Forum: Nation: P. Wien: Performance, Poetry, and Prose: Describing Arab Nationalism as Culture

Peter Wien, Department of History, University of Maryland

At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century Arab nationalism could be regarded as a failed political project, as a thing of the distant past when charismatic leaders of a bygone era promised secular freedoms, and when left-wing liberation ideologies drove masses of protesters into the streets of Arab metropoles. This period between circa 1950 and 1970 was plagued by inherent contradictions and open antagonisms between competing strong men in the Arab nation states and their respective pan-Arab declarations. The period also witnessed the emergence of the specific type of Arab military authoritarianism that is still a dominating factor of the region’s politics today. So is the fate of Palestine and the Palestinians. The conflict with Israel post-1948 created an eerie tension between territoriality and trans-local identities among highly politicized and increasingly urbanized populations.

The catastrophe of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the devastating defeat of the Arab armies, followed by the Islamist turn of Arab politics in the 1970s, took secular nationalists and Western analysts by surprise who had expected secular Arab states to follow modernization theory and relegate religion to the private sphere. Instead, existing secular regimes stabilized their rule by entrenching their stranglehold over national economies, building ever tighter networks of patronage and corruption, coopting moderate Islamists into the bogus representative structures of their regimes, and fighting those of them tooth and nail who refused to be domesticated. They, in turn, launched cruel terrorist campaigns against the regimes, who met the challenge with equally indiscriminate violence, torture and political oppression.[1]

The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rise of Iran brought a major regional strategic shift followed by the so-called Arab Spring which caused a large-scale destabilization of the existing authoritarian paradigm. For a brief moment, it seemed that this paradigm could be replaced with a more benign outlook for the region promising liberties and meaningful representation, but the past few years have witnessed a resurgence of authoritarianism’s ugly face, at times even more pronouncedly than before. Corruption is rampant and the bloodletting continues.

These developments have reinforced a trend in Arab nationalism research that started in the last decade of the 20th century, and that made the subject a matter of increasingly complex analysis. If pan-Arabism failed at a political level, what was the effect of decades of Arab nationalist indoctrination on the people of the Arab lands in terms of their self-perception as members of an imagined community? How did it determine the way they constructed and continue to construct their identities, if at all? The cultural and linguistic turns in the humanities began to affect Middle Eastern history in the 1980s in the wake of the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism.[2] Questions of power, discursive structures, social diversity, and forms of dissidence have since moved to the center of scholarly attention. Culture and identity have replaced politics as major matters of inquiry and new materials have complemented archival documents to expand the source base, covering fields such as literature, material culture, visual sources, along with the inclusion of anthropological research and methodology. Nationalism has come to be regarded not only as shifting politics of power and of community formation, but also as changing perceptions of history and identity that were shaped in institutions and by media starting in the 19th century.[3]

Arabness has been a marker of identification for countless individuals from the Atlantic Ocean to the Tigris at least since the emergence of an Arabic Republic of Letters during the nahda period, the era of the Arab Awakening. The nahda started as an intellectual movement in the middle of the 19th century with an impact, closely related to the widespread introduction of the Arabic printing press with movable types, that lasts until today, not least via the standardization of language and the creation of a shared Arab realm of memory, a trove of stories, and a shared set of political grievances. The nahda ushered in a period after the end of the Ottoman Empire when school children in all Arab lands studied the same language (if they indeed attended state schools in independent countries, or Arabic schools in countries under colonial rule) and read similar stories about the past of their civilization. Students recited the same anticolonial poems, watched the same movies (mostly made in Egypt) and read stories about the same heroes, from Tariq Ibn Ziyad via Saladin to the Algerian FLN fighter Djamila Bouhired. They also listened to poetry sung or theatre plays acted in their own local dialects. Next to the region-wide standardization of the written language and of supposedly high culture, it was often the specific dialect of the capital of the independent states that brought about a standardization of the “common” spoken language within state boundaries, too. At least the educated people could shift easily between the registers of high and low conversation, as much as they could shift from shared to specific political grievances. There were therefore intersecting and overlapping unification processes going on, which helped to perpetuate separate nation-state identities within the boundaries of the modern Arab states, but also to maintain a certain sense of cultural cohesion between Morocco and Iraq.[4] It has been difficult therefore for historians and political scientists alike to clearly circumscribe what Arab nationalism actually is. Is it a program of political unity that is behind the term pan-Arabism? Aside from the half-hearted attempts at unification such as in the short-lived United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961 and the recurring unity talks between deeply entrenched dictatorial regimes, this dream hardly survived decolonization. Yet Arabism has remained a primary reference in the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Arabian Peninsula. Arab solidarity, or its betrayal, continues to be called upon, not only where it intersects with Muslim solidarity.[5] This essay emphasizes the cultural underpinning of this emotive strand of nationalism, which regimes tried to exploit as much as they feared it and took pains to manage it. The examples that are presented below should be read in light of the ambiguity between the ethos of a common Arab culture and the real experience of the nation state as it tried to shape hegemonic discourses within national boundaries and administered people’s lives.

