Some think of culture as a single entity driven by the past of a particular group or by people of similar thoughts. However, throughout history, cultures have consistently merged and blended with other societies. Each generation criticizes the new for not upholding the same practices while reminiscing on a romantic fantasy of the past. The truly fascinating thing is that every generation will claim to be the guardian of the preservation of their culture, yet they too have adopted multicultural traditions.
Today, we consider certain foods such as biryani, or words such as seeda (straight) as being part of our Arab traditions. However, those traditions and practices were absent a few generations ago and have only integrated into our society due to global commerce and integration.
The struggle in preserving one’s culture is a book of old. A thousand years ago existed a man called Ibn Qutaybah (died 889 CE) who wrote several works of which include “Faḍl al-‘Arab wa ‘Ulūmuhā” (The excellence of the Arabs and their knowledge). The book is a fascinating piece of literature in Islamic history when it comes to the notion of Arab identity and culture. It portrays Arab traditions and their excellence as a culture according to his perspective. Amongst many other things, Ibn Qutaybah states that Arabs excel in poetry, astral studies, animal husbandry, and horse riding. While I highly recommend reading the book to understanding what Arab culture looked like, I am more interested in the reasons that led Ibn Qutaybah to write the text in the first place.
In the year 661 CE, thirty years following the death of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), the Arabs established the first caliphate dynasty known as the Umayyads. For almost a century, the Umayyad caliphate expanded its influence and power from Andalusia (Spain) to Khurasan (Central Asia). During the Umayyad caliphate, the elites compromised of mostly Arabs who seized control of the lands they now owned. In 750 CE, a revolt took place which overthrew the Umayyad caliphate and saw the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate. With time, Arabs began to intermarry with the local population, and a new identity and culture began to manifest.
During the early years of the Abbasid caliphate, the ideas about what it meant to be Arab and what constituted being Arab became popular in society. There was a desire to “protect” Arab culture from the influence of others. Several works were being produced to explain the relationship between Arab tribes and provide a genealogical framework of the Arabs. Ibn Qutaybah, justifiably, was one of those people who wished to protect and portray the “excellence” in the Arab culture. This is because Ibn Qutaybah lived during one of the most turbulent times of the Abbasid caliphate. There was a twenty-year civil war, the succession of several caliphs, and the capital moved from Baghdad to Samarra due to the powerful Turkic and Persian nobility that had resided there. Before the death of Ibn Qutaybah, the caliph al-Muʿtamid (d. 892 CE) curbed power from Turkic and Persian nobility and returned the capital to Baghdad.
It was during this time that Ibn Qutaybah wrote his book in hopes of preserving and justifying the rule of Arab nobility. He feared what many people fear today, that his culture and traditions would be lost amidst the integration of other societies. However, just as his culture endured and manifested itself in adapting to his contemporary world, so too will our culture. Preservation of one’s culture is without a doubt a vital tradition, but not at the cost of stereotypical or biased practices. For a culture to be maintained, it must not be hated by others because of its traditions, but rather loved because of the value it brings to society. We must remember that culture is always manifesting and merging with its neighboring societies, and that what we follow as practices or traditions today may not have existed a few generations ago. Change is an inherent part of culture and identity, otherwise, there would be no culture at all.
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