New institutions also emerged, including coinage, territorial deities, royal priesthoods, and standing armies, which further enhanced Arab power. By proclaiming his message publicly, Muhammad gained many followers. After his death, the succeeding caliphs continued to spread the faith of Islam far beyond the religion's birthplace in Mecca. Using their Camel Archers to cross difficult desert terrain, the Arabs were able to create an empire stretching from Spain to the borders of India in barely more than a hundred years.
The Arab empire of the medieval period was far more advanced than contemporary Europeans; Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad may have held a million people at the same time that Charlemagne's Aachen was a "capital" of ten thousand. Centers of learning attracted scholars from across the Muslim world to great cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba.
The Arabs of this period made many advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and other areas, as well as translating many of the classics of the Ancient Greeks into Arabic, thereby saving them from destruction. During the period of the Crusades, the Arabic world came under assault from Christian Europe. The greatest of Muslim generals from this period was Salah al-Din, better known as Saladin, who successfully defeated the Third Crusade and recaptured Jerusalem for the Arabs.
In addition to his military skills, Saladin was known to be a pious man and was well-respected by his enemies as well as his allies - which was very unusual indeed for the Crusades. For most of the past five centuries, much of the Arab world has been ruled by foreigners; first by the Ottoman Turks, then by the Western colonial powers. This created an invaluable melting pot for intellectual traditions that had been forcibly kept apart for centuries by political divisions: Hellenistic learning that evolved in Greece and, later, Alexandria, on the one hand, and Sumerian, Persian, and Indian wisdom on the other.
Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, the star-worshipping Sabaeans, and assorted other pagans were all able to exchange ideas and teachings. Once Lyons started exploring the subject, he knew he would focus instead on science and philosophy. From the outset, Lyons was determined not to make this a book about Arab or Muslim scientific and philosophical achievements as much as to show the enormous and largely unacknowledged ways in which those achievements reached and then shaped what we call "the West.
Along the way he had to tell the story of Muslim science, but largely as the context in which to set the process of Western assimilation, he said. These texts, which reflected hundreds of years of debate within the Islamic tradition but were unknown in the West, would have an immediate and powerful impact on young minds across Europe. Soon they would be all the rage at Paris, Oxford and other universities.
Although his formal study of Arabic while on assignment in Cairo was short-lived, Lyons' depth of knowledge and ability to put the data he collected in context is amazing. He did his homework with incredible diligence and wrote the book -- published this month by Bloomsbury Press - in a style that leaves the reader thirsting for more.
Ancient Arabic Civilization: History of the Islamic Culture and Society
Jonathan Lyons Richard Mallory Allnutt Lyons, who teaches courses on Islam and how to cover it journalistically at George Mason University in Virginia, is completing a PhD in sociology of religion. The fall of the Himyarite kingdom, coinciding as it did with the beginning of one of the worst crises yet suffered by civilization in the Orient, had destroyed what little political organization there was in the Arabian peninsula, together with the caravan trade on which it rested.
Left to their own devices, the Bedouins—half-starved shepherds, camel drivers, and marauders—had no resource but brigandage. This they carried on among their various clans, according to the time-honored custom of internecine guerrilla, and later on also upon a much larger scale—when occasion arose and a pretext was offered.
The pretext happened to be a religious one, Islam, and the occasion was the exhaustion of the civilized world following the endless wars between the great powers of East and West. The citizens of Mecca, Medina, and the few other Arabian townships were a mere handful of settled people, amid the unruly nomadic majority of the Bedouin tribes. But the Meccans were crafty enough to realize that Bedouin anarchy could be somehow channeled and controlled by the novel means of Islam.
The aim of these raids was booty and prestige, not territorial acquisition. No one had foreseen the political consequences of Arab raiding. From the very start, the decisive factors and circumstances operated not inside, but outside Arabia—in those thickly populated lands of ancient sedentary civilization which were then provinces of the Byzantine and Iranian empires.
In Syria and Egypt, a majority of the native Aramaic- and Coptic-speaking masses belonged to the Monophysitic church, which was heretical in the eyes of both Rome and Constantinople. Similar conditions prevailed in Mesopotamia, a mostly Aramaic-speaking country under Iranian domination Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, was on the Tigris.
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Thus pretty much everywhere, from the Nile to the Tigris, the newly arrived bands of Moslems, little given to proselytizing contrary to modern legend and as yet neutral in religious matters, were welcomed as the lesser evil. Both the Byzantine and the Sassanid auxiliary troops were made up, on the Arabian borders, largely of pagan or superficially Christianized Arabs. Poorly paid, these mercenaries deserted en masse, thus becoming the first recruits to Islam outside Arabia.
In such circumstances, warfare was often little more than a formality.