Much of the early scholarship on Arab nationalism was written by people who had immediate experience with its political realizations under colonial rule and the transition to independence, starting with George Antonius in the 1930s, whose work, however, is to be positioned between advocacy and scholarship and today is mostly used as a primary source. Other names include the towering figure of Albert Hourani, as well as Majid Khadduri, Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim, and such luminaries as Hanna Batatu and, more recently, Rashid Khalidi.[6] Much of the attention of their groundbreaking research went to the origins of Arab nationalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the formation of nationalist ideology and of political elites in the interwar period, as well as the establishment of military- and authoritarian party regimes during the independence period. Khalidi remains the doyen of research on the history of the Palestine conflict.[7] In Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, first published by Oxford University Press in 1962, Albert Hourani looked at Arabness as an intellectual project of the nahda.[8] He was among the first to integrate the works of secular and religious leaders of Arabic thought working on a shared endeavour to construct a modern Arab identity. Without a doubt, Hourani had a bias in favour of secularizing modernism in the works of his heroes.[9] In general, a focus on generators of big ideas bore the risk of elitism and of missing the juncture where norm and popular cultural practice parted ways.

Younger generations of historians give pride of place to the study of class and gender elements in the transformation of the societies of burgeoning nation states, highlighting the fissures and ruptures that undermine any top-down effort at nation building. Starting in the 1980s, historians such as the late William Cleveland, Hasan Kayali, Elizabeth Thompson, Israel Gershoni, Joel Gordon, James Gelvin, Ussama Makdisi, Orit Bashkin, James McDougall, Beth Baron, and several others, including the author of these lines, have worked on nationalism in the Arab lands at the nexus of culture, ideology, and politics, including non-elites in their inquiries. The middle class as a self-identified group of producers and consumers of mass media has played a central role in their research, as have specific professions and their experiences as drivers of political empowerment. The training and self-perception of Ottoman and post-Ottoman bureaucrats, teachers, and officers and their impact on the formation of dominant narratives and discourses have received a great deal of attention. New categories of historical analysis have come into focus such as youth and youth culture, or the entertainment industry. Hegemonic efforts by ideologues and state authorities to shape collective identities have been contrasted with the counterhegemonic self-assertion by lower classes resisting the silencing of diversity that came with the imposition of nationalist culture. Others have contributed to a differentiated picture of state society relations in modern Arab nation states by looking beyond social dividers such as majority and minority categories, or by deconstructing grand historical narratives and contrasting them with counter narratives. Microstudies of performative aspects of identity formation and the negotiation of norms and their realization have attracted the interest of researchers.[10]

The Prophet’s Many Mantles

Secular nationalist ideology and religious politics are not as clearly separated as their presentation as ideal types suggests.[11] In political discourse, the legitimation of power requires the usage of different registers in the usage of words, topoi and metaphors. All political and ideological speech has to resonate with a trove of cultural references to acquire legitimacy through perceived authenticity and rootedness in heritage.[12] The remainder of this essay will offer two examples to illustrate this hybrid performance of Arab nationalism in the cultural field. They present how the prophet Muhammad could be administered as a revered reference point of devotion in a secularizing nationalist context. His example is so pertinent because it focuses on a central figure of Islamic history, easily construed as a “Great Man,” who evokes at the same time intense religious sentiments and has been the subject of countless renderings in a variety of media, from scripture itself via poetry, historical fiction and non-fiction, as well as novels, songs and even film and television, to visual art, always within the boundaries of what has been considered at times permissible within the religious prohibition in Islam to depict Muhammad and members of his family, or any kind of human being.[13] The topos of the “Great Man” is omnipresent in any nationalist story telling. In fact, it is a central part of historicism as an integral part of nationalist thought. Most nationalisms rely on ideas of primordialism justifying the consideration of national greatness based on longevity, and the claim on national territory based on nativism (we have been here first!). In this, the example of great men (and rarely women) offers potential for identification with a model leader, backing patriarchal and paternalistic structures of society, related to the fact that globally speaking, the nation state has been a bourgeois project giving collective meaning to individualistic self-interest in capitalist modernity. The historical teleology of nationalism, from the mythical origins of the “ethnie,” to use Anthony D. Smith’s term, to its realization in the unified nation state, gives narration a central place in how ideas about the nation are communicated to its members. Literary genres therefore play a central role in the culture of nationalism.[14] In this context, the Prophet remains without a doubt an ambiguous figure. His life story forms part of a religious founding narrative, the meaning of which goes far beyond the context of the Arab world. For Muslims throughout the ages, the promise of guidance and redemption that they have seen in this story has eclipsed the teleological historicizing potential of a depiction of Muhammad as the arch-Arab. Yet the mobilizing force that is in the hybrid nationalist-religious storytelling started to fuel self-perceptions of Arab exceptionalism in the late 19th century. Even a secular nationalist of Christian origin like Michel ‘Aflaq recognized this potential and made it a corner stone of his nationalist preaching on behalf of the Ba‘th party in the 1940s.[15]

