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On Arabian Culture Essay

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The literature on social diversity and cleavages in Arab society and the Middle East as a whole suffers from several fallacies, two of which are most pertinent here. One is the tendency, particularly among Orientalists, to speak both of the mosaic nature of Arab society and of the existence of a unified mentality, or one Arab mind, without any awareness of the contradiction between these two abstractions. The other is the emphasis either on communal cleavages or on class conflicts, with the result that one becomes explanatory while the other is ignored.

The interplay and coincidence of these two cleavages are rarely examined in their historical and social contexts. How can an individual define the diversity of Arab society? The diversity that characterizes Arab society needs to be analyzed within a three-dimensional framework: (a) a homogeneity-heterogeneity continuum; (b) the processes of conflict-accommodation-assimilation; and (c) social class cleavages.

The continuum that covers the range from a completely homogeneous society to one of great heterogeneity encompasses a complex system of vertical loyalties and communal differentiations (ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, tribal, local, regional, and the like) that coincides as well as conflicts with social class cleavages. Arab society has historically been highly heterogeneous. Certainly, one may argue that there has recently been a resurgence of communal loyalties and mobilization, confirming the mosaic and segmentary structures of society.

What cannot be granted is the static conception of these loyalties and cleavage as permanent, unchanging forms of differentiation. What is Arab society in general? The characterization of Arab society as heterogeneous, however, needs to be accompanied by an explicit clarification that not all Arab countries are similar in this respect. In fact, they differ widely in regard to their positions on the homogeneity-heterogeneity continuum.

Compared to other Arab countries, Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, may be described as rather homogeneous as far as communal cleavages are concerned. These two countries tend to have fewer ethnic, religious, and tribal differences (and, hence, conflicts) than other Arab societies, and are characterized more by social complexity and social class cleavages. A second group of Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Sudan, occupy a position close to the opposite end of the continuum, each being more of a mosaic in structure and social composition.

A third set, such as Syria, Algeria, Arabia, and Morocco, tend to occupy positions more in the middle of the continuum. Conventional Western literature on Arab and other Middle Eastern societies has persistently avoided any serious discussion of social class structure. Instead, it has conceived of Arab societies simply as a mosaic. At the margin of this mainstream discourse, however, there has been some occasional speculation on problems of social stratification. Whenever a discussion of this nature has taken place, it has evolved into a heated exchange.

One point of view reaffirms the conclusions of the mosaic model and questions the relevance of class analysis. For instance, C. A. O. van Niewenhuijze and James Bill, in separate works, dismiss class analysis in economic terms and instead use Weberian concepts of status and power. Similarly, Iliya Harik has more recently dismissed the thesis put forward by some writers that the Lebanese civil war is actually a class struggle and expressed his “belief that class distinctions in Lebanon are too obscure to sustain the class struggle argument”.

Bryan S. Turner, by contrast, has pointed out that anyone “who wants to develop a Marxist analysis of North Africa and the Middle East must start with a critique of the mosaic theory and all its related assumptions”. Such a critique, he explains, is required because mosaic analysts believe “that traditional Middle Eastern societies were not class dominated and that in the modern Middle East social class is only in the process of emerging alongside other forms of social stratification”. Nicholas S.

Hopkins has applied ideas of class derived from the Marxist tradition to changes in the social structure of an agricultural town in Tunisia, concluding that essential changes in the mechanization of agriculture and in the improvement of communications “led to a shift in the organization of work away from a pattern based on mobilization of labor within the household or the extended kindred . . . and toward a pattern of labor determined by wage labor”. Consequently, this Tunisian agricultural town has shifted from a society in which rank was based “on vertical rather than on horizontal links” to one “based on class”.

Hopkins argues further that not only is there class in the objective sense, “there is also class consciousness, at least in embryonic, symbolic form”. My own view is that the persistence of communal cleavages complicates rather than nullifies social class consciousness and struggle. This persistence of communal cleavages and vertical loyalties in some Arab countries is owing to the perpetuation of traditional systems in which communities are linked to their local za’ims (traditional leaders) through patron-client relationships.

To the extent that constructive change can be introduced in these areas, such traditional systems will give way, increasingly, to other social and class relationships.


Gutas, D. (1998). Greek Thought, Arab Culture : The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd-4th & 8th-10th C. ): Routledge. Rejwan, N. (1998). Arabs Face the Modern World: Religious, Cultural, and Political Responses to the West: Gainesville University Press of Florida. Szarmach, P. E. (1979). Aspects of Jewish Culture in the Middle Ages: Albany State University of New York Press

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