A National Conviction

The Arabic language, says Bazzaz [the Iraqi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Bazzaz], is the ‘soul of the Arab nation’. Those who speak Arabic are Arabs; but since Islamic culture is the content of the Arabic language, it follows that all who speak Arabic can appropriate Islamic culture and the Islamic past as their own. Christian Arabs are as much a part of the nation, and can take as intimate a pride in what it had done in history, as Muslim Arabs. The conclusion is present by implication in Bazzaz’s warning against Muslim exclusiveness, but it is drawn more explicitly for obvious reasons, by two Christian writers of the same generation. In them can be clearly seen the process of appropriation by Christians of the Arab Muslim heritage. One of the Qustantin Zurayq, an Orthodox Christian from Damascus, Professor at the American University of Beirut, a distinguished medieval historian and consulting don to a whole generation of nationalists. In 1939 he published a volume of essays on national consciousness. Its starting-point is a clear appreciation of the present position of the Arabs. OUr basic problem, he asserts, is that we have no convictions; having no convictions, we cannot subordinate our individual desires and passions to an organization rooted in a principle; therefore we cannot act successfully as a group. Nationalism is the conviction we need; that is to say, a sense of collective responsibility, the will to create and maintain a community, but one of a specific sort — a community which draws its inspiration and its principles from a religion, and from our own religion. For Arabs, this religion can only be Islam. This may seem surprising as coming from a Christian, but it becomes clear when Zurayq goes on to distinguish ‘the religious spirit’ (al-ruh al-diniyya) from ‘sectarian solidarity’ (al-’asabiyya al-ta’ifiyya). The assumptions underlying this distinction appear to be two: first, that all religions contain the same core of truth, accessible alike to all men; and secondly, that the moral principles of religion are those which are necessary to build a stable and prosperous society. The ‘symbols’ in which these principles are expressed differ from one religion to another, but the difference is of cultural rather than intellectual importance. It is in this sense that there is an essential connexion between the Arabs and Islam. Muhammad was the creator of Arab culture, the unifier of the Arab people, the man of conviction from whom they can draw their inspiration; but there is no suggestion that they should draw more than that from him, that they should be guided by Islamic law or the institutions of the caliphate. The Arabs of course must be a modern people, and to be modern means to adopt the institutions characteristic of the west.

Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798 – 1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. pg. 309-310.

Addendum: To respond to some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section, I would like to present a view, offered by Halim Barakat, that religion’s toll on nationalism is not the major factor in the decline of secular Arabism. Rather, Barakat asserts, sectarianism and its social and political constraints, distinct from religious conviction, is what has forced Islamism (and the intolerance that comes with that movement) to the forefront. In this rather structuralist view, the rise of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the FIS, Hezb Allah, and the various Lebanese Christian factions are the result of sectarianism and communitarianism as opposed to religion itself (Islam, Christianity, or Yazidism, for example). Islamist movements are sectarian movements, as opposed to spiritual or religious ones. This helps to explain, in part, the hostility that many Islamist movements have shown to popular religious expressions and traditions (particularly Sufi ones). It furthermore shows the difficulty of building national consciousness in a society as fragmented as the Arab world.

The distinction between religion and sect is relevant in the eastern Arab world because [. . .] the presence of a multitude of sectarian communities undermines social and political integration. The fact that so many sects have developed their separate subcommunities and subcultures requires that we reexamine the assumption that Islam, as the religion of the majority, represents a unifying force. The nature of the existing social organization renders sects more concrete; religion is comparatively abstract and remote from the daily life of believers. The unifying force of religion is therefore weak in the face of the divisive force of sects.

The social reality in the eastern Arab world, then, is one of sect rather than religion. Arabs must contend with more or less separate communities of Sunnis, Shi’as, Druze, Alawites, Syrian Orthodox, Maronites, Eastern Catholics, and the like. These sectarian affiliations are comparable to — indeed, inseparable from — tribalism or ethnicity. All three divisive subcategories of society relate in similar ways to systems of economic interdependence, political arrangements, and social movements.

[. . .]

[. . .] sect rather than religion as such seems to prevail in the eastern Arab world, particularly in times of political and economic crises. Religion as a spiritual, moral, and integrative force has been in a state of decline.

Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. pg. 124-125.

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