Pious Muslims have venerated the Prophet in various ways since the early centuries of Islam. Islamic scholars have been arguing equally long about the extent and form of devotion that was still permissible within the confines of religious law, and where this devotion crossed the line to shirk (polytheism). Intense devotion to Muhammad has been a hallmark of mystical Sufi rituals and writings in particular, especially since the early modern period, as some historians argue. Spiritual exercises focusing on veneration and praise of the prophet, mystical encounters with Muhammad both in dreams and awake were practices and experiences that were controversially debated among Muslim intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries.[16] Praise of the Prophet gained shape in a particular poetic genre, the madih or praise poem. Until today, Qasidat al-Burda is the most prominent madih poem playing an important role in popular Islamic practices. The work was composed in the 13th century in Mamluk Egypt by Sharaf al-Din Muhammad al-Busiri (1212-1294 / 7CE). It is a so-called mantle ode (al-burda in Arabic means mantle, or cloak), which is a sub-genre of praise poems (a qasida is a classical Arabic poem, an ode). In a motif from the pre- and early Islamic period, a patron (here: the Prophet), bestows his mantle on a poet as a token of appreciation. Similarly, the Prophet extends his grace in a spiritual encounter as an honor or reward for the poet. Al-Busiri was famous for his praise poems for the Prophet, of which he wrote several others in addition to al-Burda.[17] The 160 verses of al-Busiri’s al-Burda praise the Prophet’s qualities and recount elements from his sira (biography). Al-Busiri is said to have written down the poem after the Prophet had appeared to him in a dream. The poet had recited the qasida to him, and Muhammad had then offered his mantle to him. Then, al-Busiri woke up and noticed that he was healed from a severe illness that plagued him.

Al-Burda is still recited and performed today. It exists in countless translations, imitations, manuscripts, and prints, which are often highly selective and edited from the original verses. The Ottomans had a selection inscribed on the domes of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. The verses play a role in private devotion, Sufi spiritual exercises, and for communal recitation during mawlid festivals (saints’ celebrations in Egypt or the Mawlid al-Nabi, the Prophet’s birthday), at funerals, and today even in pop music, but also for use in “popular piety” such as on talismans and amulets for healing purposes.[18]

For the purposes of this essay, Ahmad Shawqi’s rendering of the poem under the title Nahj al-Burda is an outstanding example for the politicization of the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad in the 20th century. Shawqi (1868-1932) was the leading Egyptian poet of his age. He is the most important proponent of Arabic neo-classical poetry. He composed Nahj al-Burda in 1910 as a mu‘arada, a contrafaction or response poem to al-Busiri’s original. Initially, he dedicated the work to the Khedive Abbas Hilmi II (r. 1892-1914), celebrating the Egyptian monarch’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Abbas Hilmi II was known for his anti-British stance and his covert support for the Egyptian nationalist movement. The poem subsequently appeared in many print versions throughout the 20th century. However, it was received as an anti-British and anti-colonial polemic and its panegyric element has been largely forgotten. The reason is that the composition and publication of Nahj al-Burda in 1910 fell into a decade of heightened nationalist mobilization among the members of Egypt’s burgeoning middle class. Shawqi morphed at the time from being a court poet into a crucial voice of nationalist identity formation in Egypt’s growing mass culture. He had composed a number of political, anti-British poems before Nahj al-Burda following a practice of Arab neo-classical poets to respond to immediate political concerns or crises using Egypt’s growing number of daily newspapers as a publication forum.[19]

