Exploring the history and experiences of mixed heritage persons and inter-racial relationships across the world

Is ‘Arab’ A Race?

November 27th, 2011

Recently, in the last few chapters, I have mentioned the large Arab trade links that formed the centre of the infamous Silk Road or Silk Route. The Silk Route is the term used for a series of trade routes that connected Asia particularly India and China to Southern Europe and North and East Africa. Being the centre of such a big trading network meant that the Arabs spread far and wide but also meant that many foreigners came to their land.

This part of world is no stranger to being the centre of an important route. It is believed that Homo Sapiens, modern humans, left Africa through the Arabian peninsula to take over the rest of the world. The relative long period of human settlement that occurred in the Middle East meant that it became, arguably, the cradle of civilisation.

Tariq ibn Ziyad

Tariq ibn Ziyad conquered Hispania in 711 CE

The origins of the term Arab are hotly debated and may be a corruption of a name of a certain people who lived within the region and then was later applied to all peoples from the Middle East. The term is panethnic that means it refers to a group of separately identifiable ethnicities including the Berbers and the Moors. The Moors are Berbers from the Maghreb (Western North Africa) region. The Berbers were historically spread over large areas of North Africa, west of the Nile and unified by the Berber language and identifying with Berber heritage. The presence of the Arabic language and Islam is the result of the long process of Arabisation of Northern Africa. It was a famous Berber general, Tariq ibn Ziyad or, in Spanish, Taric el Tuerto (Ta`ric the one-eyed), who lead the Islamic Moorish conquest of Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) in 711 where they ruled for about 800 years. The Barbary Pirates or Brabary Corsairs who raided the European coastlines, mainly the Western Mediterranean, in the 16th century for white slaves as part of the Arab slave trade were also Berbers.

Islam’s allowance of multiple wives and concubines for rich and powerful men has meant that women from other lands, for example, slave women, had children from Arab men. In addition, Arabs follow the practise of hyperdescent, where the child takes on the status of the father. That means that any mixed race children were also regarded as Arab. The Arab traders who settled in foreign lands also made their mark recognisable along the East African coast and sometime resulting in distinct communities such as the Sri Lankan Moors and the Washirazi of Zanzibar in East Africa.

Distribution of Arabic as official language

Distribution of Arabic as official language

Like the any racial classification clearly defining who exactly is Arab is complicated, for many laymen, it is peoples from the Middle East, for others it is those who speak Arabian as a mother tongue and to others it is simply Muslims even though there millions of Christian Arabs. Some prefer to avoid the race issue and define it as “one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arab tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture” the definition attributed to Palestinian Habib Hassan Touma.

In many Western societies, the Arabs and the Jews have usually been classified as members of the white race which if anything complicates the definition of those who are regarded as white people. Some people we might regard as Arab such as some Egyptians and some Lebanese do not describe themselves as such preferring their national or tribal affiliations instead.

Trying to decide whether Arabs are a distinct race raises the same questions we can ask for any other race. Looking too closely always leads to a blurring between of the lines and that is the point. Race is a social construct not a biological one. We cannot deny that race is still a large social concern and on that basis, do we need to classify Arabs as a separate race? What do you think?