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From the time of the American and French Revolutions in 1776 and 1789 respectively, nationalism has played a central role in modern politics. Although nationalism's role in the Middle East started much later, around the mid-1800s, it has played a similar role to that of nationalism in the West. Nationalism in the Arab world has given rise to an Islamic renaissance that has had an undeniable impact on politics.

Arab nationalism is not a static phenomenon that can be easily isolated and studied. It is, instead, a developing reality that is connected to a fluid, ever-changing, political life. As such, its meaning is complicated by its long history in different nations with various forms of government at different stages of development. Political and ideological interests can also produce different interpretations of nationalism. Scholars differ on what constitutes a nation—and, consequently, what defines nationalism.

The Many Faces of Nationalism.

There are several definitions that can be used to understand the concept of nationalism. One definition favored by many Muslims says that nationalism is a mental state in which loyalty centers on the country or region. While attachment to a country, its traditions, and a regional authority is not restricted to modern thinking, nationalism turns such attachment into a feature for character building—privately and publicly—and for history making. Another definition of nationalism suggests that it is a mental and emotional state of a group of people who live within specific borders, speak the same language, have a common culture that expresses the ambitions of the group, and share the same common traditions—including, at times, religion. Another definition sees nationalism as expressing the desire to preserve national and cultural identity or the desire to protect and develop such an identity.

No matter which definition is favored, it is possible to say that nationalism is loyalty at some level to a state identified by its culture and a commitment to political movement toward achieving independence and progress. Nationalism derives from a nation's history a sense of power, which is supplemented by the need to defend itself in the present and achieve its goals in the future. Thus, nationalism singles out certain characteristics that distinguish it from other nations, such as language, territories, and a common history. While all nations have languages, territories, and histories, historical development specifies the main characteristics of each nation.

What Defines a Nation?

Every nationalist movement aims at independence when a nation is under occupation or is subservient to another country in a multination state. The movement also aims for unity when a nation has been partitioned into many states. Nationalism strives to achieve political and social progress, but its goal in those areas differs from one society to another.

The many variables that factor into an understanding of nationalism are, perhaps, the product of different definitions of a nation. Some scholars define a nation as the people, or the vast majority of people, who reside in one state and are unified by a political and emotional power—nationalism. Others define a nation as a great number of groups that have coexisted on a specific land, creating an independent existence, and having an organization—a central government. A more elaborate definition claims that a nation consists of a complete material and emotional unity with a central and stable political authority within specific and settled borders, and whose population is largely united around certain ethics, feelings, and values. Another, more specific definition may describe a nation as a settled group of people that has gradually developed and is based on a language, designated land, an economic life, and a psychological makeup that is expressed in a unique national culture.

Growing nationalism in Islamic countries gradually led to their independence from colonial rule, as shown in this chart.

Egypt 1922
Iraq 1932
Ethiopia 1941
Lebanon 1941
Jordan 1946
Syria 1946
Bangladesh 1947
India 1947
Pakistan 1947
Indonesia 1949
Libya 1951
Morocco 1956
Sudan 1956
Tunisia 1956
Guinea 1958
Burkina Faso 1960
Central African Republic 1960
Chad 1960
Cyprus 1960
Ivory Coast 1960
Mali 1960
Mauritania 1960
Niger 1960
Nigeria 1960
Senegal 1960
Somalia 1960
Kuwait 1961
Sierra Leone 1961
Tanzania 1961
Algeria 1962
Malaysia 1963
Gambia 1965
Maldives 1965
South Yemen 1967
Bahrain 1971
Qatar 1971
United Arab Emirates 1971
Guinea-Bisseau 1974
Comoros 1975
Western Sahara 1975
Djibouti 1977
Brunei 1984
Albania 1990
Azerbaijan 1991
Kazakhstan 1991
Kyrgyzstan 1991
Tajikistan 1991
Turkmenistan 1991
Uzbekistan 1991
Eritrea 1993

The Relationship Between State and Nation.

Differences over the understanding of nationalism sometimes stem from the relationship between a state and a nation—that is, which one comes first and creates the other? It is easy to confuse the concept of a nation with that of nationality. A state can be composed of many nations, such as the Ottoman Empire, but its citizens all have the same nationality. A nation takes time to develop. There are many Arab states but only one Arab nation. The rise and fall of a nation is a long historical process, while a state can be created and demolished by a single decision.

The relationship between a nation and a specific religion also forms a part of nationalism. While religion spreads beyond specific states and creates new bonds, opinions differ about whether religion should be considered among a nation's many characteristics. For example, some Arab nationalists refuse to consider Islam as a factor in Arab nationalism, while others believe that Islam is a key component of Arab nationalism. Finally, the relationship between a nation and a race may also form a part of nationalism. A nation is a cultural entity and race is a biological one. Some people, however, use the two terms interchangeably, speaking of the Arab nation or the Arab race.

A Historical Overview.

In the Middle East, prior to World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ), a few groups and organizations tried to spread Arab nationalist feelings by focusing on Islamic culture, Arab identity, and Arabic language and literature. Arab nationalists set up public and private political organizations that called for either autonomy or independence from the Ottoman Empire. Military activities followed and reached their peak during the Great Arab Revolution in 1916 . Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca and other notable leaders headed the Arab nationalist movement at that time. The movement failed because it did not have the wide popular support needed to achieve unity and independence from British control in the Middle East. The Turkish nationalist movement, however, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk , was more successful. After World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), Atatürk established a dictatorship in the name of the Turkish republic. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he abolished the Islamic caliphate and promoted nationalism based on secularism.

During the colonial era after World War I, Arab nationalist forces moved toward complete independence and the establishment of an Arab national state. Among the nationalist trends that emerged was the religious nationalism that linked the concept of a nation with Islam. Arabism and Islam were seen as two components of a single nationalism that would unite all Arabs. Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi and Muhammad Rashid Rida were two ideologists behind this trend. They believed that the Arab nation was the custodian of Islam and that the caliphate should be filled by an Arab. In their view, Islam embodied the truth of Arabism, and Arabism guaranteed the preservation of Islam.

The Arab struggle took place within the borders of the existing states that were set up by the colonialist powers until the rise of the Arab Ba'th Party and the Egyptian revolution of 1952 that spread Pan-Arab nationalism and advocated social justice, unity, and independence. From independence until the 1970s, the state elites in many countries favored secular nationalism. With the notable exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, states generally separated themselves from Muslim religious concepts. In general, law and education passed from religious control to state control. Ibrahim al-Yazji and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq are two of the forces behind secular nationalism. At its beginning, secular nationalism was promoted by Christian Arabs who focused more on the language component than on religion. The Arabic language became the embodiment of Arab culture and common characteristics of Arabs. Attacks were focused on the Ottoman Empire and its persecution of the Arabs.

Although nationalist feelings dominated the Arab world until the 1970s, Arab unity has not been achieved, despite the tremendous popularity of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser , noted nationalist leader. Central to the Arab nationalist struggle have been the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict. The only real practical outcome of Arab nationalism has been the creation of the Arab League, established 1945 . The Arab League has been made ineffective, however, by sharp ideological and political differences among members, many of whom pay more attention to the survival of their own regimes than to the goals of the organization. After the Arab world freed itself from colonialism, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the main competitors for influence in the Middle East. Since then, Arab nationalism has been gradually replaced by Islamic fundamentalism. See also Arab League.

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