Before Islam

Gindibu and his camels: 853 BC

Shalmanezer, king of Assyria, fights a major but inconclusive battle at Karkar against his enemy, the ruler of Damascus. An Assyrian scribe, recording the event in Cuneiform, notes the impressive size of the enemy forces: 63,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry, 4000 chariots and 1000 warriors on camels. The men on camels, the scribe adds, are brought to the battle by Gindibu the Arab.

This is the first known reference to the Arabs as a distinct group. But nomads from Arabia (probably the source of the entire group of Semitic languagues) have been spreading through the desert fringes of the Fertile Crescent since at least 3000 BC.

The nomads of Arabia: before the 7th century AD

The life of a nomad, without architecture or possessions (other than what can be loaded on a camel), leaves few physical traces. The richness of nomadic culture is in the mind. It is embodied in well-loved stories, in heroic memories of battles with rival tribes, in dreams of love or of the oases of paradise.

As such it is normally lost, once tribes settle. It merges into a generalized mythology. But an accident of history has preserved early Arabic culture in more distinct form. These nomads are the backbone of the first Muslim armies. Their way of life is revered by early Muslim scholars, who collect and record the poems and stories handed down in a long oral tradition.

Arabic oral poetry: pre-Islamic

The poems of the Arab nomads are invented, embroidered, recited by specialists known as sha'ir (meaning approximately 'one who knows', and therefore close to the English word 'seer'). Recorded in anthologies of the 8th century and 9th century, and dating from perhaps two centuries earlier, the surviving examples provide a rare glimpse of poems from a pre-literate era.

They fall into two categories. The earlier tradition consists of short poems of a passionately partisan kind. With few exceptions, the theme is praise of one's own tribe or abuse of the enemy. The other kind of poem, known as qasidah, is longer (up to 100 lines) and more elaborate in form.

The qasidah consists of four sections, the first three of which have well-established themes. In the opening section (nasib), the poet describes himself on a journey with some companions; they reach a deserted encampment, and he tells how he was once here with a loved one until fate parted them when their tribes moved on to fresh pastures (a sentimental beginning considered essential to put the listeners in a good mood).

The second section is devoted to praise of an animal, the camel on which the poet is riding. The third is a tour de force, describing a dramatic scene such as a hunt or battle. With the fourth section the poet finally reaches his topic - again usually praise, of tribe or patron or of the poet himself.

The spread of Islam

The Arab conquests: 7th century AD

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.

The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A Link with muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.

Muslim Persia: AD 637-751

Persia falls to the Arabs as a consequence of the battle of Kadisiya, close to the Euphrates, in 637. After their victory the Arabs sack the city of Ctesiphon (carefully sharing out the famous Spring Carpet). The last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III, is five at the time. He and his court escape to the east, but he is eventually assassinated, in 651, at Merv. His name remains, even today, in use in the chronology of the Parsees. They number their years from the start of his reign in 632.

Meanwhile the Arabs win another victory over Persian forces at Nahavand in 641. They capture Isfahan in 642 and Herat in 643. Persia becomes, for a century, part of the Umayyad caliphate.

The final push eastwards for Islam, in the central Asian plateau, is in more difficult terrain and is more protracted. Throughout the second half of the 7th century there is fighting in and around the Hindu Kush, but by the early years of the 8th century the Arabs control the full swathe of territory from the Arabian Sea in the south (they enter Sind and move into India as far north as Multan by 712), up through Kandahar and Balkh (either side of the Hindu Kush) to Bukhara and Samarkand in the north, beyond the Amu Darya.

At this northern extreme they are neighbours of the T'ang Chinese. The eventual clash between these two powers, an encounter won by the Arabs, comes in 751 at the Talas river.

Muslim North Africa: from AD 642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat.

The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.

The Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.

The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.

The north African coast remains from now on in Muslim hands, but it proves impossible to exercise effective control over it from the centre of the caliphate - whether in Damascus or Baghdad. Instead various local Berber dynasties win power.

These include the Idrisids (established from 790 in Fez) and the Aghlabids (ruling from 800 in Kairouan). But by far the most powerful are the Fatimids, of the Ismaili sect. Early in the 10th century they organize an uprising against the Aghlabid dynasty in Kairouan.

Arabs in Spain and France: AD 711-732

The short journey across the water from Africa, bringing an army into Spain in 711, begins the final thrust of Arab expansionism in the west. In a frequently repeated pattern of history the invaders, invited to assist one side in a quarrel, rapidly take control and suppress both squabbling parties. Within a few months the Arabs drive the Visigoths from their capital at Toledo.

Soon governors appointed by the caliph in Damascus are ruling much of Spain. The Arabs press on northwards. Their armies move into Gaul, and here at last they are halted - near Poitiers in 732.

