Dossier 17: Middle Eastern Cultures: The Real Boundaries

Publication Author: 
Elie Dib Wardini
September 1997
Word Document96.54 KB
number of pages: 
In referring to Middle Eastern cultures, writers and speakers often allude to the Arab, Persian, Turkish etc. Cultures. What do these terms mean? What do they imply? Are these the true cultural boundaries in the Middle East? It is the opinion of the present writer that the use of these terms is often faulty and misleading.

Preliminary notes

The subject matter of this rather sketchy article is not the domain of a student of languages, but that of an anthropologist (here I would like to thank Berit Thorbj Rnsrud and Kjersti Bergheim for their constructive comments). This article is then a collection of thoughts that I have on the subject. I hope, nevertheless, that this article will be an inspiration to those who are better equipped to make more detailed studies on the subject.

The Issue

The problem with the use of the terms “Persian Culture”, “Arab Culture”, “Turkish Culture” etc., in my opinion, arises when it is assumed that political ideology, religion or language forms the basis for definitions and generalizations concerning “Culture”. Of course politics, religion and language are elements of culture, but Culture is much more subtle and complex. There are innumerable elements that combine to form a people’s Culture and sub-Cultures.

Here are also active the level of education, social status, wealth, occupation etc., and not least the way people view themselves and their environment. Sometimes the geographical area where a political ideology is accepted/applied or where a language or religion has become dominant coincides with the geographical base of certain “Cultural Clusters,”[1] but most often they do not coincide. The former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are good examples of cases where they do not coincide.

It would be wrong to assume that certain cultural traits are necessarily common to people who are bound by a political ideology, a religion or a language, just as it is wrong to assume that people having many cultural traits in common also have a common religion, language or political ideology. Worse yet is when one projects modern ideologies and concepts back in time “creating history” based on modern “realities”.

In order to illustrate the problems raised above we could ask the following questions:

Is Turkey Turkish in culture?
Is Iran Persian in culture?
Is the Arab World Arab in culture?

Most of the answers given to these questions are given in terms of political ideology, political entities, language, religion or a vague notion of culture. e.g. Turks are those who speak Turkish. Those who have Turkish passports. Arabs are those who speak Arabic, or who consider themselves to be Arabs or who identify with “Arab Culture” (usually defined as Arab literature and language) etc. Based on these answers, definitions for “Arab culture”, “Persian Culture”, “Turkish Culture” etc. are deduced irrespective of whether they correspond to realities on the ground or not.

Some examples of such deductions:

1) a political concept: Nation-State, applied on a political entity: The State of Turkey, to create: Turkish National State, based on: Turkish language, Turkish Nationalism, Turkish Identity. The deduction is made: Turkey is Turkish, and the inhabitants of Turkey are Turks, the Turks have the same Turkish culture.

The inhabitants of the state of Turkey share very many cultural traits. Yet far from all have a “Turkish” identity (even if many have Turkish names), or regard Turkish as “their” language (even if they speak Turkish), or share the same political ideologies as the ruling parties in Turkey (Turkish nationalism), or that all have the same religion.

2) a political concept: Nationalism, creates a political ideology: Arab Nationalism based on : Arabic language, past and present achievements etc. The deduction is made: there exists an Arab People (in the modern sense of the term rather than the classical sense), hence Arab Culture. Thereafter the “Arabs are a people who have a common Arab culture”.

Note how Michael C. Hudson, an authority on Arab Politics, in his book “Arab Politics, The Search for Legitimacy” (1979) and under the chapter on “The Elements of Arab Identity” describes “The Core of Arabism: Ethnicity and Religion”:

“The hallmarks of modern Arab identity are, on the ethnic dimension, Arabic language and culture, and on the religious dimension, Islam. On both dimensions, the inhabitants of the Arab world are overwhelmingly homogenous.

Ethnographers look upon language as a key defining characteristic of ethnic communities, although physiognomy, skin color, and common historical experiences are also important… According to the data from this atlas [the Soviet Atlas of ethnic communities], the Arab states are among the most homogeneous in the world; only the Sudan (with its non-Arab southern provinces), Morocco and Algeria (with their Berber communities), and Iraq (with its Kurdish population) fall around or below the world median and mean. Of the rest, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Yemenis and post-revolutionary Libya are almost completely Arab in language and culture; and very small ethno linguistic minorities are found in Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Kuwait, and the Gulf states...

