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Who are the Arabs?

"Who are the Arabs?" seems a simple question but the answer can be more
complicated than it looks ...

"An Arab is whoever speaks Arabic, wishes to be an

Arab and calls himself an Arab."
– Sati al-Husri

"Those who belong to the Arab ethnic group, the Arab

people or the Arab nation, speak a form of Arabic
and consider it their "natural" language; regard the
history and cultural characteristics of the Arabs as
their inheritance; assert an Arab identity or
– Maxime Rodinson

"By 'Arab' I mean whoever describes himself thus …

there, where he is – in his history, his memory,
the place where he lives, dies and survives. There,
where he is – that is to say, in the experience of
a life which is both tolerable and intolerable for
– Abdelkebir Khatibi


A shared language – Arabic ᄃ – is generally recognised as one of the defining

characteristics of Arabs and the word "Arab" itself may be derived from a verb which
means to "speak clearly" (i.e. be easily understood by other Arabs). However, many
Arabs speak local dialects which are not always mutually intelligible.

Within the Arab countries there are also distinct groups - the Berbers ᄃ, the Kurds ᄃ,
etc – whose main language is not Arabic, though they may have absorbed some of the
prevailing Arab culture.


There is no doubt that Islam has played a major part in shaping Arab culture. The
prophet of Islam was an Arab and Arabic is the language of its holy book, the Qur'an;
the Arab people were the nucleus for the expansion of Islam. But it would be wrong to
assume that Muslims are mainly Arabs or that Arabs are necessarily Muslims. Today,
there are almost a billion Muslims worldwide; the largest group live in the Indian sub-
continent, and only 20% of the total are Arabs.
Among the Arabs, there are substantial Christian communities in Egypt, Lebanon,
Syria and Palestine. Many of the older Arab cities also have a Jewish quarter, though
the number of Jews in Arab countries ᄃ today is small.

From the 1970s onwards, the decline of Arab nationalism (see below) brought a shift
towards religion and the rise of political Islam. As a consequence of that, many Arabs
view their Muslim identity as more important than their Arab identity.