IN the year 565 Justinian died, master of a great empire. Five years later Mohammed was born into a poor family in a country three quarters desert, sparsely peopled by nomad tribes whose total wealth could hardly have furnished the sanctuary of St. Sophia. No one in those years would have dreamed that within a century these nomads would conquer half of Byzantine Asia, all Persia and Egypt, most of North Africa, and be on their way to Spain. The explosion of the Arabian peninsula into the conquest and conversion of half the Mediterranean world is the most extraordinary phenomenon in medieval history.

Arabia is the largest of all peninsulas: 1400 miles in its greatest length, 1250 in its greatest width. Geologically it is a continuation of the Sahara, part of the sandy belt that runs up through Persia to the Gobi Desert. Arab means arid. Physically Arabia is a vast plateau, rising precipitously to 12,000 feet within thirty miles of the Red Sea, and sloping through mountainous wastelands eastward to the Persian Gulf. In the center are some grassy oases and palm-studded villages, where water can be reached by shallow wells; around this nucleus the sands stretch in every direction for hundreds of miles. Snow falls there once in forty years; the nights cool down to 38 degrees Fahrenheit; the daily sun burns the face and boils the blood; and the sand-laden air necessitates long robes and head-bands to guard flesh and hair. The skies are almost always clear, the air “like sparkling wine.”1 Along the coasts an occasional torrent of rain brings the possibility of civilization: most of all on the western littoral, in the Hejaz district with the cities of Mecca and Medina; and southwest in the district of Yemen, the home of the ancient kingdoms of Arabia.

A Babylonian inscription of approximately 2400 B.C. records the defeat of a king of Magan by the Babylonian ruler Naram-Sin. Magan was the capital of a Minaean kingdom in southwest Arabia; twenty-five of its later kings are known from Arabian inscriptions that go back to 800 B.C. An inscription tentatively ascribed to 2300 B.C. mentions another Arabian kingdom, Saba, in Yemen; from Saba or its North Arabian colonies, it is now agreed, the Queen of Sheba “went up” to Solomon about 950 B.C. The Sabaean kings made their capital at Marib, fought the usual wars of “defense,” built great irrigation works like the Marib dams (whose ruins are still visible), raised gigantic castles and temples, subsidized religion handsomely, and used it as an instrument of rule.2 Their inscriptions—probably not older than 900 B.C.—are beautifully carved in an alphabetical script. The Sabaeans produced the frankincense and myrrh that played so prominent a role in Asiatic and Egyptian rituals; they controlled the sea trade between India and Egypt, and the south end of the caravan route that led through Mecca and Medina to Petra and Jerusalem. About 115 B.C. another petty kingdom of southwest Arabia, the Himyarite, conquered Saba, and thereafter controlled Arabian trade for several centuries. In 25B.C. Augustus, irked by Arabian control of Egyptian-Indian commerce, sent an army under Aelius Gallus to capture Marib; the legions were misled by native guides, were decimated by heat and disease, and failed in their mission; but another Roman army captured the Arab port of Adana (Aden), and gave control of the Egypt-India route to Rome. (Britain repeated this procedure in our time.)

In the second century before Christ some Himyarites crossed the Red Sea, colonized Abyssinia, and gave the indigenous Negro population a Semitic culture and considerable Semitic blood.* The Abyssinians received Christianity, crafts, and arts from Egypt and Byzantium; their merchant vessels sailed as far as India and Ceylon; and seven little kingdoms acknowledged the Negus as their sovereign. Meanwhile in Arabia many Himyarites followed the lead of their king Dhu-Nuwas and accepted Judaism. With a convert’s zeal, Dhu-Nuwas persecuted the Christians of southwest Arabia; they called to their coreligionists to rescue them; the Abyssinians came, conquered the Himyarite kings (A.D. 522), and replaced them with an Abyssinian dynasty. Justinian allied himself with this new state; Persia countered by taking up the cause of the deposed Himyarites, driving out the Abyssinians, and setting up in Yemen (575) a Persian rule that ended some sixty years later with the Moslem conquest of Persia.

In the north some minor Arab kingdoms flourished briefly. The sheiks of the Ghassanid tribe ruled northwestern Arabia and Palmyrene Syria from the third to the seventh century as phylarchs, or client kings, of Byzantium. During the same period the Lakhmid kings established at Hira, near Babylon, a semi-Persian court and culture famous for its music and poetry. Long before Mohammed the Arabs had expanded into Syria and Iraq.