The ca. 190 verses of Shawqi’s Burda exemplify the characteristic amalgam of nationalist poetry combining veneration for a glorious past, a political agenda on behalf of the modern nation state, and an identity confirming piety and nostalgia for charismatic leadership. They contain, in addition to the traditional praise of the Prophet, an anti-Christian polemic, a bemoaning of Muslim military weakness in contrast with the Prophet’s military might, a praise for the shari‘a as a law of tolerance and enlightenment, and more. The poem culminates in a call on God to help the Muslims (and Arabs) to rise again, which is a variation and deviation from the traditional madih genre, where the qasida would end on a transcendent supplication for grace and personal intercession. In Shawqi’s version, the poetic supplication is not transcendent, but it addresses a present political concern. It is important to emphasize that the poem retains various elements simultaneously, the traditional madih, the reference to the well-known tradition of al-Burda and its manifestation in public worshipping practice and devotional performance that is alive and well today, but also the contemporaneous political expression of anti-colonialism and anti-Westernism. The hybridity of this appeal to Shawqi’s audience is crucial for the poem’s life-authenticity. Both secular and religious elements are integrated, without contradiction, in the same way as most of the politically conscious readers of Shawqi arguably did not distinguish between nationalism and the promotion of Islamic solidarity.

The most famous rendering of Shawqi’s Nahj al-Burda, and one that boosted its 20th century relevance, is its performance by Umm Kulthum (ca. 1900-1975), who was without a doubt the most important Arab musical performer of the century. She sang a version for the first time in 1946 which took 30 verses out of the 190. By that time, Umm Kulthum began to align herself politically with the cause of the national independence movement. After the Revolution of 1952, her support for Nasser made her a symbol for his pan-Arab leadership aspirations. In order to emphasize the political content of songs like Nahj al-Burda, she chose very carefully what her longtime collaborator Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1981) set to music. By mid-century, Umm Kulthum’s music had a tremendous impact far beyond Egypt. More than studio recordings, her legendary live radio concerts that Egyptian radio broadcasted throughout the entire Arab world (and Israel, where Arab Jews listened faithfully to their radio sets) gave the messages that were conveyed in the music a truly pan-Arab actuality beyond all measures of political achievement. Whereas a studio production of Nahj al-Burda lasted for less than 30 minutes, a stage performance could stretch for over an hour. Recordings of these radio and television broadcasts convey an almost ecstatic experience for both singer and listeners, who reacted with characteristic exclamations and moans to specifically artful melismas and coloratura passages in Umm Kulthum’s interpretation, which the singer used to emphasize specific passages in al-Shawqi’s text. They evoked an inverse experience to the one that Shawqi’s secularization of the devotional format into a political frame had produced: Umm Kulthum turned the musical recitation into a spiritual experience again.[20]

Arab radio stations still broadcast Umm Kulthum’s performances in the 21st century, even if their thundering political effect of the Nasser period has been reduced to a longing for a better past. Internet video platforms are an indispensable repository for the visual documentation of such historical media performances, for a nostalgic audience to enjoy, but also for the cultural historian to access. One example is from a 1955 performance of Nahj al-Burda. In it, Umm Kulthum sings a verse towards the end of the performance that deserves particular attention:[21]

“_Ya rabbi habbat shu‘ubun min maniyatiha
wa-istayqazat umamun min raqdati’l-‘adami._”
(Oh Lord, peoples before have risen from death
And nations have awakened from the slumber of privation.)[22]

The singer draws out the verse in circa six minutes of melismatic variations receiving thundering applause from the exalted audience. The lines celebrate a modern, secular national awakening when Shawqi applies the term umma not as a reference to an amorphous Islamic community, but in a secularized plural form (umamun) pointing to the plurality of modern nation states. The singer’s elaboration of the poetic language hammers home a message which had an escalating meaning that changed from the time of the original composition of the poem, to the first performance of the song and finally to its new manifestation in 1955. It moved from foreboding to a desperate call to a triumphant confirmation of achievement.

