Bookmark and Share

Open the online Arabic language course

Index / Peoples / Semitics /

Arab man (Egypt)

Arab man (Iraq)

Arab woman (Saudi Arabia)

People living in North Africa and the Middle East, from western Morocco to Oman, and from Turkey in the north to Yemen and Sudan in the south.
Arabs are living in an area of 10 million km², with a total population of 250 million. This makes them by far the largest population in the region. About 4 million Arabs live in Europe, and 2 million in the Americas.
The Arabic heartland is Hijaz (now western Saudi Arabia) and Yemen. Around the year 610 CE, the birth year of Islam, this was a trade area along caravan routes, where the town of Mecca was one of the central towns. People came to Hijaz from Africa, from Mesopotamia, from Phoenicia, and from Egypt. The little evidence we have suggests that the Arabs in this era were not a pure race because intermarriage and the freedom of Arab women to choose their own bed mates created a diverse society.
Arab identity would spread with with the advances of Islam. Although Arabs originating from the Arab heartland at some time emigrated into all the new territories which today have a population defined as "Arabs," these territories were already peopled by a population far larger than the immigrants. For a number of reasons, however, Arab lifestyles, Arab identity and Arabic language would come to replace the original lifestyles, identities and languages.
Arabs would come to have some influence to the race, but in most cases the Arab peoples living in lands originally non-Arab, represent about the same racial composition as before the Arabization.
Hence the former Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, (most of the) Berbers etc. are still there, but they have simply changed their identities.

Ethnically, Arabs are mostly dark haired with brown eyes, and medium light skin. But there are Arabs that are black, and Arabs that are quite blond. These differences are regional, and a result of the process described above. Moreover, the number of ethnically pure Arabs might constitute only a single digit percentage.
More than 85% of all Arabs are Sunni Muslims, 10% are Shi'i Muslims (Yemen, Iraq, Gulf coast), while less than 5% are Christians (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Israel).
An estimated 55% live in urban areas, while 45% live in rural areas. Today, less than 1% live as nomads, and, of these, many are nomads only in the dry season.

Arab unity has been a central motive in Arab politics from the first days of Islam. This unity has only been fulfilled in the first century, before the world of Islam was divided into kingdoms and states.
In modern times, Arab unity was a central political inducement in the period following the independence of the different Arab states (in the 1950's and the 1960's). The only attempt at Arab unity ever realized was the United Arab Republic, consisting of Egypt, Syria and Yemen, from 1958 to 1961. In this union, Egypt was too dominant, and the two other countries felt they had to leave. Today, Arab unity on the level of political leaders has lost much of its credibility, although the Arab League has managed at times to form a powerful unity.
The dream of uniting independent countries is no longer an issue, since the leaders would never agree upon who should give up his position as president or king, where the capital should lie, etc. But in the hearts of the Arabs, Arab unity is a reality, often apparent in matters concerning political or religious differences between Arab countries and Western countries. On the other side, an important dividing force today is the anger many feel concerning the differences between Arabs living in poor countries compared to those living in the rich oil countries of the Gulf.
Islamism has many elements of Arab unity through its emphasis on the Arab language (from the Koran) as a response to the dominance of Western cultures and Western political systems. Islamism has been felt by non-Arabs as another way to impose Arab language and culture on them, and Islamism has had to change its form to catch on in these societies (Iran's Islamism has major differences from the Arab Islamism, since almost all Iranians are not Arabs).

By Tore Kjeilen