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Arab Nationalism

Like other strands of third-world nationalism, qawmiyyah ʿarabiyyah or Arab nationalism is best understood within an anticolonial ethos, as well as its glorification of the collectivity's origins and history in the face of Western dominance. These general components of nationalist doctrine raise, however, important issues in the case of Arab nationalism. Can anticolonial movements based on Islamic reformism (like those of al-Afghani or ʿAbduh), or regional nation builders (nineteenth-century Egyptian ruler Muhammad ʿAli or twentieth-century Al Saʿud), be considered precursors of the doctrine? Is it possible to emphasize the role of eighteenth-century Salafīyah Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism—that preached a pure, “uncontaminated” Islam—as drivers of Arab nationalism, in the context of contemporary nation-states?

Arab nationalism must be assessed as a political movement essentially confined to the twentieth century. Its bases and components originated with the presence of the Arabic language itself or with aspects of Arab social, intellectual, and political culture. It centered on the idea of “Arabness” and hence on the important question of “Who is an Arab.” At present there is consensus around the view of Satiʿ al-Husri (1882–1962) that Arabs are identified by their language, having Arabic as their mother tongue and consciously identifying with it. Indeed, al-Husri defined nationalism as love of the nation and organic identification with it, and the bases of such a national collectivity are language and common history. To these bases must be added common traditions and interests as well as common culture shaped by the same environment. In its most modern form (with Nasser, the Baʿth, or Muʿammar al-Qadhdhafi), Arab nationalism aimed at the political reunification of all Arabic-speaking states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, and their transformation from a Kulturnation into a Staatsnation. See HUSRI, ABU KHALDUN SATI AL-.

This interplay between the doctrineʾs cultural and political phases attracts attention to the sequences in its evolution, for the movement reached its zenith only gradually. Its vicissitudes are a function of various factors: intervention of external powers in the region; defining events or political upheavals that shook the area; the type of leadership at the head of the movement; and its competition with two other loci of people's loyalty—the territorial state and Pan-Islamism. Consequently, the movement 's evolution may be divided into four phases, and a fifth that may highlight its decline.

Nineteenth Century to World War I.

Under Ottoman rule, Islamic solidarity was challenged by modernizing forces at the empireʾs center, especially after unruly provinces demanded their distinctiveness. Though interest in Western science and technology united the Young Turks and many Arabs, the drive of the revolutionary Committee of Union and Progress in Constantinople for Turkification alienated Arabs and accelerated their demand for autonomy. Cultural clubs—predominantly organized by Lebanese Christians in collaboration with American missionaries—proliferated (al-Yaziji, 1819–1871; al-Shidyaq, 1805–1887). When the Syrian Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883) pleaded for girls’ education, or when the Egyptian Rifaʿah Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) emphasized watan (fatherland), they constituted secularist challenges to the Islamic establishment of the Turkish caliph. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1848–1902) tried to find a compromise and suggested in his Umm al-Qura the return of the caliphate to its originators, the Arabs. It was not long before the first Arab nationalist conference, limited to Asian Arabs, was held in Paris in 1913. World War I thus marked the beginning of an explicitly political phase with the Hashemite Sharif Husayn, in collaboration with Britain and France and with the active help of T. E. Lawrence, revolted against the empire to seek the establishment of a single Arab kingdom in its Arab provinces.

Interwar Period to the Establishment of Israel.

Rather than forming a unified Arab kingdom, however, the Arab provinces were divided between France and Britain according to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, and in November 1917, Lord Balfour pledged to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Directed against European domination (rather than as before against Muslim authority), the basic We/They dichotomy of nationalism facilitated the movement's politicization. Given the predominantly hereditary leadership at the time and the increasing imposition of European-type administrative divisions, Arab nationalism was locally rather than regionally oriented. Pan-Arab writings such as al-Husri's, with their secularist orientation and objective of a unified Arab state, compensated for this localism.