The Arab world today is overwhelmingly Islamic. Save for the Sudan and Lebanon, each with nearly half of its population non-Muslim, the Arab states are either almost wholly Muslim or contain small but important Christian minorities of around 10 percent, as in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian community.

In emphasizing the ethno-linguistic and religious homogeneity of the Arab world (a point so obvious that its significance is sometimes overlooked), I do not mean to ignore the existence and political significance of the non-Arab, non-Muslim, and non-orthodox Muslim minorities in the Arab world.” (p.38)

A common language, Arabic, leads Hudson to assume a common Culture for “Arabs”. Then coupling language and religion, Hudson claims that the “Arab states are among the most homogeneous in the world.”

Later in the chapter entitled: “The Republics of the Pan-Arab Core” he writes the following:

“In this chapter I compare the political systems of the pan-Arab core: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian movement.” (p.234).

From my point of view, what is interesting here is that what Hudson calls “the pan-Arab core” lies outside what is traditionally the centre of Arabism: the Arabian peninsula. Of course Hudson is speaking of politics, thus he uses the term “pan-Arab” rather than “Arab”. Yet Hudson’s concept of “pan-Arab core” leads some to make generalizations about Culture, seeing this “pan-Arab core” as the actual core of “Arabic Culture”. As an example I could mention what is termed “Arabic food”.

“Arabic food” seems to be equated with the type of food that is traditionally prepared/eaten in the geographical area that Hudson calls “the pan-Arab core”. Therefore some are surprised to see how untypical “Arabic” is the food prepared/eaten on the Arabian peninsula - the home of the Arabs! Or having noted the high level of “homogeneity” that Hudson expresses, some are surprised at the amount of conflicts that exist in the area and at the lack of solidarity between the different areas within the “Arab world”. By definition, it seems to be believed, “Arabs” are one people and are expected to act as such. This leads some to try to find answers for this apparently “anomalous behavior”, blaming colonial powers, the uneven distribution of wealth in the area or what some term “Arabian tribalism”.

Others take a more militant stance vis à vis Culture and identity. Note what Sati’ al-Husri says (as quoted by Hudson under the heading: “The Roots of Arab Identity” p.39).

“According to Sati al-Husri, the most influential theorist of modern Arab nationalism, Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Everyone who is affiliated with these people is an Arab. If he does not know this or if he does not cherish his Arabism, then we must study the reasons for his position. It may be a result of ignorance - then we must teach him the truth. It may be because he is unaware or deceived - then we must awaken him and reassure him. It may be a result of selfishness - then we must work to limit his selfishness...”

Elements of Culture

1) Political ideologies, religion, language

The Middle East has seen the appearance of many rulers and kings, kingdoms and empires, and has seen them disappear. Political ideologies are accepted by some and rejected by others. The Middle East has had many religions (three world religions) and these differ from area to area within the Middle East. There has been at least two main language shifts in the Middle East, without mentioning minor shifts that were restricted to certain areas and shifts within certain languages. Moreover political ideologies, religion and language are cross-cultural. Aramaic in pre- Islamic times and Arabic, Islam and Christianity are very good examples of cross cultural elements.


One should distinguish between different levels of “religion”: deep levels comprising of that which people attribute to the supernatural in their interaction with their environment, and more superficial levels which are represented by the actual religions and cults, e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. This can be exemplified by elements of religion that are common across religious boundaries in a certain “Cultural Cluster”, but are not universally common within a certain religion. For example I could cite the high esteem in which the Virgin Mary is held in Lebanon by both Muslims and Christians. The terms “Virgin” and “Lady” are not new to Lebanon. These are found in texts that antedate Christianity by 2-3 millennia. The Virgin of Lebanon and the Lady of Lebanon are mentioned already in the texts from Ugarit dating from approx. 1400 BC. The divergent ceremonial rites used in funerals by different Muslim communities, could also be cited as an example. Being of the same religion does not imply that people understand or apply this religion in a similar way or that they behave in the same way.

2) Cultural contact

Likewise, one should distinguish between different levels of contact between peoples: a deep contact that is an integral part of the understanding of a certain people concerning the world that surrounds them, and more superficial contacts where peoples of different Cultures exchange ideas, languages, religion but where deep cultural change does not occur. This can be exemplified by cases of immigrants who live in ghettos in the host country keeping their own habits and for some never learning the language of the host country. They live as if they were back home with least possible adaptations to their new environment.

