The blur of identity is fundamental to the Arab consciousness and the history of the Arab peoples has been a perennial struggle to resolve it: an alternation of confusion , self-awareness and doubt, mixed with something that transcends frontiers and binds within a single secular loyalty all who feel themselves to be Arab…
Yet when we in the West survey, bemused and baffled, that vast crescent of peoples, like a swath around the southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, little fraternity shows. The Arab world seems to us perpetually in a shambles. There is no apparent affinity between the purebread Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula and the mixed-blood Egyptians of the Nile Delta- let alone the veiled horsemen of algeria and the Christians of Lebanon. It all looks unreal, faintly farcical: always letting itself down, always at odds, always shifting its loyalties, its alliances, its ideologies- racked by incurable rivalries and hamstrung by an evidently congenital disability to make common cause and stick with it.
Such are the paradoxes of the Arab identity, so formidable a conception in some ways, so distracted in others. Charles Doughty, the great Arabian traveler, once described the Arabs as a people, ” sitting in a cloaca, but with their brows touching Heaven.” Their search for certainty too, pursued in fits and starts since the Middle Ages, has fluctuated disconcertingly between squalor and sublimity.
The Arab, in a modern sense, did not exist until the birth of Islam. The Arabia Felix, the collapse of the great dam, symbolized the relapse of Arabia into obscurity in the fourth century, a general stagnancy known as the al-Jahiliyah- The Ignorance. Out of this decadence, in the seventh century, flowered the faith called Islam- the Resignation, or the Surrendering- and out of Islam came the Arab. In those days he was essentially a man of the desert- spare, generally nomadic, living by a severe system of communal conventions. He was a pagan, believing in the spiritual power of stones, springs, or groves, and distinctly wary of jinn.There were few cities in the peninsula, and most of the inhabitants wandered the vast desert with their flocks and camels and goats,moving from pasture to pasture, or spring to spring. They were jealously tribal by instinct, accepted only the limited authority of an elected chief, and indulged in implacable blood feuds and marauds. They loved poetry, war, wine, gambling, lavish strokes of honor or generosity.
They seem to have been passionate people, but superficial: at a time when the Hindu, the Confucian, the Buddhist, the Jewish, and the Christian cultures had all reached noble heights of speculation and scholarship, the original Moslems concerned themselves only with the everyday- the chance of booty, the tingle of lust, or the possible disapproval of the spirit in the Juniper tree. Survival was their first preoccupation; their second, in that unyielding environment of rock and sand, was the alleviation of life’s hardships by some transient imitations of pleasure.
Yet their brows touched Heaven. Islam brought them to their feet, and in the first of the Arab awakenings, very soon made them the masters of an immense and marvelous empire.