Edwin Black: How Did the Arabs Begin?





[Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is adapted from Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press).]

Just who were the Arabs and how did they begin?

Mesopotamia’s original peoples were an indistinct amalgam of Sumerian, Semitic, Indo-European, and other groups. The Arabs as a group were generally thought to be the scattered people who spoke a similar Semitic language and who, with few exceptions, dwelled stateless in the nearly empty desert far to the south that came to be known as the Arabian Peninsula. By legend and tradition, the Arabs were the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham, who roamed the wilderness.

One of the earliest references to Arabs is found in the Old Testament, dating to about 900 BCE, when Chronicles II records that “the Arabs” offered tribute to Israel’s King Solomon. In 853 BCE, King Ahab of Israel sealed an alliance with “Gindibu the Arab,” who provided 1,000 camels, according to an Assyrian inscription. Two very different but related Arab groups arose. The first were the nomadic and colorful Bedouins, roving with their extended families and tending flocks in tow. The second group settled in oases on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula and along the northern fringes of the Arabian Desert. Bedouins were especially known for adventurous caravans that fearlessly plied the deserts across the Mideast and northern Africa. Everywhere, they established formidable reputations as both traders and raiders. Bedouin travelers interacted with the Hebrews in Israel, the Babylonians in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. In fact, the Greeks were among the first to refer in written records to the desert peninsula as “Arabia.”

Proud and passionately independent, even the earliest recorded Arabs despised any attempt to dominate them. One poet wrote, “The worst evil that can befall a people… is that their necks are bent.” As a warning against any attempt to infringe their freedom, Bedouins were fond of ghazu, that is, audacious marauding, killing the men in other settlements, kidnapping their wives, and stealing their animals.

A Moslem poet commemorated a typical scene: “We came home with their women captive behind us on our camel saddles, and with the booty of camels.” Midianite Bedouins found Joseph, according to biblical tradition, and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Ghazu was also a de facto means of Bedouin survival in the parched Arabian climes, where the possessions of others were capriciously—almost routinely—pilfered and plundered as a lifestyle. Of plundering Bedouins, the Mesopotamian king Sargon II wrote in the eighth century BCE, “all alike are warriors of equal rank, half nude… ranging widely with the help of swift horses and slender camels.”Wandering in a desert that with very few exceptions defied the organization of government due to its barren environment, the dominant identification of Arabs was not any form of nationhood but rather the closely knit tribe. Tribalism defined everything: the family, friends, and foes. Any group or settlement outside the tribe was fair game.

The Arabs worshipped many of the deities they encountered on their travels and raids and lived side by side with groups of Christians and Jews in Arabia. That all changed after Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 CE. Mecca was a prosperous town in central western Arabia, near the Red Sea. The town, popular with merchants along the north-south “spice road,” was so rich in idol worship that many made pagan pilgrimages there. A few tribal clans ruled the center. Mohammed himself thrived as a Meccan merchant until, in 610, the one true God, Allah, was revealed to him in a mystic moment. Mohammed believed he was the last messenger or prophet in a long line of some 124,000 such prophets—that is, an infinite number—beginning with Adam, reaching past Noah, later Abraham, and continuing through Moses and Jesus. All these prophets were seen as gifts not to just one people but to all mankind.

Mohammed saw his personal revelation not as canceling, but rather as completing all earlier revelations. He was determined to convert his fellow Arabs to the faith. Mohammed’s five pillars—faith, daily prayer, fasting, contributions to the poor and a pilgrimage, defined the religion known as Islam, that is, “surrender to God.” Devotees were called “Moslems,” that is, those who “surrender to God.” Mohammed’s teachings and revelations from Allah were to form the primary moral, legal and governmental underpinnings of the Arab peoples.

Islam believed in the sword. Within a dozen years, Mohammed and his persecuted, boycotted, and often physically tortured followers fought back against the pagan establishment throughout Arabia with armed campaigns of conversion. Opponents were massacred if necessary—polytheists or monotheists. One such was a tribe of 700 resistant Jews from the Qurayzah tribe slaughtered near Medina; the Qurayzah men were mercilessly put to the sword and their women and children abducted into slavery. Bedouin tribe after tribe elected to convert rather than to fight and see their clans decimated. Ultimately, Mohammed and an army of 10,000 soldiers marched on Mecca, which submitted without a fight. Arabia had been won for Islam.

