The Arabs before Islam: a rich, exotic history

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

In his first book, published in 1977, Tim Mackintosh-Smith described mentioning the idea of travelling to Yemen while studying Arabic at Oxford because he had heard that Yemenis spoke the purest form of Arabic. ‘They all say that, you
stupid boy,’ his tutor replied, suggesting he go ‘somewhere respectable’ instead.

The student went to Yemen all the same, and has been there ever since, living through sweet and also turbulent times, including civil war and the ongoing Saudi-stirred nightmare that has taken at least 60,000 lives through combat and some 85,000 from famine. But not so very long ago, the word Arab in this country conjured up images of a sleepy, hospitable and ineffective people. How the wheel has turned. One of the many significant achievements of Mackintosh-Smith’s brilliant new book is to put this current moment into a long and rich context, explaining how it fits into the 3,000-year history of peoples, tribes, empires and a language.

There have been three great waves of emergence or resurgence among Arabs, and we are currently living with the third, raised by the demons of nationalism, the power of the petrodollar and the end of European and Turkish empires. The second wave arose some 1,400 years ago, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to a not-so-successful trader from Mecca, which led to the creation of Islam.

These two waves are well known, both to many of us outside the Arab world and within, not least among the angry people who detonate bombs. Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs is in some ways a call to engage not just with these two waves but with the earliest one — to remember what it meant to be an Arab before the advent of Islam. The ‘3,000 years’ of the book’s subtitle is a reminder that half of their known history belongs to the period before the angel appeared with the Koran.

The first wave, then, was a coming together of people who had a common way of life in the harsh land of the Arabian peninsula, a life that was mostly and by necessity lived on the move, herding camels in search of grazing. Out of this union came a common language, and because of that the word they used to describe themselves, ‘Arab’, acquired a broader meaning: ‘Arab, the term for a peripheral, mobile minority, would eventually become a blanket term, covering people of the desert and the town and everything in between.’

The reminder that there were settled people in Arabia at an early age is an important one. We tend to think of Arabs as nomads, but although cattle were first domesticated on the peninsula by the 6th century bce, crops, and with them irrigation canals, arrived a couple of thousand years later. The settled Arabs, the hadar, as opposed to the desert-dwelling badw (Bedu or Bedouin), also traded. Among earlier Arab traders who headed north was the Queen of Sheba, leading a caravan carrying aromatics and other exotic goods to King Solomon in Jerusalem.

Later, in Roman-dominated times, Arabic-speaking Nabataeans kept the Mediterranean world supplied with incense, spending some of the profits from this lucrative trade on building monuments at Petra and further south in what is now Saudi Arabia. Arab fighters also made their mark beyond the peninsula in antiquity, the first-known of them being a chief called Gindibu, who led 1,000 camel-riders into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 853 bce to fight the Assyrians. But the unique power of Arabs was the combination of hadar and badw, and that power was most effectively harnessed when the two elements were united and inspired by a single idea.

Writing about the appearance of Muhammad and the Koran can be a minefield, but Mackintosh-Smith sidesteps religious fervour and relies on his historian’s eye to cover the transformation that occurred in 7th-century Arabia. Of particular interest — and of relevance to our own time — is the observation that the divine revelation was received, and perhaps therefore also caught hold, during an economic downturn.

The depression had been caused in part by a long-running conflict between two exhausted empires, the Persian and Byzantine, but possibly also by shifting climate patterns. The resulting Arab empire and the creation of the caliphate, first in Damascus and then Baghdad, is described by drawing on a wide range of Arabic texts. And then there was the prolonged Arab decline at the hands of Mongols, Turks, European colonists and others until the idea of an Arab identity and of a new caliphate was revived in the modern era.

Anyone writing a history of the Arabs follows an illustrious line of historians including Philip Hitti, Albert Hourani and the current director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford, Eugene Rogan. Hourani began his seminal work with the arrival of Islam. Rogan has more recently covered Ottoman and modern history in two superb books.

Mackintosh-Smith, a worthy successor, looks back beyond those two works into deep history, and forward into our own time. As a linguist, he brings to his account a very particular set of skills, as well as some unique experiences acquired over a lifetime of travelling in the Arabic-speaking world and living in a tower-house in Yemen’s capital, San’a.

The result is a book of vast scope and stunning insight, which manages to discuss even the seemingly intractable issues between Sunnis and Shi’ah and the intricacies of Arabic with a light touch, an easy style and a telling detail. Language emerges as the key to Arab identity, so it is not by chance that there are more entries for Arabic in the index than for anything else. As Mackintosh-Smith explains:

The rich, strange, subtle, suavely hypnotic, magically persuasive, maddeningly difficult ‘high’ Arabic language that evolved on the tongues of tribal soothsayers and powers  has long, perhaps always, been the catalyst of a larger Arab identity.

And yet, as he goes on to point out, ‘high’ or classical Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran, the language that has brought and continues to bring these people together, is not the same as the Arabic that is used in daily speech. That disconnect, rarely explained, is as significant as the Sunni-Shi’ah split or the problem of borders — which are here recognised as ‘fractures, not sutures’ — in explaining the problems that exist within Arab identity and between Arab states.

These issues, which have dominated headlines for most of our lives, are not about to disappear —and nor will this important book.

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