Spheres of influence: In terms of deep cultural contact we can divide the Middle East into four major spheres of influence:[2]

1. Mediterranean sphere of influence
2. Central Asian sphere of influence
3. Indian Ocean sphere of influence
4. African sphere of influence

3) Natural-occupational elements

The way humans have lived in their diverse habitats depended primarily on the nature of these habitats. Water has been a deciding factor in the shaping of human Culture. One can recite Arabic poems in the desert or on fertile land, but one can live as a nomad only in the desert, and can be a farmer where there is water and fertile soil.

In terms of the natural elements and especially in reference to water, the Middle East presents us with many contrasts. Very fertile lands are only a few kilometers away from some of the world’s most arid deserts. Some of the world’s most important rivers are a stone’s throw away from areas with least water. Areas with high amounts of precipitation border on areas with hardly any precipitation at all.

The elements of nature together with other elements of culture combine to shape the different Cultures that exist in the different areas of the Middle East. The contrasts found in nature contribute in shaping “Cultural Clusters” that in certain cases differ drastically from each other. For the Bedouin in the desert, snow-covered mountains and the way people live there are just as foreign as is the desert and desert-life to a person who lives in these mountains.

A Scale of Shades

Yet even if at the opposite ends, Cultures in the Middle East differ drastically, there exists a whole range of shades in between. One can mention the desert cities, where the inhabitants are sedentary but are dependant on trade and to a lesser extent agriculture in order to survive. Such a city is Madina (Yathrib), which is a caravan city that thrived on commerce. Or Makka which is a religious centre and survived due to its role in religion. Again as a shade on this scale, we could mention the semi-nomads who settle on the borders of fertile land part of the year and farm this land, while they live as full nomads the rest of the year. In the same category but in another shade, we could mention the pastorals who keep sheep and goats, yet live in high mountains that are rich in water.


When we want to describe the Cultures of the Middle East we should not assume that “Culture” is defined solely in terms of political ideology, language or religion. Culture is much more subtle and complex.

As an illustration we can go back to the term “Arabic food”. When we take into consideration that the Arabian peninsula has in general a different climate, flora and fauna from the Levant (the eastern coast of the Mediterranean), that the Arabian peninsula, open to the Indian Ocean, has very ancient ties and contacts with the Indian continent we would more easily appreciate the fact that the traditional food of the Arabian peninsula resembles more the traditional food of the Indian continent, while the traditional food of the Levant falls within the type of food that is common in the Mediterranean basin.

We should not take for granted that the geographical area where a certain political ideology is accepted/applied or where a language or religion has become dominant coincide with the geographical base of a certain “Cultural Cluster”. Nor should we assume that people sharing many cultural traits necessarily share religion, political ideology or language. True, the Middle East has a distinct Culture of its own. Yet this Culture is neither Turkish nor Persian nor Arab nor Kurdish nor Armenian etc., it is Middle Eastern. The Middle East has cultural traits which it shares on the one hand with the Mediterranean basin and on the other hand it has traits that it shares with Central Asia and the Indian continent.

Lastly I would like to propose that the fact that the geographical areas where a political ideology is accepted/applied or where a language or religion has become dominant often do not coincide with the geographical bases of certain “Cultural Clusters” is a source for potential conflicts when it is disregarded, and can be a source for a solution (in case of a conflict) when it is taken into account. The interaction between the many different elements of culture is THE key to understanding the Middle East. The Middle Eastern mosaic, which is in my opinion the beauty of the Middle East, is a result of this interaction. 

Source: The above item was posted on the Internet.
Its exact reference is as follows:
Newsgroups: soc.culture.lebanon
Subject: Re: Culture: lets discuss it (article).

[1] Borrowed from the linguistic: “Sprachbund”. Here it denotes a group of people who live in geographically adjacent areas and who share a large amount of cultural traits, yet not necessarily forming a single ethnic group. The boundaries of such “Cultural Clusters” are not as sharp as the term seems to indicate.

[2] It is to be noted that the different cultures in the Middle East are in their turn “spheres of influence” for their neighboring cultures and to each other. One can mention the role of the Eastern Mediterranean in the cultural history of the Mediterranean. It is impossible to overlook the impact of the great centres of culture in Egypt and Mesopotamia on the rest of the Middle East.