recent change, I think I just didn’t notice it until now.  Works on the period of the Islamic expansion often referred to the movement as Arabs – thus Hugh Kennedy’s most recent work was entitled “The Great Arab Conquests.”  Yet at the same time, scholars tend to refer to “the Islamic Near East” to distinguish it from the pre-Islamic series – thus the long-running series published by Princeton, “The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East,” or the work of Walter Kaegi, “Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests.”  So it would seem that abstract nouns, like places or periods of expansion, can be Islamic, but the people involved remain Arab.

Does it make a difference?  Is it just semantics?  I’d argue that it does make a difference.  Much of the study of Islamic history in the West has been characterized by skepticism – skepticism of sources, skepticism of the indigenous traditions, even skepticism of the subjects’ potential for intellectual endeavor – there are more than a few scholars who have argued that the theological foundations of Islam must come from outside the Arabian peninsula because the Arabs just weren’t capable of that level of intellectual output.  Aside from being more than a little insulting, it casts Western studies of early Islamic history in a particular light – a skeptical one – and I think the tendency to see the nascent community as “Arabs” instead of “Muslims” is an example of this mindset.  It implies that we as scholars are, however unconsciously, attempting to judge when this community becomes Muslims.

It’s not all like that, of course – I’m painting with very broad strokes here.  Fred Donner entitled his most recent book “Muhammad and the Believers” in part to address this issue, as well as to follow a trend from the study of Christian history, to call communities what they call themselves (although in the eastern church, this just becomes a burdensome string of [blank] Orthodox – Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Byzantine Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc.).  And although I may be in the minority, I’m certainly not the only scholar who calls the movement “Muslims” from Mecca onwards.  And I’d certainly expect any scholar who is also a practicing Muslim to call the community of Abu Bakr and Umar “Muslims.”  But it does seem to represent one of the peculiarities of our field, this constant pushing against the native tradition, when so many related fields have found a happy balance of scholarly skepticism and indigenous tradition.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to When do the Arabs become the Muslims?

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Hm. Well, as a semi-related data point, I (as a relatively uninformed outsider) tend to think of “Arab” as referring to people primarily in terms of geographical location, and “Muslim” as referring to their religion (and to some extent culture). So, for example, I live in a suburban area that has a good-sized Muslim community, but that community is mainly composed of Americans (with, presumably, a few visiting Arabs at any given time).

    That said, I’m not sure if that’s a common usage, or if it’s just a quirk of my personal vocabulary; the distinction may be problematic or incorrect in ways I’m simply not aware of; and I’m not sure how that would map onto historical studies of a completely different religion/culture/area of the world, or even if it should.

    …It seems I am unambiguously uncertain.

    • That’s definitely the common usage for discussing Islam in a modern context – not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim. But it seems to be more complicated for talking about early Islam, as if we can’t quite decide how those concepts overlap.

      Also, “unambiguously uncertain” would make a great band name. Just throwing it out there…

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