Ancient origins, modern actors: defining Arabic meanings of humanitarianism

Research reports and studies
November 2014
Jasmine Moussa

How has the Arabic definition of humanitarianism changed over time? What impact has this had on humanitarian action in the region?

This Working Paper examines how the evolution of the concept of ‘humanitarianism’ in Arabic. It also explores how humanitarianism has been practiced in the region and its link with the ‘classical’ conception of humanitarianism guided by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

The research finds that while humanitarianism in the Arab region has a relatively constant essential core, it has changed according to time, place and circumstance. Concepts such as insāniya denote charitable work and originate from an Arab moral code encouraging generosity towards the needy, particularly through providing water, food and shelter in a hostile natural environment. 

Humanitarian action in the Arab world did not evolve in isolation and the concept of humanitarian was heavily influenced by Western colonial ambitions in the Ottoman Empire. Other events such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and more recently the Arabic spring have significantly shaped humanitarian action in the region.