In addition to al-Husri, critical Arab nationalist voices emerged in the interwar period, including those of Amin al-Rihani (1876–1940), Constantine Zurayk (1909–2000), Zaki al-Arsuzi (1899–1968), and Michel Aflaq (1910–1989). Although they favored largely secularist views, various ideologies competed for attention. Local nationalist tendencies emerged in Lebanon, promoted by predominantly Christian thinkers and politicians, favoring the establishment of Greater Syria. Elsewhere, but especially in Iraq and Syria, communism gained adherents even if it was generally hostile to specific pan-Arab political projects.

Revisionist and Mass-Oriented Movements, 1945–1967.

Increasingly dominated by a new middle class (military or otherwise), this period was dense with major political events including the establishment of the League of Arab States in 1945, which, with its exclusive Arab membership, institutionalized the Arab/non-Arab distinction in the region. In addition, the disastrous end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war made Palestine a core issue in inter-Arab politics and in the Arabs’ relations with outside powers. Moreover, disillusioned young officers soon toppled corrupt civilian regimes (three coups in Syria alone in 1949), and came to be the region's new leaders as Gamal Abdel Nasser did after the 1952 Egyptian coup. Nasserist charisma, whether or not in alliance with the Baʿath, aimed at the establishment of a unified Arab state, nonaligned, and with its own development model of Arab socialism. This “third road” policy represented a consensus among different nationalist forces, from revolutionary Algeria to opposition forces in the Gulf.

Another, more activist conceptualization, distinct from that of Michel Aflaq and the Baʿath establishment, was also in the making. Its reading of unification experiences in history resulted in the distinction between secondary and primary determinants. Secondary deter- minants such as language and history were necessary but not sufficient, whereas primary determinants were both necessary and sufficient. The latter included a base-region or pole of attraction (e.g., Egypt), and a transnational charismatic leadership (e.g., Nasser), and an external threat (e.g., Israel and Western encroachment). Unity between Egypt and Syria, which produced the United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961, seemed to confirm this theory. Yet, its dissolution and the failure of unity negotiations in 1963, which also included Baʿathi Iraq, cast doubt on the theory's immediate applicability. A protracted civil war in Yemen following Imam Badrʾs overthrow, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia championing opposite camps, deepened Arab divisions further. Regionally, opposition intensified between radical Arab nationalism and a conservative Pan-Islamic strategy that emphasized the convening of Islamic conferences promoted by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco. In this context, the region was shaken to its roots in 1967 by the third Arab-Israeli war. The magnitude of Arab defeat restructured regional leadership, culminating in the decline of revisionist forces and the rise of the oil-producing powers, especially Saudi Arabia under King Faysal. The August 1967 Khartoum Arab Summit sealed the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Yemen and resulted in Egyptian dependency on oil-state subsidies.

Arab Territorial State and Militant Pan-Islam, 1968–1992.

Influential leadership bases shifted from thawrah (revolution) to tharwah (wealth), from ideologists and officers to rich royalty and “wealthy merchants who flitted between East and West, between royal palaces and the offices of oil companies (examples are Kamal Adham, Mahdi al-Tajir, and Adnan Khashoggi).” The public was more tempted by the riches of the oil-fields than by the hardships of the battlefields.

Neither the 1969 coup of the young and fiery al-Qadhdhafi in Libya nor the revolutionary but stateless Palestinians could stop the decline of the radical pole. Quantitative indicators confirm this. By 1979, 55 percent of the capital of inter-Arab economic joint ventures was contributed by oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Libya. Gradually oil states became the locale of an increasing number of new Arab organizations. In 1970 Cairo hosted twenty-nine, or 65 percent, of these organizations, whereas Iraq hosted none, and Saudi Arabia only one. Eight years later, Baghdad had become the locale for twelve organizations, thereby occupying the second place after Egypt. Saudi Arabia was in third place with eight organizations. In addition, fewer Arab League meetings were held in Egypt and more in the oil states. The proportion of meetings held in Cairo decreased from 70.5 percent in 1977 to 42.2 percent in 1978. Egypt's share in the Arab League budget also dropped; it was above 40 percent until the late 1950s but declined until 1978—the year the Arab League moved to Tunis—when it was only 13.7 percent, equivalent to that of Kuwait.