The Arabs and Constantinople: AD 674-717

In the overwhelming assault on the Byzantine empire by the Arabs during the 7th century, only one campaign is consistently unsuccessful. This is their frequently repeated attempt to capture Constantinople itself.

The city is first unsuccessfully attacked, by sea and land, in669. The last of several expeditions ends in disaster for the Arabs in 717, when a fleet of some 2000 ships is destroyed by a storm and the army straggles homewards through a wintry Anatolia. From the mid-670s the Byzantines have one strong psychological advantage - a mysterious new device in their armoury which becomes known as Greek fire.

Greek fire: AD 674

In 674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.

Arabs and Muslims: 8th century AD

During the explosive first century of Arab expansion, the relationship subtly changes between two concepts - Arab and Muslim. At first they are inseparable. The Muslim armies are made up entirely of Arab tribesmen, and it is taken for granted that only Arabs can be Muslims. Between campaigns the Arab armies stay together in winter camps or garrison towns. They are an occupying force, having little link with the inhabitants of the conquered territories.

But by the early 8th century, when the Muslim expansion has reached something approaching its peak, there are not enough Arabs to provide the troops.

Out of necessity, people of other groups begin to be received into Islam, fighting alongside the Arabs. Berbers do so in the west, and Persians in the east. Inevitably there are resentments. Non-Arabs often feel they are treated as second-class Muslims, particularly when it comes to sharing out loot after a campaign. And the conversion of outsiders to Islam brings a financial burden. Non-Muslims are charged a poll tax, which is not paid by believers. The spread of the faith is a drain on the treasury.

These various tensions, and the inevitable difficulty of controlling the vast new empire, result in a rebellion in 747 against the Umayyad caliph.


The Abbasid caliphate: from AD 750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.

Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.

The Arabs and the Chinese: AD 751-758

By the mid-8th century, with the Arabs firmly in control of central Asia and the Chinese pressing further west than ever before, a clash is sooner or later inevitable. It comes, in 751, at the Talas river. The result is a shattering defeat for the Chinese. For the Arabs an interesting fringe benefit of victory is the valuable secret of how to make Paper.

Seven years later the Arabs again demonstrate their strength with an impertinent gesture at the opposite extreme of the Chinese empire. Arriving in 758 along the trade route of the south China coast, they loot and burn Canton.

Umayyad dynasty in Spain: AD 756-1031

The defeat of the Arabs in 732 by Charles Martel in Gaul is followed by Berber rebellions in north Africa and in Spain. The effect is to limit Arab territorial ambitions in Europe to the Iberian peninsula. Even this proves hard to hold because of hostilities between Rival arab groups.

Stability in Spain is restored by an Umayyad prince, Abd-al-Rahman, who escapes the Abbasid massacre of his family in Syria. He establishes himself in 756 at Cordoba. Here he founds the first great Muslim civilization of Spain.

Abd-al-Rahman begins the process of making Cordoba one of the outstanding cities of the medieval world. On the site of a Roman temple and Visigothic church he builds the famous mosque, with schools and hospitals attached, which survives today as a place of great beauty - even though its vistas of columns and striped arches are brutally interrupted by alterations made for its later use as the city's cathedral.

Cordoba continues to grow in size and wealth and reputation, known equally for its skilled craftsmen and its scholars. Under Abd-al-Rahman III, in the 10th century, it has probably half a million inhabitants. He is the first amir of Cordoba to accord himself the resounding title of Caliph.

During the three centuries of Umayyad rule in Spain the Arabs are for the most part in control of almost the entire peninsula. The Christian reconquest makes several tentative beginnings during the period, but northern territories are often then regained by Arab rulers - relying heavily on the wild Berber mercenaries who form the bulk of their armies.

The Berbers eventually prove too hard to control. Concessions to their demands lead in 1031 to the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate and the effective end of Arab rule in Spain. There follows a period of steady Christian advance southwards. It is halted, in 1086, by a tribal leader from north Africa. He is head of a Berber dynasty, the Almoravids.

Baghdad: 8th century AD

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.

The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the thousand and one nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other rich gifts.

Arab civilization: from the 8th century AD

By the end of the 8th century a distinctive Arab civilization is emerging in widely separated regions. It is evident from the 8th century in Baghdad in the east and in Cordoba in the west. By the 10th century, between the two, there is a similar centre in the new city of Cairo.

The shared characteristics of these great cities are Islam, the Arabic language and a tolerance which allows Christians and Jews to play a full part in the community. The results include an expansion of trade (making these places the most prosperous of their time, apart from T'ang China), and a level of scholarship and intellectual energy superior to contemporary Christian cities.

Together with the spread of Islam, a lasting result of the events of the 7th century is the triumph of Arabic as a language in the middle east and north Africa. In Palestine and Syria it gradually replaces Aramaic as the popular tongue; in Egypt it does the same with Coptic; further west along the north African coast, it edges the language of the Berbers into a minority status.