In 1946, Egypt was about to enter a period of internal upheaval when militant groups from the Muslim Brotherhood and other activists of the radicalized middle class protested the continuing presence of the British in the country and the ongoing collaboration of the monarchy and its old elites with the colonizer. The Egyptian revolution of 1952, and the rise to power of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser culminating in his assumption of the presidency in 1954 marked a sea-change not only in Arab nationalist anti-colonialism, but also for the global decolonization movement. The people who listened to Umm Kulthum certainly saw a clear-cut connection between Shawqi’s words (“nations have awakened from the slumber of privation”) and the new reality they believed they were a part of, with tremendous expectations for a bright future of national glory and common well-being.

The indirect collaboration between Ahmad Shawqi and Umm Kulthum thus produced a sophisticated interplay of conservative cultural assertion and modern political mobilization that targeted the burgeoning middle class throughout the Arab world, even if radio broadcasts made the message accessible for working class listeners in public cafes, too.[23] A full appreciation of the performance called for at least rudimentary familiarity with both the genre of neoclassical poetry and the spiritual content of the al-Burda tradition. Viewers also needed a taste for the popular rendering of Umm Kulthum’s artistry on stage or the television screen. Listeners to the radio had learned to appreciate al-Sunbati’s tradition-conscious modernity combining the inherited scales of Arab music with European instrumentation and the structures of time and written composition that adjusted this music for the new media formats. The genre and its simultaneous transgression combined for a particular effect, building a spiritual praise of the Prophet and a familiar liturgical tool into an image of historical teleology. Supplication and request for intercession, addressing the Prophet for transcendent salvation, joined together with a plea for the deliverance of a nation in an image of the world as nations in competition that can rise and fall. This was the re-invention of a tradition with al-Burda evoking nostalgia with heavy language, but in an entirely modern rendering that in turn evoked Golden Age myths.[24] At a minimum, the omnipresence of Umm Kulthum on Arab radio stations gave her music broad popular appeal and a great deal of potential for shared cultural identification.

To give another example, a further Shawqi poem, first performed by Umm Kulthum in 1946, too, contained an even more direct politicization of the Prophet. Shawqi wrote the qasida Wulida’l-Huda (Guidance was Born) as another mu‘arada in response to a madih poem that al-Busiri’s had written for the Prophet’s birthday celebration. The poem in Shawqi’s rendering contains the lines:

Al-Ishtirakiyyun anta imamuhum” (You are the leader of the socialists)
and “Ansafta ahla’l-faqri min ahli’l-ghina” (You gave justice to the poor in front of the rich).[25]

As if foreshadowing Nasser’s self-styling after 1954, the Prophet emerged out of Shawqi’s words as a present-day political leader. Shawqi was in line with a common argument that Muslim intellectuals and reformers of the first decade of the 20th century made, namely that Arabs needed no socialist revolution because they had already had one in the coming of Islam.[26] Their combination of contemporary politics with a debate about ‘asala (authenticity) was characteristic for the time and continues until today.[27] It asks how an authentically Arab-Muslim modernity can be achieved, and if Arab nationalism was simply a re-play of Western models. With Umm Kulthum’s voice as a catalyst, Shawqi’s neo-classical works conjured up an emotional answer that evoked modernity, but also discontent with it.

Incomplete Secularizations

The secularization, or de-spiritualization of the Prophet’s veneration was also an element in modern Muslim intellectuals’ efforts to reconcile piety with a “modern mind,” against supposedly superstitious practices, and in favor of science and reason. The so called Islamiyyat literature of the 1930s introduced an image of Muhammad that put the man and his model life over the spiritual content, and rejected the miraculous elements of the classical sira literature. The prophet was a perfect man, yet still a man, and the Qur’an was supposed to be read as a reliable historical source about his life. Science, scholarship, and faith were to be reconciled. According to the newly conservative middle-class writers, Islamic civilization commanded a social ethic based on freedom of thought, reason, and equality.[28]

