Men from their kings alone their worth derive.
But Arabs ruled by aliens cannot thrive:
Boors without culture, without noble fame,
Who know not loyalty and honour’s name.
Go where thou wilt, thou seest in every land
Folk driven like cattle by a servile band.
From Diwan, Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, 10th century, as translated by R. A. Nicholson.
Those who are familiar with the rhetoric of many Arab nationalists and Islamists will notice a bombastic and boastful element. There is also a sense that the Arab-Islamic peoples (with particular emphasis being put on the Arab side of the equation) occupy the highest point of world civilization and are of a noble stock that deserves much better than occupation, co-optation, and client status under larger, foreign powers. Some commentators tie this to a racialist element in 20th century Arab nationalist thinking. This is shortsighted and ignorant. In order to understand where this sense of special belonging and rhetorical ferocity — which is not just found among Islamists but also among Arab nationalists as well — one must look back at historical trends in the Arab cultures, especially in literature and rhetoric.
Arab culture places a high value on language — it alone is what many use to define who is and who is not an Arab — and especially eloquent language. Thus, poetry was for many years the highest form of Arab cultural activity. Even today, poetry is valued and one’s ability to express himself is seen as a powerful sign of virility. This clipping is emblematic of Arab attitudes during the classical Islamic period with respect to their heritage. The poem was written in opposition to the ruler of Egypt, who was of Ethiopian origin (Abu al-Misk Kafur) and born a slave. Kafur led campaigns in Syria and the Hejaz. al-Mutanabbi was a member of Kafur’s court, until he was passed over for a promotion.‡ al-Mutanabbi’s poems regarding this ruler are brutally critical and characteristically pompous.
Promiscuous tags and liberal lip I hate,
That gutter currency that swamps the state
Where slaves who knock their masters down and clear
The till, are certain of a great career.
[. . .]
I saw the cult of slaves, the rites imposed
On jailbirds by a eunuch in priest’s clothes,
From which peeped out his servile origin:
The best-dressed leper cannot change his skin
A local proverb: when you buy your slave
Buy a stick too, and teach him to behave.
I saw the hole in the black lip that rules
The poltroons and the gluttons and the fools.
The nation governed by the pregnant pathic
Is either lunatic or astigmatic.
He picked my brain, forbade me to depart,
Postured abroad as a patron of the arts.
I shouted death to escort me from pain
And would have relished it like sugar-cane,
But found a simpler way, this camel-crupper,
And ride, damning his midwife and his mother.
al-Mutannabi is regarded as the foremost Arab poet of all time. And there is good reason; while I am using a rather embellished British translation, the Arabic is just as flowery and is read by educated Arabs throughout the Middle East. I am not quoting this poem to demean the Arab literary heritage or to accuse al-Mutanabbi of racism or whatever other malady this may offer evidence for. Rather, I am using it to show the linguistic context from which much Arabic political and cultural discourse occurs.
The matter here is not so much the content of the poem, but the kind of insult and the means by which this is achieved. Take a non-violent Islamist, such as a certain Egyptian-Australian cleric, for instance, who often remarks on the origins of Australian whites who exhibit prejudice/racism towards Arabs, while themselves often being of “criminal origin”, Australia having originally been a prison colony (to generalize and say that all or most Australians share this origin is spurious and incorrect, though). This is especially true the further back one goes in Arab political history; Zaki al-Arsuzi, whose language is particularly explosive and poetic, along with Michel Aflaq and the Arab Islamists whose education often incorporated classical Arabic poetry as a part of the curriculum. This could be because these individuals were educated at a time when the early Arab literary tradition was given more clout than, as time has gone on, world (especially Euro-American) literatures are nowadays in Arab educational institutions. Or, it might be that these persons were simply more familiar with the ins and outs of Arabic expression, being educators and writers by trade (the culturally ignorant or illiterate did not tend to write much in those days for obvious reasons). This in no way led to the creation of radical ideologies or ideologies; but it did influence the way in which those ideologues express themselves. And the themes expressed in much classical literature likely make it all the more unacceptable for such a set to accept being ruled by aliens (or those under alien influence).
This is my thinking. I could be reaching too far back, as is Dr. Lewis when he explains that the roots of modern terrorism lay in some back room Anglo-Ottoman-French-Austrian-Icelandic treaty or in the conduct of the 18th and 19th century corsairs. Or when someone tells us that the the Arabic language itself leads to “radical Islam“.
‡ [ Of this character, Hitti has this to say: “The two sons who succeeded Muhammad al-Ikhshid ruled only in name, the reins of the government being held by the able Abyssinian eunuch abu-al-Misk Kafur (musky camphor). Originally purchased by al-Ikhshid from an oil merchant for the equivalent of about eight pounds, Kafur became the sole ruler from 966 to 968. He successfully defended Egypt and Syria against the rising power of another petty dynasty in the north, the Hamdanid. His name has been immortalized in the verses first sung in praise of him, later in ridicule, by the greatest poet of his age, al-Mutanabbi’, the panegyrist of Kafur’s adversary, Sayf-al-Dawlah-Hamdani. The case of this black slave rising from the humblest origin to wield absolute power was the first but not the last in Islamic history. Like other dynasts the Ikhshidids, and especially their founder, made lavish use of state moneys to curry favor with their subjects. The daily provision for Muhammad’s kitchen included, we are told, a hundred sheep, a hundred lambs, two hundred and fifty geese, five hundred fowls, a thousand pigeons and a hundred jars of sweets. When it was poetically explained to Kafur that the recurrent earthquakes of that time were due to Egypt’s dancing with joy at his excellences the proud Abyssinian rewarded the would-be seismographer with a thousand dinars.” Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs (Seventh Ed.), London: MacMillan & Co. LTD, pg. 456 (1960). ]