Middle East Studies

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Metamorphosis of the Nation (al-Umma)

The Rise of Arabism and Minorities in Syria and Lebanon, 1850–1940

Kais M. Firro is Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa. He is the author of A History of the Druzes, The Druzes in the Jewish State, Inventing Lebanon: Nationalism and State under the Mandate and Lebanon: Challenge of Diversity.

Studies on nationalism in the “Arab World” have dealt with the socio-economic conditions through which the nationalist phenomena emerged. Notwithstanding the importance of these conditions, the focus here is on the cultural aspects as manifested in the language of the discourse and ideology. Proto-nationalist and nationalist phenomena could not exist outside their discourse and ideology through which they were modeled, shaped and identified as a conceptual framework through association, behavioral patterns, and loyalty to collective identities. Theorists of nationalism tend to deal with the terms nation, nationalism as givens without specifying the exact time and place in which the terms had been coined to signify their concepts.

This book focuses on nationalist and ethnic discourse through textual analysis from classical and modern Arabic. Tracing the development in the usage of terms related to collective identities, the present study shows that Arabic print language, education and press rooted the usage of al-umma to signify several connotations in accordance to its user, creating perplexity for defining al-umma. Chapters trace the usage of umma, qawm, sha’b and ’arab in the classical texts; investigate the development of the nationalist discourse since the end of the 19the century until 1940; and deal with four religious communities in Syria and Lebanon, and the role of their intellectuals in formulating ideas concerning their self-image in nationalist terms. Throughout, the study keeps track of the changes in Arabist discourse of the term “umma”. A Conclusion reevaluates the ethnic and nationalist discourse at the present time, showing that the elitist characteristics of al-umma, “the nation”, has had a limited influence on subduing parochial identities such as tribes and religious communities, as well as the Islamic cosmopolitan identity.

This book is essential reading for all those engaged in the study and research of collective identity, Islam, nationalism and ethnicity.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-316-4
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $74.95
Release Date: March 2009
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Note on Transliteration


CHAPTER ONE Genealogy of the Modern Terminology
al-Umma, al-'Arab and Qawm
Al-Shu'ubiya and Ethnic Debate between Arabs and 'Ajam (Persians)
Al-Umma and al-'Arab in Ibn Khaldun's Writings

CHAPTER TWO Al-Umma and Nationalism
The Emergence of Arabism
The Limited Sphere of Arabism
The Voice of the Arabic Press
Literary Arabic and its Limits

CHAPTER THREE The Lebanese Christians Searching for Their Nation
Syrian Nation versus Arab Nation
From Syrian to Lebanese Nation
Arabism and Syrian Nationalism Contest Greater Lebanon
Fitting Lebanese Nationalism to Greater Lebanon

CHAPTER FOUR The Shi'ite 'Asabiyya in the Era of Arabism
Unrest and Perplexed Community
A New Stratum Contests the Traditional leadership
New Education and New Intelligentsia
Al-'Irfan a Channel for New Ideas
The Shi'ites and the New Lebanese State

CHAPTER FIVE From Nusayriyya to Alawiyya
Religious Legacy in the Eyes of Modern 'Alawis
When Nusayriyya Becomes 'Alawiyya
Between French Colonialism and Arab Nationalism
Claiming Pure Arabism and Genuine Imamate Shi'ism

CHAPTER SIX Druze Intellectuals and Nationalism
Druze "Unitarianism" and its Isma'ili and Sufi Roots
Shakib Arsalan a Pioneer of Arabism
Accommodating the Communal 'Asabiyya to Nationalism
Crystallizing National Ideas via Damascus and Palestine
'Ali Nasir al-Din "One Arab umma" / Sa'id Taqiy al-Din "Several ummas"



Firro makes a vital new contribution to the study of nationalism in the Arab world by going back to the works of key political ideologues and subjecting the very language of nationalism to rigorous scrutiny. Based on extensive archival research, and an exhaustive reading of Arab political philosophy, Firro traces the growth of the Arab national idea from the micro level of minority communities, to the nation-state level, to the transnational pan-Arab vision. A masterful study that will be essential reading for all scholars of the cultural and political history of the Middle East.
Eugene L. Rogan, Director, The Middle East Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford

The glory days of Arab nationalism are long gone, and not just in the political sense. If studies undertaken by previous generations were all too often marred by boosterism, it is just as common today to find works on the subject with titles alluding to failure and false consciousness. Firro’s book offers a welcome respite from the posturings of both camps and significantly expands our understanding of the diversity of communal and national sentiment in the Arab world.
…Firro begins by examining the pre-modern meanings of a number of terms relating to identity and community, such as umma (which, according to classical dictionaries and other sources, originally referred to a cohort of people or to the Islamic community or, when plural, to linguistic groups, etc.), watan (the area inhabited by a group of people), and ’arab/a’rab (whose various forms referred to Arabs of pure descent, savages, Bedouin, etc.). He then skips ahead to the nineteenth century, when the introduction of new concepts of collective identity necessitated the employment of a new vocabulary. It was at this time, Firro argues, that these terms became central to both the political and social imaginary of a variety of intellectuals who reclaimed, recontextualized, and imbued the terms with new meanings germane to a world of nation-states. Thus, for example, the word umma came to denote ‘nation’ in its contemporary sense, as in the phrases al-umma al-’arabiyya (the Arab nation) and alumma al-islamiyya (the Islamic nation); the word watan took on the meaning ‘home-land’ or, in its adjectival form, ‘patriotism;’ and arab came to refer to a member of a specific ethno-linguistic group. But while the typology of community and identity to which these terms referred became standardized, the nature and scope of the communities to which they referred had a protean quality, depending on who was doing the defining at what time.
... While much of his argument is not novel in the field of nationalist studies, Firro’s focus on the construction of communal and nationalist sentiment in communities usually marginalized or ignored, as well as his meticulous and critical reading of texts, is refreshing and sets this book apart from others. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of his analysis that is less than convincing. Because he correlates the emergence of nationalism in the region with the emergence of new social classes rather than with the nineteenth-century revolution in social and cultural practice that defined the world inhabited by those social classes and others, Firro presents only one facet of the nationalist story. Engaged by the state in common activities, all strata of Ottoman society – not just those whose works are examined by Firro – were nationalized to a greater or lesser extent during the nineteenth century, and even limited access to print media did not prevent a variety of “organic intellectuals” from conjuring up or wresting control of nationalist and sectarian discourses, as recent research has demonstrated. Indeed, Firro’s narrow focus compels him to attribute the spread of national consciousness from community to community to what might be termed “idealogical contagion” and leaves unexplained the reasons why a community would embrace that consciousness in the first place.\
... Firro’s book might be read in such a way as to render this complaint incidental. What Firro has done – and done so well – is demonstrate variety and complexity in nationalist sentiment in the Arab Middle East and the insufficiency of the phrase, ‘Arab nationalism’ in characterizing that sentiment.
Nations and Nationalism

Firro investigates the emergence and development of Arab nationalism with a focus on its cultural aspects as manifested in language and ideology. He begins by tracing the usage of key terms such as umma (community), qawn (group), sha’b (group of people), and ‘arab (Arabs) in classical texts from the rise of Islam until the era of ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). He then explores the emergence of new terms based on the classical texts with new meanings in the era of Arabism from the end of the 19the century until 1940. Finally, he presents case studies on four religious communities in Syria and Lebanon: the Maronite-Christians, Shi’is, ‘Alawis, and Druze.
Reference & Research Book News

Reviewed in the Journal of Levantine Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, Winter 2012

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