Aside from these petty kingdoms of south and north, and to a large extent within them, the political organization of pre-Islamic Arabia was a primitive kinship structure of families united in clans and tribes. Tribes were named from a supposed common ancestor; so the banu-Ghassan thought themselves the “children of Ghassan.” Arabia as a political unit, before Mohammed, existed only in the careless nomenclature of the Greeks, who called all the population of the peninsula Sarakenoi, Saracens, apparently from the Arabic sharqiyun, “Easterners.” Difficulties of communication compelled local or tribal self-sufficiency and particularism. The Arab felt no duty or loyalty to any group larger than his tribe, but the intensity of his devotion varied inversely as its extent; for his tribe he would do with a clear conscience what civilized people do only for their country, religion, or “race”—i.e., lie, steal, kill, and die. Each tribe or clan was loosely ruled by a sheik chosen by its leaders from a family traditionally prominent through wealth or wisdom or war.

In the villages men coaxed some grains and vegetables from the unwilling soil, raised a few cattle, and bred some fine horses; but they found it more profitable to cultivate orchards of dates, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, bananas, and figs; some nursed aromatic plants like frankincense, thyme, jasmine, and lavender; some pressed itr or attar from highland roses; some cupped trees to draw myrrh or balsam from the trunks. Possibly a twelfth of the population lived in cities on or near the west coast. Here was a succession of harbors and markets for Red Sea commerce, while farther inland lay the great caravan routes to Syria. We hear of Arabian trade with Egypt as far back as 2743 B.C.;3 probably as ancient was the trade with India. Annual fairs called merchants now to one town, now to another; the great annual fair at Ukaz, near Mecca, brought together hundreds of merchants, actors, preachers, gamblers, poets, and prostitutes.

Five sixths of the population were nomad Bedouins, herdsmen who moved with their flocks from one pastureland to another according to season and the winter rains. The Bedouin loved horses, but in the desert the camel was his greatest friend. It pitched and rolled with undulant dignity, and made only eight miles an hour; but it could go without water five days in summer and twenty-five in winter; its udders gave milk, its urine provided hair tonic,* its dung could be burned for fuel; when it died it made tender meat, and its hair and hide made clothing and tents. With such varied sustenance the Bedouin could face the desert, as patient and enduring as his camel, as sensitive and spirited as his horse. Short and thin, well-knit and strong, he could live day after day on a few dates and a little milk; and from dates he made the wine that raised him out of the dust into romance. He varied the routine of his life with love and feud, and was as quick as a Spaniard (who inherited his blood) to avenge insult and injury, not only for himself but for his clan. A good part of his life was spent in tribal war; and when he conquered Syria, Persia, Egypt, and Spain, it was but an exuberant expansion of his plundering razzias or raids. Certain periods in the year he conceded to the “holy truce,” for religious pilgrimage or for trade; otherwise, he felt, the desert was his; whoever crossed it, except in that time, or without paying him tribute, was an interloper; to rob such trespassers was an unusually straightforward form of taxation. He despised the city because it meant law and trade; he loved the merciless desert because it left him free. Kindly and murderous, generous and avaricious, dishonest and faithful, cautious and brave, the Bedouin, however poor, fronted the world with dignity and pride, vain of the purity of his inbred blood, and fond of adding his lineage to his name.

On one point above all he brooked no argument, and that was the incomparable beauty of his women. It was a dark, fierce, consuming beauty, worth a million odes, but brief with the tragic hasty fading of hot climes. Before Mohammed—and after him only slightly less so—the career of the Arab woman passed from a moment’s idolatry to a lifetime of drudgery. She might be buried at birth if the father so willed;5 at best he mourned her coming and hid his face from his fellows; somehow his best efforts had failed. Her winsome childhood earned a few years of love; but at seven or eight she was married off to any youth of the clan whose father would offer the purchase price for the bride. Her lover and husband would fight the world to defend her person or honor; some of the seeds and fustian of chivalry went with these passionate lovers to Spain. But the goddess was also a chattel; she formed part of the estate of her father, her husband, or her son, and was bequeathed with it; she was always the servant, rarely the comrade, of the man. He demanded many children of her, or rather many sons; her duty was to produce warriors. She was, in many cases, but one of his many wives. He could dismiss her at any time at will.

