A Journey Through the History of Arab Culture
The people who call themselves Arabs have a great variety of cultural backgrounds. The idea that there is a common “Arab” homeland and language is no longer tenable.
Much scholarly work aims to explain why Arabs act as they do. The most critical analysis, however, focuses on organizing principles rather than specific beliefs and practices.
The Origins of Islam
The origins of Islam remain a vexing problem for historians. Unlike other religious movements, there is no consensus as to what led to the development of this world religion. The issue is especially vexing because it touches upon fundamental issues such as government, religion, economic prosperity, and personal integrity.
Until the 7th century, the Arabian peninsula was inhabited by numerous tribal units which were constantly shifting alliances. These tribes needed a unifying force and Islam became the answer.
Muhammad established a Muslim community and created a new religion. His followers grew in strength and power until they eventually defeated the superpowers of his day, including the Sassanian and Byzantine empires.
Scholars from a variety of disciplines—such as sociology, literature, history and anthropology—explore the origins of Islam in order to better understand how this world religion developed and grew into its current prominence. However, secular historians must avoid naive quests into Islamic origins that are often rooted in political goals rather than academic candor.
Media in the Arab World
Despite the common assumption, not all Arabs are descended from Arabian tribes. The term “Arab” refers to an expansive ethno-cultural region that encompasses twenty different political units peopled by various indigenous stocks and ruled by a variety of different types of government, from hereditary monarchies to federal republics.
The emergence of dynamic public spheres in the aftermath of partly liberalized autocracies in many MENA countries has unleashed a media revolution, led by al-Jazeera and numerous new local channels. Yet, a broad understanding of the nature of these media systems remains elusive.
Jhally suggests that the media battle is occurring at two levels: a cultural level, where all Arabs are presented as a homogeneous group whose civilizational ethos clashes with the West; and an institutional/structural level, where the state uses its resources to attack journalists and impose censorship. To help combat these distortions, it is helpful to look at individual media systems through the dimensions of their historical formation and current status quo.
After the Arab conquests of the 1st to 10th centuries literary Arabic had a remarkable renaissance. This was mainly due to the determination of a small core group who sought to preserve a literary tradition that had been rendered obsolete by Islamic rule and the intermingling with other cultures that resulted from it.
The Abbasid era produced a huge collection of poetry, including love poems, obscene poetry, repentance poetry for un-Islamic behavior and semi-religious poems pondering mortality. The Abbasid era also saw the rise of literary theory and criticism.
In the 20th century Arab creative writers strove to develop a modern literary tradition, but this process varied greatly by region. Writers like Naguib Mahfouz received international acclaim and his works were translated widely. Many other Arab authors found greater acceptance in their homelands and a degree of critical respect among Western scholars and academicians. These authors, along with poets and playwrights, have explored various themes, but they have continued to address the region’s complex relationship with the West.
An integral part of the Arab experience, music has a powerful way of bringing people together. Join Georges Collinet of NPR’s Afropop Worldwide as he takes us on a journey through the rich history of Arabic musical traditions and how they are still being interpreted by new artists today.
One key to Arab music is the intimate relationship between music and the Arabic language. This is reflected in the close link between poetry and song, such as the sha’ir and qawwali (sung folk-poetry) of Egypt and Syria and the Lebanese tradition of zajal (sung melodic poems).
Another element that unites Arab music is the maqam system of scales which was developed during the Islamic era. The maqam is composed of three to five jins or scale segments. Each jin has its own distinct characteristics and sounds and covers different octaves. Some of these jins, such as the trichord and tetrachord, are major and some, like the pentachord and hexachord, are minor.