But even nationalist education, often considered as a prime vehicle for secular indoctrination, retained a residue of reverence for the sacred. Educators such as Sati‘ al-Husri, Fadil al-Jamali, Darwish al-Miqdadi, and Akram Zu‘aytir shaped public education in several Arab lands of the interwar period. They play a prominent role in histories that take the educational system of Iraq as an example for the formative role educators claimed in the formulation and distribution of radical Arab nationalist ideology. Al-Husri was an Ottoman education functionary before he became a champion of Arab nationalism in Iraq, al-Jamali was a U.S.-educated Iraqi, whereas al-Miqdadi and al-Zu‘aytir were Palestinians, using the relative independence of Iraq’s educational system to further a pan-Arab project after the formal end of the British Mandate in 1932. The two latter are well-known authors of influential history text books.[29] These text books are a peculiar primary source in cultural history because there are good reasons to assume that they actually had an impact when school curricula made sure they were actually read and even discussed in the classroom. They delivered imagery of glorious forefathers, propagated male virtue, endurance, and leadership, but also obedience as values that were later rehearsed in the many Middle Eastern youth movements and party militias of diverse ideological colourings. Darwish al-Miqdadi (1898-1961) has gained some fame in the historiography of the interwar period as a promoter of a fierce Arab nationalist imagery, in Palestine, and especially during his stay in Iraq in the late 1930s when he was an employee of the burgeoning national state educational system. He was also the author of a textbook, Tarikh al-Umma al-‘Arabiyya (History of the Arab nation), first published in 1931. Several generations of students read it in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria from the 1930s until mid-century. Miqdadi’s book promoted the image of a coherent national territory including Arabia, Iraq and Syria. He presented an eclectic combination of ethno-nationalism and socialist thought in the same argumentative line as that of earlier reformers.[30]

Tarikh al-Umma al-‘Arabiyya contains the story of the birth of the prophet, the mawlid, too. In a dialogue between a teacher-narrator and a fictional class of students, he is introduced as “Our greatest example: Muhammad. Our Prophet and Guide: founder of our great Arab state, unifier of our nation, our national(ist) hero, re-maker of our society, Peace Be Upon Him.” The class answers: “Who Is He?” The teacher-narrator explains: “The poor of Mecca cry for help and who comes to their rescue from the tyranny of the usurers? The Arab nomads of the Hijaz were poor, conquest had destroyed them. They strive for pastures in the Fertile Crescent, but the Persian and Byzantine workers (‘ummal) push them aside.”

The text goes on: “Who would protect them and deliver them from this humiliation and pain?” Certainly, Muhammad would: “He came from a poor family, son of a poor widow. He was born like children are born, and he lived like people live, but still, he was the greatest of the people.” The expectation of the reader might be that here, the teacher-narrator would continue that Muhammad received a revelation from God, but no: “He created a nation that did not know unity before, he founded a state that conquered the world, he spread Islam and preached the noble traits of character, he was the exalted example, […] he is the Lord of everyone Arab, he is our glory, and from him came our culture and our life. He is Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.”[31]

Miqdadi’s Muhammad has been described as a “Proletarian Revolutionary.”[32] It is remarkable that the author avoided mentioning Islam almost entirely. The religion only comes up in the context of expansion and conquest. The Prophet is introduced as a social reformer and nationalist leader. He is presented, quite inaccurately, as of humble, if not working-class origin.[33] The nomads and peasants of the Arabian Peninsula suffer in Miqdadi’s narration from imperialist expansion and the influx of foreign workers, which could be read as a reference to Jewish workers streaming into Palestine to work the land taken over by the Zionists. The secularization of this narrative seems complete because the Qur’anic revelation does not occur in Miqdadi’s version of the story. However, one should take into account the residue of piety that constitutes the hybridity of the text. There is a remainder of openness to both nationalist-secular and religious discourses that belies assumptions about their mutual exclusivity.[34] Miqdadi didn’t secularize the Prophet fully. He included the required gestures of a pious Muslim when mentioning the Prophet, in a nod to his sacredness, such as the Tasliya (Salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, commonly rendered in English as Peace Be Upon Him, PBUH). As such, Miqdadi’s account harkens back to the cultural repertoire of Islamic piety and the sira as a genre of classical Islamic literature.


In general, reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable is a hallmark of the modern existence. People construct their identities out of seemingly contradictory components, combining modern convictions to secularity with inherited sensibilities based on piety and spirituality, about things that feel or don’t feel right. It is no surprise therefore that hybrid formats like Shawqi’s qasidas strike a note, as do Umm Kulthum’s songs with modern instrumentation yet recognizable Arabness. Today, they themselves evoke nostalgia for a period of many promises. Likewise, Miqdadi, the secular nationalist schoolbook author, praised Muhammad as a historical figure and founder of the Arab nation, as a forerunner of socialist community formation, but he felt that he had to include concessions to the awe his readers sensed when the Prophet’s name was mentioned. So, he confirmed his sacred aura.