Nevertheless her mysterious charms rivaled battle as a theme and stimulus for his verse. The pre-Moslem Arab was usually illiterate, but he loved poetry only next to horses, women, and wine. He had no scientists or historians, but he had a heady passion for eloquence, for fine and correct speech, and intricately patterned verse. His language was closely kin to the Hebrew; complex in inflexions, rich in vocabulary, precise in differentiations, expressing now every nuance of poetry, later every subtlety of philosophy. The Arabs took pride in the antiquity and fullness of their language, loved to roll its mellifluous syllables in oratorical flourishes on tongue or pen, and listened with tense ecstasy to the poets who, in villages and cities, in desert camps or at the fairs, recalled to them, in running meters and endless rhymes, the loves and wars of their heroes, tribes, or kings. The poet was to the Arabs their historian, genealogist, satirist, moralist, newspaper, oracle, call to battle; and when a poet won a prize at one of the many poetry contests, his whole tribe felt honored, and rejoiced. Every year, at the Ukaz fair, the greatest of these contests was held; almost daily for a month the clans competed through their poets; there were no judges but the eagerly or scornfully listening multitudes; the winning poems were written down in brilliantly illuminated characters, were therefore called the Golden Songs, and were preserved like heirlooms in the treasuries of princes and kings. The Arabs called them also Muallaqat, or Suspended, because legend said that the prize poems, inscribed upon Egyptian silk in letters of gold, were hung on the walls of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Seven such Muallaqat, dating from the sixth century, survive from those pre-Islamic days. Their form is the qasida, a narrative ode, in elaborately complex meter and rhyme, usually of love or war. In one of them, by the poet Labid, a soldier returns from his campaigns to the village and home where he had left his wife; he finds his cottage empty, his wife gone off with another man; Labid describes the scene with Goldsmith’s tenderness, and with greater eloquence and force.6 In another the Arab women prod their men to battle:

Courage! courage! defenders of women! Smite with the edge of your swords! … We are the daughters of the morning star; soft are the carpets we tread beneath our feet; our necks are adorned with pearls; our tresses are perfumed with musk. The brave who confront the foe we will clasp to our bosoms, but the dastards who flee we will spurn; not for them our embraces!7

Unabashedly sensual is an ode by Imru’lqais:

Fair too was that other, she the veil-hidden one, howdahed how close, how guarded! Yet did she welcome me.

Passed I twixt her tent-ropes—what though her near-of-kin lay in the dark to slay me, blood-shedders all of them.

Came I at the mid-night, hour when the Pleiades showed as the links of seed-pearls binding the sky’s girdle.

Stealing in, I stood there. She had cast off from her every robe but one robe, all but her night-garment.

Tenderly she scolded: What is this stratagem? Speak, on thine oath, thou mad one. Stark is thy lunacy.

Passed we out together, while she drew after us on our twin track, to hide it, wise, her embroideries,

Fled beyond the camp-fires. There in security dark in the sand we lay down far from the prying eyes.

By her plaits I wooed her, drew her face near to me, won to her waist how frail-lined, hers of the ankle-rings.

Fair-faced she—no redness—noble of countenance, smooth as of glass her bosom, bare with its necklaces.

Thus are pearls yet virgin, seen through the dark water, clear in the sea-depths gleaming, pure, inaccessible.

Coyly she withdraws her, shows us a cheek, a lip, she a gazelle of Wujra; ….

Roe-like her throat slender, white as an ariel’s, sleek to thy lips uplifted—pearls are its ornament.

On her shoulders fallen thick lie the locks of her, dark as the date-clusters hung from the palm-branches….

Slim her waist—a well-cord scarce has its slenderness. Smooth are her legs as reed-stems stripped at a water-head.

The morn through she sleepeth, muck-stream in indolence, hardly at noon hath risen, girded her day dresses.

Soft her touch—her fingers fluted as water-worms, sleek as the snakes of Thobya, tooth-sticks of Ishali.

Lighteneth she night’s darkness, ay, as an evening lamp hung for a sign of guidance lone on a hermitage.8

The pre-Islamic poets sang their compositions to musical accompaniment; music and poetry were bound into one form. The flute, the lute, the reed pipe or oboe, and the tambourine were the favored instruments. Singing girls were often invited to amuse male banqueteers; taverns were equipped with them; the Ghassanid kings kept a troupe of them to ease the cares of royalty; and when the Meccans marched against Mohammed in 624 they took with them a bevy of singing girls to warm their campfires and prod them on to war. Even in those early “Days of Ignorance,” as Moslems would call the pre-Moslem period, the Arab song was a plaintive cantilena that used few words, and carried a note so tenaciously along the upper reaches of the scale that a few verses might provide libretto for an hour.

