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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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What is the Relationship Between Ethnicity and ‘Asabiyyah?

The fourteenth century CE North African thinker Ibn Khaldun used the term ‘asabiyyah to describe the sense of group solidarity engendered by tribal life in the desert. This, according to Ibn Khaldun, was sharpened in their confrontation with the cities. In their cultivation of government, literacy, and the arts, city dwellers lose this sense of cohesion and, therefore, political vitality. For Ibn Khaldun, the process is cyclical. The tribes take over the cities and lose their ‘asabiyyah, only to be conquered by the next wave of desert tribes. Though this might count as one of the first influential sociological formulations of the concept of ethnicity, in its modern and everyday usage, the term is peculiarly slippery in the Middle East. The ethnic labels outsiders habitually use (such as Arab or Turk) are often unreliable guides to the ways people feel and express affinity to others today. Vague notions of racial and linguistic unity inform such terms. An Arab from Morocco and an Arab from Syria will have difficulty understanding one another when they speak in their dialects, for example, and will, in important respects, consider one another culturally different. Religious differences seldom align with ethnic‚ differences. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived together in most Middle Eastern societies, and, for most day-to-day purposes, as well as in broader cultural fields such as dress, dialect, cuisine, music, and so forth, such local bonds have often overridden religious distinctions. The monotheistic faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) have, in addition, claimed universality; their message is not in theory restricted to groups defined by ethnicity. Nation-states, with the partial exception of Iran, are recent, and a particularly poor guide to grasping the ethnic dynamics in the region. When the borders of the Turkish state were drawn up in 1923, many Arabic speakers in the South of the country found themselves within its boundaries. Significant ethnic groups straddle contemporary nation-state borders (Kurds, Berbers).

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