It might be supposed that the movement of migrant labor from densely populated Egypt or the West Bank to the Gulf, and the transfer of capital in the form of remittances and investments in the opposite direction, would promote Arab integration. Economic activities, however, are usually pragmatic and hence may serve to dampen and subordinate the revolutionary ethos, promoting stability rather than revolutionary change. Nasserʾs death in 1970 amid the ashes of the Jordanian-Palestinian civil war concretized the change by eliminating one of the postulated primary determinants of political unification—charismatic leadership. Egyptian rapprochement with Israel, culminating in the 1978 Camp David Accords, seemed to take away the second primary determinant, the existence of a threat. This rise of independent diplomacy concerning one of the most sacred causes of the Pan-Arab ideal confirmed—if the need existed—the primacy of raison dʿétat over raison de la nation. Moreover, hindsight tells us, it presaged the integration of Israel as a member of the regional system. This diluted Arab regional exclusiveness and promoted an enlarged Middle East. Ironically, the radical pole was engaged from quite a different direction in an equally diluting process when, in the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988), Syria, Libya, and Algeria sided with non-Arab revolutionary Islamic Iran against Arab Iraq. Harassed on two fronts by territorial raison d’état and revolutionary Islamism, Arab nationalism was wounded but not dead. Its troubles reflected both its own weakness as a political program and the disappearance of the simple world of heroic politics and categorical formulas.

Pan-Islamism and the End of Arab Nationalism, 1993–Present.

To acquire control over a complex situation, Arabs tried subregional groupings: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) in 1981, the Union du Maghreb Arabe (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia), in 1989 and the Arab Cooperation Council (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen) also in 1989. This was a way of escaping the double bind of nation versus state and replacing it with a sequential logic. But this step-by-step strategy (with the exception of the GCC) did not survive the political upheaval of the 1991 War for Kuwait following Iraqʾs invasion of the Shaykhdom. In its discourse Iraq appealed to the opposition of many Arabs to artificial colonial frontiers and the division of the Arab nation, and to their demand for a fairer redistribution of Arab wealth between haves and have-nots. Though tempted, many Arabs also mistrusted Saddam Hussein's cynical exploitation of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Arabs both at the state level and in the transnational civil society were seriously divided and traumatized, with the Arab League (now back in Cairo) paralyzed, and foreign troops stationed near the holy places in Saudi Arabia, poised to decide the issue for them.

After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the quest for Arab unity in the twentieth century ended, as the act was akin to highway robbery. Baghdad sought Kuwaiti oil wealth to fill its empty treasury and, remarkably, while Hussein maintained that the Shaykhdom was its nineteenth province, it could not justify the invasion as an act of Arab nationalist unification. Still, imbued by qawmiyyah, some Arab nationalists elevated the Baʿathi to Nasserite levels, faithful to chimerical visions of past recklessness best recalled on the banks of the Nile. Many welcomed lackluster Iraqi claims that whatever military might the country disposed would serve all Arabs even if most preferred to ignore its appalling losses in the eight-year long war with Iran.

At first, Arab intellectuals perceived Saddam Husseinʾs actions as serving nationalist causes, although most received generous financial support to express unpopular views. Hichem Djaït, the preeminent Tunisian historian, exemplified this euphoria. If in 1978 he wrote that “it would not be healthy to pin all hopes on achieving some sort of absolute unity,” and that an attempt by any Arab state to use its power for that purpose would “not only [be] dangerous but doomed to failure,” by 1990, the same Djaït maintained that “a new perspective is opening up, that of unification. And Iraq is its pole and motor.” It was telling that a measured voice was advocating illegality to reclaim lost legitimacy. To some, such pleas were illustrative of the overall decline of the Arab world within the international arena, ineffective vis-à-vis Western and even Eastern powers.

Dejected Arab nationalists, who had suffered so much humiliation, saw raw power as a panacea, and Saddam Hussein fit the bill. Djaït and others were no longer seeking unity per se but the removal of existing borders. Yet, when most Arab states joined the international coalition against Iraq, Arab nationalism was literally replaced with the tenets of a state system, especially since few Arabs perceived the Iraqi leader as a genuine pan-Arab figure. Most correctly concluded that the dictator was primarily advancing Iraqi national interests. Ironically, with the March 1991 liberation of Kuwait, millions of Arabs in Kuwait and elsewhere claimed victory, even if triumphant Arab “states” failed to translate that feat into tangible political gains. To be sure, the United States finally called the Madrid Peace Conference, but nothing concrete emerged.

