Several readers objected to Slate’s characterization of Iran as an “Arab neighbor” in a dossier on the Saudi royal family. Who are the Arabs, and is Iran an Arab country?
The answer to the second question is easy: No. But explaining why Iran isn’t an Arab country requires the answer to the first.
Who are the Arabs? It’s not a facile question. Historian Bernard Lewis devotes 14 pages to the subject in his introduction to The Arabs in History. Part of the problem, Lewis warns, is that the term Arab “may be used in several different senses at one and the same time, and that a standard general definition of its content has rarely been possible.”
The easiest definition is to say that an Arab is simply someone who speaks Arabic. But that’s not satisfactory. Not all Arabic-speaking peoples identify themselves as Arabs.
Lewis cites two broader definitions as more accurate. A group of Arab leaders once stated that “whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is brought up in our culture and takes pride in our glory is one of us.” The scholar Sir Hamilton Gibb put it this way: “All those are Arabs for whom the central fact of history is the mission of Muhammad and the memory of the Arab Empire and who in addition cherish the Arab tongue and its cultural heritage as their common possession.”
Both of those definitions encompass more than just language. The first definition adds a geographic element and a cultural element, and Gibb adds religion to the mix. Encarta Online gives a fairly succinct definition that includes all four elements: “the ancient and present-day inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and often applied to the peoples closely allied to them in ancestry, language, religion, and culture.” Part of the problem with understanding the meaning of “Arab,” Lewis writes in another book, is that secular Westerners have “great difficulty understanding a culture in which not citizenship, not nationality, not descent, but religion, or more precisely, membership of a religious community, is the ultimate determinant of identity.”
To those definitions, Lewis adds a more recent usage that excises religion by regarding “the Arabic-speaking peoples as a nation or group of sister nations in the modern sense, linked by a common territory, language, and culture.” Arab Christians–who weren’t designated that way until the 19th century–were particularly attracted to that version of Arab nationalism because it would make them full members of the state.
What territory do Arabs inhabit? The Arab conquests of the seventh century spread the Arabic language and civilization from North Africa to central Asia. Under the Islamic caliphate, Arabic became the language of scripture, government, law, literature, and science. Majority Arabic-speaking countries remain in southwest Asia, Egypt, and North Africa. The Arab League includes Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Note the absent country: Iran. Alone among the Middle Eastern peoples conquered by the Arabs, the Iranians did not lose their language or their identity. Ethnic Persians make up 60 percent of modern Iran, and modern Persian is the official language. (Persian also has official status in Afghanistan, where Dari, or Afghan Persian, is one of two official languages.) In addition, the majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims while most Arabs are Sunni Muslims. So Iran fails most of the four-part test of language, ancestry, religion, and culture.
Explainer thanks The Arabs in History and The Multiple Identities of the Middle East by Bernard Lewis, and Encarta Online.