The sense of identity of Arabs in subsequent centuries does not necessarily involve descent from the tribes of Arabia. It depends instead on the sharing of Arabic as both language and culture (implying also in most cases a commitment to Islam). It is this which provides the strong Arabic element in the civilization of the Middle Ages, from Mesopotamia to Spain.

Greek and Arabic scholarship: from the 8th century AD

The eastern Mediterranean coast, occupied so rapidly by the Arabs in the 7th century, has been part of the Greek world since the time of Alexander the great in the 4th century BC. Conquest by the Romans does not displace Greek civilization in this region, nor at first do the Arab caliphs. They rule over communities which understand Greek and which possess manuscripts of the classic works of Greek literature. Many have already been translated in Antioch into Syriac - a local version of Aramaic. Of the medical works of Galen, for example, as many as 130 exist in Syriac.

In the 8th century, when the caliphate has moved to Baghdad, scholars begin translating these available Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic.

Science and philosophy are of equal interest to the Arabs, and they find a full measure of each in Aristotle. Of the many learned commentators on his work, three are outstanding. Each writes on medicine as well as philosophy, combining the practical and theoretical. The first is born in the eastern part of the Arab world, in Turkestan. The other two come from Spain, and one of them is Jewish rather than Muslim.

Avicenna, born near Bukhara in980, has Persian as his native language but he writes mostly in Arabic. He is known in particular for two great encyclopedic compilations, one of philosophy (Ash-Shifa, 'The Recovery') and the other of medicine (Al-Qanun fi'l-Tibb, 'The Canon of Medicine').

Averroës and Maimonides are born in Cordoba within a few years of each other, in1126 and 1135 respectively. They both become leading physicians as well as philosophers. But their religion affects their careers differently.

Averroës, a Muslim, is for a while the chief physician to the ruler of the Almohads, who capture Cordoba in 1148. He lives his whole life in Cordoba and makes his reputation with his extensive commentaries on Aristotle. He also writes a complete handbook of medicine (Al-Kulliyyat, 'The Compendium').

Maimonides, by contrast, leaves Cordoba as a child, with his family, when the new rulers of the Almohads - failing to live up to the tradition of previous Muslim dynasties in Spain - introduce restrictions on the local Jews. He eventually settles in Cairo, where he becomes the city's leading rabbi and for a while a court physician to Almohads.

Maimonides' best-known philosophical work, with the endearing title Guide of the Perplexed, is a treatise in Arabic which attempts to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish rabbinic theology.

From Greek to Latin via Arabic: 8th - 13th century AD

Although Greece is geographically close to Italy, and Greek literature is highly prized in ancient Rome, western Europe loses touch with its Greek intellectual roots during the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire. The new barbarian clients of papal Rome, whether Franks or Anglo-Saxons, have no interest in Greek. And Byzantine Constantinople has no incentive to enlighten them.

It is the Arab interest in Greek philosophy and science that eventually transmits the tradition to western Europe, along the unbroken belt of Muslim civilization stretching from Greek Antioch in the northeast Mediterranean to Latin Toledo in the west.

The chain of communication stretches from the school of translators set up in Baghdad in the 8th century (Greek into Arabic) to a school of translators established in Toledo in the 13th century (Arabic into Latin).

In the early medieval years Toledo has been a multi-cultural Muslim city, where Christians and Jews prosper under Arab rulers. From the 11th century it maintains, for a while, the same excellent tradition as a Christian city. From this interface between the Arab and Christian worlds, the Latin translations of Greek philosophy (in particular Aristotle) enter the bloodstream of medieval Christianity - in the scholasticism associated above all with Thomas Aquinas.

Arab decline

The hidden centuries: 12th - 19th century AD

For a long while, beginning in the late Middle Ages, the Arabs play a less prominent role in the Middle East than has been the case in the early centuries of the caliphate. In the 12th century the defence of Islam against the crusaders is led not by an Arab but by a Kurd, Saladin. The caliphate in Baghdad, long under the effective control of the Seljuk turks, is brought to a brutal end in the 13th century by the Mongols. The entire region of the Middle East is overrun by the Ottoman turks in the early 16th century.

The Arabic language remains central to Islam, because the Qur'an must always be studied in its original divinely inspired form. But the Arabs as a group are excluded from their previously central role in Muslim affairs.

A measure of this change can be seen in the contemporary words for Muslims in the languages of outsiders. They are known either as Saracens (the term used by the Crusaders, the original meaning of which in uncertain) or as Moors - people from Morocco, reflecting the importance in medieval Europe of the Berber dynasties in Spain.

Not until the 20th century, with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, will the Arabs recover the dominant position in the Middle East which was theirs in the first centuries of Islam.

Continue the story of the Arabs with the First World War.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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