For many Arab intellectuals, Arab nationalism became anachronistic, because it espoused ideology at a time when the rest of the World experienced the first pangs of post-ideology. Arab nationalists lost their champion outside support—the Soviet Union—and, equally important, faced a growing internal rejection of economic stagnation. New voices called instead to shift priorities to domestic concerns, including economic growth, to better equip young Arabs swelling unemployment ranks. Regional organizations like the GCC promoted financial development and collective security but soon were mired in a massive arms race. In the aftermath of the post-1967 military defeats, and limited capabilities to introduce effective socioeconomic changes, an “end of Arab nationalism” was identified as a new reality. Fouad Ajami criticized its defenders as creatures that inhabited “fortresses at the end of the road that are yet to receive the dispatches that all is lost and the battle is over.”

In fact, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, few Arabs championed nationalism, even if many hoped that the eventual rejection of Islamism might rekindle hopes for unity. Yet, the slow rejection of a single nation was increasingly evident, as liberal philosophies gained momentum in one of the birthplaces of Arab nationalism: Beirut.

After a 30-year Syrian occupation, Lebanon rejected the classic wataniyyah espoused by Damascus, insisting that authoritarianism be replaced with genuine democracy. If Arab nationalism was not a natural ally of democracy or of Islam, the 2005 Cedar Revolution illustrated how young Lebanese Arabs insisted on the creation of political parties and similar institutions. Even among large numbers of Muslim Lebanese, a yearning for authenticity was evident, as respect and tolerance for religious diversity sank in. Few Lebanese, or Egyptians, or even Syrians awaited another Nasser to save the Arabs from themselves and unite them, aware that political solace may best be found among nascent institutions that ensured freedoms and liberty for the masses. Even fewer were willing to be stirred into a frenzy to satisfy chimerical windmills. See also ARAB LEAGUE; BAʿTH PARTIES; CONGRESSES; KAWAKIBI, ʿABD AL-RAHMāN AL-; NASSER, GAMAL ABDEL; PAN-ISLAM; YOUNG TURKS; and WATAN.


Despite the ubiquity of Arab nationalism, many essential as- pects of its analysis are lacking. For instance, the debate is still unsettled about the relative importance to the rise of Arab nationalism of such external factors as the role of the European powers in weakening the Ottoman empire and such internal factors as increasing Ottoman decline, growing social change, and modernization within the Arab provinces. Concentration on the caliphate system or alternatively on the territorial state (a Kuwait, a Morocco, or an Egypt) has drawn energies away from more focused analysis of Arab nationalism.

Another characteristic of the existing literature is the scarcity of social science conceptualization. We do not know whether the rise of Arab nationalism is best explained by Karl Deutsch's social communication theory, Michael Hechterʾs theory of internal colonialism (e.g., by Turks over Arabs), Stein Rokkan's theory of regionalism (increasing politicization of the Arab periphery against the Turkish center), Ernest Gellner's industrialization thesis of nationalism as part of modernization and the drive for a nation-state, Benedict Anderson's theory of nationalism's psychological appeal (e.g., “what makes people love and die for nations, as well as hate and kill in their name”?), or Anthony Smith's ethnic origin of nationalism thesis. We also need a classification of the mode of nationalist expression in different subregions. For instance, in the Fertile Crescent Ottoman rule was direct and centralized, but much less so in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tunisia. In the last two countries opposition was mainly to European imperial authority, whether British or French.

The basic works on Arab nationalism have been dominated until now by historians. The few political scientists who have ventured into the field have dealt with Arab nationalism as part of the evolution of Arab political thought rather than applying empirical political science methods. The Centre for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut has pioneered the empirical approach by commissioning two sociological research teams. One team applied content analysis to the study of historical material of Arab ideologues to dissect the emergence, evolution, and components of Arab nationalism. The second team applied survey methods and interviews to measure the state of public opinion toward Arab nationalism and unity in at least ten Arab countries.