The desert Arab had his own primitive and yet subtle religion. He feared and worshiped incalculable deities in stars and moon and the depths of the earth; occasionally he importuned the mercy of a punitive sky; but for the most part he was so confused by the swarm of spirits (jinn) about him that he despaired of appeasing them, accepted a fatalistic resignation, prayed with masculine brevity, and shrugged his shoulders over the infinite.9 He seems to have given scant thought to a life after death; sometimes, however, he had his camel tied foodless to his grave, so that it might soon follow him to the other world, and save him from the social disgrace of going on foot in paradise.10 Now and then he offered human sacrifice; and here and there he worshiped sacred stones.

The center of this stone worship was Mecca. This holy city owed none of its growth to climate, for the mountains of bare rock that almost enclosed it ensured a summer of intolerable heat; the valley was an arid waste; and in all the town, as Mohammed knew it, hardly a garden grew. But its location—halfway down the west coast, forty-eight miles from the Red Sea—made it a convenient stopping point for the mile-long caravans, sometimes of a thousand camels, that carried trade between southern Arabia (and therefore India and Central Africa) and Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The merchants who controlled this trade formed joint-stock companies, dominated the fairs at Ukaz, and managed the lucrative religious ritual that centered round the Kaaba and its sacred Black Stone.

Kaaba means a square structure, and is one with our word cube. In the belief of orthodox Moslems, the Kaaba was built or rebuilt ten times. The first was erected at the dawn of history by angels from heaven; the second by Adam; the third by his son Seth; the fourth by Abraham and his son Ishmael by Hagar … the seventh by Qusay, chief of the Quraish tribe; the eighth by the Quraish leaders in Mohammed’s lifetime (605); the ninth and tenth by Moslem leaders in 681 and 696; the tenth is substantially the Kaaba of today. It stands near the center of a large porticoed enclosure, the Masjid al-Haram, or Sacred Mosque. It is a rectangular stone edifice forty feet long, thirty-five wide, fifty high. In its southeast corner, five feet from the ground, just right for kissing, is embedded the Black Stone, of dark red material, oval in shape, some seven inches in diameter. Many of its worshipers believe that this stone was sent down from heaven—and perhaps it was a meteorite; most of them believe that it has been a part of the Kaaba since Abraham. Moslem scholars interpret it as symbolizing that part of Abraham’s progeny (Ishmael and his offspring) which, rejected by Israel, became, they think, the founders of the Quraish tribe; they apply to it a passage from Psalm cxviii, 22-3: “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner; this is Yahveh’s doing”; and another from Matthew xxi, 42-3, in which Jesus, having quoted these strange words, adds: “Therefore the Kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”—though the virile Moslems would hardly claim to have fulfilled the ethics of Christ.

Within the Kaaba, in pre-Moslem days, were several idols representing gods. One was called Allah, and was probably the tribal god of the Quraish; three others were Allah’s daughters—al-Uzza, al-Lat, and Manah. We may judge the antiquity of this Arab pantheon from the mention of Al-il-Lat (al-Lat) by Herodotus as a major Arabian deity.11 The Quraish paved the way for monotheism by worshiping Allah as chief god; He was presented to the Meccans as the Lord of their soil, to Whom they must pay a tithe of their crops and the first-born of their herds. The Quraish, as alleged descendants of Abraham and Ishmael, appointed the priests and guardians of the shrine, and managed its revenues. An aristocratic minority of the tribe, as descendants of Qusay, controlled the civil government of Mecca.

At the beginning of the sixth century the Quraish were divided into two factions: one led by the rich merchant and philanthropist Hashim; the other by Hashim’s jealous nephew Umayya; this bitter rivalry would determine much history. When Hashim died he was succeeded as one of Mecca’s chiefs by his son or younger brother Abd al-Muttalib. In 568 the latter’s son Abdallah married Amina, also a descendant of Qusay. Abdallah remained with his bride three days, set out on a mercantile expedition, and died at Medina on the way back. Two months later (569) Amina was delivered of the most important figure in medieval history.

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