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ʿAṣabīyah

By:
Fuad Baali
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

ʿAṣabīyah

Derived from the root ʿaṣab (to bind) and ʿaṣabah (union), ʿaṣabīyah refers to a sociocultural bond that can be used to measure the strength of social groupings. It was a familiar term in the pre-Islamic era and became a popular concept when Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406) used it in his work, the Muqaddimah. ʿAṣabīyah, then, can be understood as social solidarity, with emphasis on group consciousness, cohesiveness, and unity.

ʿAṣabīyah is a social as well as psychological, physical, and political phenomenon; it is neither necessarily nomadic nor based on blood relation. In meaning, it is close to Émile Durkheim's idea of the “conscience collective.” The ʿaṣabīyah that unites a group of people against strangers simultaneously reinforces the values and norms of the group. Strong spirit and strong morals seem to go hand in hand, especially in nomadic societies. Here, Ibn Khaldūn's ʿaṣabīyah may be compared with Durkheim's “mechanical solidarity.” Whereas Durkheim believed that suicide rates rise as a result of the weakening of mechanical social solidarity, Ibn Khaldūn believed that the weakening of the ʿaṣabīyah among civilized people indicates the approaching suicide of the society as a whole.

Pre-Islamic nomadic ʿaṣabīyah was condemned to a great extent by the Prophet Muḥammad, because it was used generally in intertribal wars and raids. ʿAṣabīyah, like any other human trait, can be “good” or “bad,” depending on the purpose for which it is used; Islamic history provides many examples that illustrate this point, especially from the period of the caliphate. To Ibn Khaldūn, Muʿāwiyah 's rebellion against the legitimate caliph, ʿAlī, and the takeover of the caliphate by force was a result of Muʿāwiyah 's strong ʿaṣabīyah. By the same token, the rebellion of Ḥusayn (ʿAlī 's son) failed because of Yazīd's strong ʿaṣabīyah. The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʿ (Brethren of Purity) and later Ibn Khaldūn witnessed the rise and fall of many states during the Islamic empire; he specifically analyzed the change in the mode of living from badāwah (nomadic or primitive life) to ḥaḍārah (sedentary life); the clash between nomadic invaders and urban people that results in a cyclical rise and fall of dynasties, and each new stage that arises from the conflicting contradictions of the previous stage. It should be noted that ʿaṣabīyah is too vague a factor to be useful in political and social affairs. Islamic history shows that the same ʿaṣabīyah may increase or decrease in power according to a change in situation. Many leaders lost their own ʿaṣabīyah after suffering a defeat; others gained strong ʿaṣabīyah after some accidental victory or sudden rise in fortune.

Throughout Islamic history, a strong relationship has existed between ʿaṣabīyah and religion. The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʿ, Ibn Khaldūn, and other Muslim thinkers believed that religion strengthens group cohesiveness. This social function of religion to unify people can be seen in the achievement of the Arabs after they became Muslims. When Arab tribal ʿaṣabīyah coincided with certain aspects of religion, the Arabs became extremely religious. They showed amazing zeal and devotion to Islam when, after the Prophet's death, their ʿaṣabīyah was directed against the “unbelievers” outside Arabia.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Arabs were subjected to foreign rule and felt the need for unity, solidarity, and self determination: the major elements of ʿaṣabīyah—hence the rise of Arab national consciousness. ʿAṣabīyah and nationalism may be considered analogous. Both emphasize identity, loyalty, a sense of belonging, and aspiration. Specifically, the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon, the Italian seizure of Tripoli, the Ottoman policy of Turkification, the European betrayal of the Arabs by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and the subsequent creation of Israel led to Arab dissatisfaction and resentment. Their awakening, sense of unity, and aspiration for self-determination and constructive social reforms gave rise to modern Arab nationalism. See also ARAB NATIONALISM; IBN KHALDūN, ʿABD AL- RAHMāN; and NATION.

Bibliography

  • Ahmed, Akbar S.Islam Under Siege. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2003.
  • Baali, Fuad. Arab Unity and Disunity: Past and Present. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2004.
  • Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Hitti, Philip K.The Arabs: A Short History. Chicago, 1996. Introduction to the history and accomplishments of the Arabs through many centuries.
  • Ibn Khaldūn. The Muqaddimah. Princeton, 1967.
  • Ismael, Tareq Y.Governments and Politics of the Contemporary Middle East. Homewood, Ill., 1970. Excellent collection of ideas relating to nationalism and other aspects of Middle East politics.
  • Jabara, Abdeen, and Janice Terry, eds. The Arab World from Nationalism to Revolution. Wilmette, Ill., 1971. Thorough analysis of the social structure and social problems of the Arab World.
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