Literature in Arabic

    Western Literature

    • Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening. London, 1938. Early and detailed analysis of the origins of the movement in the Fertile Crescent. Almost a primary source.
    • Choueri, Youssef M., and Peter Holt. Arab Nationalism: A History: Nation and State in the Arab World. London, 2001.
    • Citino, Nathan J.From Arab Nationalism to OPEC: Eisenhower, King Sa’ud, and the Making of U.S.-Saudi Relations. Bloomington, 2002.
    • Cleveland, William L.The Making of an Arab Nationalist. Princeton, 1971. Exhaustive analysis of the life, works, and ideas of al-Husri, considered the father of the movement.
    • Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, 2005. Defines the intellectual dilemmas faced by Arab political and cultural nationalisms.
    • Farah, Tawfic E., ed. Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism. Boulder, 1987. Except for a previously unpublished postscript by Fouad Ajami (pp. 192–201), the book republishes nine articles announcing, or contesting, the end of Pan-Arabism, beginning with a very useful bibliographic essay by E. Chalala (also previously unpublished).
    • Flory, Maurice, and Pierre-Sateh Agate, eds. Le système régional arabe. Paris, 1989. Based on a joint French–North African research project, authors accept Arab specificity as the basis of an identifiable regional system. A happy marriage of legal, economic, and political science approaches.
    • Haseeb, Khair el-Din, et al.The Future of the Arab Nation: Challenges and Options. London and Beirut, 1991. Synthesis of a five-year, multivolume investigation of the different scenarios of evolution of the “Arab homeland.” At one point, the project involved as many as two hundred Arab scholars and assistants. A mine of data.
    • Kerr, Malcolm H.The Arab Cold War. 3d ed.London and New York, 1971. Detailed analysis of the unity negotiations between Nasserist Egypt and Baʿthist Iraq and Syria, situating the differences within the context of the 1960s.
    • Kerr, Malcolm H., and El Sayed Yassin, eds. Rich and Poor States in the Middle East. Boulder, 1982. Analysis of different facets of regional restructuring in the 1970s, based on a collaborative research project between Arabs and Americans.
    • Khalidi, Rashid, et al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York, 1991. The most recent and complete guide to the state of (historical) research on Arab nationalism. Its thirteen chapters include analysis of some neglected regions (e.g., Libya, Saudi Arabia).
    • Khoury, Philip S.Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus 1860–1920. Cambridge, 2003.
    • Korany, Bahgat, et al.The Foreign Policies of Arab States: The Challenge of Change. 2d ed.Boulder, 1991. Since an identifiable foreign policy is the criterion of state sovereignty, the analysis concentrates on the multiplicity of state roles at the regional and international levels. While Arab states converge on some core issues in their foreign policy conceptions, they have shown diversity in foreign policy practice and concrete decisions.
    • Louis, William Roger. The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. Oxford, 2006.
    • Piscatori, J. P.Islam in a World of Nation-States. Cambridge, 1986. Faces up to a controversial issue: does Islam adapt to a multistate world? Demonstrates systematically that both Muslims’ doctrinal evolution and their practice indicate that the answer is yes. Dar al-Islam is increasingly—and will continue to be—part of the post-Westphalian interstate system.
    • Porath, Yehoshua. In Search of Arab Unity, 1930–1945. London, 1986. Analytical history of the bases of Arab nationalism in different countries of the Mashriq, with discussion of the British role and the influence of the Palestinian problem. Devotes almost sixty pages to the establishment of the Arab League.
    • Salamé, Ghassan, ed. The Foundations of the Arab States. London, 1987. First of a four-volume international project on “Nation, State, and Integration in the Arab World.” Its eight chapters show clearly the challenge represented by the existence and persistence of the territorial state in the face of Pan-Arabism, both in the recent past and at present.
    • Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism: A Critical Enquiry. Edited and translated by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett. London and New York, 1981. The most thorough analysis of al-Husri's views, tracing their German origins.
    • Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism: Between Islam and the Nation-State. 3rd ed.New York, 2004.
    • Wien, Peter. Iraqi Arab Nationalism: Authoritarian, Totalitarian, and Pro-Fascist. London, 2006.
    • Yaqub, Salim. Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East. Chapel Hill, N.Car., 2006.
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