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The Excellence of the Arabs is a spirited defense of Arab identity-its merits, values, andorigins-at a time of politicalunrest and fragmentation, written by oneof the most important scholars of the early Abbasid era. In the cosmopolitan milieu of Baghdad, the social prestige attached toclaims of being Arab had begun to decline. Although his own family originallyhailed from Merv in the east, Ibn Qutaybah (213-76 H/828-89 AD) locks horns with thosemembers of his society who belittled Arabness and vaunted the glories ofPersian heritage and culture. Instead, he upholds the status of Arabsand their heritage in the face of criticism and uncertainty. The Excellence of the Arabs is in two parts. In thefirst, Arab Preeminence, which takes the form of anextended argument for Arab privilege, Ibn Qutaybah accuses his opponents ofblasphemous envy. In the second, The Excellenceof Arab Learning, he describes the fields of knowledge in which he believed pre-IslamicArabians excelled, including knowledge of the stars, divination, horsehusbandry, and poetry. And by incorporating extensive excerpts from the poeticheritage-"the archive of the Arabs"-Ibn Qutaybah aims to demonstrate thatpoetry is itself sufficient corroboration of Arab superiority. Eloquent and forceful, The Excellence of the Arabs addresses a central question at a time of greatsocial flux at the dawn of classical Muslim civilization: what did it mean tobe Arab?
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