Looking at such contradictions brings historians closer to the reality of past people’s experiences and helps understand the choices that people made, and the compromises they were willing to accept in order to realize political or personal goals, including ways to achieve and remain in power. Studying ideology by the letter is only helpful to a limited extent because such a study would need to consider the actual dissemination of words on paper and the broader discursive and social context in which they were formulated. The ‘social life of words’ is more relevant than the consistency of ideas and concepts that intellectual historians of the past have often looked for. Historians of culture affirm that their sub-discipline is not just one next to political, social or economic history, for example, but that “culture” means broad context and refers to the intersections and crossovers that determine people’s actions. Arab nationalism, like any nationalism, has therefore never just been an ideology of the past. When nationalism as a frame of explaining the world people lived in emerged in the 19th century, it added but one of many elements that people draw on when constructing their identities in the contemporary world. Even if the influence of individual authors and educators like Miqdadi is hardly visible underneath the massive layers of bureaucratization and streamlining that state educational systems in the Arab world have piled up since the 1960s, a deep analysis of modern history and civic textbooks would most likely reveal that their stories live on in today’s Arab world.[35]

[1] On post-1967 political developments see Nazih N. Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State. Politics and Society in the Middle East, London 1995. On the impact on Arab thought see Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, Contemporary Arab Thought. Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective, New York 2010.
[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York 1978. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, new ed., London 2006.
[3] Recent examples are Shay Hazkani, Dear Palestine. A Social History of the 1948 War, Stanford 2021; Kevin M. Jones, The Dangers of Poetry. Culture, Politics, and Revolution in Iraq, Stanford 2020; Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, A Taste for Home. The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut, Stanford 2017; Maha Nassar, Brothers Apart. Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World, Stanford 2017; Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914, Berkeley 2010.
[4] See Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians. Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture, Stanford 2011; Peter Wien, ‘Those Who Pronounce the Dād’. Language and Ethnicity in the Nationalist Poetry of Fuʾad al-Khatib (1880-1957), in: Heleen Murre-van den Berg / Karène Sanchez Summerer / Tijmen Baarda (eds.), Arabic and Its Alternatives. Religious Minorities and Their Languages in the Emerging Nation States of the Middle East (1920-1950), Leiden 2020, pp. 130-142.
[5] The most recent example was in the reactions to the so called ‘Abraham Accords’ between the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, and later agreements with Sudan and Morocco.
[6] See George Antonius, The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement, New York 1965. Major works include, Majid Khadduri, Independent Iraq 1932-1958. A Study in Iraqi Politics, London 1960; Elie Kedourie (ed.), The Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies, London 1970; Sylvia G. Haim, Arab Nationalism. An Anthology, Berkeley 1976; Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba‘thists, and Free Officers, Princeton 1978.
[7] Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity, New York 1997.
[8] A recent collection of articles revisits the political, social, and cultural concepts first introduced in Hourani’s trailblazing work: Jens Hanssen / Max Weiss (eds.), Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age. Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda, Cambridge 2016.
[9] Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition. Reform, Rationality, and Modernity, Stanford 2009, pp. 69-73.
[10] See works such as Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman. Nationalism, Gender, and Politics, Berkeley 2005; Orit Bashkin, The Other Iraq. Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq, Stanford 2008; William L. Cleveland, The Making of an Arab Nationalist. Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati‘ al-Husri, Princeton 1971; James L. Gelvin, Divided Loyalties. Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire, Berkeley 1998; Israel Gershoni / James P. Jankowski, Confronting Fascism in Egypt. Dictatorship Versus Democracy in the 1930s, Stanford 2010; Joel Gordon, Revolutionary Melodrama. Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser’s Egypt, Chicago 2002; Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks. Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1909-1918, Berkeley 1997; Ussama Samir Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism. Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon, Berkeley 2000; James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, Cambridge 2006; Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens. Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, New York 2000; Andrew Shryock, Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination. Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan, Berkeley 1997; Peter Wien, Arab Nationalism. The Politics of History and Culture in the Modern Middle East, Milton Park 2017, and the list goes on.