When Mohammed died in 632, no successor had been anointed and no succession process existed. The Koran—Mohammed’s teachings, that is, the unaltered word of God—had not yet been transcribed. Moreover, with Mohammed gone and with no Islamic structure, many Bedouin tribes simply abandoned their brief adherence to Islam and refused to pay the zakat, the Moslem tax intended to assist the poor. This early phase of rejection is known in Islam as the Apostasy. Mohammad’s father-in-law in Mecca assumed the succession as caliph, or supreme leader of the Islamic community. To restore the faith—and some order—the caliph and his forces waged fierce battles across Arabia with one tribe after another. Their technique: Attack attack attack with waves of javelin-throwing camel riders and horsemen, supported by archers. Once the enemy fell back, Moslem fighters would leap from their animals, pursue, seize, and kill or be killed in hand-to-hand combat using knives, swords, and their bare hands. Either way—live as a blessed victor, or ascend to paradise as a soldier in the army of Allah—Islamic warriors fought fiercely and to the finish. Within two years, the desert tribes had all been won back for Allah.

With the Arabian Peninsula subdued and returned to Islam, the caliph’s eyes turned north and west toward all of the Mideast and northern Africa, and east toward Asia. Now would come a new empire, of both Arabs and non-Arabs, where territorial victory and political hegemony were intrinsic to religious doctrine. This was not an inadvertent result, but the original mission: to indivisibly fuse sovereign government and Islam.

In 634, the Arab Conquest began in earnest. When completed decades later, the vast Islamic Empire would span continents, from the highlands of Asia to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to Africa’s Atlantic coast. They called it jihad, or holy war, or personal struggle—military campaigns consecrated as sacred crusades to convert or subjugate infidels and nonbelievers. The conquered could survive only by conversion or by becoming a special separate class of citizen, known as dhimmis, and paying a protection tribute called the jizya. Those who did not convert or pay would be slaughtered.

The war for Islamization began by attacks on the weakened, aging Roman Empire in Syria and Palestine and the predominantly Persian Sassanid Empire in Mesopotamia.
The Arabs were determined to dislodge the Christians in Syria and the Persian monotheistic state religion, Zoroastrianism, in Mesopotamia.

In 634, an army of 18,000 Moslem warriors swarmed into Mesopotamia’s Euphrates Delta to launch their crusade commanded by General Khalid ibn al Walid, known as “the Sword of Islam.” At the Euphrates, Khalid issued an ultimatum to the Sassanid Persians, words that would resonate in the Arab consciousness again and again for centuries: “Become Moslem and be saved. If not, accept protection from us and pay the jizya. If not, I shall come against you with men who love death as you love to drink wine.”

In Mesopotamia, sometimes the Persians enormously outnumbered the fanatical jihadist armies. It did not matter. Moslem warriors fought to the death or until their opponents surrendered—whichever came first. The Arabs wanted Mesopotamia intact and economically strong so that Islam could flourish as a true empire. Hence, theirs was not a traditional war of plunder, but an imperialistic jihad.

During the next two years the Sassanid Persians surrendered to the Arabs, that is, they surrendered to Allah. Damascus surrendered. Palestine also surrendered. One by one, the nations surrendered to the superior forces of Islam. Islam means “surrender to God.”

The surrenders were relished. “O men, do you not see how Persia has been ruined and its inhabitants humiliated,” an Arab poet glorified, adding, “They have become slaves who pasture your sheep.… God gave us victory over them, allowing us to take their countries and settle in their lands, their homes and their property.”

Once surrendered, the conquered lands were completely rewoven. During the decade from 634 to about 644, Islam’s Caliph Omar permanently transformed Mesopotamia into an Arab Islamic nation. The ancient language of Aramaic was almost obliterated, except for some religious purposes. Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and polytheistic communities were largely, but not completely, wiped out in favor of Islam. They could live by paying the jizya protection tax. Nomadic Arabs accustomed to desert tents now found themselves reveling in the palatial riches and baths of Babylonia’s fallen cities.

Two new garrison cities were built in the south, Kufa and Basra, to acquire control of a port. Both were populated with waves of soldiers from Arabia who were continuously schooled in the tenets of militant Islam. Mesopotamians freely intermarried with Arab Bedouins, creating a new people, a new nation, and a new identity.

The Arabs were now more than just Arabia. Soon the Arabs controlled vast regions of land on the three adjacent continents that intersected at Mesopotamia. Moslems now dominated the fabulous Silk Road that meandered across Eurasia transporting goods between Rome and China. Key segments of the route converged on Mesopotamia, elevating the region’s importance. Although Mecca remained a spiritual epicenter, Mesopotamia now emerged as an influential stronghold of Islam. It would help shape the vast Moslem Empire that eventually swelled from Mecca to Persia, Syria, and Asia Minor, to North Africa and across the straits into Spain.


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