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Provincial authorities and local communities reached direct agreement with the Arabs, granting them political suzerainty and financial aid in return for guarantees of communal and religious freedom. Palestine and Syria, then Iraq and Upper Mesopotamia, and finally Egypt gave themselves up, conditionally and so it was thought temporarily, to the enemies of their own oppressors. The Moslem conquest, or rather occupation, of the countries between the Tigris and the Nile was accomplished in a few years, during the lifetime of Omar.
THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE ARABS TO ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION
It completely changed the character of Islam. The result was that Arabia, more divided than ever and drained of its best warriors, fell back into utter insignificance. Its central role had lasted a mere fifteen or, at most, twenty-five years. At the peak of his fortunes, just before he died, Mohammed hardly controlled more than the territory of Hejaz; the attempts of the first caliphs to unify Arabia proper miscarried; and though the Arabian peninsula quickly accepted Islam, it never formed a political whole, for the states in the south and southeast Yemen, Oman, etc.
History of the Arabs
Nor were the ruling Arabs outside Arabia more than a handful, a few thousand people, Meccans for the most part, who formed an exalted governing caste, but a caste which from the second generation on was incorporated into the structure of the lands it governed by intermarriage and every kind of commingling. This upper class was finally slaughtered, almost to a man, in the factional wars and dynastic struggles of the 7th and 8th centuries. On the other hand, the Bedouin tribes—those who made up the bulk of the first invaders, and those who now swarmed in to get their share of the booty—remained always a foreign body.
One should not exaggerate their numbers: a total of a few tens of thousands of fighting men, a few hundred thousand people if one counts their dependents—such is the size of the Bedouin invasions which followed in the wake of Moslem conquests.
Is There An “Arab Civilization”?Islam and Arabism
These Bedouins were a troublesome lot; they had to be segregated, pensioned off, and closely watched in semi-military camps: Kufa, Bassora in Iraq, Fostat in Egypt, and later Kairouan in Tunisia, etc. Moreover, they were used as the vanguard in new raiding expeditions, which the Arab potentates partly undertook just to rid themselves of their obnoxious kinsmen.
Very few survived the forays of the 7th century, which ranged as far as the Caspian Sea and the Atlas Mountains. Properly speaking, there was no Arab colonization, and the Bedouin contribution to the motley ethnography of the Moslem world remained infinitesimal; Oriental and Mediterranean societies were not really Arabized. Encamped from the Nile to the Tigris in countries which were at that time among the wealthiest on earth, and supported by unhoped-for resources which, however, they could only use with relative moderation for fear of antagonizing the more massive and cohesive peoples among whom they dwelt, the Arabs quickly began to look to new fields of conquest.
Despite its improved organization, this second phase of Moslem expansion met with more obstacles than the first; it was resisted all the way from Iran to Turkestan and the Indus, and from North Africa to beyond the Pyrenees. As against the few years needed for the purely Arab episode, this second or international stage of early Islamic conquest lasted approximately a hundred years: from the invasion of Iran in to the battle of Poitiers in —when the Moslem tide reached its highest mark in the West—and to the final collapse, in , of the Omayyad caliphate in the East.
The extension of the new religion over so vast an area spelled the doom of the weak Arab minority; the triumph of Islam in the great region between Central Asia and the Atlantic signified, by the middle of the 8th century, the victory of provincial, indigenous elements over the foreign Arabs.
The latter, insofar as they survived at all, became mere figureheads or venerable ciphers, manipulated by contending Moslem forces which were no longer Arab in fact. The Arabs, lost in the immensity of their success, had never really cooperated with, or even managed to tolerate, one another. Discord and civil wars never ceased to rage among them even for a moment.
Regional factions—the Hejazian, the Syrian, the Iraqian, etc. Last but not least, every caliph was constantly obliged to fight other caliphs or pretenders. Amid this chaos, even at the most glorious moments of the so-called Arab empire, there was no trace of central government, except in theory. The leaders who stayed longest in power were those who massacred with least compunction their brother Bedouins.
The fact is that the conquering Arabs literally destroyed each other as a people. The dynasties that endured for a while were those that appeased their non-Arab subjects. The last Omayyads of Damascus, when they were unwise enough to attempt the creation of an Arab state, provoked immediate universal hostility, followed in a few decades by their extermination.
Under the earlier Arab rule in the Levant, from about to the beginning of the 8th century, all branches of administration, which had been inherited from the Byzantine-Sassanid period, remained essentially native in personnel and language chiefly Greek or Aramaic. The Omayyads Abd el-Malik and Walid were the first to coin money inscribed in Arabic. Amid ceaseless revolts, they struggled to control the administrative machinery by introducing Arabic into public affairs. But their motley empire was not thereby unified; each province merely became bilingual or trilingual.
Anarchy, worse than ever, flared up in , and the final explosion came two decades later, after a brief respite in the early years of Hisham Following this a new caliphate was established under the half-Arab, half-Persian Abbassids, truly a recreation of Sassanid pre-Islamic theocracy.