The Concept of the Common People: The Obvious and the Hidden

Publishing House: Bayt Alhekma

Publication Year: 2023

Genre: Criticism

Number of Pages:

In “The Concept of the Common People: The Obvious and the Hidden,” Saudi critic Mujab Al-Adwani explores the historical evolution of the notion of ‘the common people’ from the pre-Islamic era to the medieval periods in Arab-Islamic civilization and beyond. The book, part of the “Horizon” series by Beit Al-Hikma Cultural Industries Group in Cairo (2023), examines the relationship of this concept with similar terms like the rabble, the plebeians, and the elite. It also looks at analogous concepts such as the masses and the elite. Al-Adwani’s work aims to critically track the evolution of the concept of ‘the common people’ and its synonyms, from its earliest traces to its full development in Arab culture, and its impact therein, followed by a comparative cultural analysis.

In the book’s introduction, Al-Adwani explains his goal: to critically explore representations of ‘the common people’ in contemporary Arab literary works across various genres like narrative, poetry, and intellectual thought. He emphasizes the unique influence of the 21st century’s understanding of ‘the common people,’ stating that this new interpretation significantly impacted various global changes and continues to shape the Arab consciousness.


Al-Adwani observes a recent trend in modern Arab thought to critique the elitist intellectual, particularly regarding their heritage-rooted discourse that undermines the masses. This critique isn’t new in human experience, as noted by French critic Julien Benda, who differentiated between true writers and sycophants of power.  Scholars like Régis Debray, Pierre Bourdieu, Abdullah Laroui, and Ali Harb further developed this concept. In contrast, criticism of mass culture has helped entrench concepts like the ‘Silent Majority,’ highlighting the passive role of the public but acknowledging their political, commercial, and cultural influence.

The book is a comprehensive study utilizing modern critical tools. Al-Adwani notes that while previous works have delved into popular culture, they haven’t directly tackled the concept of ‘the common people’ nor compared it with other civilizations. He argues that the traditional Arab heritage didn’t randomly incorporate this concept but did so based on historical progression and cultural systems.

Al-Adwani’s work stands out for its deep analysis and broad scope, using modern critical techniques. His study suggests that the concept of ‘the common people’ in Arab heritage wasn’t haphazard but followed a historical progression and coherent cultural systems. This perspective highlights a positive representation of ‘the common people’ in early Islamic texts, contrasting with later negative portrayals influenced by other cultures, particularly Persian, which lacked democratic values unlike Greek civilization.

The book’s structure encompasses four main levels: the foundation and early manifestations of the concept, the negative bias against ‘the common people,’ their portrayal through narratives and interpretations, and the eventual decline of this concept. The first level is particularly notable for revealing positive aspects found in foundational Arab cultural texts, contrasting with other civilizations through a modern comparative lens.

Al-Adwani emphasizes that Arabic literature, particularly poetry, has generally overlooked ‘the common people,’ reflecting the elitist attitudes prevalent in Arab culture. This tendency is also evident in Arab narrative literature, which typically portrays ‘the common people’ negatively. Such portrayals were likely influenced by the elite’s control over literary production and their support of the ruling authority.

In “The Concept of the Common People: The Obvious and the Hidden,” Al-Adwani provides a nuanced exploration of how ‘the common people’ have been perceived and portrayed throughout Arab history and literature. His critical approach sheds light on the complex dynamics between the elite and the masses in Arab culture, offering valuable insights into the evolution of societal structures and cultural perceptions.


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