[11] See for example Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age. A Minority Report, Princeton 2015; Fawaz Gerges, Making the Arab World. Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East, Princeton 2018; Wien, Arab Nationalism, pp. 9-15, 119-143.
[12] On the importance of heritage (turath) in Arabic thought see, for example, the works of the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri. See Michaelle Browers, From ‘New Partisans of the Heritage’ to Post-Secularism. Mohammed Abed al-Jabri and the Development of Arab Liberal Communitarian Thought in the 1980s, in: Meir Hatina / Christoph Schumann (eds.), Arab Liberal Thought after 1967. Old Dilemmas, New Perceptions, New York 2015, pp. 135-151.
[13] Silvia Naef, Y a-t-il une “question de l’image” en Islam?, Paris 2004.
[14] Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford 1986. See also Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, London 1990; Wien, Arab Nationalism, pp. 1-20.
[15] Wien, Arab Nationalism, pp. 10-12. For an in-depth analysis of Catholic influences on ‘Aflaq’s thought see Max Weiss, Genealogies of Ba‘thism. Michel ‘Aflaq between Personalism and Arabic Nationalism, in: Modern Intellectual History 17 (2020), 4, pp. 1193-1224.
[16] Ahmad S. Dallal, The origins and early development of Islamic reform, in: Robert W. Hefner (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam, Cambridge 2010, pp. 107-147.
[17] The following interpretation draws on the material, analysis and translations in Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Mantle Odes. Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad, Bloomington 2010.
[18] Ines Weinrich, Between Poem and Ritual. The Burda by al-Busiri (d. 1294-1297), in: idem (ed.), Performing Religion. Actors, Contexts, and Texts. Case Studies on Islam, Beirut 2016, pp. 103-126. For a video of the pop nasheed singer Mesut Kurtis’ song “Burdah” see: <> (31.08.2021). On pop nasheed see Jonas Otterbeck / Johannes Frandsen Skjelbo, ‘Music Version’ versus ‘Vocals-Only’. Islamic Pop Music, Aesthetics, and Ethics, in: Popular Music and Society 43 (2020), 1, pp. 1-19.
[19] Stetkevych, Mantle Odes, pp. 151-232. For examples of ‘reaction poetry,’ see Wien, ‘Those who pronounce the Dād’.
[20] Based on: Virginia Danielson, The Voice of Egypt. Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, Chicago 1997, pp. 110-118, 148f. For Umm Kulthum’s legacy see Laura Lohman, Umm Kulthum. Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967-2007, Middletown 2010. A similar analysis of Umm Kulthum’s performance of Nahj al-Burda is in Huda Fakhreddin, Umm Kulthum Sings Ahmad Shawqi’s Nahj al-Burda. A Spiritualization of Polemics, in: Culture Critique (online journal at Claremont Graduate University) 1 (2009), 2, no pagination, (accessible here, < _ A_H_J_AL_BURDAH_A_SPIRITUALIZATION_OF_POLEMICS> (31.08.2021).
[21] <>, starting 1:01:25 (31.08.2021).
[22] Translation. Stetkevych, Mantle Odes, p. 225.
[23] Ziad Fahmy, Street Sounds. Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt, Stanford 2020, pp. 120ff.
[24] Loosely following Hobsbawm’s concept in Eric J. Hobsbawm / Terence O. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983.
[25] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, pp. 113f., 121. Title of al-Busiri’s original: al-Hamziyya; Stetkevych, Mantle Odes, pp. 81f., 154.
[26] C. Ernest Dawn, The Formation of Pan-Arab Ideology in the Interwar Years, in: International Journal of Middle East Studies 20 (1988), pp. 67-91, here 72-74.
[27] See above, n12.
[28] Israel Gershoni / James P. Jankowski, Redefining the Egyptian Nation, 1930-1945, Cambridge 1995; Charles D. Smith, Islam and the Search for Social Order in Modern Egypt. A Biography of Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Albany 1983.
[29] Bashkin, The Other Iraq; Hilary Falb Kalisman, Schooling the State. Educators in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, c. 1890-c. 1960, PhD Diss., University of California Berkeley 2015; Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures. Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq, Stanford 2019; Peter Wien, Iraqi Arab Nationalism. Authoritarian, Totalitarian and Pro-Fascist Inclinations, 1932-1941, London 2006.
[30] Dawn claims that the trend of Islamic socialist thinking culminated in Miqdadi’s book. See n26.
[31] Darwish al-Miqdadi, Taʼrikh al-umma al-‘Arabiyyah [History of the Arab Nation], Baghdad 1939, pp. 48-49. Translation by the author.
[32] Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism. Episode and Discourse, Chicago 2005, p. 166.
[33] On the family origin of Muhammad’s mother see Rubin, Uri, “Āmina”, in: Kate Fleet / Gudrun Krämer / Denis Matringe / John Nawas / Everett Rowson (eds.), Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3, (25.06.2021).
[34] See Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford 2003, pp. 190-201. He argues that they are, in fact, mutually exclusive.
[35] See Falb Kalisman, Schooling the State. An example for the ongoing co-existence between traditional spiritual authority and secular, violence-prone autocracy is in Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria. The Sunni Ulema under the Ba‘th, Cambridge 2013.