The Excellence of the Arabs is a spirited defense of Arab identity—its merits, values, and
origins—at a time of political
unrest and fragmentation, written by one
of the most important scholars of the early Abbasid era.
In the cosmopolitan milieu of Baghdad, the social prestige attached to
claims of being Arab had begun to decline. Although his own family originally
hailed from Merv in the east, Ibn Qutaybah (213-76 H/828-89 AD) locks horns with those
members of his society who belittled Arabness and vaunted the glories of
Persian heritage and culture. Instead, he upholds the status of Arabs
and their heritage in the face of criticism and uncertainty.
The Excellence of the Arabs is in two parts. In the
first, Arab Preeminence, which takes the form of an
extended argument for Arab privilege, Ibn Qutaybah accuses his opponents of
blasphemous envy. In the second, The Excellence
of Arab Learning, he describes the fields of knowledge in which he believed pre-Islamic
Arabians excelled, including knowledge of the stars, divination, horse
husbandry, and poetry. And by incorporating extensive excerpts from the poetic
heritage—“the archive of the Arabs”—Ibn Qutaybah aims to demonstrate that
poetry is itself sufficient corroboration of Arab superiority.
Eloquent and forceful, The Excellence of the Arabs addresses a central question at a time of great
social flux at the dawn of classical Muslim civilization: what did it mean to