The Excellence of the Arabs

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Ibn Qutaybah
James Montgomery
Sarah Bowen
Library of Arabic Literature
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , April
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Excellence of the Arabs, an edition and translation by James Montgomery, Peter Webb, and Sarah Bowen Savant, enriches the Library of Arabic Literature, and the growing corpus of translations of books from Arabic into English. It is a true delight to read and allows scholars and a wider public to appreciate works like it in their full expression and passion. This new translation is glossed with valuable annotations on names, places, and terms of the art in a glossary (236-276), and indexes of Qurʾānic verses and general entries (284-297). The work offers answers to one of the fundamental questions of Islamicate self-reflection: what does it means to be an Arab?

The original author, Ibn Qutayba, lived between 213 AH/828-9 CE and 276 AH/889 CE, and was a renowned judge in Baghdad and writer of a number of influential works on a wide range of subjects (‘Ibn Ḳutayba’, LeComte, Gérard, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed, vol. III, 1971). In Faḍl al-ʿArab wa ’l tanbīh ʿalā ʿulūmiha, Ibn Qutayba wrote a book in two parts which are both treated in the edition and translation under review: Book 1 (1-105), Arab Preeminence (10-105), extols the virtues of the Arabs; and Book 2, The Excellence of Arab Learning (106-219), emphasizes the Arabs’ pre-eminence among all peoples of the world in the fields of horse husbandry, geomancy, and poetry (specifically the poetry of wisdom), and prose and rhyming aphorisms of the Arabs.

In their introduction, the editors contextualise the work within the socio-political realities of Ibn Qutayba’s world. He lived at a time when the ʿAbbasid caliphate was in a politically and socially precarious—though intellectually fertile—period.  The Excellence of Arabs was one of the most explicit and detailed descriptions of Arab identity. Ibn Qutayba’s ideas about Arab identity and the merits of Arabs, the editors suggest, were very much at the centre of 9th-century caliphal intellectual life, and thus the work can be read as defending the social prestige of Arabness (xiv).

The translators deserve special praise for producing an English prose that is of a high standard and makes for pleasurable and engaging reading. The translators are meticulous in their translations of specific terms related to the different fields of knowledge that would even elude an English speaker searching for appropriate English terms. What makes this book a particularly helpful read is the way in which the Arabic text is laid out on the left hand side of the open book, with the equivalent English translation on the right hand side of the open book. This juxtaposition allows for a rare possibility to compare the original Arabic and English translated texts.

The editors used two manuscript witnesses (xxiii-xxix). First, a sixty-nine-folio manuscript in naskhī script at the Dār al-Kutub in Cairo which the editors consulted in facsimile format and which contains both parts of The Excellence of Arabs; and second, a printed edition of a now-missing second manuscript of only the first part edited by Kurd ʿAlī and preserved in Damascus under the title Dhamm al-ḥasad (The Censure of Envy). A newer edition by Walīd Maḥmūd Khāliṣ has been used to fill the gaps.

With great care, the editors analyze important themes that Ibn Qutayba’s book throws up, such as Shuʿūbism. In their introduction, the editors cautiously and rightly dissuade their readers from assuming that Shuʿūbism was a position that in any way embodied a rejection of Persian culture (see also ‘al-S̲h̲uʿūbiyya’, Suzanne Enderwitz, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. IX, 1997). Their translation of shuʿūbīyya as “bigotry” in the book (xvi-xvii) is, however, not ideal. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “bigot” is loaded with negative connotations, rarely in relation to ethnicity, always to religiosity. When a critical term such as this is absent from the “host” language, it may be better to simply transliterate it. Another such term is ʿajam or ʿajamī, which the translators explain in their introduction to mean “Easterner” (xvii). The term “non-Arab” seems more apt to me, in accordance with Gabrieli’s understanding of ʿajam (see‘ʿAd̲j̲am’ Francesco Gabrieli, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. I, 1960), and indeed, in some instances the editors do translate ajamī as “non-Arab,” such as in references to non-Arabic piety, 189). There are other minor editorial inconsistencies. For example, pious phrases for the certain personalities are not always translated.

All in all, Savant, Montgomery and Webb offer us a major addition to a string of high-quality editions and English translations of significant works of Arabic literature published by New York University’s Abu Dhabi Institute. Given that Ibn Qutayba was himself of non-Arab stock, his work may well be a testament to a conviction that Arabness was something that could be acquired, notably by mastering the language and particularly in its highest form; that of poetry. Researchers interested in concepts of Arabness—bearing in mind that such concepts are dynamic and fluctuate according to the socio-political context of the time—will find a useful source in this new publication.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Arezou Azad is a Senior Research Fellow in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, UK.


Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ibn Qutaybah was a renowned third-/ninth-century judge and writer known for producing a number of influential works in a wide range of subjects, including works on Quranic exegesis, poetry and poetics and statecraft.

James E. Montgomery, author of Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books, is currently the Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall.

Sarah Bowen Savant is associate professor at The Aga Khan University, London, and the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran.


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